Friday, June 9, 2017

Letting off Steam

Its difficult to express how angry I am with Teresa May and the Conservative Party right now. 

I spent many years actively involved in the party - I was elected twice to Cambridge City Council, where despite the efforts of an entire constituency association since we currently have no Councillors. I gave up investing my time in vast quantities because of frustration at how useless the party was, and how hard the resistance to changing that was. There was no point destroying my life to help the party make progress, when surrounded by so many people in the party trying to undermine me.

The party on the ground has become a shell, the number of activists is tiny compared to our opponents (and I don't think this is just because I live in Cambridge). The Lib Dems here must have delivered the entire constituency around a dozen times this election, Labour not much less - both clearly had many hundreds of people on the ground during the campaign. I'm told Bedford has 1,000 momentum members. 

But the party's behaviour, and Teresa May's in particular during this election has been beneath contempt. There was no leadership, no vision, no intellectual answer to Corbyn, despite ever more abuse and dishonesty from the left, there was no effective response, no attempt to fight on the party's record over the last 7 years, and they never once saw the result coming. May hid from debate most of the campaign. The electorate were treated with complete contempt, as if just mentioning the word Corbyn would deliver victory. There is no point trying to create 'Strong and Stable' as a brand if your behaviour is completely contradictory to the brand values. 

But why would party members want to get involved in this organisation when they too were treated with such contempt. Candidate selections conducted by an opaque clique. People who had done nothing for the party fast-tracked to finals for successive majority seats, whilst others were blocked. Candidates imposed on minority seats with no member involvement. The manifesto was a disaster (actually still is) - again doubtless the work of a small clique, without proper scrutiny, and seemingly devoid of any clear principles or positive vision. Price controls, industrial strategy, etc, etc why would any conservative want to support this stuff. It did however contain several policies each individually toxic enough to turn off large parts of the electorate, for no particularly good reason - fox hunting, dementia tax etc. The tragedy is, that done well, and with decent planning, we could have been on the way to a Conservative government, with a good majority, boldly reforming society for the better. A proper adult conversation with people about the future of the NHS and social care. Real reform on tax simplification. A plan to build the houses we desperately need. Instead we have fudge.

I'd still like to be involved in politics, but I want something I can get behind - competently run, open accountable and transparent in how it works, democratic. Socially liberal, tolerant and international in outlook, whilst fighting tooth and nail against the Socialist vision of state control that causes chaos and misery whenever and wherever it is applied. I spent years trying to change the party from within. Maybe it needs a party within a party to drive reform, because if they go on like this, one day people will stop voting for them just because they are the established centre right party, candidate selection will cease to be the remaining source of power in the party, and the whole thing will collapse.

The party is still toxic up and down the Country - you get desensitised to the attacks from the left, but many Corbyn supporters just constantly stream vile abuse across social media. The party never challenges this, they just soak it up, not at all worried that huge numbers of normal, professional people are getting behind a party led by marxist terrorist sympathisers. The professional party are hopeless and the leadership appears to be utterly clueless, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Meanwhile, we have a government in hock to the DUP and a now infinitely harder brexit negotiation to ponder. Happy days.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Response to Cambridge City Deal Consultation

Below is my personal response to the current city deal consultation closing on 10th October.

I haven’t completed the questions, as they miss the point - the whole package of proposals is misguided. I also don’t think it is helpful focussing consultation on how the changes would affect the individual consultee in their current circumstances - when many people are concerned on how the proposals will impact the future development of Greater Cambridge for everyone. For the record, I usually cycle to work, and most of these proposals will have little or no impact on my personal commute at the moment - but then I am currently lucky enough to be living in housing a short cycle ride from my place of work.

Its difficult to express how hopelessly inadequate I feel the current proposals are to the challenge in hand - which to my mind is to deliver the growth of Cambridge with lots more housing and sustainable transport of a type and quality that will cause existing residents of Cambridge and the surrounding areas to welcome and embrace growth. We need to be able to look back in decades time and be proud of new housing and transport, rather than fear every new housing planning application and its impact on journeys as happens now.

The current proposals do not appear to be directed by the future development needs of Cambridge but by the obsession that someone, somewhere has with using Cambridge as a guinea pig for novel demand management techniques as the only or main tool to tackle future Cambridge congestion. Chopping down trees on Milton Road to build bus lanes, congestion charging, shutting roads, workplace charging - the local Councils have been trying to impose these on Cambridge for decades, and they completely miss the point which is that we need much more new capacity for sustainable transport.

Specifically, my problems with the current proposals:
  • There is not enough linkage between transport improvements and new housing developments. We need to identify more sites for housing nearer Cambridge that can be served by good quality off road public transport, and develop housing there with high levels of quality and quantity.
  • The budget is limited by what the government says it will provide - we should budget what is needed to provide sensible levels of additional capacity, and make the case to government for more funding, or divert more of the uplift in value from new housing developments to building the transport.
  • There is far too much reliance on demand management. These measures will mostly impact those who work in low paid jobs in the City, who cannot afford to live in the City and need to commute in. As such, these measures are grossly socially inequitable. Any demand management should start with real and significant new sustainable transport options. If new sustainable transport isn’t good enough to get significant numbers of people out of their cars, you won’t solve the problem with ever more oppressive demand management. 
  • The value for money of some of the options looks awful (in terms of the incredible costs being discussed for what should be relatively trivial changes such as new bus lanes).
  • The plans are underwhelming in terms of new capacity for cycling and walking, and non-existent in terms of new off road capacity for other public transport. We need to look at where corridors can be identified to build new capacity (be it guided bus, light or heavy rail, trams or other more futuristic solutions) to connect housing to jobs and leisure opportunities. If corridors can’t be created above ground, we need to look at tunnelling.
I can’t recall a previous set of proposals in Cambridge that have attracted such near universal derision as the current City Deal plans - or the scale of significant alternative proposals from third-parties aghast at what is being suggested.

We are living in one of the most economically dynamic growth areas on the planet. Please tell me we can do better than what is being proposed here. You need to go back to the drawing board (ideally not using expensive consultants who appear to have a limited understanding of the Cambridge context).

Friday, May 13, 2016

BBC White Paper

Can any of my friends in politics explain why for the love of god we need to create a new completely-unenforceable offence of watching iPlayer without a TV licence, when there are technical solutions already in use by many many media organisations who have found ways to ensure only those that have paid for their content can watch or read it?

The TV licence is past its sell by date and needs to go now. It is the most regressive form of taxation on the statute book - a single parent on benefits pays the same as Richard Branson (and rather more than the Queen). Hundreds of thousands of people are prosecuted and fined annually for licence evasion - disproportionally women and the less well off. Every single one of these prosecutions occurs because a vulnerable person caves in to a TV licensing campaign of harassment and threats directed at everyone who legitimately or not doesn't have a license - and they self-incriminate. There is no effective way to gather evidence of the offence being committed without snooping into people's private homes and bullying or conning them.

Working on the basis that the government isn't intending to give TV licensing access to everyone's internet history (although scarily with Teresa May in the Home Office its hard to be sure this is the case) - watching iPlayer without a license will be a new offence with no plausible method of enforcing the law. 'Have you watched iPlayer without a licence?' 'Go away its none of your business' would appear to be completely effective. It doesn't need to be against the law - just put it behind a paywall (this doesn't require a new law, or statutory instrument as the government is thinking of doing to avoid debate and scrutiny).

Of course we know why they don't want to do that. For the same reason the white paper came out against decriminalising the licence fee - the number of people willing to pay for it would just collapse - and then how would they find the money to pay the 91 BBC executives currently earning more than the Prime Minister.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Renting Privately? Rent rises heading your way...

You would think the last thing the UK tax system needs is yet more complexity. But George Osbourne can't resist playing politics - with yet another budget announcement designed entirely around the headline it generates and to hell with the consequences.

And so in today's budget we have the hit on interest relief for buy-to-let landlords. As the budget report (para 1.191) says:
'The government will restrict the relief on finance costs that landlords of residential property can get to the basic rate of income tax. The restriction will be phased in over 4 years, starting from April 2017. This will reduce the distorting effect the tax treatment of property has on investment and mean individual landlords are not treated differently based on the rate of income tax that they pay. It will also shift the balance between landlords and homeowners.'
At this point I'm struggling to understand what this even means. The stuff about different treatment of landlords based on their tax rates is complete doublespeak - this _introduces_ differential treatment.

My understanding is that interest is currently a 100% allowable deduction against the rental income landlords derive from their letting business - it isn't a relief against tax paid, so who knows what the actual impact of this tax change is going to be. But I think we can safely assume that at soon as your income goes above the threshold for paying 40% tax, as well having to pay 40% tax on the additional income, if you have a buy to let property, something bad is going to happen to your ability to offset your interest costs against your rental income, and your effective marginal tax rate on each extra £1 of income will rocket - to 60% maybe - hard to tell - but yet another daft discontinuity in marginal tax rates depending on your circumstances, to add to the child benefit tax changes and other tweaking that now goes on at arbitrary points in the income scale.

The baying mob at this point is probably screaming, yeah, go George - stuff those evil buy-to-let landlords and their profiteering high rents. Personally, I think the baying mob is wrong. Rents are set by the balance between supply and demand (that's basic economics), not some grand collusion between millions of small landlords. Buy to let landlords frequently accept rents that represent a terrible return on a risky asset - 3-4% rental yield before costs in many cases - and interest is a very real cash cost to the landlord - it gets tax relief for a good reason.

But lets go with it, and assume you think this is a great idea in principle - let's predict what will now happen.

If you are an affected landlord, your marginal tax rate is now so high that buy to let property investment is not going to make much sense. If you are close to the higher rate threshold, you might decide to put more cash into your pension to go under the threshold, effectively getting relief on the pension contributions at your new much higher marginal tax rate and avoiding the new charge.

The more enterprising taxpayers who aren't in a position to do this, will look for other forms of tax avoidance. Maybe buy properties in a limited company wrapper, where interest will presumably still be a fully allowable expense. Cue dozens more pages in the UK's already overbloated tax code describing new emergency anti-avoidance measures the Chancellor will dream up to stop this wicked reluctance to submit to his will, and try to frame the circumstances in which a property sold to a limited company will be taxed as if it is owned by the person who owns some or all of the shares. This may work, but if so, it may also impact on companies like Property Partner, setup to provide easy access to the buy to let market for those that don't want to buy a whole property themselves (or will this just be an easy way round the new rules?).

But the most likely outcome is that many buy-to-let landlords on higher rate tax will choose to sell up. This will inevitably increase private sector rents. It may not be much consolation to those trying to buy properties either, as the lower funding from buy-to-let investors will probably also restrict the supply of new housing. Some new developments relying on the capital provided by buy-to-let landlords may not happen, or be seriously delayed, making things worse for everyone looking to buy or rent. There is also the regional aspect - in London I suspect almost all buy-to-let landlords are higher rate taxpayers, so the situation there for people looking to rent might deteriorate very rapidly.

There could be further knock on effects on the supply of private rental property, as even landlords not affected are aghast at the arbitrary nature of the changes made to the UK tax system, and decide their low returns on property don't reflect the risks, newly expanded to include political risks.

I am a buy to let landlord, but I think I am going to do OK out of this - my rent and my property value should go up in the medium term - I just pity people looking for private rental accommodation. I passionately believe that government should legislate in a way that really would seriously harm existing buy to let landlords investors like me - by making it easier for the market to build lots more houses, so that the market value of housing falls, reducing the cost to both buy and rent property - but I am still a landlord as sadly I don't believe they will do this any time soon. Indeed the change announced today will have the opposite effect - it will hit those currently providing a key source of funding for new housebuilding so reduce new housing supply, it will increase rents whilst creating a yet more complex tax code - this is another truly dreadful tax change.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Who'd be an MP?

The new MP for my neighbouring constituency, Lucy Frazer, made her maiden speech in parliament on 4th June. You can read the whole thing here - you might think it competent and pretty uncontroversial, whilst referring to the history of the area (that's what maiden speeches are supposed to be...). Indeed, shortly after it was made, Chris Stevens, the new SNP MP for Glasgow South West was moved to 'praise the maiden speeches we have heard so far today from the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) and the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), despite our political and, as has been outlined, historical differences.'

The speech contained the following passage:
And it was the home of Oliver Cromwell, who defeated the Scots at Dunbar, incorporated Scotland into his protectorate and transported the Scots as slaves to the colonies. Now, there is an answer to the West Lothian question—but not one, of course, that I would recommend.
What to make of that? Reasonable attempt at humour - the absurdity of something as obnoxious as transportation being suggested as a solution to a modern political problem? Slightly ill-advised foray into a controversial (albeit nearly 400 year old) historical incident?

Fast forward a couple of days, and thanks to the power of the internet, how about these assessments:
Resign...your speech was disgusting
You are a disgrace to society
Bigoted disgrace. Shame on you.
Or maybe this one:
The only people you have to mock are your wanker parents who conceived you, and always keep in mind: You are a bloody parasite paid by our taxes, do not forget that hooker !!!
Then of course no assessment of a Conservative party politician is complete without:
Really quite racist in fact:
Your speech in the HoC has to be one of the most racist things I have seen in Parliament, you should apologise immediately
Or to go further:
Don't the Tories vet their candidates for nazi views before they select them ? Are you the MP for Auswich ? (sic)
You can read the full horror of some of the comments on a thread on Lucy's facebook page about a harmless meeting with a local housing association that has now had nearly 500 comments.

The joy of Facebook is you can find out much about the people making these comments. You can find what types of thing they link to and find amusing. I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader - but its no surprise that a great number of those commenting live in Scotland and probably have never met Ms Frazer or visited SE Cambridgeshire. I'm not shocked or outraged by the behaviour of the 'Cybernats' - I'm actually pretty sad.

Because at the end of it, you think 'who on earth would want to be an MP and have to put up with this level of appalling and undeserved abuse.'? And the answer is obvious - it will tend to be those that really couldn't care less about what people think of them or their behaviour. Our lovely friends from north of the border, once they calm down from their ultra-nationalistic fervour, might want to consider if that was really the outcome they were looking for as they typed away furiously on their keyboards.

Elsewhere in her maiden speech, Lucy mentions
My great-grandparents fled to this country with nothing, with no possessions and no money, not even speaking the language, and Britain gave them a home. It gave them hope and it gave them a future.
I just hope that there hasn't been too much of that optimism destroyed over the last couple of days.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Say yes to the New Chesterton Foot and Cycle Bridge

The distinctly anonymous ‘Friends of Ditton Meadows’ has been setup to ‘To protect Ditton Meadows from the current threat of development, namely the proposed cycle and foot bridge across the meadow.’ They have other objectives like ‘To oppose the talked about guided bus-way across the meadows’ and ‘To oppose any development on the meadows in the future.’ But as nobody is planning a busway or other development, it’s fair to say their main aim is opposition to a new cycle/footbridge across the common.

So what is planned? Fingers crossed, a new station will open in Chesterton in 2016. A new cycle and footbridge next to the existing railway bridge is being planned to link the common with the new station. The County Council has been and continues to consult residents on this project.

What impact will this have on the common? There are lots of pretty pictures of Ditton Meadows on their website - but not a single view pictured will change as a result of the proposed new bridge. That’s because it will occupy a tiny proportion of the common, and will only ever be visible with the backdrop of a not particularly picturesque railway bridge. I’m struggling to see how anyone can seriously oppose this on the grounds of its impacts to the commons as these are negligible.

However, not building the new bridge will be really BAD NEWS for lots of reasons. It will stop lots of residents of Abbey Ward and Fen Ditton from easily accessing the new station by foot and cycle (or at all!) – losing them much of the economic benefits. Some will drive, further clogging up Newmarket Road and Chesterton. Others will take the approx 1 mile detour over the Green Dragon bridge – like it isn’t already busy enough at peak hours. Fellow Chesterton residents will also miss out on a more convenient new route to Abbey, Fen Ditton and ultimately to the Mill Road area, Station and Addenbrookes, when the Chisholm Trail is built.

I hope our elected representatives will be supportive of the new bridge, but it would be a disaster if a few vocal opponents were able to block a vital part of the sustainable transport infrastructure needed in a growing Cambridge. Please don’t just rely on them to make the right decision – write to them today (you can use the website to find and contact your local Councillors) and urge them to make sure this bridge happens.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Its Time to Abolish the TV Licence

Its time for a proper campaign for the abolition of the TV licence. There are lots of websites opposing the licence (e.g., etc), and various MPs are now getting in on the act, but nothing that could be called an organised campaign - that is, one that sets out with the sole aim of the abolition of the TV licence fee in its current form, brings together all its opponents and raises the funds necessary to bring the campaign to fruition.

Why would anyone want to support this campaign? I'm pretty agnostic about the merits of the BBC. They make some quite good programs (that I don't watch many of...). They are also reasonably authoritative and fair in reporting many issues (which makes it all the more annoying that they use this perceived neutrality to push their biases). The BBC in its current form may also be at risk without the TV licence funding it - but there are many alternatives, subscriptions, advertising, direct government grants - and what should replace the TV licence isn't a relevant consideration if the current funding mechanism is so unacceptable.

So what makes the tv licence so unacceptable:

1) It is unfair.
As a flat tax, levied across most of the population, its costs are disproportionately hard to bear for those on low incomes. As a result, many thousands of low income households have been fined or people even imprisoned for not paying it.

2) The methods essential to enforce the tv licence are unacceptable in a free, modern society.
Evidence of whether or not a licensable activity is being undertaken by an individual can only be determined by gross intrusions into personal privacy, and even then only if there is almost 100% takeup of the licence, such that anyone without a licence can be bullied, threatened and harassed as if they were breaking the law. With modern methods of watching broadcast TV, it is pretty much impossible to determine if the law is being complied with unless you give those responsible for enforcement the power to enter any unlicensed property unannounced and to have a snoop around. Such a power is never going to be acceptable in a free society, so the only other tactic available for enforcement is one of bullying and harassment - personal visits and threatening letters (often designed to deceive about the requirements of licensing or the powers of those enforcing it) targeted at all unlicensed premises. The aim is to scare people into being licensed, or for people to inadvertently incriminate themselves. With so much consumer protection around misleading claims from suppliers, and criminal sanctions available against most types of harassment, it is unclear how TV licensing gets away with its tactics.

As technology moves on and fewer people need or want to watch live broadcast TV, those legally licence free can only increase, and with it the anger at the tactics of tv licensing. It is time for the TV licence to be abolished, and funding for the BBC to be moved to a more sustainable long term arrangement. So who's up for making it happen?

(Memo to self - must work out the difference between licence and license.)
(Memo to others - I currently have a TV licence as I watch live TV.)