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Wednesday 9 March 2011
I'm no enemy of enterprise
I spent many years as the chief planning officer of a local authority. One of my main responsibilities was to ensure that infrastructure was in place to allow businesses to thrive.
Because of a failure of the private sector to build enough small units to accommodate business start-ups, my authority acquired land and built premises suitable for small firms. We also helped to nurture those firms in their early years. My colleagues and I travelled abroad to trade fairs to encourage foreign investors to take advantage of the international travel links we had secured for our borough. Several large multi-national companies, one home grown, thrived in our town. We were not unusual. Many authorities act in this, and more ambitious, ways.
It was extremely insulting, then, to hear the implication in the Prime Minister's speech to the Conservative Party spring conference, that members of the planning profession are "enemies of enterprise". Picking on "town hall officials" was cheap and populist.
Undoubtedly some planning decisions, including those made by the Secretary of State, take longer than is desirable. It should be remembered, though, that many planning proposals involve conflict between the intentions of the applicant and the wishes of local residents and amenity groups. Planners spend a lot of time mediating between the two sides.
David Cameron should understand that economic recovery does not rely exclusively on the risk-takers of the private sector, but also on the ingenuity and dedication of public servants at local and national level. It is a shame that the Prime Minister gives neither credit nor loyalty to such people.
Puzzled by the census
I got the census form today. The "ethnic" and the "work" questions trouble me, for different reasons. Happily, as in the 2001 census, the divisive "ethnic" is easy to get round, despite there not being the legal right to ignore the question as there is at, say, hospital visits. Simply put at Q16E (Other ethnic): "Human".
But the "work" question, as in 2001, has no such easy resolution. The whole truly voluntary sector of the big society is ignored. If you work for money, tell us all about it, if you do it unpaid, forget it; we don't want to know.
No journalist is going to write anything in favour of the current national census. After all, it asks questions and that is the journalist's job, is it not? However, if the worst that Susie Rushton (8 March) can find with the census form is that it requires her to remember her family relationships and that she does not know what to reply to question 17 (which she is told to ignore), then there cannot be much wrong with it.
Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire.
In the explanatory leaflet that accompanies the 2011 census there is a long list of languages in which the questionnaire can be supplied. I notice with some shock that Klingon is not included. Is it something they said?
The census form provides no box for a ménage à trois.
Who suffers from Peak Oil?
Dominic Lawson misses the point (Opinion, 8 March) when he reiterates the error he made in the rhetorical question "Have you seen any queues at petrol stations? Do you know of any? Are there any queues at gas filling stations in the US? Nope."
Those, such as myself, who are concerned about Peak Oil believe that there are three key factors relating to oil production: politics (including revolutions), economics and geology. Those who disagree with us tend to argue that only politics and economic matter and geology does not.
No one is suggesting that oil would "run out" or that there would be queues at petrol stations. That is because as oil gets more expensive, people buy less. The price elasticity of demand, as economists call it. The difficulty with oil supplies is that the price elasticity of demand is in fact not that great. That causes prices to spike.
The people who suffer are the economically weak, and then we get a recession. Some believe that we are in the start of a plateau period of oil-spike-driven recessions. This may be delayed by shale gas, but I was expecting a second spike in 2012, which may be brought forward by the turmoil in the Middle East.
However, no one is suggesting that the pumps will run dry. What they are saying is that many people won't be able to afford tobuy the petrol.
John Hemming MP
Chairman, All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas, House of Commons
Health effects of Chernobyl
Shaun Walker's article (28 February) on the continuing risks associated with the Chernobyl nuclear reactor draws attention to the vast costs involved in trying to prevent any further release in radioactivity from the site.
Chernobyl is comparable only to the atomic bombs in the scale of radiation release and its public significance. Despite this there is currently no international comprehensive study of its health effects.
After the atomic bombs a joint Japanese-American study has provided information of great value for radiation protection and for understanding the effects of external radiation. Many of the effects were not observed until decades later, and over 60 years after the bombs the joint study is still providing important information. The radiation exposure after Chernobyl differed from that after the atomic bombs, and if comprehensive studies are not supported speculation on the possible effects will flourish, and valuable knowledge will be lost.
I have been involved with a group of international experts in the field in recommending that the European Commission supports a long-term comprehensive study of the health consequences of Chernobyl, an accident in a European country leading to fallout affecting virtually all of Europe. Our report has recently been submitted to the Commission, and it is important that it is acted upon and not just filed away.
A small proportion of the amount being spent on the new shelter would support a comprehensive ongoing study of the health effects in the millions exposed to fallout from the initial huge release of radioactivity.
Professor Sir Dillwyn Williams
AV helps to keep extremists out
If an election were held tomorrow under the first-past-the-post system, then France would have a National Front president on the basis of 23 per cent support ("Poll puts Le Pen ahead", 7 March). Do the NO2AV campaign see such a possibility as vindication of our present system?
Of course the French system involves a second round, which gives the 77 per cent who do not support the National Front the chance to back an alternative candidate. The alternative vote system provides voters with a similar chance without needing to go back to the polls.
Some who want to keep FPTP say that it gives us protection against political extremism. It does this only so long as the extremist parties remain weak – and we do not need protection against weak parties. We need protection against extremist parties with moderate support gaining influence well beyond their numerical support – and AV will achieve this.
Common sense at last on aid
I congratulate Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development, on his radical changes to the disbursal of UK overseas development aid (leading article, 2 March).
Having worked for 34 years in international humanitarianism, I long ago discovered that one of the most difficult tasks is to ensure that aid gets to the poorest of the poor. The government-to-government method certainly does not work. Indeed, routing aid through brutal and corrupt regimes virtually guarantees that much of it will disappear before it reaches those for whom it is intended.
It is refreshing to see that Mr Mitchell recognises this problem and has decided to tackle it. By insisting on transparency, accountability, value for money and tangible results, and by introducing stringent oversight in the form of the Independent Commission for Aid, he has gone a long way towards removing the problem of local corruption from the aid equation.
He has also removed one of the understandable difficulties people at home – many of them struggling with their own financial problems – have with overseas aid. That is, so much aid, in effect, ends up propping up dictatorial governments rather than helping needy populations.
The UK Government has adopted a common-sense approach to overseas aid; hopefully other donor governments will soon follow its lead.
CEO, GOAL, International Humanitarian Organisation, London W1
Lib Dems must not blame voters
Nick Chadwick backs your view that the Lib Dems are taking more than their fair share of the blame for the Government's unpopular policies (letter, 7 March). He suggests that the party's former supporters are living in cloud-cuckoo land.
No doubt the party leadership had its reasons for changing its mind about increasing VAT and making hundreds of thousands of public sector workers redundant. But a large proportion of the people who supported the party at the last election still oppose those policies.
A governing party that has just polled less than 5 per cent in a by-election certainly could try blaming the voters and questioning their sanity. Good luck with that. Alternatively, stop blaming everyone and everything else and take a look at yourselves. When it comes to the votes cast, surely anyone calling himself a democrat should start from the position that you get what you deserve.
Welcome to Richistan
From recent news coverage it seems that the Mubarak and Gaddafi families each own at least one £10m London property.
In exchange for all of the security and benefits that they accrue from having British homes, the sole financial contribution that they appear to make is council tax, levied at the maximum Band H rate of around £2,000 per year. If they paid the same rate of council tax as the average householder, typically around 0.7 per cent of the property's value each year, they would be paying an annual £70,000.
If a British resident sells a second home, it is liable to capital gains tax, but of course that would be an insult to such exalted occupants of tax- exempt "Richistan".
Do our politicians really hold the honest private and small-business taxpayers of this country in such contempt that they expect us to watch our health service, our education system and our armed forces slashed in order to subsidise such globalised parasites and the banks and supermarkets with the vast, deliberate loopholes in the UK tax system which are only of use to the ultra-wealthy?
The government allowing this to happen is supposedly in favour of "market forces": do they honesty think that this is what Adam Smith had in mind?
Fast road to energy crisis
On 28 February you reported on a plan to raise the speed limit on motorways to 80mph.
In Vincent Lombardi's book How to Double the Performance of Your Car, he gives figures which show that a steady speed of 80mph uses approximately 10 per cent more petrol than is used at 70 mph. Can anyone really claim that this extra expenditure – and the using up of an increasingly rare commodity – is justified by the saving of just over five minutes on a 50-mile journey?
How can the Transport Secretary claim (as you report) that decisive factors in his thinking included "economic benefits as well as environment concerns"?
I am tired of letters that routinely refer to Israel as "the only democracy in the Middle East" (8 March). Israel has an admirably free press, free speech, and a vibrant civic culture, all of which are components of democracy. But until the Israeli government allows all of the people who live under its control to send representatives to the Knesset – including the non-Jewish residents of the West Bank – it cannot be called a democracy.
Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire
Got to laugh
Rather than continuing to whinge about the deliberately provocative Julie Burchill, let's instead celebrate the incisive musings of Deborah Ross in her "If You Ask Me ..." column. She's consistently entertaining and her thoughts on self-checkouts and ticket machines on 8 March made me laugh out loud – no mean feat in the current climate.
In response to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's article on equality (7 March), I'd like to apologise on behalf of my gender. We never realised that by not organising mass protests to condemn rape, we gave women the impression that we were pro-rape. How silly of us.
Henry St Leger-Davey
Perspectives on banks and bonuses
Give it away
Bob Diamond should do the right thing, redeem himself and give his £6.5m bonus to charity. The British public would respect him for it and it would go a long way in restoring our trust in the banks.
While Bob Diamond and the rest of them are still being paid their bonuses, the withdrawal of bonuses from some local government employees such as groundsmen is cutting their income by a third. That's right, one whole third. Now, tell me, was this whole mess caused by your local council groundsman?
Lanchester, Co Durham
Not too close
I also heard Angela Knight answering Mervyn King's criticism by saying that banks, like any other successful businesses, know that they have to stay close to their customers (letter, 8 March). She said this on the same day that a letter from my local branch arrived informing me that I had a new personal account manager at my disposal, and that he is based 150 miles away from my local branch.
In four quality newspapers on 7 March, I saw three-page advertisements telling us how good a particular high street bank is. if such banks wish to be more customer-friendly or get nearer to their customers' wants, it does not require three pages but one short sentence: "This bank promises to retain the use of cheques many years after 2018."
The (bailed out) UK bank where I have my account has recently "improved" its online banking service. The monthly statements obtainable online now start with the most recent transaction first, the opposite way round from every bank statement I have seen in the past 50 years.
This seems contrary to normal accounting practice and is awkward to reconcile with my records kept on a PC that, conventionally, put the most recent transaction last. I inquired if it was possible to have a statement showing the oldest transaction first and was told unfortunately not.
No doubt some manager has been rewarded with a bonus for this irritating change.
The suggestion by the Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams that everyone on the electoral register should be given a direct shareholding in the state-owned banks is fine by me, on one condition. When the pieces are divided up, can I have one of the parts that warrant a huge bonus?
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