Azara Blog: February 2010 archive complete

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Date published: 2010/02/23

Cambridge County Council defers decision on Gilbert Road (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge County Council proposed "improvements" to Gilbert Road (and elsewhere). The two main parts of the scheme were to make it illegal to park on Gilbert Road and to put speed bumps all along Gilbert Road. The first part in particular attracted some controversy, since most of the residents of Gilbert Road (for obvious reasons) opposed the idea of making it illegal to park on the road. Apparently a lot of them also opposed the idea of speed bumps.

There was a "consultation" about the proposals. Only most people affected by the change would not have heard of the consultation, making it completely vacuous. Indeed, it seems that 566 people responded, of which 196 were residents of Gilbert Road. The day before the consultation finished (on Friday 12 February) the Cambridge Cycling Campaign (CCC) sent out an email to its members urging them to fill in the survey, and so it's likely that most of the 566-196=370 people who were not residents of Gilbert Road were members of the CCC, so their email solicitation obviously had the desired effect of stuffing the ballot box. This is the problem with all such consultations, namely that special interest pressure groups can fairly easily hijack the proceedings.

Apparently around 850 cyclists use Gilbert Road every day (it's not clear if that meant journeys or individuals, probably the former). And around 6000 cars use it every day. Almost certainly most of the car users never even heard of the consultation, so they were in effect disenfranchised. Apparently there is around one accident a year involving a cyclist on Gilbert Road. Well, given that the claim is that there are around 300 thousand cycling journeys and 2 million car journeys per year on Gilbert Road, this does not sound like an accident blackspot that demands the highest attention of the government.

So why the proposal? Well, the CCC has been agitating for years to have the cycle lanes that exist on Gilbert Road made mandatory. And a national quango by the name of Cycling England has offered to throw lots of money at Cambridge for cycling schemes. In the face of this "free" money it's not very surprising that the county council wants to spend it. But just because something is "free" does not mean it is a good idea. So the county council many years ago approved the Guided Bus because it was (a lot of) "free" money, although the scheme didn't particularly make any sense. And the county council also recently came pretty close to introducing a so-called congestion charge (really an access tax) in Cambridge because the national government allegedly had offered bucket loads of "free" money.

There was a county council cabinet meeting at 10 AM today to discuss whether the Gilbert Road proposal (and other ones) should be given approval. Well, the time of the meeting already tells you that only middle class people would be able to attend, but that's who runs the world. One oddity of life in Cambridge is that the county council cabinet has no representatives for any part of Cambridge, because the county council is run by the Tories and there is no Tory county councillor from Cambridge. So it is entirely non-Cambridge people who were making the decision about Gilbert Road. This really is ridiculous. On the other hand, the Cambridge city ruling elite are far worse when it comes to transport (being completely biased towards cycling and against cars) whereas the county politicians are not quite so bad.

The meeting was held in a not-very-big room and what little space there was for the public was packed. First up with a spokesman for the CCC, who was given three minutes to make the obvious spiel supporting the proposal. Then a resident of Gilbert Road was given three minutes to make the obvious counter-spiel opposing the proposal.

Then the politicians took over, and the public had to keep quiet, so they were not even allowed to challenge the dubious arguments being made by the politicians. First up was Kevin Wilkins, who is not on the cabinet but who represents West Chesterton (which includes the east end of Gilbert Road) on the county council and is a Lib Dem. Now the Lib Dems really hate cars, and he just repeated the CCC talking points. And he claimed that he and his predecessor had been looking at this for ten years and they could not see a better proposal. Well, this is rather damning, given that the proposal was far worse than the status quo in most regards.

Rupert Moss-Eccardt, the Lib Dem representative on the county council for Arbury (which includes the west end of Gilbert Road), did not attend but apparently had sent in his thoughts. Apparently he broadly approved of the scheme but had various ifs and buts, although it was not disclosed to the public what these were.

Next up was Roy Pegram, who seems to be the cabinet member in charge of promoting the scheme. He again repeated the CCC talking points, and completely ignored all the flaws in the proposal. For example, never once did he (nor anyone else, for that matter) mention that banning parking on Gilbert Road would send it to narrower side streets, and that putting speed bumps on Gilbert Road would make a lot of drivers rat-run down side streets. It is rather unbelievable that neither the bureaucrats nor the politicians promoting the scheme could see any downsides at all.

Pegram also rattled off various statistics to do with the consultation, as if that mattered at all, given that it was totally unrepresentative of the users of Gilbert Road.

At this point it looked like the meeting was going to be a stitch up for the scheme. But every politician after that took a different view. First was Mac McGuire, who said that although we should encourage cycling, it should not be "at any cost". Wow, a politician with some sanity. Anyway, he proposed deferring a decision on the Gilbert Road scheme and sending it to the highway "Policy Development Group" to look at again, to see if there was an alternative option. The other politicians who spoke (Peter Brown, Martin Curtis, John Reynolds, David Harty) pretty much followed suit, and the leader, Jill Tuck, pretty much accepted it then and there.

It's not quite clear what this means. The county council bureaucrat, Phil Crack, who attend the meeting and who answered some questions from the politicians, was fairly visibly upset about this. There was even some talk that the "Area Joint Committee" would have to look at it again, and apparently their next meeting is in July. Crack said that if that happened then it would be difficult to finish with the proposal before the Cycling England money was lost.

It is not at all obvious what input, if any, the general public will be allowed into this new procedure.

The non-Gilbert Road proposals, for Cherry Hinton Road, Madingley Road, and the Tins, were approved without discussion.

Date published: 2010/02/14

Cambridge County Council wants to wreck Gilbert Road (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge County Council is proposing "improvements" to Gilbert Road (and elsewhere). The blurb says "The Cycle Cambridge team is consulting on some improvements to cycle facilities in Cambridge". The fact that it is the "Cycle Cambridge team" (whoever they are) already tells you that they are going to completely ignore everyone who is not a cyclist, in this case including possibly the residents of Gilbert Road.

Gilbert Road already has cycle paths on either side of the road from top to bottom. The Cambridge cycling fraternity has long complained about these because cars are currently allowed to park in them, which means cyclists often have to weave in and out. So one of the suggested "improvements" is to make it illegal for cars to park all the way along Gilbert Road. Well obviously the residents are not very happy about that. The bureaucrats point out that most of the houses on Gilbert Road have two car parking spaces, but in this day and age that is not saying very much, and if you have visitors then it is obviously convenient to have parking available on the street.

The other part of the proposal is far worse. So the bureaucrats want to put speed bumps in from the top to the bottom of Gilbert Road, turning it into the ugliest road in Cambridge. It seems that they want to use the same type of dreadful speed bumps that have already been used in Carlton Way. (Well, the older style ones on Stretten Avenue are no better.) In spite of what the bureaucrats like to claim, these speed bumps do damage cars. (But the bureaucrats hate cars, so they probably consider that to be a bonus.)

The proposed speed bumps do not affect buses. Already on Carlton Way, buses just sail through the speed bumps without even slowing down. Buses are far more dangerous to cyclists than cars.

One obvious consequence of the speed bumps will be that it will push more traffic onto side streets, for example, more people will go from Histon Road, down Roseford Road, down Perse Way, down Metcalfe Road to the bottom of Gilbert Road, in order to avoid most of the speed bumps. Well, the obvious response from the bureaucrats will be to put more and more speed bumps in until Cambridge looks like an obstacle course from one end to the other.

Another obvious consequence is that more drivers will avoid Cambridge completely and shop elsewhere. If the Cambridge ruling elite want to continually stick two fingers up to drivers, it is not too surprising if drivers stick two fingers up to Cambridge.

The bureaucrats posted questionnaires to each of the 240 homes on Gilbert Road and another 60 to homes on side streets near Gilbert Road. Well, it seems that most of the respondents were not surprisingly against the proposals. The questionnaire was also available online so in theory anyone could fill it in, not just the residents of Gilbert Road. But the bureaucrats didn't particularly publicise the existence of this consultation.

There is always a problem with these kinds of consultations. In this case the county seemed to think that only the residents of Gilbert Road should be notified. But they are not the only stakeholders here. So most of the people who use Gilbert Road are not residents of Gilbert Road, and it would not be surprising if (say) over 90% of them were not even aware that the county is proposing to massively change the road. These people have been completely disenfranchised.

But even if these people had not been completely disenfranchised, these consultations are still a bad idea, because they can be dominated by zealous middle class special interest pressure groups. And when it comes to cycling, there is no more zealous middle class special interest pressure group than the Cambridge Cycling Campaign (CCC). They obviously knew about the consultation and they were also alerted to the fact that most Gilbert Road residents opposed the proposals.

The consultation (as such) finished on 12 February. On 11 February the CCC sent out an email (presumably to all its members) asking people to respond en masse to the consultation, in effect as a counter-weight to the residents of Gilbert Road. It is hardly surprising that they chose to do this, and unfortunately the existence of these consultations allows, and indeed encourages, special interest pressure groups like the CCC to game the system. Probably half (or more) of the CCC members never (or rarely) even use Gilbert Road, and it is unfortunate that these people are even considered relevant to the discussion.

Who knows what effect, if any, the so-called consultation will have on what happens. It would be seriously sad if public policy is determined in any way by this kind of fatuous consultation, where most of the stakeholders have been disenfranchised and where the main factor in the outcome of the consultation is whether one side or the other is more proficient at stuffing the ballot box. Ideally politicians should be making these decisions themselves, guided by sensible advice from the bureaucrats.

The only point of consultations should be in case the bureaucrats are prejudiced to one side (as here) and so have missed obvious points (such as that the speed bumps will encourage rat runs down side streets). Unfortunately, consultations are used by the bureaucrats as allegedly being representative of public opinion, well at least when the result happens to concur with their pre-determined view (as will happen here if the CCC has successfully gamed the system in the end). Consultations allow the determined middle class to exert power far beyond what their numbers would otherwise dictate. They are anti-democratic.

Date published: 2010/02/10

Cambridge City Council consultation on Cam boat mooring (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge City Council is holding a consultation on "River Frontage Management". Unbelievably the questionnaire is only available online as a Microsoft Word document. The questionnaire is very short (seven questions) and there is no reason it could not have been done using standard HTML form technology, instead of an awful proprietary technology.

Consultations generally are a complete waste of time and money. The main problem is that special interest pressure groups can easily hijack the debate (as the cycling lobby always does when it comes to transport in Cambridge). So these consultations do not result in a reasonable sampling of public opinion. There is no reason to believe this consultation will be any different.

Question 1 on this particular questionnaire asks what your status is, so "an existing mooring license holder", "on the waiting list for a mooring license", "thinking of joining the waiting list", "a rower, or associated with rowing", "a resident living close to the river", "a representative of an organisation or group", or "interested in this in some other way". Needless to say, the vast majority of Cambridge residents fall into the latter category, but that category will be vastly unrepresented in the responses.

Question 2 asks if one of the mooring areas along the river, at the so-called Jubilee Gardens, should be removed. This is an area just upstream of Jesus Lock so is not frequented by rowers or even punters. There is no reason given why this question is even being asked. (This is another problem with consultations. The bureaucrats never given any rhyme or reason for what they are asking.) Possibly someone with enough power in the city bureaucracy objects to houseboats, it's hard to know. Houseboats add a very nice flavour to the river scenery, and it would be unfortunate if some vested interest manages to get them removed.

Questions 3 and 4 are about possible bollards that could be installed at mooring locations.

Questions 5, 6, and 7 are about the mooring license fee, in particular whether discounts should continue to be made available to single mooring license holders, to students and people over 60, and whether larger boats should pay more. Evidently the city wants to sting the houseboat occupants for more money.

India turns its back on GM vegetables (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

India has deferred the commercial cultivation of what would have been its first genetically modified (GM) vegetable crop due to safety concerns.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said more studies were needed to ensure genetically modified aubergines were safe for consumers and the environment.

The GM vegetable has undergone field trials since 2008 and received approval from government scientists in 2009.

But there has been a heated public row over the cultivation of the GM crop.
...
Anti-GM groups say there are serious health concerns and they allege that consumption of GM crops can even cause cancer.

This has nothing to do with health issues. This is entirely a political decision. It seems that the GM debate in India has been hijacked by the same anti-science, anti-technology, anti-corporate NGOs that successfully barred GM food from Europe. It is unfortunate that the world is moving backwards, not forwards, on the agriculture front, especially given that the world population is still increasing. India in particular needs more food. But many NGOs would rather have the world starve than accept GM technology.

Gordon Brown arbitrarily opts to change the voting system arbitrarily (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

MPs have backed government plans to hold a UK-wide referendum on changing the voting system next year.

Voters would be asked if they wanted to keep "first past the post" or switch to the "alternative vote", which ranks candidates in order of preference.

But it is not certain the bill will become law before Parliament is dissolved ahead of the election.

The government says change is needed to restore trust in politics, but the Tories say it is a waste of £80m.

The one positive thing that could be said about this idea is that at least the "alternative vote" system is not completely crackpot. On the downside, it is totally ridiculous that Gordon Brown can have tea one day and decide by himself that this is the system that the country should change to. There has been no debate at all, and on such an important matter there should be consensus amongst all the main political parties unless one has been so compromised as to make it worth ignoring (and Gordon Brown is getting pretty close to making Labour like that). On a slightly less serious matter, the idea that the "alternative vote" system will have any impact on the public's view of politicians is laughable.

Date published: 2010/02/04

Alzheimer's group wants more money thrown at dementia research (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Dementia now costs the UK economy twice as much as cancer but gets a fraction of the funding to find causes and cures, a report seen by the BBC shows.

For every one pound spent on dementia research, 12 times that sum goes on investigating cancer, figures from the Alzheimer's Research Trust indicate.

Bridging this gap is urgent, it says, particularly given the numbers with dementia are much higher than thought.

With 821,884 sufferers, dementia costs the UK £23bn annually, the report says.

The number of sufferers is 15% higher than had been estimated, according to the Dementia 2010 Report, and the trust says it will now pass the one million mark before 2025.

The annual burden on the economy meanwhile is 35% higher than the previous calculations of £17bn.

Researchers from the University of Oxford compared the cost of caring for a person with dementia to the cost of dealing with cancer, heart disease or stroke - the three main causes of death in the UK.

As well as immediate health care expenses, they looked at the costs of social care, unpaid carers and productivity losses.

Every dementia patient, they found, costs the economy £27,647 each year - nearly five times more than a cancer patient, and eight times more than those with heart disease.

It was the costs met by unpaid carers and incurred by long-term institutional care - rather than expenses shouldered by the NHS - that pushed up the burden of dementia.

But they also found that the costs of these conditions appeared to bear little relation to the respective amounts invested by government and charities in research into causes, treatment and prevention.

With nearly £600m a year, cancer research funding was 12 times that of the £50m devoted to dementia, while heart disease received three times as much. Only stroke research received less.

They calculated that for every person with cancer, £295 is spent on research, compared with just £61 for each person with dementia.

This reads just like a press release for the Alzheimer's Research Trust. No matter how well intended, the BBC should not just publish press releases for special interest pressure groups. Surprise, every special interest pressure group has a million and one reasons why the rest of society should throw more money at the special interest. It should be up to the BBC to critique the request, not just reprint it.

No report sanctioned by a special interest pressure group should be taken at face value. In particular, the "burden" on the economy allegedly being 35% higher should be taken with a pinch of salt. In particular, how does society value "unpaid" time for care, or for just about anything for that matter? If parents had to hire someone to look after their children then the cost would be huge, but that doesn't mean that that is how much the parents' "unpaid" time should be valued when they look after their own children.

On top of this, the Alzheimer's Research Trust is also playing a dumb game. No government minister who reads this press release is going to think "boy, we better throw some more money at Alzheimer research (and all the other non-cancer diseases)". Instead the obvious conclusion is going to be for the government to spend less money on cancer. The playing field, if anything, will be levelled down, not up.

Of course a lot of money for cancer research comes from charities like CRUK. And cancer charities do quite well because the British public over the years have decided, or been pushed into believing, that cancer is the most deserving medical cause.

And cancer often strikes relatively young people, whereas dementia is mainly an old person's disease. It's not too surprising that people might find it more important to help prolong the life of someone who is 40 or 50 than someone who is 70 or 80.

And there is a serious underlying issue here. The reason that dementia has come more into play these days is that other diseases have been somewhat successfully managed. The deterioration of the brain is an extremely difficult problem to solve. And, after all, you have to die of something, and if the ways of dying that are easy to fix are resolved, that is obviously going to leave the more difficult ones becoming more frequent.

Stem cell publication is allegedly run by a clique (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Stem cell experts say they believe a small group of scientists is effectively vetoing high quality science from publication in journals. In some cases they say it might be done to deliberately stifle research that is in competition with their own.

It has also emerged that 14 leading stem cell researchers have written an open letter to journal editors in order to highlight their dissatisfaction.

Billions of pounds of public money is spent on funding stem cell research.

The open letter to the major scientific journals claims that "papers that are scientifically flawed or comprise only modest technical increments often attract undue profile. At the same time publication of truly original findings may be delayed or rejected".

This is not just a problem in stem cell research, it's a problem generally in science. The editors for journals like Nature and Science and their favourite reviewers have become powerful gatekeepers for what is deemed to be worthwhile or not worthwhile science. Unfortunately, there is never going to be a perfect solution to this problem, since editors and scientists are humans. And unfortunately this will lead to the situation where some mediocre scientists get permanent jobs and some good ones are lost to science.

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