Ten things to come out of the pandemic

The coronavirus emergency will lead to changes, some desirable and some not. Here is my starter for ten likely outcomes.


One. An increase in obesity, as those already inclined to inactive and unhealthy lifestyles sit at home, sustained by delivered pizza and chips.

Two. The loss of many small businesses, including those that were part of the social fabric such as coffee shops, pubs, specialty shops.  Some city streets will be unrecognisable.

Three. Bitterness among the friends and relatives of those who die, which will compound the pressure for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the emergency in the interests of providing “closure”. The inquiry will do no such thing.

Four. Increased taxation, not to provide better public services but to pay off the massively increased borrowing required for financial support to people during the shut down.

Five. The exploitation of the emergency by public authorities to relax scrutiny and other procedures which ensure openness in decision-making. Parliament is to be shut down and local councillors will delegate decisions to officers, meeting only occasionally by remote methods, effectively excluding press and public from meetings.


Six. A resurgence of social and community networks and a strengthening of personal relationships. Talking by phone or holding video-meetings will become frequent and commonplace, and there will be hard evidence that many business meetings really don’t need to be face-to-face.

Seven. Cleaner air in cities, already evident from the live air pollution statistics, will become permanent as people realise there is no need to go back to pre-emergency travel patterns.

Eight. A kinder and more thoughtful public discourse, as people judge that divisive Brexit is a trivial issue compared to the need to come together to stop people dying from the coronavirus.

Nine. A permanent reduction in disease brought about by a recognition of the value of hand-washing, still regarded as one of the most effective ways of minimising the transmission of bugs and other nasties.

Ten.. An abundance of new writing, particularly novels, drawing on the live-changing impacts of the emergency. Some will be utter rubbish, a few will be great.

And there will be many more lists like this one.

An example of Taking Back Control

We can be a vassal state – it’s just the overlord would be different

For those who actually believed, or still believe, the guff that leaving the EU would mean that UK would indeed “take back control” and negotiate advantageous trade agreements around the globe, a recent document from the Office of the United States Trade Representative offers a firm douche of reality.

Entitled United States-United Kingdom Negotiations: Summary of Specific Negotiating Objectives it sets out with remarkable candour the ways in which our one-time special friend intends to screw the UK once we have isolated ourselves from the rest of Europe. The key objective is set out on the first page: “The United States seeks to support higher-paying jobs in the United States and to grow the U.S. economy by improving U.S. opportunities for trade and investment with the UK.”

OK, so it’s a negotiating document and sets out the opening bids.  But the US knows that it holds most of the cards and their track record in trade negotiation, as in many other areas of foreign policy, is broadly that what the US wants, the US will get.  The UK’s Department for International Trade will be no match, given the lack of trade negotiation skills in this country: the Department’s chief negotiator had to be imported from New Zealand.

Some statistics first.  The US document uses the word “ensure” 37 times, 14 of which specifically relate to ensuring the UK, not the US, does or does not do certain things.  “Require” or “requirements” appear 28 times, 17 of which apply unilaterally to the UK.  And so on.

Next, some of the specific US objectives.  These are the highlights, and there are many more in the document.

The UK would be bound to accept US interpretations of what “unnecessary” differences in regulation are.

Secure commitments with respect to greater regulatory compatibility to facilitate U.S. exports in key goods sectors and reduce burdens associated with unnecessary differences in regulation, including through regulatory cooperation where appropriate

Specifically in relation to agricultural products, for “regulation” read “deregulation”:

Promote greater regulatory compatibility to reduce burdens associated with unnecessary differences in regulations and standards, including through regulatory cooperation where appropriate

Establish a mechanism to remove expeditiously unwarranted barriers that block the export of U.S. food and agricultural products in order to obtain more open, equitable, and reciprocal market access.

And just to make sure the UK won’t be able to regulate nasties like GMO products:

Establish specific commitments for trade in products developed through agricultural biotechnologies

You think food labelling is important?  Read this:

Establish new and enforceable rules to eliminate unjustified trade restrictions or unjustified commercial requirements (including unjustified labeling) that affect new technologies

More generally on regulatory policy-making, the US is not going to let the UK have its own way. US lobbyists will be guaranteed access to the decision-making process:

Include strong provisions on transparency and public consultation that require the UK to publish drafts of regulations, allow stakeholders in other countries to provide comments on those drafts, and require authorities to address significant issues raised by stakeholders and explain how the final measure achieves the stated objectives.

Worried about Facebook and the rest?  The US will get your personal data which currently remains subject to tough EU rules on privacy.

Establish state-of-the-art rules to ensure that the UK does not impose measures that restrict cross-border data flows and does not require the use or installation of local computing facilities.

And just as we are beginning to wake up to the dangers of algorithms [1]:

Establish rules to prevent governments from mandating the disclosure of computer source code or algorithms.

No question of a UK government putting an end to outsourcing in the NHS and local government, however many more Carillions we have:

Retain the ability to support SOEs[2] engaged in providing domestic public services.

And no question of publicly owned services using their discretion about favouring quality, environmental benefits, workforce policies etc over price:

Ensure that SOEs act in accordance with commercial considerations with respect to the purchase and sale of goods and services.

Privatise and privatise:

Seek to develop disciplines that address the creation or maintenance of capacity inconsistent with market principles

This isn’t about protecting the environment it’s about protecting trade;

Establish rules that will ensure that the UK does not waive or derogate from the protections afforded in environmental laws for the purpose of encouraging trade or investment.

But there are limits to US openness

Keep in place domestic preferential purchasing programs such as: “Buy America” requirements on Federal assistance to state and local projects, transportation services, food assistance, and farm support; and

And if the disputes resolution mechanism doesn’t come up with the “right” answer it can be overruled:

Provide mechanisms for ensuring that the Parties retain control of disputes and can address situations when a panel has clearly erred in its assessment of the facts or the obligations that apply.

The UK has to behave itself in relation to third countries…

Provide a mechanism to ensure transparency and take appropriate action if the UK negotiates a free trade agreement with a non-market country

…. but the US doesn’t

Discourage actions that directly or indirectly prejudice or otherwise discourage commercial activity solely between the United States and Israel;

Discourage politically motivated actions to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel

Not surprisingly, foreign policy is at last overt.  There will of course be many other opportunities for non-trade issues to come up during the negotiations.  OK, you Brits, we won’t press on chlorinated chicken provided you give us back some bases for lodging US aircraft and weapons.

Do we really want to leave a partnership of equals, the EU, to become second-fiddle to the almighty US?  Remember that the US almost always gets what it wants.  Is this what taking back control means?



[1]  The 2019 AGM of Liberty will consider a motion from the organisation’s executive drawing attention to the expanding use of algorithmic decision-making by public authorities, the lack of accountability of algorithms – which are non-neutral – and their users, and the implications for civil liberties.

[2] State-Owned and Controlled Enterprises.


Rebuilding democracy: challenge and scrutiny

The Centre for Public Scrutiny has been tasked by the government with contributing to the new statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny in local government [1].  Below are my own suggestions, drawing on experience with monitoring Exeter City Council, which I have sent to the CfPS and the government.

1. There should be a requirement that scrutiny committees are constituted so as to be able to challenge ruling group proposals effectively. Exeter City Council changed its rules a few years ago to require that the chairs of scrutiny committees would be drawn from the majority party only (previously the chairs could be taken by members of opposition parties). This reduces the independence of the committees and, for obvious party political reasons, reduces criticism of leadership group proposals.

2. There should be more opportunities for members of the public to ask questions and challenge councillors at meetings. Other Devon councils allow questions to be asked at meetings of their executives/cabinets, but Exeter limits this practice to its scrutiny committees. Although the questioner is allowed to speak at the end of any discussion following the question and answer, no opportunity is provided to ask a supplementary question. This reduces the effectiveness of the challenge and the quality of discussion, and a requirement for one supplementary question would be valuable.

3. Scrutiny committees should be required to engage independent specialists to help them understand and challenge leadership proposals which have a high technical content, for example: on air quality, waste collection and disposal, estimation of housing need. This would enable officer-led proposals, often informed by consultancy studies predicated on terms of reference and assumptions issued by those officers, to be debated on a level playing field of knowledge.

4. Officers should be required to inform scrutiny committees of any representations received from organisations and individuals, whether solicited or not, relevant to an item being discussed by a scrutiny committee.

5. It should be mandatory for all proposals which would incur unbudgeted expenditure in excess of (say) £50k should be discussed at a scrutiny committee; and the proposal should state explicitly where the funding for the proposal will come from, including the impact on existing specific budgets.

6. In the interests of measuring the extent to which members of the public are having to resort to FOI Act/EIR channels to obtain information, the number, nature and outcome of all such requests such be reported publicly to each scrutiny committee cycle.

Some of these requirements will have – modest – costs at a time when local authorities are under severe financial constraints. In the interests of restoring the health of our democratic arrangements, the government should be prepared to make available additional funding to support them.


[1]  See https://www.cfps.org.uk/3323-2/

Much Bindweed in the Marsh

There might be a climate emergency needing urgent shifts to less polluting forms of transport, but getting even a small railway station built seems beyond us.

The title of this post is a play on the name of a BBC radio comedy series, Much Binding in the Marsh, which ran for 10 years after World war 2.  It depicted the chaotic life at a fictional RAF station as the staff grappled with post-war red tape. Over 70 years later, the attempts to build a small railway station at Marsh Barton, a large trading estate in south-west Exeter, are ensnarled in the 21st century version of red tape.

The need for a station at Marsh Barton was first formally identified in the Local Transport Plan 2011-26 [1], published in April 2011.  Three years later an outline business case for the development appeared [2].  The central justification was that the new station – on the main line between Exeter St Davids and Teignmouth – would improve rail links to the area as part of the Devon Metro concept, and so create easier access for people who work in Marsh Barton.  In doing so it would reduce traffic congestion in the estate.  And it would provide a rail link to the proposed large-scale housing developments in south-west Exeter.

Yet the proposed station location is far from convenient.  It was a clear failure of Brunel’s imagination not to realise that 100 years later a large trading estate would be built at Marsh Barton and that his railway would end up going past one edge of it instead of through the middle.  So it’s a 15-minute trot to the other side of the estate, and a good half hour to access the station from the new housing development to the south.  Will we get a frequent shuttle bus service connecting with trains?  Dream on.

Indeed the business case explicitly excludes any planning for bus services and cycle routes linked to the new station.  It also takes little account of the fact that Marsh Barton contains what is held to be one of Europe’s largest concentration of motor vehicle dealers, both sales and servicing. Other traffic is in the form of heavy lorries visiting the industrial units, and traders’ vans and private cars collecting bulky material from the many specialist DIY outlets. None of this can transfer to train.

That said, the main purpose of this post is not to belittle the business case.  The case is based on so much process-driven modelling accepted in consultancy and project management circles that it must have some robustness, surely?  We just have to hope the underlying assumptions are sound and that, despite Devon’s ageing population and other social and technological changes, people carry on behaving as they have in the past when similar stations are opened (because it’s on past trends that much of this modelling is based).  No, what I want to do is look at the whole development process, of which the business case is only one element.

When Brunel built his Great Western Railway out of London Paddington in the 19th century, he had a limited number of hoops to jump through.  He needed Parliamentary approval, finance (from the shareholders), a surveyor, an engineer, materials and navvies.  Admittedly, he wasn’t too hot on health & safety.  When the GWR company board green-lighted him, off he went.  The GWR received its enabling Act of Parliament in 1835 and ran its first trains from London to Maidenhead in 1838.  By 1841, trains were running through from London to Bridgwater in Somerset.

Contrast this with the steps required today to build a small railway station on an existing line.  The outline business case gives a clear summary.  Before a single sod of earth can be touched, the promoters of the scheme – in case this Devon County Council through the Local Transport Board, itself a body nesting within the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership (the LEP) – need to have secured funding, the necessary permissions based on detailed design work, and appointed a contractor under public sector procurement rules.  The key players in this joint enterprise include: 2 passenger train operating companies and an unidentified number of freight operators, central government, Network Rail, 3 local authorities, 2 rail user groups, business groups, Devon CC’s own transport consultants, the Devon Metro Programme Board, elected representatives, trade unions, nearby residents or other interest groups, and the appointed contractors.  Any one of these can put a spoke in the wheel.  For example, the initial plans assumed a footbridge with a gradient of 1 in 15, but then Notwork Rail popped up to say that 1 in 20 was the maximum steepness permissible.  And, having planned for the structure to be compatible with the electrification of the line the Department for Transport recently stated that electrification will probably not happen after all (as we all know from the Secretary of State’s backsliding on government rail commitments).

The other big obstacle is funding.  Since the coalition government started to starve local authorities of funds and passed them instead to the newly created LEPs on the grounds that they were not Labour’s now-defunct regional development agencies, almost any significant public sector project that is not national or NHS relies on being able to put together a funding package from different sources.  The Marsh Barton station project was originally costed in the business case at £4.3 million, at final approval at £7.4 million, and has since risen, in large measure due to Notwork Rail moving the goalposts, to £13.7 million.  It may go higher.  To fund this, the LEP initially allocated £3.5 million and this may be topped up by underspends om other projects; the remainder is expected to come from government, Network Rail, Community Infrastructure Levy and section 106 agreements with developers, and Devon County Council.  The government recently turned down an application for £3 million from its New Stations Fund.  So after 4 years of planning and negotiations, there is still no certainty that the station can be funded at all.

Does all this planning and fragmented funding really produce a better result at the end of the day?  Or, in this case, will it produce a result at all?  If Brunel had been subject to today’s regime, his railway wouldn’t even have reached Slough.



[1]  See https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/traffic-information/transport-planning/devon-and-torbay-local-transport-plan-3-2011-2026/

[2]  Accessible via  http://heartofswlep.co.uk/about-the-lep/how-we-work/local-transport-board/ltb-scheme-business-cases/ f

Tackling congestion won’t make our streets liveable

Tackling traffic congestion is a short-term air quality issue: it should not be a driver of long-term planning policy

As one does, I was meandering through some literature on “liveable streets” and came across a 1982 book review [1] written by Alfred A Woods of the long-defunct West Midlands Metropolitan County Council.  No, I hadn’t heard of him either.

(In passing, it’s interesting to speculate whether Mrs Thatcher’s hatred of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council – which drove her in 1986 to abolish not only the GLC but all the other metropolitan county councils for good measure – put back the cause of integrated urban planning further than many imagined at the time; after all, today’s Tory government is busily recreating the something very like the metropolitan counties in the form of combined authorities and mayorally-led city regions.).

I digress.  Back to Mr Woods.  In his review he wrote:

The motor vehicle is a sort of latter-day mule: in some countries it has a greater birth-rate than that of humans, it is capable of high speeds yet is difficult to master and it can be dangerous to onlookers.  It eats space at an astonishing rate requiring pro-rata about ten times the space allocated to humans; moreover. it has heard of Parkinson’s Law and proliferates to occupy any space available.  Where large herds gather, those areas become unattractive for humans to endure and although there have been some attempts to tame the creature by, for instance, driving large cohorts in one direction only, this seems to make them angry and they gallop faster. [……]  Of course we are rather schizophrenic about the creatures; we are proud of them because we made them, they are extraordinarily useful and ownership of a fine animal makes us feel good and enables us to cut a dash in the paddock.  But if we had been dealing with mules instead of motor vehicles, we would surely have tamed them more effectively than we have: keeping them out of the best rooms (the city is a series of open-air living rooms), controlling the manner in which they could roam the other rooms or charge down our bedroom corridors.

Despite flogging his metaphorical mule almost to death, Mr Woods makes a useful and vivid observation on our historic attitudes to traffic in towns.  What is particularly striking today is that nowhere in his review does he mention the C-word – congestion.  His focus is driver behaviour and its effect on the visible and consciously experienced urban environment.  Contrast this with today’s thinking about traffic management where congestion is the centre-stage villain.  It is responsible for two particular harms: costs and pollution.  The costs of congestion are regularly highlighted, and consultancies make a good living in analysing traffic movements and the costs of delays.  For example, the Centre for Economic and Business Research, stated in a report last year [2]:

We calculate the total cumulative cost of congestion in the UK to be £307 billion from 2013 to 2030. Of this, total direct costs are £191 billion, and indirect costs equal £115 billion. By 2030, we estimate the total cost of congestion per household will be £2,057. From 2013 to 2030, the annual cost of road congestion will have risen 63%.

The report identifies three sources of these costs:

  • The opportunity cost of the time wasted due to delays through road congestion (which includes ‘planning time’ for the possibility of traffic delays)
  • The cost of the wasted fuel whilst vehicles are sat idle in traffic
  • The impact of traffic congestion on the environment, and social costs involved”

The report was commissioned by the FairFuelUK campaign, which lobbies for lower fuel prices and, according to its website, is funded by the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association, though the Guardian has identified other funders [3].  Other cost-of-congestion studies are cited as justification for more road building. Back in 2006 Sir Rod Eddington’s transport study stated that eliminating congestion on the road network would be worth some £7bn-£8bn of GDP annually [4], though Eddington saw a combination of road pricing and modest infrastructure improvements as the way forward.  Having said it agreed with the Eddington analysis, the New Labour government rapidly buried it.

The second regularly cited key harm from congestion is to our health, especially through nitrogen dioxide air pollution from vehicle emissions.  The UK government’s poor record on tackling this issue is well-known:  its latest plans have been heavily criticised [5], and those were only produced after the High Court ordered the government to do so [6].

The public health emergency from emissions requires serious and early action: an estimated 40,000 people die each year in the UK from inhaling particulates and nitrogen dioxide, for which diesel engines are the principal source [7].   The government’s plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide [8] stresses technological solutions to reducing emissions with reducing congestion playing a secondary role.

Notwithstanding the impressive-sounding figures cited above, the economic costs of congestion are less precise, since the results depend entirely on the assumptions put into the modelling work and these are inevitably value-laden.  And in any case, as Mr Woods reminds us, traffic increases to fill the driving space created by new roads; and since he wrote his review ample evidence has been provided to support his contention: most recently by CPRE [9] and as far back as 1994 by SACTRA – the government’s Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment [10] – thus proving that policy-makers are inept at learning from the past.  The latter was so unwelcome to Mrs Thatcher’s road-building government that the Department of Transport sat on the report for months and, after a reluctant publication, rewrote the Committee’s terms of reference to prevent any more embarrassing reports.

Dr Steve Melia, an academic at UWE Bristol, has argued that congestion will always be with us [11].  He cites the four options open to planners for addressing the rising volume of traffic in urban areas set out in the 1963 Buchanan report [12], and examines each in the light of our understanding 50 years later.  In my summary below, which elides any nuance from his discussion, Melia says:

Buchanan/Melia option Melia commentary
1. Rearrange the road/rebuild the area to accommodate more traffic Extending capacity at one point shifts the congestion somewhere else, and allows total volume of traffic to increase. To have any impact, knocking down the town and spreading it out would be required, which is politically impossible.
2. Restrain vehicular access Can reduce traffic volumes but unlikely to improve congestion.
3. Voluntary behaviour change, ie reducing car use or changing its distribution/timing Getting people out of their cars can free up road space for other drivers to fill, so no impact on congestion.
4. Squeeze more traffic into a finite space, and accept the consequence of congestion and a degraded environment Marginal gains only as long as drivers make their own decisions on when and where to travel.

Personally, I think Melia is too dismissive of option 2.  As always, it is the detail of a given scheme that will determine success or failure.

The government’s expectation is that congestion will cease to be an air quality issue once nitrogen dioxide levels have been brought within statutory limits.  The Defra/DfT plan summary offers restricting vehicular access as a relevant measure – but almost of last resort – and warns:

However, local authorities should bear in mind such access restrictions would only be necessary for a limited period and should be lifted once legal compliance is achieved and there is no risk of legal limits being breached again [13].

Bear in mind also that as vehicles get cleaner, the case for traffic restraint on public health grounds fades away.

So, although measures to tackle congestion are needed to deal with the health emergency, we cannot rely on those same measures to deliver improvements to our mental and physical environment in the broader sense.  They will not rise to Mr Woods’ implied challenge on how to deal with rampant motor vehicles which make areas “unattractive for humans to endure”.  In the future, you could have an emissions-free environment with streams of vehicles  still belting along at 30mph on residential roads – and there are many main routes into cities and towns which are primarily residential rather than industrial or commercial.

“Liveable streets” are surely what we urban-dwellers want?  Why would we not want them?  Streets where the domination of the car – moving or parked – has ceded priority to pedestrians, cyclists and people with child buggies or mobility aids.  Streets with places to sit and talk; streets with trees and hedges; streets with spaces to play and have barbecues.  We should be able to love our streets rather than endure them.

If Dr Melia is right, and congestion will always be with us, then that is not necessarily a bad thing.  What we have now is the wrong kind of congestion: polluting, wasteful and unpleasant.  We need to find ways to move to the right sort, the sort that makes private car journeys in urban areas deeply unattractive and which in the process supports a “liveable streets” environment.

Some ideas on how this might be achieved, using Exeter (where else?) as a practical example, will be the subject of a future post.



[1]  In The Town Planning Review, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Apr.1982), pp. 217-219 (accessed through JSTOR).  Mr Woods was reviewing a 1980 book entitled Livable Streets by Donald Appleyard, Professor of Urban Design at the University of California, Berkeley.

[2]  The Economic Effect of Road Investment, CEBR . February 2017. Accessible via https://www.fairfueluk.com/publications/roads.html

[3]  https://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2011/nov/15/fuel-duty-campaign

[4]  Quoted in House of Commons Library Research Paper 10/28 Transport Policy in 2010: a rough guide, March 2010 (page 25), downloadable from https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/RP10-28

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/26/governments-air-quality-plan-is-cynical-headline-grabbing-say-critics

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/27/air-pollution-plan-election-campaign-bomb-court-government

[7]  Every Breath We Take, Royal College of Physicians, 2016, available at https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution

[8]  UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations: An overview.  Defra and Department for Transport, July 2017.  Available at  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/633269/air-quality-plan-overview.pdf

[9]  The End of the Road? Campaign to Protect Rural England, available at http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/transport/roads/item/4543-the-end-of-the-road-challenging-the-road-building-consensus   The Campaign for Better Transport has a very useful page on induced traffic at http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/roads-nowhere/induced-traffic

[10]  Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic, Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment, 1994.  http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/economics/rdg/nataarchivedocs/trunkroadstraffic.pdf – Warning: slow download

[11]  Urban transport without the hot air, vol 1, Steve Melia, UIT Cambridge, 2015. See in particular pages 211-214.

[12]  Traffic in Towns, Professor Colin Buchanan, HMSO 1963.  A more accessible shorter version was published in 1964 by Penguin Books.

[13]  Para 18 of the report cited at [8].


The Softly, Softly referendum

Sesto Calende, Italy

Until we arrived in Sesto Calende, a small town in Italy’s Lombardy region, we knew nothing about the forthcoming referendum on 22 October seeking greater autonomy from Rome for the region.  We were, though, well aware of the planned referendum in the Spanish province of Catalonia which has been attracting international headlines.

The reasons for the difference are not difficult to fathom.  The referendum in Catalonia – which may or may not be held on 1 October – is about independence from the Spanish state, based on the idea of Catalonia as a distinct nation with its own language and culture.  This has so frightened the government in Madrid that they went to court seeking to have referendum declared illegal, and won.  Since then the national government has been using a variety of methods to enforce the court judgement, including the use of police to seize stockpiled ballot boxes and papers, threatening the arrest of public officials and closing down websites.

Here in Lombardy things could not be more different.  The regional administration have made it very clear that they are not seeking independence.  Language, culture and nationhood don’t really figure.  What they want is greater “autonomy” about what happens to the region’s taxes. Many people in the prosperous north resent the taxes they generate being transferred by Rome to the south, often perceived as indolent.  And the national government, unlike its Spanish counterpart, appears to be treating the Lombardy referendum with indifference.  Our friends here say there has been minimal national media coverage, and the regional administration has been running an extensive poster campaign – often on public transport – to drum up interest.


It will be interesting to see which approach delivers results in the long term.



Green and Communal

Sesto Calende, Varese, Italy.

Not everyone is comfortable drinking the tap water in this small town near the southern end of Lake Maggiore.  So sales of bottled water abound.  That’s good for the producers and the retailers. It’s not so good for the people who have to pay for it. And, as Trump would say, it’s Very Bad (and then we’d part company) for the environment because of the need to produce and then dispose of the plastic bottles (think marine pollution and fish deaths for starters) not to mention the emerging if contested evidence that the chemical Bisphenol-A can leach from the plastic container into its contents and so into your body.

In Sesto Calende (and doubtless elsewhere) there’s an alternative that is both green and communal.  In the car park opposite the historic San Donato church stands a bottle-filling machine.  For 2 cents (in UK money that’s about 2p and rising, depending on Mrs May’s latest ramblings) you can fill your own one-litre glass bottle with still or sparkling water.  And you can do it as many times you like for 2 cents a time. Or buy a season ticket.

2017-09-23 11.33.38

Compare this with the fact that you’ll pay 10 times the price for bottled water in a large supermarket and even more in smaller shops.

So, here we have a 24/7 public service which reduces health risks, cuts plastic pollution, saves users money and – even allowing for the fact that people drive to get there – is environmentally positive.  What’s not to like?

The Party really is over

Every household in the country will be receiving around now the usual leaflets from their General Election candidates , including those delivered free of charge by the Royal Mail.  Each leaflet is normally a mix of national party policies and some words about the local candidate we are being encouraged to vote for.  It is, after all, the local candidate’s name on the ballot paper.

This morning, the post included a 4 sided A4 leaflet exhorting me to vote for a candidate called Theresa May.  Well, even if I wanted to vote for her I couldn’t, because she’s standing somewhere in the Thames Valley and I live in Devon.  The identity of my local Conservative candidate remains a mystery.

Closer examination of the leaflet reveals it doesn’t meet the requirements for a free-delivery leaflet [1].  For example, it doesn’t show the words “Election Communication” and it doesn’t mention the constituency or local candidate.  So, although this leaflet is being delivered by Royal Mail as if it were the normal free delivery leaflet, it isn’t.  Which means that Theresa May’s backers must have paid the Royal Mail a substantial sum of money to deliever them.   And, because the leaflet is a national one, it won’t count against the more restrictive local election expenses limits – just like the fake front pages in some local newspapers.

OK, so we know having lots of money gives certain electoral advantages, despite the UK’s self-satisfied delusion that we keep a tight lid on election expenses.  What this leaflet also says is that the Conservative Party has ceased to be a recognisable British political party and has become the creature of its leader.  On the second page there is An Important Message From Theresa May To You, which ends as follows:

The only way you can ensure we have the strong and stable leadership to get this [Brexit] right is by backing me, and voting for my Conservative candidate in your local area.

Get that?  It’s “my” Conservative candidate.  Not “the” Conservative candidate.  Assuming she wins, collective Cabinet decision-making is going to be a bit of a laugh, isn’t it?  Personally, I find it chilling.


[1]  The Royal Mail rules are available in a booklet downloadable from http://www.royalmail.com/corporate/electoral-services/candidate-mailing

Is the Prime Minister fake news?

Last week the Conservative Party – rebranded nationally as “Theresa May’s Team” – bought advertising space in a dozen local papers around the country to promote the Prime Minister’s general election campaign [1].  Nothing wrong in that in principle: it’s a long-standing habit of political parties to pay for advertising.  The towns and cities in question appear to be Parliamentary seats which the Tories are targeting to win.  So far, business much as usual.

The commentariat has tended to criticise the tactic as a way of getting around spending limits for constituency election campaigns.  It’s a targeted national campaign which doesn’t mention the local candidates so it’s not local spending, and it’s all within Electoral Commission rules.

Frankly, that’s a second-order complaint.  The Conservative Party is simply doing what any advertiser would do given the opportunity.  If it’s an unintended loophole in the spending rules, it can be put right.  Much more insidious, and an example of further erosion of any semblance of standards in corporate behaviour, is the way in which the newspapers allowed the ads to be designed and placed.

What the local papers did – or, probably more accurately, what they were told to do by their corporate owners – was to accept the advertisement in the form of a wrap-around, with each paper’s normal masthead integrated into the paid-for “front page”.  In other words, a blatant attempt to mislead readers into thinking their local paper was supporting Mrs May’s election campaign.

Defenders of the scheme have argued that people would easily see that it was an advertisement.  Really?  Two points here.  First, at least on the fake front page of the Exeter Express and Echo, the words “ADVERTISER’S ANNOUNCEMENT” are set in a white font on a pale grey background.  This is invisible to anyone looking at the paper from a distance, on a newsstand for example.

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The top half of the fake front page, Express & Echo, 4 May 2017.  Can you see “Advertiser’s Announcement”?

Second, it’s not unheard of for national papers such as the Sun and the Daily Mail to trumpet their support for a political party as editorial matter on their front pages.  If they can do it, why should people be surprised that the local papers are doing the same?

The advertising impact isn’t limited to people who buy the paper: indeed, they will soon discover the real front page inside and put Mrs May in the recycling.  What the technique achieves is massive exposure of Mrs May’s slogans because the papers – typically weekly ones – are displayed on newsstands for a whole week.  These stands are often to be found in prominent places in major retailers: in Exeter, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have separate stands for the Echo in the entrance areas.

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Sainsbury’s, Alphington Road, Exeter.  Photographed after 6 days’ continuous exposure.  Note the real front page in the middle of the display.

The edition of the Exeter paper that carried the fake front page also ran a leader article entitled “Delivering facts not fake news” [2].  The irony of this was lost on the paper’s editor.  In response to my complaint to him about the fake front page, Mr Parker said:

“The material carried this week was part of a nationwide advertising initiative by the Conservative Party and the decision to publish it was made solely for business reasons as we are, after all, a business.

“It was made clear that this was an advertising arrangement with the Conservative party and is something we are at the moment exploring with other political parties.

“Again, any future decisions will be based on the commercial side of the business and will have absolutely no bearing on the way the Express and Echo covers editorially any news stories whether or not they are of a political nature.

“I cannot emphasise enough that we are a totally independent news operation and proud of that fact and will continue to be so.”

Taking advertisers’ money is one thing.  Trying to mislead your readers – who may not be interested in the distinction between the commercial and editorial sides of the business – is quite another.  And since the rules on political balance don’t apply to the press, we can assume that only those parties who can pay out hard cash for wrap-arounds will be included in the exploratory discussions Mr Parker refers to.

Up in Westmoreland, where the local paper also ran a fake front page, there is some community anger, threatening a boycott of the rag [3].  Something worth considering everywhere else, since even if local papers no longer care about their reputations, their owners do care about sales and profits.

Meanwhile Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and all other retailers giving prominence to local papers should move the newsstands carrying the fake front page to the nearest back room until normal service is resumed.


[1] For a list of papers and constituencies, see https://www.buzzfeed.com/jimwaterson/how-the-conservatives-are-using-local-adverts-to-get-around

[2] A longer version of the article is in the online version at http://www.devonlive.com/8203-in-an-age-of-fake-stories-we-always-provide-trusted-news/story-30314208-detail/story.html

[3]  See https://eastdevonwatch.org/2017/05/09/northern-community-boycotts-local-paper-over-tory-wrap-around-ad/

Is our democracy OK?

The behaviour of Trump and May over the past few days should make us ask some hard questions about our governance.

I don’t normally go to public demonstrations.  Yesterday evening I made an exception, and joined in one of the many rallies around the country provoked by President Trump’s travel ban.  Even more out of character, I stood up on a bench, took the proffered microphone and spoke to the crowd.

The rally was in Exeter and some 700 attended. The speakers before me had concentrated, rightly, on the impact of Trump’s travel ban and the damage and hurt it was already doing to individuals and families.  They spoke movingly, based on personal experience and knowledge.  I spoke to highlight the other spectre in the room – the UK Prime Minister, who failed to condemn the ban when first asked about it, and has since made only mild disapproval known through other ministers and her spokespersons.  This is further evidence that Mrs May is not keen on human rights – during the EU referendum campaign, her most memorable intervention was to favour withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (which is nothing to do with the EU).

Mrs May has steered our country into a position where our government is in effect begging the United States for an early post-EU trade agreement, as if that were the only priority in international relations.  Trump had barely paused for breath after being sworn in as President, before she was on a plane to see him.  And Trump knows we are the supplicant: the pointed refusal at the press conference to confirm his “100% backing” for NATO that May claims to have extracted from him; the hand-holding; and the executive order for the travel ban as soon as she was on the plane home (he clearly couldn’t have tipped her off, otherwise she would not have been so equivocal when asked about it in Turkey – wouldn’t she?)

What we’re seeing is the two leaders of the “special relationship”– both novices in their own way – practising bad government.  Trump is rushing out executive orders on hugely controversial topics, firing anyone he can who disagrees with him (the acting US Attorney General has just been removed), and allowing his press secretary to use inflammatory language: the Attorney-General was guilty of “betrayal”, the senior US diplomats who are protesting against Trump’s policies should “either get with the programme or they can go.”  No respect, no acknowledgement that others may have a point.

Back on our side of the pond, the Prime Minister is unmoved by a petition of over 1.5 million signatures protesting against a state visit by Trump – note that the objection is to a state visit involving the Queen, not to a working political visit.  Statements from May and her office completely fail to recognise the strength of feeling on the issue: she’s issued the invitation and that’s that, is the line.  Even though it’s unprecedented (I think) for a state visit invitation to be issued no more than a week after the invitee has taken office – but then there’s that trade deal to be thought about, isn’t there?  A deal, by the way, that will almost certainly favour the US more than the UK, and will resurrect the objectionable elements of the now-defunct TTIP [1].

Our Prime Minister also has scant regard for Parliament.  It took a decision of the Supreme Court to reassert the need for Parliament’s authority to approve the decision to give our Article 50 notification to the EU.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the behaviour of May and Trump highlights the fragility of the arrangements for representative democracy, here and in the US.  Government is, at the end of the day, a series of negotiated settlements between competing interests, and the purpose of elections is to redefine from time to time what the “public interest” is in those negotiations.  Ministers need to be sensitive to the views of others, open to change where that seems to be in the public interest, and ready to acknowledge and respect other views even where they do not agree with them.

It would be ironic if the two countries who perhaps more than any others stood firm in the defence of freedom, tolerance and democracy during the 20th century were now to be debased by leaders who prefer diktat to persuasion.  But that is what seems to be happening.  In the UK, Parliament needs to remember that it is the source of all legitimate authority – and start acting on it.  And a critical appraisal of our governance should be high on its list of priorities.



[1]  The TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – was being negotiated behind closed doors between the EU and the US until talks broke down last year.  In the name of “free trade” the TTIP would have led to some weakening of EU rules on the environment, food standards and employee rights; and would have ensured that once a public service had been privatised it could never be returned to the public sector.  It was drafted as, in effect, a charter for big business to do pretty much what it liked.