Saturday, 10 October 2015

Time to rethink courts?


The Police & Crime Commissioner for West Yorkshire is moaning about plans to close magistrates courts in Wakefield and Halifax with the 'business' transferred to Bradford:

“I disagree with these planned closures. Victims and witnesses come first, but by reducing the number of courts available you reduce their access to local justice.

“Going to court can be a difficult experience for victims and witnesses. If the courts in Calderdale and Wakefield close, where would a victim or witness local to those buildings go? A trip to Bradford, Leeds or Huddersfield could be expensive and time consuming and put people off going through the criminal justice system.

I rather get Mark's point. Expecting witnesses to spend time and money travelling across the county may put a few off (although most of the business of these courts is taken up with stuff that doesn't involve a lot of witnesses other than those from authorities - motoring offences, council tax non-payment, TV licensing and so forth). But the answer is to consider whether to rethink how we organise our courts.

Instead of travelling all the way to Bradford, why not set up video suites in local police stations, council offices or even a shop on the high street. And then use skype or similar for witnesses to present evidence. After this we can replace all the presenting of documents, all that rushing about to no real purpose that junior barristers do, and a whole load of process that clogs up the current system, with on-line systems. There's no real reason why we need to get three magistrates, a clerk, a policeman and the accused into one place just to decide on the evidence and issue (or not issue) a fine.

Finally there's no reason for courts to occupy expensive town centre property when huge savings will come from moving to a shed in a business estate on the edge of town. It sometimes seems that it's only the self-importance of judges and the game of civic willy-wagging that sustains us having courts in town centres doing a thoroughly inefficient job.


How to patronise older people Mhairi Black style


Too often we treat older people as if they are incapable of independent thought. And nowhere is this worse than among left-leaning politicians. Here's SNP wunderkind Mhairi Black patronising the hell out of old people under the heading: "We need to help our elderly see through the Tories' scare stories":

Too many of them were on an information diet of fear and scaremongering from Better Together; force-fed Unionist spin by a biased establishment and a host of questionable reporting. And it worked. Analysis of the referendum vote revealed it was older voters who significantly voted No.

The inference here is that old people are incapable of independent thought and analysis, that their desire to remain in the United Kingdom they've spent their lives in is somehow the consequence of ignorance, of an inability to understand things unless they're guided by their youngers and betters.

It really is about time politicians like Ms Black started treating older people as intelligent human beings capable of thinking for themselves and making up their own minds. They're not "our elderly" to be patronised but John, Sid, Mary and Sylvia - men and women with stories to tell and lessons they can teach us.


Friday, 9 October 2015

Do public health scare stories lag behind people's actual behaviour?

From Reason here's a quote about the decline in soda (that's pop to us Brits) consumption:

"Over the last 20 years," Sanger-Katz reports, "sales of full-calorie soda in the United States have plummeted by more than 25 percent." In other words, the downward trend began more than a decade before the soda tax debates in New York state (2009), Washington state (2010), and Philadelphia (2010). Americans began drinking less soda nearly two decades before Berkeley approved a soda tax and San Francisco rejected one, both of which happened last year.

So the great debates we see about sugar loaded fizzy drinks have been presaged by a profound shift in consumer behaviour. Yet this doesn't stop the public health scare story:

It will help explain why childhood obesity rates have risen so dramatically within a generation: in the US, where a third of children are overweight or obese, the average weight of a child has risen by more than 5kg in three decades.

Put those two quotes together and you get a "just a second, are you sure?" response to one or the other. On the face of it both can't be true.

So a question - are the scare stories about diet, about drinking or other choice behaviours a reflection of behavioural changes that are already happening? The great scares about alcohol in the UK - "Binge-drinking is getting out of control in Britain" or whatever - started flooding the newspapers and airwaves during a time when alcohol consumption was falling rapidly. It's almost as if these scares simply reflect people's changing habits - almost a means of society dealing with cognitive dissonance.


No, nationalisation is not social enterprise scaled up


Some people really don't understand the 'enterprise' thing at all do they. Here's a chap called Robert Ashton (who describes himself as a "social entrepreneur"):

I happened to be meeting a local MP who had read the blog that morning. He said that whilst he largely agreed, and knowing Jeremy Corbyn felt he was a decent chap, he said that on one thing I was wrong: Corbyn he said doesn’t champion social enterprise, he champions nationalisation.

I’ve been reflecting on that comment ever since and conclude that the only difference, in an ideal world, between nationalisation and social enterprise is scale.

This is, of course, manifestly untrue. The point about social enterprise is that it is a business that, in providing a valued service or product, also makes a wider social contribution. Indeed Robert describes such a thing:

Yet now that school campus is managed by community cooperative organisation. Led by local people, the site now hosts a wide range of community groups; the canteen is now a thriving cafe and new organisations are moving in to the town, renting space, creating jobs and making a lasting difference to the lives of those who live there.

Nationalisation isn't anything like this. It is the forced creation of a state-owned monopoly designed primarilty to promote and protect the interests of that monopoly. The reason why socialists are so keen on nationalisation isn't because it leads to better business or makes a lasting difference to people's lives - it's because nationalisation allows the government to organise business and industry in the interests of the workers (i.e. those who are employed in the nationalised business).

Robert's question as to whether government is a social enterprise is more interesting. But nationalisation is a different matter - its main impact is to destroy social value rather than create it.


If we're not planning for 'robocars', we are planning wrongly.


OK we're talking about America here but the point remains a strong one:

The rise of robocars may accelerate metro area decentralization. Congestion will be reduced, and the greater safety of driverless cars may permit higher speeds on metro area beltways and cross-town freeways. Once taxi drivers are replaced by robot taxis, the cost of taxis will plummet and the greater convenience of point-to-point personal travel anywhere in a sprawling metro area will make rail-based mass transit obsolete except in places like airports and tourist-haven downtowns. As in the past, most working-class families with children will probably prefer a combination of a longer commute with a bigger single-family house and yard to a shorter commute and life in a cramped apartment or condo.

We need to understand that this will happen and it will make all our debate about the negatives of personal transport obsolete. This also - with the need to travel also reduced by technology - rather undermines the idea that we will cram ourselves into enormous, dense core cities while the wilderness is recreated as that technology reduces farmland acreage.

Our debate about housing, transport and much else is stale and limited so long as our long-term planning is predicated on urban densification to reduce the impact of the private car. Driverless vehicles as a mass transit solution may be 30 years ago but this is not a massive planning horizon and the places that design themselves to meet this world will be the winners.


Thursday, 8 October 2015

On hearing from a guru...

Went to a seminar today. Well rather a sort of round table with this incredibly famous and important man who was going to impart his wisdom, show us the way forward, direct us to the sunlit uplands of Elysium.

I was tardy so when I arrived most folk were sat and were, one after another, introducing themselves. I'd missed most of this so most of the attendees fell into the category of "familiar faces but have to dredge the deeper recesses of the mind to remember how I know them". I introduced myself.

The event took the form of the incredibly famous and important man telling us how he came to be incredibly important and famous. He gushed with positivity, with witty self-deprecation and with little asides demonstrating how he was so much more insightful than the usual run-of-the-mill sort of person you'd encounter. He spoke the fluid language of the guru all mish-mashed with the jargon of the professional in his line of business. It was a tour de force delivered at breakneck speed that demonstrated that us mere mortals were in the presence of genius.

Amongst all this our guru dropped names, spewed contacts and indicated that he had the ear of ministers, engagement with policy-makers and, for all we knew, a direct telephone line to god. He managed to condemn government policies with one rhetorical flick of his hand implying that if only they'd asked him first it would all be so much better. He dismissed one urbane and worldly-wise politician as a "right wing bastard" and then slightly sniggered at what he called "Tory words".

In all this we got no facts. No evidence. No substantiation to his claims of unique insight into the solutions in this area of policy-making. Oh it was good and there were some things - most tactical things - that cried out to be stolen for the benefit of our town. But the impression wasn't of shared experience but rather the implication that we were some clumping centre-back to be dazzled and bemused by his Lionel Messi. It was, in short, a master class in oh-so-modest self-celebration rather than something to be learned from.

Sadly this sort of event is legion. We troop to the feet of the guru, suck up their pronouncements and seldom - if ever - ask whether the guru could use a dressing gown. Today I learnt nothing about how we might actually meet the challenges we face in the famous man's area of 'expertise' but I also know that some of those colleagues present will hark back to the seminar, eye-sparkling with excitement as they recount the sage words of our guru.

It is a reminder why we have politicians. Not because we're immune to being self-appointed experts or to showing off - we're some of the worst offenders here. But rather because you lot have the ability to deflate the balloon of our ego by kicking us out at the ballot box.


Friday, 2 October 2015

Taking Charlotte Church's comments on Syria seriously (for a minute or two)


Miss Church appeared on the BBC's Question Time. Presumably because it was in Wales and she's got herself a new reputation as a left wing activist. During the debate Miss Church had this to say:

‘Another interesting thing with Syria actually, lots of people don’t seem to know about it, is there is evidence to suggest that climate change was a big factor in how the Syrian conflict came about, because from 2006-2011 they experienced one of the worst droughts in its history.

This of course meant that there were water shortages and crops weren’t growing so there was a mass migration from rural areas of Syria in the urban centres which put more strain and resources were scarce etc which apparently did contribute to the conflict there today, and so no issue is an island, so I also think we need to look at what we’re doing to the planet and how that might actually cause more conflict in the world.’

On the face of it, this is nonsense. It's not exactly like there's never been a drought before in the middle east:

Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

But there's a lot of support for the idea that the drought beginning in 2007 was a factor in creating the Syrian civil war:

Before the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought in the instrumental record. For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest. We show that the recent decrease in Syrian precipitation is a combination of natural variability and a long-term drying trend, and the unusual severity of the observed drought is here shown to be highly unlikely without this trend.

It doesn't really matter whether the reason for the drought is long-term (i.e. global warming or climate change) or short-term (simply a bad run of dry weather) but it does seem plausible that the impact of that drought on a rural population will be considerable. This doesn't mean that the consequence of drought need necessarily be violent upheaval - it's clear that this hasn't occurred in the wider Fertile Crescent (and that there's some doubt about the data).

More interesting here is that idea that it is urban-rural migration that's the culprit rather than the climate. Miss Church says that there was a 'mass migration' of this sort in Syria. But this may simply reflect the world-wide trend for people in rural areas to move to cities.

Today, the words rif and medina have developed not just geographic connotations, but social ones as well. The rif not only describes village farmers but those urban poor living in the slums sprouting up around Syria’s cities. This “village-izing” of Syria’s ancient cities has changed the complexion of urban space with the growth of large unplanned, parallel communities of urban poor.

There's nothing peculiar about this pattern - it's repeated in developing countries across the world (despite the best efforts of the development industry to stop people in poor rural communities exercising this liberty). And, given that we're talking about the growth of violent revolutionary forces - in this case Islamist forces - perhaps this upheaval has contributed? It does seem that these marginal communities contributed to the rise of Islamist parties in Turkey and to the challenges in Egypt:

Shrinking opportunities in the countryside have led to a steady rural-urban migration. Cities have grown at twice the rate of the general population in the last two centuries. This has led to overurbanization, this is, more people in the cities than can be properly housed, educated, or gainfully is estimated that the population of Greater Cairo has grown from about three hundred thousand in 1800 to over twelve million in 1995. With this phenomenal demographic growth have come serious problems. Much of the discontent that has been channeled into militant Islamic activism is a direct or indirect outcome of population pressures and overurbanisation.

I've no doubt at all that the five year drought may have accelerated the movement from country to town in Syria and indeed that, as we've seen in other places, this dislocated new urban community provides a place for a radical, non-traditional and violent version of Islam to thrive. It's too simplistic - and therefore wrong - to try and claim that it's climate change that did it but, if climatic alteration contributed to an accelerated rate of internal migration, then we are equally wrong to dismiss what Charlotte Church said as complete nonsense.