Thursday, 27 February 2014

Dave's immigration woes are of his own making

A more cunning prime minister would have been able to boast about today’s immigration figures. ‘Look’, he would say, ‘our economy is on the up, more people are in work than ever before and more of those jobs are going to hardworking Britons.
‘With careful handling of our finances, we have begun the task of tackling the economic disaster we inherited, saved it from the abyss and now we are focusing on securing the economy.
‘On top of all of this, people from across Europe are now flocking to our shores, seeing us as a place of security, of resilience, of vitality, coming here eager to work and build our economy, helping to secure the prosperity that we all want.’
But whatever he is, David Cameron is not a cunning prime minister. Playing the anti-immigration card is an easy election ploy, especially in the midst of the deepest recession for a century. It pleases his backbenchers and taps into the public’s unease; providing voters with a more realistic immigration policy was never really on the cards.
So, instead, as more net migration hits more than 212,000, David Cameron’s pledge to reduce this to below 100,000 looks completely unachievable and it will be for others, UKIP and his increasingly restless backbenchers, to take the spoils.
It was ever going to be thus. The largest number of migrants coming to this country come from the European Union and the government has practically no power to restrict this movement (the restrictions that did limit Romanian and Bulgarian migration lifted at the start of this year). The prime minister can talk as much as he wants about renegotiating our relationship with Europe but this isn’t going to make any significant progress before the next election.
The government know this is happening. In an interview published this week in Total Politics magazine, David Willetts, minister for universities and science, while claiming there was a surge of students from China, admitted the curbs had ‘played disappointingly badly’ in India with numbers falling by 38 per cent between 2011 and 2012.
So it leaves the government vulnerable from all sides on immigration. Those who believe in the free movement of people and think immigration has and continues to enrich Britain attack the government for harming universities with their restrictions and deterring people who could contribute. While anti-immigration voices and those on the right, from MigrationWatch and UKIP, shout louder about leaving the EU and call for stricter controls to be introduced.
And everyone, in unison, can accuse the government of losing control of their own policy.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Litter: What's wrong with people?

A few case studies:

Beside me on the train the other day a well dressed woman was reading a paper and drinking a cup of coffee. Reaching into her smart black handbag, she pulled out a biscuit bar. She unwrapped it carefully and placed it, with particular care, open on the seat next to her so she could nibble as she read. Once the bar was gone, with as much attention as before, she carefully placed the wrapper on the floor. And when she’d read the paper, it too was placed on the floor. When the train pulled into Victoria, she stood up with her coffee and her smart black handbag, and strode off, leaving the wrapper and the paper where she had deposited them. A bin was less than four feet away from where she was sitting.

A stench of poo bags

The same morning, I walked and cycled my way to work through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, enjoying the fresh air, admiring the snowdrops now thriving, avoiding the rackety Egyptian geese who were having an argument by the Serpentine and trying not to notice the little plastic bags, knots tied at the top, frequently discarded in corners along the way. These bags are left by dog walkers; when their pets have done their business, they pluck a little bag from their pockets and carefully pick up the doings, tie a knot and rather than put them in the plentiful bins provided, leave these little stinky parcels for someone else to pick up.

Last night, I turned the corner of our road and stepped into a puddle. Two McDonald’s coke cups, and a cardboard holder, were festering in the murky water. I picked them up and put them in my own recycling bin before scrubbing my hands.

None of these cases is exceptional but I struggle to understand the mentality of these litterers. Certainly, in some parts of London public bins are kept unrealistically small in a futile attempt to deter fly-tipping but in none of the instances I've recounted was a shortage of bins an issue. And they all contribute to a street scene that can frequently be awash with litter.

It is, of course, true that since the economic crash in 2008 one of the budgets councils have been quicker to cut than most is their street cleaning costs. A quick trawl through cuttings reveals that councils from Manchester to Birmingham, Haringey and Harrow, Southwark and Brent, have cut these budgets. Resources are inevitably stretched, it is impossible for these cost savings not to have an impact; but ultimately this is a story about personal responsibility.

Overall, it is probably fair to say, that, over the last 15, 20 years, there has been something of a renaissance in the pride people feel about the public realm; many areas that were once down-at-heel and decaying have been rejuvenated and enhanced. The enormous growth in house prices - in some ways a terrible problem - has encouraged this as house-proud families have been priced out of affluent neighbourhoods and been forced to move somewhere cheaper, bringing with them a bit more money. The Heritage Lottery Fund has also played a major role with tens of millions of pounds being allocated to restore public parks to places of use and beauty, trying to place them firmly back into the heart of communities.

Yet, stubbornly, so many people seem to think it's reasonable to drop rubbish assuming it is the job of someone else to clean up after them. In their latest Local Environment Quality Survey of England (LEQSE), published in 2013, the Keep Britain Tidy campaign found that England overall had got cleaner in the last 12 months, with fewer 'of the places surveyed falling below an acceptable cleanliness standard'. But, when focusing purely on littering, it goes on:

'Litter is an issue which, as a nation, we care about and, unfortunately, there has been no statistically significant improvement in the number of places meeting the required standard in 2012-13.'

The report went on, saying 'there has been a marked increase in the number of places blighted by fast-food litter and that increase has continued this year with 32% of sites having fast-food litter on them, up 3% on 2011/12'. Food packaging waste thrown from cars whose drivers have visited 'drive-thru' restaurants, the growth of people eating fast food 'on the go' and smokers are all singled out for particular blame.

In an effort to put a price on how much this is costing the country to clean all this mess up, Keep Britain Tidy estimates the bill is £1billion a year for England alone, enough, they claim, to pay for '38,644 social care workers, 4,400 libraries or 33,200 nurses'. But regardless of cost there are a whole host of other reasons why tossing litter to the floor is a bad idea.

It causes immense damage to the environment, clogging up rivers, polluting seas, flora and fauna and threatening wildlife; every year the RSPCA only responds to more than 7,000 calls from the public worried about animals injured by discarded rubbish.

And it ruins Britain's streetscapes. A road covered in litter indicates a street for which some people evidently don't care.While littering itself may not be a major crime, this public lack of care, in turn, encourages further anti-social behaviour; crime, vandalism and graffiti. We all know all of this and yet it still happens.

In 2013, Zero Waste Scotland, published an interesting study on who exactly drops litter. Well, it would seem it would be all of us at one time or another:

'The evidence both in the UK and internationally suggests that everyone, or almost everyone, admits to having littered at some point, with the majority of people littering at least occasionally.'

Though there are some sections of society who are more likely to drop waste than others:

'Age - younger people litter slightly more than older people, and are more willing to admit to littering;
Gender - men drop slightly more litter than women do, and are also more willing to admit littering;
Smoking - not only are smoking-related items littered more frequently than most other litter items, but smokers also tend to litter more in general, compared to non-smokers'.

Interestingly, the report adds that the relationship between socio-economic factors and littering behaviour 'is not considering in the reviewed literature in sufficient depth to draw' any conclusions.

None of this, sadly, actually answers why so many of us think it's reasonable to drop waste. It may be an momentary unconscious act, a brief moment of thoughtlessness, a symptom of distraction. But it can often be symptomatic of someone who doesn't value their environment. This lack of consideration can really only stem from a lack of education, a failure to ingrain an innate sense of pride in the public realm, a determination to ignore the fact that it's unpleasant to allow public spaces to be squalid. And there is a failure to appreciate the offence and disgust littering can provoke in other people.

Too many of us evidently think tidying up after ourselves is beneath us; it's the job of some litter-wallah to clean up. Perhaps they think 'Hell, we're doing them a favour keeping them employed'.

Maybe it is about time we all accept our roles as litter-wallahs.

A brief update on Crystal Palace

Yesterday, it was reported that six architects have been shortlisted for the £500million reconstruction of Crystal Palace.

These six have been whittled down from an initial list of 40 firms and now each of them will submit a more detailed proposal for the site before three of the firms will, according to Property Week, 'be invited to produce initial concept designs. The scheme's backers hope to finally select an architect by the summer.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson is clearly delighted by all of this:

'This is a stellar line-up of talent demonstrating the world-wide interest in this unique and challenging project.

'The rebuild of the Crystal Palace is set to produce an extraordinary new landmark for the capital, which will support the rebirth of  this historic park and catalyse jobs and growth in the area.'

It does, however, raise a couple of questions.  

No deal has yet been signed with the Chinese Zhongrong Group, whose billionaire owner Ni Zhaoxing wants to rebuild the palace. It's certainly not unusual for such high profile firms to get involved at such an early stage, but one planning expert tells me the timetable is 'hasty, though not exceptional'. We know, however, Bromley Council are desperate to rid themselves of the responsibility for the park. And the mayor is dazzled by big, impressive, futuristic images and is eager for landmark vanity projects to give him what amounts to a legacy. And consultation with local communities has so far been woeful; there is no indication from this latest announcement if or when this will improve.

Also, while all of the shortlisted firms will no doubt submit spectacular proposals for the site, what little consultation there has been has indicated a replica of the palace was to be built; will these firms find their creative talents shackled by such constraints? It seems unlikely, especially as submitting grand proposals for such a prime site - regardless of whether they are built or not - is a major advertising tactic for such practices. 

Thus far, while the prospects for a rebuilt Crystal Palace could certainly be exciting, it all seems wearily reminiscent of the previous, overly-ambitious and flawed, schemes to rejuvenate the site.


I have been reminded of a similar scheme to rebuild Crystal Palace which has been around for quite a while. My wife and I made a trip to Crystal Palace several years ago and dropped into the library in the Triangle where we were given a brochure by an enthusiastic fellow for a very ambitious scheme. This vision featured a new palace - two-thirds the size of the original - incorporating a world-class hotel, conference centre, restaurants and shops. A new Olympic-sized swimming pool would be built, as well as a ski slope, cinemas, a butterfly house, hanging gardens and a botanical centre. It would be a venue of international renown and be a new heart for south London.

In many ways it is very similar in scale to what is being envisaged now though obviously hasn't become a reality; the architect behind the scheme - Lewisham-based Raymond Hall - had a vision of it being reopened this year, although the updated video claims 2018 for a royal unveiling. For more information on this scheme go here.