Big ideas for a big society?

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David Cameron’s ‘new era’ of conservatism has often come under criticism for its internal ideological contradictions and its lack of direction. However, from the outset Cameron has emphasized the importance of community. He has rallied against our ‘broken Britain’, encouraged us to ‘hug a hoodie’ and declared that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state’. The latest Conservative campaign for ‘Big Society not Big Government’ marries these ideas to foster a sense of community and responsibility, and a reversal of state centralization and power.

Cameron argues, quite rightly, that local groups, charities and communities are both capable of and prepared to deliver a range of public services better than central government currently does. If powers to run particular services are handed to local communities, the outcome will be services that are both tailored and accountable. The Conservatives also believe that harnessing the power of ‘Big Society’ will help tackle social breakdown, and with the right resources, it will almost certainly make a more efficient use of taxpayers’ money.

Cameron has said that the ideas of Big Society could transform Britain as profoundly as the establishment of the welfare state. However, it is hard to see how the policies announced will bring about such radical change. The use of £100 million in unclaimed bank deposits to fund a ‘big society bank’ and the training of community organizers to spur on community action are hardly dramatic measures to revolutionize the way we view the state. The announcement of a ‘Big Society Day’ is gimmicky and faintly embarrassing, while plans to ‘judge’ civil servants on their participation in community services undermines the separation of the state and community and the ethos of voluntarism.

This said the idea of a cohesive society is a powerful one and something that Cameron draws upon time and time again. His recent announcement that he is prepared to be as unpopular as Thatcher suggests that should he take power, he will be prepared for determined and decisive action. The ‘contracting out’ of public services to society may become a worthy idea if pursued vigorously and I for one would be delighted to see the remit of the state shrink, as people begin to take responsibility for themselves and others around them.
 

On student charters

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It was reported this week that, for the first time, vice-chancellors at British universities will have to negotiate ‘charters’ with student leaders, laying out the minimum standards that the students can expect. This is largely a response to tuition fees, which have left many students feeling they are not getting value for money in higher education.

This is welcome news on a couple of levels. Firstly, it is a vindication of the view that tuition fees would make higher education institutions more accountable and responsive to their customers – i.e. their students. It also suggests that the introduction of fees has made students engage more with their education, taking it more seriously and aiming to get the most out of it.

On a more basic level, it’s good to see British universities getting their act together. Being honest here, I went to an excellent university, and received an education that would probably command a very high market value. But I still can’t help thinking that a reading list and a CD of lectures could have achieved much the same thing at much lower expense. Students, even in good UK universities, are too often taken for granted, and not actually taught very much at all. In this respect, our educational institutions pale in comparison to American ones.

All that said, we shouldn’t get too excited about ‘student charters’. Yes, they are a step in the right direction, but they are still no excuse for real market forces. As our recent book The Broken University suggested, a free market higher education sector would truly empower students, allowing them to demand a real service from the universities they attended, and also giving them useful information (in the form of price signals) about which courses to choose and which institutions to prefer.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that students and academics alike tend to oppose further ‘marketization’ of higher education – no one likes to have their free lunches taken away. But it is instructive to note that the University of Buckingham – the UK’s only genuinely private university – consistently tops student satisfaction polls. That, not student charters, is the real future for British higher education.

The thin end of the wedge

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Earlier this week, three men were convicted for committing a £1.75m armed robbery at Heathrow in 2004. They were tried without a jury, convicted by a single judge, and sentenced to 15, 17 and 20 years of imprisonment respectively. This is a deeply worrying development.

Yes, the men were dangerous, violent thugs who deserved to be convicted and punished. And yes, there were understandable reasons why holding a jury trial was problematic: at a previous trial, it is alleged that jurors had been threatened; providing them and their families with round-the-clock protection would have been both difficult and prohibitively expensive. But despite all this, I’m disturbed that such a fundamental liberty – the right to be tried by a jury of ones’ peers – should be discarded so lightly.

Perhaps the worst thing is that the evidence on which the decision to not have a jury was taken has not, and will not, be disclosed. Apparently it is too ‘sensitive’ for the public eye. Putting so much faith in administrative discretion makes me very uncomfortable – maybe they made the right call this time, but who is to say they will in the future. This, ultimately, is what the rule of law is all about – protecting us from the arbitrary exercise of state power.

Would strict adherence to the rule of law mean that bad people would sometimes go free, and that justice would occasionally not be done? Yes, of course it does. But I’m reminded of the following exchange from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, which encapsulates this issue perfectly:

William Roper: “So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law!”

Sir Thomas More: “Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get to the Devil?”

Roper: “I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”

More: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you -- where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat. This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast -- man’s laws, not God’s -- and if you cut them down -- and you’re just the man to do it -- do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of the law, for my own safety’s sake.”

Honest Politician Of The Year Award

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A Westminster think-tank has had to scrap its annual Honest Politician Of The Year Award because no qualifying candidates could be found.

The influential Adam Smith Institute, which organises the annual Award, said that it had considered a number of promising nominees, but found insufficient evidence to prove their honesty to the Award jury.

Anthony Steen MP was nominated for his frank view that people were “jealous” of his Balmoral-type second home. However, the jury ruled this untruthful because Balmoral lacks a taxpayer-funded duck house.

Nicholas Winterton MP also reached the shortlist for so truthfully expressing his opinion of standard-class travellers as “a totally different type of people.” But he was disqualified for falsely claiming that his views had been “misrepresented”.

Next year the Adam Smith Institute will give its award instead to the Corrupt Politician Of The Year. “This should give us many more candidates, said Institute director Dr Eamonn Butler. “Indeed, I can think of 646 already.”

“Corrupt politicians are actually the most honest. They have to do what they are bribed to do in order to stay in business. So when bought, they stay bought.”

Another problem for the Awards is that the trophy, depicting a golden hand in a back pocket, and sponsored by Lord Mandelson’s mortgage broker, has been lost. Stephen Byers held it in recognition of his sincere contempt for Railtrack shareholders, but somehow managed to leave it in a cab for hire. Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt have been hired to ask questions, for the usual consultancy fee.

Press enquiries:

G Brown 020 7930 4433 

Reservoir flood plans: Impact assessment (17 December 2009)

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Daft Regulation of the Month

England and Wales have about 2,000 reservoirs. With more volatile weather increasing the risk of failure, the government is concerned that some may fail and contingency plans are required in such events. So far so good. DEFRA has decided that each reservoir “undertaker” should have a flood maps so they know where the water will go. This is fine King Cnut stuff because these maps will do nothing to stop the waters overflowing.

This new regulation allows DEFRA to require reservoir undertakers to draw up flood plans, including maps. The Water Act 2003 which amended the Reservoirs Act 1975, already authorises the Secretary of State to direct reservoir undertakers [each] to draw up these plans but it was all, apparently, a bit voluntary so most of them have not got around to it. With only 100 major reservoirs (greater than 25,000 cubic metres), you might have thought a few phone calls to CEOs would do the trick not to mention visits from OFWAT, and the Health and Safety Executive.

The £37M costs need to be less than the benefits so DEFRA reckon the regulation will save 90 lives at £1.4M each (£131M) or 27 lives later in the same Impact Assessment (presumably because it only needs 27 lives to balance the costs. No lives have been lost due to reservoirs overflowing since the original rules were put in place in the 1930s but we should not let the facts spoil the case.

The benefits analysis is beyond parody: “Occupancy is assumed to be 20% at night and 80% during the day. So with a 50% probability of failure occurring either during night or day the average occupancy would be 50%”. No attempt is made to link that arithmetic to the 90 (or 27) deaths DEFRA expects to save nor does the Impact Assessment show how, in the event, such plans would save even a single person. It will comfort the mourners to know that at least we had the flood plain maps.

Tim Ambler is a Felow of the ASI and Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the London Business School.

This blog is part of the ongoing series: Daft regulation of the month. The first port of call for any government that is really committed to cutting useless red tape. Click here to find out more.

Potholes policy

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Inevitably, most of the focus in last week’s Budget was on the level of public sector net borrowing. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, took great delight in announcing that this year’s PSNB was down to £167 billion – an horrendous figure but slightly less horrendous than the £178 billion forecast in the Pre-Budget Report.

Normally, an £11 billion improvement in the PSNB over a matter of months would have justified nationwide rejoicing. However, we live in desperate times for public finances so the updated figures are merely less awful than previously.

But buried in the Budget Statement was a rather curious announcement on the unglamorous issue of potholes.

The Chancellor stated that ‘the bad weather of the last few months has taken a damaging toll on their (roads) condition. So I am providing £100 million to pay for vital repairs to local roads throughout the country’.

It is perhaps ironic that, just days ago, parts of the sea defences at Leith near Edinburgh - close to the Chancellor’s Edinburgh South West constituency - were breached: road repairs will presumably be required there.

And, after a gruelling winter, such expenditure is much needed nationwide. Many will argue that the actual road repair bill will far exceed £100 million. Even in parts of London, which had relatively moderate snowfall levels during the winter, potholes abound – thereby boosting the demand for new tyres.

On a more academic level, the £100 million potholes policy is pure Keynesianism. With high unemployment and low private sector investment, this policy could easily have been extracted directly from the General Theory.

Of course, in Adam Smith’s era, tarmac roads were unknown. Fellow Scot, John MacAdam, only began building such roads some years after the great man’s death in 1790.

But, if he were alive today, would Adam Smith have supported such public expenditure on potholes?

Lovelock's latest predications

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Yesterday morning I was woken up by the rambling nonsense of Lord Gaia himself, Professor James Lovelock. It is odd that the BBC humors the shifting and illogical statements of this discredited soothsayer. Contradicting himself at every turn, Professor Lovelock argued that the earth’s future is both utterly uncertain and also that we have already pulled the trigger on climate change.

The day before, Professor Lovelock was busy defending totalitarian dictatorship in the Guardian, stating, “I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.

Lovelock, it should be remembered is also a Trustee of the neo-Malthusian Optimum Population Trust (OPT), which seeks to convince people to stop at two children: “Unless we all do something, worldwide, there are going to be another 2.4 billion people on the planet by 2050."

After all:

Having a smaller family - just one or two children instead of three or more - helps to reverse population growth. And by reversing population growth, we'd be taking another green step towards environmental survival for all.

Thus:

[T]reating population growth as a “given” – something over which we have no control – is a failure of courage and leadership in the face of a planetary emergency.

Which contradicts Professor James Lovelock’s odd statement that we should not worry about the fate of the planet and instead enjoy life while we can. Little does he realise that it is increasingly difficult to enjoy life, with eco-fascist governments interfering in our previously private choices, and the likes of Professor Lovelock calling for a totalitarian dictatorship to solve unsolvable fabrications.

Lovelock and the OPT will not be at peace until we are all dead. After all: “A non-existent person has a zero carbon footprint.

What’s a Grecian urn? Not much, thanks to the euro

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Angela Merkel’s victory in blocking an automatic bailout for Greece may be good news for the eurozone in the short term, but may ultimately prove to be a sticking plaster on a tumour. The immediate problem is well known: the Greek government’s profligate spending, combined with a government unwilling to cut spending, has become hugely indebted to avoid making difficult decisions. What is less well known is the euro’s role in getting Greece to this point in the first place.

Whatever happens to Greece now, the crisis reveals one of the underlying problems with the euro: that it was always a politically-driven project constructed by people with little regard for the economic well-being of the countries involved.

The euro’s shortcomings during the bust are obvious: it locks countries into price systems across the continent, and makes the entire eurozone vulnerable to shocks in one or two countries. What is less clear, but equally important, is that the euro drove the boom that many small eurozone economies experienced in the 2000s, and that this was a major reason for the severity of the busts in those countries.

The low interest rates set by the European Central Bank to stimulate the sluggish French and German economies caused the economies of the fast-growing peripheral countries – like Ireland and Spain – to overheat. This led to malinvestment in roundabout projects like housing. Cheap credit meant that house prices spiked, appearing to cause a surge in demand that was actually caused by borrowers outbidding each other with money that they didn’t have. No informed observer of the Irish or Spanish economies could deny that the housing bubbles in these countries were one of the main reasons for their collapse.

By setting interest rates to an artificially low level, fast-growing economies overheated and saw speculative bubbles emerge. The size and scope of these bubbles meant that economic catastrophe was inevitable after they had burst. And the cheap borrowing also made it easy for governments to spend their way into power, as in Greece: Most destructively of all, the eurozone’s low interest rates allowed free and easy borrowing by the most irresponsible spender of all: the government.