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And then again

In which there are updates on a couple of items


Well, hello there. Happy new year and all that.

I’ve broken the silence because, in the post below this one, you might notice that I said the one-off Dirk Gently adaptation broadcast on BBC4 last Christmas “very much had the smell of a pilot about it”. Funnily enough, the BBC agreed with me, so much so that it will be getting a short series in 2012. Whether the series will also be filmed in Easton, Montpelier and St Werburghs remains to be seen. Nostradamus himself would be jealous of my keen-eyed prediction skills.

In other futurology updates: a year ago, I predicted that the new government would last about fifteen months, collapsing over electoral reform. I now have three months left on that one, and the electoral reform has gone the way I always thought it would.* We will see. Nostradamus may not be quite so impressed. In slightly better news, though, we do now have the tea towel that we wanted this time last year. The downside to this: I now have to catch up on all the washing-up that’s been waiting since then.

* Despite being a Yes voter myself. No, not that Yes.

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Not In My Back Garden

In which we talk about redevelopment and green space


Yesterday, I mentioned that we’d noticed some urban camping going on in Totterdown and Hotwells, and speculated that maybe it was a wild-camping tourist. Of course, it’s always possible that it was somebody who’s decided that mortgages and rents are just too expensive, and is living rough instead. It’s unlikely, I’d have thought, but possible. In the south-west, affordable housing is hard to find.

It might be getting harder, too. Yesterday’s news included an announcement that local councils will be able to block developments on garden land.

Note that the article there is rather optimistic as to whether that type of development will be stopped. It won’t be; the decision on whether to allow it will be devolved to local government, which is in democratic terms a Good Thing that’s hard to argue against. In practical terms, though, it means that developments will be stopped in areas where residents have the means and inclination to be influential and to lean on their councillors; and will be concentrated in areas where nobody’s going to complain. In other words, another polarisation policy, to increase the economic differentiation of our towns and suburbs.

At first sight, I thought, it sounds like it might be a good idea. After all, I grew up in a leafy suburb, built in a time and place when housing plots included reasonable gardens, and so I quite enjoy tree-lined avenues and verdant cul-de-sacs that help you forget you’re in a city. But, thinking about it, I’m not so sure it’s a good idea. Verdant cul-de-sacs are nice, but affordable housing is better. A blanket ban on building over gardens isn’t what’s needed; what would be more useful is a more general control on maximum density of housing. If the planning regulations included a rule that every X square metres of new housing must include Y square metres of private or public garden space, then developers would be as free as they liked to demolish old houses and replace them with flats; the open space and the greenery would be preserved, just in a slightly different form.

It doesn’t take much, after all, to give an area the greenery it needs. Symbolic Towers, from the front, has no green space at all, one house in a line of terrace with virtually every front yard concreted, tiled or gravelled over.* At the back, we only have a small square of garden, too. But despite its small size, the garden and the gardens alongside are a quiet, peaceful, green space, sheltered from the inner city with trees and bushes.

It’s easy to forget, when a development is fresh and harsh, how time mellows a landscape. As I said, I grew up in a tree-lined surburban estate, and that’s how it is in my memory. When I look back at photos from my childhood, though, I’m shocked by how bare it looks. There’s hardly any greenery to be seen: it’s a stark landscape of red-brick houses, bare, plain lawns and sticky saplings staked into the ground here and there. In my memory it’s always as it is now, those saplings all fleshed out into fully-grown trees, and gardens grown up to fill in the spaces.** We forget that gardens take time to grow and mature; we forget, indeed, that Britain has no such thing as natural countryside at all, even our “ancient woodlands” being to some extent man-made.*** Developing on garden space isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as some green space remains; and it’s easy for “we don’t want to lose the green space next door” to be a cover for “we don’t want flats that just anyone can afford next door!” If we have rules that ensure that some green space will remain, we can redevelop our cities in a sensible and healthy way. And in thirty years time, those new flats will be surrounded by greenery, and people will wonder that their street was ever any different.

* Do not ask about the gravel. Unless, that is, you would like some free gravel.

** Memo to my parents, 30 years ago: think twice about moving into a house with a horse chestnut sapling planted at the end of the driveway, because before it’s a third fully grown it will already have buggered up the drains.

*** They are still ancient, of course. But pollen analysis shows firstly that their mixture of trees is rather different to the genuine primaeval forest that grew up between the end of the recent ice age and the start of farming; and, secondly, that we probably have rather more woodland today than we did 2,000 years or so ago.

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Slash, slash, slash

In which spending cuts may be a good thing


Following on from yesterday’s post about government spending cuts: there is, of course, one thing that would save quite a bit more money than freeing up some unused phone numbers. Regular readers of this blog will – especially if they were regular readers about a year ago – be very bored of me droning on about the West Of England Partnership‘s* ongoing guided busway scheme, which consists essentially of turning former and current railway alignments such as the Bristol-Bath Railway Path or the Bristol Harbour Railway into private roads for the exclusive use of First Group, at public cost. Rather high public cost, at that, as for any road scheme; and the first phase of the project would have no purpose other than to replace the current Ashton park-and-ride services with new, less useful, park-and-ride services from the same car park. Follow this link to read more.

Well, the local press has suddenly noticed that cancelling this scheme might be a nice easy way to cut the Department for Transport’s budget down a bit; and other local bloggers have had similar news on another poorly-thought-out local transport scheme. That big hole in the government budget, it appears, is suddenly going to mean no money for new roads, whether that be a replacement for Hartcliffe Way, or paving over the Harbour Railway so that bus routes 903 and 352 can avoid Hotwells Road.**

Reading that Evening Post article highlights, really, how pointless the guided busway scheme is. It goes to the new museum, an entire ten minutes walk from the Centre. It goes to the new football stadium site – as, er, do the existing park and ride buses. How many people want to get the bus between the two?

You might also notice a quote from Councillor Hopkins in that article. “An alternative might be a much cheaper ultra-light rail system, which was tried out on a short stretch of Bristol’s dockside several years ago.” He’s referring to a machine called the Parry People Mover, a small lightweight railcar powered by a flywheel that gets charged up at stops. I don’t see it happening, either. Parry People Movers have been tried at various sites, including the Bristol Harbour railway, but they’ve never seemed to last very long except for one location, Stourbridge (West Mids), a very short line with no intermediate stops. They need a railway line to run on, and reinstating the railway to Ashton Gate then extending it to Ashton Vale would be as expensive, probably, as building a road. Similarly, you couldn’t extend a Parry People Mover line into the city: you’d have to lay tramlines, for one thing, and if you were doing that, you may as well go with a real tram that doesn’t have to wait for a 5- or 10-minute recharge at each stop.

So: a short-for-cash government means no new buses and no new roads. In the long run, no new public transport is a Bad Thing; but new roads, public or private, always mean more traffic, higher emissions, and more oil used up. Hopefully, an enforced pause will mean we can wait for a while, until we can design a transport scheme that’s actually useful, not just one that’s easy.

* I do wonder sometimes what other local councils, like, say, Somerset, Devon, Dorset or Cornwall think of the CUBA local authorities claiming the name “West of England” for themselves and themselves alone.

** Because that, essentially, is all that first phase of the “Bus Rapid Transit” scheme, for all the work it needs, amounts to.

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Snip, snip, snip

In which we reveal that there really are hundreds of government helplines that nobody ever phones – but cutting them won’t actually have any effect


Today’s big news story: the government has started on its grand crusade to save money and thereby rescue the nation. Whether it will work remains to be seen, of course. I was intrigued, though, by one assertion which I heard on the news this morning: the government will save money by cutting back on call centres and helplines, because there are, apparently, many many government helplines which have barely even received a single call.*

Which sounds, on the face of it, shocking. Hundreds of phone lines that have never taken a call? Surely there must be warehouses full of call-centre staff sitting waiting for the phone to ring, sitting with their feet up reading magazines and flicking balls of paper at each other, because they have hundreds of phone lines but no calls to take?

Er, no. Despite the image put across there, it is completely false. I know this because: well, I have worked for such phone lines. Yes, there are indeed hundreds of government-funded phone numbers that have never, ever taken a call. That’s because that’s how marketing people like it. The total extra cost of it, per phone line, is peanuts – maybe it gets into whole tens of pounds if you add up absolutely all the figures, but that’s about it.

This is how it works. When the government’s marketing people** think they might want to run a new advertising campaign, they buy up a block of phone numbers, 0800, 0845, or whatever. Then, they produce their TV adverts, print adverts, leaflets, whatever: and each one gets a different phone number on it. All of these numbers will point to the same team – who will usually be already handling a similar type of helpline – and, it’s true, someone does have to go through a spreadsheet of phone numbers and route them to the right call centre. It’s not tricky work. When a call comes in, the hard-worked call-centre staff look at their screen, and make a note of which number it came in on.*** That information all gets collated, filed, and sent back to the government marketeers, who will graph it all carefully and say “ooh, Leaflet 72B didn’t work very well, it only got half the calls-per-leaflet of Leaflet 72C.”

The reason they do it this way is: it gives them reliable data, not data that relies on the caller’s memory. If you actually ask the caller where they saw the advert, then a) it annoys them, and b) they can’t remember. Even if they think they can remember, they can’t remember. If you say “can you remember what you were watching when you saw it,” you’d be amazed how many people will tell you, in all sincerity, that they saw your advert in the middle of Eastenders. But, on the other hand, it does mean that there are lots and lots of phone numbers that have been bought up in readiness, but which don’t get used; they’re there, just in case more numbers are needed. Having them sitting and programmed-in to the phone network, though, doesn’t really hurt. It certainly wouldn’t save the government money if they weren’t there. Indeed, I’m sure that a marketing expert would argue that it wastes money. An advert that doesn’t get a response, after all, is an advert wasted; and if you’re going to pay for a prime-time ad slot, or to print x million leaflets of your latest advertising wonder, you will want to know what sort of response rate it’s getting. The less accurate the data you’re getting back is, the bigger the risk that you’re pouring your ad budget down the drain.

In the long term, a hurried cut in the wrong place could cost you millions further down the line. So: sometimes, something that looks like a simple saving isn’t one. Especially when it’s something that’s hardly a big saving at all. There are indeed many government-owned phone numbers that have never, once, been called. That doesn’t mean they’re costing us anything to have, though; and it doesn’t mean that somehow the government is doing something wrong, that it’s set all these call centres up then forgotten to tell anyone; or that it’s set up lines that nobody wants to call. Those people, waiting for you to ring, are already busy enough.

* This would have been on Today at some point, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I can’t really find any news stories online that refer to this particular claim, apart from this one in the Shropshire Star; The Guardian refers to it more obliquely.

** The Central Office of Information, who sound slightly Soviet but are really the government’s advertising and marketing arm. They are the people who sit between the media, the advertising agencies and the call centre companies on the one hand, and the government departments who want to put their message across on the other; whether it be an NHS public health campaign like “don’t get swine flu”, HMRC trying to get you to send your tax return in on time, or the MoD trying to get people to join up.

*** Well, it will be some sort of code like “Dept. F Line B2″, but it means the same thing.

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Spearhead From Space

In which FP gets worried that the PM is a potential Doctor Who villain


Since the election, I’ve felt a bit sorry for Gordon Brown, what with all the people who have rushed to gloat and put the boot in since his progressive downfall started. Last week’s Have I Got News For You featured a montage of his strained-looking toothy smile, his clunky body-language, as if the ability to smile and shake hands smoothly was indeed what really mattered in a leader. I can sympathise partly because my own smiles are often as bad as his, especially if I’m trying to pose. When I’m smiling for the camera, everyone else shuffles their feet and small children run away crying; so when people make fun of Gordon Brown for suffering the same problem, he definitely gets my sympathies.

People’s reaction to his clunkiness, though, just goes to show how much people are concerned today with style and slickness over intellect; and Gordon Brown’s defeat, which people are already treating as much less narrow than it actually was, is only going to reinforce that. When we see David Cameron and Nick Clegg standing together, I get an uneasy squirming horror-film feeling that something is not quite right: that we’re not watching real people, but some sort of shiny artificial human-mimicking lifeform whose twin bodies are slowly converging onto one set of features. By the end of this parliament, we’ll be ruled by Cameregg, one creature with two identical bodies, identical faces with features so blandly generic you could barely pick them out from a crowd. Ed Balls, and the Miliband brothers, might well be part of the same species: some sort of bizarre alien trying to put on a human face but turning into an inhuman everyman. It might just be the effect of modern spin-driven media-friendly politics – or maybe the Autons are real after all.

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Wrong

In which FP is right at something, but not in a helpful way


Well, part of last Wednesday’s post quickly came true: my “almost certainly wrong” prediction of the future did, indeed, turn out to be wrong. I was sorely tempted to claim I’d been right all along, or that I’ve got enough right that I can be considered reasonably infallible; but, nah, I got it wrong. As I did say I would. Hence, I was right. Hurrah! I should go into business as a futurologist; I’m good at it. And I’ve known people make bigger futurology U-turns.

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More seriously…

In which there is some serious election stuff to talk about


Despite yesterday’s post, I do still indeed live in a safe Labour seat which is still a safe Labour seat. As predicted, shifting my vote in any direction would have made zero difference to the electoral outcome. And, as I implied yesterday, we live in a country where the majority of voters don’t seem to support the agenda of the largest party, partly because, I suspect, this election has been driven by negative pressure: people voting to try to stop Outcome A, rather than to cause Outcome B.

A couple of things have occurred to me, about the election result, over the past two days. Firstly, this parliament – however long it lasts – is going to be a very bad parliament for individuality of representation. In other words, MPs are going to get hardly any chance to vote conscientiously. They’re rarely going to get to express an opinion, and they’re never going to get a chance to represent their constituency over their party. Unless, of course, the government whips aren’t going to worry about losing votes, or the opposition whips aren’t going to worry about winning every vote they can, the whole of parliament is going to be reined in very tightly, and the whips will always expect party allegience to triumph over everything else.

Secondly, there’s lots in the news right now about polling station chaos, voters being turned away, ballot papers running out, and so on. And this can, really, only be down to one subject which has been avoided as an election issue: local government budgets. They are, in most parts of the country, pared down to their absolute minimums; and the constant shaving-off of any extraneous costs is inevitably going to hit elections. Councils, trying to save a little cash, will have cut down on polling staff; that inevitably limits the throughput of each polling station. They might have trimmed their ballot printing runs, figuring that 100% turnout is never going to happen. Unfortunately, the more slack you trim, the less space there is if you’re wrong, and we end up with a system which can’t cope with 4,000 more voters per constituency.* If we’d had the same turnout as 2001 or 2005, then maybe most seats would have coped; but that, to be honest, was never likely to happen. If council budgets keep getting frozen, the same problems are bound to happen next time too.

* The figure there comes from Sheffield Hallam, one of the constituencies that reported trouble, which reported a 5.8% turnout increase, up to 51,135 or just under 74%.

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In A Nutshell

In which we cover an election result that the reality-based media seems to have missed.


A late election result just coming in, from the often-overlooked Symbolic Forest West South West division. We take you live to the count…

As the acting returning officer for the constituency of Symbolic Forest West South West, I would like to announce that the votes cast in the constituency were as follows:

Alan Beard, Beardy Religious Party. 108.
John Jacob Alexander Damp-Etonian, Not As Popular As We Claimed Party. 11,207.
Claire Rebecca Redjacket, Not As Unpopular As You Thought Party. 11,206.
Frank Edward Balanced, Looked Good On The Telly Party. 7, 986.
Rupert Henry Purple, There’s A Polish Supermarket On Our High Street I Mean What Are We Coming To My Father Didn’t Drop Bombs On The Germans For Nothing Where Are All These Foreigners From Anyway Party. 1,073.
Dave Peasant, Scary Shades Fist In The Air Party.* 67.
Enoch Powell (Deceased), I Was Right All Along Party. 3.

I therefore announce that John Jacob Alexander Damp-Etonian has been elected to parliament, even though nobody really likes him and everyone else is going to claim they won anyway. Now, where’s my bottle of gin?

* I thought for a moment that lack of sleep had led to me imagining the Land Is Power party, whose candidate, standing with fist raised, looked like a nightclub bouncer playing Musical Statues. His main policy, apparently, was to replace income tax entirely with property taxes.

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Politics, ad nauseum

In which we predict the future, badly


Back in 2006, there were some local elections, and I wrote what I thought at the time. It was written in what you might call a prescient situation: about a local council who had run up a huge deficit under Labour, before being taken by a Tory-Liberal alliance who co-operated to the extent of not competing for council seats. Possibly, then, like the general election after next; although things are unlikely to be that extreme.

Back then my point, essentially, was: it’s only worth voting if you’ve got something worth voting for. Abstention should be a positive choice. Now, though, with the general election coming along tomorrow, things are slightly different. I still don’t feel, now, as if there’s any one party that is really pulling my vote in. For some reason, though, I feel equally that not voting at all isn’t an option. I’m not sure why, but this election seems impossible to ignore.

So, I’m definitely going to vote tomorrow. I don’t know who for, though; I’ve become one of those mystical “floating voters” who doesn’t decide an election result until the very last moment. I’ll walk into the booth, make my mark, but I can’t tell you yet who for or why. You should go and vote, too. Largely, because you can.

But anyway, after all that, my prediction for tomorrow’s election is that there won’t be a majority. There will be a hung-balanced parliament, or whatever you want to call it; and the largest party will form a minority government, with everyone else promising to “do what’s best for Britain”. It will last a surprisingly long time, too; and then, just as everything seems to be going so well, in about 15 months time it will collapse over something like election reform. I know that, being so specific, I’m almost certainly wrong; but at least I’m making a guess. Wait and see if it actually happens.

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Awoken by the political hubbub

In which there has apparently been a lot of fuss over nothing


Well, yes. It’s been quiet round here, hasn’t it. And, as I’ve said before, modern politics makes me want to retreat further into a bunker. There’s a reason why the three sane-and-national parties are so close together in the polls right now: on the surface they’re so close together on everything else. Do you support the ex-public-schoolboy who wants to cut taxes on business and cut public spending, or the ex-public-schoolboy who wants to cut taxes for lower incomes and scythe public spending? Or, of course, the ex-university-firebrand who is also going to cut public spending, but not yet? If you don’t like those, there’s the right-wing fringe: the doddery old chap who leads his party from the House of Lords, who responds to most questions with “I’m not a professional politican, so I don’t know all the details or what’s in our manifesto – can you ask me the questions I wanted you to ask me, please?” If you don’t like his apparent lack of knowledge of most things his party plans to do, there’s always the Cambridge graduate* who thinks that Ireland is part of Britain, and that none of those nasty foreign types should be allowed to settle here unless maybe they’re from a country like France where potential voters might want to retire to.** There’s probably a left-wing fringe, too, but they’ve not popped up on my radar.

Having said all that, I do feel slightly sorry for the former university firebrand, who, I’m told, caused havoc with the administration of my own alma mater back in the 1970s. Because, to be honest, I’m fully aware that politicians aren’t angels. Practically everyone I know, everyone I’ve ever come across, is willing to be polite to someone’s face, then complain about them behind their back. We’re all happy to say things in private, when we think it’s private, and we don’t expect that our enemies are listening in. If there’s one thing you can criticise Gordon Brown for over the events of yesterday, it’s that maybe he was too polite in public, and wasn’t willing to stand up strongly enough for what he presumably believes: that people who ask vague and poorly-stated non-questions that imply they don’t like the free movement of labour in Europe are, bluntly, wrong.

My vote, to be frank, doesn’t exactly make much difference. I live in one of the safest Labour seats in South-West England, one which even Michael Foot didn’t manage to lose in 1983. To move it to either of the other parties would need a monumental local swing: 13% for it to go Liberal, 15% to go Tory. The last local elections did see some movement towards the Liberals in some wards, but not, I think, enough to unseat our MP. Because of that, I don’t have any real expectation that the option I choose next Thursday will make any difference at all to the overall result. I’m fairly sure I promised one of our local councillors, too, that there was no way I was voting Labour whilst he still wanted to build a guided busway through Ashton and Spike Island; he still does, I assume, so I feel duty-bound to uphold my promise. Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats also seem to like the idea, so it looks like this may well be the first election in which I end up spoiling my vote. Having said all that, though, the fuss over Gordon Brown and Gillian Duffy*** has had one effect on my voting intentions. For the first time in a couple of years, I’m considering voting for Labour.

* Robert Graves had a lifelong antipathy to Cambridge graduates. I must say, I think his instinctive reaction to them was wrong; but possibly, in this case, it would have been justified.

** Or they know how to build the nuclear power stations that he’s going to fill the country with, of course. I wonder how much uranium we have left.

*** Whose anger at being called a bigot is slightly tempered by the fact that she didn’t really understand what the word meant.

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