Azara Blog: April 2011 archive complete

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Date published: 2011/04/16

Someone wants a motorway from Cambridge to Oxford (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

The Government has been urged to build a new three-lane motorway dubbed the "Brain Belt" which would link the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Tory peer Lord Wolfson told the annual conference at the British Chamber of Commerce that the Government should link the two famous academic cities by road.

The proposed motorway would affect one million people living in Cambridge, St Neots, Bedford, Milton Keynes, Bicester and Oxford and cut the three hour journey in half.

Lord Wolfson claims his plan would release pressure on London house prices and attract wealth away from the over-crowded capital.

He said: "Long before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron asked me why Britain didn't have a Silicon Valley.

"Half jokingly, I replied if the idea were mooted in Britain it would never get planning permission.

Lord Wolfson is obviously a bit of a comedian, and likes to get the chattering classes chattering. Anyone in Britain who suggests that any road be built anywhere in the country at any time immediately gets jumped on by the usual academic middle class suspects claiming the world will be at an end if any road is ever built anywhere under any conditions. And Cambridge is full of academic middle class suspects, and so the reaction from the Cambridge News readers was obvious (and could have been written by a robot): mass hysteria all the way around, as well as the usual crackpot suggestion that instead what we really need between Cambridge and Oxford is to re-open the railway line that was closed down in 1967.

Needless to say, the inter-city road system in England could be improved, but the business case would have to be ridiculously overwhelming to even have a chance of overcoming the middle class NIMBYs and their fellow travellers. And the best option (in order to counteract the hysterical reaction from the usual suspects) would be to widen existing roads, for example to complete the dualing of the A428 west of Cambridge.

Wolfson is correct in one regard. Silicon Valley works because there are millions of people living there, all within 50 or 60 miles of each other and with relatively easy road connections. So if you leave one job to join a start-up and it fails then you can relatively easily get another job, which encourages risk-taking. (Well, of course there is also now plenty of venture capital there.) To some extent this happens in the M4 corridor because of Heathrow, but it is hard to see it happening along the M11 corridor because there are not enough people and the ruling elite would almost certainly never allow planning permission for it to be otherwise. The academic middle class do-nothings have far too much power in Britain.

Richard Branson wants to introduce lemurs to the Caribbean (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Sir Richard Branson is to import lemurs to the Caribbean, where they will live wild in the forest on his islands.

The project has alarmed conservation scientists, who point out that many previous species introductions have proved disastrous to native wildlife.

But Sir Richard's team maintains that both the lemurs, which will come from zoos, and native animals will be fine.

Introducing species found on one continent into another for conservation purposes is virtually unprecedented.

Yes, introducing species from anywhere to anywhere else is fraught with danger. But the so-called conservation scientists do it all the time. For example, they recently re-introduced beavers into Scotland for no great reason other than that they wanted to. And they have re-introduced various birds as well (e.g. the White Tailed Eagle), again for no great reason other than that they wanted to. And they recently introduced the Wollemi Pine into Britain from Australia with hardly a peep from anyone as to whether this was dangerous or not. So the real problem here is probably not so much that this is yet another introduction but instead that the so-called conservation scientists are middle class control freaks who want to be able to play god themselves but do not want others to be able to play god, especially some rich oik like Richard Branson.

Date published: 2011/04/14

The UK middle class do not like biofuels (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

EU biofuels targets are unethical, according to a report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

Its authors recommend the targets should be lifted temporarily until new safeguards are put in place for biofuels grown in Europe or imported.

But they stop short of calling for a complete halt to biofuels, which some environmentalists want.
Based on what it says is a set of ethical values which will be widely shared, the report says biofuels should:

These principles would be backed by a mandatory - and strictly enforced - EU certification scheme, a little like the Fairtrade scheme.

The authors rehearse a familiar list of complaints about current biofuel production: it strips biodiversity when forests or peatlands are cleared to grow fuel crops; current biofuels produce too little energy; biofuels are imported from countries which often have low environmental standards; biofuels compete with food crops and contribute to pushing up food prices.
Kenneth Richter, Friends of the Earth's biofuels campaigner, told BBC News: "The Government must simply scrap biofuel targets and instead focus on greener cars and improved public transport, fast and affordable rail services, and incentives to get people cycling and walking."

Robert Palgrave from the Biofuelwatch campaign was scathing about the Council's conviction that certification would guarantee that agricultural land would not be swallowed by biofuels.

He told BBC News: "We have serious concerns that an Indirect Land-Use Factor, far from being a step towards stopping agrofuel use in the EU could potentially make things even worse.

"There is no scientific credible way of calculating the full climate impacts of agrofuels. Indirect impacts are not just about 'hectare for hectare' displacement; they are also about the interaction between land prices and speculation, about the impacts of roads, ports and other infrastructure on forests, about policy changes which affect land rights, about scarcely-understood interactions between biodiversity, ecosystems and the climate."

This Nuffield study is a bit too academic middle class for comfort, although it mostly makes sense. On the other hand, the reaction from the NGOs is typically silly.

Richter, from the Friends of the Earth, talks typical FoE nonsense. In particular, "improved public transport, fast and affordable rail services" is exactly the kind of policy that is backwards. What he wants is for people who take so-called public transport (which for some reason includes buses and trains, but not planes, as far as the the chattering classes are concerned) to be able to externalise a huge fraction of the cost of their journey on the rest of society. For example, with trains it is currently at around 50 percent in the UK. This kind of ridiculous subsidy is no different than subsidising biofuels by ignoring their environmental impact. Similarly, there should be no "incentives to get people cycling and walking", that is just the same issue, although on a much smaller scale.

And although Palgrave, from Biofuelwatch, is not quite so silly, if he really believes that "there is no scientific credible way of calculating the full climate impacts of agrofuels" then he might as well just say that the world should stop while he gets off. If there is no way to calculate environmental impact then there is every argument to say that something should be allowed just as much as that it should not be allowed. What he is in effect saying is that because he does not like biofuels they should not be allowed.

What the UK could do with is a better, more clued up, class of environmentalists.

Surprise, some pensioners are "just getting by" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pensioners are finding it hard to cope with rising living costs, with 47% saying they are "just getting by", research suggests.

In a study for Age UK, 11% described themselves as finding it difficult or "really struggling" to cope.

The face-to-face survey of 1,258 people suggested 19% cut back on heating this winter in order to manage their money.

Age UK is launching a campaign for over-60s to claim all the benefits they are entitled to receive.

The research found some 26% pensioners said they were buying cheaper or less food and 19% going out less.

Among poorer pensioners, the figures rose to more than a third, or 35%, buying cheaper or less food, and 21% going out less.

A total of 11% said they were in debt through mortgage, credit cards or bank loans.

The findings were released to coincide with Age UK's More Money in Your Pocket campaign, which says as much as £5.4bn in pensioner benefits goes unclaimed each year.

This is typical of how an NGO works. They want to publicise something so they commission a survey, which might or might not be bona fide. It's hard to tell whether it was here, but it does not matter one way or the other because they can spin a story no matter what the result, and the BBC will give them free publicity, with no critical analysis. Here, the first thing the BBC should have asked is whether these results would have been any different if non-pensioners were surveyed. The BBC might not have noticed, but times are hard, and many people are "buying cheaper or less food" and "going out less".

The current generation of pensioners is provided much better for than the previous generation was and also much better for than the next generation will be. They also have been the biggest beneficiaries (as a group) of the crazy UK housing market, so are sitting on a huge pot of wealth (again, as a group).

So make sure benefits get claimed, but stop the ridiculous side show.

Date published: 2011/04/06

Surprise, graduates earn more than non-graduates (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People with degrees earned an average of £12,000 a year more than non-graduates over the past decade, statistics show.

The mid-point salary of graduates aged 22 to 64 was £29,900, compared with £17,800 for non-degree holders, the Office for National Statistics found.
Universities Minister David Willetts said: "These interesting figures vindicate our approach.

"Taxpayers who don't go to university tend to earn less than those that do.

"So it's reasonable for graduates to contribute more to the cost of their education, especially given the economic problems we face as a country."

The BBC slant in the article itself is fair enough, they just report various statistics. Unfortunately the person who wrote the headline for the article was not so bright, because that said "Degree can add £12,000 to salary, figures show" and of course the figures show no such thing. They just show that graduates earn that much more, and it's quite likely that even if universities were completely abolished, these people would still earn more (although exactly how much more we do not know). University graduates are, after all, allegedly the brightest kids in the nation.

It's bad enough that the BBC headline writer is confused. Worse is that the Universities Minister David Willetts is equally confused. The figures do not "vindicate" his approach, because he knows full well that the exact split in payment between government and student is completely arbitrary. And he also does not seem to understand that people who earn more pay more tax, so graduates are on the whole paying for their education. It is unfortunate that the current government has people in it who are no brighter than the last, Labour, lot.

Wind power in the UK is allegedly not up to scratch (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Wind farms are much less efficient than claimed, producing below 10% of capacity for more than a third of the time, according to a new report.

The analysis also suggested output was low during the times of highest demand.

The report, supported by conservation charity the John Muir Trust, concluded turbines "cannot be relied upon" to produce significant levels of power generation.

However, industry representatives said they had "no confidence" in the data.

The research, carried out by Stuart Young Consulting, analysed electricity generated from UK wind farms between November 2008 to December 2010.

Statements made by the wind industry and government agencies commonly assert that wind turbines will generate on average 30% of their rated capacity over a year, it said.

But the research found wind generation was below 20% of capacity more than half the time and below 10% of capacity over one third of the time.

It also challenged industry claims that periods of widespread low wind were "infrequent".
Jenny Hogan, director of policy for Scottish Renewables, said no form of electricity worked at 100% capacity, 100% of the time.

She said: "Yet again the John Muir Trust has commissioned an anti-wind farm campaigner to produce a report about UK onshore wind energy output.

"It could be argued the trust is acting irresponsibly given their expertise lies in protecting our wild lands and yet they seem to be going to great lengths to undermine renewable energy which is widely recognised as one of the biggest solutions to tackling climate change - the single biggest threat to our natural heritage.

"We have yet to hear the trust bring forward a viable alternative to lower emissions and meet our growing demand for safe, secure energy."

The BBC unfortunately failed to reproduce some of the relevant numbers from the report, but these numbers can be obtained from the report's website. For example, "the average output from wind was 27.18% of metered capacity in 2009, 21.14% in 2010, and 24.08% between November 2008 and December 2010 inclusive". Well, 27% is "only" 10% below 30%, so perhaps not that bad, although the 2010 figures are more alarming.

The really worrying aspect of this BBC article is the response from the industry flunky, Hogan. If she has any quibble with the data, which was obtained from publicly available sources and has been made available in spreadsheet form by the John Muir Trust, or if she has any quibble with the data analysis, then she should say so. In fact, in their official press release responding to the report, the only real counter-argument given is that:

He claimed the load factor for wind for the period of November 2009 to November 2010 was 22 per cent, however GL Garrad Hassan, an independent consultancy firm, found on average it was in fact 24.8 per cent. We recognise this is lower than the 30 per cent average load factor, however this was anticipated as it had been an exceptionally calm year.

Well she better hope that the "exceptionally calm year" is not exceptional. And GL Garrad Hassan is not "independent" in any real sense, as is obvious from their website, where they tout their wind energy expertise, i.e. have a vested financial interest in the technology. And unfortunately Hogan also falls back on the straw man argument that climate change demands renewable energy (whether it works or not), and that is just pathetic.

Date published: 2011/04/05

Nick Clegg has no clue about social mobility (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nick Clegg has come under fire over his plan to improve social mobility, with Labour claiming it is "mission impossible" with him at the helm.

In an angry Commons exchange, deputy leader Harriet Harman accused Mr Clegg of "betraying a generation of young people" by raising tuition fees.

But the deputy PM said Labour had failed to improve social mobility despite doubling public spending.

He said the coalition's "overriding mission" was to make society fairer.

Mr Clegg vowed to end the culture in which opportunity was determined by "who know you" - but admitted that he had benefited from an internship at a Finnish bank, secured as a result of "family connections".

The deputy prime minister faced questions in the Commons after unveiling the government's social mobility and child poverty strategies - entitled Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers.

As part of the plan, he announced that informal internships for young people in Whitehall would be banned.

"They should get an internship because of what they know," he told the BBC.

"It's not just because of someone who's met somebody at the tennis club or the golf club, who's whispered something into someone's ear and they've got an internship for their son or daughter."

Clegg is unbelievable. The only reason he and most of the cabinet are where they are in life is because of who they know, not what they know. Clegg in particular is the ultimate elite private school and then Oxbridge educated "nice but dim" person. The less he says about social mobility the better, he has no clue.

The ruling elite think that the peasants should not be able to fly (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin has become embroiled in a row over alleged comments he made about not wanting Sheffield families to afford cheap holidays.

Mr Letwin made the alleged comments privately to Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
It is alleged that during a conversation with Mr Johnson about new airports, Mr Letwin said: "We don't want more people from Sheffield flying away on cheap holidays."

Once again Boris Johnson cannot seem to keep his mouth shut and manages to undermine his own political party. But the views of Letwin are not uncommon. Most Tories and Lib Dems and Greens believe the same thing. Most Tories believe this because they don't think the peasants should be able to spoil Sunday lunch for the propertied classes by flying overhead. And the Lib Dems and Greens believe this because they think the world will be at an end if the peasants are allowed to fly at all (but of course they, the ruling elite, can continue to fly).

Date published: 2011/04/04

Tories panic over the NHS (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Andrew Lansley has acknowledged there are "genuine concerns" about the NHS shake-up in England - amid accusations the policy is in "chaos".

The health secretary said ministers were "listening" and would now "pause" to allow further consultation.

Plans which would give GPs control of about 60% of the NHS budget and allow more private firms to provide care have come under cross-party criticism.

Labour's John Healey accused Mr Lansley of "confusion, chaos and incompetence".

The only possible explanation as to why the Tories have suddenly panicked about the NHS must be that the issue is polling very badly for them on the doorsteps for the local election campaign. So their "solution" to this problem is to postpone the issue until after the local election results.

It is quite unbelievable how no minister seems capable of explaining why the government is so keen on complete upheaval in the NHS. Will it constrain costs? Will it really improve patient care? Who knows. Not ministers, it seems.

Proposal to reform the state pension system (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans for a new flat-rate state pension and a system to automatically raise the pension age have been published.

Under government proposals, the existing means-tested arrangements would be replaced for new, but not existing, pensioners.

The current full state pension is £97.65 a week, but can be topped up to £132.60 with pension credit.

This could be replaced by a new £140 flat rate, with inflation expected to push this up to £155 by 2015 or 2016.
No set date for implementation has been revealed.

This is the first major proposal of the LibCon government that makes any sense, although of course the devil will be in the detail.

Unfortunately one thing the government has not decided to do is to put in legal safe-guards for members of private pension schemes. Companies often run pension schemes for their own employees and can currently legally not properly fund these schemes, and even take money out. All pension schemes should be run by people independent of the company and the company should have no control at all over it. Most of the scandals the last N years to do with pensions are not about the vagaries of the State pension scheme but of the dubious conduct of private pension schemes.

Date published: 2011/04/02

Pro-AV people do not seem to understand what a safe seat is (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The alternative vote system would make "rather average politicians" work harder to keep voters' support, former BBC director general Greg Dyke says.

At a campaign launch for a Yes vote in May's referendum, he said MPs would be denied "jobs for life" by holding safe seats if the voting system changed.

Mr Dyke and the other pro-AV people who are pushing this line (since they seem to have no other reason to change the current system to AV) seem not to understand what a "safe seat" is. A safe seat is one where the majority of people vote for one party consistently over time. MPs in these areas would win just as easily under the AV system as in the current first-past-the-post system, without even having to count second preference votes. The only place where AV might make a difference is in marginal seats, and even there it is unlikely to make much of a difference. For example, in Cambridge the Lib Dems did not get half the vote the last election (and no MP in Cambridge has recently) but almost certainly they would still have won under the AV system. The pro-AV people really need to come up with a more plausible rationale for changing the current system. The one difference AV will make is to allow minor extremist parties (the Greens and UKIP in particular) to garner more attention, and by a fluke, the odd one of them might get elected.

Government puts further treacle into the planning system (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People living in parts of England will be able to decide where new houses, shops and businesses should go in their neighbourhood, under a localism trial.

Seventeen pilot areas will get £20,000 to draft plans, which could be enacted once the Localism Bill becomes law.

The plans must comply with national planning policy, law and local strategy, and be backed by at least half of voters in a local referendum.

Labour says it will make council planning "incoherent and ineffective".

Labour also argues that the policy has been hastily put together and could make local authorities less effective.

But ministers say it will give people a say over the location of shops and schools and style of developments locally.
Housing minister Greg Clark said planning had become a controversial issue because people felt "alienated" from the process.

At least the government is doing a trial, that is about the only positive part of this announcement. The idea that voters can sensibly decide on where development should happen is far-fetched. And it certainly will not help sort out the treacle that the planning system has become in England. It will just make things worse by putting even more obstacles in place, because it allows no changes to the local strategy, which means that fewer developments will be allowed, not more.

For example, in Cambridge, pretty much all areas bordering the edge of Cambridge will get new housing developments the next few years (if the developers do not get cold feet because of the recession). The only area that is being exempted is Newnham, where the rich people live. If the government was serious about localism, then the rest of the city should have the right to force Newnham to take its fair share of development. As it is, this will not happen.

And Greg Clark is completely missing the point. The people whom he thinks are "alienated" from the planning process are the rich, propertied classes who want to stop all developments in their backyard because they deem it a threat to their privileged status. Needless to say, these are the one class of people who are capable of fighting the planning system, and so are "alienated" only because they resent having to make the effort to be obstructive (and once in awhile they lose).

The ordinary people of England struggle to afford to buy a house because prices are kept artificially high by the artificial restriction on building land, and it is they who are really alienated from the planning process, and it is they who the current government will continue to ignore.

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