Monday, 30 September 2013

The Gunshot That Didn't Echo Around the World

For Want of a Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

But how shall we rewrite this little rhyme? How about:

For the lack of LibDem dissenters votes the vote was lost
For the lack of the vote Britain didn't join the bombing of Syria
For the lack of Britain joining the bombing the US decided to go to a vote
For the lack of sure votes, the US forgot to have Congress vote
For the lack of US action the Russians proposed a surrender of chemical weapons
For the lack of a better idea the bombs did not rain down
For the lack of bombs raining down, there was engagement with the Iranians
And all for the want of the LibDem dissenters votes....

A toast to those who failed to rush where the US would not boldly go (alone)...

And not unsurprisingly this poll:

of LibDem members (with rather a large sample for such things) shows that Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown were not in line with the mood of members on this follow-the-US-leader adventurism.. 

Monday, 23 September 2013

HS2 - The (Rail) Road to Financial Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

The party's (supposed) support for this project in a time of straightened finances is clearly inconsistent. The budget restraints which we have suffered over recent years have been due to the crushing debt burden inherited from the feckless Labour regime. How can an open-ended HS2 project be justified at prices ranging from £21.4bn to £80bn?

Moreover this amount of money is going solely for one project. It solves only a small number of transport problems and in a traditional fashion produces a glitzy one-off end-product while other parts of the rail system puff along in declining Victorian splendour.

Some locals (at the end of the route, not along the way) express enthusiasm for proposal.

However, we would note that the Channel Tunnel was supposed to provide cheap and efficient connection to Paris and the Continent. Now with the ferries, shuttle flights and train service alternatives severely curtailed the operators of the Eurostar are charging phenomenal prices for an essentially captive audience at "peak times", which seem to be anything except 2 am on Christmas morning. 

Will it be the case that the HS2 will end up being too expensive for the intended audience and thus undershoot on its effect and economic benefits? Train fares are too high as it is, how can they be pushed ever higher to justify this boondoggle (£185mn on consultants already). 

In another place, we have participated in a debate on the merits of rebuilding the old Great Central Main Line as a high speed (with few stations) route to the Midlands:

Naysayers claim some of the trackbed is built over with housing and roads which is a rather a feeble argument when comparing to the potential environmental disaster and disruption of HS2. The cost of removing these excrescences would be a mere fraction of the cost of HS2. Here is the old route map of the railway.

The GCML is the best HS2 and would cost a fraction of the current plan and look (!) even runs through Sheffield. Maybe Nick should brush off his history books and stop swooning to the siren song of consultants. Time to ditch HS2 and embrace the GCML, let the Tories take the blame all through the Cotswolds for HS2's environmental cost. Meanwhile we take the fiscal high ground by rejecting what is clearly a financial black hole in the making.   

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Right-sizing Social Housing - More Carrot and Less Stick

When is a tax not a tax....? When it doesn't actually levy extra money but instead reduces a benefit on is already getting. The "under-occupancy penalty" does not qualify as a tax by any measure but the media and political class (and the measure's critics) have restyled it as the infamous bedroom tax

This is not to say that we agree with it. The only circumstance in which I could find this totally acceptable would be if the individuals trawled into the penalty's net actually had a realistic way of disposing of their "spare" rooms or moving to accommodation that was right-sized for their needs. When it comes down to it the LibDem policy should be about "right-sizing" the public housing stock, but to do that we need to have a sufficient stock of housing of the right nature in the right places. The penalty, as its name suggests, is a stick not a carrot for tenants to right-size their residential needs without a policy to provide them the means to downsize. 

It might be useful to recap how this works. These changes to the housing benefit came into force on the 1st of April 2013. They included an "under-occupancy penalty" which reduces the amount of benefit paid to claimants if they are deemed to have too much living space in the property they are renting. The size criteria in the social rented sector will restrict housing benefit to allow for one bedroom for each person or couple living as part of the household, with the following exceptions: 

  • Two children under 16 of same gender expected to share 
  • Two children under 10 expected to share regardless of gender 
  • Disabled tenant or partner who needs non-resident overnight carer will be allowed an extra bedroom 
  • Approved foster carers will be allowed an additional room so long as they have fostered a child, or become an approved foster carer in the last 12 months. Adult children in the Armed Forces will be treated as continuing to live at home when deployed on operations. 

In addition, local councils have been advised to allow an extra bedroom for children who are unable to share because of their severe disabilities. 

In a BBC article:

...a Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "It is simply not affordable to pay housing benefit for people to have spare rooms. Even after our necessary reforms, we continue to pay over 80% of most claimants' rent if they are affected by the ending of the spare room subsidy.

"We are also giving local authorities £190m funding this year, so vulnerable claimants get the help they need during the welfare reforms."

An important caveat is that the only elderly caught in this net are those over 60 (if 60-65 year olds can be called elderly) who are under the qualifying age for State Pension Credit. This is estimated at 50,000 out of the 660,000 effected by the penalty. 

Therefore the penalty is not even an issue, or so it seems, for the pension-age retirees who may be over-occupying. While it is not a financial issue for them it is an issue for everyone else down the food-chain if there are over-60s under-occupying. As we noted in our musings on the Park Site Home plague, the housing stock for the elderly is a key issue. There we posited a solution for the elderly owner-occupiers of these trailer homes (a New Peabody Trust). The public housing sector is a whole broader can of worms but this issue of under-occupancy is closely linked to the dynamic that is driving the trailer home movement. However while owner-occupier retirees can downsize to smaller apartments or trailers, public housing tenants are trapped with virtually no supply of available units in the size they need.

Part of this problem has to do with the outmoded housing stock in the public housing space. Lets wind back to the 1950s. The social housing was new build for the post-war baby boom, war damage infill and replacement of Victorian tenements. It is somewhat ironic that in the 1950s, society was interested in replacing Victorian slums dating from a mere 60 years beforehand and yet these days, there is little consideration given to replacing a lot of the shoddy 1950s construction (thus 60 years old also) that passes as social housing. Much of it is socially undesirable (ghetto-like estates, high-rises, open balcony corridors etc), highly energy inefficient, outmoded internally (bathrooms, kitchens etc), high maintenance for councils and housing associations and fundamentally not "fit for purpose".  Too much of the talk is about building new units (which are undoubtedly needed in the net unit numbers required to be added) and yet there is virtually no discussion of re-utilising the existing stock. By that we are implying the land in many cases NOT the housing stock. Britain's social housing stock needs a rebuild. 

Thus to summarise what a policy might look like for public housing we should be embracing:

  • Reconstruction: basically demolishing all post-war social housing that is not up to a given standard OR that is too low density and could be replaced with more suitable, denser (and greener) housing with specific tenant groups being identified and catered to. 
  • Reconfiguration: More smaller units because these will liberate the larger units with a trickle down (or up) effect. 
  • Refurbishment: This should not only be internally, but also externally. The Bauhaus aesthetic gave us not only Goldfinger- (Erno not Bond) inspired monstrosities but also the economic exigencies of the 1950s involved low-grade, shoddy (and moreover non-durable) building materials. Unsightly was not just an outcome, it was a goal. Today vast tracts of Britain are testament to a prefab mentality. This was an understandable exigency of those times but is not set in stone (or pebble-dash) forever.    
In synthesis this is the "rightsizing" of social housing.

Nick Clegg is perceived by many as continuing to defend the tax, though rightly he has pointed out that 250,000 families have been living in overcrowded accommodation while one million tenants have spare bedrooms. He justifiably claimed the Coalition was simply applying the same principle to the social rented sector as Labour applied to the private rented sector.

Meanwhile Labour are claiming that two-thirds of the 66,000 people affected are disabled, and say that the vast majority do not have the option of moving into smaller accommodation. The former flies in the face of the exemptions that we previously listed. Labour's plan to cancel the penalty, interestingly, has been costed at as much as £470m, though Labour said the costs can be met by closing tax loopholes in the construction industry. We are all for that. We wonder though, that as LibDems in government, why we had not insisted that if the funds raised ("saved" would be more accurate) from the penalty are £470m then why didn't we corral them into a special purpose fund for constructing one bedroom units to solve the problem. Where did the funds go? The slushfund of general revenue?

In conclusion I thought I might expound slightly on two examples of wrong-sizing (with reconstruction and reconfiguration overtones) that can be found in my immediate vicinity, though I wouldn't call my area needy in even my wildest imagination. But that is what makes the two cases somewhat more egregious because it touches on other issues like "fitness for purpose", screwy planning rules and Park Site Homes (where an encampment is right nearby). 

The first one is around 1/2 mile from me. It sits on the edge of the village/town/planning abomination of around 4,000 people, known as Colden Common. Here is a foto:

What we have is a half-acre lot with four non-detached micro-residences. Said plot has views of forest on one side and horse farms on the other stands on the junction of two minor roads (but with typical planning aplomb the "residences" don't face either forest or farm, but instead face the road junction). A bus to Eastleigh runs right by, so potentially very good for those needing public transport. This is part of the Winchester City area (with sometime LibDem domination). Looking at these we can alas only describe them as hovels. If you think the frontage looks narrow then take our word for it that the structure is only 12-15 feet deep. The vintage looks to be mid-1960s at the latest, but could very well be mid-1950s.  

Clearly what we have here is wasted opportunity. The scandal of such a squandering of a lot is the almost constant battle in Winchester to turn farmland into residential land (particularly because the city itself is abutted on the East side by the hyper-restrictive South Downs National Park). And yet here we have a prime lot designated residential that is occupied by these four hovels that should be demolished and a three-story 24-unit complex of one bedroom apartments might be built to replace them. What is the maths here? Pretty simple. Four micro-residences of substantial age, dubious habitability and no aesthetic value, on a large plot that have eight residents at most, could be replaced by an aesthetically pleasing, 100% modern complex that could be occupied by up to 48 residents, thus freeing up somewhere or other multiple-bedroom properties that the transferred residents might currently occupy. 

Then we have the second case... this is not so spacious in terms of land but a rather egregious example once again of mediocre housing from the past. This one (pictured below)

This is a further one mile down the road in Allbrook on the outskirts of Eastleigh. Looks all very nice, but what is the context? This is a street of terraced Victorian houses that once comprised the village (?) of Allbrook, before Eastleigh subsumed it. For some reason, in the 1950s there must have been a gap in the terraces or somesuch and so the town shoved into the gap five (by my count) non-detached hovels. They are rather hard to see here because unlike the rest of the street they are set at the back of the block (next to the busy Southampton to London railway line!) rather than the front, but trust me.. they are hovels. Poor construction, flat roofs... all the best of public housing circa 1955. 

Clearly these have also had their day. If we really wanted to push the envelope there could probably be 15 units (on three floors) on this site or being non-aggressive one could have them with two-floors like the terraced neighbours, in which case the number of occupants could be at least doubled and the micro-residences taken from quasi-slum to something more habitable. 

So the LibDem policy should have way less stick and way more carrot. The first step along this road would be corralling the funds from the under-occupancy penalty towards an economy-stimulating construction program of one-bedroom social housing (by destroying outmoded existing units) that would liberate larger units for reallocation. Sound complicated?


Sunday, 15 September 2013

Nuclear Power - A Great Day for Grasping the Nettle

In a triumph of common sense, the party conference has OKed an ongoing nuclear power program.

The alternative to this was "who knows what.." though we do know what for the Germans have dabbled, and will seemingly fail at enormous cost, in their attempt to remain a competitive industrial power and eschew nuclear energy at the same time.

This article in the Daily Telegraph late last week pretty much sums up the own goal that Germany has kicked against itself and will continue to kick for decades to come.

The Japanese on the other hand with their constant threat of earthquakes and tsunamis are already backtracking from their nuclear distancing post-Fukushima because it became too obvious to them that as an energy-poor island (sound familiar) they had few alternatives . Britain at least has abundant coal if only it wanted to focus on exploiting it..

Did anybody note the irony in the article about Germany about them turning back to burning lignite coal? Does no-one remember the 1980s and the concern about acid rain (oh, memory lane) that was being caused by East Germany (most notably) burning brown coal for electricity generation. Its taken a DDR-born Chancellor to come full-circle back to burning the same coal. Scotland brace yourself for the acid rain.... there will be a lot more of it coming your way.

The lesson here on nuclear power, abolish in haste, repent at leisure.. Thank goodness, we have seen the light..

Park Site Homes Part 2 - The Solution - A New Peabody Trust?

Our policy piece of yesterday on trailer parks (let's call a spade a spade) in the UK left some readers hungering for more detail than just a moratorium on new "parks" and a timeline for elimination of the practice.

Here we shall elucidate one way in which this might be achieved. It might be useful though for us to pin our colours to the mast first by saying that we regard the Prince of Wales' Poundbury initiative (pictured below) in Dorset as the most significant town planning model worth emulating since World War Two. With that declaration followers can get the idea of where we are going on Park Site Homes and urban planning in general.

So far Poundbury has only been greenfields development but we see no reason why its principles cannot be applied to Park Home sites or indeed the vast tracts of mouldering post-WW2 developments by councils that blight the country. 

The key issues with Park Site Homes "resolution" are control and ownership. The 2,000 "parks" (or British favelas) do not have all the same legal basis or management structure. However, a policy aimed at resolving this problem needs to be national. Local government has shown that it not only cannot deal with the issue but that it actually was hand-in-glove with Park Home site administrators/developers in causing the issue.  

Here is the genesis of a policy:

  • As a first step, giving the residents control over the entirety of their destiny by instituting a body corporate over their park would be the first step. Removing "park" operators as stake-holders. 

  • Establish a Resolution Trust for the conversion of the parks into solid housing on a non-profit basis, for the sake of the argument we shall call it the "New Peabody Trust". 
  • Residents could vote out current administrators and appoint the Trust as site managers/developers
  • The Trust's sole goal would be the conversion of the "parks" into medium and high-density housing for the over-60s within the stipulated time frame ending in 2025.  
So if a typical "park" has 60 trailers (we refuse to call them residences) then the goal would be to potentially increase the number of units in a redevelopment by 50-100%. While this sounds very dense it would be only  be the equivalent of making single-storey trailers into two-storey (or more). The main caveat would be accessibility, the prime consideration with the elderly. 

It would work by the Trust constructing a first structure on a "park" site and moving residents into it (they would exchange the titles of their existing units for the new apartments), then the trailers of the newly-housed inhabitants would be cleared off the site and subsequent structures erected, until all existing residents had been housed. The income from selling the extra 50-100% of units would cover the cost of having upgraded the existing residents' accommodation. Thus housing for 120 residents (at two per unit) in sub-standard Park Home units would become housing for 180 to 240 residents in residences that were "up to code", durable and fit for purpose. 

The whole process could be kick-started by a credit line of several hundred million pounds from the government. Before anyone baulks at this we might note the amount involved is not that different from the Help-To-Buy scheme.  

Friday, 13 September 2013

Trident and the Special Relationship

Danny Alexander makes a nuanced case on the issue of the Trident renewal /alternatives issue here:

The error he makes is in even mentioning comments of the US President as a justification. The current US President has shown himself to be eminently unquotable after six years in the job. 

Danny Alexander's admonition "...that obligation means we must work closely with all our allies, especially our closest one" shows he just hasn't got it that the US will do whatever suits the US and British interests will have to coincide. This fawning shows that even he has been sucked into the orbit of US-centrism in the corporate suite of Downing Street. Isn't France the closest ally of the US these days?? 

The argument for maintaining a nuclear capability is very simple, it gives Britain the ability to opt out of the outdated and onerous "special relationship". Making a dash for freedom is that much harder without capabilities of our own. 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

A Few Good Men (and Women)

It is said that the beating of a butterfly's wings on one side of the planet can cause a tsunami on the other side. We have always been somewhat dubious of this factoid. However we can now say that the stance taken by those LibDem MPs who broke ranks with the government's rush to war in Syria can now be seen, in their own way, to have directly derailed the bombing and now we have the Syrian regime (supposedly) agreeing to yield up its chemical weapons:

The deed is not yet done but when it is, will we harvest the bouquets for having taken this stance? Probably not because some of our MPs (most prominently led by Nick Clegg) decided to vote for precipitate bombing instead, obviously fired not by bellicose intentions but by real concerns about the heinous Assad regime. 

The lesson here is not that bombing brutal dictators is wrong but rather that ALMOST ALWAYS playing follow the leader with the US is a bad idea. It could almost be a policy that whatever the US recommends as the "only way to go" is the wrong way and thus to be eschewed.

The action of our "dissident" MPs is not some spurious connection.... it is a clear path of cause and effect..

  • The motion for immediate bombing was defeated (if our MPs had gone with Cameron and the war party it would have succeeded)

  • The US was then put into a spin. Instead of going ahead and bombing byitself (with France) it took recourse to Congress. Then doubting that Congress would necessarily rubber stamp the rush to bomb, the US then vacillated. 

  • The G20 meeting that was predicted to be a blizzard of frosty relations but ended up with some frowns exchanged and Putin responding to Kerry's off-the-cuff musings with a positive proposal for surrendering chemical weapons.

Now here we are.. with the weapons in question supposedly going to be turned over (and that then may be another saga).

It is absolutely certain that if our MPs had not voted with Labour then bombs would have rained down the weekend before last and the train of events that led to the alternative outcome achieved today would not have occurred.

It is poignant to recall that if Archduke Franz Ferdinand's driver hadn't taken a wrong turn in Sarajevo on that June day in 1914 then World War I (at least in the form it took) would never have occurred. Our "dissident" MPs took the right turn on the 30th of August and cooler heads prevailed.

For the record, those who voted against:

Gordon Birtwistle (Burnley)

Michael Crockart (Edinburgh West)

Andrew George (St Ives)

Julian Huppert (Cambridge)

Dan Rogerson (Cornwall North)

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Ian Swales (Redcar)

Sarah Teather (Brent Central)

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire)

Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) voted in both lobbies, a technical abstention.

Park Site Homes - Britain's Favelas?

Recent months have seen a frenzy of crossed accusations and abuse in response to the comments about the Bedroom Tax made by the Brazilian, Raquel Rolnik  who spoke out in her capacity as the United Nations special rapporteur on housing. Many rounded upon the fact that someone from that country was not in a position to speak due to the woeful state of housing in Brazil. Having been to Brazil's major cities, there can be little rebuff to the claim that Brazil's major cities make a very good claim to be among the world's most squalid. However it was not a comparison of housing stock that Ms Rolnik was making but rather a comment on the Bedroom Tax and its intrusive nature. Frankly the tax is bizarre and attempts tackles the problem of people sitting in oversized homes provided at public expense from the wrong angle altogether. 

What the argument did prompt for me was thoughts about Park Site Homes as they are so glamorously named in this country. In the US, where we lived for over a decade they are less prosaically named "trailer parks" and they are synonymous with squalor and second- and third-rate housing models. 

Indeed, to call someone "trailer trash" is about the biggest social put-down possible in the US. Yet somehow the Park Site Home "industry" in the UK has managed to maintain a vaguely chintzy, if not chi-chi image. However, having a rather prominent trailer park just down the road from us in the upscale villages of the City of Winchester's rural parts constantly focuses the mind on the sheer incongruity of this model in the UK. I well recall when the local newspaper of Morris County, New Jersey, where we lived, trumpeted the fact when the last trailer park in the county closed early last decade. Trailer parks in the US imagination are typical of Tennessee and Arkansas, though they exist all over the country. Their denizens are Walmart customers at worst and at best, Walmart employees. Warren Buffet owns a stake in one of the largest builders of these structures and likes to called them "manufactured housing". They are rarely regarded as a local feature to boast of. 

Park Site Homes in their UK manifestation are bungalow-style residential properties, that are in reality large caravans without wheels, usually sited on private estates. There are over two thousand park home sites within the UK, primarily but not exclusively centred in rural areas, with an estimated quarter of a million residents (that means voters as well).

The thing that strikes us as strangest about this proliferation across rural England is that these essentially flimsy and non-lasting structures should have spread in the face of planning regimes that scarcely allow established residents and farmers to put up a scarecrow or a mailbox to their own liking. And yet in their midst they find tightly crammed aluminium and glass boxes which consume as much of local services as any two-up two-down residence but only pay a fraction of the amount of municipal rates because the values are so low. In the part of Winchester City Council's domain where the trailer park is located the value of a one bedroom apartment would be £120,000, while the trailer homes change hands for £70,000.

Stephen Gilbert, LibDem MP for St Austell & Newquay has been a strong commentator on the phenomenon.

As Gilbert notes most of the residents are elderly and many are vulnerable, with many park homes sites setting a minimum ‘near’ retirement age as a condition of residence. The industry heavily markets itself towards ‘property rich – cash poor’ senior citizens. Ironically the Park Site Home industry caters exactly for the group that is not ensconced in over-sized council or Housing Association properties (and thus bedeviled by the Bedroom Tax). This is the elderly home owner who wants to downsize and free up capital (for eventual nursing home costs?). We cannot be too simplistic either for while the South and South-West may be almost exclusively the elderly, other northern parts may just be a case of those with less access to council housing (working or low-wage) for whom the trailer park is the cheapest alternative. And this has been what has made the US trailer park industry what it is today, occupied by families rather than elderly couples. How long (if not already) before "buy to let" becomes more the norm with rack-renters accumulating cheap trailer homes in this country and renting them out to all comers.   

Gilbert also notes that anyone can own a trailer park, and as things currently stand a long criminal history or prior evidence of malpractice within the industry is no barrier to an individual buying and running a park. Unscrupulous site owners can make a quick profit by getting people to sell their homes at much less than they are worth and can bully, harass, intimidate residents into doing this. A recent survey found that almost two-thirds of park home residents reported living under unacceptable conditions and half said they were living under the regime of an unscrupulous park owner.

We would also note that an industry with such flimsy construction (and in the US the words "tornado" and "trailer park" are often linked) have an in-built obsolescence. How many 40 year old caravans do you see on the road? Well in ten years a lot of wheel-less caravans parked in Park Home Sites across the UK will be crossing this age threshold. Imagine a typical example. A trailer home first acquired and set up in the early 1980s. Might be bought in 2000 by a retiring couple. The husband dies in 2010, the widow lives on until 2022. By this stage, we have an aluminium shed with some mod-cons inside that is pushing 40-years of age. No-one would question the longevity of a house from 1982 but what would be the live-expectancy of this structure in a trailer park where all the other structures are similarly "over the hill". How does a town inspector assess the habitability of such a structure when he is comparing it to the brick semi-detached residences in the rest of his remit? Does he condemn it? Does he even visit it? Is it just hauled  away and a new one plumped down on-site?

Indeed, what evolution is there in Park Site Homes. Brazilian favelas started out made from tin and cardboard and some still are made of that but many have now evolved into hills-side eyries with views over Rio's beaches. They have brick or breeze-block walls and tiled roofs. Paradoxically a favela residence staked out on a muddy hillside in 1982 might very well be much more spacious and solidly constructed in 2013 than many a UK Park Site Home at this point in time. 

Stephen Gilbert claims that: "Park homes are an important part of the housing mix and meet a real need – we need to make sure though that the regulatory regime properly looks after park home residents". We would beg to disagree though that Park Site Homes should exist at all in the UK. Its true they exist but is it desirable in the UK.. no.. is it fixable... yes..

Clearly there is a need for medium to high-density dwellings for the elderly in the South and South-west. Who is doing something about it? Neither the councils nor the national government...What next...we sanction living in cardboard boxes under motorway bridges? A start would be a moratorium on all trailer parks with no new approvals ever...

There should be a policy to eliminate ALL Park Site housing from the UK. The paradox is that owners may find they cannot redevelop their sites for the desired housing styles, meanwhile residents need to find a place to live somewhere... 250,000 people cannot be tossed on the streets. regulations should allow the redevelopment of trailer parks at a higher density, provided residents are allocated affordable housing within the complexes.

The issue of underpayment of taxes to councils for the residents in the trailer parks also needs to be addressed... are park site operators being levied enough on their common revenues and gains from the operation of the sites?

The sheer number of people involved in this dilemma means that it is not an issue that should be ignored. That councils have let prime territory for development be corralled for shoddy housing models that would not normally be allowed within their area of control is an anomaly and double standard  Indeed it even raises issues of governance and, dare we say it, corruption. How else does such a gross breach of planning rules make it through without palms having been greased?

When it comes down it the Park Site Home movement is yet another indictment of the total failure of UK urban planning since the Second World War. Time for the LibDems to set a goal for the elimination of all Park Site Homes as a priority by 2025. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Sixth Eye or the Evil Eye?

Hmmm... just when you thought the privacy issue couldn't get worse now we find that the Five Eyes compact has a free-rider... and a free rider which is maybe an unknown to the other "Eyes".

Now this article says that it's only US government information to which the Sixth Eye is not privy... all other raw SigInt metadata is fair game.... phew that is a relief!

Can Mr Hague assure his Coalition partners that it is not UK government information (or that of the governments of the other non-US eyes) that is being shared with this unofficial "ally" of the US and a party that none of the other Eyes are allied with, either unofficially or officially? Is the UK public's information being also bandied about to the Sixth Eye? What has this got to do with short-circuiting terrorist acts in the US or in the countries of the various Eyes...? Wasn't it Mossad that was using forged Australian and UK passports to bump off an "enemy combatant" in a luxury Gulf hotel?


Time we said goodbye to the Big Eye and then they can share whatever they have with their "ally" to their heart's content. 

LibDems might well feel that Britain would be more comfortable in the company of Canada, Australia and New Zealand than this untrustworthy "leaker" of raw SigInt metadata. 

As Orwell might have written it "Five Eyes (not) good, Four Eyes better"  

Praise De Lawd! Getting (back) Religion on Privacy....

Finally the powers that be seem to have broken with the Hague regime of extreme fawning to the US. 

Is this a case of rising gumption in the wake of successfully derailing the "rush to war" in Syria? There is hope for us yet and Sarah Teather should seriously consider that the good fight is still being fought (and won) and that only troops on the front line to defend Liberal causes will win the fight. 

Before we cry "Oh, happy day!" we will need to be persuaded that this too will not be undermined by the type of mendacity towards the legislative branch that has been shown here and in the US over the last decade (note today is the tenth anniversary of America's own Reichstag Fire). 

The whole secret courts structure that has accreted to protect us over the last ten years reminds us of nothing better (worse?) than the People's Courts under the Nazis in Germany. 

Curiously though, even these Nazi courts seem to have been more public than the "judges signing deeds in chambers" that the secret FISA courts have evolved into. 

The high-point (low-point?) of these Nazi courts was when Roland Freisler:

was suitably despatched when a piece of falling masonry cut short his career... Good riddance to him and to all secret courts...

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

A Nuanced Stance on Fracking

During some talks recently at a party social event, the subject of fracking came up and I aired the pros and cons of the matter (and least some of them). What was clear though was that we could not allow the media (or the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion ) to dictate our policy and have us fall into a hysteria trap. Most particularly the policies should not be delivered to us via a hand descending through a parted cloud on a couple of stone tablets but rather by a combination of factual input and local considerations. Thus far the areas where fracking is likely to have an impact are the South Coast and Lancashire. At least down here on the South Coast the prime consideration should be the chalk mineralisation of the area and the interaction of this with the high water table. 

Pundits dusting off experience in the Bakken and Marcellus Shale in the US are talking apples and oranges.

So with the Glasgow conference coming up I whipped up the genesis of a motion (not in conferencese as yet) that calls for a nuanced and informed stance on the issue. 

Here goes:

I move that this party….

….adopts a nuanced approach to the issue of fracking. Such a nuanced approach would address the two key issues: potential contamination of the water-table and danger of increased seismic activity.
On contamination of the water table the approach would be that fracking would not be undertaken where there is a close proximity depth-wise between the water table and the layers in which the fracking is being undertaken. (For instance the Bakken Shale in North Dakota is located at depths of 2kms, so clearly well below the water table). Acceptable definitions of depth proximity would need to be established further nuanced to the permeability of the rock in between the fracking depth and the water table (e.g. chalk).
On seismic activity the approach would be that historical data on frequency and intensity of seismic activity in a region destined for fracking be determined. Standards for acceptability in increase in either of these two measures then be set. If the measures are breached by increased activity triggered by fracking, then all fracking in that region would cease immediately and indefinitely".  

TSB - Credit where credit is due?

This week brought the final liberation of TSB from the Lloyds brand name but not much else. The spin-off of 631 branches of Lloyds-TSB under the old trade name is hopefully the start of a trend towards breaking up and slimming down the High Street banks from the behemoths that brought us the 2008 financial meltdown and its ever-present legacy of economic lassitude.

This is the best article we saw on the spin-off:

This story gives hope that the new entity, which will rank 8th out of the gate will bulk up (maybe feasting on the stricken Co-op) and give the majors a run for their money:

It would be quite an irony as the TSB business had once been touted for sale to the Co-op Bank before its own ailments were very publicly exposed. 

Breaking up the banks and some sort of restoration of the situation before Labour (and before that, the Major government) let them all merge in a mating fervour should be a prime LibDem policy and we should be claiming credit for this latest move rather than having it explained away as being "due to EU competition authority pressure". With Vince Cable in the driving seat (ostensibly) this should be seized upon as a feather in our cap. Or is it? While party members may see this (and the upcoming recreation of Williams & Glynns) as "just what we were thinking", well may we ask why this wasn't driven harder by Vince, enunciated more forcefully by the other party spokespeople and moreover, carried out earlier in the current Coalition government.  The process has been like watching paint dry. 

The path is not over yet, there is mileage to be made and action to be achieved. Firstly, the moribund RBS should be stripped down and flogged off,,, ASAP. Vince muses here on this being more of a long-term project:

However, spinning out W&G is only part of the task. This deal essentially encompasses just the non-Scottish branches of the old RBS. What about setting NatWest free also? And what about a policy that head offices of the new TSB and W&G be regionally located creating managerial jobs in the provinces rather than just more bloated fat cats in the towers of Canary Wharf. And while we are at it, what about some privatisation of the rump RBS with the public (who bailed the wretched beast out) getting first bite of the apple rather than Goldman Sachs and their favoured institutions? 

Vince needs to be grasping the nettle and claiming the credit,, even if post-facto.. for breaking up the banks.