Thursday, 25 January 2007

From an ordinary Catholic to his Catholic Ordinary

To the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham:

You upset me last year when you took on the government over their very just idea that some of the people who actually pay a majority of the cost of your schools (non-Catholic tax payers) should have the right to have their children go to those schools but I kept schtum.

Now you're banging on about wanting an exemption to laws designed to eradicate discrimination against gay people. Need I quote from your Catechism, section 2358, that "every sign of unjust discrimination should be avoided".

Indeed, adoption is an ironic one. After all, if you have an heterosexual couple who offer to adopt because they are unable to conceive for themselves, they too are unable to fulfill naturally the great commission of marriage, to share in "the creative power and fatherhood of God". So you are happy to discriminate against one form of "imperfection" (as you teach it) whilst rewarding another. Does that not sound "unjust" to you? Incidentally, are you allowed to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief or is it only gay people you are targetting? If you do not, how can you be sure that people not in full communion with Rome do not hold beliefs with which you would not agree also?

The historical reputation of the Catholic church in putting people in positions of care and influence over children is not, shall we say, something to be envied. Maybe we are better out of the adoption game altogether anyway.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Tescopoly and rent seeking

I'm very busy at the moment trying to get a web database up for my old school former pupils' society, but I noticed today a lot of discussion about Tesco and its market dominance.

Personally, I patronize the Co-op and local shops as much as possible and am in some ways fortunate to be able to do so, and I abhor monopoly and monopsony, and it is clear that Tesco, ASDA and others are getting pretty close to such a position if they haven't already. But there's a simple little step that could at a stroke force Tesco and others to account properly for some of the externalities of out of town shopping...

They currently don't pay uniform business rates on their massive free parking areas at out of town developments - a massive subsidy from town centre retailers to the big sheds. With Site Value Rating (Land Value Tax levied at a local level), with which the Lib Dems propose to replace the Uniform Business Rate, such land would be properly valued and taxed.

Friday, 12 January 2007

Offending overseas and the PNC

There's been a big fuss about people who have been convicted of things overseas not being put onto the Police National Computer in a timely fashion. And the Sex Offenders Register. And something worries me about the almost inevitable media and Westminster village feeding frenzy on this.

I read a couple of weeks ago a story about a seventeen year old boy in Georgia, admittedly a US citizen but there's no telling who else it might happen to, who has been given a ten year prison term with no possibility of parole and a life time's entry on the US sex offenders register or its equivalent for being fellated by a fifteen year old girl at a party they were both at.

She pleasured several sixteen year old lads as well and it was all consensual, but the seventeen year old gets the book thrown at him as he's tried as an adult, or at least I think that's what made him different.

I presume that when the police get notice of these overseas criminal offenses that British citizens and residents have been convicted of they do actually check to see whether the offense would be an offense here and, if so, whether the punishment was proportionate. It seems to me that since they didn't even get the money to hire the staff to enter the data on the computer, they would hardly have had the resources to investigate each offense.

We are rightly proud of our justice system, or at least we used to be. I hope its relative fairness is not being compromised by simply accepting foreign courts' verdicts and punishments and registering them in the UK at face value on someone's record.

Empty new homes scandal - a solution?

ALTER (the Lib Dems' Land Value Tax and Economic Reform group) have spent the time over the holidays preparing arguments for the "Tax Commission II" which will focus, amongst other things on that bit of tax policy that was left hanging at Conference - the details of how to implement Land Value Tax.

One thing I noticed just before Christmas which didn't seem to be picked up anywhere else was some research from "Inside Housing" magazine, also reported in the Telegraph, that in some places up to 50% of new build housing is standing empty, bought up, often "off-plan", by speculators who just want to hold it and hope to make a turn on it selling it on after a year or two, but not even putting tenants into them because they don't want to have to carry out any remediation work before they sell and don't want any "vacant possession" issues to affect their choice of timing.

It particularly affects apartments, and so disproportionately also those trying to get onto the housing ladder.

The Lib Dems already have policy to shift the Uniform Business Rate to a Site Value Rating basis, and at conference as part of the tax paper it was agreed that this should also apply to vacant brownfield sites to encourage development.

Anyway, as one way of beginning a shift to LVT more generally as the main, or hopefully only, property based tax, we are suggesting that once land is in the SVR system it should stay there. So new homes would attract SVR even after purchase rather than Council Tax or anything else. This would provide a huge disincentive for people to "abuse" the new housing market in this way. At the moment, and even under Local Income Tax, most of these buyers would pay little or nothing while the properties lie empty, but if they attracted SVR from the moment they got planning permission, such buyers would have to factor in a tax bill when deciding to leave them empty.

Problem solved?

Friday, 5 January 2007

So much for a good scare story

The most common incidents I have to deal with as a warden in a hall of residence are fire alarms. We wardens go to bed at night - we all have day jobs - so we have a pager each that goes off to wake us in the event of a fire alarm.

Previously we had no discretion but to phone the fire brigade before we went to investigate the incident and organize the evacuees before the brigade arrived. Nowadays at the fire service's request we go and investigate first, so it's very much in our own interests to discourage frivolous fire alarms.

And one of the stories I tell was of one case where the brigade was so pissed off at having been called out to some drunken teenager breaking a fire alarm glass and running off that they not only called the police, but kept everyone outside, at 2 am on a freezing December Sunday right in front of an emptying student club night venue, for an hour while they wandered around checking every bedroom in the block for hazards and non-evacuees.

It seems this kind of just desserts is no longer to be tolerated by the fire service:

Firemen sacked after student call:

Three firemen have been sacked after students were kept out in the cold for almost three hours following an alarm.

The incident occurred in Glasgow in November when firemen from Cowcaddens' station responded to a late night call at student flats in Calgary Street.

The students said that although there was no fire, they were kept outside their accommodation from just after midnight until 0300 GMT.

Oh well!

TW2? Not!

If like me you experience a little frisson of excitement on seeing this headline in the BBC newsfeed:

Tomorrow's World to return to BBC

you'll probably also have been as disappointed as I was to read that they don't really mean it...

The BBC is bringing back the Tomorrow's World brand to help audiences understand new technologies.

Presenter Maggie Philbin will be offering in-depth analysis on technology stories on TV, radio and the web under the Tomorrow's World banner.

Although the programme - which ran from 1965 to 2003 - will not return, elements such as the logo and title sequence will be revived.

So, not the programme itself, but a "brand" for the odd five minute package halfway through the news! Such a pity, because personally I reckon the BBC have a big share of the responsibility for the shortage of people taking science subjects at school and university in recent years.

I remember the arguments when it was withdrawn - that a magazine type programme didn't do science justice and formats more like invention competitions would be better. It's true in my opinion that for a good while before it finished it had somehow been more trivial than it had been when I was young and eagerly awaited Raymond Baxter's explanation of how we would all be wearing Barbarella style jump suits and eating only pills on a rotating space centre by the year 2000.

Still - I'm rather glad none of those particular predictions came true, but I am sure that the seeing a load of different types of technology on one programme prevented any one of them being too boring for television and put forward quite a good balance of the exciting things that science and technology people can get up to. It glamourized geeks and nerds.

Time for a proper resurrection, I'd say. I am sure there is many times the amount of exciting stuff going on that isn't getting even that half hour of mainstream prime time exposure.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

A bit desperate, Dan?

Responding to Michael Gove's announcement on Tuesday that the Tories were going to support the idea of Community Land Trusts as a key part of housing policy Dan Rogerson's press release was out today:

Liberal Democrats : Tories are playing catch up on community land trusts - Rogerson:

Tories are playing catch up on community land trusts - Rogerson

4 January 2007

The Liberal Democrats today attacked the Conservative’s latest housing policy initiative as a desperate attempt to catch up with reality without offering a new vision. Liberal Democrat Housing Spokesperson, Dan Rogerson MP said:

"There’s no need to set up a taskforce to look at whether community land trusts can deliver affordable housing - they already are, and have been doing so for many years in the UK.

"The key issue is whether there is land available to make them work. One answer is to use surplus land held by Government departments such as the MoD, the Department of Health and English Partnerships.

"Another is to use the planning system to require developers to provide land that can then be handed over to the land trusts.

"For all of Mr Gove’s claims to be following in the footsteps of the 17th century Levellers, I can’t imagine he’ll be clearing the millionaires’ mansions off St George’s Hill in Weybridge, Surrey, where the Levellers’ first community land trust was set up."

The problem I have Dan, as a Lib Dem activist and Community Land Trust activist, is that two years ago we were all very excited about the party supporting CLTs in the Housing Policy paper. We had a conference at Warwick the following week and a magazine did the rounds with Charles Kennedy in full flow at conference on the cover setting out our Community Land Trust policy. But in those two years we have done absolutely nothing to back up our policy that I can see or hear, and I'm pretty well plugged into the CLT gossip.

Tell your local government planning and housing leaders that "there’s no need to...look at whether community land trusts can deliver affordable housing - they already are". You may be convinced but that hasn't filtered through to local policy making even in those local authorities we actually control. I know of one council with a "CLT officer" if you will, and another paid for out of housing pathfinder money or whatever it's called.

The plain fact is that Michael Gove on Tuesday did more to get CLTs in peoples' minds and on their lips than we have in the two years we've had the policy. Truth is, I never did really believe we understood the model when we adopted it as policy and have been shy in promoting it as a result. I have offered your team leader that I could go round to Lib Dem council groups to explain it to them if he thought it was worthwhile and it didn't even get a response.

Well guess what, tonight I've written to all the Tory group leaders in Oxfordshire offering to go and give them group briefings on it. When will we as a party learn that if we have good ideas, it's no use sitting back and waiting for one of the others to adopt it and then complain that they're johnny-come-latelies adopting a good policy that we first thought of, but yell about it with conviction when we do adopt it and be the reason others do adopt it!

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see the local MP speaking on the same platform at Burford as Billy Bragg and Tony Benn!

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Web commerce and delivery companies

So, I've just once again put my trust in delivery companies to get an address right and follow fairly simple instructions about what to do because I'll be out when they arrive. But I do want them tomorrow, or I would not have paid the premium to get it delivered quickly rather than wait a week.

But if that had been Tesco I would have been able to sign up for a particular time slot when hopefully it would have been convenient for me to be around to take delivery personally, even in the evenings or at weekends. If this is the way of commerce in the future, mainstream delivery firms, whose main business is shipment and delivery rather than grocery sales of course, need to do something similar.

Is it just their size that makes Tesco viable doing it? I suspect not - there are ways I am sure retailers could collaborate in a delivery service. Is it because Tesco probably tend to concentrate on what business courier services would say were "out of hours"? Maybe, but it's surely a very logical growth area? Is it the logistics? All goods in the Tesco system are there at the local store or you don't get them. You could make such a system of convenient time slots contingent on the goods getting into the shipping system at a particular time perhaps.

Either way, it needs to happen. If the deliveries are not delivered properly tomorrow it's a twenty mile round trip, and, without taking time off work to do it, not till a week Saturday, to go and fetch it from the local courier depot during opening hours - the very least they could do would be to staff those delivery offices till late at night and at weekends and allow people to collect goods "out of hours".

In the future the big high volume shipping and delivery companies are going to control more and more of our commerce; they need persuading to change their MO to fit around the lives of an increasing proportion of their clients' customers.

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Community Land Trusts - remember where you heard it first

A bit pissed off today. In one broadcast & newspaper article Michael Gove has done more to spread the word about Community Land Trusts than my own dear Lib Dems have managed in the nearly two years we've had them as a key plank of our housing policy.

But good on him - I've been trying to speak to Michael Gove about CLTs since March last year or whenever it was Cameron promised to build more homes so long as they were "beautiful". He explained it pretty well. And if Cameron can get his people on board with them Oxfordshire CLT Limited could begin the New Year in bullish fashion with all the county's MPs onside.