Sunday, 10 August 2008

Blowing in the Wind

The Government has just approved a wind farm at Middlemoor near Alnwick. (Subject to the MoD accepting that coastal radar defences are not affected).

This is a real shame. It will look horrible as people drive past on the A1 to one of England's most beautiful areas (North Northumberland); even worse it will be visible once they get there.

I don't think that's the worse problem, however. I even have a sneaky feeling that after a few years we may get used to the look of wind farms.

I think the real problem is the shocking waste of our money and the ineffectiveness of such wind farms in meeting targets for carbon reduction. The only reason the power companies are interested in wind farms is because the Government is over-subsidising them. In addition the infrastructure will have to be upgraded significantly around the country to collect and distribute what little power the wind farms produce, and because the power is unreliable we will still need substantial extra capacity.

And at the same time, while we fiddle with wind we face a real problem with our power capacity. We are decommissioning nuclear and coal power stations with little to replace them except imported gas. Events of the last few weeks show we should not rely on Russia as the prime source of our power generation.

Technology has permitted improved coal and nuclear power plants. We should be urgently investing in these to fill the gap in capacity and in the meantime use the money we are investing in current renewable energy projects:
a) to support householders in micro generation projects (there's certainly enough wind by my roof to reduce my power useage, but its not economic to instal something without help); and
b) invest in technology to seek alternative power sources. suspect in the long term the much maligned US will bring more solutions of this type.

It's frustrating to have seen so much money going into oil producing states indirectly financing terrorism, and to see so much money wasted on the "War on terror" in Iraq and Afghanistan. A proportion of those billions invested in alternative energy could have had much more effect. The same will apply with Russia and gas.

The answer, my friend, is not blowing in the wind.


What were you doing last Friday afternoon?

I was shopping in Newcastle (not for anything interesting: furnishings for houses for holiday rentals). There seemed to be as many people as normal. I didn't see any of them carrying portable TVs or peering into mobile phones. When I was in Currys no-one was looking at the TV screens - and in fact I don't think they were even tuned to the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

I suspect my experience in Newcastle was repeated around the country.

So can it really be right that the ceremony was watched by 4 billion people as Saturday's press suggested? Two thirds of the Earth's population? A lot of people are Chinese, which could help the numbers - but do they all have access to a TV? I seem to remember reading that most people in Beijing were not allowed to watch on public screens. And surely there are many other places -much of Africa, with almost another billion? - without easy access to TV.

So I just don't believe that glib headline that 4 billion people watched the opening ceremony. And sadly its just typical of the Olympic hype. I don't know when it all went wrong, but words like bloated, drug riddled, unnecessary come to mind. Even in China, they are having to bus in spectators.

I write like a grumpy old man because I'm horrified by the amount of money we are spending on the London Olympics - and this when our nearest neighbour, France, would have been only to happy to put on the show for us.

The Olympic site has thrown a number of businesses out of work and has closed dozens of informal sports grounds. The budget is out of control, with more and more money going on construction and less on the "legacy". The money is being taken from arts and sports clubs around the country. And for what? Well, perhaps its too soon to say, but my guess is that lots of people will avoid London while the games are on (as in Sydney and Athens) and lots of Londoners will leave the city. Leaving the half empty stadia for the IOC members in their luxury hotels and chauffered limos.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

A cry for attention

I fell off a ladder.

Actually, the ladder slowly collapsed down the side of my house while I was cleaning a gutter - which meant I fell from about 20 feet onto concrete. My friends who have blogs find interesting things to do so they have things to write about. They visit air shows; they appear on Richard and Judy; they expose themselves (unwittingly) to National Express trains. Why did I have to fall off a ladder?

Actually, it was an interesting experience which has prompted me at last to re-energise my blog. It was a bit like a county council campaign: worth doing once for the experience but probably not worth doing again.

Top tips: don't clean gutters in the rain. Get a friend to hold a ladder if you climb one. Don't keep your hands on the ladder if it falls (I didn't). Hold ice to your head afterwards.

It was a strange feeling: all in slow motion. I felt the ladder give way, I felt it start to fall and thought. "Shit. This could be serious. What shall I do?" And then I hit the ground. I can still walk in a straight line, and I never could chew gum at the same time, so I guess I'm OK. But it was depressing. There's lots of things I could have done - slipped down the ladder quickly; tried to grap the drainpipe; jumped off just before the bottom. But my brain didn't think quickly enough.

I just fell, slowly, out of control.

I wonder if Gordon feels like that?

A fair weeks pay for a fair days work

Something I wrote a month ago: but still relevant

How could they? Were they so drunk with power that they just don’t care? So contemptuous of the people they represent that they calculate the outrage will soon be forgotten? Or so aware that their days in office are numbered that they have to maximise their take while they can?

Probably the last, given the numbers of Labour MPs including those on the Government payroll who voted to keep an excessive and untransparent expenses regime. They did show some constraint in terms of their pay increase but at the same time they avoided future conflicts by passing responsibility to an outside body. Thus ducking the issue and the responsibility.

The best blog on the issue is Guido, who lists those MPs who voted to continue with their current regime, and who neatly comments on the absurdity of some of the claims. I was ashamed to be in the same party as one of the conservative MPs who compared the hardship of having to vote on difficult issues with a clearly overpaid medic who only occasionally has to deal with life or death issues.

So I won’t repeat that. They self-parody sufficiently. But a couple of observations:
- As I noted before, increasingly MPs are ducking important decisions by passing them to outside bodies. So what purpose do MPs serve? And why do we then need so many of them? Would we not be better served with fewer MPs and more money going to Citizens Advice Bureaux (s?) to follow up the issues MPs assistants currently do?
- I don’t believe all politicians are bad. I even believe most initially go into it to try to serve rather than to make money out of their second homes. But it’s clear that power corrupts and that they slip into a framework where they live different lives from ordinary people and think they do not have to live by normal standards. (Evidence? Only one recently elected Tory MPs voted to keep the old system. Otherwise only those first elected in the last century did.) So, we need term limits. Three terms? Two? Perhaps with a one term extension for those in ministerial or shadow ministerial roles?
- MPs should have to vote on their pay (and that of Ministers). They should have that responsibility. But to provide some degree of approval by electors, they should vote at the end of each Parliament, fixing it for the next term. That way people know what they are voting for so there is some degree of check and balance. There is always a turnover of MPs so there is some degree of independence in the vote. And because the amount would be unchanged for the Parliament there would be a lot of incentive to keep inflation down.

Not my fault, Guv

Depressingly the Government has won the vote on its new planning proposals. The most important matter for me is allowing an unelected commission to decide major planning decisions, rather than a politician. Politicians have many flaws. But they are at least elected: they ultimately have to face voters.

It’s quite understandable that it should want to increase the speed of decisions for major infrastructure projects. Such projects cause costs which are easily identifiable at a local level or to single interest groups, and give benefits which can be longer term and spread across a large number of people. But ultimately, balancing conflicting issues is a matter of judgement. It’s not a matter of expertise which can be delegated: it’s political.

Passing difficult decisions to an independent body, politicians evade responsibility for them. Yes, it means short term electoral pressures don’t get in the way of a good long term decision. But who decides what is “good” and “long term”? That surely is why we have politicians, almost the only reason to have them rather than just efficient administrators: people who make judgement calls about tricky decisions. I find it ironic that MPs are demanding more cash at the same time as they do less.

The poster child for this approach has been delegating interest rate decisions to the Bank of England. That has largely worked (the lack of clarity about regulation highlighted by Northern Rock was typical of a Government initiative not being thought through in detail: it’s not related to the effectiveness of the Bank’s monetary policy). But setting interest rates really is a relatively short term econometric technical issue. It doesn’t set a good example for other matters.

That hospital closure? No, it’s the Primary Trust. That decision not to dual parts of the A1? No, that’s the regional highways agency. That new airport runway? Nothing to do with us.

But it is.

I wrote the above a few weeks ago. Before the SATS problems. Which have nothing to do with the minister responsible for education (who after all is a good friend of Gordon, and a potential party leader).

So a whole year of assessment for kids, the conclusion of a year’s efforts, turns out to be little better than random. And late. And the minister can duck responsibility because an independent (although Government established and appointed) agency hired a third party firm (with doubtful provenance) to do the work. With each of them taking costs and profits from taxpayers, with the amounts counting towards invstment in public services yet going nowhere near front line services.

The problem at the heart of Labour is delivery not presentation. They don’t know how to do anything. And perhaps even worse, they don’t care: they still care more about presentation.