Thursday, 23 October 2014

Jay Rayner, millionaire food snob, tells poor families their food is too cheap...


It has become something of a trend - millionaire cultural lefties popping up to tell poor folk that they are paying too much for stuff. The other day it was Vivienne Westwood railing about capitalism while charging over a grand for a handbag. Now it's 'masterchef judge' Jay Rayner - the doyenne of Guardian-reading food snobs - who is telling the poor they should pay more for their dinner:

Families need to pay more for food and have become 'far too used to paying too little', Masterchef judge Jay Rayner told MPs today.

The food critic and author told a parliamentary committee that food was too cheap to support British farmers.

He said: 'We pay too little. We're far too used to paying too little. And the only way we have at our disposal, I think, to secure a robust food supply is by investing in British farming and that does mean consumers pay more and look for that label.'

Rayner even explained that food poverty was nothing to do with real poverty:

'Yes, we do need to pay more for food but if you focus on a thing called food poverty then you're not going to be looking at the bigger picture involving the whole population.'

So we're to have more expensive food because British farmers can't compete with farmers somewhere else in producing the cheap food that people want to buy. And Rayner - who has no qualifications on this matter besides having a famous mum and a cushy job being paid by newspapers and magazines to eat overpriced restaurant food - latches on the familiar set of supposed concerns - the size of the supermarkets, the concept of 'food security' and some sort of wibble about sustainability.

Food security is simply protectionism rebadged - we invent scary stories about how somehow we'll not be able to feed ourselves because of all that cheap food made somewhere else in the world and use those stories to justify trade barriers, protectionism and subsidy. Then, because the Asians and Africans who could produce all that fabulous cheap food don't due to protectionism, all Jay Rayner's pals on the Guardian and Channel 4 wangle trips to see the poor black people and to explain why evil western capitalism has condemned them to an eternal struggle against absolute poverty.

Let's be clear. Cheap food is a good thing. There is nothing at all that is wrong with you and me not having to pay as much to put food on the table. It is gross and immoral for rich people like Jay Rayner to say to poor people that they should have less food because they'd rather protect a few uneconomic farmers. Rayner has never had to make the choice between putting the heating on or having a meal - yet he wants to force that choice onto still more people. And Rayner isn't scratting on a Zambian farm hoping that the rains don't fail so he can feed his family - the other sort of uneconomic agriculture that the protectionism he espouses acts to sustain.

Rather than Rayner's snobbery and environmental protectionism, we should embrace the opportunity of cheap food - break down the barriers, encourage mass production and deliver nore people the wonderful benefits that come from cheap, abundent food in fantastic variety that we (mostly) enjoy in the UK. Above all can we stop saying - on clothes, on food, on energy - that making it more expensive is a good idea. It really, really isn't.


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Twenty years serving Bingley Rural - a pleasure and I've done all right I hope

I've been the councillor for Bingley Rural for approaching twenty years. Come next year's elections it will be twenty years. And in that time I've helped, mostly in small ways, loads of people in the villages (at first four but, since 2004, five) with their issues. A lot of the time I get stuff sorted, grease the cogs of local government and allow people to get back to living their lives. Sometimes I fail, the problem isn't - or can't be - solved and this is as frustrating for me as it it for the people who've asked for my help.

When I look back, I remember the things that didn't work out - whether it's getting a beer garden approved for The George or trying to help a resident get permission for a hay store so she could better care for her motley collection of retired horses. And the bigger stuff like the planning permission at Crack Lane in Wilsden - a load of houses on a site that floods all the time and can only be accessed via the narrowest and steepest of rural roads. A planning consent rammed through by a Council seemingly obsessed with delivering on some sort of fictional housing need - macho planning at its worst.

Then I think about the things that aren't so straightforward - the traffic calming schemes that everyone wants until they're in place when everyone hates them. We really have to find a better way - the schemes going in today simply don't fit the bill. As one resident explained - he doesn't drive through Harden because his wife's bad back is exacerbated by the sleeping policemen in the village. Yet council officers are ever more defensive when challenged - pointing to "national guidance" and "good practice" to justify jarring, rattling physical speed controls. I'm minded not to support any more of these until this problem is sorted - the current schemes simply aren't right.

I was once asked - quite late in the evening when I was less than sober and in The Fleece in Cullingworth - "what have you done for me?" I stumbled over my answer but wish, in a classic piece of l'esprit d'escalier, that I'd responded with "what have you asked me to do for you?" But in the spirit of a genuine response here's a few of the big things I've help happen in Bingley Rural.

Parkside School - back in 1999 when Labour was doing its best to utterly ruin Bradford's education there was a schools reorganisation that abolished the middle school system the City had had since the 1960s. Had we not campaigned for a secondary school at Parkside, children from Cullingworth and Denholme would have been bused into Bradford or Keighley for school.

Manywells tip - the tip getting its permission was before I first joined the council but the efforts we've put in to stop the tip polluting the village and surrounding countryside have paid off. In time what was a smelly, fly-infested and bird-ridden rubbish dump will become a grassed and wooded hill above the village.

Buck Park Quarry - most of the credit goes to Denholme Residents Action Group (DRAG) but I've helped them through the long struggle to stop landfill at Buck Park. From the first application when, sat behind Cllr Harrison, I was muttering (as loud as possible) "refuse it David, refuse it" - it was turned down, the council didn't turn up at the public enquiry and the developer's failure to comply with conditions finally killed the idea of dumping putrid and toxic waste in Denholme

Cornerstones, Cottingley - I forget how many millions the development was but that probably doesn't matter. Again someone else, Cllr Baroness Eaton, had a bigger role but we bashed enough council heads together to get a fantastic community facility, a new church and a new medical centre for the village. I was talking to Irene, the chair or trustees recently and she reminisced about walking with Prince Charles (a long story) through the estate talking about what was needed. And we have what was need now.

Cullingworth Primary School - I was a governor at Cullingworth Primary during the incredibly protracted negotiations to get the land for the new primary in the village. I remember meeting with Philip Robinson, the Council Chief Executive at the time and him describing the land transaction as the most complicated and fraught he'd handled in 30 years as a council officer.

St Ives Country Park - Great place, isn't it? Well the refurbishment, the adventure playground, the new trails - these were a priority when I was Executive Member with the culture and regeneration portfolio. We now have a fantastic free facility for local people and visitors alike

Cullingworth Village Hall - just a month ago the planning committee agree to set aside £410,000 of s106 funding for a new village hall for Cullingworth. Again most of the credit is down to the Village Hall Renewal Committee but I helped - it is my pet scheme after all.

This is what Councillors do. It's not about debating the great issues of the day in the Council chambers or playing endless games of petty politics or in-party backstabbing. It's not the grand stuff but the every day things that bother ordinary people.

I think I've done all right. Perhaps my friends and neighbours in Bingley Rural will keep me on for another four years next May?


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Is it feminist to say rape is a male problem?


We debated child sexual abuse at Bradford's full council meeting this evening. The debate was, as these things always are, something of a mixed bag. There's no doubt that we're all genuinely concerned about the problem - both the historic abuse and the real truth of continuing abuse in our city today.

I spoke and gave over part of my speech to the vexed matter of misogyny. After all 90% of the cases we're dealing with here involve the raping and repeated sexual abuse of teenaged girls. And I made the observation that this is about a culture that sees women as either distant and mysterious princesses or else as sluts, slaves and servants of male desire. In prosaic terms too many men see women as either wives or whores.

After the meeting I did a little interview. The interviewer asked me to go over the main points of my speech. Or rather, as she hesitatingly put it, speech. I repeated my belief - stated in the speech that rape in a male problem and that men have to challenge the definition of women by their role rather than by their character. If it is women who set out that challenge then it's all to easy for the man to respond with 'you're a women, you would say that'. Making light of sexual violence needs to be challenged just as we would challenge any other glorification of violence. And it must be challenged by men.

Now I don't consider this a matter of feminism but rather that the idea of treating another person as merely an object of self-gratification is pretty repulsive. But I am curious how saying rape is a male problem - women don't ask to be raped however dressed, spoken or drunk - is somehow a reflection of feminism rather than a matter of how we make a better human society. Perhaps that's what feminism is about?


Monday, 20 October 2014

There are more drunks in Blackpool than Barton-le-Clay


Apparently it's a shocking discovery. There are huge regional variations in the incidence of liver disease:

The study uncovered a stark north-south divide, with more than four times as many male adults dying from the disease in Blackpool (58.4 per 100,000) than central Bedfordshire (13 per 100,000).

Predictably this has resulted in a call for more controls over alcohol - doubtless we'll get the familiar set of prescribed solutions: minimum unit pricing, advertising controls, bans on 'super-strength' beer and plain packaging or graphic health warnings. But look again at those figures and ask two questions.

Does it really surprise you that there are a lot more problem drinkers in Blackpool? It really doesn't surprise me and, without wishing to do down Blackpool, it is entirely in line with the town's demographics. I suspect you'll see more street drinkers in a day on Blackpool front than you will over half a year in Dunstable or Flitwick. And this is because Blackpool is where those people go. The town doesn't breed those street drinkers but it's where too many of them end up.

Secondly, we need to ask whether the rise in liver disease really is down to drinking - check out the figures:

The report, Deaths from Liver Disease – Implications for End of Life Care in England, showed that the north-west region had the highest liver disease death rate – 24 per 100,000, with 11.4 from alcohol complications. It was followed by the north-east with 21.9 and 10.1. The east of England had the lowest rate, 12.9 and 4.9, followed by the south-west, 14.3 and 6.4, and the south-east,14.8 and 5.8.

Nearly 60% of deaths from liver disease aren't due to alcohol. But whenever the statistics are quoted we get a splurge of anti-alcohol campaigning. I've noted before that there has been a rise in viral hepatitis cases and there has also been an increase in morbid obesity. And a good chunk of Blackpool's problem will be down to drug use rather than alcohol.

To put the problem in context, 0.0114% of the Blackpool population die as a result of liver disease caused by alcohol abuse. This is a big problem for those sixty or so people in Blackpool and we need to get better at dealing with this issue but it really isn't a massive public health problem.

But then, when the Guardian journalist starts with a blatant untruth there really isn't much hope is there:

The changes in pub opening hours and higher levels of alcohol consumption are directly linked to the “rapid and shocking” increase in death rates, according to Prof Julia Verne, who led the research for PHE.

Alcohol consumption has fallen by around 18% over the past decade and this decline matches (although I'm not saying it was caused by the change) the liberalising of licensing.


Sunday, 19 October 2014

A very brief comment about Rochester and Strood...


In the 2005 general election 20, 315 people voted Labour in the Harwich constituency in north Essex. Almost all of this constituency - everything but the town of Harwich itself - now makes up the Clacton constituency so spectacularly caputured by UKIP defector Douglas Carswell. In 2010 Labour still took 25% of the vote - which if you've been to Jaywick or St Osyth shouldn't really be a surprise. Yet Labour made no effort at all to fight the recent by-election with the result that its vote sunk to less than 4,000.

It seems to me that Labour is about to repeat this approach in Rochester and Strood - a place that had a Labour MP up to 2010. And the media seems set on letting Labour get away with fighting a seat that, were this a normal by-election causes by death or resignation, the party would have had every expectation of winning or coming close to winning. The truth about Rochester and Strood is that it's not a sort of Kentish version of Buckingham or Wokingham - it's a pretty working class place and Labour is hanging its support there out to dry, handing it over on a plate to UKIP.

If I were a cynic, I'd suggest that Labour essentially giving up on contesting seats where iit had MPs in the last decade reflects their running the dangerous game of wanting UKIP to damage the Conservatives. The problem is that, across much of the South, the consequence of this approach will be that UKIP will become - for the time being at least - the main opposition to the Conservatives.  And along the Thames estuary - perhaps the few places in the south where Labour remains strong - the party will die out.

Odd really.


Saturday, 18 October 2014

Social capital and the problem with immigration - some thoughts


Immigration is a problem. OK, you can call it a challenge, a significant policy issue or some other 'slightly-dodging-the-issue' form of words but the truth is that people – voters – are bothered about immigration. We know this because they tell us so in polling and because, if any of us have any ears, we hear it every day. Whether it’s a casual racist remark in a queue to go through security at Leeds Bradford Airport or the comments that trail behind crime reports, stories about ‘multiculturalism’ and descriptions of events at mosques.

The problem is that, whatever people say, immigration really isn’t an economic problem. There really isn’t much – or indeed any – substantial research evidence showing that immigration has a negative impact on levels of employment, economic growth or other measures of economic performance. So when Jonathan Portes reports this he is right:

“The research found evidence of a positive and significant association between increases in employment of migrant workers and labour productivity. It found that recruiting from outside the UK had allowed employers to fill skilled and specialist roles and enabled some organisations to expand. Employers reported that migrants' skills are often complementary to, rather than substituting for, those of UK born employees.”

However, this really isn’t the problem (or challenge or significant policy issue) at all nor is this simply a case of people being fed misleading information by politicians and the media. A positive economic impact simply isn’t sufficient for people to accept the social changes that immigration implies. Yet much of what we might call ‘immigration-positive’ research and comment is dominated by economic considerations, arguments over statistics and accusations that opposition to immigration is essentially racist.

If we are to understand immigration and, more importantly, develop policies that respond to the genuine concerns of very many people, then we need to get a much better grip on the sociology of immigration. We need to get a better idea of how immigration affects existing communities, how those communities react to immigration and how we manage migration so as to give a greater chance of that community reaction being positive rather than negative. By focusing on the economics of migration we have missed completely the real driver behind those community concerns that some politicians exploit.

Indeed it is the need to reduce negative social impact that should drive immigration policies and controls rather than the prevailing preference for points-based systems based on a more-or-less arbitrary decision as to whether the ‘skills’ of the immigrant are ‘needed’. The evidence, both from polling and from qualitative studies, shows consistently that worries about immigration relate inversely to people’s exposure to immigrants. I would add that my personal view is that Britain’s current anti-immigrant feeling is substantially driven by the migration from EU accession countries being to parts of the UK that have had limited prior experience of immigration.

None of this gets us any closer to a basis for setting policy - assuming we’re going to plonk for somewhere on the continuum from totally closed borders to totally open borders. Regardless of the economic case for immigration, the potential social negatives (the cost of which may not be wholly contained in an economic model of migration) require some degree of control. And that will mean that some people will not be allowed to migrate into the UK.

And there is a good argument for striking a balance in terms of cultural and ethnic heterogeneity. I know we like to talk about how many different languages are spoken in our communities (this isn’t new – I remember the Principle of Bedford FE College saying just this in 1983) but the breakdown in social capital implicit in that heterogeneity damages both the immigrant andreceiving communities:

“People in ethnically fragmented communities have lower levels of interpersonal trust; lower levels of civic, social, and charitable engagement; less efficient provision of public goods; more sluggish economic growth; and lower levels of happiness and general satisfaction. It seems that the more diversity we experience, the lower our quality of life is.”

The risk we run with open borders is that they meet a short-term economic need but in doing so provide the seeds for more sluggish development in the communities where those ‘needed’ immigrants settle. Indeed, we should recognise that some degree of homogeneity is essential if a community is to develop the institutions, connections and structures essential to building social capital. Put more bluntly, the people within a neighbourhood have to share more than the fact of living in that neighbourhood if it is to become community rather than merely a place.

The unanswered question here is how we determine the point at which we set our migration policy. This has to be where the economic benefits of immigration exceed any negative impact on educational attainment, health or crime. Not just because those negatives carry a cost that isn’t necessarily picked up by the employers of immigrant labour (the prime beneficiaries of the economic benefit) but because poorer schools, health and community safety are reflections of a dysfunctional neighbourhood, of the breakdown in the social capital needed for the long-term.

Finally, there has to be some connection between the expectations of the current demos and the actions of government. In a democracy this should be a statement of the obvious but I fear it is not so – too often the response from public officialdom to concerns about immigration is to say ‘there, there - don’t worry’ or else to suggest that the person expressing concerns is simply a bigot. A further type of response is to flood the individual with (essentially meaningless) statistics accompanied with the implication that they are some kind of idiot.

We need to have immigration controls for the very simple reason that the public – the demos – demands that we control the arrival of culturally-distinct people into the neighbourhoods where they live. This can’t be dismissed as racism, bigotry or prejudice (although all those things may be present on occasion) but rather should be seen as articulating the collapse of social capital in many neighbours that large scale immigration brings about. People are not idiots but are reflecting concerns about the loss of community in their words and choices. And government too often fails to pick up those concerns in defining policies (locally and nationally).

I believe that immigration enhances our nations bringing new ideas, attitudes, food, drink, music and dance to pour into the English cultural melting-pot. We are a vastly better society for having welcomed generations of migrants to our shores. And I don’t want to live in a place where we push people away, where we don’t offer sanctuary and where there’s a preference for a sort of sclerotic monocultural numbness. But if we want migration to work for everyone, we’ve got to manage it, to try and mitigate how it can damage social capital and to direct our attentions to integrating all the wonderful, hard-working people who have come to make their lives in our great country.


Friday, 17 October 2014

We already have a 'progressive consumption tax'...


Bill Gates has responded to the Thomas Piketty wealth tax proposal by moaning that it's not fair. By which he means not fair on entrepreneurs and the like who invest their money in the betterment of the business or society:

Bill Gates frames his argument like this — if you have three wealthy people, one spending money on new businesses, one spending money on charity, and one spending money on luxury items for him or herself, the last one should be taxed more because the first two are contributing more to society.

Now I may be wrong here but Bill's idea already applies (at least in the UK where we have a value-added tax). And, even though there are fewer consumption taxes in the USA, that country gives generous tax breaks for charitable giving and exemptions for capital investment in new or existing businesses.

So, whatever we think of Piketty's policy solution (and I think it mad, bad and dangerous to know), it does have the merit of being an attempt to resolve what that economist sees as an essential challenge to our society and economy. Bill Gates proposal is one that favours 'charity' over consumption and investment over spending. And, this might be fine for very rich folk like Bill but for the rest of us it's a proposal for a tax on the pleasures of life.

So once more let's remind ourselves that we don't live to hoard resources, to invest in business or to have 'charitable' consumption put on a special pedestal. We live to consume.