Friday 29 September 2023

Should we all join them?


In the space of a single interview round yesterday, Rishi Sunak managed to say both that he wasn’t going to talk about the past because he was focussed on the future (in response to a question about Mad Nad), and that he wasn’t going to speculate about future things (in response to a question about HS2). Excluding both the past and the future is a neat way of limiting the scope of questions to which any sort of answer can be even half-expected, but if he’d given it enough thought in advance, he would have realised it left him with nothing much to say other than that it would be a good idea to fill in a few potholes, so he proceeded to say exactly that, at length.

Not speculating about speculation that he (or his minions) has himself started isn’t exactly honest, but then honesty isn’t exactly his strongest suit. He’s been at it again since, with Number 10 speculating about the possibility of banning (or at least restricting) the powers of English councils to follow Wales’ lead in introducing 20mph limits. Never let a good bandwagon go unjumped upon. For good measure, and just in case anyone thinks that he isn’t fully committed to the primacy of private cars, he has also encouraged speculation that he wants to clamp down on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and bus lanes, a policy not exactly designed to appeal to those who live in LTNs or who depend on buses. It’s not a question to which he can respond directly himself, of course, because that would be speculating about the future. Until after he’s announced it, in which case he won’t be able to talk about it because it will then be in the past. And once it’s in the past it’s someone else’s fault anyway. Probably Labour’s.

Talking of which, and closer to home, it seems that some of those opposed to 20mph limits in Wales are going to protest against the ‘blanket ban’ by driving slowly on roads where there has never been any suggestion of a reduction to 20mph, proving, in a strange way, that it isn’t a blanket ban at all. I don’t know what the accident statistics are like on the A55, A483 and M4 on a normal Saturday, but forcing people to drive along them at very low speed is a very peculiar kind of protest against low speed limits which carries the very real possibility that they will also demonstrate how cutting speed reduces both the number of accidents and the severity of injuries caused. Maybe Lee Waters should think about joining them.

Thursday 28 September 2023

Is going nowhere a viable option?


They say that Christopher Columbus was a man who didn’t know where he was going when he set out, didn’t know where he was when he got there, and didn’t know where he’d been when he got back. In all sorts of ways, that makes him an eminent role model for the current Prime Minister. In Sunak’s case, he doesn’t know whether the best time to announce the cancellation of the high speed link to Manchester is before he goes, while he’s there, or after he comes back. It’s not a question to which there is any ‘right’ answer, although his difficulty is probably based, at least in part, on a lack of understanding as to why on earth anyone would want to go to Manchester anyway, compounded by incredulity as to why people who really must go there don’t just follow his example and charter a helicopter. He could, of course, simply announce that the line will go ahead and that he never intended to cancel it in any case. That might lead to a few awkward questions about why he didn’t just say that a few days ago when the suggestion of cancellation started being floated, but a man who has never knowingly given a straight answer to any question should not find that too much of a problem. And it’s not as if scrapping policies which he’d never proposed in the first place is exactly a new tactic for him, given that he’s already scrapped the non-existent seven-bin policy, the meat tax, and compulsory car-sharing. (Just think how much money he could save by cancelling the UK’s manned mission to Mars. Or even to infinity and beyond. Indeed, if he scraps enough non-existent policies, he could save enough money, mathematically, to solve the cost-of-living crisis and put the UK’s budget into a very healthy surplus.)

The more substantive question – whether or not there should be a high-speed line to Manchester – is not as simple or straightforward as many suggest. There is no doubt that the construction is hugely expensive, although (even accepting that the UK is more densely populated), there are serious questions to be asked as to why it takes so much longer and why the cost is so much higher in the UK than in countries such as France and Spain which have built entire networks. And there is no doubt that the construction is environmentally damaging; if the question were as simple as ‘build it or don’t build it’, the arguments against would be strong ones, particularly if the argument for is little more than saving a little bit of time on the journey. The alternative, though, is most definitely not to do nothing. Short of actively preventing people from travelling (either by direct prohibition or else by making the cost prohibitive to those who can’t simply charter a helicopter), the demand for travel is increasing, and that leads to a need for more capacity. The question is about how to provide that capacity.

There are options. The UK could build more roads – either completely new ones or by adding lanes to existing ones. Or it could expand airport capacity, involving extra runways and terminals, more planes and higher frequency flights. There are already multiple daily flights from Heathrow to Manchester and back, with a flight time of a little over an hour, but Heathrow is more or less operating at full capacity already which is why it wants to build an extra runway. With its extensive network of high speed lines, France has already announced an (albeit imperfect) ban on all internal flights where the train journey takes less than 2.5 hours. If high speed trains were to run all the way to Scotland, and if the high speed network were to be extended to the south of Wales and the West of England, a similar policy in the UK would eliminate most domestic flights.

The question is not whether HS2 is environmentally damaging, but whether it is seen as a stand-alone project or part of a network linking the UK to the European network and how the degree of damage caused compares with the other options. The cheapest and least damaging option is very clear – reduce the extent to which people travel at all. If that’s unpalatable, then a network of new fast and reliable rail links is probably the least-worst option. But ‘doing nothing’ is no option at all. Unless you're Rishi Sunak and looking no further than the next election.

Thursday 21 September 2023

What makes a concern 'legitimate'?


It’s not clear whether Sunak actually believes a word of what he had to say yesterday. Perhaps he does, perhaps he doesn’t – either way the one thing that is clear is that his perception of the short-term political needs of his party trumps the long term needs of planet Earth. It’s a perspective which certainly fits with his background in what are euphemistically called ‘financial services’, where short term profit always trumps longer term considerations. The one semi-honest thing that he did manage to say was that he wasn’t abandoning the aspiration of achieving a zero-carbon economy by 2050. It’s just that he failed to add that he was abandoning or delaying most of the methods by which that aspiration could be realised. At a time when science tells us we need to act faster, he's deliberately choosing to slow down. And he did so largely on the basis of avoiding ‘unaffordable’ costs for families and individuals. 'Leading the world' on climate change turns out to be nothing more than rhetoric - who'd have thought it?

Labour’s response hasn’t been much better, with an obvious disinclination to promise to undo the damage being caused by Sunak. A spokesperson for the GMB put the so-called dilemma in these terms: “…we have to listen to the legitimate concerns of ordinary people, many of whom are struggling to get by”. It’s a sentence which could have been uttered by Sunak himself, underlining two things: the common fear in both parties that people won’t like the costs of doing something about climate change, and the common rejection by both parties of collective action led by the government rather than leaving individuals to pay those costs.

‘Legitimate concerns’ sounds very grown-up, and something which any party should do, but it is a smokescreen. The question we should be asking of those who use the phrase, are: what are those ‘legitimate concerns’ driving the policies of both parties, and who decides whether and to what extent they are indeed ‘legitimate’ before changing policy on the basis of them? What if the ‘legitimate concerns’ turn out to be little more than a regurgitation of baseless fears grounded in the daily diet of lies, half-truths and propaganda served up by the Sun, the Mail, and the Express? ‘Listening’ to those concerns then begins to look an awful lot like outsourcing policy development to the leader writers of the right-wing tabloid press. And that’s exactly what the Tories and Labour alike seem to be doing.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Values are reflected in actions, not words


The news that the Home Secretary’s response to critical inspection reports at immigration detention centres was to stop the inspections ought to be shocking, but in the case of Suella Braverman it is entirely in line with her general approach. The decision, taken after the last report in September 2022, and accompanied by a decision not to extend the term of office of the ‘independent’ inspector, does not augur well for the implementation of the report of the latest inquiry into conditions at one centre. Apparently Home Office officials were reported as saying that the reports were “excessively critical”. From their perspective, it seems, the purpose of an ‘independent’ report is to tell the government what a wonderful job it is doing, not to report on actual conditions.

The inquiry report, along with the undercover Panorama programme which provoked it, tells a dismal story of inhumane and degrading treatment being meted out to vulnerable people as though it were an entirely normal way to behave. The overall culture, of course, starts from the top: even if she didn’t intend (and that’s giving her an awful lot of benefit of the doubt) people to behave quite so brutally, the Home Secretary’s language and rhetoric has repeatedly suggested a degree of contempt and disregard for those people detained on her orders. And culture set from the top filters down through the ranks, and gets reflected in appalling behaviour at the level of those in direct contact with those whom she clearly regards as people without rights.

Yet there is something about this which worries me more. Those doing the degrading and the insulting are, outside of their work, probably indistinguishable ordinary citizens. People with families and friends; people who shop and socialise in the same places as the rest of us. However normal they may appear when out and about in society, in the workplace they have become brutalised and desensitized to the needs of other human beings, whom they have come to see as somehow less than human. It’s not the first time in history that it’s happened and nor is it the worst example, but here, close at hand, we can see how easy it is for inhumanity to express itself through apparently ordinary individuals. Once a culture sets in, it spreads. Most of us would like to think that we’re immune, but a famous psychology experiment in the past has shown how easy it is for people to become cruel when ‘authority’ tells them to.

‘I was only obeying orders’ (even if, in the specific case of the detention centre, it isn’t direct ‘orders’ as such, merely a question of falling in with the general culture) has always been a poor excuse. Fear of the consequences of failing to follow orders is easier to understand, although the effect is the same. But the evident and proven facility with which people can fall into cruel patterns of behaviour when encouraged to do so by those in authority places even more responsibility on those setting the culture, as well as those managing an organisation at all levels, to take care with their words and actions. It’s a responsibility which Braverman cannot even begin to comprehend. And knowing what she’s doing whilst doing nothing to stop it makes Sunak every bit as complicit. When we want to know what are those great British values which allegedly unite us, the actions, or inactions, of the government tell us a great deal more than their words.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

Considering second choices


One of the problems of the oft-vaunted ‘progressive alliance’ is the difficulty in defining what a ‘progressive’ actually is. For most of those promoting the idea, it seems to be more-or-less equivalent to ‘anti-Tory’; but being anti one thing isn’t at all the same thing as having a common platform or a shared set of values. Another of the problems is that it runs up against the tribalistic inclinations of many politicians, especially those in the Labour Party who believe that any sort of electoral alliance involves, in essence, other parties standing aside for Labour. A third problem is that it involves clearly identifying which anti-Tory party is best-placed to beat the Tories in any particular seat, communicating that effectively to the electorate, and persuading them to vote for that party in order to defeat the Tories.

That last issue is currently playing out in the seat abandoned by Nadine Dorries after she was foolish enough to believe that a promise made by Boris Johnson might actually be honoured. The parties and pollsters are busily trying to profile the electors in the seat to decide whether the constituency is more akin to those seats snatched by the Lib Dems over the past year or so or to those snatched by Labour – in both cases with stunning swings unlikely to be repeated in a general election. A poll commissioned by the Labour Party shows the race as being neck-and-neck between themselves and the Tories (quelle surprise), and I have no doubt that the Lib Dems are, as usual, distributing tens of thousands of leaflets containing dodgy bar charts demonstrating why ‘Labour can’t win here’. The result, according to Labour, is that there is a danger of the Tories sneaking through the middle – their vote could collapse compared with last time, but without voters lining up behind just one of the other two challenging parties, their residual support could end up being still high enough for the party to retain the seat.

It's also clear that both Labour and the Lib Dens are getting ready to blame the other for such an outcome. For once, and despite their presumed use of dubious statistics in support of their campaign, the Lib Dems are marginally on the higher moral ground here. They have consistently supported a system of proportional representation which would allow voters to express a second choice rather than just a first. If, as both parties seem to believe, the supporters of both parties really do see the other as preferable to the Tories, then the electors would easily settle the question as to which was best-placed to defeat the Tories, albeit that that would not become clear until after the votes were cast and counted. The Labour leadership, however, remain firmly wedded to the idea of ‘first-past-the-post’ elections, a position which effectively means that they would prefer a Tory victory to an outcome which more fully expresses the views of the electorate.

Fortunately, not all of Labour’s leaders share that approach, however. Here in Wales, the government has published more detail on its proposals to move to a much more representative electoral system. Much of the criticism of the changes has concentrated on the fact that they are proposing ‘closed’ lists, under which people can only vote for a party rather than the individuals. It’s a reasonable point, although it’s the system that has been used quite happily for the Senedd list seats and for electing MEPs for some years.  It also skates over the fact that the extent to which people vote for individuals rather than a party in the first place is greatly exaggerated, both by politicians themselves who want to claim some sort of personal mandate, and by media outlets who want to portray politics as being primarily about the careers of individuals. To me, the bigger criticism by far is that the system revolves entirely around first choice votes; voters casting a vote for a party which doesn’t achieve enough votes to win a seat in a constituency have their votes effectively excluded from affecting the outcome at all. If they knew that, in the event of the party for which they cast their first vote failing to achieve any representation on the basis of first choice votes, their second choice vote would be counted, that would encourage more people to see their votes as having a relevance, as well as producing a result more reflective of public opinion. Whilst the proposals are a huge step forward from where we are, it’s a missed opportunity to do the job properly. As ever, established parties really don’t want other parties gaining any sort of toehold.

Monday 18 September 2023

Manufacturing their own rods?


Well, here we are on Day 2 of the new 20mph default urban speed limit in Wales and so far the sky has not fallen in, despite the dire predictions of the Chicken Licken party in the Senedd. It’s true, of course, that it will take some time for all of the implications to become fully clear (and it’s more than likely that, in the light of experience, there will be changes in terms of which roads are affected). One of the wilder doomsday predictions that caught my attention was the one quoted repeatedly by the Tories about a hit of £4.5 billion to the Welsh economy. Turns out it’s actually a figure taken directly from the Welsh Government’s own Impact Analysis (there’s nothing quite like making a rod for your own back, something which sometimes seems to be a particular specialty of Welsh Labour) which is available here.

The number just didn’t feel right to me, and as I’ve mentioned before, my old maths teacher was a fan of the ‘common sense test’: if the number which emerges from a series of calculations doesn’t feel right, check your assumptions and check your workings, and then check them again. In this case, there is a second reason for doubting the accuracy of the figure – one might call it the ‘Tory statistics rule’ – if the Tories quote a number, particularly if it involves unquestioning acceptance of a number produced by a Labour government, the number must be axiomatically presumed to be dubious. And indeed it is. There are a number of caveats to it which the Tories have chosen to ignore (although, in mitigation, any expectation that they would read and understand the whole document is obviously unfair). At the heart of the calculation is an assumption that every minute’s delay has a direct financial cost.

In the case of delivery drivers or bus drivers, for example, it is possible that there will indeed be a cost: if the working day is extended, overtime might be payable, and if the cumulative delays are large, more staff might be required, at a cost to the employing company (although it’s worth at least asking whether creating a few extra jobs shouldn’t then go on the benefits side of the equation as well). On the other hand, it should be noted that the actual impact on their time depends on the actual reduction in average speed, which is not at all the same thing as driving 10mph more slowly. But for the rest of us, if it takes me an extra five minutes to drive to the supermarket and back, can that really be considered a financial cost at all? For sure, those ‘five minutes’ accumulate over a period, and after 12 trips, I might have lost a whole hour of my life (although in the real world that might depend more on how many tractors I encounter en route in either scenario – a number which is almost never zero in these parts – which would reduce my average speed anyway). But that loss of time won’t actually cost me, directly, a single penny. Trying to monetize those odd minutes for the sake of filling in numbers to allow an algorithm to calculate the total cost in pounds and pennies strikes me as a particularly futile use of civil service time and effort.

The Chicken Licken party’s time and intellect (I’m being kind with the second of those factors) might be better employed investigating how much that part of the exercise cost in civil service time and in how many other cases similarly futile calculations are being made, rather than quoting meaningless figures out of context as though they were gospel truth. But, as I remember the tale from my childhood, more investigative work and less dramatic headlines was never really what Chicken Licken’s story was all about. Drakeford might not be entirely unhappy about the comparison:- Chicken Licken never did get to tell the king about his sky problem - but the fox's family ate well as a result of his overdone panic.

Friday 15 September 2023

The anti-Robin Hood


In very general terms, when an individual’s earnings rise faster than prices, he or she feels better off, but when prices rise faster than earnings, he or she will feel worse off. At its core, the pensions triple lock was designed to ensure that people wholly dependent on the state pension would never suffer from the latter situation, because the annual increase is tied to the higher of earnings and prices, with a minimum increase of 2.5%. Over time, it is a system which guarantees that pensioners will never feel worse off, and should generally feel better off. And, with a few caveats, it’s worked; it's one of the few 'successes' of the last thirteen years of Tory government but instead of boasting about it, they seem determined to run away from it. It has lifted significant numbers of pensioners out of the poverty into which they were driven by the Thatcher government’s decision to break the link between earnings and pensions.

The argument for ‘reform’ seems to be driven by at least two different ideas: firstly, that it is wrong that pensioners should uniquely be protected from the government policy of driving down living standards; and secondly, that it is in some way ‘unaffordable’ to ensure that pensioners are protected from falling living standards. In principle, the argument that falling living standards should apply to all is not without some validity (although, as I’ve noted previously, there is a big unanswered question about what the relationship should be between the level of pension and the level of average earnings, an issue which politicians seem keen to avoid since it exposes the relatively low level of UK pensions to scrutiny) but it’s a diversion from the real question, which is why we accept a situation where the government of the day sets out, entirely deliberately, to reduce people’s living standards. Encouraging working families to look enviously at the level of pensions increases is a neat bit of ‘divide and conquer’ politics which diverts attention from the question of why people should have to accept reduced living standards in the first place. (Not all people, of course – blaming pensions for the plight of the many is also a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from the way in which wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.)

‘Affordability’ is another piece of diversionary sleight of hand: those arguing the case are doing so because they want to cut taxes (in ways which just happen to benefit the most well-off) and have convinced themselves that they need to cut pensions costs in order to do so. (There are alternatives available, even within that artificial straitjacket which ties government spending to tax income.) They see pensions only as a ‘cost’ and not as a means of ensuring a decent life for the oldest members of society, a viewpoint which translates into seeing pensioners themselves as a cost rather than full citizens. It’s worth noting that those so keen to restrict the level of pensions are never going to be wholly dependent on the state pension themselves. MPs enjoy a generous pension scheme of their own and the state pension will represent only a minority portion of their retirement income. The same is true for many others of us, of course; but when dealing with the minimum level of pension, the starting point should always be to look at the position of those who are totally dependent on that income. If the result of that is that the full state pension is also paid to some who, it could be argued, do not ‘need’ that income, then a properly progressive tax regime can and would reclaim a proportion by taxing their other income more. That would, however, involve taking money from those most able to afford it – the demand for changing the triple lock is about ensuring that money is taken, instead, from those least able to afford it, in order to reduce taxes on those who can.

It's a reverse form of the English folk hero, Robin Hood – instead of taking from the rich to give to the poor, they want to take from the poor and give to the rich. It’s depressing that the self-styled party of working people, Labour, is so unable and unwilling to put the argument for fairness, preferring to echo the Tory arguments about sustainability which encourage ordinary people to see each other as the enemy.

Thursday 14 September 2023

Proudly un-British

One of the least attractive tendencies of some nationalists is their attempt to define what national identity is and what belonging to a nation means. We see it at times in Wales when some people insist that it is impossible to be both Welsh and British, and that people must make a definitive choice between the two, with the implication that not choosing to be exclusively Welsh is effectively opting for Britishness. Given that, in practice, large numbers of people in Wales are quite happily living under the impression that they can indeed be both Welsh and British, it doesn’t strike me as the most useful or productive of approaches, and is part of my own reason for favouring the term independentista as a description of those seeking independence for Wales. Strangely, many of those demanding that their compatriots make the choice are quite happy to regard their own identity as being both Welsh and European.

The phenomenon is far from being restricted to nationalists of the Welsh persuasion however. The Anglo-British nationalists whose defining characteristic is their deluded belief that they’re not nationalists at all are just as bad, if not worse. ‘Keith’ Starmer is at it today, declaring that it is ‘un-British’ to disagree with Labour’s policy on immigration. It’s a counter-productive approach which serves only to make me, and I’m sure many others as well, feel even less British. And proud of being un-British. Just like the Tories, Labour see the problem as entirely one of policing – stopping people from getting into boats and smashing the smuggling rings – rather than about understanding the reasons for mass movements of people and addressing those causes. I can agree with Keith that people traffickers are vile and the trade needs to be stamped out, but one of the reasons that some people live in rich countries (and oppose immigration) whilst others (those getting into the boats) live in poor countries is the actions of the people traffickers of the past, many of whom grew rich on the trade and were feted and honoured in their home countries. Inequality between different parts of the world didn’t happen by accident, fate, or act of god; it is the direct result of a process of colonialisation and exploitation which systematically stripped wealth from some parts of the world and shipped it to others. We can’t undo that past, and whilst ‘reparations’ sounds like an attractive idea, it’s not clear to what extent it would solve the underlying problem.

That underlying problem is global inequality (exacerbated, of course, by war, famine, and repressive regimes, all of which are ultimately caused, armed, and sustained by the richer countries of the world), and with no plan to tackle that – and Labour clearly has no more of a plan to do so than the Tories – then ‘policing’ the symptoms is the only remaining option. It’s not a ‘solution’ though, merely a way of seeking to ‘manage’ the problem into the long term. And because it’s not a solution, those who claim that it is are forced into ever more repressive and draconian measures in order to demonstrate that they are ‘dealing with’ an issue which they themselves have chosen to exaggerate for political gain. It’s a long way removed from the ‘brotherhood of man’ espoused by Labour’s pioneers. Unless and until we are prepared to treat the Earth’s resources as being held in common for the benefit of all, rich countries are going to have to spend an awful lot of time and effort on reinforcing the wall to keep the dispossessed out.

Tuesday 12 September 2023

Knee-jerk reactions to dog attacks are too simplistic


Responding to the latest attack by a bully XL dog, Suella Braverman has suggested that the breed should be banned (even if no-one can fully define it, or say whether it might actually already be banned under existing, necessarily vague, breed definitions). Her reasoning is that the breed poses a “clear and lethal danger to our communities”. She may, yet again, be guilty of not thinking through the full implications of her words. If we are going to ban anything which represents a ‘clear and lethal danger to our communities’, we might usefully start by banning Bravermans, on the basis that one member of that breed has done a huge amount of damage to communities and is intent on doing more.

The comparison does, however, highlight the danger in jumping from a single malicious individual to an entire breed. Should all Bravermans really be tarred with the same brush on the basis of the actions of one of their number? Many of the experts tell us that the problem, in the case of dogs at least, isn’t with particular dogs, or even with particular breeds; it’s a problem of nurture, which starts with the owners and their dog-keeping skills, or lack thereof. On that basis, maybe it’s Sunaks which need to be banned, although that does, of course, raise the same problem as to whether all Sunaks should be banned purely on the basis of the wholly inadequate Braverman-keeping skills of one of their number.

Perhaps the real problem here – with dogs and Bravermans alike – is the tendency of some politicians to rush to promise sweeping and over-simplistic legislation in response to any and every incident, without the necessary analysis to determine where the real problem actually lies. The degree to which keeping a dog – any dog – is an entirely ‘safe’ activity is a question that politicians are afraid to ask, because so many of their constituents are dog-lovers. But there is always a finite (even if generally small) level of risk. (Full disclosure: My own aversion to the species started when I had a paper-round as a teenager, and had to fend off the occasional canine, all of whose owners assured me that the dog in question was harmless just as it was attempting to nip the back of my leg.) It seems, however, that an expectation of analysis and rational thinking before pronouncing sentence (literally, in this case, because a ban would lead to the judicial killing of an unknown number of dogs, most of which never harmed anyone) is unrealistic. They’d sooner just resort to the customary dog whistle.

Tuesday 5 September 2023

Could we really do any worse?


Leaving aside the colourful language with which the English Education Secretary expressed herself in an unguarded moment yesterday, what came through was a belief that parents should be extremely grateful to the current government for acting after previous governments had done nothing about the issue. If you assume, as the English constitution does, that a new Prime Minister equals a new government, and that a new government cannot be held responsible for the actions of its predecessors, then she almost has half a point. In the real universe, the one most of us inhabit, it’s rather more clear that the problem has been building up for years, and that successive Tory governments have cut back school building and refurbishment. At the moment it’s perceived as being primarily an English problem, but that is at least partly down to the fact that the English government has been slow and reluctant to share information about its findings. And when it comes to putting things right, we will come up against the fact that English spending on rectification works directly impacts the amount available in Wales, through the application of the Barnett formula. It’s hard to believe that similar construction methods weren’t used as widely in Wales as in England, and that there aren’t more problems waiting to be exposed.

That rectification will be costly, on which note Sunak wants us to be grateful, apparently, that he only cut the rate of building new or replacement schools down to 50 a year when he was Chancellor, a level in line with what had happened under the previous (also Tory) administration, and despite the fact that he was being told that the government needed to plan to replace at least 400 a year. Even that higher figure is inadequate to meet the need. England, we are told, has 22,000 schools: assuming that the planned lifetime of each school is 40 years, then 550 need to be replaced every year just to stand still. A replacement rate of 50 every year implies a planned average building lifetime of 440 years. In Wales, there are around 1470 schools; if the replacement rate were to match that in England (<0.25% per annum), there would be a similar requirement for buildings to last hundreds of years.

Whilst this might appear an entirely normal expectation to Wykehamists like Sunak (where some buildings date back to 14th Century) or Old Etonians (some date back to 1440), it really isn’t applicable to the schools most children attend. There certainly are many buildings more than a century old (indeed, my old primary school was built in 1908 and is still in use) and, arguably, there is no great rush to replace them all on grounds of imminent collapse (although I still remember the incident in the late 1950s when the ceiling in one of our classrooms fell down – we had some time off while they assessed the rest). They were built to last. But whether schools designed and built in an era when children sat at individual desks in neat rows in strictly delineated classes are still entirely suitable for delivering the modern curriculum is a more complex question, to say nothing of the number of them which have some classes in demountable buildings installed as a ‘temporary’ measure decades ago. The problems which have emerged over the past week are largely in the (comparatively) newest schools, built from the 1960s on, which were deliberately built not to last that long in order to save on building costs at the time (and, although the problem identified is with the concrete, it would be a mistake to blithely assume that that was the only lifetime-limiting factor with the materials and methods used). The extent to which building cheaply to last just a few decades makes sense depends largely on whether there is a long term plan in place for eventual replacement. And there isn’t, and never has been. That isn’t just a Tory problem; governments of all colours have just assumed that the quoted lifespan was some sort of guaranteed minimum, rather than an accurate assessment, and made no plans for a rolling programme of rebuilding. It makes the economic projections for government expenditure look ‘better’ (i.e. lower), although it does somewhat divorce them from reality when this sort of need arises.

It’s not entirely unfair of the Welsh government to say that their ability to deal with the problem is constrained by London, although that’s not something which the perpetually and professionally angry leader of the Welsh Tories is ever likely to admit. They have, perhaps, been too ready to do nothing until England suddenly announced the problem, but there is little that they can do about the funding issue until England acts. And Hunt’s statement that they will do whatever it takes as long as it doesn’t cost any more tells us already that English action will be inadequate. Both questions (waiting for England to lead on identifying the problem, and depending on English decisions for funding) underline the issue at the heart of ‘devolution’; real power remains elsewhere. There is, of course, no guarantee than an independent Welsh government would have done any better (although it couldn’t have done much worse). But we in Wales wouldn’t be able to blame anyone else, and would have to take responsibility both for the problem and fixing it. That would surely be an improvement on where we are now.

Friday 1 September 2023

Bringing back national service?


Desperate times call for desperate measures and there is more than a hint of desperation about the latest proposal from some Tories for the return of national service. It’s not surprising that the idea draws most support from the older voters to whom it would not apply and least from those to whom it would actually apply. Since national service was abolished in 1960, and only applied to those over 18, no-one born after 1942 would ever have been conscripted. So, only that pool of electors aged over 80 would have direct personal experience, and demographics dictates that that is a diminishing pool. In any event, the form of national service being proposed is not one which would be recognised by that cohort; using the same term to describe the new proposal looks like a deliberate attempt to mislead by appealing to nostalgia.

The new proposal would be for a ‘voluntary’ (code for ‘applies mostly to working class kids rather than those from better off homes’) period of service for which all young people are automatically signed up unless they specifically opt out, comprising a whole two weeks of residential training, accompanied by 6 months community service, and an optional further 12 month long ‘civic programme’. The objective, according to the authors of the report (available here), is to address what they see as three key challenges: young people are, they claim, unskilled, unhappy and unmoored (by 'unmoorerd' they mean: have lost a sense of belonging to their community or nation – which ‘nation’ do they have in mind, I wonder – and are less patriotic). The last of those looks an awful lot like an appeal to a sense of old-style British patriotism and a strange belief that a bit of discipline and inculcation will restore that pride of old, whilst the first two look more like an attempt to deal with the consequences of the failure of both the education system and the economic structures of the UK, both of which are letting people down badly. Addressing the causes of those failures would be the most rational approach, but that would involve the sort of critical thinking about the way the UK works (or rather doesn’t, and not just for young people) of which Tories are completely incapable.

One of the proposals being put forward to pay for this programme would be to end the pensions triple lock and divert the money saved as a result of paying lower pensions. But since the main beneficiaries of the triple lock, over the long term, are actually younger people (and especially those in lower paid jobs with inadequate occupational pensions), this amounts to using the future pensions of today’s young working class people to pay for them to attend a two week indoctrination session, provide six months of free labour, and look forward to retiring on a lower pension than would otherwise be the case. As an exercise in shoring up the votes of the dwindling 80+ generation, it might just work, although the law of diminishing returns applies. (And having successfully conned older generations into believing that the triple lock primarily benefits them, it could also backfire). Apparently, however, some Tories actually see it as an attempt to win the votes of disillusioned youth. They seem to be placing a great deal of dependence on the fact that the education system is failing to give young people a good grounding in basic mathematics.