Wednesday, 31 August 2011

How the Guardian misleads its audience about the profile of free school pupils


The first batch (if that’s the right word) of free schools open this term – I must admit to being quite excited about them and especially the two new schools in Bradford. The Guardian, on the other hand wants us to believe that they’re all just for “middle class” children rather than for the working classes. And they’ve got our friends at CACI to do an ACORN classification to prove their point:

Research by the market analysts CACI finds that the ten-minute commuting area around the first wave of free schools is disproportionately dominated by middle class households - the areas are 57% better-off, educated and professional households compared with 42.8% for England as a whole.

Bang to rights there it would seem. But can we be so sure that this is the case? The Guardian do acknowledge that the new schools do ‘over-represent’ people from non-white ethnic groups – but I guess they’re middle class non-whites which might cause the Guardian to explode.

So let’s look at one of the schools – see if its admission policies match the catchment proposed by the Guardian. Here’s the gist of their admissions policy it is completely different from the catchment chosen for the CACI analysis:

(1) Children in public care, who apply to the school, will be offered a place.

(2) Children with a Statement of Special Educational Needs, who apply to the school,will be considered for a place without reference to the following over-subscription criteria. In addition to this, governors may grant a place to a child with a very exceptional medical or social need on the recommendation of an independent professional.

(3) Children whose siblings at the time of application will be within Key Stages 3 or 4 at the Academy. The term sibling includes legally adopted children, and step- and halfbrothers or sisters living at the same address.

(4) 75% of places will then be offered to

[i] to an inner catchment area which will include all addresses in post code zone BD7. If there is oversubscription, the Academy will offer places using fair banding and random selection to ensure all abilities are represented. If undersubscribed, the places will be offered to the postcodes listed in 4(ii)

[ii] The remainder 25% of places will be offered to an outer catchment area which will include all addresses in the post code zones BD1-6, 8,9,11,12,14,15 and 18. If there is oversubscription, the Academy will offer places using fair banding and random selection to ensure all abilities are represented. If undersubscribed, the places will be offered to postcode BD7.

This doesn’t read for me like a middle class bias – for those who don’t know Bradford, BD7 is like this:

The demographics and housing often found in this and similar postcodes, means this postcode is classed as crowded Asian terraces. These are known as type 37 in the ACORN classification and 0.51% of the UK's population live in this type.

So the Guardian are emphatically wrong about the new school in Bradford, admit to being wrong about the new school in Tower Hamlets and have based their analysis on admissions policies determined by the newspaper rather than going to the trouble of actually looking at the admissions policies of the schools themselves.

Even if we accept the basis for the Guardian’s analysis, the results are not massively skewed – after all approaching half the population in the catchments drawn by the newspaper is not middle class. And we’ve already noted how the catchments are over represented with ethnic minorities (which given one in Hackney, one in Tower Hamlets and one in Bradford isn’t really a surprise).

This is a flawed analysis of a catchment population (all households rather than households with children) based on assumptions about admissions policies and even then it barely manages to confirm the Guardian’s prejudices. And even the Guardian has to admit it might just be a little wrong:

The catchment areas used for this analysis may not reflect the actual distribution of pupils in the first wave of free schools - some of whom will be from further afield.


Why do the Liberal Democrats want to close down pubs?


Or that's what it seems like to me:

The Liberal Democrats are drawing up plans for a controversial new ‘tipple tax’ on every drink sold in a pub – despite warnings it will cripple the struggling industry.

Policy documents to be discussed at next month’s Lib Dem conference in Birmingham suggest the party should push for councils to be given new powers to levy a ‘small per drink surcharge’ in bars and pubs.

The document suggests the money raised could offset additional policing and health costs that drinkers impose on councils, and therefore residents, in many towns and cities.

So people just drink at home or round at their mate's place. Restaurants stop serving booze saying 'bring your own' instead. And more pubs shut for lack of business.

This obsession with taxes and levies will be the death of business.


Tuesday, 30 August 2011

More on that alcohol pandemic that isn't...

From the British Beer & Pubs Association:

While there was a small 0.6% rise in UK consumption per head in 2010, drinking levels are still 11% lower than they were in 2004 when a marked decline in UK consumption began.

The data also shows that the UK ranks below the European average in terms of consumption.

Read the newspapers, listen to the radio or watch the television and you'd be of the view that we drink ever more each passing year. And you'd be wrong - just as those news presenters and writers are wrong.


...they can't stop wasting your cash can they!


This time it's Leeds City Council:

Leeds City Council is set to take over the economic research and intelligence unit of axed regional development body Yorkshire Forward. Under a plan to be discussed by the Council’s Executive Board on Wednesday 7th September, the five members of Yorkshire Forward’s Chief Economist’s unit will be transferred to work for the Council at an annual cost of £343,000.

Wow! In these austere times the Council has found all that cash to take on an economic research unit. Presumably Leeds City Council aren't closing any libraries, shutting down any care homes, reducing the hours at any swimming pools or cutting the funding for any community groups?

But then it's a Labour Council - they'll need some help with economics!


Sometimes I just want to cry....


A tweet from Julian Dobson:

National Housing Federation wants public land released, but we should challenge private landbanking too - use it or lose it.

I read this. And then read it a second time. And then thought...what on earth, this man - a usually wise and thoughtful man - is talking about the confiscation of private property.

At the moment I live in a country where, if I choose to, I can buy a piece of development land and do absolutely nothing with it at all. This might be stupid. It is certainly a waste of money. But in Julian's world, I shouldn't be allowed to do this, it should be taken from me and given to someone else. Doubtless to some suitably cuddly, mutual, co-op sort of organisation filled with the righteously self-important.

...sometimes I just want to cry. Whatever happened to liberty?


Jeffrey Sachs' idea of happiness presumably doesn't extend to refugees or smokers


Jeffrey Sachs, that doyen of slightly pink economists, has been on about happiness and how we shouldn't be using GNP or GDP as our guide. I have two issues with this argument of his - the first is about where he chooses as the guide to 'gross national happiness':

Dozens of experts recently gathered in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, to take stock of the country’s record. I was co-host with Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigme Thinley, a leader in sustainable development and a great champion of the concept of “GNH.” We assembled in the wake of a declaration in July by the United Nations General Assembly calling on countries to examine how national policies can promote happiness in their societies.

Yep folks that's Bhutan that Jeffrey Sachs is promoting. And its a fine place so long as you're not from the country's Nepalese minority:

By the 1980s, Bhutan's minority population of Nepali-speaking people, most of which live in the south, had grown to represent around 45 percent of Bhutan’s 600,000 people, causing then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck to start a "one nation, one people" policy to evict, deport and strip many of their Bhutanese citizenship.

The campaign ended with the expulsion of more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking people through beatings, torture and murder committed by the Royal Bhutan Army that lasted until the late 1990s, human rights groups and evictees say.

Most of those evicted are now living inside refugee camps in Nepal. For nearly two decades, refugees have lived in huts made from bamboo and plastic. They receive rations, but many are malnourished. Despite repeated appeals for repatriation, these refugees have been denied.

That's right, Mr Sachs - Bhutan is an avowedly racist country.  Where of course, they lock up smokers:

A monk in Bhutan has become the first person jailed under the country's draconian anti-smoking law after a court handed him a three-year prison sentence for smuggling tobacco worth $2.50.

Sonam Tshering was arrested in January carrying 48 packets of chewing tobacco worth 120 Bhutanese ngultrums, which he said he had bought in India before travelling back home to the Himalayan kingdom.

Which of course brings us to advertising and Mr Sachs' ignorance:

Mass advertising is contributing to many other consumer addictions that imply large public-health costs, including excessive TV watching, gambling, drug use, cigarette smoking, and alcoholism.

That's right, dear reader. We are coerced by evil "mass advertisers" into all these sins, we have no choice as their pernicious corporate messages drip into our sub-conscience meaning that when we see the fat-laden food, or the invite to the lottery, or the TV switch, we act as if automatons reaching out and ruining our lives. Mr Sachs, this is utter tripe barely worthy of response and is a conflation - nay, a perfect storm, of New Puritan obsessions.

Advertising simply doesn't do that. As a marketing professional I would love the secret, magical little ingredient that these promoters of sin have available (at least in Mr Sachs' distorted world). it doesn't exist. People smoke, drink and eat calorie-laden snacks because they like them - this consumption makes them happy. When Mr Sachs' pals in Bhutan locked up that monk for having a little chewing tobacco for his personal use, in what precise way did that enhance the nations gross national happiness?

The world Mr Sachs wishes to promote is a judging, controlling, directed world where nanny knows best and where it's OK to take away my pleasures because others might abuse those pleasures. Where it's right to remove free speech from commercial organisations. One that models itself on an obsessive dictatorship in the Himalayas.


How to create a housing crisis - remove the right to develop!

Amidst all the special pleading and NIMBY critiques of proposals to change the planning system – you know make it a little simpler so as to allow decisions on development to make some sense just occasionally – not many people have stopped to think.

Firstly, when I say planners are anti-business and anti-market I mean it. This doesn’t make them evil but it does reflect the fact that the planner’s job is to control development (these days, in a fit of correctness, it is termed “development management”). So, whatever those planners might say, their activity represents a cost to the developer – to business – that distorts the market. However much this ‘development management’ might be a good thing, its advocates cannot argue that they do not distort the market and add costs to development.

Secondly the idea of devolving planning responsibility to local communities is a good one. For years planning decisions have been made in the context of a room filled with seemingly endless policies, statements, guidance and precedence leaving the local councillors charged with the decision (subject to costly appeal of course) with little or no choice. Replacing this vast overload of regulation with 52 pages of a National Planning Policy Framework (ideally enshrined in statute and therefore not subject to the usual ministerial mission creep) is a good thing. As indeed is recognising that communities can and should be allowed a substantial input to the rules under which development decisions in their community are made.

But this devolution requires a balance – a protection against the inevitable NIMBY and BANANA objections. We have to state – right at the top of the page in big capital letters – that, ceteris paribus, the owner of a property has a right to develop that property. And to profit from that development if that is his intention. If we do not have this right, we grant to neighbours the power – given the tyranny of democracy – to stop any development.

The proposed “presumption” in favour of “sustainable” development does precisely this – it recognises that the planning system already presumes in favour of development (if the plan says a piece of land is housing land it will be developed as such however much neighbours campaign to stop the development) and adds a caveat of “sustainability” that may or may not actually mean something. There is little substantially different in this from the current over-complex system.

The challenge for local communities is to take the offer on the table – and local councils should support them in this – and develop plans that allow for housing development, that recognise the need for rented housing and that are determined by local need and demand rather than by the decisions of some distant bureaucrat who has never visited nor is likely to visit.

In Cullingworth, increasing the size of the village by around 10% would not be a problem – this is 100-150 houses and there are existing permissions for around 70 already. The remainder could come from developing sites within the current village boundary and permitting the conversion of redundant agricultural buildings to residential use. This would not impact on the ‘green belt’ nor would it need to be done in one fell swoop - it could be spread across a flexible ten-year plan period.

Scale this sort of locally-led approach to development up across the country – assume that current permissions will be developed and that historic designations for housing (however much we may not support them) will remain – and the one million or so houses we need can be delivered without the sort of high profile “they’re concreting over the countryside” campaigns we are familiar with through the pages of the newspapers.

It is this approach that could come from the localism proposals and the limiting of national direction over planning. But we cannot further nationalise property rights by removing the presumption in favour of development – that would be wrong and, just as bad, would make existing challenges meeting housing need, especially in the south east into a real crisis.


Monday, 29 August 2011

Aliens arrive in Cullingworth

Amongst assorted spacemen, rockets and at least half a dozen Prof Cox impressions were these delightful little green men - and, indeed, a newly hatched little green baby (which suggests the presence of little green women somewhere maybe):

All in all a fine day - finished off by eating a large plate of garlicky, peppery chicken.


Sunday, 28 August 2011

Public health - we don't need a cosy consensus but a real debate


The IPPR, that cuddliest of social democrat apologists for big government, is suggesting that public health needs a 'consensus' approach:

The only way public health outcomes can be improved in the long term is to develop a cross-party approach, according to a think-tank report.
The report, written by IPPR senior research fellow Phil McCarvill, calls on the main political parties to commit to the development of a “long-term vision and strategic approach to public health”.

This is a classic Fabian approach - by turning decisions on public health from policy choices to strategy implementation we no longer have a political debate about the purpose of public health. Crucially this would mean that, following the transfer of responsibility to local councils the focus wouldn't be on what councillors want but on the administration of the public health programme on the basis of a local Joint Strategic Needs Assessment.

I want a real debate not a cosy "cross-party approach". A debate that allows us to argue for policies that respect people's lifestyle choices, that work to reduce harm and that stress environmental contributors to ill-health such as poor housing, air pollution and mental health rather than condemning the personal choices of ordinary people.


Mrs Fowler's problem is nothing to do with the Coalition proposals on planning...

The view into Swaledale - nowhere near Sudbury but lovely nonetheless
Planning is a tricky business. Especially if, like me, you’re the elected representative of about 20,000 people living in West Yorkshire’s ‘green belt’ – or the glorious South Pennines as I prefer to call it. However, the degree of rubbish that is spoken about planning beggars belief. And is only topped by the utter nonsense spouted from all sides on the subject of housing and housing markets.

The biggest bit of nonsense is the implication that our current planning system doesn’t start from the premise that the land owner has a right to develop. The point of planning has not been to stop development but to direct that development. This has always been so and, despite the efforts of socialists and assorted NIMBYs, remains the case.

So when the government proposes a simplified planning frame work that presumes in favour of “sustainable development”, why do we get an explosion of shock and wild claims that vast acres of England’s green and pleasant land will be snaffled up by evil housing developers seeking only vast profits from the building of ticky-tacky boxes all over those productive fields.

We get writing like this evoking England’s wonders:

The fields are at their most golden and shadowy now, their soft lines framed by the ash trees; the sloes and blackberries are swelling, and plums squash underfoot. Two bikes are abandoned by the track, left by children who are exploring the woods. A young couple smooch in the weakening summer light. A flushed jogger from the local estate waves, as his Spaniel strains to get off the lead and on to the open land.

The writer, one Rebecca Fowler, wishes to protect her interests as the owner of a fine old house with a glorious view. And apparently the Coalition's policies are threatening this interest:

Twelve months on, it is not the spectre of ghosts that face us, but bulldozers. We are at the centre of a battle for the countryside threatened by potentially drastic “planning reforms”. As Clive Aslet outlined this week in The Daily Telegraph, under the new government proposals, the opportunity for effective local opposition to housing developments will be superseded, and cash incentives offered to councils to pass plans in a bid to boost the economy with a quick-fix, concrete-coated solution.

Immediately I smelled a rat – this woman is opposing an existing planning proposal under existing planning rules. Why – other than the newspaper’s campaign – is she referring to rules not yet in place?

Yet that view is now threatened by a development of 170 houses. Despite passionate opposition, not just from ourselves but more than 2,000 locals, English Heritage and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, plans are close to being approved.

So it has precisely nothing to do with the new National Planning Policy Framework at all. But is a purely local debate as to whether or not Mrs Fowler’s view should be spoiled conducted in the context of planning policies and planning guidance introduced by a Labour government.

For sure, the NPPF won’t change this – there’s still a view that the owners of property should be allowed to develop that property unless there are reasons for that not to happen. And the presumption in favour of development enshrined in the original 1947 Act is, for the first time, to be conditional on it being “sustainable”.

The substantive change in the rules following from NPPF is that the specifics of planning – where to develop housing, industry and so forth – it no longer dictated by national guidance or regional plans but by the local councillors we elect to represent us. People who we can ‘un-elect’ should we so wish. The ability of developers to appeal to distant inspectors is curtailed and the centralising, controlling ‘planning policy guidance’ and ‘planning policy statements’ will be consigned to the dustbin.

Right now those 2000 people (plus Mrs Fowler) in Sudbury are opposing a vast, impenetrable bureaucratic system that satisfies no-one except the planners and lawyers who make their livings from its byzantine detail. Allowing local decisions makes sense – it may still mean Mrs Fowler loses her view but that decision will be made by politicians who she and her neighbours elect not by a government official in Bristol.


Saturday, 27 August 2011

Oh dear, those bohemian luvvies...all that smoking, tut, tut!

The New Puritans are frothing again - this time at government backing for films that 'promote smoking':

Health experts have accused the government of spending more on subsidising American films that contain smoking scenes than on anti-tobacco campaigns.

Researchers at Imperial College London calculated that between 2003 and 2009, £338m of tax credits in Britain went to US-produced films with imagery "promoting" tobacco use.

You just have to laugh. There is no choice really - the sight of lefty indulgence eating itself is too joyful for words.

"We think film subsidy programmes should be harmonised with public health goals by making films with tobacco imagery ineligible for public subsidies," Millett said. "This wouldn't cost anything to implement so in the current financial climate it should be an attractive policy option."

You couldn't make it up!


How the 'New Deal' prolonged the Great Depression

For many years we've been told of the wonder that was the New deal - how it saved America and how FDR was the sainted godfather of progressive liberalism. Seems that his policies weren't so great after all - at least according to academics from that dreadful right-wing institution, UCLA:

"President Roosevelt believed that excessive competition was responsible for the Depression by reducing prices and wages, and by extension reducing employment and demand for goods and services," said Cole, also a UCLA professor of economics. "So he came up with a recovery package that would be unimaginable today, allowing businesses in every industry to collude without the threat of antitrust prosecution and workers to demand salaries about 25 percent above where they ought to have been, given market forces. The economy was poised for a beautiful recovery, but that recovery was stalled by these misguided policies."

So when Ed Miliband or Caroline Lucas talks of limiting competition, of a 'living wage' or of some expensive intervention into the trading economy, they are invoking the spirit of the New Deal - something that prolonged the agony and pain of depression leaving millions to suffer in the name of 'progressivism'.


Has activist government and banking failed?


Ben Bernanke addressed the world from Jackson Hole and, it seems, said precisely nothing at all of significance. Markets flittered, skitted and fluttered as the impact of this non-statement echoed round the trading floors and bourses of the world.

In effect, as the man in charged of the world's most important central bank, Bernanke admitted defeat:

"Most of the economic policies that support robust economic growth in the long run are outside the province of the central bank," he said. 

This is interpreted as "over to you congress and president, stop already with your politics". But it's not really clear what - other than run up more debt - congress could do to stimulate the economy. And it's not exactly as if the markets are all that chipper about the prospect of ever more borrowing from governments!

It seems to me that the time of active central bank stimulus has passed - it may or may not have worked (right now the only thing for sure is that we've more inflation than we'd otherwise have) but doing more harvesting from the magic money tree is pointless and probably dangerous.

Perhaps the answer lies in politicians admitting defeat too. Smiling into the camera and saying something like - "there's not really very much we can do now other than get out of the way of business, enterprise and individual initiative - sorry but it's up to you guys now."

Followed by cutting taxes, scrapping restrictive laws on trade, freeing up markets in property, employment and energy and moving to shut down the emerging license regime in local government.

I think this would work. But whatever happens, we can't go on pretending that governments - singly or acting together - can 'save the world'. They can't. Only people can do that.


Friday, 26 August 2011

Friday Fungus: something nifty in the woodpile...

Uncertain as to what this is - could be a grisette of some sort, certainly Amanita genus chap. Or not - could be something else entirely!

Any how it's growing nicely in my pile of woodchip (all from the garden so will be beech, ash and holly mostly). Not going to risk eating it - grisettes are mostly edible but always best to err on the side of caution!


We aren't getting fatter...


Once again the worshippers at the Church of Public Health are misleading us - but not one single voice of challenge have I heard on the BBC of in the newspapers to this:

Governments around the world need to make immediate and dramatic policy changes to reverse a pandemic of obesity which could affect an extra 11 million people in the UK over the next 20 years, public health scientists have warned.

This simply isn't true - as VGID points out from the latest figures :

Despite the government ignoring the anti-obesity lobby's urgent suggestions for traffic light labelling on food and suchlike, the latest figures show that obesity amongst men has fallen to 22% and the female obesity rate has fallen to 24%.

Given that the previous prediction could not have been more wrong—despite the modest task of forecasting just 4 years ahead—how likely do you think it is that the anti-obesity 'experts' can predict what will happen in 19 years?

We aren't getting fatter. Yet across the country the New Puritans are gearing up to argue for new "nudging" taxes, for bans on advertising and for controls over transfats. All to deal with a non-existent problem.


On tax havens...


Just a brief note - a comment if you will - on the matter of tax havens. Let's be clear folks, tax havens are a myth, a fiction, a scary bogeyman dreamed up by people who would prefer that governments were free to rob any of their citizens blind.

We are told - by people like Nichoas Shaxton - that these "treasure islands" are places of deep and dark sinfulness. Places filled with crime and deception wherein banks, shady drug dealers and other charlatans of the business world - and big corporations who set up ranks of subsidiaries simply so as to avoid tax and regulation - peddle their dirty trade. And we must not let them avoid tax or regulation!

See those last two words? That's the problem. Tax. Regulation. Not sin, evil or the desire of these wicked men to grind the faces of the poor and downtrodden. It is high taxes - both personal and corporate - coupled with excessive regulation that creates the offshore world, that makes tax havens work.  And the solution?

Cut taxes. Reduce regulation. Pretty simple really. Problem sorted. Doesn't need a whole book now does it!


Thursday, 25 August 2011

"More in sorrow than anger, guv" - the machismo of cuts or the protection of services?

Many thousands of words have been expended on the “cuts”. On whether they are necessary, on the pain that results from their imposition, as to whether they impact disproportionately on poor people or ethnic minorities or women (and, for all I know, on the fairies living at the bottom of social workers’ gardens).

In all this discussion I worry that little effort is directed to the strategies followed by public bodies – and especially by local councils – in response to the settlement “imposed” by a chubby former Worth Valley councillor. Most of these strategies – at least in the north – seem predicated on delivering the maximum amount of reduction in 2011/12. And this is achieved, in part, through the closing of “front line” services – swimming pools, libraries, resource centres and lollipop ladies.

There is no doubt that councils have to make significant cuts – described by some as a process of “re-basing” rather than mere reduction. The question is how we decide to achieve that new base level of budget – by draconian cuts this year, by a process of reductions during the lifetime (three years) of the recent local government settlement or over a long period of time altogether. For most councils all three of these options are available.

The advantage of cutting this year is that it gets the pain out of the way and allows a drastic pruning of services such as leisure provision and libraries. And most councils have wanted to restructure these services for some while but, because of the political pain involved, have not done so. Bradford’s facilities review in leisure and sport was first commissioned in 2002 and went through assorted iterations without ever being implemented. No council leadership wants to be the one to close swimming pools and sports centres after all!

However, the downside of rapid cuts is that decisions to close or reduce services are inevitably ill-considered. And the requirements for user engagement, consultation with affected employees and the scrutiny-delayed council decision-making process mean that – as we’re discovering in Bradford – it’s actually pretty difficult to deliver the savings needed in just one year. It looks likely that – without further front-line cuts – Bradford’s budget will be overspent in 2011/12. I am sure the same situation applies to many other authorities seeking to deliver reductions amounting to 10% or more of the net revenue budget.

The result of this strategy will be that the scale of cuts in years two and three of the settlement period will need to be greater than anticipated – risking further years of pool closures, higher charges for care and redundancies. The aim of taking a quick hit followed by a smooth, managed reduction to the new base won’t be achieved.

Some councils – Leeds appears to be an example of this – have taken the approach of, in effect, borrowing from future revenues to reduce the need for cuts in 2011/12. The same reductions are made over the same period as we see in Bradford but the smoothed profile allows for greater consideration and planning in service reductions. Closure or service curtailment is less ill-considered.

Under this approach – as is the case for the “cuts now” approach – the council concerned protects its reserves position and its capital programme. So far as long-term developments are concerned it is more-or-less business as usual. Thus Manchester protects its ‘flagship’ Town Hall project and maintains a range of separate funds alongside the core revenue reserve – after three years the reserves position of the city will change little as a result of cuts. There will still be over £200 million in reserve funds – roughly half of which will be available for spending.

My contention is that a council could use a proportion of available reserves to allow for the “re-basing” to take longer – perhaps five years rather than three. This would mean that many of the decisions to close services in 2011/12 are not necessary – we have a far longer period to consult, to plan and to design structures for future service delivery. Rather than witnessing a frantic rush to find community-led solutions to libraries this could be planned and implemented across the library estate – achieving front-line cost savings without the disruption of threatening the closure of the services.

Similarly, the “restructure” programmes many councils are implementing would be less risky and there would be more opportunity to discuss the things that are essential, the things that are nice to have if we can afford them and the things that, frankly, are an extravagance. 

It may be right to close some facilities, to stop providing some services but this shouldn’t simply be to save some cash. It is right for councils, for example, to get out of the business of providing old folks’ homes – we don’t do it very well and it costs a great deal more for us to do it when compared to the best of the private and not-for-profit sectors. But it would still be right if the government had given us a massive increase in grant.

I find it pretty hard to justify closing centres for disabled adults just to effect some savings in this year’s revenue budget – especially when we’ve best part of £100 million sitting in the bank. This money – there for a rainy day – could allow a restructure of the council, the reconfiguration of services and the stripping out of duplication, waste and indulgence over a longer period. And at the end of that period Manningham might still have a swimming pool and Denholme a library.

But the options put before councillors were driven by predetermined departmental spending limits rather than a medium term financial strategy worth the name. Councillors will have spent hundreds of hours trawling through lists of “cuts” prepared by officers and will never have stepped back to look at the whole picture – to ask about income as well as about expenditure, to discuss priorities and to consider what needs to be provided by the council and the size of a ‘re-based’ budget.

Above all, no-one will have asked whether the cash reserves – tens of millions at most top tier councils and hundreds of millions in some cases – might be used to reduce the immediate impact of cuts, to allow replanned services and to ensure that the reduction of unnecessary bureaucracy takes priority over the closing of services to the public.

I might be wrong. I’m happy to be shown how such a strategy would be mad, bad or dangerous. But I’m not happy to see disabled people losing services because the council can’t move quickly enough to get rid of layers of surplus management, to start sharing back office functions with neighbouring authorities and to make better use of the flexibility and innovation in the private and voluntary sectors.

It seems to me that the machismo of making cuts – "more in sorrow than anger, guv" – has triumphed over a desire to concentrate on making sure the public we serve get the services they deserve for all those taxes they pay.


Why minimum pricing for alcohol is a really stupid idea...


Right now the booze we buy is pretty safe - we are pretty confident of its origins.  But if minimum pricing comes in and we continue to see accelerated rises in duty, something will change:

Seizures of contraband alcohol smuggled from France have surged to around three times their normal levels this summer, say officials.

French customs officers in the Channel ports of Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer confiscated 82,000 litres of illegal spirits in the past month.

This is the amount normally seized over a three-month summer period.

And this contraband booze isn't sold in Sainsbury, nor is it sold through the cash-and-carry. It's sold out of the back of a van or in a fifth floor council flat. Do you think the blokes selling the booze care about selling it to 12 year old kids? Or give a monkey's about whether it's the real brand or some dodgy moonshine?

As I said - minimum pricing for alcohol is a really stupid idea.


Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Things that shouldn't surprise us...


From Planning Magazine:

More than one in ten town centre shops were vacant in May, according to a survey published by membership body the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

OK there's a recession on and that has accelerated the problem but the real issues are:

Sales through town centres grew by just 0.2% in 2010, underperforming out-of-town and non-store retail, which both achieved significant uplifts.

While out-of-town increased by 1.6%, non-store sales achieved exceptional growth, up by 10.4%. Town centre is less convenient and more exposed to discretionary sectors.

You see that? Town centres as locations for comparison retail - other than a limited number of regional centres - are finished. And as Datamonitor point out in their 2011 review of town centre retail (from which the above statisitcs come):

The role of the town centre is set to change, moving away from a predominantly retail channel to a more leisure-based centre. Coffee houses and restaurants are taking up a greater proportion of space in the town centre as they have the resources to continue growing.

And the answer doesn't lie in aggressive and restricting planning rules - try applying them to on-line and mail order retailing! Watch as the planners drive all those warehousing and distribution jobs to somewhere else in the world - somewhere with planners that believe in promoting development and creating jobs.

Yet that's what  the Labour Party want us to do! And the RTPI - the planners union - they don't even mention "non-store sales" in their programme for a conference on town centres and retail and barely mention leisure and pleasure either!


Undertanding how local government works. A lesson in making secret decisions


Let me introduce you to the Association of West Yorkshire Authorities (can link to their website but it was down just now):

The AWYA is an association of the five West Yorkshire metropolitan local authorities – Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield. It was established in 1993 to provide a forum for the discussion and co-ordination of matters of mutual concern and interest.

The AWYA acts as the local government voice of West Yorkshire, promoting and lobbying for its interests and identity. It provides a means for the five Councils to reach joint views on proposed legislation and other matters of concern to West Yorkshire, and to express these views to organisations such as the Yorkshire and Humber Assembly (YHA), Local Government Yorkshire and the Humber (LGYH), central government and other appropriate bodies.

The AWYA also works to secure greater accountability and effective working relationships with bodies which impact upon the sub-region, such as the Government Office for Yorkshire and the Humber (GOYH), Yorkshire Forward, Yorkshire and Humber Assembly (YHA), the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), and the Strategic Health Authority (SHA).

This is a decision-making body, funded from the public purse. Just minutes ago I got an e-mail from a colleague saying this:

I have contacted the association they do not publish minutes or agendas

So I rang them and was told that the AWYA:

Does not meet in public so doesn't publish its agendas and minutes.
If we ask for them we can be sent them but they can't publish these papers because there is a "resourcing issue". However, when pressed, they told me that they have never published agendas or minutes.

So this organisation - chaired by Bradford's Labour leader - can make decisions, for example about £850 million of possible transport spending, in secret and without the decision being published.


Speed cameras don't cut accidents...probably

The words "I told you" spring to mind at this morning's news on speed cameras - or "safety cameras" as their advocates like to dub them:

Ministers fear that thousands of cameras have served only to raise millions from motorists, rather than improve safety.

The findings, from an initial sample of 75 local authorities, will prompt the Government to call on every council to publish detailed information on each speed camera site, including accident rates and how much has been raised in fines.

Ministers hope that local authorities will succumb to pressure to remove the controversial devices if the information does not demonstrate that accidents have been cut. 

Oh dear! It seems that the people who advocate putting cameras on every street corner were wrong and that folk like me who said that driver training is more important that on street management were right.

I'm sure we've not heard the last of this - just as with CCTV (where the Home Office knows it doesn't reduce crime), the enthusiasts for lucrative speed cameras will be out there shroud waving. And ignoring the evidence.


Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Petition to review the smoking ban...go sign it!

Anthony Worrall Thompson has set up an e-petition:


Responsible department: Department of Health

We petition the Government to review the impact of the smoking ban on pubs and clubs and consider an amendment that would give licensees the option of separate well-ventilated smoking rooms.

You should all - in the interests of choice and liberty (and keeping pubs going) - go and sign.

The joys of annually managed expenditure - a look at the Work Programme

The Work Programme – described often as the government’s “flagship welfare-to-work” scheme – represents an important shift in the delivery of these programmes. Rather than being funded from a limited pot of money (the “Departmental Expenditure Limit” – DEL) the scheme is funded by a demand-led approach (the “Annual Managed Expenditure” – AME).

In previous programmes the provider of service was contracted to provide a given number of “outputs and outcomes” (e.g. number of people entering the programme – and output, or people into jobs – an outcome) and remunerated on that limited basis.  Under the Work Programme the only limit, in theory, is the number of workless people – the payment to providers is set against the savings to the overall welfare budget.

There are some important elements to consider here. Firstly, the government can invest more on finding work for those people who are more expensive to maintain on benefits – single mums, disabled people. 

Secondly, the government has shifted much of the risk from the department to the provider. The payments are on results – there are few payments for outputs and much of the money comes after the client has been in work for six months, one year and two years. In principle this means that the provider has a real incentive to get clients off welfare and to keep it that way for two years.

The Social Market Foundation thinks there’s a problem – the providers aren’t going to hit the targets (these are minimum numbers) set by government:

At least 90% of organisations involved in delivering the Government's flagship back to work scheme, the Work Programme, risk having their contracts terminated because of unreachable performance targets set by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The Social Market Foundation, the think tank originally behind the idea for the Work Programme and responsible for the analysis, said that without an urgent rethink of the performance criteria this could lead to the failure of the entire scheme with potentially dire consequences for the 2.4 million long term unemployed it is designed to help.

We need to understand that SMF’s analysis is based on the performance levels of welfare-to-work providers in the last government’s “Flexible New Deal” programme. Indeed, under this analysis there is a problem. However, this does rather assume that the shift from a programme delivering to a pre-determined set of outputs and outcomes to one based on payments on results will not alter the performance of providers. This seems unlikely to me.

And the people who own these businesses seem to think it’s a fair bet too as Chris Grayling, the minister concerned points out:

"The Work Programme is the biggest payments-by-results scheme of its kind in the world. The providers are investing £500million of their own money into it this year alone, and they wouldn't be doing that unless they were confident of making a real difference in getting people into sustainable employment and achieving results."

And more to the point - if the providers miss their targets, there is little or no loss to the government. So more incentive to deliver (that's where the money is) and less downside risk. Seems like a good deal to me.


Monday, 22 August 2011

Public procurement and framework contracts - inefficient, anti-competitive and expensive


In public sector procurement we have got used now to the system of “framework contracts”:

A ‘framework agreement’ is an agreement between one or more contracting authorities and one or more economic operators, the purpose of which is to establish the terms governing contracts to be awarded during a given period, in particular with regard to price and, where appropriate, the quantity envisaged.

In layman’s terms a framework agreement limits the market from which the public body procures its goods or services in a given time period. Rather than a long-winded procurement process for each contract, the public body can “call off” for each purchase from the organisations in the framework. Nobody else can bid.
And these frameworks are used for multi-billion pound contracts:

Willmott Dixon, Morgan Sindall, Mansell and Thomas Vale have all been appointed to a regional framework worth up to £3 billion.

The companies were chosen by Birmingham Council to work on projects secured through the Constructing West Midlands Framework.

The quartet will work on the four-year framework covering work costing more than £500,000-a-year.

The framework has the potential to be extended to eight years and is available to all public sector bodies in the West Midlands.

So there you are – a small group of construction businesses have been given the exclusive right to bid for £3 billion in public contracts. During that time no other organisations can bid for that work – the councils involved have granted to those in the framework a degree of protection that should not apply, is anti-competitive and cannot possibly represent value for taxpayers’ money.

These contracts are done for reasons of procurement efficiency and administrative convenience. They cut out smaller contractors – the ones for whom £500,000 is a big contract but who do not have the financial elbow to get chosen for a large framework. Yet nothing is done. There is no outcry when the DWP carves up valuable contracts for delivering the Work Programme between fewer than 20 organisations – a process that allows BEST, A4e and others the opportunity to further extend their market dominance. Mostly at the expense of smaller, regional and local providers.

Framework agreements are now standard practice and the numbers of businesses on frameworks gets smaller and smaller. One “pre-qualification questionnaire” (PQQ) run by Leeds City Council to procure a framework for redundancy support across Yorkshire was explicit in seeking to limit the tender to just six organisations from which five would be selected to form the framework.

This is an example – increasingly common with large authorities like Leeds and Manchester – of the use of the PQQ as a shortlisting device rather than as a means of established whether an organisation is qualified and has the capacity to deliver. This is an abuse of the process and misrepresents the PQQ – it is not pre-qualification but a two-stage tender process. Again it is designed for reasons of administrative convenience and procurement efficiency rather than for reasons of good purchasing practice.

If there is one area in desperate need of reform, that is ill-managed and run for producer interests rather than for the good use of taxpayers’ money, it is the system of public procurement overseen by the Office for Government Commerce and implemented by local authorities, government departments and quangos up and down the country. It may not be corrupt but it is certainly anti-competitive, wasteful and produces overpriced and inflexible contracts.