Sunday, 12 February 2017

Council cuts?


At the full County Council meeting in December, the Council voted to reverse both the cuts to the gritting routes, and the dimming & switching off of streetlights in towns and cities in Cambridgeshire (rural roads will still be affected). These are much-needed reversals - the dimmed streetlights in particular caused significant problems around Cambridge - but these reversals have been paid for out of the general reserves.

This is in no way sustainable, and highlights the bind the council is in - over the next 5 years, the Council is forced to make £123 million of savings due to cuts in funding from national government. This is around a quarter of the council's budget (for comparison, the total cost of services in 2015-16 was £412.2 million, and the council spent £147.3 million in capital investments). In 2016-17 alone, the council has to make £40 million in savings. The reduction in streetlights and gritting was meant to be around £1 million of this.

Most of these cuts are due to the government grant being removed - in 2014, the council received £84 million from the government; in 2019, it will be £0. The general reserves lets the council cushion service cuts like the streetlights & gritting in the short term, but at some point there will be no more reserves left - and then, irregardless of the impact or outcry, vital services that people depend on will have to reduce or stop altogether. And this will reduce the quality of life for thousands of the most vulnerable across the county, and potentially cost lives.

Last month we had the cross-county manifesto conference for the County & Mayoral elections in May. The completed manifesto is due to come out at the end of February, but in all our discussions the sheer scale of the budgetary challenge facing the council affected everything we talked about, from transport to social care to schools to the environment.

The maximum council tax raise the council can apply each year is 2%, plus an additional 2%-3% for social care (a 2% rise is an extra 45p a week for a Band C property); if the council applied this raise over the next few years, this will really help ameliorate the cuts and cushion the reduced funding to council services. But the Conservative and UKIP groups on the council refuse to raise council tax; the Conservatives are only willing to accept the 2% social care levy, and UKIP are against any raise whatsoever.

At some point, if no council tax raise is forthcoming, councillors will be forced to make decisions on which services must be cut - services that people depend on. I hope it doesn't reach that stage.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Future of Work

Last week I went to a Lib Dem policy discussion on 'The Future of Work' - discussing policy positions on the oncoming disruptive changes in employment caused by increased automation and more powerful software algorithms.

It was an interesting evening - we didn't come to any firm conclusions, but one thing was clear - the current economic and political systems are incapable of dealing with the forthcoming revolution in work, production, employment and economics. Without policies to help mitigate or smooth the changes, we risk an unprecedented consolidation of power that will be very hard to reverse.

Briefly, a bit of background. Over the past couple of decades, computers have become more and more adept at tasks that previously humans would do, and they are often better at it than us. Slowly our society and economy has become more computer-centric. Now, in the next few years, these changes will start moving into the physical world - driverless cars and 3D printers being the obvious examples. What will happen when these new tools become as ubiqutous as smartphones and algorithms are now? What will happen when whole sectors of the economy are replaced by computers and machines?

These changes are covered in much more detail in books such as Homo Deus and The Economic Singularity, but the conclusions are clear - we are on the verge of a fundamental change in how our world works, and we need to work out how to deal with it before it happens.

Now, obviously, we're dealing with the future here. This could all be rendered incorrect by some changes that we're not aware of at the moment. But the signs are increasingly pointing towards an economic shift that we haven't prepared for, and that have some troubling consequences.

The most obvious change is that, maybe, 10-20% of existing jobs could be replaced by computers (although some say it's much higher). That immediately raises the question of what happens to all those people who are suddenly out of a job, or, if part-time work becomes the norm, what everyone will do with their free time.

There is an argument that, just like in the industrial revolution, new jobs will be created that will fill the void. However, I would argue this is a quite different situation - we're on the verge of changes that will render the entire supply chain - design (algorithic iteration), raw material extraction, manufacture/assembly (3D printing, automated production), transport (driverless cars, drones), and waste disposal - requiring very few or no people involved on a day-to-day basis. The only role of humans would be consuming the manufactured goods in the middle. The economy would change from being human-centric to computer-centric - humans would just be a small part of the great machine we've built up around us. There wouldn't be many people required to keep the whole thing ticking along. This is in contrast to the industrial revolution, which supercharged the existing economic system, allowing human actions to be amplified far beyond what people could do by themselves.

This would mean that we could have a significant proportion of the population not needed to do anything, and the economy would happily carry on regardless. You could 3D-print most items, food would be grown, new products designed, with a minimal amount of human input.

However, the current economic and political systems are based on the premise that it is better to have a job than not, and a full-time job is better than a part-time job. Will we just end up with busywork; jobs existing for their own sake? What will happen to the wellbeing of such people doing 'useless' jobs? Or, if more and more people start to go part-time, what will they do with all their free time? Will you still be defined, and derive your self-image, largely from your job? What about income - how will the economy still run when the amount of cumulative income across the country drops? The need of the 'Protestant Work Ethic' becomes superfluous, as the economy can still happily carry on with most people working 50% of the time.

But the Protestant Work Ethic is what our government, society, self-image, and indeed what capitalism itself is based on! When the government is aways seeking to lower unemployment numbers and to get people into work, what will happen to those ideals when the jobs simply become unneeded and superfluous? Is it even possible for the mind-set of the Conservative and Labour parties to adapt to these changes? What will that mean for government policy?

One idea which was brought up very early on was the 'Citizens Income' - giving everyone a basic income irregardless of situation, need, or other income sources (it's already getting a few small-scale trials in a few countries). However, any large-scale implemetation of such an idea has some significant issues - where does all the money come from? Will we need to massively tax the well-off to pay for the Citizens Income to the rest of the population? What does that do to concepts of 'fairness' and capitalist fundamentals of 'you keep what you earn'? And how do we get there from where we are now?

Moving the focus to the owners of the computers - moving more and more of the economy to computers and machines gives a huge amount of power to the people and the companies that control and own said computers - but that is where our economy is going, based on the current ideas of ownership and control that have been the basis of our society and legal system for the past 200 years. The network effects that have given Google, Facebook, and Twitter so much power will be amplified by the move into the real world. Left unchecked, we'll be in a dystopic situation of the 'Gods and the useless' - a few people control the machines, with most people just consuming the products of those machines. And there would be nothing that they could do to wrest power away from those at the top, as they control everything (see China's Social Credit System). And if they attempt to disrupt, they risk destroying the basis of the entire economy.

But that situation follows on directly from our existing capitalist ideals of ownership and control. To avoid the 'Gods and the useless' requires work now to change our societal ideals and goals. And no one's sure that is possible, or how we go about doing it. But it does and it will affect everything, and any future policy, produced by the Lib Dems or anyone else, has to bear this in mind, else it will simply be irrelevant.

Friday, 7 October 2016

It's always about politics

Yesterday, I took part in the march against the congestion control points. I won't be discussing the proposals directly in this post (I've already done that elsewhere), but talk about something that was said at the rally on Parkers Piece:

"This is not about politics"

On the contrary, this is precisely about politics. This is what politics is all about. Politics is not a dirty word, it's not the purvue of the politicians, it's the process of making decisions that affect the community as a whole. Most decisions are pretty uncontroversial, and just happen behind the scenes. But when controversial decisions are taken, politics surfaces and you get marches on the streets.

This is why its so important for politicians to listen - politicians are only a small part of the community, and (more often then not) don't have the same range of backgrounds as their community as a whole. Whilst they represent their community, they don't have the same range of experiences and opinions as everyone in the community they represent. So they need to listen. They need to go and talk to people, talk to those whom they represent, and ensure that they have taken the whole range of views and opinions into account when they make their decisions.

This is why it is so dangerous when politicians assume they know what their community wants and needs on controversial decisions. The City Deal is a prime example - the only solution to congestion they're considering is the control points. Congestion in Cambridge is a difficult problem - there is no easy, obvious fix; there are downsides to all the possible solutions, and doing nothing is not an option. But the politicians involved in the City Deal have assumed that they know what their community wants, and so have assumed that PCCPs are the correct way to improve the congestion problem, and are basing everything on that solution, not even offering alternatives in the consultations.

As a result, people feel they haven't been listened to, that their opinions have been ignored or not considered. And these proposals will cause huge problems for a lot of people. So they do what they can to get their views across - marching through Cambridge.

Controversial decisions will invariably benefit some people and disadvantage others, but that's why it's important to talk to and listen to everyone's concerns beforehand, so that when the final decision is taken everyone can see and understand the tradeoffs made.

This is why politics matters.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Congestion Control Points

The City Deal hasn't been having an easy time of it recently. While most of the proposals (so far) have been concentrated in the north of the city (and I'll leave you to look up how those are progressing), there is one proposal that will have a big effect in the south - Congestion Control Points.

The basic idea is to stop cars getting into the city centre during the morning rush hour using ANPR cameras; there will be no physical barrier, but if you go through the cameras you'll be hit with a large fine. This will reduce the total amount of traffic in the city centre, as cars that don't go in the morning won't have to come out again in the evening.

The control points themselves would be on the three southern entrance roads - Hills Road, Mill Road, and Coldhams Lane, one on East Road, and two roads in the west of the city - Queen's Road and Grange Road.

While these will undoubtedly reduce traffic in the city centre itself, by simply banning all private cars, the scheme will cause problems elsewhere that make the whole idea seriously questionable.

Firstly, the City Deal's own analysis has said that the traffic will actually substantially increase on the roads just outside the control points - Coleridge Road, Cherry Hinton Road, sections of Mill Road, Brooks Road, Newmarket Road - which are right in the middle of big residential areas, with a consummate increase in pollution and and decrease in road safety (Mill Road is already questionable to cycle down at the best of times). And I suspect this will cancel out any improvements to bus times by reduced traffic in the city centre, as buses will have to use those roads as well.

Secondly, the control points are not an absolute barrier - there are ways round them, mostly using the already congested outer ring road. For commuters who are used to driving into Cambridge from further afield, a number of them will simply go round the control points - increasing the travel time, increasing the distance they drive, and moving more cars round the city. Or, alternatively, park just outside the control points and walk or take the bus (although, to be fair, the City Deal is also proposing a city-wide residents parking scheme. Given how controversial such local schemes are in my local area of Romsey and Coleridge, that proposal has its own issues to work though)

Thirdly, this will cause huge problems for local residents who need to go through the control points, while having absolutely no effect on those who don't. People who currently have no other choice but to drive across Mill Road bridge due to mobility issues, for example, will be well and truly stuffed (there is currently no exemption for blue badge holders), whereas people who have slightly different routes that dont go through the points will be completely unaffected. There are no exemptions, no allowances - you simply will not be able to drive across the bridge at peak times. At least, not without paying a hefty fine. But if your route doesn't go across the bridge, you will be completely unaffected (except for the increased traffic, of course).

There was another solution - congestion charging. Rather than singling out a few specific routes, this would simply apply across the whole city - reducing traffic wherever you were driving to, whilst still giving people the flexibility to drive just as they do now if they needed to. But that wasn't even put forward for consultation, leaving us with this ridiculous solution.

The proposals will definately decrease congestion in the city centre - which is the primary goal of the whole exercise, after all. But, just like the plans for Milton and Histon Roads, the proposals will have large negative effects for residents living in the area. The City Deal, yet again, suffers from a failure of imagination, and has simply gone for the simplest brute-force approach, without considering the effect on the local area and the rest of the city. This is simply not good enough.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Devolution

Among the many public consultations happening at the moment around Cambridgeshire is one on Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Devolution. This would bring together Cambridgeshire County Council, Peterborough and Cambridge City Councils, and Fenland, South Cambridgeshire, East Cambridgeshire, and Huntingdonshire District Councils, together with the Local Enterprise Partnership, under a Combined Authority chaired by a directly elected Mayor.

This Combined Authority would be responsible for transport infrastructure, extra housing funding, extra education and adult skills funding, and programs to improve skills and employment in the region.

The consultation can be accessed here, and an overview of the devolution deal is here.

Along with this deal comes an extra pot of money for new council houses in Cambridge - something that is really, really needed. There is a chronic shortage of housing in Cambridgeshire, and the money (for around 500 new houses) will really help. But it won't solve the problem - only a regular, consistent program from central government to build thousands and thousands of new houses will. The housing money will help alleviate the pressure in the short term, but the devolution deal is forever more.

There are some significant problems with the proposal itself:
  • Peterborough City Council is a unitary authority, not covered by Cambridgeshire County Council. This means that, on the Combined Authority, the residents of Peterborough will only get represented by 1 vote, where everyone else will get 2 (from the County Council, and from their District or City Council)
  • Once the Mayor is elected, he or she has got a lot of power with little oversight. The Mayor has a casting vote, and in some situations a 2/3 majority is needed to out-vote the Mayor. The Authority will appoint a Cabinet, but that only has an advisory role. There is a Overview & Scrutiny Committee, also appointed by the Authority, but that has no actual power to overturn or stop decisions made by the Authority. And an Audit Committee will oversee financial spending, but again, can only make recommendations. With regards to public consultations, the Government only 'expects the Combined Authority to monitor and evaluate their Deal', and there is no requirement to consult on any proposals or changes.
  • This is billed as 'Devolution', but in fact it is taking several powers from the County Council and Peterborough City Council, including education and skills, and transport provision.
  • The new Authority will be paid for by the constituent councils. The County Council in particular is critically short of money, and this is an extra expense it, and the taxpayers, could do without.
  • The Mayor and Combined Authority is in addition to the existing Councils. There's already confusion in Cambridge about which council deals with which function, imagine the confusion with the new Mayor and Authority added on top, as well as the City Deal!
But my main issue with devolution is the principle of the Mayor. A single person covering the entire area - trying to unite areas as different as Cambridge City (74% Remain) and Fenland (71% Leave).

Now, while Council meetings can sometimes be tedious and a bit dull, debate amongst councillors who each represent a small area, and who each have their own priorities and opinions, is the setup most likely to achieve a result that everyone is happy with, or at least can tolerate. Especially on a council with no overall control, like Cambridgeshire, compromise is essential to getting anything done.

But if there's just a single person taking responsibility, there is no debate and no compromise. You do not have a named, contactable person who represents you and your area, who you can lobby to get something changed, and will act in the best interests of your community. You get a single person who will just do what they see best, and an Authority, with little oversight, who have to work very hard to vote the Mayor down. That is not democracy.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Politics matters

So, the EU referendum has happened, and the future of the UK is now the most uncertain it has ever been in the past 70 years. This referendum has shown many things, not least the deep and bitter divisions that exist across Britain. But, with everything else, it does show one thing.

Politics matters.

Now, because of politics, the pound is at the lowest it has been for the past 30 years. Because of politics, businesses have lost contracts and people will lose their jobs. Because of politics, people who have lived in this country all their lives are scared to go out their own front door. Politics has long been derided as the purvue of a few rich posh boys from Eton, but that is because, collectively, we choose it to be so. Politics, both national and local, has always mattered, but it has been too easily dismissed as irrelevant.

Now, after the referendum, with the vacuum of effective leadership and opposition in Parliament, over the next few weeks and months, the British political landscape is being rewritten. The old rules may no longer apply. When things have stabilised, it could end up much better than it was. Or, it could be much worse.

One thing is certain though, we only get out of politics what we are willing to put into it. If we choose to ignore it, then we end up with politics that only represents those who do put something into it.

Only by taking part in it will we end up with a political system that works for us, not against us, and now is the chance to get involved and make a difference. In Cambridge, Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, and Conservatives all have active local parties that are involved in local issues and are trying to make a difference in our city. All are open to new volunteers - pick the one that most closely matches your beliefs and ideals, and join. If you don't think any of them match your views, get involved as an independent - publicise local issues and meetings, and try and improve your community.

After all, if you don't, who will?