The Q#1 quintet

Here are the five posts published on this blog between January and March that recorded the most hits:

  1. Monbiot’s tax take and the embedding of plutocracy: an urgent concern for Liberal Democrats (8 February)
  2. The mundane malfunctioning of markets – a tale of life and death (3 March)
  3. Economists, implicated (19 February)
  4. Housing demand – a role for status concerns? (27 January)
  5. Trade unions, street marches, and ConservativeHome’s 10 immoral commandments (27 March)

Monbiot’s tax take … is the most frequently read post since the blog started, as well as being included in the LDV Golden Dozen for that week.

Thanks for reading. And commenting. Even when you’re disagreeing with me 🙂


Off the clock

[Originally posted on Bristol Running Resource, 27/10/11]

Are you a runner who is a slave to the stopwatch? Tyrannised by the timer? I have to admit that I am. I don’t keep a proper training log to track my efforts, but I always run with a stopwatch. I’ve got a good enough memory to be able to place a run roughly in the league table of times for a particular route. And as the years pass there are rather more entries appearing in the lower reaches of the table than in the ‘getting towards a PB’ section. Be that as it may, timing’s been a key part of my whole running career.

So I was a bit put out when I went away this weekend and left my running watch on the shelf at home. I was faced with heading out for a 10k and having absolutely no idea how long I was gone for. Read more of this post

Trade Unions, street marches, and ConservativeHome’s 10 Immoral Commandments

It never ceases to amaze me quite how uncharitable people at all points on the political spectrum can be toward those who don’t happen to share their perspective. Such tribalism isn’t the exclusive preserve of those who occupy any one part of the political terrain. And there’s quite a bit of it about at the moment.

I was mooching around on a couple of right wing blogs yesterday. The overriding narrative regarding the day’s demonstrations was pretty clear. They were being written off as nothing more than the work of lazy public sector trade unionists seeking to protect their non-jobs, which are funded by those hard working tax payers who work in the private sector. It’s all about self-interest.

Yet, the numbers turning up in London and the social composition of the marchers make that position barely credible. Whatever it was, it wasn’t simply a march of disgruntled and self-interested trade unionists scared of the dole queue. Read more of this post

Upstairs at Eric’s – What’s on the big guy’s mind?

Earlier this month Communities and Local Government launched what they describe as an ‘informal consultation exercise’ reviewing the statutory duties placed on local government.  It’s aiming to gather views on the full range of statutory duties with a view to identifying any that are no longer appropriate or necessary. The Department makes it clear that this is not an exercise expected to deliver short term outcomes. This is the long game. And it needs to be seen in context. The accompanying explanatory note makes this clear:

In order for this Government to achieve its goal, as announced in the Coalition Agreement, of decentralisation and promoting the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups, clarity is needed about what the current demands on local authorities are and careful consideration as to whether they can continue to be justified in the move towards decentralisation and localism.

So one could see this as an exercise of profound significance. Yet, at another level, the way in which the exercise has been set up seems almost custom-made not to gather any very useful information. As with much that originates within the Pickles empire, it is an initiative that raises a host of profound questions. Read more of this post

Housing associations and new policy-induced risks

The Coalition government has well and truly disrupted the trajectory of social housing policy in England. That is partly a product of austerity, but also a product of seeking to implement different ideas on tenure and funding that have been brewing for some while. Current initiatives will no doubt open up new opportunities, but they will be accompanied by new risks. How this will play out is by no means clear. I have discussed the broad scope of the changes previously, starting here. The net impact could well be to the considerable disadvantage of vulnerable households. Read more of this post

Industrial echoes

There is something poignant about encountering fragments of Britain’s industrial past. They evoke a way of life that no longer resonates. They hint at the era of Britain as the first industrial nation; an industrial power. They speak of a time when the country’s economic success was less dependent on the post-industrial cocktail of shopping, banking, and selling over-priced coffee to each other.

Today my partner and I walked north from Swansea Marina – previously the South Dock, before being redeveloped as apartments – to the Enterprise Park – an area which was once at the heart of the Lower Swansea Valley metal industries, before becoming a retail park. Much of the walk is on route 43 of the national cycleway. That means much of it follows an old railway route. Read more of this post

Liberal Democrat alternative realities

Quite a few blog posts have now appeared offering a perspective on the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference. Some significant positive developments occurred. The amendments to the conference motion on NHS reform have attracted most attention. The support for the emergency motion on banking reform was equally emphatic. They both represent important interventions by the Social Liberal Form. Indeed, the growing influence of the SLF in the party was noted by Mark Pack over at Liberal Democrat Voice. Both motions were passed almost unanimously; Conference was equally united on the questions of political independence and electoral strategy; on reasserting the importance of the mobility components of the DLA and of legal aid for access to justice. These were clear statements of intent. Conference saw itself as sending a signal that Coalition hadn’t turned it into “forelock touching automatons” – to borrow Andrew George’s memorable phrase. The atmosphere in the hall was generally and genuinely positive. Of course, the question of what happens next – how to turn policy positions into reality in the context of Coalition, and whether the leadership is particularly inclined to so do – was not really addressed.

Conference was repeatedly regaled with more or less extensive lists of Liberal Democrat policies that have already been implemented by the Coalition government. Many went away from Sheffield relatively happy.

It feels a little churlish to register concerns. But I’m going to anyway. Read more of this post

(Mis)diagnosing the problem with access to HE

I tend not to write about policy on higher education, for a range of reasons. But the more I hear about the proposals surrounding the new regime for tuition fees the more problematic I feel they could be. Actually, it isn’t so much the proposals themselves, but it is some of the policy narrative that goes with them. The Government is planning to impose conditions relating to widening participation on any university that wishes to charge more than £6,000. Adherence to those conditions will be subject to annual monitoring. Quite what happens if the conditions are not met isn’t yet clear, but that isn’t the point I have been chewing over.

It is clear that access to higher education is skewed. The statistics are clear – those attending the best state schools and, particularly, private schools are much more likely to attend the better universities. Access to elite Oxbridge institutions is heavily circumscribed. Today I heard senior Ministers invoke a new, more evocative, version of the same story – that more students from Eton went to Oxford last year than from the entire – very large – group of students who receive free school meals.

No one can sensibly deny the broad picture painted by the statistics. But what is the nature of the problem? It is here I think things are rather less clear. At the very least, a very simplistic story currently seems to be dominating. Read more of this post

Private renting, quality concerns and spatial exclusion

To say that there appears to be inconsistency, incoherence or complacency at the centre of Government policy is not a particularly novel observation. Indeed, it doesn’t really narrow down what we’re talking about, given the generally rushed and badly thought through nature of current policy proposals in many fields. Nonetheless the point reasserted itself with the conjunction of two pieces in yesterday’s Observer (here and here).

A perennial problem in the private rented sector is relatively poor affordability coupled with relatively poor quality. Many private renters pay a lot for bad housing. It has been an active part of the housing policy discussions for the last 15 years at least. The Buy to Let boom of the 2000s made a difference to average quality, but not to affordability.

The fundamental issue is that landlords in Britain are unwilling or unable to provide consistently high quality accommodation for the level of rent that private tenants are willing to pay or, at the bottom of the market, able to pay. Read more of this post

The mundane malfunctioning of markets – a tale of life and death

We are currently awaiting the fourth visit from a well-known high street electrical retailer to fit a new hob in our kitchen. The first two visits led to a new hob being fitted, only to discover that the new one was faulty. The third visit occurred on the wrong day. No one was at home. When my partner phoned to point this out the company had no record of the booking. They couldn’t revisit on the date we’d agreed (today) because there were now no available spaces. So they are coming next week. Fourth time lucky?

Clearly this is not the end of the world. Rather more salad is being eaten than is normal for this time of year. And there is more oven-based cooking than typically happens. But it isn’t a disaster.

This is the mundane reality of markets. They don’t always work very well. And sometimes the consequences can be considerably more significant. Read more of this post