Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Freedom is the radical choice for capitalism's reform - lessons (and hope) from a schools debate


I had a really enjoyable afternoon today at Beckfoot School in Bingley. I went along as a judge in the "Futures" debate - a debate involving five local schools (and something I'd been a little sniffy about).

Two important things came out of this for me - firstly, my faith in tomorrow was restored by the sight of thirty or so young people debating big and grand issues. It wasn't simply an exercise in student political debate about capitalism (although this was broadly the topic) but was surprisingly well-informed. Yes there were the familiar quotes from Marx, Trotsky and such but we also got references to minarchism, Nozick, Schumpeter and William Morris. And mostly these were in context and relevant.

The second important thing for me was that the final session - "Reformed Capitalism vs the Alternative" - featured a bunch of students eager to make the case for capitalism's reform being about a libertarian response. Arguments were made for free trade, free markets and a government charged with administering the rules of freedom rather than seeking to "know better". I witnessed young people who grasped that wanting free enterprise, free markets and free trade is a genuinely radical choice because, for sure, we have precious little of those things today.

All in all a far more inspiring day than I expected. There is some hope for the future.


On the misrepresentation of alcohol statistics...

We've all (I hope) spotted the lack of any logical connection between declining alcohol consumption and rising hospital admissions for "alcohol-related" reasons. There's less binge-drinking going on yet we're getting ill as a result of the reduced boozing - clearly they're putting something odd in the beer! Or else the health authorities are misleading us.

Beer writer, Pete Brown has set out - in perhaps the clearest terms yet - just how this misrepresentation works:

Let’s say you’re walking down the street, and you’re hit by a car that mounts the pavement. The reason you’re in hospital is that you have been hit by a car. But say you also have high blood pressure. One possible cause of high blood pressure is drinking to excess.

So even if you haven’t been drinking on the day of your admission to hospital, a fraction of your admission is recorded as being alcohol related.

Even if alcohol is not the reason for your high blood pressure.

You've got that haven't you? The statistics - those million admissions due to binge-drinking that the New Puritans roll out - are as close to a fiction as you can get. So much so that the Department of Health plans to change the way we divide up admissions so as to avoid this sort of nonsense. Think about it for a second - as we live longer, we're more likely to get a heart condition and more likely to get cancer. Since a proportion of heart conditions and cancers are attributed to drinking, 'alcohol-related' admissions rise even though we're not drinking.

Pete Brown goes on to give the true (or perhaps a "more accurate") figure for alcohol-related admissions:

When you take out these partial fractions, the estimate for alcohol-related hospital admissions falls from 1,057,000 for 2009/10 to 194,800. Of this figure, some admissions are ‘partially attributable’ to alcohol, and some ‘wholly attributable’.

If you want the figure for hospital admissions that are absolutely and wholly to do with alcohol, it falls to 68,400.

Still a lot of admissions - and there's still quite a few deaths each year (mortality statistics say 8,900 or so) attributable to boozing - but nothing like the picture painted by the New Puritans.

The rest of the Pete Brown's article challenges the "cost to society" of drinking! I'm sure the New Puritans will dismiss this analysis since Brown is a beer writer and plainly in the pay of the drinks industry! However, the truth is sinking in slowly I hope - we don't have a 'pandemic' of alcohol.



Sunday, 26 February 2012

If we have to have Lords reform can we at least try to break the party stranglehold on politics?


So the Lords Reform bandwagon is off and rolling as the Liberal Democrats return to their obsession with putting changes to our constitution ahead of less important things like sorting out the public finances, getting a balanced set of rules for the financial sector and improving those core services to the public – schools, hospitals, social care.

And the Liberal Democrats want what it says in the Coalition agreement:

...a 300-member hybrid house, of which 80% are elected. A further 20% would be appointed, and reserve space would be included for some Church of England bishops. Under the proposals, members would also serve single non-renewable terms of 15 years. Former MPs would be allowed to stand for election to the Upper House, but members of the Upper House would not be immediately allowed to become MPs.

This, we’re told by its advocates, is a ‘radical’ solution – quite why defeats me. We replace a wholly (more-or-less) appointed body with one where people are elected for a very long time by a partisan, party-driven system. Instead of a house filled with independent-minded folk bringing expertise from a host of different backgrounds, we get another load of politicians. With all the flaws that go with this – closed party selections, central campaigns, funding problems and a disconnection with the electorate.

If we want to change (and, as a conservative, I tend to subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of politics), let’s make a bigger change than just handing control of the Lords over to political party hacks. 

We could use a lottery to create an electoral college (or even to choose the members of the Lords).

We could get local councils to nominate members – perhaps proportionally across regions or sub-regions.

We could have elections without campaigning or party labels.

And we could relocate the House of Lords to Bradford.

These are radical changes. Simply electing the Lords – regardless of the system used but especially if it’s on some regional party list system – isn’t radical but is a retrograde step that gives power to dying political parties in preference to a real extension of democracy.


Who goes first?


We were sat in a long traffic queue on the road from Sowerby Bridge up the Calder Valley. Coming towards us sirens blaring and lights flashing is an ambulance.

Looking in my rear view mirror, I see more flashing lights and a different siren - it's a cop car charging up the valley.

Who should get priority I wonder as the two vehicles rush towards eachother?

Am I alone in being quite angry at the ambulance pulling onto the pavement letting the police car through?


Saturday, 25 February 2012

"One Million Pound A Vote" isn't quite enough for Labour to buy Green support....


Windmills! Not sure about what I personally feel about them (although I'm unconvinced at their value as a solution to England's energy supply challenges - fracking and nuclear power look much better bets) but I do know that plenty of people aren't so keen on having them plonked in their back yard. Including a whole bunch in Denholme.

Right now Bradford Council is consulting on its 'Local Development Framework Core Strategy' which includes proposals for loads more windmills. Which will be sited (assuming the Council avoid the massive row that would come from putting them on Ilkley Moor) in Denholme and Queensbury where there's loads of wind. And residents in these places want to challenge these proposals.

However, it seems we needn't bother complaining since the Labour Councillor responsible for planning has already decided:

Councillor Val Slater, Bradford Council's executive member for planning, said: “Renewable energy ultimately means a cleaner district and less pollution. Although there is an increase in applications for wind turbines we don't actually receive that many.”

I guess this is part of the price that Bradford people will be paying for the backroom deal that led our three-strong Green group on Council to back almost everything the Labour Party propose! It seems that the "One Million Pounds A Vote" deal on renewable energy we saw at the budget council was only part of the payback for the Greens' support. They love windmills and the bigger the better!!

Councillor Martin Love, one of Shipley’s ward representatives and a member of the Green Party, said: “Any increase in renewable energy generation is to be welcomed.

“Something Bradford has got a lot of is hills and wind. We should utilise them for energy generation wherever we can. However, for Wind turbines to be effective we need bigger ones."

I will point out that the hills and wind aren't in Cllr Love's ward, of course!


Friday, 24 February 2012

Too few people using The People's Supermarket it seems!


There was a flurry of right-on, luvvie commentary about the People's Supermarket a while back:

Arthur Potts Dawson, the mastermind behind The People's Supermarket, is certainly full of what one might loosely define as organic missionary zeal. A tall, youthful and reasonably optimistic chap who set up the London eco-restaurant Acorn House, (and is vaguely related to Mick Jagger, inter alia), Potts Dawson hopes that once his baby takes off, the likes of Tesco and Asda will be as a bad dream. We will all put in our community service and revel in 1970s-style food bills, while the big boys founder.

This is because in return for washing walls at TPS, you will be eligible for a 10 per cent shopping discount, and the ability to buy about 20 special "People's" foodstuffs at artificially low prices. Ordinary shoppers will be able to use the store, but not access the cheaper prices. Only we cleaners qualify for that. 

Eighteen months later it doesn't seem to be working out for them:

Due to financial difficulties, The People's Supermarket has struggled to keep up with the payment of business rates to Camden Council. The People's Supermarket is a Co-operative and Community Benefit Society and operates for the benefit of its members and the community, not in pursuit of profit. For that reason, we ask that Camden Council continue to support us by allowing for the renegotiation of rate payments. In the absence of such support, The People's Supermarket will become insolvent by March 1st.

So when we're getting all excited about different business models, frothing about mutuals, co-ops, co-production and other such wonders, let's not forget the basic truth about the market! If you don't have enough custom, you don't make enough income and you can't pay your bills. With the result that the cap is waved under the council's nose saying "help us out - we're really good even though we're losing money!"


Thursday, 23 February 2012

Decision-making, planning and the purposelessness of council strategies


Yesterday evening was spent at Shipley Area Committee. Now while this sounds to be in the same category as Vogon poetry, it is quite often an interesting occasion and not just because I’m a masochist.

Last night showed the contrast – and the problems councils have with this – between specific decision-making and the making of plans or strategies. Put simply, we’re pretty good at the former and really rather bad at the latter.

And the meeting allowed me to speak of two great but flawed marketing geniuses...

The first hour and a half of the meeting was taken up with two hotly contested decisions – whether to put speed bumps all over Nab Wood and whether to take the zip wire and bucket swing out from Claremont Fields at Wrose.

In both cases supporters and opponents attended the meeting. As is our practice the chairman allowed each of them some time to express their concerns. In addition to this, time is given to SCAPAG members (representatives of the parishes and neighbourhood forums across the Shipley constituency).

The resulting discussion would, I feel, give a buzz to fans of good local government. Residents were involved, every member of the committee contributed their thoughts and solutions were sought that aimed (if not quite reaching) consensus. People may not like the decisions we took but they couldn’t argue that they weren’t taken with thought and care by councillors.

The remainder of the meeting – another hour – was mostly taken up receiving reports “to note” accompanied by short officer presentations. Two items were linked – headlines from the “state of the district” survey and the Council’s sustainable communities strategy.

Now without going into the details of these things, it struck me that these two reports told a great deal about how the council plans and strategises. Reading through a document littered with words like “overarching”, “transformational priorities” and “journey”, I realised that we haven’t got this process right – or even nearly right.

The problem is that these grand plans simply aren’t working documents. No council officer starts his or her day with getting down the “sustainable community strategy” as a guide to what to do. Nor does any council officer get out our “2020 Vision” to check on our progress.

Published with great fanfares and with exciting talk of partnership, mission and vision, these are little better than glossies produced to give the impression of strategy and planning. Can we take seriously a plan that has nine or ten “transformational priorities”?

Surely, we should have just one priority?

Last night, one Town Councillor (from Denholme as it happens) showed us up by saying in one sentence what priority we should set. It was some along the lines of:

“After years involved in the District, I think we should concentrate on prevention and early intervention.”

A statement of priority and an indication of strategy. That is how business sets priorities, defines strategies and prepares plans. Councils should learn.


Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Efforts to stop Bradford's Labour Councillors from their mission to kill the City centre


Although Bradford's leader has graciously agree to put off killing Shipley, Bingley and Keighley town centres by announcing a two-year delay to the introduction of on-street parking charges, the 'let's raise some more cash' brigade are still winning in Bradford City centre.

We have called in the Labour's executive's decision to extend the City centre on-street parking charges mostly because it's a really stupid idea. Plus of course Bradford's good little socialist car-haters had every intention of ignoring any objection (from shoppers, shopkeepers and local businesses) since they'd spend £125,000 on buying the new parking meters.

The decision will be looked at by the Environment & Waste Scrutiny Committee at its meeting on 28th February in City Hall. The meeting starts at 5.30pm and should be an interesting occasion - I am hoping that the Committee sees sense and tells our Labour bosses that making it more expensive to shop in a struggling city centre really isn't the best way to go about regenerating that city centre.

The Labour executive will doubtless ignore this but it's worth a try!

In the meantime, the Telegraph & Argus have a little poll (you can vote here) that current shows 83% against the idea.


Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Should Bradford's Labour councillors stand on their (housing) principles...


At a recent Bradford Council meeting, a dozen or so Labour councillors declared interests as landlords (for completeness three Conservative councillors and one Green did likewise). The sight of this made us grin a little - socialists as a new rentier class!

However, there's a serious point to be made here about the housing debate. Bradford's Labour councillors are adamant that we are facing a "housing crisis" in the City and that we desperately need "affordable" housing for the vast hordes of future Bradfordians. As a result Cllr Slater, the housing and planning lead is adamant that "middle-class" objectors to greenfield housing development must be slapped down:

And Councillor Val Slater conceded she and other councillors will be locking horns with “middle class” protesters as the battles rage over where to build the 45,500 homes said to be needed by 2028. 

So why then are those rent earning labour councillors not playing their part? After all Cllr Malik, chair of the corporate scrutiny committee doesn't just own one or two houses:

 At Premier Housing we have been providing quality rental properties for over 20 years. Whether you are a student or a professional we have an ever expanding portfolio of quality, studios, flats and houses, you can be certain that we will find a property that suits your needs.

You could ask why Cllr Malik doesn't stand on his socialist principles and provide some of that "affordable" housing?  Or is this what is meant by affordability:

He (Cllr Malik) is one of two directors of Premier Housing (Bradford) Ltd who, along with the company itself, were fined a total of £34,000 by the courts earlier this year.

The firm has a portfolio of rented flats in Bradford, Leeds, Halifax and Liverpool and was taken to court by Liverpool Council over 41/43 Holt Road, Liverpool, for eight offences under the Houses in Multiple Occupation legislation.

The charges described the flats above a shop as rat-infested and poorly-converted.

The company re-appeared in court for six similar offences relating to flats in Laburnum Road, Liverpool. 

Not much evidence of caring for the poor but that's not really my point here - why don't those Labour councillors rent their properties out to the poor at affordable rents rather than argue for the rest of us (who don't earn rents) to pay more taxes so as to pay the higher rates of housing benefit needed to pay those higher market rents?

And here's another idea - Cllr Slater lives in a large three or four bedroomed house in Bingley (about ten miles or so from her 'deprived' ward). Just her and her husband. Why isn't she doing something to help with this "housing crisis" she's invented by renting out those spare rooms?

But then I remembered! The thing about socialism is that it's not about people actually doing caring things to help less fortunate folk. Such activity is patronising and to be stopped - the state through taxes will provide what those folk need! And Cllr Slater can sit in her comfortable home in a pleasant market town secure in the knowledge that she has forced those pesky taxpayers to cough up for subsidising affordable housing.

Taxpayers like the one who wrote to me recently:

"My full army and OAP adds up to £14,590 of which I pay almost £1,000 tax."

These are the "middle classes" that Cllr Slater is so disparaging about. This is the lie of her ostentatious socialism - condemning decent, hard-working folk to virtual penury while lecturing us about how we don't care because we don't support higher taxes and more government.


Monday, 20 February 2012

Plain packaging...


Chris Snowdon has - via the good offices of the Adam Smith Institute - published a paper on the lunatic idea of introducing plain packaging for cigarettes. It is an excellent read filled with real facts, references to real research and a commitment to liberty.

In addition Conservative Home have given Chris some space to set out his argument - it's certainly worth reading the comments thread. No sign of much support for the idea.

For my part I wrote about this - from the perspective of a professional and experienced marketer:

Firstly, brands do not act to recruit customers to a given product – we choose to buy the product and then we select the brand. Nobody starts buying bread because they saw a Warburton’s ad – they buy bread because, well, they want bread! What the brand provides is a heuristic – a short cut, if you will – allowing the consumer to make a choice quickly and confidently. What we do know is that it is the search for a benefit that makes consumers choose to buy a product rather than the shininess of the brand presentation.  Or is you prefer: we buy bread because we want to eat it not because the advert featured a brass band playing chunks from the New World Symphony!

Secondly, packaging serves two purposes – identification and appeals to impulse. In the first instance we put our product into easily identified packaging as part of that heuristic, as a quick means of identifying our particular version of a given product. And, where purchase is often impulse driven, we use packaging to make the product stand out from other similar products. So yes packaging can assist purchase – but only where it isn’t a considered purchase.

The rest of this piece can be read here - suffice it to say that the scale of ignorance about the purpose of brands and the point of packaging beggar's belief. Anyone would think they had an agenda!


Sunday, 19 February 2012

Doubt and the problem of planning - a thought on conservatism

In recent times I’ve tried to explain to people that conservatism isn’t some form of brash, know-all ideological fix for mankind’s problems. Indeed, to proclaim something unquestioningly true is to deny an essential truth of conservative thinking.

Perhaps I should qualify this by pointing out that this view is an English conservatism – something of a philosophy of doubt and insecurity. Today, speaking with my wife, I observed that I no longer have the absolute certainty expressed in my youthful bedroom wall poster:

“I may have my faults but being wrong isn’t one of them!”

Who are we if, with the flimsiest of evidence and rarely evidence that is unchallenged, take it upon ourselves to claim that there is only one true path, one solution to a given problem? As conservatives we should always proceed with care and caution for we may be wrong. It is this appreciation of human fallibility that separates conservatives from liberals, socialists and other such ideologues.

This isn’t a cry for inaction but is intended to explain why change should not be imposed simply for that change’s sake and certainly not because it merely conforms to our ideological bias. The reasons why conservatives prefer the small state, opt for local over national and national over global is because we doubt that the state can really resolve mankind’s problems and challenges. This isn’t a rejection of the state but instead recognises that most of the time that old H L Mencken comment applies:

 "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong."

This helps explain why conservatives are doubtful of planning. It’s not an ideological objection but a practical one. To use the example of our “predict and provide” approach to housing - we employ experts to estimate how many houses we’ll need so as everyone has a roof over their head. I know just one truth about these ‘housing number’ predictions – they are always wrong. Not because the experts are inexpert but because it is impossible to make such estimates with confidence. Yet we make these informed guesses and then try to provide the houses. And the result is that (almost without exception) a wholly different number is actually built to meet the actual demand for housing.

For housing we could substitute anything else from coronary heart attacks to road accidents - the estimates of “need” are wrong and, as a result, the plans proposed tend to fail.

Now before you all assume that this is simply an argument for classical liberalism and laissez-faire social organisation (or should that be ‘un-organisation’) let’s be clear that planning for the future isn’t a bad idea. We just need to treat what the experts tell us with caution and proceed accordingly. To borrow another quotation – this time from Robert Heinlein:
“No statement should be believed because it is made by an authority.”

As conservatives our first question should be one of doubt – we should take St Thomas as our patron. When the expert – the authority – presents his solution we should begin by doubting its efficacy. We should recall that Lloyd George didn’t want to preside over the death of friendly societies – organisations he knew and loved - but, by introducing a state social insurance, he ensured their rapid demise.

England’s current polity is anti-conservative because everything it does – the core of its ideology – is rooted in action founded on planning. Our governors – the one’s who’ll be around regardless of the politicians – cannot conceive of an unplanned world. For sure, they’ll claim to admire Jane Jacobs, to support free markets and to value voluntary and local but the truth (perhaps – remember I might be wrong) is that they dislike all of these things.

Our governors want our cities tidy, ordered and regimented. They must regulate markets to make them ‘fairer’ (whatever that means). And they prefer uniformity of provision centrally-directed over local variation and variety.  This control is exercised through planning – ‘evidence’ is gathered (often ‘evidence’ prepared by the self-interested or even the down-right biased) and plans are drawn up on its basis. And when the plan fails – because the evidence was wrong – the solution is further evidence gathering followed by a new plan.

As conservatives we must begin to question – to doubt – this planning. We must start to reject planned solutions to grand problems and look instead at free action, at the local and above all at the voluntary. This, I know, isn’t a solution to those grand problems but since government has failed entirely in resolving those problems it might be a wise move to do a little less and, when we do act, to do so with care, caution and in as limited a way as possible.


Friday, 17 February 2012

Are we really a Christian country?

Barely a week passes without the words appearing somewhere, uttered by a politician or, more likely, by an ageing Anglican clergyman...

“...Britain is a Christian country!”

This cry – used down the ages to exclude Jews and, more recently, to marginalise Muslims – may have been true once but I do not believe that we can make that claim any more. But first to understand the claim.

In one respect the argument is about numbers – two-thirds of the population express their identity as Christian so we are, ipso facto, a Christian nation. We still grant a privileged position to representatives of the protestant hierarchy – not just seats in the House of Lords but an almost divine right to airtime wherein to pontificate about the issues of the day.

And these bishops are listened to, just as the local vicar gets a hearing that you as just a bloke in the village won’t get. The established church as an institution also exercises power through its secular role as one of the nation’s two or three biggest landowners. Wherever we look we see evidence of the worldly presence of the church and every day we hear that church express its worldly power.

However, like other institutions (the political parties spring to mind), the church is all fur coat and no knickers. Those self-identifying Christians are little better than agnostics – only about 5% of the population turn out to the established church’s weekly offering. This is little different to that rather more secular religion- association football.

These grand, purple-robed men (and maybe women in a year or so) are sustained by a vast property holding not by the support of the populace. Indeed the public’s general view of religion is to mutter something about “good men” and then shrug. Our religion has declined to the symbols and sounds of a forgotten faith – we sing carols, get the vicar to conduct rites of passage and pay no attention at all to the message.

Our Christianity is hard to distinguish from believing in fairies, ghosts or boggarts. That hard-nosed faith founded in the idea of grace and personal salvation has been replaced by a mushy set of superstitions.

 “Maybe there’s a god and we were told something about Jesus at school. I like those hymns. Did I tell you about the clairvoyant I went to at the pub?”

I do not make these observations in some sort of skeptical rapture – the skeptics like Dawkins are ghastly and ignorant in their denial of metaphysics. I wish simply to point out that we are an agnostic place, we like the comfort blanket of the church (especially when it’s a beautiful piece of gothic splendour or Norman survival) but we do not see that the church offers us anything beyond that comfort.

So while I have no beef with faith schools and see the obsessing about creation that typifies atheist debate as largely an irrelevance, I do not think that we’re a Christian country. I don’t believe that Christians deserve any special treatment – any more than I believe that so-called “faith leaders” should be afforded a special place or privileged access to power.

We should be gently moving the Church of England towards the retirement home. Not some drastic, painful and purposeless disestablishment but a gradual recognition that priests have no more rights to influence than publicans.  Religion will never go away – as Gordon Dickson observed in the Dorsai trilogy, part of man’s psyche is a preference for certainty, order and the direction of a god. But as someone once said, the work of the state is no business of god’s:

“And Jesus answering, said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's: and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.” (Mark 12:17)