Transport: Raising the standard of Northern rebellion

18th December 2011  On various historical occasions rebels in the regions have raised the standard of revolt, advanced on the capital and demanded remedies for their grievances. Now although quaintly regarded here in Hebden as an ‘offcumden’ I have a shrill loyalty to my adopted region and so oscillate between weaving a sarcastic tale of shivering Northern pensioners and small children offering up their last pence so that the good folk of the metropolis should want for nothing – absolutely nothing, however gold-plated – and the more straightforward suggestion of marching southwards to put London to the sword.

Now we could wander off into the thickets and byways of ‘regional policy’ over the last five decades, or discuss the extent to which the Coalition Government’s New Localism is merely the Old Centralisation behind another mask – why else would both a Gordon Brown Labour government and its successor have moved so determinedly to stamp on the budding seeds of regional empowerment? – but let’s not digress.

Nowhere does this simmering regional resentment bubble closer to the surface than around the question of transport spending and investment. Transport cash ‘skewed’ towards London’ is the unsurprising conclusion of a new IPPR North report – now there’s a unusual situation, a think-tank with an HQ in Newcastle! – and you can see the headline figures in that BBC article for the yawning gulf between London/SE and all other areas; or read the detailed research here.

The IPPR figures differ from those of the Transport Select Committee in Transport & the Economy Feb 2011 (see table 2 on p.25pdf, and paras.49-51), and there’s a different compilation and (im)balance in PTEG’s Funding Gap report Nov 2011– note in figure 8 how the major gap in transport funding isn’t replicated for health and education – but the huge disparity between North and South always remains.

For more PTEG facts and arguments look at their Transport Works website, report, factsheet, detailed evidence base, and funding gap analysis.  In July last year PTEG were already warning that “without sustained effort, it is highly likely that these geographical disparities will remain, made worse by the overall budgetary squeeze.”

What is more these comparisons only look at the recent past, whereas the inequality in subsidy and investment has been building up for decades. Consequently in London a high density of public transport networks is maintained and thickened, and all sorts of network benefits obtained. Which is why bus passenger journeys in London are now 50% higher than they were in 1970, whereas in the English Met areas they’ve plummeted by two thirds.

But the interesting question is why does nobody do anything about this situation, and nobody really complain? That is, ‘marching on London’ complain. The only voices raised insistently have been the regional newspapers: notably the Yorkshire Post with its Road to Ruin campaign, started in 2005, active in the years since, and still shouting loudly earlier this yearNorth on wrong side of tracks as South cashes in on funding is their comment on the IPPR report.

The High Speed Rail ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ HS2 altercation of recent months has seen the Northern flag hesitantly and briefly unfurled; here’s the YP again: London Tube ‘blackmail’ angers Northern high-speed rail lobby. The regional Yes to High Speed Rail campaign also deployed the investment gap argument (and read more of their general case here). Voices raised against the cost of HS2 – which would provide investment ‘North of Watford’ – had been silent when the Crossrail and Thameslink projects, amounting to in excess of £20 billion between them, were proposed. Oh, and let’s not forget Crossrail 2, for which the lobby and planning have already begun; and Crossrail 3 – of course. Then there’s Transport for London’s ‘generous budget’, to quote previous SoS Transport Andrew Adonis, which ‘escaped major cuts’ in the last year’s Spending Review. And now see the addendum to this post!

There’s some momentum building for the more general devolution of responsibilities. But crucially, without a parallel devolution of taxation and fundraising powers – in addition to a more equalised distribution of national expenditure – the regions would just be left struggling with problems they have no resources to tackle. Yes, there are proposals for business rate retention (criticised here) and for Tax Increment Financing (here’s the Core Cities guidance) but we will have to wait to see whether these act anywhere but at the margin. (Again IPPR North are leading a reassessment of this bigger isuue, with their Northern Economic Futures Commission, to which Friends of the Earth made a submission). Maybe these innovations might make the North v South gap wider? – which is what happened during the boom years.

So, who’s been persistently silent in this phoney-war for transport cash? Answer: it’s got to be the spineless and disorganised Northern MPs who, because they spend their political lives down in London – dancing attendance on the court at Whitehall – must have effectively been co-opted and bought off! To start banging the political table quite aggressively for their regions would simply be .. impolite. Their consistent lack of interest in this issue, their indifference to the disparity in the quality of infrastructure and services between North and South, their neglect of the interests of their constituencies, is just unacceptable, but also an enduring political fixture. Even when they had a Labour Government with a northern powerbase – and, coming uptodate, almost half of Ed Milliband’s original Shadow Cabinet were Yorkshire MPs; now they’re only a quarter – they still didn’t do anything.

A few months ago and quite late at night I set out on one of my periodic trips to London, racketing about in a 25 years old diesel Pacer trains, to get from Hebden Bridge to Leeds; a service which after 8 o’clock is basically 1 per hour and ceases from the Leeds direction at 10.30pm.  On this occasion when I arrived in Kings Cross I wandered up to St Pancras and watched with astonishment and just a little irritation as the brand new High Speed Javelin service whizzed late night revellers homewards to the south coast. Running at 15 minute intervals. From 6.30am till past midnight. To Chatham, Faversham, and Ramsgate!

So – having doffed our cap to Dickens’ boyhood town – we can rightly observe that this is indeed a tale of two cities. To London (and Chatham): everything.

To Leeds: nothing. No metro.  No tram system.  Not even a trolley bus.

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Addendum 21st Jan 2012: Whilst doing some research amidst the post HS2 announcement furore, I discover in the National Infrastructure Plan Nov 2011 that the quantity of capital investment now taking place in and around London is greater still. To £14.5 billion for Crossrail (page 51pdf) and £6 billion for Thameslink (p.53) spread over a decade, we now add a figure for TFL infrastructure investment, which is £10.8 billion over four years (p.54). In total therefore that’s £31.3 billion for London in a decade, so that’s virtually the same amount as HS2 but being spent in half the time. Outrageous!

Resolving the paradoxes and dilemnas of Climate Change communications

18th December 2011 Climate change is an issue of critical global importance, and yet the general public really isn’t that bothered!

This is the central paradox environmental campaigners have to grapple with. So in addition to the ferocious complexity of the issues (both scientific and political), we have to confront another level of difficulty: how should we campaign, and communicate, on the issue? As just one example: it’s argued that people just don’t want to hear climate change ‘doom and gloom’ – they’re ‘turned off by it’ – so therefore climate campaigners shouldn’t even mention the fact that we’re almost, or already, inevitably committed to a level of ‘dangerous climate change’.

Thus Futerra: “Although … Armageddon climate scenarios might be accurate and eye-catching, they haven’t changed attitudes or behaviours nearly enough. Threats of climate hell haven’t seemed to hold us back from running headlong towards it.” Consequently “We must build a visual and compelling vision of low carbon heaven.” (This is from Sell the Sizzle 2009. See also their previous Rules of the Game 2006; and the discussion in Common Cause September 2010 as well.

Except … maybe that ‘compelling vision’ doesn’t exist; can’t exist – because it’s too late. And – setting aside tactical communications considerations – aren’t environment campaigners ethically obliged to tell the truth, and not sugar the pill?

Thus Tyndall Centre “…despite high-level statements to the contrary, there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2◦C. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2◦C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2◦C now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change.” Paper in Royal Society ‘Four degrees and beyond’ Jan 2011. See also ‘World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns’ Guardian; International Energy Agency report here.

And this throws up another paradox: the Guardian (in this example) can communicate ‘Climate Armageddon’ on its front page – as ‘news’ – but campaigners are apparently to be disbarred from doing the same, even though the same audience or individual is reading both messages.

Will the global economic downturn provide us even a temporary respite whilst we resolve our communications connumdrum?  No. Rather December brought news that the annual growth rate of atmospheric CO2 rebounded in 2010 back to trend, bringing atmospheric CO2concentrations to 389.6 ppm – compared to pre-industrial levels of about 280 ppm – whilst modest improvements made to the carbon intensity of the global economy in the 2000s went into reverse

Should we instead draw another lesson from the economic downturn? Politicians now see it as a principal responsibility to proclaim very clearly this cardinal rule: ”If we all don’t tackle our collective debt, then it’s going to end in financial catastrophe!”  So ‘economic Armageddon’, but at least in this country they’ve so far been rewarded with positive ratings for their honesty. Maybe we should be adopting exactly the same plain speaking about the global climate and ecological debt?

So no more soft focus visions of ‘low carbon heaven’! In the end why would they be sufficiently powerful to motivate anyone to actually change policy or behaviour? Instead let’s tell people that if they value a stable climate and bountiful Nature – if they value David Attenborough’s filmic representation of our global Garden of Eden, and its Frozen Poles – then they must accept that our mountain of ecological debt isn’t sustainable and can’t continue.

If politicians can make a virtue of invoking economic austerity, then we should be doing the same for its environmental variety. And if we don’t take this opportunity to tell a big narrative about DEBT! – and threat – then we’re just as bad as that generation of deluding politicians who only recently were incurring huge financial mortgages on all our futures whilst at the same time assuring us that they’d forever abolished ‘boom and bust’.

Footnote 7th Jan 2012: the debate about whether ‘threat’ messages are (counter)productive continues to this day. Here’s a retread in this week’s Guardian, alongside a more determined reflection from the US – by David Roberts, who coincidentally reaches a similar conclusion to that in this article: “.. happy, inspiring possibilities unaccompanied by a threat fail to generate much passion or intensity” – where the activists have apparently just woken up to Kevin Anderson’s stark analysis. Here’s another examination of the psychology of ‘denial’.

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But a narrative about austerity – whilst this provides the spine for what we have to say – won’t be enough. On its own it’s too difficult and radical, and needs to be leavened by something more at the centre of mainstream culture, more recognisable and acceptable. And … more assertive.

At the moment the conventional wisdom about how to deal with climate change scepticism – and one which I followed until recently – is to ignore the bait because ‘it only encourages them’ (Futerra 2006: “Principle 2. Forget the climate change detractors: Those who deny climate change science are irritating, but unimportant.”). So: deny them the opportunity and space for an infinite extension of the so-called debate.  Setting this issue in the context of theory of knowledge, ultimately the sceptics position is based on a structural misunderstanding or just ignorance of Popperian scientific method built around falsifiability, and where the burden of proof lies (A: with them!); and also in the structural flaws of ‘conspiracy theory’, a maze of their own confusion into which they seek to draw more rational minds. Logically therefore, because you can never win the debate with a ‘sceptic’, just don’t begin it.

To this we then need to add in climate scepticism’s specific US origins: so back to Hofstadter‘s critique of American political culture, broadly defined and updated for the internet age; the extent to which political influence is bought, and particularly by Big Oil and Coal; and finally the professional fabrication of the sceptic narrative when confronted by the threat from Kyoto: here’s the 1998 ‘Communications Plan’ memo and a mapping of the current influence web.

But it’s the sceptics’ attack on science that ought to be their point of vulnerability, if only someone made it so. The political assault on climate science has been written about by Eric Pooley, on James Hansen individually by Mark Bowen. Of course american hostility to science goes back further, e.g to the anti-Darwinian Scopes showtrial of 1925.  At the moment all the Republican presidential candidates are global warming ‘deniers’ to varying degrees, and here’s the most extreme – Rick Santorum: “I’ve never .. accepted the junk science behind the whole narrative.” In the circumstances it’s a revealing turn of phrase.

[article in progress – to be completed January 2012]