Norman Baker, British politician, at the Healt...
Norman Baker. Image via Wikipedia

The EU Transport White Paper sets out transport aspirations our political system is entirely incapable of delivering.

Norman Baker, the Lib Dem transport minister, gave a response to the new White Paper that was classic Bore at the Golf Club Bar. He said, and I paraphrase, “EU, eh? Brussels, eh? Banning cars? Crazy or what? Square bananas next, eh, you know what I mean? Eh? You couldn’t make it up!”

Although the reporting of the proposal (“British motorists will be outlaws in their own land“) made it seem as if the EU had decided it would unilaterally ban cars from city centres, possibly starting tomorrow, the real proposals were much more interesting, and much harder to deliver.

The White Paper looks at the future of transport in the EU over the next forty years (and that’s the context of wanting to phase out petrol-engined cars in favour of zero-emission cars by 2050). It also proposes a similar timescale for the shifting of half the longer passenger and freight journeys currently undertaken by road onto other forms of transport.

Even with no allowance for growth and increasing mobility, that is an enormous task – far greater than merely switching petrol-engined cars for electric, which might take a decade or fifteen years to do, depending on replacement cycles.

Think about the scale of the challenge. In 1952, car passengers made 58bn km of passenger journeys, while rail passengers made 38bn km. In 2009, rail passengers were making 61bn km of journeys, but car users were making 680bn. Let’s assume that some of the shorter road use shifts to electric vehicles, cycling and walking, and we only need to shift 33% of the passenger road kilometres to rail. That still means shifting 227bn km from road to rail, or almost quadrupling the number of km travelled by rail.

That means far more than building HighSpeed 2, 3 or 4 – it means a massive extension of rail and tram schemes into areas that haven’t seen them since the 1950s. It means reopening old connections, like the Lewes-Uckfield link in Mr Baker’s constituency, and quadrupling double track routes like Gatwick to Brighton. In towns, it means disruption building new tram routes to connect to rail, and closing roads to traffic to keep tram speeds high. It means – frankly – rural areas becoming less accessible, and cities becoming much more dense.

Personally, I think that’s preferable to the alternative of lower air quality, more climate change, and more congestion, but do we have the money or the political will to make any of these infrastructure changes happen? The timescales for High Speed 2 – fifteen years from plans to trains – show how much we need to do now to make change happen by 2050. The opposition around High Speed 2 is just a taster of what might happen if plans on this scale were carried out – particularly if they were done as oil prices and taxes soared, and petrol cars were being phased out amid screams of rage from the tabloids.

How do you start that national conversation – particularly starting from “straight bananas”?

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Whitehall, London students protest against fee...
Image by chrisjohnbeckett via Flickr

Quick post – longer one disappeared into the ether – about protest networks. On Left Foot Forward, Aaron Peters is broadly sympathetic to the claims of UKUncut and other similar “open-source” protest movements, that they have come up with a new organisational model which works better for mass involvement than traditional structure.

Near the end of the piece, he hints at the issue I have with that argument:

The lesson from the whole event is this – networks can be more powerful than organisations in fostering dissent and for that to be the case individuals and groups must be innovative in ideas and actions. That is why this model has proved successful so far. However, these same individuals and groups must be reminded that where there is not a broad consensus behind a particular action this model fails.

I think what Peters is saying here is that individual actions (going after Burger King rather than Top Shop, for instance) won’t wash with consensus-driven groups if there isn’t a consensus behind them.

That’s certainly true, but I’d go further and say that the “open source dissent” model can only work where groups are made up of broadly similar people with a rough agreement on their common purpose, and the means of getting there.

Unstructured decisions are not difficult in a large group where there is high trust and a sense of being an in-group. Revolutionaries and protest leaders from across the centuries can tell you then. What is difficult is maintaining that culture when the people involved represent the full range of views from right to left.

To be fair to UKUncut, that’s not something they claim to do. They want to convince people of their cause, ideally they want people to join them in their protests, but they have never as far as I know made a claim that they include the full spectrum of opinion.

That’s fine for UKUncut, but there has to be a generally inclusive space for decision and discussion somewhere, or else how can we make the tradeoffs between equally worthy causes transparently and with democratic legitimacy? Such spaces can’t operate on high-trust structureless models, because the people in them have strongly different views, so structureless models are liable to gaming and takeover. That’s where a light structure for decision-making with guarantees of fairness and, yes, perhaps even a bit of hierarchy is needed and always will be.

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Shall we dance? (Image by Chesi - Fotos CC via Flickr)

Here’s a line from Friday’s FT:

Germany and France regularly use bilateral gatherings as a way to set the EU’s agenda at upcoming summits, and Ms Merkel’s comments [on the importance of fiscal harmonisation] could be a sign Paris and Berlin will push for new European measures to deal with crisis at next week’s gathering of EU heads of state in Brussels.

And here’s another:

anti-Europe sentiment has been rising in several EU members during the crisis, with Eurosceptic parties gaining popularity in countries like the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden, making further political union unlikely.

As they say in Private Eye, could they possibly be related? There’s a pretty glaring democratic deficit when the two big boys sort things out in a corner without involving the rest of the group. It illustrates the gap between institutional solutions and intergovernmental solutions to European problems.

Intergovernmental solutions favour speed, because there are a small number of people involved, but also prioritise the interests of the big states (France and Germany, and Britain if it wanted to play) over the “mediums” and the “smalls”.

Institutional solutions – such as the Parliament – are slow and murky. Personality-obsessed journalists are disappointed because discussions are led by unknown politicians, rather than the big beasts. But institutional solutions are slower because they involve the smaller states, and are therefore more representative and more democratic than intergovernmental kludges. What’s more, process improvements can make institutions speedier and more flexible. Nothing is going to make a Merkel-Sarkozy dual monarchy more democratic.

Intergovernmentalism may be the fashion in these Eurosceptic days, but it’s a solution which worsens the problem. Any long-term European fiscal approach has be based in more democratic, more responsive institutions.

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Here are the articles and web pages the Talk Issues team recommend today:

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Here are the articles and web pages the Talk Issues team recommend today:

  • Heffer on the EU: Nostradamus he ain’t – One of our own pieces on a hysterical prediction of the future by Simon Heffer, written in 2003. Find out about the gangs of armed EU police who will be roaming the streets attacking the middle classes in (gasp!) 2010
  • Spending cuts – now you’re talking – Following the Chancellor’s announcement on spending cuts consultation, Matthew Taylor – the man behind the Big Conversation – passes on some lessons from that experience
  • Football and Twitter – When Saturday Comes considers the impact that the use of Twitter has had on football journalism. The use of Twitter to “take the temperature” of a team’s fans has interesting parallels with the political world – and in both cases, you have to wonder about how representative the sample is.
  • Financial Re-Regulation and Democracy – Joseph Stiglitz writes in New Europe on what the bank rescue, bank regulation and the move to spending cuts say about the state of our democracies.
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Welcome to this week’s Talk Issues ‘Thinktank Roundup’ – your one-stop review of all the best publications, research, commentary and events from leading UK think tanks. Not surprisingly in the week of the Queen’s speech various thinktanks responds to their fears & hopes from the government legislative programme for the next 18 months.

Reports, Publications & Research

“In a world in which financial and material resources are short, this pamphlet examines detailed examples of how communities, businesses and local government have come together to make use of heritage infrastructure, and looks at lessons that they might hold more generally. The recession need not lead to a halt to development: it can prompt us to alter practice and behaviours.”

Briefs, Articles & Comment

Speeches & Events

  • In anticipation of the coalition’s Great Repeal Bill the Institute of Economic Affairs are hosting a debate on which laws should be reformed, amended or completely repealed. The debate, at 18:00 on Thursday 3rd June at 2 Lord North Street, Westminster will be chaired by Mark Littlewood (director-general, Institute of Economic Affairs), speakers include Professor Philip Booth (Institute of Economic Affairs), Guy Herbert (general secretary, NO2ID), Shane Frith (director, classical liberal think tank Progressive Vision), author and historian Chris Snowdon, and Simon Clark (director, smokers’ lobby group Forest). More details here.
  • On Wednesday 23rd June, following the coalition’s emergency budget, the IFS will host a lunchtime briefing at Senate House (near the IFS offices) in London – an opportunity to hear a considered view of the Chancellor’s announcements from Institute staff. The event isn’t free & registration is required – more details here.
  • On 7th June The Kings Fund will hold a half-day conference exploring the implications of the changing policy and political environment for those working in the NHS and leading health care organisations.

If there’s anything else worthwhile you’d like to share please let us know in the comments.

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Education is a massive issue. It’s widely believed that locked within it is the success of the future of the country and the economy, not to mention greater equality, fulfilment, welfare and social mobility.

A young Mr Blair once listed “Education, Education, Education” as his top issues in government. Is it as high on the agenda during this recovery, and what are the big questions that those in education are asking? Both Primary and Secondary education features high on the debate agenda, an issue brought up during the leaders’ debate as well as elaborated in each manifesto. However, the noise around higher education seems substantially quieter. What are the big issues for these students, most of which consisting of first time voters?

Those in higher education face an uncertain future on leaving, what issues would these voters, often first time, like to be talking about? Indeed the economy and recession does seem to hang in front of those prospective graduates “After paying fees, many students presume that graduate jobs lay around the corner after completing their degrees. However, the global recession has made that belief impossible” Paul Tobin, Union President of the University of Sheffield told me. This rings true to my own experience- the year in which I graduated was hailed as the ‘worst in 30 years’. If students already had an apathetic image, the recession does nothing to help stimulate engagement and interest. From my experience, students felt increasingly disengaged and felt as though they had less control of their futures. A record number of students continued on to further study as a way of continuing their student lifestyle, and more are going to travel to avoid the inhospitable graduate market.

Election 2010 gives us the opportunity to reignite the debate around this issue but the quietness around students financial situation has been noted, as Paul goes on to explain: “Labour and Conservative appear to be avoiding the issue of Higher Education funding until after the Browne review… each of the three main parties are most likely to vote for have key strengths and weaknesses. It is this lack of clarity and difference between the parties which in part leads to student apathy. No party is credibly claiming to be the party for students and with recent scandals and corruption, it’s easy to lump all politicians together.”

Hopefully we will see more clarity arise over higher education as the election campaign rolls on, the recession hit young people particularly badly, and student voters need to be presented with what they can expect with the new executive and feel as though there experience is taken into account and acted upon.

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There is no doubt that last night political history was made with the first live television debate between the leaders of the three main parties. Questions were put to them on domestic issues covering education, health, crime and the recovery from an audience hand picked to reflect British society.

So was the debate focused on personality or policy? It was inevitable that every part of the leaders approach to being scrutanised would be analysed, but I certainly felt as if it were an opportunity to see how comfortable each leader was with their new manifesto, as well as gain a further understanding on thier priorities.

Nick Clegg was the man with the most to gain, having equal billing on a playing field in what is often considered a two party system. Sure enough, there is a broad consensus that his performance was by far the strongest, however I felt it was due not only to having this advantage. He was the only leader to look directly into the camera and seemed comfortable with his policies. In addition he also had the advantage  in having the ability to talk to the audience about offering to”tidy up the murky world of politics” by trying something different. Gordon Brown utilised his experience by reminding the audience of improvements that had already occurred before focusing on promises for the future, and performed perhaps better than what was expected despite being caught out a little when agreeing with Mr Clegg on the issue of electoral reform, in which Clegg argued he’d been trying to get through Parliament with no support from either party. Cameron, who perhaps had the biggest expectations fell short a little, questions were noticeably avoided, particularly on crime prevention and proposed cuts. Often pressed for a clear response, one notable line came from the Prime Minister “This is not Question Time Mr Cameron; it’s answer time”

With estimated viewing figures around 9 million the debate brought some of the key issues to more people than ever. Although we may be in a generation of personality politics Britian still needs to be aware of the importance of debating these policies, and in that sense the debate was a success, we even witnessed some cross party agreement, particulary on the issue of elderly care.

Were the leaders all too aware of the pressures they faced to portray thier party in a positive light? Inevitably. Did it make a huge difference to the quality of democracy? I’m not sure. But important issues were discussed, and helped spark conversations on the issues that matter, and where the prospective people in power stand on them.

Read our live blog here!

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Each quarter the DCSF publishes statistics on the amount of young people (16-24 year olds) not in education, employment or training, known in the media NEETs.

Obviously reducing the percentage of young people in this bracket is an honourable aim (it is the most popular national indicator chosen by councils to attain) and one sought by both Labour and the Conservatives.

Labour has faced  criticism for overseeing a period where the percentage of NEETs has increased and looks unlikely to meet its target of getting the proportion of 16-18 years olds classified as NEET down to  7.6% for 2010, as the figure stood at just under 10% at the end of last year. But it has handed control of the £7bn budget for post-16 training and education to councils in a move welcomed by local authorities.

The party has also pledged to increase that funding by £202m and create 100,000 new government funded training places, should it win another term.

The Conservatives have promised 100,000 apprenticeships and the same amount of additional college places. They have also revealed their plans for a National Citizen Scheme  for 16-year-olds, a voluntary 8 week course including outdoor activities and community work, which David Cameron claims will act as a write of passsage into adulthood.

The supposed proliforation of NEETs plays well to Tory claims about Broken Britain as NEETs are often  seen as the disaffected and socially excluded, despite the fact the figures include young people on gap years or in voluntary schemes similar to the Tory citizenship proposal.

In a late twist to the NEET story this election  the cross party DCSF select committee published a report last week, which praised the Dutch model for tackling youth unemployment.

Among other things, the Dutch won’t pay benefits to young people unless they are in formal training, education or employment. But they also have a much more flexible system of support for people up to the age of 27.

I haven’t seen a response to that report from the parties, but needless to say the right leaning press enjoyed the idea of taking away people’s benefits.

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I liked the last subheading in the leader of this week’s Economist: How to become thriftier without anybody minding. Anatole Kaletsky noted in a particularly flinty column in The Times last week aimed at the alternating timidity and bravado of the Tories on the enduring problem of debt:

If public debt must be reduced without any imminent risk of Greek-style bankruptcy, then proposals to shift the tax burden from national insurance to less economically damaging levies could sound quite reasonable, especially in the context of long-range plans for tax reforms.

The same could be said for management changes in the public sector and long-term reforms in government pay and pensions of a kind that Labour and the Lib Dems might never contemplate.

And the other context in all of this, is in the international zone, where Gordon Brown has sought refuge from domestic storms and the Tories have rather pointed feared to tread. According to David Steven, this crisis is about more than the reduction of domestic debt, but is rather a crisis of a long orthodoxy in macro economics:

Governments cannot move alone on this agenda, but must act together. They need to invest more in working with each other, and to do so in quite practical ways that explore potential frameworks that manage risk. They also need to reform their diplomatic, development and military organizations in ways that maximize their interoperability. Together – these challenges delineate the frontier for a new doctrine for contemporary foreign policy.

Such complexities are not an easy sell on the doorsteps. And on the domestic front, it is true that some of the policy initiatives that might bring real benefits, are counterintuitive to the electorate. Over at Stumbling and Mumbling Chris notes a recent article in Fiscal Studies:

Christian Dustmann and colleagues show that migrants from the A8 nations “have made a significant net contribution to the UK fiscal system.” This is because even those of them who are eligible for welfare benefits are much less likely to claim them than are native  people. They are also much less likely to live in social housing.
Overall, they estimate that between 2005 and 2009, A8 migrants paid around £1.35 of tax for each pound of public spending they receive, whereas natives paid only around 90p.

But back to the Economist and the trouble with reducing debt and dampening consumption:

The world’s biggest economy has begun a long overdue rebalancing. American consumption and borrowing can no longer be the engine of either America’s economy or the world’s. That is the hope. The fear is that politicians everywhere are incapable of dealing with the consequences. [Emphasis added]

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