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Date published: 2012/05/16

Latest end of the world report from the Zoological Society of London (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Environmentalists say leaders at June's Rio+20 summit must urgently step up nature protection, as a report confirms a 30% decline in wildlife since 1970.

The Living Planet Report combines data on more than 9,000 populations of animals across the world.

Rio+20 is billed as a chance for world leaders to put global society on a sustainable path.

But the report's main authors, WWF, say progress on nature protection and climate change is "glacial".

"The Rio+20 conference is an opportunity for the world to get serious about the need for development to be made sustainable," said David Nussbaum, CEO of WWF-UK.

"We need to elevate the sense of urgency, and I think this is ultimately not only about our lives but the legacy we leave for future generations."

The Living Planet Report uses data on trends seen in various species across the world, compiled by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Further analysis from the Global Footprint Network aims to calculate how sustainable our global society is in terms of its overall ecological footprint - a composite measure of issues such as fossil fuel burning, use of cropland to grow food, and consumption of wood and wild-caught fish.

For this edition of the report, ZSL has examined more species (2,600) and more populations of those species (9,014) than ever before.

Overall, these populations show a decline of about 30% since 1970 - the same figure as in the last edition, published two years ago.

Tropical species show a decline of more than 60%, while in temperate regions there has been an average recovery of about 30%.

The worst affected species are those in tropical lakes rivers, whose numbers have fallen by 70% since 1970.

The director of the ZSL's Institute of Zoology, Professor Tim Blackburn, likened the figures to a stock market of the natural world.

"There would be panic of the FTSE index showed a decline like this," he said.

"Nature is more important than money. Humanity can live without money, but we can't live without nature and the essential services it provides."

It is unfortunate that an NGO like the WWF is allowed to be an author on such a report, since they have an agenda to advance and so their impartiality is suspect.

The BBC points out that temperate regions have actually had an increase in the "health" of their ecosystems and it is tropical regions where there is a problem. This is because most of the rich countries are in temperate regions, and rich countries have successfully exported much of their pollution, their emissions and other ecological problems to poor countries. This is because NGOs like WWF and the Sierra Club have successfully protected ecosystems in rich countries, and so have endangered ecosystems in poor countries (the production of goods has to go somewhere). Unfortunately ecosystems in the tropics (much of which is inhabited by poor countries) are much more valuable than ecosystems in the temperate regions.

The comment by Blackburn that "humanity can live without money" is bizarre. It would be interesting to see if he could live without money (so no wealth and no income, and given that he is a professor he earns quite a lot). Or perhaps he just wants all of humanity to go back to living in caves.

Cycling lobbies become hysterical over cycling survey (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Survey results that showed 57 per cent of cyclists admitted to jumping red lights have been criticised by campaigners.

The survey of 1,600 people by the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) also found 73 per cent of cyclists rode on the pavement, but the methodology and the way the results were presented were questioned last night.

Cambridge Cycling Campaign said it had asked the IAM for clarification on the questionnaire, which was carried out online.

In the survey 1.9 per cent of cyclists said they jumped red lights "frequently", 11.8 per cent "sometimes", and 24.6 per cent "rarely".

A further 19.1 per cent said they had jumped red lights "once or twice", while 42.7 per cent said they had never jumped a red light.

The main reason for jumping red lights, given by 38 per cent of cyclists, was that it was safer to get ahead of other traffic and 43 per cent said they would be less likely to jump lights if vehicle stop lines which left space for cyclists were more strongly enforced.

Ninety-four per cent of cyclists said they had seen drivers cross an advance stop line.

However, the survey also found 31.8 per cent of motorists who do not cycle admitted to jumping red lights, as did 21.3 per cent of drivers who do cycle.

Cyclists who rode on pavements said they did so because of poor cycle paths and busy junctions.

Nobody would have paid this non-story any attention except that the UK cycling lobbies went into a hysterical frenzy at the report. Indeed, one Guardian journalist even broke the embargo on reporting the story because he deemed it to be of such importance, which says rather more about the warped world view of the journalist than it does of anything else. (There are plenty of real stories in the world that need reporting.)

All online surveys are bogus, in particular they do not take random samples. This is just one of zillions of such surveys pumped out every day. They are done simply to give some free publicity to the organisation that carried it out, and/or to promote its lobbying efforts. The media, desperate for stories, regularly comply and give free publicity, especially if the alleged outcome of the survey happens to support the prejudices of the media organisation. The problem here is that the outcome did not support the prejudices of the Guardian, where cyclists are treated as saints (and the Evening News is just jumping on the bandwagon). If an online (and therefore bogus) survey had shown that some Guardian pet prejudice was allegedly validated, you can bet that no story would have pointed out that it was bogus.

There was even some claim that drivers might have responded and so biased the survey to make cyclists look bad. Well, cycling lobbies might regularly bias surveys (and plenty of surveys done in Cambridge are biased by cyclists because cyclists are middle class and the surveys are biased towards the middle class because mainly they respond). So perhaps they are reflecting their own behaviour on the people they regard as their enemies (drivers). But the evidence here is rather thin, since only 1.9 percent of the respondents claimed they jumped red lights "frequently", and significant responses from drivers would have made that figure much higher.

No, the real point is that cyclists are not saints. And there are plenty of reasons to jump red lights. For example, many lights are vehicle activated and in the middle of the night you would be rather stupid to wait for some car to show up rather than just cycle on through. The question is not whether there is jumping of red lights, but whether it is dangerous to have done so in a particular circumstance. Unfortunately this is way beyond the thinking capability of the average sanctimonious middle class journalist.

BBC has no clue about giving up US citizenship (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Facebook's co-founder Eduardo Saverin has renounced his US citizenship ahead of the company going public on Friday.

Brazilian-born Mr Saverin, 30, will avoid paying around $600m (£373m) in tax when he picks up his share of the site's stock offering.
He made the move to renounce his citizenship in September 2011.

However, his decision was only made public last week when the US Internal Revenue Service published a list of Americans giving up their citizenship.

Mr Saverin has lived in Singapore since 2009.
Mr Saverin holds 4% of the site's stock, the ownership of which is set to put his personal wealth at around $4bn (£2.5bn).

If he were to remain a US citizen, he would be liable for capital gains tax.

The BBC, along with most of the world's media, completely got the reporting for this story wrong. When you give up US citizenship the IRS levies a tax on your wealth at exit (above a threshold, which Saverin is way above). This will have included the Facebook shares. The only difference renouncing in September 2011 will make is that the valuation of these shares will have been lower relative to what it will be at flotation (by how much is up for Saverin's accountants and the IRS to argue over), so the capital gains will have been lower.

The real story here, which the BBC, along with most of the world's media, ignored, is that the US government, alone in the world, thinks that it has the right to tax US citizens no matter where they live. And the regulation of US citizens who live abroad is getting worse and worse, including, from 2013, the right to demand that foreign banks spy on US citizens. This is why more and more people are ditching their US citizenship. (The fact that the Republican Party has become a sect of lunatics has not helped.)

Date published: 2012/05/06

Lib Dems do badly in Cambridge local election (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert will keep calm and carry on after the Lib Dems lost control of the city council. Mr Huppert was "disappointed" fellow Lib Dems lost out to Labour.

He told the News: "There is no denying that these election results were disappointing and we lost some extremely hard working and talented councillors. I pay tribute to the work done over many years by Amanda Taylor, Neil McGovern and Salah Al Bander.

"But historically parties in power always do badly in local elections midway through their term in power and this election was no exception.

"However, we will continue to control the council with the mayor's casting vote, and so will be able to continue our work to improve Cambridge.

"We have a strong record in Cambridge which was recognised recently by the Centre for Cities report which put Cambridge among the top cities in the UK to lead the country out of recession. That has been achieved by strong leadership and robust policies on the ground."

As Huppert points out, the Lib Dems have not really lost power in Cambridge. That might happen next year, though.

Unfortunately, Huppert then loses the plot. Cambridge might be "among the top cities in the UK to lead the country out of recession" but that has nothing to do with the Lib Dems who run Cambridge. Cambridge is successful in spite of the Lib Dems (and the other politicians), not because of them. The Lib Dems in particular have not brought one job to Cambridge, and they seem to have no interest in attracting companies to move here.

More anti-GM vandalism threatened in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists developing genetically modified wheat are asking campaigners not to ruin their experimental plots, but come in for a chat instead.

The trial at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Herts, uses wheat modified to deter aphids, an insect pest.

The protest group Take the Flour Back has vowed to "decontaminate" the site unless the research is halted.

The scientists say the GM plants could benefit the environment as they will reduce pesticide use.

"We appeal to you as environmentalists," they write in an open letter.

"Our GM wheat could, for future generations, substantially reduce the use of agricultural chemicals."

But the campaigners say the GM trial presents "a clear risk to British farming".

They argue that genes from the modified strain could spread into neighbouring fields, and that there has been no evaluation of whether foods made from the GM variety would be safe to eat.

They are planning a day of action on 27 May, trailed on their website as "a nice day out in the country, with picnics, music... and a decontamination".

The ridiculous vandals of "Take the Flour Back" should be sent straight to prison. Unfortunate they are academic middle class vandals, and so the UK justice system generally gives them a free pass to vandalise all they want. Hopefully this time the police will at least take appropriate action.

It is unbelievable that these vandals can say with a straight face: "there has been no evaluation of whether foods made from the GM variety would be safe to eat." Hmmm, possibly that could be because silly spoiled academic middle class vandals have trashed many field trials, at least in the UK. Of course in most of the rest of the world, aside from backwards Europe, there is plenty of evidence that GM food is as safe to eat as any other.

The Royal Society produces another vacuous report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Over-consumption in rich countries and rapid population growth in the poorest both need to be tackled to put society on a sustainable path, a report says.

An expert group convened by the Royal Society spent nearly two years reading evidence and writing their report.

Firm recommendations include giving all women access to family planning, moving beyond GDP as the yardstick of economic health and reducing food waste.

The report will feed into preparations for the Rio+20 summit in June.

"This is an absolutely critical period for people and the planet, with profound changes for human health and wellbeing and the natural environment," said Sir John Sulston, the report's chairman.

Dear, oh dear, why does the Royal Society spend a lot of time and money compiling such a report, which just contains the most trite conclusions and could have been written at any time in the last forty or fifty years, and indeed has been by organisation after organisation, trumpeting the end of the world.

The claim that there is "over-consumption" by people in "rich" countries is always the first indication that a report should be ignored. The Fellows of the Royal Society might themselves be guilty of over-consumption, since they are all professorial grade (or soon will be), and so are vastly wealthier than the average UK citizen, but most ordinary people in Britain would be bemused to find out that the British ruling elite are dead keen to reduce the living standards of the citizens of their own country (and other "rich" countries).

Date published: 2012/04/24

Castle and Victora Road Conservation Area (permanent blog link)

Apparently Cambridge City Council has an obligation to review Conservation Areas now and again. Surprise, the only outcome of such reviews is to extend the Conservation Areas further and further outwards from the city centre. The current algorithm seems to be that any neighbourhood that is, to a large extent, Victorian or Edwardian or older, is placed in a Conservation Area. It is good for the middle class bureaucrats with dubious aesthetic taste who like to determine what people can and cannot do with their property. It is not good for anyone else.

The latest Cambridge City Council proposal for a Conservation Area is for the Castle and Victoria Road area.

Of course it includes Victorian / Edwardian terraces. The boundary stops just at 1930s housing. There is no reason for this other than snobbery. Needless to say, over the next twenty years they will start forcing areas with 1930s housing into Conservation Areas.

There are a few oddities. As part of the general snobbery they say the following about the perfectly reasonable Peter Maitland Court at the corner of Victoria Road and Garden Walk: "the red brick, three-storey Peter Maitland Court detracts, its scale emphasised by the colour of the brick". Well, that's a convincing argument. In fact it was designed by Bland, Brown and Cole whose work is pretty good on the whole, including here.

On Benson Street there is a 2010 building containing two flats for Murray Edwards College, designed by AC Architects Cambridge. The report here says: "it is assertively modern and uses a cream brick, but it has lead sheet roof and its scale is modest - one and a half storey to the road - and it fits in well". But this is exactly the kind of building that could easily have trouble getting planning permission in future in such a Conservation Area. And presumably the only reason it is deemed good is because it is so new. Give it another twenty years (like Peter Maitland Court now) and no doubt the conservationists of the day will complain about it.

Of course industrial buildings also get slated, because we can't possibly have industrial buildings in Cambridge, e.g.: "Unfortunately the rear view of the Tyre Depot on Histon Road is unattractive."

Unbelievably they want to make the southern end of Histon Road part of the Conservation Area. And yet they themselves admit it is in effect a dump, and in particular the view up the road "detracts".

BBC publishes renewable energy propaganda (permanent blog link)

Richard Black in the BBC says:

More Britons than not regard subsidies for wind power development as a good deal, an opinion poll suggests.

Commissioned by trade body RenewableUK, the Ipsos-Mori poll found that 43% see the UK subsidy as good value for money against 18% who do not.

Another survey has also found a big majority in favour of renewable energy.

What a surprise, a survey carried out by a special interest pressure group with a direct financial interest in the outcome just happens to support the views of the special interest. It is unbelievable that the BBC could report this with a straight face.

And if that was not bad enough, Richard Black had a second article the very same day, again blindly promoting a related special interest pressure group:

The renewable energy industry supports 110,000 jobs in the UK and could support 400,000 by 2020, a report says.

The Renewable Energy Association (REA) and consultants Innovas conclude that the industry is worth £12.5bn per year to the UK economy.

So-called renewable energy gets a fairly large subsidy in the UK (especially the ridiculously large subsidies that private households get for pretending to generate electricity in a sensible way). There could well be a large number of people working in this industry, courtesy of these large subsidies. That does not mean it is a good idea. The question is whether it is good value for money, and sufficiently productive in competition with alternatives. Very non-productive industries tend to use large amounts of labour. This is not a victory for the British economy.

It is unfortunate that the BBC continually publishes what in effect amounts to press releases for organisations that it happens to deem worthy, for whatever obscure reason, without any worthwhile analysis.

Politicians fall over themselves to throw money at the cycling lobby (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Election candidates in Cambridge are being urged to spell out their views on improving facilities for the city's army of cyclists.

Members of Cambridge Cycling Campaign have drawn up a set of questions for the hopefuls vying for seats in the city council's 14 wards.

Nearly 60 candidates have put their names forward for the election on Thursday, May 3.

A spokesman for the cycling campaign said: "We have sent a shortlist of questions to each candidate to find out what they think about improving provision for cycling in Cambridge and nearby.

"Their responses can be seen on our website when we have received them. Voters can then take these views into account alongside other issues of concern to them."

Among the questions posed is whether the candidates, if elected, would seek to reinstate a full-time cycling officer post on the city council, axed as part of council cutbacks.

They have also been asked to say if they support plans for the Chisholm Trail - a cycling and walking route that would link Cambridge Science Park to Addenbrooke's.

Tim Haire, standing for the Conservatives in Abbey ward, said: "Conservatives support more and better dedicated cycle parking facilities around the city.

"We would consider converting existing car parking facilities where necessary, but not as an anti-car measure.

"We support the Chisholm Trail as a fantastic way to improve the transport infrastructure of the city."

Labour's leader on the council, Lewis Herbert, said: "Our manifesto includes detailed cycling plans and reverses the Lib Dems' crazy decision to cut the city's full-time cycling officer to half time, which is damaging delivery of badly needed secure cycle parking at the station and city centre, and allowing planning applications with inadequate cycling provision.

One of the problems with elections is that every Tom, Dick and Harry Special Interest Pressure Group, like the CCC, crawls out of the woodwork and manages to get politicians to promise ever increasing amounts of money be spent on their special interest. After all, what is a politician to do, say "get in the queue with every other special interest pressure group begging for money" and lose votes from that group (and in this case, the group is an extremely vocal community in Cambridge). Or should a politician just cave in and promise the earth and expect (generally correctly) that nobody will notice that in the end someone else will have to pay for it all.

The Tory candidate is hilarious. He says "We would consider converting existing car parking facilities where necessary, but not as an anti-car measure." Well, that is an anti-car measure. Just because he says it is not does not mean it is not. Obviously the reason he wants to say this is that the Tories are just about the only political party that has some pretense not to hate drivers, and he is trying not to piss them off, even though what he is promoting will piss them off.

The Labour person is not much better. The city's cycling officer is one of the typical "non jobs" that have practically bankrupted the country. There is no reason for the city to have such a job at all. The city does not have a car officer, even though in Cambridge (in spite of the perpetual campaign of vilification waged by the CCC) there are more drivers than cyclists. This kind of job is a complete and utter waste of taxpayers' money. But Labour is very good at wasting public money.

Of course both Tories and Labour are happy to plug the Chisholm Trail. What is there not to like about that. It doesn't really impact drivers so nobody could possibly be against it. Except that it will cost a lot of money, which taxpayers will have to provide. Unfortunately politicians never bother to worry about costs or about whether such projects represent good value for money. (The Chisholm Trail might very well represent good value for money.)

Another report against cars and airplanes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Road pollution is more than twice as deadly as traffic accidents, according to a study of UK air quality.

The analysis appears in Environmental Science and Technology, carried out by Steve Yim and Steven Barrett, pollution experts from MIT in Massachusetts.

They estimate that combustion exhausts across the UK cause nearly 5,000 premature deaths each year.

The pair also estimate that exhaust gases from aeroplanes cause a further 2,000 deaths annually.

By comparison, 2010 saw, 1,850 deaths due to road accidents recorded.

Overall, the study's findings are in line with an earlier report by the government's Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), which found that air pollution in 2008 was responsible for about 29,000 deaths in the UK.

The new study arrives at a slightly lower annual figure of 19,000, a difference the lead author of the COMEAP study, Fintan Hurley, attributes to differing methodology.
The analysis identifies key improvements that would help reduce the health burden of air pollution.

Practical measures include the reduction of black carbon emitted in car exhausts - especially from older cars that fail to burn their fuel completely.

Reductions in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions would also help, though perhaps at a cost of making vehicles less efficient.

Far more effective, experts say, would be to invest in public transport, taking cars off the road altogether.

Such improvements would come at a cost, but so does continuing with business as usual.

"We estimate the premature deaths are costing the UK at least £6 billion a year," says Steven Barrett, "and perhaps as much as £60 billion."

For comparison, Crossrail is projected to cost £14.8 billion to build and expected to remove 15,000 car journeys during the morning peak.

It is fairly safe to say that the authors of the report do not like the internal combustion engine. With any technology in life there are of course upsides and downsides. The authors only report the downsides. They do not report how many lives are saved and improved because of the existence of cars and airplanes (and so much other modern technology), allowing the modern economy to function.

They are under the delusion that "investment in public transport" is somehow the golden saviour. It is not. It is very expensive and what that expense represents, when you look at the entire system and not just the small bit (the actual energy it takes to move the object in question) that public transport zealots like to focus on, is a huge consumption of energy, most of it indirect.

If you want to take their Crossrail numbers at face value, then they are saying they are willing to spend around one million pounds up front (14.8 billion divided by 15000) to remove one car journey during the rush hour. Of course that is not quite fair, since there are journeys not in the rush hour. And there are roads to build and maintain as well. Etc. But it is bizarre that they are willing to plug their favourite transport solution with such a poor illustration.

The comparison with deaths from road accidents is also misleading. People who die from accidents typically die long before they might otherwise have done. People who die from health problems are normally fairly old and even in an ideal world with zero pollution would not necessarily have many more years of life.

Date published: 2012/04/02

Yet more conservation areas in Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

A conservation area in the centre of Cambridge could be extended.

More of the Castle and Victoria Road areas could be given increased protection from development if city council proposals are approved.

These would include the residential streets east of Huntingdon Road, the southern end of Histon Road, and Victoria Road south to Chesterton Lane.

Conservation area status means any new buildings must preserve or improve the environment.

It will soon be the case that any area of Cambridge that includes reasonable amounts of Victorian and Edwardian houses will be designated as a Conservation area. The city councillors always claim that the residents are the people clamouring for this designation. Apparently one result of Conservation area status is that (already ridiculous) house prices increase, presumably because there are plenty of people who like the idea that nothing can change in their neighbourhood without their say so. That is, until they decide that they themselves want to change something in their house, in which case they discover that allowing middle class busy bodies with little or no aesthetic taste to be able to determine what is and is not allowed is not a good idea.

The city council has a lengthy document (over 50 pages) about the proposed change. That document in itself probably cost a small fortune to produce, at the taxpayers' expense. The maps at the end are the most interesting aspect. You can see the snobbery writ large. For example, the conservation area on Garden Walk ends just where the 1930s housing starts. And the perfectly respectable Peter Maitland Court at the corner of Garden Walk and Victoria Road is deemed to be a building which "detracts", presumably because it is only twenty years old, and indeed the same negative opinion seems to be expressed about any significant post-war building.

Histon Road is a bit of a dump and yet the city wants to make the southern bit up to the cemetery part of the conservation area. But then they claim the view up the road "detracts", so evidently there is not much there that is really worth preserving at all cost. Many of the roads in the proposed conservation area are not much better.

Cambridge is allegedly a town with highly educated people. And yet ironically it is these highly educated, some would say overly educated, people who cannot seem to cope with change, and who therefore insist that everything in town be frozen in aspic. Cambridge could do with more people who have visions for the future and fewer people who have romanticised visions of the past.

Children are allegedly out of touch with Nature (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK children are losing contact with nature at a "dramatic" rate, and their health and education are suffering, a National Trust report says.

Traffic, the lure of video screens and parental anxieties are conspiring to keep children indoors, it says.

Evidence suggests the problem is worse in the UK than other parts of Europe, and may help explain poor UK rankings in childhood satisfaction surveys.

The trust is launching a consultation on tackling "nature deficit disorder".
The trust argues, as have other bodies in previous years, that the growing dissociation of children from the natural world and internment in the "cotton wool culture" of indoor parental guidance impairs their capacity to learn through experience.

It cites evidence showing that:

Yet British parents feel more pressure to provide gadgets for their children than in other European countries.

This article could have been written in 2002, 1992, 1982, 1972, 1962, etc., back to the beginning of human history. It is just old people in one generation looking back to an alleged golden age when kids were kids and life was perfect. The National Trust is run by and represents people who cannot cope with the 20th century, never mind the 21st, so it is not very surprising that they in particular publish this kind of rubbish. For example, with their "evidence", in the first two points you could substitute any other activity (music, learning to cook, etc.) and come to the same conclusion. It is not Nature that is helping, it is the extra attention. And the third point is just bizarre. So if you want to believe the National Trust, children are allegedly just dying to go outdoors but their parents are foisting video games onto them. The National Trust has no clue about children.

Date published: 2012/03/12

David Cameron completely messes up housing policy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People in England are being offered help to climb onto or up the housing ladder as the government's mortgage indemnity scheme launches.

Building firms and taxpayers will be co-guarantors on new homes bought by existing or first-time buyers.

The government hopes the NewBuy scheme - supported by Barclays, NatWest and Nationwide - will help people to borrow up to 95% of the value of new homes.

Critics argue the scheme is just a ruse to help the construction industry.

Under NewBuy, the builder pays 3.5% of the sale price into a special account held by the lending bank for seven years.

Taxpayers will provide additional guarantees of 5.5% but that money will be called upon only in the event of a major property crash.

The scheme is being unveiled on the same day Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed the extension of the right-to-buy discount to up to £75,000 for social housing tenants.

Under that scheme, those who have had five years in a council house could receive a 35% discount, with an extra 1% for each added year up to a maximum of £75,000.

Tenants in flats will get 50% off after five years, with 2% added yearly. The government says the cash raised from the sales will be put towards new "affordable homes for rent".

It is Economics 101 that any government subsidy of mortgages (which this guarantee effectively is) will just increase house prices, so that in the end everyone is worse off, except for developers. This mortgage guarantee does not even pretend to be anything else. House prices are damagingly high in the UK and the government needs to find ways to manage a decline, not artificially keep them high.

The council house discounts are far, far worse. The government is saying that rather than buying a flat, people might as well arrange their circumstances so as to be eligible to move into a council flat, and then, hey presto, after only five years rent they have managed to buy a flat for half price. Needless to say, this ought to irritate the hell out of anyone who has had to pay, say, 15 years of a mortgage before half owning a flat. The house discount is not much better. But Cameron has obviously decided to go for the same cynical ploy as Thatcher did all those years ago, where those who benefit from this undeserved free gift are grateful to the Tories, and everyone else (who are in effect paying for it) just shrugs their shoulders. Needless to say, with these huge discounts, there is no way that the government will be able to come even close to replacing the lost social housing, without a huge government injection of extra cash.

Date published: 2012/03/11

Catholic Church in Britain proves once again it is medieval (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government's plans for gay marriage have been criticised by the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in Britain.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, said the plans were a "grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right".

He said the idea of redefining marriage, which David Cameron has said he supports, would "shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world".

He said it was wrong to deliberately deprive a child of a mother or father.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Cardinal O'Brien said: "Since all the legal rights of marriage are already available to homosexual couples, it is clear that this proposal is not about rights, but rather is an attempt to redefine marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists.

"Same-sex marriage would eliminate entirely in law the basic idea of a mother and a father for every child. It would create a society which deliberately chooses to deprive a child of either a mother or a father."

He added: "Imagine for a moment that the government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that 'no one will be forced to keep a slave'.

"Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right?"

O'Brien completely embarrasses himself. His "slave" analogy is as ridiculous as it is offensive. Guess what, slaves are the ones who have their human rights abused, not slave owners if and when they lose the "right" to have slaves. It's not clear if O'Brien is claiming that somehow his human rights would be violated if there was gay marriage, but if so this is just more of the pathetic whining that religious leaders have indulged themselves in lately, trying to portray themselves as victims, and it completely trivialises the phrase "human rights".

The entire civilised world will eventually have some form of "gay marriage" and the idea that Cameron is bringing "shame" to the UK is as ridiculous as it is offensive. Indeed, the UK already has a form of "gay marriage", it is just called something else, civil partnership, to keep religious bigots like O'Brien from becoming hysterical. Funnily enough, the UK is not in a state of shame over civil partnerships.

And civil partnerships already mean that a child does not have to have a (female) mother and a (male) father, not to mention that many children are raised by single parents. So O'Brien's comment about this is again as ridiculous as it is offensive.

The one thing the government should have done differently is just to say that the government will only recognise civil partnerships in future, both for homosexual and heterosexual people, and that marriage will become purely a religious ceremony which will have no legal standing. That way, bigoted organisations like the Catholic Church could continue with their own medieval view of the world, and nobody else would have to care one way or the other.

Cyclists might have to pay a whole pound to park at Cambridge train station (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

A debate has broken out over whether cyclists should pay to use a new £2.5 million bike park at Cambridge station.

Rail operator Greater Anglia yesterday confirmed a 3,000-space bike park would be modelled on the CyclePoint in Leeds, where cyclists pay £1 a day for storage in CCTV-monitored racks.

Monthly and annual tickets are also available for £15 and £120 respectively at the Yorkshire facility, which is run by Greater Anglia's Dutch parent company, Abellio.

Many cyclists predict a similar payment scheme will come into force in Cambridge - although a spokeswoman told the News yesterday that there were "no current plans to charge for cycling parking" here.

Shaun Noble, of St Matthew's Gardens, Petersfield, said introducing any charges would be "outrageous".

Mr Noble, who rides to the station three or four times a week, said: "It's greedy developers hitting eco-friendly travellers.

"The people who park at the station are hard-pressed commuters who are already paying fares way above inflation to travel to London and other places.

Gee whiz, a whole pound.

Cyclists unfortunately believe that the rest of society should subsidise their life style. Cyclists should of course pay for being able to park in this new very expensive special purpose bike park, it would be "outrageous" if anything else happened.

Although travelling the short distance to the train station by cycle can be deemed to be "eco-friendly", travelling by train (or by car) to London is not eco-friendly, and the latter dominates the calculation of the environmental damage that the overall journey represents, no matter how one gets to the train station. Living near where you work is "eco-friendly", living over fifty miles from where you work is not.

The first law of environmentalism is that you should pay for a service you are using, otherwise you are externalising costs onto the rest of society. This should apply not only to cycle parking but also to the (hugely subsidised) train journey.

Robin Page wants to turn the clock back (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Rural campaigner Robin Page has called for a referendum over the development of South Cambridgeshire.

The former presenter of One Man and His Dog, who is chairman of the Barton-based Countryside Restoration Trust, has asked Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, for the poll.

Mr Page said development in the area was "totally unsustainable economically, socially and environmentally".

He added: "The Government boasts that its Localism Bill gives power back to local communities.

"If that is really the case, give the people of South Cambridgeshire a vote, a referendum, on the mayhem that is being imposed on them.

"The green belt is being violated, the quality of life for thousands of people is being destroyed, and the proposed developments of Trumpington Meadows, Hauxton and Northstowe have nothing to do with local need or affordable housing.

"They are being done to meet Government targets - top down Government - the exact opposite of what the Government claims to be doing."

Page is a typical hypocritical NIMBY. It is ok for him to live in low density South Cambs, but it is evidently not ok for anyone else to be allowed in. The Tory government has already unfortunately indicated that it will allow "local" people somehow to decide (possibly just via councils) what development is allowed. This will mean that, surprise, rich people like Page will indeed be able to keep ordinary people out of their rural area, all the while insisting that their life style be subsidised by urban people. The developments that Page is complaining about were already approved under the previous government and it would be stupid beyond belief to stop them in their tracks now. Indeed, the development of Trumpington Meadows has already started. No doubt people like Page will be able to stop future developments in South Cambs, as long as the Tory government continues in its current guise, where rich NIMBYs are allowed to completely control the planning system, even more than they currently do.

George Osborne, the cynical political hack (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Changes to child benefit are "hugely popular" with most voters, a Treasury source has told the BBC.

The government will remove the benefit from households in which someone earns more than £42,475 in January 2013.

The source said only 15% of taxpayers would be hit, and polling suggested 77% of voters backed the move.

What a surprise, the N% are happy for the (100-N)% to lose a subsidy (or equivalently, in effect, to pay more taxes). This is hardly a sane measure of how government policy should be determined. It is unfortunate that the Treasury stoops to such cynical commentary, and it is unfortunate that George Osborne spends all his time tailoring Treasury decision making for short term political headlines, rather than for long term sensible economic planning. The UK is in a serious financial situation, and needs a grown up in charge of the Treasury.

The real problem with the child benefit policy is that it introduces a ridiculous > 100% marginal tax rate at a magic threshold (currently set to be the higher rate tax threshold, although that might change). Everybody knows this is ridiculous, except perhaps George Osborne.

Date published: 2012/02/24

Cambridge MP wants the UK to throw vast amounts of money at cyclists (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

MPs have urged measures to make cycling safer, including more bike-only lanes, lower speed limits on roads and greater awareness of risks among drivers.
Lib Dem Julian Huppert said "lots of small changes" could improve safety without costing huge amounts.
"It's not just about spending large amounts of cash. There are lots of small changes that will improve things for cycling.

"Some of this costs money but not actually a huge amount. To get to European standards, you need about £10 per person per year."

10 pounds per person means 600 million pounds. This is in fact a "huge amount". So Huppert is being daft or disingenuous (almost certainly the latter, since he pretends to be a scientist so must have some minimal reasoning ability).

This kind of idiotic argument is the standard ploy of someone who is up to no good. So practically anything that anyone wants to throw money at can, with a similar standard of argument, be deemed to be "not a huge amount". This is one reason that the UK has a ridiculously massive budget deficit.

The UK should be spending its money wisely. In particular, the government should be focussing its spending on areas which will increase the wealth and economic productivity of the nation over the medium and long term, for example, on research and development.

To illustrate the fact that 600 million pounds is in fact a "huge amount", in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, Cambridge University received around 130 million pounds from the UK government for research (and over 200 million for teaching). The UK government could choose to fund over four times what it currently spends on Cambridge, on research in universities, and improve the future economic chances of the country, or it could spend the same money on cyclists, and in effect throw most of it down a drain.

Well, probably this 600 million would not affect the UK research budget (but it might). It is more likely that the money will be taken away from other transport users, in particular drivers (who the Lib Dems hate). Cycling is a small minority activity, and no matter what sanctimonious middle class (i.e. rich) people like Mr. Huppert would like to pretend, it will always remain a small minority activity in the UK, unless the ruling elite manage to so impoverish the country (e.g. by following Lib Dem policies) that ordinary people can no longer afford to drive. It is crazy for anyone to even think to throw this vast amount of money at cycling.

Hopefully the government will treat Huppert's proposal with the derision it deserves.

Lib Dems waste 19k pounds on a pointless report into Cambridge pubs (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Getting consultants to take the temperature of Cambridge's pub trade will cost taxpayers more than £19,000.

The study will explore the problems faced by drinking holes and will look to draw up new planning rules to protect them from redevelopment, but the price tag has sparked criticism.

The city council will pay GVA Humberts Leisure £19,100 for the project, including £1,000 for expenses.

The country is on the brink of economic disaster, and should be focussing spending on areas which will improve economic productivity. And yet the Cambridge City Council, forever living in a fantasy world, is happy to throw 19k pounds at a completely unnecessary report. No doubt the report will be very thorough, but it is obvious that there are many circumstances that have accumulated to mean that pubs are not as viable as they once were, and so they are closing. The city can do very little about most of these issues.

For example, drink driving is no longer tolerated. Smoking has been banned in pubs (and elsewhere). Beer in pubs is expensive compared with alcohol in shops. People have plenty of other ways to be entertained these days, and can socialise even without leaving their homes, via the internet (ok, it is not quite the same). Further, housing is extremely expensive, and so it is far more profitable to build houses than to sell beer.

The last issue is about the one area where the city can have any say in the matter. And quite possibly the Lib Dems are wasting this money on this study so they can point at this fact when they want to make it harder for pubs to be converted to housing. This is not worth 19k pounds. It will also rescue very few pubs. Because even without the pressure to convert to housing, there are too many pubs chasing too few customers. The Lib Dems can try and turn the clock back to 1960, but it will not work.

New train station in Chesterton (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Construction of a second railway station in Cambridge has been given the green light by the Government - meaning it should open in 2015.

The long-awaited station, which will be built at Chesterton sidings and will be called Cambridge Science Park, should boost the local economy and enable travellers to catch trains to London and the rest of the country without having to battle through city centre traffic.

There will be two main side effects to this new station. Firstly, London commuters will start to take over parts of north Cambridge and Milton to the detriment of local workers. Secondly, some shiny new office blocks will probably be built on land adjacent to Cowley Road and Fen Road, and in the process some existing small-scale industrial businesses will be forced to leave Cambridge.

Further, it is not even clear that this new station will be preferable to the existing station for people living in large swathes of north Cambridge, e.g. near Histon Road and certainly near Huntingdon Road. There are two key aspects here, site access and train services. The politicians and bureaucrats are promising a good service, but it is unlikely to be as good as the service for the main station.

Access to the new train station is thus going to have to be near ideal in order for people to stop using the existing station. The county council probably realises this, and the train operators certainly realise this. But the city council, in particular the Lib Dems, live in a fantasy world where car hating is considered part of an "integrated" transport strategy. Currently the only access to the new station would be via Water Lane and Fen Road. If that remains the case, then many people will just boycott this station. Or similarly, if there is not enough car parking, or an easy way to drop people off and pick them up, then this station will not be used by many people whom it is allegedly intended for.

Companies in the Science Park and St John's Innovation Centre and especially the Cambridge Business Park, and in the new office blocks, if and when they are built, will be beneficiaries, because it will be easier to hire people who prefer the train to the car for getting to work. There are probably not many people like that, but there will be some.

For more articles (older ones) see archive.

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