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Thursday, 20 September 2012

Western Road, Brighton: A Case of Self-Destruct?

The other day I walked the length of Western Road, Brighton, from the Clock Tower to Palmeira Square and beyond onto Church Road. I wasn't in a hurry but I realised I never stopped to browse a shop window. Now for me this is odd: I was brought up on window shopping.

 Here's my explanation: You can't get near the shop windows. You have to walk in the middle of the pavement because outside the shops there is an endless procession of sandwich boards and other obstructions. Outside Argos, they even had an industrial pallet stacked with catalogues for you to take away.If you tried to walk along near the shop windows, you would be forever dodging or falling over.

 If a few shops put out sandwich boards, they benefit from the publicity. But if all do, then you just have pavement obstructions. In the same way, if a few people stand up at a concert they get to see better. If everyone stands up, no one can see.

 The pavements along Western Road have been widened on the road side in recent years. Close your eyes to their general squalor - chewing gum and grease stained - and you can almost imagine a boulevard. But when they were widened,the Council did not organise the relocation of "street furniture"towards the new kerbs. So you have Post Boxes and Waste Bins in the middle of the pavement rather than to the kerb-side.

The real walking decision - given you can't walk close to the shop windows - is between trying to stay in the middle or instead heading out to the kerb. Either way, what could have been a pleasant stroll turns into the navigation of an obstacle course. It must be a nightmare for a blind person or anyone in a wheelchair.

 Councils abhor a vacuum, so they have added new street furniture to the widened pavements including licensing a double whammy of sandwich boards on the kerb side. They make money from the sandwich boards (and from the shops and cafes who are allowed to spill their wares onto the pavement). It all looks to me very bad for business. You are so preoccupied navigating the jungle of the pavement that you don't have mental space to think about shopping.

 The initiative is unlikely to come from the Council but what Western Road needs is a No Sandwich Board Pact, with just a few cafes and greengrocers allowed to spill out, attractively, and vary the use of space. All the street furniture in the middle of the pavement needs to be moved to the kerb side - and probably half of it removed. You would then notice that there are actually a few trees along the way which would benefit from some TLC. You would be half way towards a boulevard.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Love Thy Neighbour's Children?

The Toff always chats amiably to the Taxi Driver. But he most definitely doesn't want his children to attend the same school as the taxi driver's. Fortunately, Eton exists.

The lecturer at Middle England University is always polite to his or her house cleaner but, of course, their children go to different schools. Sometimes socially segregated housing does the trick automatically; but when it doesn't, God steps in. Faith Schools boomed under the encouragement of Middle England New Labour and continue to boom under their successors. And so nowadays lecturers at Middle England University Do God. It reduces cognitive dissonance for them to believe that, actually, God isn't so bad after all. He improves your children's GCSE results.

The Churches are well aware that this is a bigger selling point than Eternal Salvation.

At the bottom of the heap, the children no one wants to love go to common schools.

Once upon a time, the common school was regarded as a vital institution of a democratic society. It was what taught children (and their parents) that they were all in it together, that you could only progress where there was some social solidarity. If there was to be any differentiation, it could only be in order to give talent a challenge or lack of ability some compensating help. There was no place for differentiation on the basis of social background.

Some countries seem to maintain traditions of common schooling. But not England. We do of course believe that we are all in it together: the rich man's children remain in his castle and the poor man's children at his gate.

Thursday, 13 September 2012


Doggies are only taken for walkies because their owners don't want them to shit on their carpets. They want them to shit on the pavement or in the park. Here in Brighton, they want them to shit on the promenade, the lawns and the beach.

In most contexts, if a few people behave anti-socially it doesn't much matter. If a few people don't pay their train fares, the train company doesn't go bust. If most people don't, then it will. We can cope with small numbers of delinquents but not very large numbers.

When only a few people keep dogs - shepherds, blind people, security guards - dogs don't create a problem. When everyone feels they must own a doggy, then they do, if only because the absolute number of clueless or anti-social owners increases.

Nowadays, under social pressure, many owners walk behind their doggy with a shit bag, ready to pick up excrement and put it in a council bin (from which it will be removed and recycled at public expense). But not every owner is a willing shit picker. You see dogs being directed to places - like the stony beach rather than the tarmac promenade - which allow owners to convince themselves that it's not "realistic" to pick up the shit from that spot. They can persuade themselves that they are willing but not able. Even more so when their dog has diahorrea.

If you want to put things into perspective, next time you watch a dog shitting on the pavement, imagine that you are watching its owner squatting down - with another human standing ready with a plastic bag.

Of course, dogs create other problems. They can be noise polluters and even well-intentioned owners may be able to do little to control barking . And they bite children and postpersons, often for the first time so that even the best of owners could not have foreseen it. Some dogs are deliberately kept for attack and this is a different situation: it is clearly the owner who is acting anti-socially and wilfully so.

But the shit problem is the real dog problem. Every sunny weekend, here in Brighton, unwary human visitors will go to the beach or the promenade lawns and find themselves lounging in shit. They'll have it on their feet, their elbows, their hands. Some will be children. Our Council prides itself on being Dog Friendly.

Do I exaggerate? I had a look at information on the website.

There are between 6 500 000 and 7 400 000 dogs in the UK - since they don't have to be registered, these are best estimates. Each day, these dogs produce about 1 000 metric tonnes of shit.

Over half of all dog owners do not worm their dogs. That is why the majority of parks and open spaces in the UK are contaminated with eggs of the worm Toxocara Canis . These eggs are very robust and can survive for long periods before hatching.

About 100 cases of Toxocariasis in humans are diagnosed each year with around 50 of them causing serious eye damage. Nearly all those affected are children. There is no treatment or cure.

Aah,doggy woggies.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Tax Creep

The rich have the right idea. No one should be losing forty or fifty percent of their income to governments, democratic or despotic it doesn't matter. Why not? When governments - local and central - take that much money from you they have a serious problem knowing what to do with it. Half the time, they waste it. That's an empirical, documented fact. Better to pay twenty or twenty five percent in tax and have the money well spent because your governors have to think carefully what to do with it. It's a no brainer.

In his fine book Losing Small Wars, Frank Letwidge remarks that soldiers don't get medals for showing restraint, however heroic the restraint may be: you won't get a medal for not firing into the hostile crowd which surrounds you. Bravery must involve firing bullets.

Politicians and bureaucrats don't get rewards or promotions for not doing things. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson does not get credited for not sending British troops into Vietnam; he gets discredited for giving verbal support to the USA.

No bureaucrat ever thinks, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". If you have been given a Budget - and especially if you had to fight to get it - then you must spend it. Otherwise you will get less next year. And you will be thought idle,incompetent and lacking in intitiative for not finding "Projects" on which to use up your Budget.

And when giving an Annual Report, any right-thinking bureaucrat will wring their hands and lament the fact so many worthy, desirable, praiseworthy, admirable Projects could not be undertaken because - hang your heads in shame, Masters - THE BUDGET WAS NOT BIG ENOUGH. ( This is basically what you say in an Arts Council report).

At the level of local government, the need to Do Things accounts for the major industry known as Minor Road Works. Your truly idle, incompetent and unimaginative local transport boss knows only this: you can get through that Budget by narrowing a road here, modifying a junction there, fooling around with the speed limits, adding half a cycle lane, tarting up the street lighting. Proceed like this and you will never have to face the challenge of doing anything Major . But in your Annual Report, your Annual Appraisal, you will be able to list an awful lot of Things Done.

There would be no Bonus, no Promotion for someone foolish enough to say, "Nothing else needed doing, so we returned the unspent part of our Budget to central funds".

In the early days, BBC radio news bulletins did not have a fixed length. They would end with the newscaster saying, "There is no more News tonight". That didn't last long. You don't build careers on that kind of idiocy.

Taxes creep up as politicians and bureaucrats find good causes which need money, most often wars. Trending steadily upwards over two centuries they rarely, if ever, fall back significantly. They are the the foundation of political reputations and bureaucratic careers. It does not matter if the money is squandered. In the world we live in, there are no punishments for failure. It is the taking part in spending all this money not the spending it effectively that is so handsomely rewarded.

It is a political tragedy that the case for low taxation is only made by right-wing courtiers to the rich and dodgy. There are sound progressive arguments for bringing down the overall tax burden, and especially on those who bear it because the rich and dodgy have decided (often with government blessing) that, well, taxation is not their cup of tea so they ain't gonna pay...

Trust: Why Zurich has better Public Transport than Brighton

Zurich is a filthy rich capitalist city. It also has one of the world's best publicly owned urban transport systems. Zurich's trams are fast, efficient and electrically powered.

Brighton UK is a relatively poor seaside resort which generates its income from restaurants and bars, language schools, universities, drink and drugs. For public transport, it relies on privately owned buses which are adorned with self-congratulatory advertisements. The buses are slow and polluting, even if less so now than in the past.

But much of the difference in the systems is due to differences in the degree of Trust people in the two cities place in each other, not to the wealth differences.

In Zurich, each tram stop is equipped with a large ticket machine. You buy your ticket and board the tram. There is no conductor to check your ticket and the job of the tram driver is to drive, not check tickets. There are inspectors, but not many of them. I have never been asked to show my ticket.

The calculation must be this: What you lose on free riders who don't buy a ticket you (easily) save on staff and ticket-checking machines. In addition, your trams are able to load and depart quickly from any given stop.

In principle, your kerbside ticket machines can be burgled. It just doesn't happen often enough to cause a problem. Maybe even the thieves in Zurich are proud of their public transport system.

In Brighton, there are no kerbside machines. Maybe the private bus company is too mean to install them. But more likely they reckon Brighton full of thieves and vandals. Machines wouldn't stand a chance.

So you board the bus and pay the driver. Yes, the driver. We don't have conductors any more - they double the number of staff needed to operate a bus. Nor do we have machines on the bus - too many thieves and vandals again.

Even though many passengers have passes to wave at the driver, it's nonetheless the case that Brighton buses are excruciatingly slow simply because the driver has to issue tickets. Your heart sinks when you see a large queue at the next bus stop where you will stop and load up. If humanly possible, I walk into and around the city just to avoid that.

The moral is quite simple. If you can trust other people, life is not only more pleasant but your economy is going to be more efficient because - in the example I have described - you cut the time needed to travel from A to B.

Building a Rapid Transit system is not just about Technology; it is also about Trust.