Monthly Archives: February 2013

Lies, Damned Lies, and EU Procurement

Reading Andrew Marr’s book, My Trade, is a useful reminder of the shadier and at times brutal aspects inside British journalism (and wishing him a speedy recovery).
Covering the broadsheets as well as tabloids, he particularly looks at the Parliamentary Lobby system and how editors and proprietors set their political stall out, as well as starting with a fascinating history of journalism since the 1700s.
For any colleges teaching journalism looking for a good case study in political reporting, they could do worse than the Daily Mail’s flattering coverage of Michael Gove’s announcement as UK Secretary of State for Education that the government was withdrawing its proposal for an Ebacc (English Baccalaureate) to replace GCSEs. The reason for the U turn?
Not as nearly all the other media outlets have suggested, a widespread opposition from professional bodies, trade unions, and various expert organisations. No, the reason is “EU procurement laws” according to the Daily Mail, 8 February 2013. Really?
One part of the proposals was to have just one examination board for the Ebacc, based on the argument that the current range of examination boards for GCSEs has created grade inflation because schools shop around for the easiest exams.
But these exam boards are independent of government, and if anything from the EU has protected them from abolition it is the EU Single Market law which limits state powers against other organisations.
Not such a good headline there, so instead the issue is fudged with EU procurement references instead. So much for education! Book:
My Trade, by Andrew Marr (2004).

Measuring the Energy Performance of Houses and Flats

Within the Greater Manchester Low Carbon Economy network there is a Product and Process Innovation Group on low carbon buildings, with a series of talks for interested people in the built environment.
Within this group we are currently looking at monitoring and measuring energy performance, for a talk possibly in the late Spring. The group has already done some excellent work on the nine main archetypes of houses and flats found in Greater Manchester, guided by its Chair Tom Rock and its Secretary Shona Thomas.
Knowing these nine main types (semi, terrace, etc) it has been possible to map the most effective improvements (loft insulation, themostats, etc) for each one so that any funding available can be optimally spent, and it becomes possible to know the cost of, say, all homes being at least at ‘Band’ or Level C.
The next step is to measure actual performance in terms of energy. Elderly people in particular are strongly advised to keep at least one room in their home at 21C to avoid hypothermia and related illnesses. So, how much would this cost a week, given that some homes are cosy and some as like freezers?
The Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) that we see in estate agents blurb is theoretical – EPCs say what should happen. For many public buildings there is also a Display Energy Certificate (DEC) where we can find out what really happens, better or worse, as well as what it should be. The task is how to roll out this approach at a greater scale, especially for poorer households who may be going cold to save money, where some extra insulation (or whatever) could even be a lifesaver.
Some solutions will require staff time and equipment to measure room sizes, temperatures, and so on. However, there may also be some merit in looking at how much performance data can be easily gathered by residents themselves, their friends and family, and by volunteers, school projects, and non-housing staff who come to visit. This reduced data set could include, especially in the winter time: (a) postcode (to find out the outdoor temperatures from Met Office data); (b) the type of house or flat (semi, terrace, etc);
(c) the gas and electricity readings twice (eg 7 days apart); (d) the timer and thermostat settings; and
(e) the number of rooms heated above 5C (frost protection setting).
This would show that ‘Household X’ uses Y kWh a week to keep 3 rooms at 18C when outdoors daytime is 4C. From this we can then focus on the worst hit for the earliest assistance, with home improvements and advice.
It isn’t a complete answer, but it is possibly a pragmatic starting point for gathering performance data at scale and within existing resources. Comments welcome.

Climate Change: the next innovation?

Burning hydrogen gas is seen as a zero-carbon consumption, and some far-sighted people are looking at how best to innovate a zero-carbon production of hydrogen from sunlight. One can imagine the deserts of north Africa as massive areas of production, whether it is by concave mirrors or photovoltaic sheets or similar. But the problem with hydrogen is how to move it in bulk from A to B.
It is nothing like as ‘energy dense’ as oil, and if you try and liquify hydrogen the extreme temperatures and pressures required make it pretty much lethal. No tanker of liquified hydrogen could sail up the Thames – it would be far too dangerous, not least for the crews. Equally, long-distance pipelines would have to be unfeasibly enormous if this new hydrogen was to seriously replace oil at a global scale.
So, the innovation we are waiting for is to find a way to make hydrogen as energy dense as oil at normal pressure and temperature, thus making it transportable and a source of new revenue for hotter countries.
As a further twist, we can imagine some of these new hydrogen-from-sunlight areas also capturing some atmospheric carbon to produce methane, not for burning but to go on produce more complex hydrocarbons such as plastics and pharmaceuticals. Provided these plastics are not burnt later in life, we would then have a system of carbon capture and one of resource production combined.
Of course, nature already does this using plant leaves … but not in hot areas of natural water shortage.

Get Real

This book by Eliane Glaser is a thorough yet readable analysis of how PR is dominating business and politics, to bad effect, and calls for a return to critical thinking and to making political choices. In particular she argues that ideology is still relevant and not old-fashioned, but that these days it is skillfully hidden behind PR.
As a flavour: ‘We inhabit a political and institutional culture where a neurotic emphasis on audit and measuring outcomes is disguising the fact that facts and evidence have ceased to matter.’ (p107) Book:
Get Real, by Eliane Glaser (2012) London: Fourth Estate.

How much will the UK have to pay this week to get some good PR on the EU rebate?

This Thursday (7 Feb) sees the next EU summit where leaders from the 27 member states will try and negotiate the budget for the next seven years.
On past form the UK will not do as well as it might. We should learn from the last time, when the UK and some others agreed quite a low limit on all the large funding programmes, only to be then outflanked by a vote to protect the Common Agricultural Policy, leaving the brunt of the cuts to fall on other programmes for urban, industrial and remote areas.
However, the risk is that there is an overwhelming PR requirement to please the tabloids and back-benchers with a good ‘saving our rebate’ story; even if the result is to receive far less than before in return for paying just a little less in. A false economy.
And worse, it is the Treasury that will pay a little less in, while it is the urban, industrial and remote corners of the UK that will then receive a lot less in regional funds in return. Hopefully though, lessons have been learnt from last time.

How will welfare reform impact on urban design?

Many people will be poorer because of welfare ‘reforms’ such as fewer disabled people being eligible for PIP, the bedroom tax and reductions in Council Tax Benefit.
Poorer people are already more excluded than others from out-of-town malls and complexes, and rely instead on real and local shops, more than people with higher incomes with access to computers and cars. How many elderly women with shopping trolleys do you see in places like Bluewater, Meadowhall or the Trafford Centre?
Disabled people are already disproportionately poor, and are generally about to get even poorer.
Firstly, for people who rent from social landlords there is the new bedroom tax, reducing Housing Benefit by 14% if one bedroom in the home is empty, rising to 25% for any others. The loss in benefit will have to come from other living costs such as food. The Riverside social landlord charity based in Liverpool has researched how this will hit tenants in the north of England the worst, and Channel 4 has shown how disabled people often need a second bedroom for a family carer or support worker. There are also the family needs of divorced parents with visiting children.
Secondly, there are the new PIP Regulations with the harsh requirement that anyone who can walk more than 20 metres will no longer be eligible, down from the current 100 metre regulation. This will not change the number of disabled people in itself, but will make many disabled people both poorer and less able to buy their own mobility solutions.
Thirdly, for many non-elderly poor people there will be reductions in their Council Tax Benefit as a result of government changes. For urban designers, these changes will result in pressures for:
(1) more one-bedroom flats but with enough internal space for mobility (if any social house building is possible) and the dangers of social isolation that one-bedroom homes exacerbate;
(2) more High Street designs which include social and community uses and outlets where social contact does not depend on making a purchase; and
(3) for pedestrianised areas to be better designed for people who are mobility impaired and less able than ever to buy their own solution to overcoming even short distances, such as previously with an adapted car, scooter or powered wheelchair.

Could a train run between Paris and Manchester?

Yes, and maybe.
Yes, it is technically possible to run this train using existing trains and track and border security systems. It would take over five hours until HS2 is built, so an overnight train is probably more attractive. Also, at night the UK west coast main line is less congested. On the French side the train would ‘slot into’ an existing service pattern between Lille and Paris. So why then only maybe?
The key is to find a train operating company that would want to take the risk of possibly losing money by running this service, though the forecast is profitable. International passenger services do not attract UK government franchise payments. Currently in the UK only London has international passenger trains, yet night trains could run to other cities.
On the freight side there is a wide variety of international trains every week passing through the Channel Tunnel, but it is easier to organise trains to the Continent carrying goods than passengers.
I started researching a possible Manchester – Lille – Paris passenger service in 2008, and have written the results in a small book (free) in case anyone is interested, especially a train operating company. Some companies have considered the idea in confidence, and while they did not go forward for various internal reasons, I’m hopeful that one day a company will see the opportunity as worthwhile. Reference:
Night Trains from Manchester to Paris: an outline business case Tony Baldwinson (2012), free as pdf and in Google Books preview. Paperback copies on request.

Buses, the EU and disabled people’s legal rights

In case it is of some interest, I have written up a case study of the campaign which changed the law on disabled people’s access to buses throughout the EU. The campaign was from 1995 to 2001, and resulted in a change to the Single Market making it mandatory that every bus made after 2003 must be fully accessible.
This campaign was run on a shoestring and in the early days of email it created, in a modest but effective way, enough international pressure across the EU by co-ordinating the local lobbying of Members of the European Parliament and national Ministers of Transport and of Trade, as well as lobbying the European Commission.
The campaign also built alliances across political parties, non-governmental organisations and progressive companies within the private sector. These days it would be called Corporate Social Responsibility, but back then it was, well, just ‘doing the right thing’. I hope the case study is still of some use for learning today.

Reference:
Buses for All (Europe): a case study of a campaign for access by law by disabled people, 1995-2001. Tony Baldwinson (2012).
ISBN 978-0-9572606-0-3; 82pp; paperback £7.99; pdf free; and free preview in Google Books.

Urban Regeneration and Rail, part 3

Politicians have a key role of in pushing forward the rail possibilities of urban regeneration. The best can be the intelligent client, the leader in more than title, whereas too many will only have a short term view.
In the public perception of city governance the two issues of transport and crime are probably the key defining characteristics of a city and therefore also of its mayor or leader.
In terms of taking a long term view, transport infrastructure can shape a city for centuries to come. Consider the city and its river or port: trade relied on boats for many centuries before roads and wheeled transport. The city often started where the river was just narrow enough to cross and just wide enough to sail away. Roads, canals, railways and airports have all since both shaped and grown cities.
At the UK level for rail, the politician many would regard as the intelligent client of recent years would be Lord Andrew Adonis. He constructed a cross-party consensus for rail investment, and not just for high profile projects such as HS2 but also the mundane but essential task of rail electrification. Unlike some of other ministers he started with a vision rather than a spreadsheet. Putting electric wires above the track makes sense for so many reasons (pollution, climate change, faster journeys, further destinations, reliability, cost). But some previous transport ministers even felt proud in justifying their department having no investment plans for further electrification.
And having a capable transport minister at the national level helps politicians at the city level, especially cities outside London, to take their city vision forward.
London has its own legal powers to organise transport that are denied to other UK cities, and historically has had a first call on national rail funds for grand projets such as ThamesLink (north-south), CrossRail (east-west) and HS1 (international).
City-regions such as Greater Manchester have led the way in “pushing the envelope” of rail development and urban renewal, with both tram and train, by using political soft power to make up for hard legal powers.
Somewhere there is a political book to be written on, the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA), public (mass transit) transport and urban regeneration and renewal from bus deregulation in 1980s to Metrolink and HS2 in 21st century. The lessons would be enormous, in my view.

Desert Island Shops

Sir Terry Leahy has said that the closure of small, independent shops on the High Street is “part of progress”, that some High Streets are “medieval” (is this bad?), and that out-of-town shopping malls and supermarkets are the way forward.
The former Chief Executive of Tesco was speaking on the BBC radio programme, Desert Island Discs.
He has also endowed the University of Manchester with a Centre for Sustainable Consumption.
Commercial property owners, and the pension funds behind them, will not be happy with the “silver lining” comment that shop closures will help with falling rents. All in all, a good case study for urbanists of dismal development. Link:
http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21310808