Thursday, 17 April 2014

Forget housing problems - it's tombs we're short of!


Britain's cities are running out of burial places:

There’s been concern for some time that the UK might be on the verge of running out of burial space, particularly in large cities like London. A combination of population growth, existing cemeteries which are at or nearing capacity, the custom in the UK (unlike some of our continental neighbours) that graves are considered to be ‘occupied’ in perpetuity and development pressure are at the root of the problem.

And the problem has, of course, been added to by the arrival of adherents to religions that insist on burial (rather than the altogether tidier and less land intensive cremation). Still worse when those religions also oppose 'stacking' (where each grave can hold 3 or 4 burials).

However, compared to a lot of other uses, cemeteries are planning friendly. And with burial charges running at up to £3000, what better use for a three acre site:

Back in 2001, a couple in North Wales had been trying to develop the 3 acre plot next to their house for years. After numerous rejected planning applications for the site, proposing everything from a caravan park to a fish farm, they finally lighted on the idea of a cemetery. The planners were initially surprised, but went on to grant permission. The couple are now looking for further investment to support the construction of the necessary access roads, parking and planting.

Now, about that large garden of mine!


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

So much for equality, eh!


Paul Krugman, lefties favourite Nobel laureate economist, has a new source of income - researching inequality. And a nice little earner it is too:

According to a formal offer letter obtained under New York’s Freedom of Information Law, CUNY intends to pay Krugman $225,000, or $25,000 per month (over two semesters), to “play a modest role in our public events” and “contribute to the build-up” of a new “inequality initiative.” 

Yes folks, quarter of a million bucks moaning about how the world is unequal. There's a word for this sort of hideous explotiation - hypocrisy. Krugman is getting ten times what poor Americans pull in a month simply to turn up to a few events and help with the PR.


Are 20mph limits the right approach to reducing injury accidents?


As a local councillor I have been bombarded by emails from campaigners calling for blanket 20mph limits on urban roads. The campaign run by a City of York councillor has this to say:

We quite simply campaign for 20mph to become the default speed limit on residential and urban streets. This can be done on most streets without the need for any physical calming and we accept that on some streets it may be appropriate to have a higher limit based on the road, vulnerable road users provision, etc. But any limit above 20mph should be a considered decision based on local circumstances.

This is very different from the introduction of 20mph zones (usually accompanied by traffic calming measures) in particularly high risk places such as village centres and outside schools. What the campaigners call for is a change to the default speed limit in urban areas.

While I have supported 20mph zones (we have one in Harden, for example, that not everyone is keen on), I am sceptical as to whether the introduction of a general lower speed limit will work as the campaigners suggest. The core argument appears to be the 'laws of physics' - essentially that there will be fewer casualties as a result of slower speeds and where collisions occur they cause less harm.

Campaigners also point to the case of Portsmouth where casualties reduced by 22% in the three years following the introduction of 20mph limits. However, the evaluation report (where the 22% figure is found) also showed that 'killed and seriously injured' figures rose during this period. And the reports authors also concluded that:

...overall, improvements in casualty rates were not demonstrably greater than the national trend, and that 20 mph zones were more effective at reducing average traffic speeds.

 This suggests that 20mph limits might not be the best way forward and that the current approach where zones (supported in most but not all cases by physical intervention as well as signage) are targeted to high risk areas is a better option. This reflects the fact that most of our urban roads are pretty safe with very low - even zero - rates of injury accident.

To help us understand this, if we look at the map of Cullingworth's RTAs from 2000-2010, we find that they are entirely (bar one outside the school gates) on the main roads through the village. This indicates a case for looking a 20mph zones in the village centre (although only five of the accidents involved either pedestrians or cyclists) but does not support a general 20mph limit. Looking in more detail at Bradford, we see that the inner city and especially main roads through the inner city are the most lethal for pedestrians. I would take the view that safety cameras are perhaps a more effective means of managing speeds than 20mph limits without accompanying traffic calming measures.

The proposal for 20mph limits seems to me an honest attempt to develop what we might call an 'all-population' solution to injury accidents on our roads - reduced speeds mean fewer accidents and less deadly accidents therefore reduced speed limits everywhere would achieve this end. However, the RTAs are concentrated not spread evenly across the network. So there is no need for the general reduction. Instead, we should use targeted interventions (easily enforceable, local 20mph zones with physical calming measures) in the most high risk locations. And we know these work.

A bit like minimum pricing for alcohol, blanket 20mph limits have an initial appeal. However, they do not address the problem directly and act to reduce speeds where speed reduction isn't needed and don't provide the active calming measures we know are most effective in high risk locations. Lastly, we need to consider who is causing the injury accidents and wonder whether our current enforcement system is entirely adequate:

For every fatal collision, there is a one in two chance that the driver responsible has a criminal record, according to preliminary research by South Yorkshire police.


Monday, 14 April 2014

On research and policy...


This is a comment on research in education (from Tom Bennett) but it could apply across the whole of social policy:

I'm sure these people are engaged in the most rigorous of science, but the area that it addresses is devilled with darkest, emptiest aspects of bad educational research: small intervention groups, interested parties, cognitive bias, short term studies, conclusions that don't necessarily follow from the data, an aversion to testing a theory to destruction, etc. This matters, because huge and enormously expensive wheels are turning in education ministries around the world. Children's lives are chained to this wheel. Poor children can't afford to fix the mistakes of state education, as middle-class children can, through tutoring and familial support.

Yet we persist with allowing ideological bias and personal preference to be presented as research by social scientists. As we keep saying, if you really want evidence-based policy you need to start with robust evidence not ideological bias.


Sunday, 13 April 2014

How advertising works...


Here from Rory Sutherland (who knows a thing or two about advertising):

There is no prospect of anyone paying me to advertise mattress toppers, however life-changing they may be. You see, one of the problems of hyper-efficient market capitalism is that copying products is now so fast and easy that every new market category rapidly fragments into hundreds of competing manufacturers. There is no interest in any one of them promoting the category, since their own share of any resulting growth in sales of the item would be so small. 

It would be good if the Naomi Klein fans and all those public health agitators read this and commited it to memory.


Michael Rosen, snob.


He's feted by the left-wing bien pensants, quoted and tweeted and shared by all those people who like their thought processed and precooked. And he loves to pen polemics castigating those who don't share his bigoted, judgemental world view. But worst of all, Michael Rosen is a snob.

This will come as a shock to Michael. I'm guessing he feels his inherited socialism, steeped in the world of a Marxist educational mafia, means that he is connected to the ordinary bloke. But this, a typical piece of his prose (not a patch on his poetry), reveals the truth - Michael's a snob, a cultural snob:

Perhaps you're mad keen on culture. Perhaps in between making all that money you were hanging around galleries, theatres, cinemas, concert halls, comedy clubs, libraries, dance studios, painting classes. Perhaps you've seen how people manage on a shoe string, perhaps you've seen the awful conditions backstage in many theatres, perhaps you know about the crap wages most people in the arts work with. Perhaps you know about the terrible crisis we have in libraries, depriving people of access to knowledge and culture.

You see - the man he's writing about was busy 'making money' so wasn't able to consume any of that 'culture' that Michael is so keen on. Nasty, unappealing, noveau-riche money-grubbing mean you can't 'get' culture. Instead you should eschew all that for some sort of bohemian hair-shirt. Only then, in Michael's arrogant painting, will you qualify to speak of culture.

Like many from comfortable, middle-class origins, Michael Rosen is utterly dismissive of anything that looks like trade. There'll be lots of fine hand-wringing about how artists struggle and special pleading about The Arts. But the truth is that the business of culture that Michael holds out to us is a privileged, exclusive and incredibly snobbish world.  It's a world filled with judgement, with sneering and with a puffed up disdain for people who do the jobs that make it possible for us to fund what Michael calls "my sort of culture".

It's not Michael's ignorance that makes me despair (although he parades it in style every time his writes). We're all ignorant in our own way. Rather it's the way in which he assumes the superiority of his sort over the sort who work in banks. Yet everything Michael has, everything, comes from those bankers and businessman he loathes. The sense of entitlement, the demanding way in which Michael thrusts his collecting box under the noses of taxpayers, this is the truly shocking part.

Michael didn't write the hatchet job on Sajid Javid because he was a banker and a Tory. No he wrote the nasty little open letter because Sajid is a working-class lad made good. And that, in Michael's snobby little world makes him the worst sort of Tory banker.


Saturday, 12 April 2014

New Puritans revisited


Here is Lord Macaulay on the Puritans:

"It was a sin to hang garlands on a Maypole, to drink a friend's health, to fly a hawk, hunt a stag, to play at chess, to wear lovelocks, to put starch into a ruff, to touch the virginals [a predecessor of the piano], to read the Fairy Queen.--Rules such as these, rules which would have appeared insupportable to the free and joyous spirit of Luther, and coutemptible to the serene and philosophical intellect of Zwingle, threw over all life a more than monastic gloom. The learning and eloqueuce by which the great reformers had been eminently distinguished, and to which they had been, in no small measure, indebted for their success, were regarded by the new school of Protestants with suspicion, if not with aversion. Some precisians had scruples about teaching the Latin grammar because the names of Mars, Bacchus, and Apollo occurred in it. The fine arts were all but proscribed. The solemn peal of the organ was superstitious. The light music of Ben Jonson's masques was dissolute. Half the fine paintings in England were idolatrous, and the other half indecent."

So those people who condemn, would limit and even ban so much pleasure simply to enforce their belief that it's for our own good - what else could we call them but New Puritans. These are the voices of the anti-consumer, the dry and pleasure free health fanatics, the people who see sex as a threat not a joy. Every day we are regaled with the patest dire warnings and every day a new call is made to the government for something to be done about these sins. Even harmless activities that look like the sin are condemned - recalling those who covered chair legs so as not to be reminded of the female form.

All these doctors, campaigners and activists who wish to order our lives for the benefit of our health are just worldly echoes of those old Puritans. We are reminded of this by Irma Kurtz:

Are health educators the new puritans? Yes, of course they are. They would cleanse and purify the new religion. The new religion is a paltry faith. It is worship of self. Religions get the puritans they deserve, and the new puritan is not much more than a rather fussy housekeeper who doesn't want cigarette ash on the carpet. Some of the new puritans, that is the medicos, are also the new priests. They are expected to intervene between mankind and the supernatural...

Since our health is placed on the highest pinnacle in this new religion, those charged with care for that health are not to be challenged even when they step beyond their knowledge. Thus, a doctor's opinion on the packaging of cigarettes is granted more value - because he is a 'priest' - than the opinion of those who understand the role of packaging or have studied its actual effect.

Those who contest these ideas, who challenge the New Puritians are condemned as the followers of Satan - in thrall to Big Tobacco, The Drinks Industry or Big Sugar. Even non-smoking, teetotal opponents are condemned as the New Puritans search for the tiniest justification for their condemnation.

Now, the New Puritans have adopted an ideology of total control - rejecting democracy and preferring instead the authority of the public health priesthood:

An urgent transformation is required in our values and our practices based on recognition of our interdependence and the interconnectedness of the risks we face. We need a new vision of cooperative and democratic action at all levels of society and a new principle of planetism and wellbeing for every person on this Earth - a principle that asserts that we must conserve, sustain, and make resilient the planetary and human systems on which health depends by giving priority to the wellbeing of all. All too often governments make commitments but fail to act on them; independent accountability is essential to ensure the monitoring and review of these commitments, together with the appropriate remedial action.

The voice of public health and medicine as the independent conscience of planetary health has a special part to play in achieving this vision.

These is little difference - other than reference to god - between this and the Puritan justification for banning the celebration of Christmas:

'More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides ... What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used ... to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.'
Such is the sad, drear, judgemental world the New Puritans would have us live in: rationed celebration, the condemnation of unlicensed pleasure, the placing of contentment - wellbeing if you must - as the primary virtue. These are the tenets of New Puritans, tenets that cannot be revoked by either the choices of individuals or the exercise of democracy - they are statements of faith in the religion of self proclaimed by that religion's priesthood - the public health profession.