Monday, 30 March 2015

Councils should be allowed to fund care rather than forced to pay for fussbucketry


The LGA has been asking MPs about social care funding. This is important because, even if we put an end to the myth of 'selling the family home' (it's usually one from which the family has long departed), social care budgets are the most pressured in local government. Mostly because we're unhelpfully living longer and because the NHS has decided that folk recover better if you get them out of hospital as swiftly as possible.

The boss of the LGA, Cllr David Sparks waves the shroud:

'Adult social care is in crisis. We need a care system that is fit for the 21st century. It's not enough for consecutive governments to keep papering over the cracks with short term fixes.

'We urgently need a longer-term solution that puts social care on a sustainable footing. Failure to do so will deprive our elderly of the care they deserve, create additional pressure on the NHS and push other local services over the edge.'

And the solution that the LGA proposes is to hypothecate - to 'ringfence' - social care budgets. Essentially to take away from councillors the ability to make choices about a very significant part of the council budget. This is because, we're told, there will be a £4.3 billion "black hole" needing to be filled by 2020.

Now firstly I don't see how ringfencing will make a jot of difference. It's not like the size of the pot miraculously gets bigger if you stop councillors from having a say in its determination. What's needed is for local councillors to be given more rather than less budgetary power - and this means removing the ringfence (imposed to appease the NHS) from public health budgets.

Currently over half of public health spending goes on what, for want of a better term, is essentially nannying fussbucketry. Nice to do if you've loads of cash sloshing around but since councils haven't it's pretty galling for there to be all this money spent on smoking cessation campaigns, free slimming classes and campaigns against booze, fizzy drinks and burger bars. Currently this amounts to somewhere between £1 and £2 billion per year across England - a pretty good start towards the far more useful task of looking after the old, sick and disabled.

I'd also scrap Public Health England with its responsibilities for immunisation programmes and response to health emergencies going back to the NHS and the remainder of its money - the fussbucketry funds sucked up by sockpuppets like Alcohol Concern and ASH - going to local councils without a ringfence.

This would do more for public health and for the care of people across England than the provision of stern lectures about our bad lifestyle choices or campaigns to ban, tax, regulate and control things the high-ups in Public Health don't approve of. We should be funding care not fussbucketry.


Sunday, 29 March 2015

Taking us for mugs - Labour, immigration and a panic about kippers

Seeing this delightful mug I thought back through all my years of active involvement in politics - from smuggling Monday Club Tory, Sir Patrick Wall into a meeting of Hull students (in his own constituency) through any number of local and national elections all of which have featured at some point the implication, nay insinuation, that saying we need to 'control' immigration is tantamount to racism. Indeed that we didn't really mean 'control immigration' but rather that this was code for something worse, something nasty and sinister, something racist. Saying we needed less immigration was always portrayed by Labour as but a short step from 'send the blacks home' or some other similarly unpleasant and bigoted policy.

That was until UKIP arrived on the scene. Up to this point Labour had stuck to its guns on immigration - pointing out that, mostly and most of the time, it's good for the nation and good for the economy. Whatever we may have thought about the issue, Labour's approach and its policy while in government was very clear - even when confronted with popular concerns about too much immigration:

It is the duty of government to deal with the issues of both asylum and immigration. But they should not be exploited by a politics that, in desperation, seeks refuge in them.

There is a position around which this country can unify; that we continue to root out abuse of the asylum system, but give a place to genuine refugees; that we ensure immigration controls are effective so that the many who come, rightly and necessarily, for our economy, to work, study or visit here can do so; but that those who stay illegally are removed; but that we never use these issues as a political weapon, an instrument of division and discord.

This view - that people come here 'rightly and necessarily' - was widely supported across the country and especially welcomed by a business community struggling for skilled recruits. In simple terms Labour was pro-immigration but against the abuse of the system. Today this has changed - the Party's position (albeit a little vague) has shifted noticeably away from 'follow the rules, play by the system, and you're welcome' towards the point where control - for which we will always read reduce the numbers - outweighs and rational discussion of migration. Labour is in a panic about kippers.

Labour got things wrong on immigration in the past. But Ed Miliband has set out a new approach: controlling immigration and controlling its impacts on local communities. Britain needs immigration rules that are tough and fair.

The Tories have let people down on immigration. David Cameron promised to get immigration down to the tens of thousands, “no ifs, no buts”, but net migration is rising, not falling. It’s now at 260,000, higher than it was when David Cameron walked into Number Ten, and the Tories’ target is in tatters.

The position here is rather different - it is the Conservatives that have failed because of those (rather dumb) net migration targets and Labour will, by implication, stop the tide. But the real drive in the Labour Party for this dramatic shift in immigration policy hasn't been some sort of Damascene conversion - or maybe just a cynical one - but rather the threat perceived in some Labour heartlands from UKIP.

Ukip are not about to overturn dozens of Labour’s northern heartlands. But the result in Heywood is further evidence of the threat that Ukip poses Labour. It is one rooted in much more than the charisma of Mr Farage, but the disconnect between Labour (and all main parties) and the working-class. In 1979, there were 98 manual workers and 21 people who worked primarily in politics in Parliament. In 2010, 25 manual workers were elected to Westminster - and 90 people who had worked primarily in politics before becoming an MP. Average turnout was just 58 per cent in Labour’s 100 safest seats in 2010.

I say the threat is perceived because I see little prospect of UKIP winning any seats - they've an outside chance in Grimsby but it's a long shot - from Labour in May. But Labour activists feel the challenge - the local councillors in Bradford who saw their majorities in safe seats dwindle to a handful, the activists who get berated by ex-Labour UKIP supporters at the working man's club or the trade unionists reporting how many of their manual labour members are making UKIP sort of noises at work.

Last year in Rotherham UKIP won 10 seats in that classic Labour rotten borough of Rotherham. We know the reasons but we overlook the wider reality - across those rotten boroughs like Barnsley, Wakefield and Doncaster UKIP moved into second place and became the main challenger to Labour. And the traditional response to the "far right" (as Labour folk insist on calling nationalists) didn't work. People didn't think UKIP were racist - or at least no more racist than the Tories - and did think they had a point about immigrants, about political correctness and about local community.

The Labour people in these places had never been challenged. Or rather the challenge came from that nice bloke who owns a garage and always stands for the Conservatives. Now Labour felt threatened - branch meetings were dominated by people talking about what UKIP were doing. The poor quality (if shiny) leaflets from that party were give to councillors by folk with slightly shaking hands - "look, look - what are we going to do" exclaims the leaflet-finder. The MP is involved and, while reassuring local activists, heads off to London where he meets others with the same tales.

"We have to respond" these MPs say. "We can't be caught out on immigration. UKIP can win where the Tories never could". Party strategists (knowing full well that there's little or no chance of UKIP winning and that it's the Tories and SNP that Labour should worry about) sooth fretful MPs and dutifully inform higher-ups about their concerns. With the result that proper working-class policies are developed about 'controlling immigration' - local campaigners can point to the policy and persuade those disgruntled folk in Rawmarsh or Royton that they're best sticking with Labour.

Plus a mug. A mug that means people like me can point to Labour and say "you bunch of no good, low down hypocrites - after all those years of attacking Conservatives for wanting to control immigration, you come up with a policy important enough for you to emblazon it on a mug."

Or as someone called it - the racist mug.

The odd thing is that Labour know the numbers. They know they're not threatened by UKIP - indeed that in some places that Party's support holding up increases the chances of Labour winning. But because lots of ill-informed and panicky local councillors and activists are on about it, the Party has placed immigration controls at the heart of its election campaign. And of course on that mug.


Saturday, 28 March 2015

Burgers, bookies, borrowing and the holiday tan - nannying fussbucketry reaches the High Street

A healthy high street - complete with 'unhealthy' sugar!

The 'Health on the High Street' report from the Royal Society of Public Health starts off well with a statement that, for once, actually has some connection to actual public health rather than the regular nannying fussbucketry we associated with the profession:

A healthy high street environment is one in which there is clean air, less noise, more connected neighbourhoods, things to see and do, and a place where people feel relaxed. The architecture of the high street would be such that it fosters active urban design principles including pavements, seating, shade and shelter. Above all the high street would provide a safe environment where the public don’t live in fear of crime,violence, harassment, or accidents. 

It's hard to take issue with this as an argument. Firstly it's absolutely about the public realm, the environment in which people go about our everyday tasks and in which we celebrate the good things of life. And this is the concern - if there is one - of public health. But just as importantly these things - less pollution, places to sit, low crime and a mix of indoor and outdoor - are what make for successful town centres.

Sadly though the Royal Society of Public Health doesn't stop with saying high streets should be clean, green and safe. Turn the page and that nannying fussbucketry hits you in the face. We are presented with yet another judgemental dismissal of things other people (mostly other people from lower social classes) enjoy.

The businesses on a healthy high street would not only enable basic needs, including access to affordable healthy food and affordable financial services to be met, but would actively promote healthy choices. There would be access to essential services whether that is health services, cultural amenities, places to be active, leisure centres or green spaces, for example. A healthy high street would also create opportunities to minimise harm whether that is ensuring that health is included as a condition for licensing and a consideration for planning consent. 

We have arrived at the crunch. The health high street isn't about a clean, green, safe space at all but is rather about public authorities - through licensing or planning controls - deciding what sort of business is fit to grace our town centres. To justify this particular branch of health fascism the Royal Society of Public Health has cooked up some of its own pseudo-science - what they call 'the Richter scale of health'. This scale (unlike the actual Richter Scale) is an entirely subjective, opinion-based scale. A business can score somewhere between -8 and +8 on the basis of researchers allocating a score from -2 to +2 against four 'areas of health': encourages healthy lifestyle choices; promotes social interaction; allows greater access to health care services and/or health advice; and promotes mental well-being.

Now you'll have noticed that most high street retailers will score zero (since this, our researchers tell us, is what is given where 'the category is not relevent to the outlet'). Your typical shoe shop, assuming we're not running a campaign on the health impact of high heels, is entirely neutral on matters relating to health. Mostly because it's a place where you go to buy shoes.  And the same goes for building societies, charity shops, clothing shops, hairdressers and hardware stores.

As a measure then this is worse than useless. Unless of course your objective is to use your status and authority (this is a 'Royal Society' after all) to promote a given political agenda around your intrusive and judgemental definition of public health. It will come as no surprise to discover that the 'research' identifies betting shops, tanning shops, payday lenders and fast food takeaways as the dark evil on the high street, the causes of unhealthy high streets. And the healthy stuff - leisure centres, health centres, pharmacists, health clubs, museums and pubs (the inclusion of which will be giving various in the Church of Public Health palpitations - in the authors defence they did manage to find a picture from inside a pub that didn't show anyone actually drinking*).

The authors then go on to set out in lurid detail the evils of gambling, burgers, fake tans and high interest borrowing before settling down to create a little ranking of the most and least 'healthy' high streets in England. Unsurprisingly the resulting ranking show that high streets in northern towns where people like a flutter and eat take-away kebabs are much more unhealthy than high streets in the nice, comfortable market towns where the researchers and their friends are likely to live. This time it's Preston that gets the devil's mark resulting in the usual slew of sneering broadsheet articles and this from the local paper:

OFFICIAL: Preston has unhealthiest city centre in the UK

Followed by people from Preston agreeing:

Coun John Swindells, deputy leader of Preston City Council, said: “The results of this survey mirror our own concerns. Indeed the Royal Society for Public Health is campaigning to allow local authorities greater planning powers to deal with this issue. It is something the council, along with 92 other local authorities, has and will continue to lobby the Government for."

This is the saddest thing about the report - not that a bunch of London-based nannying fussbuckets has produced 'research' designed to show the awfulness of northern cities and towns but that the leaders of those places fall over eachother to say just how much they're doing to make Preston more like Salisbury (as if that was either achievable or desirable). If places like Preston and Middlesbrough - number two in this particular ranking of evilness - are doing badly it's got more to do with the relative poverty of the place than it has to to with whether the council has powers to ban betting shops or fast food takeaways.

Finally the report goes into full 'something must be done' mode listing a veritable cornucopia of fussbucketry. This opens with planning and licensing controls including specific powers around health as a reason for refusing a licence (having been nice about pubs earlier in the report they include alcohol licensing in this demand) as well as a general power to stop 'clustering' - presumably that wouldn't apply to Bond Street or Saville Row.

We then get assorted nudges and bans (including the entirely stupid proposal for a ban on displays of vaping products) before the entirely predictable for differential business rates, mandatory health warnings and limits on stakes all while repeating the familiar litany of lies about these products and services ('crack cocaine of gambling'). All of this is deeply depressing and reminds us that too many - the leader of Preston City Council for one - are taken in by this New Puritan agenda of public health.

This research (truly awful and unscientific research) will be rolled out again and again - by the LGA, by the BBC, by assorted groups of fussbuckets - to support the argument for ever more restrictions on who can do what and where. It will be accompanied by the continuing sound of moaning as high streets continue to decline - with the sort of outlets derided here forming the last vestiges of a town centre economy. And rather than look for a completely different approach, we'll trog along behind the health fascists and control freaks as they nail the last few nails into what's left of our high streets.

*Although the eagle-eyed will note that it's a very old photograph as it contains images of smoking!

Thursday, 26 March 2015

More media lies about sugar and processed food...

Some healthily presented sugar and fat

Writing in Spectator Health, Janna Lawrence continues the war on cheap, accessible and nutritious mass-produced food by claiming - entirely without evidence - that it is this stuff that is responsible for a range of health problems (you know the list - cancers, diabetes, obesity and so forth):

Regardless of whether you buy into the concept of food addiction, the results of eating unhealthy, high-energy foods are self-evident. A quarter of adults in England are obese. Admissions to hospital with a primary diagnosis of obesity increased nine-fold between 2003 and 2013. That’s an astonishing statistic. Obesity is reckoned to cost our economy £47 billion a year. But while selling cocaine is illegal, selling sugar and fat is fine, apparently.

Janna Lawrence has simply absorbed the latest example of egregious pseudo-science and wrapped it up in some scary statistics to suggest that somehow we are eating loads more sugar and fat but don't know it because it's secretly loaded into 'processed food'.

Let's deal with some of the facts. Firstly total calorie consumption per capita has fallen in the UK. And, alongside this, consumption of fats and especially saturated fats has fallen significantly. Plus, of course, our consumption of sugars - that's all sugars not just the white stuff in bags - has fallen too. This includes all Ms Lawrence's evil processed foods.

The DEFRA survey (conducted annually since the 1970s) also contains data on per capita consumption of different sources of calories...(and) shows a decline in the consumption of ‘total sugars’ of sixteen per cent since 1992 (and) a decline in saturated fat consumption of 41 per cent since 1974. Consumption of protein, cholesterol, sodium and carbohydrates (of which sugar is one) have all declined since 1974. 

So while we've been piling on the pounds and making new notches in our belts, our consumption of the things Janna thinks are responsible has been falling. It is quite simply a lie to say that the obesity problem and its associated health consequences is a result of increased consumption of sugars and fats.

Yet people persist in promoting the idea that our obesity problem is a consequence solely of diet when the evidence says strongly that it isn't - our ever more sedantary lifestyle is the real culprit. Moreover rates of obesity stopped rising sometime around 2004 - they've not fallen much but this is not, as some suggest, an accelerating problem but rather a stable one. Because so much has been invested by the public health industry in problematising overweight there's a reluctance to admit to this stabilising of obesity rates.  It's also true that the increase in obesity is overstated:

Overall, the research shows gradual increases in the average BMI over time, from 25.6kg/m2 to 27.5kg/m2 in men; and from 24.5kg/m2 to 26.5kg/m2 for women. Most of this increase occurred before 2001, after this there has been a much slower rate of increase.

This - over a thirty year period - represents a seven per cent increase in average male BMI and an eight per cent increase in average female BMI. As ever the problem isn't really a 'whole population' issue but rather that we have a segment of that total population who, for whatever reason, are unhealthily obese. This means that the ghastly health fascist solution proposed by Janna Lawrence is not only illiberal (she admits to that) but also completely unnecessary. Rather than introducing sugar taxes, banning advertising and paying benefits in food stamps only redeemable against produce approved by the likes of Ms Lawrence, we should instead target our resources towards the million or so people with a real weight-related health problem.


Wednesday, 25 March 2015

So what makes a brilliant marketer?


Economist Tyler Cowen remarks on marketing:

The people who are really good at marketing in this new environment are typically not formal marketers, they are not called marketing agencies, they have (not) studied marketing.  They are people who know some areas very well and then they teach themselves a kind of marketing on the fly.  A good examples is Facebook.  Mark Zuckerberg is not in any formal sense a marketer, but he’s actually one of the most brilliant marketers that the world has seen in the past few decades.

Now I don't know enough about Zuckerberg to assess whether he is worthy of joining the pantheon of marketing gods but, as a text, Cowen's words are interesting. Especially to someone like me who was (perhaps still is in a sort of way) a marketing professional.

The first thing to understand here is that marketing agencies never did marketing. Oh we pretended that what we did was 'strategy' and so forth but what we were really doing was applying creativity to tactical aspects of the communications mix - advertising, PR, direct mail and sales promotions. As to studying marketing things may be different in the USA but I don't recall working with many people in the business who had a formal qualification in marketing - my boss and DM guru was an English graduate, my colleagues had (where they'd got a degree) qualifications in domestic science, philosophy, economic history, politics and - by far the most dominant - assorted variations on graphic design, technical drawing or art.

The thing with marketing is that it isn't about the flash stuff at all - indeed the arrival of the web has reinforced this - but rather about detailed tactical considerations. As my former colleague (and now mail order company chief executive) John Hinchcliffe put it 'marketing is 99 per cent boring routine'. Today this fact is buried deeply in grand talk of 'metrics', 'data mining' or 'SEO' when the reality is that the very best marketers eat, sleep and breathe the information that their business generates. Yet we think of the game as being about great ads rather than ace spreadsheets.

Moreover the successful marketer is focused - punches the bruise as that great marketing genius Peter Mandelson so aptly put it. The objective is clear and the emphasis is on banging away at that target again and again and again. There's a view out there that somewhere there's a marketing magic wand or advertising fairy dust that will transform your small little business into a world-beating global colossus. Indeed marketing consultants have traded on there being some sort of occult secret over available to a select band (and you if you pay us a couple of grand a day). Sorry to disappoint but there isn't.

However there are some important things you need to know.

1. Test and learn.
2. Advertising doesn't do what you think it does
3. If you don't ask people to do something they won't
4. Think like a consumer not a producer
5. Collect responses, comments and feedback
6. Analyse everything
7. If something works keep doing it until it doesn't

There may be lots of other things. Indeed there are whole bookshelves full of other things (if you want the best book though read 'The Solid Gold Mail Box'). But those seven things are a damn good start towards being a brilliant marketer. That and being prepared to slog through the boring routine.

Finally Cowen is wrong - the best marketers have never been formal marketers.


Monday, 23 March 2015

Are we indulging students like grown up toddlers?


No this isn't for five-year-olds:

The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.

This was needed because two women were holding a debate about 'campus sexual assault' and one of them was going (or so the creators of that room feared) to question the validity of the term 'rape culture'.  Now I'm sure any discussion of rape and sexual assault is sensitive and I've no doubt that talking about the subject can be traumatic for victims but the reason given by one suggest a child-like attitude:

At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.

It really is time we stopped pretending we can protect people from the fact that some people hold views that we don't agree with and don't like. Imagine if I ran away every time I heard a socialist idiot challenge 'my dearly and closely held beliefs'!


Sunday, 22 March 2015

Meanwhile in Venezuela the left remind us of their weird priorities...


So Venezuelan people don't have food in the shops, they have to queue for loo paper and the government is taking over businesses right, left and centre just in case they might actually be trying to make a living. It is an object lesson in the stupidity of the left's obsessing with fixing prices.

But you'll be pleased to know that the Venezuelan government is on the case and sorting out the problem:

Last year, Venezuela became an urban laboratory for architects and urban designers who believe in the implementation of participatory processes and collaborative design techniques in order to change communities who live under threat.

The Venezuelan firm PICO Estudio in hand with the National Government of Venezuela organised Espacios de Paz (EDP) (Spaces of Peace); an urban journey where professionals, students, local residents and public entities worked together to benefit their cities and people. This initiative activated urban processes of physical and social transformation through architecture, using self-building techniques in public spaces located in conflictive urban contexts.

The result of the project is some pretty funky and brightly coloured community spaces and buildings - you'll be familiar with these because they feature that slightly manic style of design beloved by community action groups.

These 5 projects were conceived as spaces of encounter, where a local community can gather together, developing different activities, meetings and workshops under beautifully designed, colourful roofs. Projects included basketball courts located on a rooftop; shadowed spaces built for promoting dialogue among residents; spaces for learning and debating; and orchards, playgrounds, amphitheatres, viewpoints, and so on.

It's all terribly sweet and lovely - introducing us to a world of happy, smiling faces as communities work with 'agencies' and 'professionals' to put lipstick on the abject poverty their government's policies have created. It is the finest example of how the left's approach to community development is typified by going into these communities, giving them a great big hug and saying 'there, there, it'll all be OK'.

The truth is very different - as even Venezuelan government figures tell us:

According to this measure, the number of Venezuelans classified as poor shot up in the last year by 1.8 million people. Roughly 6 percent of all Venezuela’s 30 million people became poor in the last year alone. The situation is even direr when one looks at extreme poverty, i.e., the number of people whose income cannot even buy a representative basket of food and drink. In the last year alone, the number of extremely poor Venezuelans rose by 730,000. They now reach close to three million people, or roughly 10 percent of the population. 

And of course the happy professionals will return to their achingly trendy offices in places where you don't have to deal with the reality of living in Venezuela's slums. It's not just the lack of basics but increasing levels of violence - 25,000 homicides in 2013 (this compares to 15,000 in trigger-happy USA with ten times the population) including over 200 police officers.

Still I guess that creating " dynamics which invite new ways of living in communities, modifying categories that rule the daily life, transforming vacant plots into powerful spaces for their inhabitants..." is absolutely the way to make Venezuela's economy and society better!