Wednesday, 5 November 2014

My Maiden Speech to Sutton Council, 3 November 2014


Having been elected as a councillor in May, on Monday I made my first speech to full council. This nerve-racking experience was made all the more so as my speech opened the debate on my own motion, criticising the council's new road scheme in Hackbridge, inviting a less-than-warm welcome from the 83% of councillors sitting beneath the yellow flag, while hopefully doing justice to the concerns of the residents who were in the public gallery.

Here's my motion:

This council agrees the lack of formal crossings has made it more difficult for pedestrians to cross the road in the Heart of Hackbridge (due to work carried out as part of the Heart of Hackbridge scheme) particularly for more vulnerable people such as children, the elderly and the visually impaired. This is contrary to the key aim of this project to improve the pedestrian environment, and contrary to three of Sutton Council’s core aims, to empower everyone, to promote diversity, and to make services accessible to all. Therefore, to achieve the project's aim, to comply with this Council's core aims, and to allow all pedestrians to navigate the Heart of Hackbridge without fear, formal crossings should be reinstated as a matter of urgency.

For any non-local people reading this, here is some background to the scheme. First, a puff piece from July, giving Sutton Council's view of the new layout.

The comments below that article give a flavour of residents' view of things. By September the Council was starting to get the message, leading to:

Unfortunately, despite their claims, Lib Dems were still insisting that everything's fine and only minor tweaks are needed. Worse, while residents were being told that their concerns were being heard and "pushed" by Lib Dem councillors, in private they were doing the opposite and blocking my attempts to have the crossings upgraded. So I proposed a motion to flush out the Lib Dems and force them to take a position. 

Alas, Lib Dems did not support my motion, instead they voted for a wrecking amendment which proclaimed how wonderful Hackbridge is. Disappointing, but at least residents now know where the Lib Dems stand. 

A special mention to Cllr Nick Mattey, "The Hackbridge One", who defied his party orders and voted with Conservatives against the Lib Dem wrecking amendment. 

Here is my speech in favour of the motion, sadly limited by the 5 minute time limit. How to explain everything that's wrong with the crossings in just 5 minutes?


The £1.4 million Heart of Hackbridge project is about far more than a road scheme: it’s visually and economically regenerating what was a slightly forgotten corner of Sutton. Residents welcome the investment, everyone agrees that it looks better, and we all hope for a lasting economic improvement from what's been done. Unfortunately these important goals have been put at risk by a bizarre fixation on removing pedestrian crossings.

Right across Sutton we are adding and upgrading pedestrian crossings, particularly near schools, but in Hackbridge we’re told that removing formal crossings will make people safer! They actually believe that!

In fact, the Department for Transport’s own research shows that these courtesy crossings were never likely to work, because of the high vehicle speeds in Hackbridge.

They found a tipping point at 15mph. Below that, 30-40% of vehicles give way to a waiting pedestrian, and all’s well. But above 16mph, the proportion of drivers giving way decreases significantly. They found that above 16mph, only about 5% of vehicles yield to a waiting pedestrian. Meaning that as you stand at the side of the road waiting to cross, about 20 vehicles will pass before one stops to let you across. That is more or less what happens in Hackbridge, and it’s not good enough. 20 vehicles!

The speed limit in Hackbridge is 30, and that’s often exceeded. The difficulty getting speeds down to 15mph was always going to be a risk for this project before it was even built.

We’ve been told that only a small number of residents are against the changes, and that residents support the scheme because there was a consultation. But the consultation itself highlighted these very concerns – residents repeatedly raised concern about whether it would be safe to cross, if the zebra crossings were removed.

And since the scheme went in, residents have been saying all summer that the courtesy crossings are not safe places to cross, even for able-bodied adults. But for children, the elderly, disabled groups and particularly blind people, they can be frightening no-go areas. Some vulnerable residents have said that now see Hackbridge itself as a no-go area, as a result of these changes.

All this, right by a primary school. Remember – this scheme was supposed to improve the pedestrian experience! That was a key goal of spending £1.4 million.

Now we have this interim safety audit. It found that “pedestrians were using the uncontrolled crossings with a noticeable degree of caution.” Now, that’s couched in formal language, but this is exactly what residents are saying. That's what they've been saying since these things went in, and what they said in the consultation before they went in. For the Council, this should be ringing alarm bells.

One common problem, also cited in the safety audit which said that this often happens, is that people cross halfway then get stuck in the middle of the road, as the traffic from the left just carries on. I’ve experienced it myself, and I can tell you that it’s genuinely unnerving. How do vulnerable residents feel? Stuck in the middle of a very narrow road with traffic attempting to pass them on both sides?

By the way, the safety audit response actually refers to the critical 15mph tipping point mentioned in the government research, but doesn’t actually explain the significance of the 15mph figure. A key fact, concealed from members and the public.

I am in favour of innovation, but new ideas sometimes don’t work. Failure is a part of progress. So if this Council is going to try new ideas, which I think we should, we must also be prepared to admit failure and swiftly correct it. Especially when safety is at stake.

Removing the formal crossings from Hackbridge has not worked.

The government research flagged this risk, the consultation repeatedly highlighted concern about the crossings, and from the moment they went in, residents have been pointing out that they don’t work.

I’m sure we’ll hear this evening that there’s a process to be followed, and we need to be patient. But residents have heard this “wait and see” game all through the summer, and they have seen through it. Tonight's wrecking amendment is just more of the same.

The fact is, if we were just following standard processes, we’d have a standard mini-roundabout, standard pedestrian crossings, and happy, safe residents who can cross the road.

The appeal to "Process" is a smokescreen. If people think that these crossings are better, they should stand up here this evening and say so publicly. If they want to back the residents, they should agree to my motion calling for proper crossings.

An improved pedestrian experience in Hackbridge, accessible to all, promised by this project, demands proper pedestrian crossings - before someone gets hurt.

The Council pubished an audio recording of the meeting, so I've extracted the section containing the debate on Hackbridge, put it on Google Drive and hopefully this link will let you listen to it.

If you forward to 41 mins 10 in the recording, you can also hear my brief concluding remarks. I can't post the text of those as they were mostly ad lib, answering points raised in the debate.


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Why Is Alex Salmond Against Scottish Independence?


In 3 weeks, on 18th September, people in Scotland will vote to decide whether to stay in the United Kingdom or leave the union and create an independent Scotland. One of the biggest questions is about currency - should Scotland keep the Pound, have its own new currency, join the Euro, or something else? I want to say a few things on that specific point.

The Scottish National Party's plan is to remain in a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom, sticking with the Pound Sterling issued in London. Alex Salmond has been pressed for a "Plan B" in case that isn't possible, for instance if Westminster refuses to join a formal currency union. There has been furious debate about this Plan B, but I think the focus should be on Plan A because it's barmy. 

Plan A is the situation we see in the EU with the euro - 18 countries in the eurozone are part of a currency union but (in theory) not in a political union. What's the result? Economic chaos, massive arguments about who's liable for the debt, endless calls for bailouts, stern demands for countries to control their spending, and in the background the quiet hum of officials building a political union. 

If countries are going to share a currency, they have to stick their noses into each others' domestic politics. Countries can't be allowed to run up deficits nor be allowed to let their debts grow too large, because of the risk that other countries in the union will have to bail them out. That's why the EU set up the Growth and Stability Pact, which didn't work, then the Fiscal Compact, which tries to do the same thing but with a bigger stick. It's too early to say whether that's working, but right now 22 out of 28 EU countries fail the criteria.

If Scotland wants a fiscal union with the rest of the UK, we're going to face exactly the same problems. So leaving aside whether Westminster would agree to it, why would pro-independence Scots want it? 

Just as the eurozone is dragging the EU towards political union, so Scotland would be dragged back into de facto political union with the rest of the UK, in order to manage these questions about spending and borrowing. Given the unequal sizes of Scotland and "rest of UK", it would basically come down to Westminster telling Scotland how much it can spend and borrow. It could probably be made to work, but it wouldn't be Scottish independence. If we've learnt anything from the euro crisis it's that if countries share a currency, they are bound together by spending, borrowing and debt so they aren't really independent.

Anyone who wants Scottish independence should also be calling for an independent Scottish currency. You could call it the Pound, but it would need to be independent from the Pound Sterling with a floating exchange rate and Scotland would then need to issue its own debt in that new currency. Just as the USA, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand all use independent currencies called the Dollar, an independent Scotland should have an independent Pound. 

Any plan for Scottish independence in which it shares someone else's currency, whether it's the Pound, or the Euro, is independence in name only. Plastic separatism. So the interesting question isn't why Salmond hasn't spelled out a Plan B, it's why Salmond's Plan A involves keeping Scotland tied into a union with the rest of the UK. I thought he wanted independence.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Thoughts on Uber and black cabs

Today, cab drivers in London and across Europe staged a protest about Uber, the taxi service that allows you to order a cab using your smartphone. Cabbies caused traffic jams in the city centre by parking up and driving around slowly, while their spokesmen toured TV and radio studios explaining their grievance. Presumably they travelled by bike or Tube, to avoid their self-made traffic chaos. 

This was probably was one of the most ill-judged, counter-productive protests of all time, managing to annoy their customers while also giving their rival hours of free publicity. Uber are claiming 850% more app downloads than last Wednesday.



Black cabs aren't always black.

As in many cities, London's taxi fleet operates a sort of closed shop cartel, where only the select few are licensed by Transport for London to drive the iconic black cab, pick up passengers at the roadside and charge using a meter.  They must pass The Knowledge, a gruelling test of familiarity with London's roads. Operating in parallel since the 1960s are "mini cabs" which are also licensed by Transport for London. They are taxis, but they have to be booked in advance (they can't be hailed on the street) and the fare has to be fixed (they can't operate on a time/distance taximeter). Uber drivers and cars have been licensed as mini cabs, but the Uber app measures time and distance to calculate the fare so the black cabs argue that Uber are operating illegally. TfL have ruled in favour of Uber, but there's a legal appeal.

In theory that point of law about meters was the focus of today's protest, but in reality it's all about established players using laws and regulations to prevent new competitors. This is a sad, all-too-common story, and as always the customer is told that preventing competition is for his own good: you don't want these nasty, cheap mini cabs, you want a proper black cab driven by an experienced cabbie. The idea that customers might prefer to see both options then decide for themselves is always dismissed as dangerous nonsense.

The cabbies are bigging themselves up as a premium service offering the best cars, experienced drivers who know where they're going, a good safety record and the reassurance of the fine tradition of London Hackney Carriages. Who would swap that for an unknown driver in an inferior vehicle who may not know where he's going or even speak English? You might save a couple of quid, but quality is worth the price. 

That's the case for the cabbie. Unfortunately it ignores some important parts of the user experience. First, have you ever tried to hail a black cab on a Friday or Saturday night? Searching optimistically for the yellow light as the familiar shape beetles into view, only to see that it's not lit - cab already taken. And the next one. And the one after that. Perhaps you should walk a little way? Maybe you'll have more luck on another, busier, road? So you wander around, guessing at where the cabs might be lurking, desperately seeking a vacant one, hoping that some other bastard doesn't nick it before you. London's latitude and climate being what they are, this frustrating and sometimes pointless game of hide-and-seek is often played out at night, in the rain. 


Dark, wet, no taxis. A typical London scene.

Even if you find one, there's no guarantee they'll accept your fare, especially if you're going "south of the river". They aren't allowed to refuse, but some do especially when they know they can easily find an alternative fare. I expect lone women particularly enjoy this sport. A premium service? Those of us living far from the city centre also find a distinct lack of black cabs roaming the streets.



The mythical lands "South of the River", viewed safely from afar.

Lack of black cabs at night is also why people end up in illegal minicabs. No one starts out thinking "I really want to get into a suspect vehicle for an unknown price with a dodgy geezer soliciting passengers on the street," but when you're tired, cold, wet, and fed up of looking for a black cab that isn't there, any option to get home starts to look appealing.



"Would you like a ride home in my car? It's very nearly roadworthy."

With Uber, you summon a cab using your phone without moving from your seat in the office, pub, or eatery. You track its journey to you, then you just wave goodbye, walk outside and straight into your cab. There is no walking the streets after dark hoping that you find a cab before some ne'er-do-well finds you, and no wondering whether the cabbie wishes to take you where you want to go.

Then when you reach your destination, the cabbie will want paying. That's fine, but some of them only accept cash, so if you've had a good evening and are now all spent up...bad luck! Yet more fiddly annoyance for the customer. With Uber, you just pay automatically using the app: cab arrives at your destination, you get out, you're done. Have a nice evening!

Having a driver who knows where he's going definitely helps, but let's be honest: a competent driver with a Sat Nav is going to get there most of the time, too. Sat Nav works pretty well. Even if the black cab gets you there 2 minutes quicker, it's a hollow victory if it took you 15 minutes in the rain to find the cab. With navigation apps like Waze which know where the traffic jams are right now, the Sat Nav may even be faster. For most journeys, the main difference is going to be all the mucking about finding a cab then paying for it, and that's where the black cabs are letting their customers down.

This isn't meant to be an advert for Uber. I don't want London's black cabs to disappear or go out of business. But realistically, it's hard to see how they can compete in a market by offering a "premium service" which is often a complete pain in the arse for their customers. Not when someone else is offering a much better service by removing all the annoying bits. 

Cabbies will continue to know London better than mini cab drivers and their vehicles will still be more spacious and convenient, not to mention wheelchair accessible. But to pitch yourself as a top quality service you have to stop expecting your customers to jump through hoops. Rather than moan, block the streets, or try to scare people about what might happen if they get a minicab, cabbies should think about why so many of their customers are enthusiastically taking their business elsewhere. Then they could try to win those customers back, rather than forcing people to use black cabs by getting the government to shut down the competition.

Some suggestions:

1) Make your own app to find and book cabs, or join forces with Uber. Wandering the streets looking for a cab is just not good enough any more.

2) Make payment easier. "Cash only" is annoying, you need a card reader. Contactless card readers can take payments up to £20 just by touching the card on the machine, and that would cover a large percentage of taxi rides.

3) More cabs are needed at peak times. If you don't want the business that's upto you, but don't get on your high horse about unfair competition when someone else takes care of the customers you don't want.

If your sales pitch is "We charge a little more, but we give the best service" you actually do need to give the best service.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Stocks, flows and immigration


The concept of stocks and flows is one of those ideas in economics that's both completely obvious yet totally ignored when it might be useful. I'm going to quickly explain the idea, then show how the political debate on immigration is all wrong, because people are mixing up stocks and flows.



 Stocks and flows diagram

Stock: how much you have. How much water is in the bath, how much money you have, how many cows are in Britain, the number of stars in the sky, the population of France, and so on. It's a total.

Flow: the rate. How fast the water is going into the bath, how fast the water is going down the plug hole, how much money you earn, how fast a car is travelling, how many babies are born each year, how many mm the grass in your lawn grows per week. The big clue that you're looking at a flow is that it'll be measured in "[amount] per [time]". Eg: miles per hour, litres per minute, births per year, £ per hour, etc.

Net flow: flow in, minus flow out. If you turn on the tap and partially open the plug, you might have 20 gallons flowing in and 15 gallons flowing out per hour. So the net flow into the bath is 5 gallons per hour.

What's that got to do with the immigration debate?

Immigration is measured as a net flow: the number of people who arrive in the country each year, minus the number who leave. The latest UK figure seems to be 212,000 per year. The immigration debate revolves around that measure: is it too high? Should the government try to reduce it? If so, how?

Labour and Conservatives have both lost support to UKIP, mainly over worries about immigration*, and there's an assumption that talking tough on immigration might win those people back. But it won't. It can't. Those people's anger will continue just the same, because they are mainly unhappy about the stock not the flow. 

Let's imagine that somehow we decide to adopt a strict "Zero Immigration" policy. What will happen? Well, the flow would stop but all the people who are already here would still be here, not least because many of the people who are perceived as immigrants were born in the UK.

What of the people who're angry because Britain doesn't look the way it used to? The people unhappy about immigrants who've moved into their street? The people who feel their traditional culture and way of life has been lost? Well, they will still be unhappy about those things because the thing making them unhappy (the stock of "immigrants", or probably of ethnic minorities) won't have changed. I was talking to a UKIP voter last week who stood on his doorstep pointing to each neighbour's house in turn, "They're Pakis, they're Pakis, they're black, they're white but German...I'm old enough to remember when you could shoot Germans!" and on he went. He was unusually strident**, but the sentiment is depressingly familiar.

The only way to make those people happy is to start "sending them home", to turn Britain back into a country of white people with British accents. Not even UKIP suggest that, because that is the politics of the BNP. Of racial purity. Of ethnic cleansing. I don't think they see it in those terms, but if you want to reduce the stock that's the only way to go about it.

Thinking in terms of stocks and flows, it should be obvious that whatever happens to the flow of immigration, there will remain a large stock of people in Britain who are either immigrants or who are seen as such because of their racial or ethnic background.

My worry is that if you respond to people's objections to the stock with an argument about reducing the flow, you will stoke up ill feeling towards people who look different, you give cover to racism, and you undermine hopes of integrating people from different backgrounds so they feel welcome as part of Britain, yet for all that you achieve nothing because you aren't dealing with the original complaint. Many of those people cheering for UKIP will still think that you aren't listening to them because all the "immigrants" will still be here. You're talking past each other. It's a political dead end, because one group is talking about stocks, the other about flows.

Here's the thing: Britain isn't going to return to a 1950s vision of racial and cultural uniformity. Pretending that it might, if only we leave the EU or introduce a tough points-based immigration system, is a lie. Promoting that lie is an act of cowardice, pandering to prejudice and emboldening the very worst tribal instincts in human nature. 

Unless you actually do want to ethnically cleanse Britain by forcing out everyone who looks foreign, why would you give a nod and a wink to those who do?




* Despite their history as an anti-EU party, UKIP's voters mainly care about immigration, not the EU. For UKIP voters, the EU is only their 4th most important issue, after immigration, the economy and crime.

** There are no prizes for guessing that he began his little rant with the words "I'm not a racist,". No, obviously not. He just doesn't like living next door to "pakis", "blacks" and Germans. *cough*bollocks*cough*

Saturday, 19 April 2014

How to vote


There's an election looming in much of England (and across Europe) and maybe also near you: if you're not sure which party to support, websites such as VoteMatch and Vote For Policies will help you decide. They ask you questions about policies then show which party best matches your view - bosh, vote for that party, job done. 

Much better than those fools who always vote for the same party without checking their latest plans for transport, farm subsidies and flood defences. Or is it?

I used to think that researching policies made sense, but as I've studied politics I've changed my mind - I now think that voting habitually for a party can be quite a sensible approach and probably beats densely scrutinising the latest policies. Let me explain.

Parties go into elections with policies that they intend to pursue, but once in government they will prioritise some over others, they will be forced to react to events, and even when different parties' stated policies are similar, the results will probably be different. That's because (and this is the key point) the people in the different parties are not the same: they have different values and they will try pull the country in different directions. There is some overlap, but if you really think they're all the same then you're not paying attention.

In a representative democracy we don't elect a delegate to go forth and do our bidding, but a representative who debates, scrutinises, and uses their own judgement on our behalf. So as a voter, the most important job is to weigh up their judgement and values. What sort of judgement do they have? What are their values and priorities? What kind of person are they? When events throw up choices, what are they likely to choose?

This is why you should look past party policy and try to elect someone based on their values and judgement.

Parties' current policies are based on their values of course, but they're also based on what they think you want to hear. For instance, the eurozone economy is not going well so fans of Britain joining it are lying low, but they are still out there* so you can find them if you look at party values not policy.

By focussing on values not policies, you can see past the latest political fashion, you cut through a lot of the poll-driven political campaigning that tends to make the parties seem similar, and you give yourself a decent shot at electing someone with your values.

You could spend a lot of time studying your local candidates, and if you're willing to investigate their record and listen to them speak at hustings that's a good approach. But that will take a lot of time and effort. Instead, you can use the party they've been chosen to represent as a useful rule of thumb for the kind of person they are and the values they hold. 

If you've already considered your own values and decided that they most closely match a particular party, you can then save yourself a lot of time by simply voting for the candidate from that party whenever there's an election. I suspect that doing that is more reliable than digging through policies or using those "policy match" websites.

You could occasionally check whether your own values have changed or whether the main parties have shifted, but perhaps once per decade or so is plenty often enough. Then cast your vote and get on with your life.



* Hint: "We're the party of in" is the Lib Dems' coded declaration of support for Britain joining the euro, even though they'll tell you that signing up is not currently their policy.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Caledonian Sleeper

The Caledonian Sleeper is an overnight train running 6 nights per week between London and Scotland, and although it's been going for about 140 years it's still quite a niche way to travel. Most people going from London to Scotland will fly or drive the 400-500 mile journey, seeing the sleeper train as an extravagant romantic or leisure option. I think they're wrong, so this blog post is the story of my trip on the Caledonian Sleeper and why I think it's a strong contender on purely practical, utilitarian grounds. This is meant to be an economics blog, after all.

Background and Planning

If you aren't interested in the practicalities of planning a journey and comparing the options, skip ahead to "The Experience"

Starting in London I needed to be in Greenock, to the west of Glasgow, for 11am on Saturday. I would then be returning straight back to London. Here's how my planning went:

Driving. It's a 900 mile round trip, so about 18 hours of driving and around £150 in diesel. I'd need to drive up on Friday then return on Saturday, so I'd also have to pay for an overnight stay, say £60, and I'd make myself unpopular at home by taking the car and leaving the kids.
Total cost: £210, two totally miserable days of driving and an unhappy family.

Flying. The Saturday morning flights weren't early enough, so this meant a Friday evening flight and an overnight stay. A short notice booking meant that I was looking at around £160-£220 return, though in theory you might get a return for about £120. You'd still need the hotel (assume £60) and airport transfers, easily another £100 there. And a 90 minute flight winds up taking over 4 hours because of all the mucking about.
Total cost: £350 (or maybe £270), the joys of airport security and transfers.

Neither of these options looked great, so it was about this point that I decided to look into the overnight train.

Caledonian Sleeper. Travelling overnight meant not leaving home until 10pm Friday yet still arriving in Glasgow just after 7am on Saturday: plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and still be in Greenock by 11. 
Total cost: £178.50, including a £10 first class upgrade for the daytime trip home and connecting trains from home through to Greenock.
[See update below]

Because you're travelling while you sleep, the train actually works out faster than flying, it's cheaper than driving and less hassle than either. This is an easy win for the overnight train, which beats the alternatives hands down. See, I told you it was a strong contender on utilitarian grounds.

The Experience

The Sleeper leaves Euston at 23:50, you can board from 23:00. I walked out of the house at 10pm, caught the local train into London then the Tube to Euston. At Euston, the Sleeper is listed on the departure board...



...and when you reach platform 15, the train is ready and waiting. A nice lady directs you to your carriage and on you get. No waiting around and no pointless airport security theatre.



I had an exploratory wander around the train which totally by chance led me to the lounge car for a drink and a bite of supper.  All very civilised. There's a good menu of café style food at reasonable prices. Haggis, neeps and tatties are available (£5.40) for those who like that sort of thing.

The sleeper compartments are compact (and bijou) but perfectly big enough, clean and well organised. There is storage space under the bottom bunk, enough hanging space for about 3 items plus a shelf for each bunk. If you've brought a large suitcase you might struggle, but otherwise it's perfectly adequate. There is a basin in the compartment and there are gents' and ladies' loos at the end of each carriage. There isn't a shower on the train, but for a charge you can use the facilities at the station when you arrive. 

However, for all that the compartment is small, the bed is quite long: I would say that you'd need to be at least 6'2" or 6'3" before you'd have a problem stretching out. For the taller passenger, the bottom bunk is fractionally longer. The bed is only 2 feet wide, but I didn't find it a problem. Most importantly, I had a full night's sleep: much better than the slightly disturbed sleep I have travelling in a plane, car or coach. The train is quiet, the ride is smooth, the bed is comfortable and the next thing I knew we were in Scotland. 

My only criticism is that there isn't a 3-pin socket in the compartment so my phone couldn't recharge while I did. However, there is a 2-pin shaver socket, so an adapter would solve that problem. There are 3-pin sockets next to all the seats in the lounge car, hence everyone in there was sitting with a phone, iPad or laptop charging as they ate, drank and chatted.

This was the view from my compartment window as we entered Glasgow; the sun just rising over the Clyde. 



I arrived in Glasgow bang on time, feeling well rested. They allow about a quarter of an hour after arrival to pack up and vacate the train. I decided to grab a breakfast in a café nearby but found most of them shut at 7.30 on a Saturday, probably not unreasonable as there were hardly any people about. Fortunately, Café Nero on the corner of Hope Street and Waterloo Street was open and serving porridge which I can also recommend, so they can have a plug. As you leave the train, turn left and walk past the end of the platforms with the main entrance to your right. There's a small side entrance next to M&S which brings you out opposite Café Nero. One of the seats in the window to the left just beyond the counter has a plug next to it, which is ideal if you've been unable to charge your phone all night...

Conclusion

The sleeper train was cheaper than flying and it's even cheaper than driving, especially if you cost the car properly by including wear and tear, etc which I didn't. I won't even try to compare a night sleeping soundly on the train against a gruelling 9 hour drive. It also avoided all the tedious performance of getting to the airport, going through security and all the grief of air travel.

Unfortunately, there's no sleeper on Saturday night otherwise I'd definitely have caught the sleeper back to London rather than the 16:00 Virgin train. Leaving Glasgow at 4pm got me back home at 11pm, if I'd left on the 23:40 sleeper I'd have arrived home at 8am. So 7 hours longer in Scotland, and effectively no time lost at home.

I expected the Caledonian Sleeper to be a fun, unusual way to travel, ideal for a special trip or just as a way to get a taste of a romantic, old fashioned way to travel. I was completely wrong. While it is unusual and fun, it's also hard-headedly practical. If you're travelling between London and Scotland, you'd be mad not to look at the Caledonian Sleeper purely because of the cost and time savings. If travelling on a sleeper train also appeals because it sounds romantic or cool, then you're winning all the way.

Further Information

I found my information about the sleeper from the excellent Man In Seat 61 website, where you'll find all the details about timetables, booking info, plus photos and videos of the compartment. That website is highly recommended for all your long distance train needs.

Do feel free to post a comment if you'd like to ask a particular question that I haven't addressed here.

Update

Predictably, after posting this last night, a few more things occurred to me this morning.

I paid top whack for the sleeper because I booked at short notice. If you can book in advance you should pay about £65 each way, so for about £130 you could get the sleeper both ways, which is really a bargain. The Seat 61 page has information on how to pick up an even cheaper discounted ticket, sometimes under £50 each way. Booking 12 weeks in advance and going midweek seem to be the main ways to grab the big discounts.

For the daytime return leg on Virgin I paid £10 for a First Class upgrade. This is definitely recommended: for starters, I easily consumed a tenner's worth of complimentary drinks and Virgin Snack Boxes, but when I took a stroll through Economy to the little train shop it was like a different world. First Class was almost empty and quiet, I had a power socket, a wide seat and a table to work on. Economy was absolutely rammed. In the busiest carriages you had room to breathe, but only just. For such a long journey, it's £10 well spent.

That said, if you are travelling in economy, move forward in the train closer to the First Class carriages. They were quieter and had seats available, so a minute walking further along the platform is well worth the effort.

Finally, it strikes me that there's a real missed opportunity with the Channel tunnel. Although there are sleeper trains within the UK and numerous sleepers traversing mainland Europe, there are no sleeper services between the UK and Europe. You could board a train in the evening in the UK and wake up by the Mediterranean, in Paris, Berlin or Rome. Just as with the sleeper to Scotland, it would probably take less time and cost less than flying, but no one has tried a service like it. Is there really no demand?


Monday, 27 January 2014

Labour's economic credibility problem


Labour are once again promising to take tough decisions to bring down Britain's deficit: whether they can be trusted to avoid a return to the excess public spending of their boom years will be the main theme of the next election. Can you trust Labour's promise to reduce the deficit? 

As it happens, this is not the first time Labour has promised to reduce the deficit, they often made the same promise while in government, so we can judge their trustworthiness by checking how they got on last time.

Year after year, Gordon Brown used to stand up and give a budget speech in which he promised that the deficit would be cut. Every year he failed. His speeches are all still available on line* so I've compiled his predictions into this pretty rainbow graph:


Click to enlarge


Each line represents a budget speech and shows the deficit forecast made in that year. For example, the yellow line shows the forecast from the 2004 budget in which Labour promised that the deficit would fall from £38 billion to £23 billion. The light blue line shows the 2006 prediction of a deficit falling from £37 billion to £23 billion.

Every line slopes down, because Labour were always promising a smaller spending deficit tomorrow. But the lines keep starting in the mid-£30s, because borrowing never actually fell from that level. The lines all finish in the low £20s not at zero, underlining that  even during the boom years there was no plan to stop borrowing, only to borrow a bit less.

This graph captures the story of Labour economic policy: "We will always borrow, but we promise to borrow less tomorrow." Tomorrow never comes. 

Worse, these years were before the recession. They were the last few years of the longest period of continuous economic growth Britain has ever seen. These were the economic good times, with high and growing tax revenues making government spending choices an easy business of choosing how much extra to shovel into each department. Reducing the deficit would not have meant difficult choices, it would just have meant shovelling the money out a little more slowly. But that was too hard for Labour, even with a Chancellor whose reputation for sound management earned him the nicknames Prudence and The Iron Chancellor. At the time, they were not meant to be ironic.

So here we are in 2014. Labour are back with a new set of deficit promises, telling us once again that they will make difficult choices...tomorrow. The graph documents 5 separate broken promises to reduce the deficit during easy times. You'd be a fool to think that Labour will finally keep this promise, at the 6th attempt, when cash is tighter and the choices involved are dramatically more difficult, especially when they've attacked the government in lurid terms for every hard decision it's tried to make.



This graph also calls out the blatant attempt to rewrite history, as Labour now argue that borrowing was in fact quite reasonable during that period. But look at all those sloping lines, each one saying the same thing: "borrowing £35 billion per year is too much, but we promise to bring it down, so don't panic." What we are told now is that those levels of spending were not out-of-control and excessive; that they were both deliberate and sensible.

My question to people claiming that is: if Gordon Brown thought that borrowing about £35 billion each year was a sustainable, reasonable level of deficit spending, why didn't he make that case at the time? Why did he keep promising that he would bring it down? Only afterwards did people start to say "Ah yes, we meant to do that."

Update 27/1/14: Following reader feedback, I added "actuals" to the graph, so you can compare the forecasts against the actual borrowing figure in each year. I only plotted actuals to 2007, because from 2008 onwards they go stratospheric as the recession and bank bailouts kick in. 


* For example, here is the full text of his 2004 budget speech.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3520514.stm
Relevant section in full:
"I turn to net borrowing. Compared with 8 per cent ten years ago, and an average of 6 per cent over the early nineties, net borrowing this year and future years to 2008-9 is, as a percentage of GDP, 3.4, 2.8, 2.5, 2.1, 1.9 and 1.6 per cent of GDP, with, for this and future years, the cash figures £37.5 billions, £33 billions, and then £31, £27, £27 and £23 billions."

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Asking Rennard to apologise is outrageous


It's outrageous that the story in the media about Lord Rennard has reached a point where the focus is on whether he will apologise to make it all go away. How could any reasonable person be happy with that?

He is accused of repeatedly harassing and fondling women within the Lib Dem party, in one case of getting two women alone in his house and then trying to prevent them from leaving when his advances were rejected, in another of putting his hands down women's dresses and "places where they had absolutely no business being". The broader accusation seems to be that he routinely abused his powerful position in the party because women felt that they may harm their political career by saying 'no' to his casting couch or making allegations against him. Serious stuff.

On the other hand, Lord Rennard denies doing any of these things, stating that this is part of a smear campaign by people with a personal grudge against him. He points out that most of these complaints have never been put to him, that whenever claims against him have been investigated he has been cleared, and that all of this is understandably having a terrible effect on his physical and mental health. Whatever the outcome or the truth, Lord Rennard's name and reputation may never recover.

We don't know what truth lies beneath all this, which is actually the main problem. However, it is clear that something serious has happened - either Rennard has abused his position to molest women, or else Rennard is the victim of a sustained public smear campaign trying to pin serious criminal offences on him.

Yet we are supposed to think that an apology, perhaps even a half-hearted or "heavily qualified" apology, might be enough to make it all go away? That is what Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is apparently suggesting.

But if the women are right, Clegg is telling them that it's OK for a powerful man to exercise a kind of unofficial droit du seigneur within the Liberal Democrats, so long as he says sorry if he's caught. While if Rennard is right, Clegg is asking him to admit what may amount to serious criminal offences (indecent assault carries a maximum 10 year prison sentence) despite being innocent, just to keep everyone quiet and avoid embarrassing the party. 

I don't agree with Nick; both alternatives are appalling - who could possibly think that an apology then everyone going quietly about their business is a fair outcome here?

The Lib Dems love to talk about compromise, negotiation, fairness, finding a happy medium. If they stand for anything at all as a party, being neither one thing nor the other would be it. But when you are faced with serious wrongdoing, attempting to compromise really boils down to excusing the perpetrators and insulting the victims.

Situations like this, along with the ongoing accusations against Mike Hancock MP, don't call for compromise. They call for proper investigation to find the truth, support and sympathy for the victims and punishment for the perpetrators. Unfortunately, this seems to go against the Lib Dems' instinct and the result is not only a political car crash but the repeated denial of justice to the victims (whoever that actually is).

It would be nice if people in the media would stop buying the idea that this story is all about whether Rennard decides to apologise. The story is firstly about uncovering what Lord Rennard (and Mike Hancock) actually did, and secondly investigating why the Liberal Democrats seem repeatedly uninterested in finding out the truth, because it's starting to look like a habit.