Uncharted Territory

January 20, 2010

Parking Paralysis (and Housing Horror)

As we head towards what promises to be a fascinating General Election, the absurd first past the post system has ensured the parties are united in their zeal to pander to Middle England. And Middle England, it seems, is consumed with localist fervour.

What is localism, anyway?

The politicians would have you believe that the first stop on the road to true democracy is to “empower communities”. That is, they assert the moral right of the current residents of a given area to make a broad range of decisions without reference to the general interest.

The idea that the primary unit of a complex modern society is a “community” of people living near one another is, of course, absurd. In fact, our personal networks – including families – are, in general, becoming more and more geographically dispersed. We have little in common with most of our neighbours, other than the area where we live.

Harking back to an outmoded idea of the community masks what is really going on. What’s really happening is that the political process is becoming more and more skewed towards vested interests and against the general interest.

Take housing, for example. This morning I heard the Housing Minister, John Healey, on the Today programme, promising to clamp down on “garden-grabbing”.

Let’s put to one side the fact that John Prescott was right: we need to increase housing density. Labour has caved in on this principle as the Tories have gradually captured local government. But below a certain threshold of population density local shops are not economically viable; nor is public transport. Pretty soon everyone’s driving to Tesco’s. And the same nauseating nimbys who prevented “overdevelopment” are complaining about the loss of local shops and whinging about “Tesco towns”.

I consider it absolutely ridiculous that I’m in London Transport Zone 3, but 10 minutes walk from a pint of milk and a newspaper. If there were a few more flats nearby and perhaps fewer large private gardens, maybe there’d be enough people in walking distance to sustain a local corner-shop. If it could get planning permission.

Let’s ignore the “community” narrative and instead consider what’s really happening with the “clamp-down” on “garden-grabbing”. What John Healey is really doing is strengthening the rights of neighbours over the owners or prospective owners of property – despite the fact that the size of gardens has marginal impact on neighbouring properties, or, for that matter, their value. If they reduce the size of a garden, those bogey-men, the developers, are not simply being bloody-minded. The market is telling them that the land has less value as a garden than as building. If the opposite was the case they’d increase the size of gardens.

Obviously, the reason why “building” is more highly valued than “garden” could have something to do with the lack of available housing in many parts of the UK. But clearly our leaders don’t see this isn’t a good enough basis for a decision. The visceral feelings of neighbours are obviously far more important.

A few weeks ago Secretary of State John Denham rejected plans for a development near Ealing Broadway station. He acknowledged that the proposed “scheme would comply with some specific development plan policies relating to the regeneration of Ealing Town Centre and would bring many benefits to the area”, including 567 homes, but judged that all this value was outweighed by his subjective judgement (in response to local concerns) that “the bulk, massing and certain aspects of the design of the scheme would be inappropriate in its surroundings. It would fail to preserve or enhance the character and appearance of the Town Centre conservation area and the setting of the Haven Green conservation area, as well as harming the setting of the Grade II* listed Church of Christ the Saviour.” One person’s fears about their “visual amenity” (an irritating phrase repeated ad nauseam in planning documents) trumps another’s need for somewhere to live.

Look, Haven Green is a mess. It’s simply not that pleasant a place. It could conceivably be improved by removing the buses which stop and indeed park (for driver breaks, I gather) on the diagonal road across the Green. A recent Ealing Council document (pdf) noted that: “A major consideration, as part of both the Crossrail and Arcadia redevelopment proposals, is the provision of better interchange with local bus services.” But Arcadia is not going ahead, and, if I understand the document correctly, Crossrail has no budget to pay for a proper bus station.

The planning process is bad enough, but nowhere is localism more evident than in the battle for control of scarce road space.

Ealing Council, to my horror, is also consulting on a dreaded CPZ (controlled parking zone), which would affect me.

OK, the proliferation of CPZs can be largely explained in terms of local government bureaucrat empire-building, but there is clearly at least enough tacit public approval to allow them to get away with it. Let’s therefore consider the CPZ in my novel terms of the “local” (or “vested”) interest and the “general” interest.

Before a CPZ is implemented in a given street, everyone has an equal right to park there. After its implementation, car-owning residents generally have absolute priority. In fact, often the schemes are implemented with the shocking inefficiency that non-residents can’t even use the space when it is unoccupied! (Schemes variously allocate a few metered bays or, better, allow metered parking albeit for limited periods and at limited times in residents’ bays).

So, in approving a CPZ, residents in effect extend their property a couple of metres into the road in one fell swoop!

Do they pay a fair price for this asset, though?

Of course they don’t.

Permits for residents’ parking on public roads are often less than £100 per year, and rarely more than a few £100s. The market value of such parking – determined by the rates in the few metered bays typically provided or in nearby car-parks – is usually at least several pounds a day – £1000s, not £100s a year.

It’s not just outsiders who, in effect, subsidise permit-holders. Residents who don’t run cars are massively inconvenienced, as is everyone when they have visitors, or use local services. Estate agents, for example, have problems parking when they quite legitimately want to show properties to prospective purchasers or tenants.

What CPZ schemes fail to take account of is that residents’ cars are part of the problem, and not the only injured party. Personally, it seems to me that there would be more social utility in reserving parking places for estate agents than for residents who just want to leave half a tonne of steel and moulded plastic outside their house for 6 1/2 days a week.

If we’re going to have CPZ schemes, then, let’s charge a market rate for the parking space – upwards of £1000 a year (and allow the option of paying a daily rate for those residents who park their car elsewhere most of the time). Then we’d reduce car ownership, spaces could be allocated to car clubs and for visitors and our parking problems would be much reduced.

What Ealing really wants, though, is not an ever-growing CPZ area. What’s happened is they’ve tried to solve the problem of commuters parking near Ealing Broadway and West Ealing stations. Entirely predictably, the small CPZs implemented have just moved the problem. Now they’re consulting on more CPZs. Nice work, if you’re in the CPZ implementation business.

Is there another policy that might make more sense than the inefficiency of selling the public parking space asset at a discounted rate to residents who think they own “their” road? It is entirely legitimate to discourage car rather than bus or shoe-leather use by commuters. Why not, therefore, consider a congestion-charge scheme for non-residents coming into the centre of Ealing? One might hope that some of the London congestion-charge infrastructure could be fairly cheaply deployed just in the centre of Ealing. I’d suggest vehicles entering and leaving are monitored and the software programmed to charge only for those non-residents who stay in the area more than, say, an hour, since the objective in this case is not to penalise through-traffic but relieve pressure on on-street parking.

Perhaps it will take PR to slow the tide of localism. Certainly though, until the political process weighs the general interest more carefully against vested interests, our society will continue to be held back by dysfunctional and misguided decisions.

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October 16, 2009

Bus Fares, the Minimum Wage, Pensioners, and the Nonsense of RPI and CPI

Filed under: Bus, Economics, Inflation, Local government, Minimum wage, Politics, Transport, Tube — Tim Joslin @ 7:40 am

BBC Radio 4 is more than usually surreal this morning. Unless my ears deceived me, they just broadcast a nursery school teacher asking her young charges: “What rhymes with ‘bucket’?”. Recipe for disaster, I’d say. Earlier they’d announced that “Google, the world’s biggest search engine” has an opinion. No, the company may have an opinion, or, better, the CEO, but, unless the internet has become self-aware overnight, search engines do not have opinions.

So I decided that, rather than slob about, I’d make a point I’ve been dwelling on overnight.

On the BBC London News, after News at 10, the reporting of the London Transport fare rises brought home to me the scale of the price rises. Bus fares are going to rise by 20p. At the moment my Oyster is charged £1, now it will be £1.20. That’s 20%. Previously I’d only skimmed a BBC report that noted that:

“Bus fares are to go up by 12.7% and Tube fares will rise by 3.9%.”

I hadn’t really taken in the rest:

“Oyster card pay-as-you-go bus journeys are to rise from £1 to £1.20. … and the price of a seven-day bus pass will also jump from £13.80 to £16.60 but London Travelcard prices will be frozen in the vast majority of cases.”

This makes me suspicious. I’ve just downloaded the PDF from the BBC’s report. Yeap. The 12.7% and the 3.9% are spin – well, they’ve been constructed somehow, but without any information as to how, they are virtually worthless.

Like RPI and CPI, these % increases mean little. They do not reflect the effect on specific individuals.

In fact, the fare rises are ludicrously unfair. Is this the start of a Tory assault on the poor?

The key point is that fare rises on buses are much greater than those on the tube. The result is that the cost of living increases fastest for the poorest. Boris may not realise this (Ken did, apparently), but he shares London with people who catch the bus because they can’t afford the tube.

Let’s consider first how the fare changes affect those struggling on the minimum wage. Let’s assume Mr Minimum catches a bus to and from work 5 days a week. That’s 10 fares now at £1.20 rather than £1 – £10/wk now but £12/wk after 2nd January – a 20% increase as already mentioned. Now, the minimum wage recently increased from £5.73 an hour to £5.80, that is by 7p an hour. If Mr Minimum works 40 hours a week, he’s better off by £2.80/wk (before tax) because of the pay rise, but worse off by £2/wk because of the bus fare rise. That’s right – the fare increase has wiped out all but 80p, or (200/280)*100 = 71% of the rise in the minimum wage.

Maybe that’s not incredibly realistic. Mr Minimum might have to take 2 buses to work and 2 back. In that case he’d reach the daily fare cap on the buses. But this has risen from £3.30 to £3.90 or by 18% (exactly where did this 12.7% come from?). More to the point Mr Minimum will have to pay 5*60p = £3 extra per week to get to work. Wiping out his entire annual pay rise plus an additional 20p.

But, of course, if he used the bus to travel to work 5 days a week, Mr Minimum will most likely have taken advantage of the weekly Bus and Tram pass. How has this increased? From £13.80 to £16.60, that is by £2.80 or just over 20%, that’s how. Unbelievable.

If Mr Minimum works a 40 hour week, the bus fare increase wipes out his entire annual pay rise.

On the other hand, fares for most tube commuters will not increase at all – some peak fares and more to the point 7 day Travelcard prices are (mostly) frozen.

Bizarrely, off-peak tube fares have risen more than peak fares. The way to use the system more efficiently is to spread the load more. I would have thought a greater differential was called for. Train fares are punitive at peak times. Maybe both could converge on a happy medium.

I was going to mention pensioners, who have just been awarded a £2.40 weekly rise. Then I realised that pensioners can travel free on the buses anyway. In fact, pensioners are now rather more than £2.40 a week better off, since they would have been entitled to no rise at all based on RPI, which is negative. In general the increase in the state pension is based on an inflation index that includes transport costs, even though they pay less for transport than the general population.

What’s actually needed are indices that reflect the cost of living rises for different segments of the population, to be used for different purposes.

But there’s a bigger issue. When are we going to start treating the low-paid fairly?

July 13, 2009

Maggot Madness

I was more than usually bemused by this report on the Cambridge Evening News website.

“Horrified pensioner Anne Flack, of Chartfield Road, Cherry Hinton, felt revolted when she found maggots crawling in the bottom of her black bin after it was emptied this week.”

“Another city resident, Joscelyn Carroll, of Sleaford Street, who has previously found maggots in his black bin, said: ‘I find it ridiculous that with ever increasing council tax they cannot provide a weekly rubbish collection in this heat.’ ”

[My emphasis].

Whilst I very much agree with the sentiment that the bins should be emptied weekly – I’ve even said as much en passant to my local Cambridge Councillor – the issue is (or should be) the green bins. We have black boxes for papers, newspapers and cans; blue boxes for plastic bottles; collection points for batteries; charity shops for old clothes and crockery; procedures for dealing with fridges (even if these would fit in a black bag! [obliquely referencing Doug’s recent anecdote]) and other electrical goods; green bins for garden and kitchen waste as well as cardboard – that is, for those with no biology qualifications, practically everything that could support the typical maggot lifestyle; and black bins for everything else, which should be eff all.

So, the Cambridge Evening News reader might well wonder, why aren’t Anne Flack, of Chartfield Road, Cherry Hinton and Joscelyn Carroll, of Sleaford Street following the instructions of the Cambridge Soviet to the letter? Aren’t they putting their food waste in the green bins? As well as compostables (including “all kinds of cardboard”), I dutifully separate out bottles (glass and plastic), paper, tins and even batteries. There’s absolutely nothing in my black bin to support a maggot-dominated ecosystem. It contains little but inert packaging, much of it the same plastics as in the recycled bottles (not forgetting shiny Christmas wrapping paper – future civilisations millennia hence will wonder at the purpose of this least degradable of all human artefacts). Incidentally, guess why they only recycle plastic bottles? Because the sorting machine can only deal with rolly things! (Pointing out the absurdity of this was the substance of my letter to the Councillor).

Of course, no-one knows (as they say) what happens to the waste in the green bin. One suspects the answer is that it goes somewhere similar to the contents of the black bin – landfill, incineration or a layby on the A14. I find the idea that the waste from everyone’s green bins is pure enough to grow food in to be rather implausible.

Here’s what the Council has to say by way of “clarification”:

” ‘Despite rumours, there is no public health risk associated with putting food waste in green bins in Cambridge and it is completely safe for people to do so.’ ”

Que?, as Manuel would say. Rumours? What rumours? Can you catch swine flu or something from this “food waste”? The green bins are intended for food waste, not just garden waste (hey, wouldn’t it be better if those with gardens maintained their own compost heaps, anyway?). At least that’s what Cambridge Council have been telling me for the last 5 years.

“The council’s advice is to get a kitchen caddy – which is free for Cambridge residents – to collect food waste in the kitchen. Wrap all food waste in paper, rinse off food packaging, and keep wheelie bin lids closed.” [NSS* on the last bit!].

Thanks for letting me know before. But what exactly is a “kitchen caddy”? I use an old plastic food container – the kind the Council won’t recycle. It seems to do the job.

And here’s the screamer:

“Residents are also encouraged to put food waste in their black bin one week, and green the next, to get a weekly collection of food waste.”

Unbelievable. What are we saying now? After all this, it doesn’t really matter what goes in what bin?

—-
Maybe this is a good time to mention that the whole national recycling strategy is, of course, entirely misconceived. Government should simply take steps to create a market for recyclables (e.g. by acting as the buyer of last resort) so that suppliers to recycling companies buy the stuff off us (maybe via enterprising school-kids). Every newspaper, bottle, tin, potato peeling and so on that is recycled saves the landfill or other disposal cost so recycling could even be subsidised, though I’m convinced that, once established, the recycling industry would be profitable. And what’s more, you might find people clearing the bottles, cans and other trash from Parker’s Piece for nothing!

Give people clear incentives to do the right thing and we don’t need to try to run our lives on the basis of contradictory local council diktats.

*NSS = No Sh**, Sherlock! – of course!

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