Friday, 25 July 2014

Petty bans and pointless policing...nannying fussbucketry Northern Ireland style!

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The story's about the Northern Ireland cops (how times have changed) threatening a couple of skinny-dippers with being put on the sex offenders register. But tagged on the end is another bit of tin-pottism and microcosm of pointless policing:

Police in the North Down town also warned that they were on the lookout for people bringing alcohol to the beach, with officers patrolling the platform at Helen's Bay railway station. 

Yesterday Kathryn and I went up to the RHS Gardens at Harlow Carr near Harrogate to listen to a little light jazz and eat a picnic. Along with hundreds of others we sat in the sunshine drinking beer and wine without any bother, any need for dire police warnings and certainly no trouble. It's really about time we trusted people to behave sensible on a public beach and to stop this nannying and unnecessary clampdown on taking a couple of beers to drink on the beach.

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Quote of the day - on the cat ASBO

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Rocky the Ginger Tom has got himself an ASBO from Rotherham Council:

I am in receipt of several complaints regarding your cat Rocky causing alarm, distress and annoyance to other residents in the area of your property. Although I appreciate that cats do roam, I would prefer if you could take steps to keep your cat Rocky from leaving the perimeter of your garden in the future. Should further complaints be received about damage done to neighbours’ property by your pet you will be charged for the repairs. 

Well I guess the Council had to do something! However, the owners comment is priceless:

"How can a cat behave antisocially? It’s an animal, it’s a pet - he’s not going to bite your leg off, drink alcohol in the street or try and rob your phone."

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Thursday, 24 July 2014

On 'right wing fundamentalism'...

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It is commonplace to describe religious fundamentalism as 'conservative' or 'right-wing'. In one respect this is simply laziness, a sort of sloppy thought-process from left inclined folk who assume that, because they don't like what those religious folk are saying, they are 'right wing'. Here - and I'm not having a dig at Jonathan who is a sincere liberal, at least in the modern, leftist meaning of the term - is a good example:


However, this got me to thinking about whether there's a world where liberal fundamentals are considered to be the views of 'nutters'. We could argue that this was - and still is in China - the official line under communist regimes. But, it then struck me that we already live in a world where those who hold to the fundamentals of liberalism - all those things that start with the qualifier, "free" - are often considered to be slightly loopy.

As a society we have a hit and miss adherence to those things we had in our Bill of Rights and that the Americans' put in theirs - free speech, free assembly, free choice and so forth are more honoured in the breach than considered fundamental. And we allow for our legislators and our courts to limit and restrict these freedoms, these fundamentals of a liberal society.

I am reminded about the debate Bradford Council held under the helpful heading of 'Islamaphobia'. The motion put forward by Respect was a very lengthy exposition of  'islamaphobia' as a concept so as to provide a justification for new restrictions to those liberal fundamentals in the interests of a thing called 'community cohesion'. The Conservative Group, in respecting those liberal fundamentals, put down an amendment that replaced the lengthy motion with this:

"Bradford Council affirms its belief in free speech"

The amendment was defeated as Labour, Respect and Lib Dems voted against - preferring instead to support an amendment that sought to deny rights to speech where the subject was religion.

Our defending free speech was seen as 'unhelpful' rather than an assertion of principle. And we see this everywhere - in the enthusiasm for press regulation (by that mythical thing called an 'independent body'), in the locking up of people for being grossly offensive on social media and in the banning of protest and agitation. Oh and we see it in the banning of drinking outside and smoking inside.

Yet when people agitate in support of these fundamentals, especially people arguing for free speech and personal choice, terms like 'libertarian nutter' and 'right wing troll' pop up like mushrooms in a fairy ring. We say we support free speech but then join in the fray when some semi-celebrity screams about needing controls on social media. We sign petitions in favour of gagging the press because Stephen Fry doesn't want the newspapers to be nasty to his friends. And then, having done this, we call for the heads of essentially harmless Christians because they don't want to bake a cake for a gay wedding.

Another bunch of us want to stop people doing things we don't like, especially when we can claim they're bad for people's health and, worse still, cost the NHS money! So fast food shops are banned near schools, sugar taxes are proposed, smoking is forbidden almost everywhere and drinking outside is stopped. Yet we'll then proclaim our support for a 'free society' when we really means a 'free-to-do-what-we-allow-you-to-do society' which isn't the same thing at all.

I'm guessing that holding to the fundamentals of a religious faith in an essentially secular world is pretty hard work. But, if our faith is in those liberal principles written down in those bills of rights, it is just as hard. Defending free speech is easy when we agree with the speaker but a whole lot harder when that speaker is saying something unpleasant, offensive or disturbing. Speaking up for personal free choice is easy when its about the convenience of modern living but when some person makes a choice to abuse themselves it's much harder to stand by those principles.

If 'right wing' is the right term to apply to those who hold to the fundamentals of a given religious belief, it should also apply to every fundamentalist - including those strange people who are utterly consistent in defending liberal principles like free speech and free choice. And who set out their philosophy as:

"Don't hit people and don't take their stuff."  

If believing this makes you a right wing nut-job then count me in!

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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

It's poverty that reduces life expectancy not being born in a poor place

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The current debate about health 'inequalities' is not especially helpful or informed. On the face of things we are presented with what sounds like irrefutable evidence that being born in a particular place will inflict a shorter lifespan on the poor child:

Men in the most deprived part of the population across England, dubbed the "bottom decile" by statisticians, are set to die before they reach 74 years old – almost a decade earlier than those in the top decile, who can expect to live until they are 83 years old. Women share a similar fate, with those born in the bottom decile expected to die by the time they are 79 years old, seven years earlier than the most affluent at 86.

The result - as with much of this 'inequality' debate - is a load of froth and bother all wrapped in political accusation. Yet these figures don't answer a simple question: what happens when the child born in a 'bottom decile' place moves to live in a 'top decile' place? Or indeed vice versa? Does this act result in the diminution of health inequality or does that act of moving wonderfully prolong or sadly shorten the life of the person?

The truth in all this is, of course, that most of this geographical difference results from the concentration of poverty rather than the effect of that place on health. No-one is disputing that there is a pretty close link between poverty (however you want to measure poverty) and poor health. But we should remember that people are not poor because they live on Bradford's Holme Wood estate, they live on that estate because they are poor. Indeed, it would be interesting to know how many of the children born to parents living on Holme Wood actually spend their entire life living there? My guess is that this will be a pretty small proportion of those children.

It's also important for us to note that this debate isn't about the distribution of health spending. After all, health spending is disproportionately directed to people who are in poor health. Mostly this means more is spent (over three-quarters of total spending) on old people but it also means more is spent on poor people simply because those poor people are more likely to be ill. Indeed, being in chronic poor health is a pretty good start on the road to poverty itself - there are plenty of people that are poor because they're ill or disabled rather than the other way round. This might not be a good thing, indeed it probably isn't, but it is a fact.

The problem with much of this debate - we're talking about health here but we could be discussing more general issues around deprivation - is that it assumes a static population when everything we know about poor communities is that their populations are not static. And we know something about movers too:

...groups most likely to move include younger age groups (16–34); private rented sector households; recent movers; large and single-person households; residents with higher qualifications (NVQ4 or above); males; and white residents

And those moving into deprived areas (this research is for New Deal for Communities areas - all in the 'bottom decile' of multiple deprivation):

...people moving in are more likely to be younger, white (but not British), or from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background, to live in a larger households and to be accommodated in the private rented sector

While not an absolute, the tendency is for the relatively successful to move out with their place being taken by a new generation of relatively poorer people. And somewhere around 10% of the population moves out each year.

What we fail to do in discussing deprivation is to make the distinction between things that are genuinely about the place and things that reflect the demographics of the place's population. By way of example, it's a good call to say that Bradford's tight, gardenless terraces will feature higher levels of road traffic accidents and conditions (asthma, bronchitis and even lung cancer) that link to poor air quality. But to suggest that this environment leads to higher rates of smoking, obesity or diabetes rather stretches the effect of place.

It makes a lot of sense to use geography to target resources better - the use of geodemographics and other modelling systems was a good idea when we proposed it to Bradford Health Authority back in 1990 and it's now an even better idea given our ability to make even better use of data modelling these days. But this still does not mean that people in Holme Wood are more likely to be in poor health because they live in Holme Wood.

The real debate shouldn't be about 'inequality' - after all we can fix that by poisoning the water supply in Ilkey! Rather we should be talking about poverty because we know that high levels of poverty result in more ill-health and lower average life expectancy. So the very best way to improve health outcomes - and we've seen this in the UK over the past three decades - is to reduce levels of poverty and increase levels of wealth and comfort. And, although I won't be thanked for saying this, capitalism is by far the most effective way to reduce poverty and increase wealth!

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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

How Third Sector Professionals killed Big Society...and the idea of voluntary initiative

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A few years ago I attended an event organised by Julian Dobson and others that was, or rather purported to be, connected in some way with the government's Big Society idea. And, as a fan of the idea, I toddled along in what turned out to be a vain expectation of enthusiasm for thinking about civil society and the way in which voluntary social action plays a part in transforming society for the better.

What I experienced (and this was repeated again and again in my peregrinations round the voluntary sector) was quite different. Instead of people engaged in voluntary social action what we have in this visible part of the 'voluntary' sector are two sorts of people - political activists (almost exclusively from the left of politics) and what we might call 'sector professionals'. I was struck, as I am always struck at these sorts of occasion, by the almost complete absence of any genuine volunteers - people who have got up off their backside and done something for their community.

Today, various of the 'usual culprits' in "The Sector" have rounded on the Big Lottery and Cabinet Office over the manner in which they have funded a couple of organisations closely linked to the Big Society agenda. It is, we are told by these people who made it their mission to distance "The Sector" from Big Society, a terrible scandal requiring investigations and probably executions.

Yet these people - so self-righteous in their condemnation - are the very same people that spent the first year of this government undermining the idea of Big Society. They came up with different versions of it - one's untainted by the dread association. With the result that the winners in the game were new organisations - bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for sure but inexperienced and with ideas that needed work. But where were the experts? All those people from NCVO and ACEVO, all the parasitical consultants upon the multi-billion pound state funding of the 'voluntary' sector?

These self-appointed sector leaders set out to make sure Big Society failed. And they did so for one reason alone - it was an initiative from a Conservative prime minister. To these "sector professionals" (a surprising number having close links with the Labour Party) no Tory could possibly understand "The Sector" and therefore the initiative was either a smokescreen to cover up the evil neoliberal agenda of the Coalition or else a trojan horse aimed at smuggling in cackling Tory businessmen to take over voluntary action.

What these "sector professionals" and their new found activist friends fail to appreciate is that they are the problem rather than Big Society, the Coalition government or evil Tory neoliberals. It is the transforming of voluntary organisations of all sorts - whether working with a particular group people, in a particular place or on a particular issue - from organisations doing voluntary work into sub-contractors to the state that represents the single greatest wound to our civil society.

What these "sector professionals" presided over, and it accelerated under the Blair/Brown Labour government, was the de facto nationalisation of voluntary action. We got to a situation where nothing was deemed possible without government funding and without the employing of these "sector professionals". And just as importantly those professionals were recruited on the basis of their ability to attract funds fron the Labour government, from QUANGOs led by Labour supporters and regional agencies padded with Labour councillors.

So organisations - just like their funders - got stuffed full with Labour supporters. And, when the change of government arrived and with it the Big Society idea, these people were faced with two options - suck up to the evil Tory neoliberals or do what the Labour Party wanted and undermine the policy. Sadly, for the idea of volunteering and of the voluntary society, the sector's leadership chose to dismiss Big Society and campaign instead for the continuation and extension of a role for "The Sector" as sub-contractors to state agencies.

The latest round of attacks on Big Society confirms to me everything that is wrong with those "sector professionals". I see a group of well-paid, middle-class folk protecting their interests and crafting a language of entitlement to do so. Links into government at professional or operational level - along with ministerial fear of upsetting "The Sector" - has maintained the current system of funding more or less intact. New places to broker influence arose - Clinical Commissioning Groups being a fine example - and the idea of people doing something simply because they care becomes ever more distant.

Thankfully there's a whole load of voluntary action still going on and plenty of people loving the place they live and the people who live there. But these people have absolutely no connection to or links with the entitled grant-farmers that dominate the national discourse about the voluntary sector.

It saddens me that an idea such as the Big Society was killed off by a self-interested group more concerned with protecting state-funding and state contracts than with the idea of promoting and encouraging voluntary action. The idea of the state stepping out of the way and letting people do it themselves has been sacrificed so a bunch of well-connected lefties can carry on lecturing us while living off government grants.

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Monday, 21 July 2014

On how planning nearly killed Birmingham and why garden cities aren't the answer

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And before Brummies leap in and accuse me of doing down their city, the same goes for Bradford, for Leeds and for just about every other big city. Here's the quote from The Economist blog:

In the post-war era, there was a strong sense among British politicians that cities were slightly unpleasant things like mushrooms that ought not be allowed to grow too fast. Inspired by utopian city planners such as Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier, they decided that urban metropolises had to be cut back. Without much consultation, enormous numbers of people were "decanted" from inner-city slums to grey suburban council estates, where loneliness and crime thrived. Meanwhile, the city centres themselves were strangled with great elevated roads intended to get people in and out of the "commercial" zones. Birmingham probably suffered the worst of anywhere. Even Joseph Chamberlain's grand Council House was surrounded by roads.

Right now planners across the country are 'learning the lessons' of the past and drawing up new - and newly grand - schemes for cities and towns. Yet the echo of the think described above remains - cities are nasty, unclear, dangerous places and people want to live in ordered, structured and safe communities. We even have a "new" garden city movement:

Garden cities are back on the political and social agenda. Barely a day goes past without Boris Johnson, Nick Clegg, David Cameron or Ed Miliband talking about them. Lord Wolfson has got in on the act by launching a competition to build a new garden city in England. The prize of £250,000 is enough to properly kickstart a new social garden city movement.

And this 'movement' has a rhetoric filled with today's trendy rhetoric of 'cooperatives', 'community ownership' and 'social enterprise' - all guaranteed to get us shaking with excitement at this ordered world outside the city, a Utopian wonderland of community leadership, social capital and parks.

Forgive me if I don't share your excitement at building boring places filled with dullness, where every activity is purposeful, where committees of local worthies decide what you have in your front garden, the colour of your front door and whether you can put a six foot pink gnome by your gate. If you want these garden cities go build them but don't pretend they replace the excitement of the city or the mixed community of the market town or the tranquillity of the village. I'm with Jane Jacobs on Ebenzer Howard and garden cities:

“His aim was the creation of self sufficient small towns,really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life with others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge."
And we've seen what planners did to Birmingham. Useful though those planner might be, we can't put them in charge.
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Bikes for the unemployed! Bradford embraces Norman's dad!

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The latest more-or-less pointless gimmick:

People coming off the dole in Bradford will be given free bikes to help them get to their new jobs. 

However, it would seem that this isn't a celebration of Tebbit's father bicycling to find work in the 1930s but rather is part of the latest attempt to bully us out of cars and onto other forms of transport.  Shame really!

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