Wednesday, 29 October 2014

What Free Parking Tells Us About UKIP

In UKIP's "policies for people", I find two mentions of Free Parking. The first under "The National Health Service",

"...UKIP will commit to spending £200m of the £2bn saving to end hospital car parking charges in England
The "saving" they're talking about comes from not treating migrants, so the free parking at the hospital is paid for by dead foreigners. It's a fantasy this money exists, that charging migrants would raise anything like £2bn, and in order to do so, you'd have to set up a payment collection bureaucracy, which cannot be had for £2bn. Do you really think the NHS, whose hospitals are often near town centres should be in the business of providing free parking? Now, there's a case for providing free parking to some patients, but clearly not visitors, who'll also "pop to the shops" after seeing granny. And this is why free parking doesn't work. It's abused.

The second is under "Employment and small business" where
"UKIP will Encourage councils to provide more free parking for the high street
There is no doubt this is popular. It's a common complaint that parking charges discourage people from visiting the high street in favour of out-of-town stores because of the availability of parking. Parking fines make people angry. Some people feel  It's all part of a "war on the motorist". Free parking is a simple policy, easily sold. And massively, demonstrably counter productive. If you allow free parking, it will accelerate the decline of the High Street as a shopping venue.

UKIP is entitled to its own opinion, but not it's own facts. And this policy, like so may others is based on beliefs that are to put it simply, false. Most business owners on any given street over-estimate the percentage of people arriving by car, often significantly. Retailers think car drivers are richer, and therefore more valuable as customers. They aren't.  Business owners think people drive, park in front of their shop, get back in their car and leave. They don't. People tend to park, mooch about, visit a number of shops, have a coffee, before heading home. Retail is a leisure activity on the high street. Retail in an out of town store is much more focussed. because who wants to go to the wind-swept car-park outside PC world and DFS unless you want a laptop or a sofa? Out of town retail is not a substitute for high-street shopping.

The key to making parking a part of a successful high street is turnover. A high street might contain parking for twenty or thirty cars. If those cars are there all day, the thousands who will be needed to keep those shops open will, if they are coming by car, find somewhere else to leave it, and in circulating to find a spot, will cause congestion. Parking charges are about valuing that scarce space, so that people come, for thirty minutes, or an hour or two, do their shopping and leave, freeing space for someone else to do the same. (This is also the logic behind encouraging cycling - twelve bicycles can be parked in the space occupied by one car) The first 30 minutes of most parking is nominal. The second hour might cost a lot more than the first. That is certainly the case with the town centre car-park where I live. And there is a vibrant high street here.

The key is to see what people do. If it is routinely "impossible to find a space" then the parking charges are too low or more parking needs to be provided (but who pays for this...?). If you can find a space easily, then they are too high and can be reduced. The other consideration for retailers is the leisure component of high-street shopping. The reason pedestrianisation works is because it encourages people to come to an area to spend time and money. Cars make an area hostile to people and leisure. Remove the cars, foot traffic increases, and business benefit. Of course people need to park, but most towns have multi-story car parks, which are out of sight. On-street parking impedes the flow of people. Remove the on-street parking (usually insignificant in towns with multi-story options) and it makes the area more attractive.

Why do people think free, on-street parking is so much more important than it actually is? The answer is the availability heuristic. Cars dominate our urban space. Most town centre streets are lined with them. Other people's car journeys are more noticeable to us through noise, and time spent crossing roads (externalities) than are journeys by foot or bicycle. Everyone can recall the feelings of frustration in circulating to find a space. We do not recall the visits to the multi-story car park, where space is near limitless (how often have you parked on a roof?). Thus the importance of on-street shop-front parking is over-estimated, next to the paid, limitless off-street option. Count the cars parked down one high street. Twenty? Thirty? Then go to the multi-story behind the shops and look at the spare capacity. On-street parking isn't necessary or even desirable for a vibrant high street, especially when it's free.

The answer to high-streets is to provide the right amount of parking, in the right place, at the right price. This does not always mean less, or more expensive parking, but it does require thought about what has been tried, and what has worked elsewhere. Suggesting parking charges are part of a conspiracy to deny the people the use of their car is either dishonest, or stupid. And this is exactly what UKIP are doing. Their simplistic policies are clearly by people who have no interest in public policy beyond their own unexamined prejudices. 'Free parking' is a soundbite, designed to buy a vote from someone who's never thought about the issue in detail, spoken by someone who isn't interested in public policy and lacks the wit to find out. It might just be 'Free parking', but it demonstrates exactly why UKIP shouldn't ever be allowed to get control of anything.



Monday, 27 October 2014

On Charlie Elphicke's plan to ban the Trolls.

I write as a pseudanonymous blogger. My nom-de-plume is an old nickname from growing up. It's useful mainly because It means I can keep my political writing and activism separate from my professional life. But if you really, really want to find out who 'Jackart' is, it should take you about 2 clicks. This filtered permeability is deliberate. A Google search will either throw up my professional life, OR the blog, but not usually both.

A am not in any meaningful way, anonymous. But I understand why people might be. The Military 'Service test', company social media policies and so forth usually expressly forbid the expression of political opinion online. The exception seems to be the public sector hard-left who revel in their employers' support for their hard-left activism and desire to 'expose' those who 'have vile views' (ie disagree). Letters to employers can often follow some pretty mild expression of what is  often basically 'Economics 101'.

The real bullies are all too often those defending the status quo from those who think differently, and 'Troll' has come to mean 'anyone disagreeing with a lefty on the internet'. Real Trolls are just people whose hobby is winding up the self-important and humourless. The endless tweets of "your a dick" (the grammatical error is part of the gag) to Richard Dawkins is an example. The aim is to get a rise. And to this end, the perma-outraged Caroline Criado-Perez, the womyn behind the campaign to get a woman womyn on the £10 note, is great value. She will always bite. So she's targeted by Trolls. Some of whom are hilarious, some of whom aren't.

Trolling is not the same as 'flaming'. Flaming is the straight exchange of insults. This too can be cathartic and when indulged in between people who aren't offended, can be enjoyable. A good insult can be poetry. Use of robust Anglo-Saxon shouldn't be illegal.

We're also moving into the territory where giving offence is becoming illegal, encouraging a competitive victimhood race to get your identity/religion/political beliefs  legally protected. This is profoundly undemocratic, with a chilling effect on free expression. If you don't like something, block, ignore and move on (on which more later). Free speech must come with the freedom to offend, or it isn't worth anything, and political debate becomes a circle-jerk around the status quo. To the extent that it already is, partially explains the rise of anti-establishment parties. Offensive comment isn't "trolling", and shouldn't be illegal, however angry you may be about your shibboleth being held up for challenge or ridicule.

Nor is the stalking, harassment and abuse meted out to some people "trolling". I'd quite happily wind up Miss Criado-Perez, because I think she's an insufferable, po-faced, hypocritical misandrist who's more or less wrong on everything. But just as you're allowed to ask "name me something a woman has invented" to a feminist in a pub in order to piss her off, you're not allowed to say "I'm going to rape you, you fucking bitch" in a pub, on Twitter or indeed anywhere else. There's a line. That line is threats, harassment and incitement. The line exists in law, and no further law is needed. You can say what you like up to that line. But if the target of your abuse leaves the pub (blocks you on Twitter), and you follow them home (set up multiple sock-puppet accounts), you're moving from legal free speech, into harassment. Prolonged harassment is already illegal, online or in meatspace.

Which brings me to this excrescence from the Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke.

Hate-tweeting trolls make people’s lives hell. They’ve got out of hand on social media and we need to crack down on it
Great, enforce the laws that already exist.
we cannot just be tough on hate-tweeting, we must be tough on the causes of hate-tweeting, too. We should target the anonymity hate-tweeters use to harass people online. At the moment it’s just too easy to set up a bogus account and viciously stab at people from behind the curtain.
Does he mean "people" or "politicians"? So much good is done by people who tweet, blog and write anonymously, maybe because their views are controversial, or because "procedures" forbid those who know, from telling the truth. Remember night jack? I would fisk the whole thing, but as it doesn't address the issue that sprang instantly to mind with his first sentence, there's no point. Elphicke is talking out of his arse.

Anonymity is a vital component of free speech, because it allows uncomfortable truths be told to those, like Elphicke, who exercise power. And if you really need to find who someone making actionable threats is, it's easy enough to find out. Even the careful Old Holborn was 'exposed' eventually, after trolling the whole of Liverpool. But as he'd said nothing illegal, he's able to wear his title of 'Britain's vilest troll' with pride.

Peter Nunn, on the other had crossed the line. Threatening to rape someone, the MP, Stella Creasy on twitter is not 'Trolling' and is (rightly) already illegal. He was gaoled for 18 weeks under current legislation. Perhaps Ms Creasy is right. Perhaps we do need to take such threats more seriously. But it's clear from this case we don't need another law to do so.

The tone of debate on twitter is not the same as that in the house of commons. It's more like how a rowdy pub would be were it to hold a political debate. People are engaged through the medium of twitter. It's potentially a superb means for politicians to reach out to the people and bridge the divide. Some, like Michael Fabricant or indeed Stella Creasy get it. Others like Elphicke clearly don't. But trying to turn Twitter into the Oxford Union isn't going to work. All it will do is encourage another online network, which isn't regulated by the nanny state, to be set up where people can flame each other at will. Most of us enjoy the rough and tumble of debate, and sometimes minds are changed.

Perhaps someone should point out that calling Charlie Elphicke a stupid, ignorant know-nothing with a face like a baby's arse and brains consisting of what comes out of one, isn't "trolling". It's fair comment. I'm a card-carrying Tory, so nor it this a partisan attack. Indeed I'm ashamed to share a party with someone so wildly illiberal and ignorant of what he speaks. How DARE he write something so ill-informed and stupid?

This fear of "trolling" is nothing more than a particularly egregious moral panic. A good insult can be poetry. There is no right to live unoffended. We don't want to ban anonymous comment because we're a democracy. We have already banned abuse, threats and incitement because we're civilised. 



Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Cameron's European Immigration Gamble.

When Jean Claude Juncker was "elected" EU Commission president, he indicated he'd be happy to work with Cameron to renegotiate some powers. The one 'Red Line' he would not give is the free movement of people, enshrined in the Treaty of Rome.

There's an unpleasant xenophobia in British politics at the moment, where immigration is seen as a terrible thing, the worst thing, rather than an answer to the question "who's going to pay for your pension?". Most people, the left hand tail of the bell curve, who are considering voting UKIP are horrified by stories in the papers of schools where 75% of children speak a different language. Not knowing what the "availability heuristic" is, UKIPpers then go on to consider this near-universal. Over half of children in inner london schools are by some measure children of immigrants. Is that because that's the level of immigration, or because British people tend not to try to bring up infants in central London?

There is no doubt the foreign born population of the UK has expanded rapidly to around 12%. By far the biggest inflow is a half a million Poles who arrived between 2001 and 2011. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent continues at a steady trickle, tens of thousands a year. There's remarkably little evidence that wages have been driven down by this movement of people, though the claim is often made, evidence has come from individual industries, but certainly doesn't represent a widespread picture. If you believed the rhetoric, the 147,000 who came from Pakistan represented the majority. But the numbers are dwarfed by the Poles, whom no-one can accuse of scrounging, and who're often spoken of in a positive light, before a tirade against "the muslims".

Low skilled work is losing its value, and so low skilled workers are facing stagnating wages world wide, not just in the UK. It's just comforting to those who are suffering the effects of globalisation and automation to blame the polish blokes on the building site, rather than impersonal economic forces and the relentless march of technology. Throwing up barriers to the Poles coming here won't help Poland get richer, or improve the standard of living of British-born workers. It's an act of spite, that demeans this country, and should be resisted.

Cameron for his part has staked a "solution" to European migration as part of his negotiating strategy. I cannot see how this could possibly benefit him, except in the narrow, tactical sense in so far as it gives some answer which the army of Conservative activists can give to on the doorstep, while to the voters of Rochester and Strood consider whether or not to vote for Mark Reckless. The free movement of people is so fundamental to the EU project that it cannot be offered as a bribe to keep the UK in. So Cameron is going to face a humiliating climbdown at some point. Being cynical, He probably expects to do this some time in 2015, after the election. Will it be enough?

UKIP cannot be appeased. They are a protest. They are angry, and giving them the policies they "want" won't win them over. They will simply find something else to be angry about. Though it's not said openly, anti-muslim sentiment is being mixed with anti-immigration rhetoric, to overcome the relatively positive image of the largest new immigrant communities, the poles have in the minds of much of the electorate. The people who're considering voting UKIP don't by and large, hate the poles. But they are becoming much more open in their dislike of Muslims. And UKIP is not afraid to allow the misconceptions, the disinformation and the outright lies to continue. Sometimes they get caught saying something outright racist. Most of the time UKIP keep the right side of outright bigotry, and let the xenophobic mood music do the work. This is "dog-whistle" politics.

It's not policies UKIPpers want, it's leadership they're craving from Politicians. And on immigration at least, Cameron has failed the test. Having already made one promise, to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, which he couldn't deliver, is now doubling down. The political class, insofar as such a thing exists, has failed the test by failing to lay out why free movement of people, within the EU and from elsewhere will benefit everybody. The logic behind free trade - division of labour, comparative advantage and so forth is as true for where people live as it is for what we buy. In failing to point out where the electorate is wrong, as they are on immigration, politicians are failing in a duty to the people in a representative democracy.

Cameron's gamble may pay off. But he either knows it cannot be delivered, in which case he's lying, or thinks it can, in which case he's putting political advantage ahead of the good of the country. Neither paints the Prime minister in a good light.



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