Monday, 20 June 2011

A little break...

I am having a break. It may involve food, drink and sunshine. And I deserve it!

As a result there won't be any blogging. I'm sure you'll cope - indeed thrive - without my daily rants, worries and whimsical nonsenses. Bear in mind too that approving comments is a bit hit and miss on the phone so there might be some delay in your masterful and insightful contributions to arrive, sparkling and pristine, on the page.



Public Health? Evidence-based? Who are you trying to kid, Mr Goldacre?

There is a problem with the so-called public health profession. No, it’s not that they want to ban all our pleasures – we can deal with that through reasoned argument and by ignoring them. The problem is that the public health folk do insist on using (or rather misusing) evidence that is wholly or partly incorrect.

It seems that the majority of health claims made, in a large representative sample of UK national newspapers, are supported only by the weakest possible forms of evidence.

Now this is undoubtedly true – even of the Guardian – but does it mean that Mr Goldacre is prepared to accept that much of the newspaper coverage of alcohol is both inaccurate and partial? And that the actual evidence for passive smoking causing more risk than, for example, pollen or diesel fumes is pretty thin?

Somehow I expect Ben and his mates will carry on pimping for public health fanatics – a bunch of people who cheerfully twist any statistic to promote their prohibitionist agenda. And who weep not a single tear when over 500 people lose their jobs because of the latest public health gimmick. A gimmick supported by what a judge called “little better than guesses”.

And, Ben, this statement of yours is almost certainly untrue:

People who work in public health bend over backwards to disseminate evidence-based information to the public.


Sunday, 19 June 2011

So what's the problem?


Allyson Pollock on the evidence for (or not for) introducing competition:

Several decades of research show that the impact of choice and competition on quality, efficiency and outcomes in healthcare is unproven.

So why all the fuss? Decades of research shows that competition won't make things worse - or rather that we don't know for sure whether it will or not which amounts to the same thing really. I'm willing to take a punt - after all competition works pretty well in other complex service market places!


Saturday, 18 June 2011

Judges back Department of Health - 550 people dumped on the dole


In a terrible decision the Appeal Court upheld the Government's proposed ban on cigarette vending machines:

Cigarette vending machines will be removed from pubs, clubs and restaurants after the top judges yesterday upheld a Government ban.

The measure, drawn up by the Department of Health to combat under-age smoking, will come into force in October.

 As a result of this decision an entire industry will close:

Tobacco industry chiefs said it would ‘abruptly and entirely eliminate’ the vending industry, costing at least 550 jobs.

And – even worse – the judges acknowledged that there’s no evidence to justify the decision:

...statistics used by the DoH to justify the ban were ‘little more than guesses’, the judge said

So 550 people go home tonight knowing they’ll have no job in October as a result of a decision based on evidence that is just a guess.

As an aside the self-important Ben Goldacre had this to say about people in public health:

People who work in public health bend over backwards to disseminate evidence-based information to the public

This single decision shows just how wrong Ben is (again).


Should small children be made to work?

Shocking I know! But Meredith Small thinks so - and he's a professor of anthropology!

Look outside Western culture and watch children, even very small children, as they gather firewood, weed gardens, haul water, tend livestock, care for younger children and run errands. And no one complains because they are mostly outside and usually with other children.

By doing these chores, they also master life skills, like caring for a baby or how to herd goats, and with that comes proficiency and responsibility. 

It's an interesting point of view and Professor Small goes further and suggests that our approach to the development of children demonstrates a different - not necessarily better - cultural attitude to them:

In non-Western culture, parents expect children to learn about what it means to be an adult by doing adult work. When we were an agriculturally based nation, American children used to work just as hard and contribute in the same way. But now, Western children are trained intellectually, in school, where they are taught to think about things as the entree to adulthood, and few contribute anything to the household economy.

That cultural expectation is now creeping earlier and earlier as 3-year-olds go to preschool and 4–year-olds start kindergarten. Everyone sits quietly at their desks, thinking and thinking, just when they’d rather be out tending cows or weeding the garden.

An interesting view that is worth thinking about (while we tend the cows of course).


Vested interests, lies and dissembling - more from the climate change debate


I'm not a 'climate change denier' - denying climate change would be akin to believing the earth to be flat. Nor am I a denier of man's contribution to that changing climate - again it seems wholly reasonable that the activities of 6 billion humans will have an impact on the climate. I do, however, deny that the solution lies with more government action and intervention. Or indeed that we need to search for a solution with such urgency.

But enough of me and more on the IPCC, which seems to be on a mission to discredit all the good work on climate being done. If the IPCC want to keep folk like me on side and willing to accept the need for action they need to stop lying, making it up and dissembling. And definitely to stop using reports from Greenpeace activists as the basis for their proposals - especially Greenpeace activists with a direct financial interest in the subject matter (renewable energy) under discussion.

And the IPCC should take especial note when their dissembling is pointed out by prominent climate change activists:

I’d have loved to have had a fully independent study conducted by the IPCC on the prospects for renewable energy over the coming century. I’d have been even happier had that independent IPCC study concluded that 80% renewables by 2050 is a realistic option. But what I don’t want are recycled campaign reports masquerading as ‘proper’ science leading the assessed scenarios – and the media – because their originator has managed to lever himself into a pole position on the team of lead authors. That stinks. And it stinks doubly because the Greenpeace report was originally co-authored by the European Renewable Energy Council – an industry lobby group whose prospects depend on state subsidies which can be expected to be further increased once its views are given the ‘official’ stamp of approval from the IPCC.


Remembering asparagus!

Since the asparagus season is over (for those who don't know, it runs from the Grand National to the Derby) I thought I would write about asparagus - sparrow's grass. Despite it making your wee smell funny, it is one of the most flavoursome vegetables and versatile - as a starter, accompanying a main course or, combined with other stuff, a great main course in its own right.

First the boring bit before I describe the recipe that's pictured above:

Asparagus is a herbaceous, perennial plant growing to 100–150 centimetres (39–59 in) tall, with stout stems with much-branched feathery foliage. The "leaves" are in fact needle-like cladodes (modified stems) in the axils of scale leaves; they are 6–32 millimetres (0.24–1.3 in) long and 1 millimetre (0.039 in) broad, and clustered 4–15 together. The root system is adventitious and the root type is fasciculated. The flowers are bell-shaped, greenish-white to yellowish, 4.5–6.5 millimetres (0.18–0.26 in) long, with six tepals partially fused together at the base; they are produced singly or in clusters of 2–3 in the junctions of the branchlets. It is usually dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants, but sometimes hermaphrodite flowers are found. The fruit is a small red berry 6–10 mm diameter, which is poisonous to humans.

Got all that? The plant also has supposed medicinal qualities although I'm pretty (by which I mean 100%) sure that it doesn’t cure cancer.

So, that recipe – roast asparagus salad with poached egg – which comes from Steve Parle (or rather the roast asparagus bit does):

1 large bunch of asparagus
8 sweet cherry tomatoes
2 tbsp of small firm black olives, stones removed
1 scant tsp of capers
6 sprigs of thyme
1 clove of garlic, cut into 4
3½oz/100g lamb’s lettuce, washed and dried
1 scant tsp white wine, cider or sherry vinegar
1 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
2oz/50g aged pecorino or other hard, picante cheese

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Snap the tough stems from the asparagus and place in a roasting tray with the tomatoes, olives, capers, thyme and garlic. Glug over a little olive oil and roast for five to 10 minutes until the asparagus is soft and the tomatoes have burst.

Remove the tray from the oven and add the vinegar and a little more olive oil. Break the tomatoes up a little into the oil and vinegar to make a sort of dressing.

Lay the lettuce on a serving plate and place the asparagus on top.

Pour over the juices from the roasting tin then shave over some cheese.

My version has two variations – the addition of a poached egg perched atop the roasted sparrow’s grass and a particular cheese:

Pecorino Tartufo is an old style of Umbrian pressed sheep milk cheese. The cheese's buttery nutty flavour is enhanced with the addition of aromatic black truffles giving it a unique signature.

Well there had to be some mushrooms involved somewhere!


Friday, 17 June 2011

Lawyers £2,600,000,000; NHS 0

Clinical negligence claims have cost the NHS £2.6bn over the past three years, with payout costs almost doubling in the past year, latest figures have shown.

Either doctors have been getting a lot more sloppy or we've a problem with lawyers.  Bit of both maybe but, in the end, I'm with The Eagles on this:

"The more I think about it old Billy was right, let's kill all the lawyers, kill 'em tonight," 


An epiphany: in which Simon realises what's wrong with the public sector

Today I sat - and contributed to - a two-hour meeting involving various 'partners' (how the public sector loves that word). The meeting was intended to look at issues of community cohesion, neighbourhood, image and participation in the Bradford District*. Almost the entirety of the meeting was taken up with addressing the first question from approximately a dozen questions. And that question was:

Are there any gaps in the data?

We spent over 90 minutes of expensive senior officer time (the meeting involved the Council Chief Executive, one strategic director, one assistant director plus several senior people from the police, fire service, health authority and the university vice-chancellor) discussing how to obtain that holy grail - a near perfect data set and better data sharing. What was worse however is that we failed to agree any action to be taken, make any resolution or even suggest how we might achieve progress towards that better data set!

Maybe we do need a better dataset - although this I doubt. But what we could really do with is a sense of urgency, an idea that if there's something needs doing we should rather get on with doing it even if we're not entirely sure about the data quality. And, if we're not sure about the precise nature of the problem, set off and find out.

However, I fear that this won't happen - the public sector is irrevocably wedded to the idea that there is a perfectible bureaucracy and that the purpose of these partnership arrangements is to search for systems that enable the achieving of such perfection.

Depressing really.


*Why we insist on calling the CITY of Bradford as "District" defeats me - using City would make a contribution to bettering our image at one stroke


See I'm right, planners do see the planning system as a brake on economic growth!


I commented the other day on how planning was ipso facto a brake on economic growth - whatever the President of the RTPI may say. Seems that the top planner from the Town & Country Planning Association thinks this too:

"The definition in today's announcement places economic growth as the driver, undermining the principles of sustainable development which sought to integrate economic development, environmental concerns and social justice.

There you have it folks - planning is bad for economic growth and when the Government (sort of) makes it less so the planners don't like it!


Thursday, 16 June 2011

Planners, Big Society and how grazing horses isn't allowed in the 'green belt'

I have a soft spot for planners. Partly through a continuing love affair with maps and plans and partly because planners get a raw deal – they don’t set the rules (although at times they implement them with unwarranted gusto) after all.

Despite this I know that the Director of Planning at the Department for Communities and Local Government is shouting at the deaf when she says:

The profession had "a big role in the Big Society", she said. "You already know the communities - you already have an 'in'," she said.  "Central government is devolving an enormous amount to you. We are less concerned than ever about processes and more concerned about making things happen".

I recall sitting – right back at the early days of the localism debate – in a meeting discussing rural development and hearing the comments of a Director of Planning from a large rural authority:

“Giving Communities rights to influence planning is the thin end of the wedge.”

This view more accurately characterises the approach of planners than does the exhortation of the DCLG’s planning boss. Here’s the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) on the subject of the ‘Community Right to Build’ a core element on the localism bill:

“Proper planning scrutiny has served us well whereas this proposal appears to disempower local authorities by removing their right to determine development proposals and may mean that new housing built as a result may conflict with existing wider community priorities, and will only have to meet nationally prescribed minimum standards, even if the local authority wishes to see higher design standards in its own area”

What they mean here is that local communities might actually decide for themselves what housing development that want to see and where. Without needing the scrutiny of the RTPI’s members!

Many planners see themselves as guardians of sacred texts – PPGs, PPSs, rUDPs and a legion of other documents drawn up, it seems, more to confuse the layman than to allow a genuine role for local communities in determining what developments happen on their patch. As a councillor, I take a pretty simple view, if there’s no substantive opposition to something it should be allowed. Planners, on the other hand, believe differently.

I’ve been to two planning meetings in recent weeks – on both occasions regarding developments in the ‘green belt’. Now, I’m not going to bore you about ‘green belt’ policies – if you want to know more it’s all in PPG2 – but suffice it to say they are ridiculous and contradictory. The first of my two visits to planning concerned the further development of an industrial rendering plant located in the ‘green belt’ between Denholme and Thornton (North West of Bradford).

The Committee – despite my eloquent arguments – voted to allow a huge trailer store at this plant, ostensibly to allow 24 hour operating while reducing the stench that comes off the rotting animal by-products that feed the plant. Maybe they were right but, and this is important, the whole plant (a significant industrial process) has been constructed in the ‘green belt’.

Go forward a couple of weeks to my second visit. This time I’m with a local resident who wants to build a modest hay store to support her grazing horses. Foolishly, this resident had believed it when a planning officer gave a verbal OK to the construction of the hay store with the result that, shortly following the commencement of building, enforcement notices were issued. Subsequently an initial planning application was refused and the resident submitted a second application – this time taking proper planning advice and providing support from horse nutrition specialists.

In contrast to the rendering plant – a stinking, noisy intrusion into the ‘green belt’ – this modest proposal (again despite my eloquence) was refused. One Councillor described the half complete building as an “abortion” while others clambered up onto high horses proclaiming the sanctity of the Council’s ‘green belt’ policies. A complete contrast to the discussion about the extension to the rendering plant where members – the same members – had fallen over each other to explain “more in sorrow than anger” how necessary a huge store for trucks was and that this justified a massive development in the ‘green belt’.

What I also know is that, had my local resident want the barn to store feed for sheep, pigs or cows, she would not have needed planning permission. After all, grazing horses isn’t an allowable land use in the ‘green belt’. Go figure!


Some carbon emissions for Cullingworth people to enjoy!

This is the chimney for the flare at Manywells, the former landfill site at Cullingworth. This is the end of a process whereby the methane gas generated by the decomposition is collected and burned at around 1000 degrees centigrade. When we visited a couple of days ago it was working - you could feel the heat as you stood near the chimney and see the hazy air above the top of the chimney.

For Cullingworth residents this is brilliant - mostly because we no longer have a closed landfill site that is unstable and contaminating the surround countryside. The beck is running clean and the only birds in evidence were swallows - no gulls, not one. Although the site remains closed - there's still some work going on and there remains some risks associated with gas - it is on a path towards being an asset to the villages rather than a smelly eyesore. At the minute it isn't going to win any prizes as a view but once the planting is completed and established it should quickly become more attractive.

And - probably in three years or so - we'll be able to get onto the top and enjoy this view: