Wednesday, 4 April 2012

WE NEED A SMARTER TAX SYSTEM TO MAKE US MAKE SMART USE OF OUR CARS

It’s a question often asked of environmentalists who live out in the sticks: how do you reconcile the need to cut down on car dependency with the need for cars in rural areas?

The question is borne out of a failure to view taxing transport in a sensible way, a failure that’s been highlighted by the recent spate of panic buying of petrol and diesel with a possible tanker drivers’ strike on the horizon.

Let’s consider the environmental impact of cars for a minute. A car that drives one mile in the country makes exactly the same contribution to global warming as the same car driving one mile in a big city. But that same car’s emissions of polluting gases (as opposed to climate-changing emissions) do much more damage in the city than in the country. This is because the impact is on human health, and there are a lot more people per unit area of ground in cities than there are in rural areas, so more people are affected by the pollution.

This goes hand-in-hand with another crucial point: that putting all your eggs into the basket of raising fuel taxes isn’t good for the environment or the economy. Fuel tax is a blunt instrument that penalises car drivers who have no alternative the same way as those who have three bus routes and a train or metro station within walking distance of their home.

This has been amply illustrated by the discrepancy in queues for filling stations in cities and rural areas. The queues were much bigger in the sticks than in the towns. Why? Because in the sticks an empty tank means a loss of mobility, while in the towns an empty tank means you have to use public transport. Some urban dwellers may not want to use public transport, but at least it’s there. In many rural villages of East Sussex, you’re lucky if you get a two-hourly bus service, and lucky to get any bus at all on Sundays.

This is why local and national governments must bite the bullet and seize a greater role for congestion charging in our large cities. It’s about making those who have the most plentiful alternatives to the car pay the most for using their car. The congestion charging schemes in London and Stockholm have been a great success in reducing car traffic and generating revenue to improve public transport. It won’t work everywhere because you need a certain density of population to achieve it, but the principle is right and in conurbations it has been proven to work.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against fuel tax. Even in areas where there is really no alternative to the car, the price of motoring must be high enough to make people use their cars in a smart way, for example by planning their day so they do two or three things with one car trip rather than make two or three trips.

But if we’re to take the view as a society – as we surely must in an economic downturn – that we can’t provide enough public transport to serve the needs of all our rural villages, then we have to make motoring more expensive for those who have access to alternatives. It not only makes sense – it’s also equitable, as it works towards a system where everyone pays a reasonable price for the transport that best suits where they live.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

WE HAVE TO MAKE WATER SAVING EASY AND ATTRACTIVE

I blame Wimbledon, myself. I was at the press conference nearly 10 years ago when they announced they were putting a roof on Centre Court. ‘It’ll never rain again in June,’ I said, as did every other wizened and cynical tennis hack.

And it barely has rained during late June and early July since the roof became usable in 2009. Wimbledon has had two days in three years on which it has used the roof. The problem is that it’s raining less and less in the rainy season too, which is why we have a problem. A big problem. When the South East is declared a drought zone in February, you know it’s a big problem.

In our culture, a knee-jerk reaction to a problem is to find someone to blame. Of course we can blame global warming for the lack of rain, but that doesn’t help us. What we have to do is look at likely rainfall, look at likely demand for water, and make sure the two tally. A bit like an income and expenditure balance sheet – we can’t spend more than we earn, only in this case the currency is water rather than money.

In my role as a district councillor, I have had dealings with South East Water, and it has led me to a number of conclusions and realisations. I don’t want to get too harsh on SE Water, as what applies to them applies to other water companies, but I get the strong impression that our water management is not in good hands.

For a start, the water companies have far too cavalier an approach to water leakage. SE Water felt it was ‘acceptable’ to have a staggering 16 per cent of its water lost through leakage. This is actually rationalised in their accounting. All water companies do it – they have a formula for costs, according to which they work out at what point it’s economically more efficient to let water seep through cracks in pipes than to fix the cracks.

I don’t doubt the need for the formula, and at times you have to let a bit of water seep away rather than spend masses of money fixing small cracks. But 16 per cent? – that’s a sixth of the water supply! Something has gone wrong with the economics of water management when you get that high.

It would be wrong to blame it all on the water companies, but I also believe the former utilities have done too little to encourage us to save water. When I first worked with Nick Clegg back in 2007 on environmental issues, he said something very clear: ‘We need to get the point where doing the right thing is also the easiest thing.’ Given the paramount need to cut down on our water consumption, we have to make water saving easy and attractive.

The biggest thing we should do is to get everyone onto water meters. We all know that if you leave a light on when you don’t need it, you’re throwing money away. So why should water be any different? Yet large numbers of households are still on fixed charges, so once you’ve paid, you can use as much as you like for no extra cost. That has to be wrong. (Of course we have to ensure that poorer multi-member households don’t get penalised, but that is no reason not to have metering.)

Once we have metering, water saving aids like water butts and other rainwater capture technology become financially more attractive. It’s a virtuous circle, and fortunately the water companies are – belatedly – becoming wise to the possibilities.

We also need to rethink our attitude as a society to living. There is a current move towards lots of smaller living units, including one-bedroom flats. This means an increase in water consumption per person, whether through things like using more water per person to wash up or things like not being able to share the bath water with a family member. Can we as a society afford the environmental cost of fewer and fewer people per bathroom and kitchen? Such questions are seldom asked.

My biggest concern is that the people managing water resources in this country are private monopolies. I’m not dogmatically in favour of nationalised or privatised industries – there are pros and cons to both. But a private monopoly is the worst of all worlds, and that’s what our water companies are.

If they’re private, there should be competition, and we as customers should have the right to choose who supplies our water. When that happens, incentives to reduce leakage from pipes and consumption will flow as freely as the rain used to fall over Wimbledon before the roof was built.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

THE ENVIRONMENT SHOULD BE THE MEETING GROUND OF TORIES AND LIB DEMS

Oh dear, we’re back to the 80s. And I don’t mean Thatcherism.

In his autumn statement, George Osborne announced a number of measures that betrayed a clear line of thinking: the environment is a luxury issue that’s all well and good but mustn’t be allowed to get in the way of the interests of business. Such as giving energy-intensive industries £250 million to offset carbon costs, and softening EU nature protection laws.

This was very much the line of thinking that made Labour such a slow convert to ‘green’ issues. As the party that had grown up representing the industrial proletariat, it took the view that the environment was a middle class conscience issue that was fine up to a point, but there were more important things to worry about, like the wages and living conditions of workers. This was Labour’s attitude throughout the 1980s, and only changed when the party realised it was alienating environmentally motivated voters.

In the intervening two decades, all the scientific evidence has made it abundantly clear that what is not good for the environment is not good for the economy. The clearest piece of evidence was Nicholas Stern’s report in 2006 that bluntly stated that failure to take the environment seriously would strangle the economy, but there’s plenty of other evidence that makes the same point.

Anyone with a positive mindset would see this as a challenge. The economy isn’t doomed, but it will be if we don’t embrace the environmental opportunities in it. This should be the meeting ground of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – the environmental awareness of the Lib Dems married up to the business sense of the Tories. It could genuinely be the ‘greenest’ British government ever.

But instead we’re going the wrong way. Business leaders with vested interests (you may wish to call them ‘fat cats’; I’m trying not to make it unnecessary personal) lobby the government for relaxations from environmental rules. In many cases, these business leaders have seen the writing on the wall for years but have decided their short-term profits are more important than investing in environmental research and development, so now find themselves lagging behind and begging for permission to go on polluting.

The car industry is a classic example of this, but by no means the only one.

In 1995, the European Commission said it wanted to set a maximum carbon dioxide emissions limit for the average new car. Very sensible. Its proposal was for 120 grams of CO2 per kilometre by 2005. The car industry screamed that this was entirely unrealistic and unfair. So in 1998 the Commission caved in and allowed a ‘voluntary agreement’ whereby the average new car sold by 2008 would emit no more than 140 g/km.

Guess what? Yup, the car industry as a whole failed to meet its target, despite the fact that some car makers (Fiat, Renault, Peugeot-Citro├źn) had hit the 120 g/km target. In other words, it could be done! Annoyed that the car industry had asked to be trusted and then failed to deliver, the Commission proposed a mandatory emissions limit of 120 g/km by 2012. At first the automotive industry just said no-one was going to boss it around and pretended nothing would happen, but on this occasion, the politicians did stand up for a binding limit. Once again it was heavily watered down by automotive lobbying, so the new mark is a rather pathetic 130 g/km by 2015, but at least a binding limit now exists.

And guess what? Emissions from new cars are coming down. Why? Not just because they have to, but because Europe’s car makers know that if they don’t reduce their emissions, they’ll find their cars won’t be sellable outside the EU as well as inside. With China and California both introducing emissions limits for new vehicles, any car maker that doesn’t embrace environmental technology will be disadvantaged in the global market place.

Unfortunately, today's owners of second-hand cars are paying excessive fuel and road tax bills, because the car makers were too slow to embrace lower fuel consumption 15 years ago.

This is just one example, but one of many in which industry screams ‘You’ll be putting masses of people out of work’, and then when the politicians stand firm, it becomes clear industry has been crying wolf. It’s happening now with the EU’s decision to subject air transport to emissions trading – you’d think it was limiting airlines to one plane each by the hysterical screaming coming from the aviation industry, when in reality this will add just a few cents to the price of the average flight.

This is why George Osborne should be standing up for environmental safeguards, not capitulating to industry's opposition to them. Even in a recession. In fact especially in a recession. The old saying ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ is especially applicable in a recession, so anything that stimulates reducing polluting and climate-changing emissions is to be welcomed. But how are we going to have a climate of incentives if the Chancellor bails out industries that have refused to see the writing on the wall for two decades?

This is the kind of issue on which the coalition could crack. With the Greens threatening traditional Lib Dem support, the Lib Dems know they have to use their time in government to establish some meaningful environmental achievements, indeed many Lib Dems will insist on that through conviction rather than electoral advantage. It’s something the Conservatives should be able to deliver without any concessions in their own ideology, as a ‘green’ economy will be good for business. It’s a test of whether the Tories really are interested in helping business in the long term or merely helping today’s big industry protect what it has.

Monday, 31 October 2011

IT MAY BE A BIT BORING, BUT IT’S STILL A LOCAL SCANDAL

I’ve always taken the view that to talk or blog about councillors’ allowances is a real turnoff that’s never going to get people particularly interested. But before you drop off, can I have a couple of minutes of your time to highlight a local development that is actually worth stifling the yawns for?

How would you feel if you discovered that some of your taxes were going to pay people whose jobs weren’t defined? People who might do some work, but you don’t know what they’re doing, or whether they’ve done what they’re supposed to because no-one has set out what it is they’re supposed to be doing?

I don’t want to get too anal about this, and at times you need to give people a certain freedom to act as they see fit within defined limits. But a local Conservative-controlled district council has taken to paying three of its councillors £3,311 per year of taxpayers’ money without saying what it is they’re supposed to be doing. That’s not only wrong, but violates the principle that local government should be transparent and accountable.

Not a lot of people know this, but councillors at district and county level get an annual allowance for their work. It’s in recognition of the fact that they have to do some council work and attend certain meetings during working hours, and therefore may have to forfeit some income to carry out their duties as a councillor. The rate on Lewes District Council is just under £3000 a year, and it’s around £1000 more on Wealden District Council.

Then there are Special Responsibility Allowances. These are given to councillors who take on specific jobs for which there are genuine responsibilities. I have no issue with this in principle – many of these tasks amount to a full-time job, and if you want talented people running your council, you can’t pay peanuts.

But you have to define what special responsibilities you’re paying councillors for. And Lewes District Council currently has three ‘Lead Councillors without portfolio’ who are paid £3,311. This is a scandal.

Guidance from central government and commonly accepted practice states that no councillor should receive remuneration beyond the basic councillor’s allowance for any work that is not clearly defined and can be monitored by the public. So paying money to a councillor without defined responsibilities breaches the principle of transparency of council work.

That’s why I have called on Lewes District Council to allow ‘Lead Councillors without portfolio’ to have the right to sit and vote on the council’s ‘cabinet’, but they should not receive any Special Responsibility Allowance. They could receive a fixed sum for a one-off task, so that the council can make use of some specialist skills from among the pool of councillors, but any such task must be defined so we can know whether the councillor has done the work or not.

Anything less is just a cronyist approach to local government that we should not tolerate.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

SCHADENFREUDE AT EUROPEAN WOES IS TOTALLY MISPLACED

‘Suddenly, the air was thick with the sound of chickens coming home to roost!’ Not my line, I’m afraid, it’s Alan Bennett’s. It comes from his clever if slightly disjointed play ‘Habeas Corpus’. It’s one I’ve quoted a lot over the years, and I’ve been aware of it this past week.

There is a smile on the faces of the Eurosceptics. They believe the chickens are coming home to roost on all things European. The woes of the eurozone have accompanied news that one of the most popular e-petitions on the Downing Street website was one calling for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. And we now even have one of Labour’s most pro-European MPs saying the EU’s institutions are losing credibility.

I wish to issue a very loud call for caution. There are lots of shades of opinion on the myriad issues that carry the ‘euro-’ prefix, including many within the Liberal Democrats. But anyone who wishes the demise of all things European either hasn’t thought things through or is living in cloud cuckoo land.

For a start, there are several euro-issues. There’s the EU, the Council of Europe, the continent of Europe, and the euro currency. All these get treated with the same ‘euro-’ prefix but they are often totally different beasts. Even knowledgeable journalists frequently get the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights mixed up. (One is the EU’s court, the other is the Council of Europe’s – but how many know which is which?)

I have always seen myself on the Eurosceptic wing of the Lib Dems, but even that needs some qualification. As someone who has lived in Germany and Switzerland and thus speaks fluent German and nearly fluent French (and these days a smattering of Spanish), I am totally transnational in my outlook.

But I have for many years been reluctant to concede more powers to the EU, because I feel its institutions are too weak to withstand the periodic pounding they’re subjected to from lobbying by whichever industry is flavour of the month. I also believe in decentralisation, so no more decisions should be taken at transnational level than absolutely necessary.

I have also been uncomfortable with the idea of Britain joining the euro, even when the economics made the case plausible (about 10 years ago – it’s hard to imagine now, I know). I was never comfortable with the idea that one currency can fit both the affluence of Germany and the relative poverty of Greece, to say nothing of the different work ethics in those two countries. Britain being outside the euro has allowed the Bank of England more freedom in setting interest rates.

But does this make me an EU-sceptic? Heavens no! And am I rejoicing at the euro’s turmoil? Of course not. Britain may be outside the euro, but our economy is heavily dependent on trade with mainland Europe, so if the euro suffers, so do we. That’s why the Schadenfreude at the euro’s woes is totally misplaced.

And at one level the EU has been a phenomenal success, so successful that we have even forgotten – or are too young to have known – the problem it solved. The current EU was conceived in the 1950s to ensure that powerhouse economies like France and Germany never had the incentive to go to war again. War in western Europe is now inconceivable. We all got a bit of a shock in the 1990s when Yugoslavia descended into bloody civil war, but one ex-Yugoslav state, Slovenia, is now an EU member, and the other five are queuing up to join.

We see enough television programmes and films, and read enough Sebastian Faulks and Andrea Levy novels, to understand what trauma war can bring. The EU has effectively eradicated the likelihood of war in Europe. For that we should be truly grateful – and utterly contemptuous about the argument that Britain should withdraw from the EU.

Friday, 8 July 2011

WHEN WILL WE REALISE THAT THE PEOPLE HAVE THE POWER TO STOP DISREPUTABLE JOURNALISM?

I never thought I’d see myself writing this, but the decision to close the ‘News of the World’ is truly terrible.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no liking for the NoW, which has clearly engaged in some disreputable and disgusting activity. But for it to disappear from the landscape is a bit like a rapist and murderer being caught red-handed and then fleeing the country before he comes to trial. No, actually it’s worse than that.

One of the major paradoxes about British society is people’s unwillingness to see just how much power they have over newspapers. If enough people don’t buy them, the newspapers don’t sell and can’t function. We understand our power when it comes to certain consumer boycotts but can’t bring ourselves as a society (I personally don’t buy ‘tabloid’ newspapers) to boycott newspapers.

When Princess Diana was killed in Paris in 1997, the initial reaction was that the paparazzi had hounded her to her death. After a couple of weeks it became clear that this was a somewhat simplistic interpretation of events, yet for the first week or so, that was the perceived wisdom.

So did sales of the newspapers that paid for the paparazzi’s pictures go down? No – they actually went up! We moaned about the malign influence of those beasts in the press, yet we kept feeding them.

One of the most distasteful aspects of the NoW hacking scandal is that it only blew up this week. This issue has been going on for several months, but somehow the victims never registered strongly enough with us for it to become a major story. It’s like we accept that a Premiership footballer or a publicity agent or an actress can have their phones hacked, but once the parents of a murdered schoolgirl or 7/7 victims or soldiers killed in Afghanistan have theirs hacked, then it becomes a scandal, one that brings down a 168-year-old newspaper.

Well, no. Apart from police activity when there is good reason to suspect criminal activity, phone hacking is both illegal and morally wrong, whether it’s a disreputable celebrity or parasitic sportsman whose phone is hacked, or the grieving parents in an awful human tragedy. The NoW scandal was every bit as bad six months ago as it was this past week.

So why has it taken this long to come to crisis? Simple – because people still want to pay a few pence for the news that comes out of phone hacking. The NoW’s sales should have been falling all year, as people refuse to fund the tactics used by the paper to get its stories. But sales have been remarkably solid.

The reason the NoW’s demise is truly terrible is that I suspect this week would have been the first time there would have been something of a consumer boycott. It would have given the whole country a chance to see readers refusing to buy a specific newspaper, and that would perhaps have set a precedent that could be followed.

Whether that was in the back of Rupert and James Murdoch’s mind when they took the decision to close the NoW I have no idea. There are so many elements to this fast-moving story that it’s impossible to keep up. But it’s clear that if a new Sunday emerges from the Murdoch stable to replace the NoW, it will be much harder to associate it with the practices of the departed predecessor.

Nonetheless, in a world where we feel so powerless, this week’s events serve to show that we as a broad mass of the population could have nipped the phone hacking scandal in the bud, simply by refusing to buy papers whose methods of finding stories are clearly below the belt.

Monday, 25 April 2011

IT’S NOT JUST THE LIB DEMS WHO ARE SHORT-CHANGED BY THE VOTING SYSTEM BUT THE WHOLE COUNTRY!

Something very strange is happening with the referendum campaign, which perhaps explains some of the nastiness and in-fighting that’s currently going on.

We have a situation where one side ought to be streets ahead, but it’s neck-and-neck. When this happens in sport, it’s very exciting, but when it comes to the once-in-a-generation (if not a lifetime) chance to change the voting system, there’s ample scope for despair.

As a sports journalist, I rather enjoy watching an inferior player or team fighting against much more gifted opposition through determination and clever tactics. It’s part of the romance of sport. But I get absolutely no satisfaction out of the way the No campaign is cynically trying to defend the indefensible interests of yesterday’s politicians.

The latest opinion polls say the No campaign is slightly ahead of the Yes campaign. The number of Don’t Knows is high enough for the result to be still very much in the balance, but the fact that it is in the balance is the shock for me. The Yes campaign ought by rights to be absolutely home and dry by now, yet it has been fighting a rearguard action all the way, and is by no means guaranteed victory.

Let’s get back to basics. Why do we vote? Answer: to have people making decisions on our behalf who reflect our general view of how we should be governed. Therefore, our representatives have to be in rough proportion to the public’s general views.

Do our representatives need to be 100% proportional? Answer: not absolutely 100%, because a secondary requirement of representation of the people is that it has to provide viable government. So, for example, you have the system in Germany which is proportional, except that any party getting less than five per cent of the overall vote has no representation, so you cut out all the tiny parties that can make governing such a mess. But it mustn’t get too out of kilter.

And our system is badly out of kilter. When Margaret Thatcher got her biggest majority (144 seats) in 1983, she did it on less than 44 per cent of the votes. When Tony Blair was elected for a third term with a majority of 66 in 2005, he got less than 36 per cent of the votes. Is that right? It’s not just the Lib Dems who are short-changed by the current system. It happens to take an average of 120,000 voters to elect a Lib Dem MP, as opposed to 35,000 for the Conservatives and 33,000 for Labour, but don’t think we’re the main ones who are disadvantaged – the whole country is!

Does the present ‘First past the post’ or the proposed ‘Alternative Vote’ provide the desired system? Answer: no. The right system for a modern democracy would be proportional, and neither is that. But experience has taught us to favour the evolutionary over the revolutionary, and we have got rather attached to our constituency-based way of electing MPs, so the AV system being proposed is a constituency-based step that is a little more proportional. It won’t make a massive difference, but it’s the right evolution.

I pride myself on being a bridge-builder, on seeing the other person’s point of view, even if I disagree with it. But I cannot find a single convincing argument for the current ‘First past the post’ system. The No lot said they would fight a positive campaign highlighting the virtues of FPTP. Positive? – my foot! All they’ve done is denigrate others, including the audacious step of accusing Nick Clegg (who appears in all the No literature – is that positive?) of breaking his promises, when what he did was compromise a Lib Dem pledge to form a coalition government. It’s breathtaking, yet perhaps not surprising when there’s nothing to defend FPTP with.

This is why you have to take your hat off – in a very perverse way – to the No campaign, for making it still a contest. This should be a 65:35 win for the Yes campaign at the very least, yet the No lobby seems to be slightly ahead. I sit here thinking ‘Surely the British people cannot fall for this’ – yet I fear they might.

The No campaign has coined a lot of sporting metaphors in recent weeks, I guess because ‘first past the post’ comes from sport. Yet most sport is more akin to AV than FPTP. An Olympic final follows heats, in which the weakest drop out, leaving the strongest in the final round. Even television programmes like The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing work on AV – if they didn’t, the winner would be chosen in the first programme with about 15-20% of the vote. And they say the British people can’t understand AV!

The best sporting analogy for me comes from last year’s football world cup final between Spain and the Netherlands. Spain had all the talent, and tried to play beautiful football, while the Dutch knew their only route to victory was in a cynical, physical approach that hacked down Spain’s gifted players. Justice just about prevailed with Spain getting a winning goal six minutes from the end, but it was excruciating to watch.

I only hope the Yes campaign can get a winning goal six minutes from the end. Anything else and you really would have to say people have a death wish when it comes to choosing their politicians.