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.

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