Scaring the living daylights out of people: spinning for nimbys

The practice of ‘planning communications’ is, broadly, the process by which developers consult local people about new development proposals and then put together a case to present to decision makers at the planning authority. In the best cases, there is a real element of community-led design input. In some cases, it primarily involves countering the arguments of vocal nimbys to make sure a balanced view is heard. There are a bunch of specialist PR agencies who work for developers to do this – including, for transparency, the one I work for.

A new paper from “urbanist” Anna Minton purports to show how planning communications and PR is “undermining democracy” and causing various terrible things to happen.

I’ve reviewed of Minton’s last two stinkers, so I was curious to read this new pamphlet.

You can read the original on her website, but, to summarise: anyone with a placard is a righteous tribune of the people; anyone who ever wanted anything to be changed or built anywhere is some kind a demoniacal villain.

Firstly, although the paper claims to be about how lobbyists work to influence the planning process, she actually doesn’t seriously address this issue. As I noted in my other reviews, she’s curiously unable to stick to any given subject, so most of the paper is given over to complaining (more or less copy-and-pasted from her previous works) about how despicably badly Southwark, Newham, and Liverpool councils treated their tenants and residents during grand redevelopment schemes. It actually doesn’t take any convincing to make Labour councils behave like bastards, and if lobbyists were responsible Minton doesn’t mention it.

There’s just zero in the way of serious investigation or facts here. She makes really serious accusations – that lobbyists are planted in planning meetings to heckle the public, and impersonate journalists on the telephone. Her most bizarre claim is that lobbyists somehow get entire slates elected to councils and then pack the development control committee and cabinet. I’m pretty confident in saying that this never happened, and Minton only asserts it without proof. Despite it being “ubiquitous”, she admits that it is “difficult to document”. She doesn’t even try. She hints at a problem with conflicts of interest – the development control committee having personal stakes in developments and councillors and council staff being given jobs with local developers. And yet, for no other reason than because she is the world’s laziest investigator, she doesn’t even try to find out or quantify how often it happens or where.

She accuses developers and their PR consultants of “astroturfing”, although this doesn’t mean what she thinks it means. Astroturfing, in the jargon, is creating a fraudulent grassroots campaign to make something look like it has real support, such as by using sockpuppets – false identities or unreal people – as supporters. But that’s not what is happening in the example she gives. The Campaign for High Speed Rail is supported by real, named businesses and individuals, including people at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Minton may not agree with them, but they are actually-existing humans. Forming an organisation to promote a common voice isn’t the “abuse of the democratic system” – it’s practically the definition of a democratic system.

Most of the rest of Minton’s paper just uses increasingly bizarre non-arguments to discredit developers.

The first, is to attempt to associate the issue with causes that are already reviled by her target audience – referencing various bête noirs of Guardian readers even if the reference makes no sense. So planning communications is like tax avoidance (insofar as it is not illegal but still wrong); it’s like Big Tobacco (insofar as they both hire PR companies); it’s like NHS reform (insofar as a former employee of a PR company also worked for the think-tank Reform); it’s like the Tea Party (insofar as… actually, she doesn’t even try to make that make sense). The association fallacy at it’s most tenuous and transparent.

She also has an weird problem with PR consultants using military metaphors, describing it as “extreme” language and “intimidation and threats”. The language under question is the following quote from a Radio 4 interview: “You’ve got to fight them on every street corner…. You can’t just sit in your fortress and watch the opponents run around doing what they like.” She seems to think that they were being literal. All political campaigns use military metaphors: the ground war and the air war. This whole point is just dumb.

And yet this isn’t even Minton’s most stupid argument. She keeps claiming (it’s actually the first subtitle in the paper) that lobbyists want to “shit up” their opponents. That has to be a typo Minton or her researcher has made somewhere along the line. When she asks the man who apparently said it he replies, “I literally can’t remember what you’re talking about.” Of course he can’t: nobody has ever used the phrase “shit them up”, even on the internet, where the only uses that aren’t typos seem to be this paper and one piece of teenage X-men fanfic. He probably said “shut them up”, because that makes sense. Minton based her key argument on a typo in her notes.

The job of local planning authorities is to balance interests: in most cases there is no single identifiable “public interest”. Minton always sides with the people with placards, whether they are social housing tenants decanted cruelly by their Labour councils, or rich white folks in Devon, Grampian, or the Chilterns who are having their country views ruined by houses/railways/a golf course. For Minton, the very presence of a banner and a campaign group is indication enough of their righteousness. She quotes them uncritically – the Southwark Notes campaign group is the word of truth, for Minton. Not that I want to defend Southwark’s Labour council, but this isn’t even competent journalism, let alone a serious report.

Because of course Manchester businesses want a new rail line; of course there are people in Devon who are suffering from a housing shortage; of course there are people in Aberdeen who think that a fancy golf club is going to bring in tourist money; of course a lot of people want a convenient supermarket nearby. Her weird Manichean view of the world doesn’t admit that all these people are perfectly allowed to put their case, and the “public interest” lies in the balance of these opinions – not necessarily kowtowing to noisy minorities.

Published in: on March 29, 2013 at 4:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hooray for gays

The House of Commons acquits itself well: a huge majority for equal rights. Good on David Cameron and the Conservative leadership for putting this through, which genuinely can’t have been easy within the Tory party.

 Two particularly moving speeches came from Stephen Gilbert and Mike Freer.

 The debate also showed the right wing (from all sides) at their most vile, curtain-twitching, and frankly creepy:

  • Most of them almost literally used the phrase ‘separate but equal’ with zero self-awareness or realisation about the baggage that concept has.

  • The old rich white men basically referred to their own poor wives as being primarily kept around for breeding purposes, which can’t have been particularly edifying for the women involved.

  • We got to enjoy some brazen hypocrisy from men on their own third marriages, serial adulteresses, and at least one Tory MP who cheats on his woman wife with men.

 The hero of the debate was David Lammy, who spoke with righteous anger against the bigots of the No camp:

 “There are still those who say it is unnecessary. “Why do we need gay marriage”, they say, “when we already have civil partnerships?” They are, they claim, “Separate but equal.” Let me speak frankly: separate but equal is a fraud. It is the language that tried to push Rosa Parks to the back of the bus. It is the motif that determined that black and white people could not possibly drink from the same water fountain, eat at the same table or use the same toilets. They are the words that justified sending black children to different schools from their white peers—schools that would fail them and condemn them to a life of poverty. It is an excerpt from the phrasebook of the segregationists and racists. It is the same statement, idea and delusion that we borrowed in this country to say that women could vote, but only if they were married and only when they were over 30. It is the same naivety that led to my dad being granted citizenship when he arrived here in 1956, but being refused by landlords who proclaimed, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”.”

 Also notable from the antis was a baffling assumption of their own victimhood. It’s hard to know how to deal with people like Stewart Jackson, who believes that giving gay people the right to marry is the literal equivalent of sending him, as a straight rich white man, to the back of the bus like Rosa Parkes, or the variety of bigots who whined that people were calling them bigots. I recently read a good blogpost called The Distress of the Privileged which highlights that it mostly isn’t these people’s fault that they’re like this, and that we should understand them and deal with the problem calmly and reasonably. I’m not sure about that; I don’t see why political violence is so frowned upon, and if they weren’t entirely irrelevant nowadays, culturally and legislatively, the guillotine would be a more efficient option.

 Prizes for the most LOLsome contributions go to:

  • Labour’s Madeline Moon, who seems not to understand how being an MP works: “You will be remembered if you vote for this Bill. You will be held to account for it. We will tell your friends and family and we will not vote for you.”? This is a free vote. Members should be voting with their conscience…. not on the basis of threats to electoral prospects.”

  • David Simpson (DUP) for sounding the Adam and Steve klaxon and causing the whole world to spasm with angry mirth.

  • Ian Paisley Jr for maybe the most convoluted logic even by the low low standards of the anti’s debate: He doesn’t care if gays love each other, because “there are many arranged marriages and many marriages are loveless, but those people are still in law and by law married.”

 I suppose I ought to mention the Lib Dem villains of the year: Alan Beith, Gordon Birtwistle, Sarah Teather and John Pugh.

The fact that any Liberal MP should vote in favour of discrimination and against equal civil rights for anybody is disgusting. I take it that this pretty much ends their careers in the party – I can’t imagine them ever living it down. I’d also expect party members to remember this when they are deciding how to volunteer their time. Gordon Birtwistle and Sarah Teather in particular are going to have major fights on their hands in the next election. I suggest we all leave them to it.

Published in: on February 6, 2013 at 12:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Fortress Britain: urban design politics gets the NEF treatment

The New Economics Foundation has published a paper entitled Fortress Britain by Anna Minton and Jody Aked, which essentially laments the militarisation of architecture and urban design in the UK. Given the paper’s provenance it may come as a surprise that it is not hilariously awful. Anna Minton is kind of an idiot; the NEF is indisputably London’s most dismal think-tank, a veritable nest of idiots. Aked obviously transcends her colleagues. But not by much. It’s still pretty awful.

It starts with – and is basically predicated on – a claim that “although crime has been falling steadily since 1995, the vast majority believe it is rising”, citing an Ipsos Mori report of 2007.

 Why is a paper published in 2013 using data that is now half a decade old? I mean, I know why: Minton used the figure in her 2009 book, and hasn’t bothered updating it. However, the Office of National Statistics released newer figures on the perception of crime in 2011 – figures which are more pertinent to built environment issues because they cover perception of crime at the local level. Apparently most people still believe that crime is rising nationally, but at local level only a minority of people believe that crime is going up.

This doesn’t invalidate their argument, but when the first substantive paragraph makes sweeping statements based on old or invalid statistics, you know you’re in classic NEF territory.

Their next claim: “High security is a now pre-requisite of planning permission for all new developments, through a government backed design policy called Secured by Design.” “Planning permission for all public buildings, housing and schools is now contingent on meeting Secured by Design standards.”

‘Secured by Design’ is a commercial security certification for buildings run by the sort-of-commercial Association of Chief Police Officers.

The NEF argument (for the moment… for a very short paper, it tends to contradict itself an awful lot) is that these security standards are compulsory. This was because of Margaret Thatcher, obvs.

If there are any planners who want to correct me go ahead, but I don’t think this is legally the case. There was a government consultation last year on whether “voluntary” security standards should be replaced by a mandatory code, but as far as I know the cost-benefit analysis suggested that regulation wouldn’t be effective.

There may be planning authorities who have written the standards into their design codes, but I don’t think it is part of national regulation.

Hyperbole/lie/error. Whatever. In any case, the paper kind of goes on to admit that there are other motivations at work: “increased levels of security offered by Secured by Design standards attract lower industry premiums. In turn, developers market higher security and lower insurance as a bonus and in a virtuous [sic] circle sell properties for higher prices.”

 Note the suggestion that people like these features so much they will pay more for them. In a paper arguing that security interventions make residents sad and angry, that’s a pretty striking admission.

I’ve also seen the standards appear in design and access statements by developers in order to persuade councillors that they are achieving “social sustainability”. For example: “the development shall aim to achieve Secured by Design ‘Developer’s Award’ to reduce crime and adverse effects on neighbours by good design and good practice in construction and operation.”

OK, so they are not, as originally claimed, compulsory. But it’s still happening because it makes insurers and councillors and potential buyers happy.

And yeah, I hate it. I’m a delicate liberal, who is sensitive about such things, and live in Hackney, the CCTV capital of the world. Figures from the GLA Lib Dems (a few years old, admittedly, but I doubt the comparative picture has changed) give a borough comparison: Hackney had 1484 public cameras. Neighbouring Islington (Lib Dem run, at the time), had 202. Merton a relatively unobtrusive 58. Even Barking and Dagenham only had 104.

There is no great effect of the camera-differential on relative crime levels. In fact, the actual preventative effect of various security interventions on local crime would be an interesting thing to look at. The NEF paper doesn’t bother. Whatever the effect on crime levels, what they are interested in is the knock-on effect on social capital and neighbourly trust. I would imagine that if burglaries and stabbings, or rapes and prostitution, went up locally as a result of scrapping physical interventions, social trust would deteriorate more than the warm feeling of liberty would compensate for, but whatever, we’ll let them run with it.

Minton and/or Aked interviewed a couple of people in Pimlico about security measures on their estate:

“Because of the doors, if you see someone you don’t know, there is an element of ‘who is this’?”

“Sometimes CCTV makes me feel even more anxious.”

 But the majority of the quotes from residents and security practitioners that they cite don’t even support the paper’s conclusions:

 A ‘practitioner’ (ie neighbourhood management, estate services, community safety, youth services and outdoor space) said:

“On one of our challenging estates…we’ve increased, like tripled the CCTV over the last three years but they still want more CCTV, they want it monitored 24 hours a day because the perception is where there’s CCTV things don’t happen. And also I think it’s a question of, ‘We need CCTV.’ ‘You’ve got CCTV.’ ‘Well, we need more. It needs to be located in a different place.’ But CCTV’s not the answer.”

 “Because I think I’m in a bad area, I get into a panic sometimes because, for one, you’re not sure the cameras are working.” (a resident)

“It’s the first thing they say about trouble on the estate and [about] security problems the comment is normally, ‘we need some CCTV, that would be the end of our problems.’” (another ‘practitioner’)

Having campaigned with Lib Dem councillors and candidates, I found that people do actually love security interventions of the types described. People on the Market Estate were over the moon when the undergrowth was swept away, meaning that prostitutes no longer hissed at them from the bushes. They like their new block security doors. As the NEF paper admits, and whether effective or not, people do want CCTV. They like it.

We need to have a discussion about militarisation of building design and the mis-sold effectiveness of CCTV. When security professionals are given too much power in building design they go overboard – which is needlessly expensive and alienating to a specific sort of person (including me and Anna Minton), and, maybe worst of all, just plain ugly. The effectiveness of these measures does not seem to have been systematically tested.

This is at least part of that conversation. It’s not a worthwhile part because of the intellectual laziness born of its characteristic Not Economics Foundation nonsense. Soz.

But in the short term, elect councillors with some concern about civil liberties why don’t you?

Published in: on January 17, 2013 at 10:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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Book Review – Ground Control: Fear And Happiness In The Twenty First Century City

Ground Control: Fear And Happiness In The Twenty First Century City. Anna Minton, Penguin 2009

This book control covers an intensely important issue in modern British life: the alienation of public spaces from the public.  However, it is not a good book.  It’s the kind of book you sometimes see quoted in Guardian comment pieces as if Minton were an expert on the subject (which she is patently not) and the book proves a point (which it entirely fails to do).

And the primary complaint is true.  One can’t even picnic near major London landmarks without being moved on by council wardens. You can’t take photographs in the street without being harassed by the police. Urban designers and traffic planners are engaged to make public places physically inaccessible and unpleasant. Public highways are sold to private companies, who get to make and enforce new rules beyond the law. This is important stuff. Sadly, this is a basically lazy and incurious little book, written fairly badly by a journalist who hasn’t mastered long-form writing.

There is one good section: a straightforward journalistic account of the last Labour government’s scandalous ‘pathfinder’ scheme of housing demolitions, which bulldozed houses on behalf of property developers without giving the displaced communities proper recompense.

Anna Minton is a journalist, and as such she has picked up a lot of bad habits that make her attempt at a long-form wholly annoying to read. The standard technique of the newspaper commentariat is to write 500 words consisting of: statement of thesis, personal anecdote, supportive quote from ‘authoritative source’, restatement of thesis. Five-hundred words, all done. Minton’s book repeats this formula over and over.

She is also lazy like many journalists are lazy. There isn’t a single original thought here. There is no attempt to connect the disparate issues covered together with anything other than Minton’s preexisting and unexamined prejudices.

She also writes with the very distinctively Guardianey tone of a person writing about social problems and the poor from the comfort of a Tuscan villa. Indeed, most of the policy recommendations, such as they are, come from her experiences of living in a Milanese apartment, dining by the Grand canal in Venice and on Roman piazzas, and holidaying in various European capitals.

And while she waxes lyrical about her holiday memories (without ever examining them in detail), it is pretty clear that she never really bothered visiting the places in the UK she writes about.

It just so happens that she uses my own neighbourhood in East London as one of her examples. She describes a new shopping mall in Stratford as being an alien imposition on the landscape, unavailable and unused by local people. But she didn’t survey shoppers to find out where they were from. I don’t think she even visited – her description of ‘high-end’ retail ‘out of reach of local people’ doesn’t match the standard high street offer of the mall. She writes about sitting by the canal in Venice, lamenting that she “couldn’t do this in England”. Had she walked a few minutes along the Regents Canal or Lea Navigation from the aforementioned mall, she could have found dozens of places to do just that, whether hipster coffee shops at Fish Island, barge-cafes in Mile End, or old Clapton boozers.

At one point the book turns from lazy to disgraceful. She spends pages detailing the travails of a family in London and their attitudes to crime. One of the family members looks out from his gated community across the Isle of Dogs and trembles in fear of the locals. Another struggles to find a builder who is willing to remove the security features her flat came installed with. The older members of the family read the Daily Mail and fret about the crime rate. BUT THEN, after pages of this, Minton writes: “they are, of course, a fictitious family which I invented to illustrate [my thesis].”  This was supposed to be non-fiction. It made me wonder what other ‘interviewees’ were invented too.

Most of it is just rehashed commentariat talking points about ASBOs and criticism of the right-wing media. No attempt is made to link these to the built-environment issues supposedly at the core of the book. Because that would require both original research and original thought, things which Minton is apparently incapable of.

Published in: on January 15, 2013 at 3:20 pm  Comments (2)  
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Residential streets are wasted public space

Here’s a picture of Harrowgate Road in Hackney, a fairly typical residential street distinguished only by the fact that it is around the corner from my house. It doesn’t see much traffic, and you’ll usually see neighbours chatting to each other at their front gates. Note that it has one thing in common with pretty much every other residential street in the UK: it is choked by cars, nose-to-tail.

On-street parking is a private appropriation of a great deal of our public space, which is particularly disputable in Hackney as in the borough as a whole only 44% of households own cars or vans.

In Copenhagen, in a neighbourhood near the Carlsberg brewery, I noticed that although there was on-street parking, that wasn’t all there was.

Some of the space had been used for picnic benches, turning the street into a place where people might actually spend time:

Some of the space had been used for sandpits and play areas for children:

And, of course, being Copenhagen, some of the car parking space had been given over to bikes:

Lots and lots of bikes:

Basically, there is so much more that we could be doing to make our ordinary residential streets into better, more liveable, more enjoyable places. Yet no public authority in the UK seems interested – certainly not mine in Hackney.

Published in: on July 4, 2012 at 10:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Lib Dems should be the party of manufacturing

An article by William Hobhouse on Liberal Democrat Voice, The Lib Dems should be the party of manufacturing, reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write a post on this subject for ages. Because he’s right: we should

Hobhouse writes:

“Liberal Democrats are excellently placed as a party to champion the rebalancing of the British economy back towards manufacturing. Unlike the Conservatives, we are not tied to financial and Eurosceptic interests. We are a pragmatic party of business and wealth creation unlike Labour, and in the manufacturing heartlands our MPs already stand for jobs and renewed identity.”

Our biggest government department is Business, Innovation and Skills, with Vince Cable at the helm. In a recession, this should be the most important position in the Government for providing leadership to the country. As the Lib Dem Voice article points out, Vince has done some sterling stuff… but it has not been built into a narrative for the party.

And we have a grand narrative.

We are the industrial revolution. We are free trade. That was us: British Liberalism. Our ideological forebears created the modern world.

It is widely agreed (though not entirely fairly) that British manufacturing is in a century-long state of decline. Only Liberals have the ideological and intellectual basis, not to mention the glorious history of creating the first industrial empire, to wrench it from its torpor.

The Conservatives? They were practically made to support the landed aristocracy. It’s the same today, except the landed people they represent are those homeowners who don’t want their house prices affected by volume housebuilding, or their scenic views hurt by new industrial developments.

Labour? Their name being more or less vestigial, they now exist purely to create conditions of state dependency as a form of vote-purchasing. They put themselves in hock to big finance, and fostered unsustainable and unproductive economic booms, to get the cash to do it. In any case, they are an irrelevance: nobody believes that they could get this country making or doing.

Manufacturing and economic revitalisation should be our brand. It’s time to reclaim it. It’s what will resonate as a unifying theme through the rest of this Parliament and into the 2015 election.

Everything we already care about fits into this paradigm.

When we talk about the environment we can sound effete and metropolitan. We shouldn’t. It’s about making Britain energy-independent. Creating power. Launching off-shore wind from the docks in Hull and Middlesborough. Fighting nimbys (be they in commuter barn-conversions or on great estates) on behalf of literal electricity. Ringing the country with new power lines and mills that our industrial heroes wouldn’t have flinched at.

The High Speed Rail lines should be fought on the same basis. It’s a plan practically Victorian in its grandeur: our heritage. Someone needs to stand in St. Pancras chomping on a cigar like Isambard Kingdom Brunel to make that point, if that’s what it takes.

Free Movement

Labour have been trying to outdo the Tories with dogwhistle racism that should make all liberals gag with distaste.

Let’s not be shy about supporting the free movement of people. If people want to come here to work, we should welcome that unashamedly. Industry isn’t a zero-sum game. Immigration restrictions are already hurting some of our best universities, stifling our scientific advance.

By arguing for a renewed industrial identity, we have a solid ground from which to challenge Miliband and other conservatives on immigration.

Free Trade abroad

As the Lib Dem Voice article points out, this is where our long-standing internationalism comes into its own. Tory Eurosceptics dream of autarky. Labour talk up protectionism: British jobs for British people. Liberals want to work constructively with Europe and other markets to open them to British imports. Even international aid can be framed in this narrative: supporting investment abroad as something that’s good for our exporters.

Free Thinkers

We have put good education policies in place through the Coalition- the pupil premium, for example. But I’d bet it’ll come to naught electorally, because if Gove achieved nothing else with his O-level announcement, it was to reveal that the Liberal Democrats have no narrative when it comes to education, other than that we think it’s important.

The Tories can talk about turning the clock back to the 50s, with grammar schools and compulsory Latin – and it’s here that their appeal (?) lies. I suggest that we can weave our educational narrative around manufacturing by way of contradistinction.

We can talk about the Midlands Enlightenment and the Lunar Society – the intellectual movement that really made this country great. A deliberate focus upon practice, and the adaptation of science to useful ends. To put it in terms that Gove and Boris could understand, the Techne to their Episteme.

If the Tories want Latin and a Gradgrindish repetition of facts, we should talk about computer programming and applied sciences and equipping people to be enquiring and innovative in practical ways. Rigorous vocational training.

The Long Term

Because this isn’t just about taking leadership in the current recession, or surviving the 2015 General Election.

There is another industrial revolution about to hit, with new paradigms that will be as disruptive and transformative as the (our) last one.

Additive manufacturing, 3D printing, bio-scale assemblers and sequencers: distributed, on-shore, artisanal manufacturing. Physical and even biological things are going to become as replicatable as the internet has made intellectual property.

Cory Doctorow described Hollywood and the music industry as “the first belligerents in a century-long war”. The new industrial revolution is going to be opposed tooth and nail by “lobbies and interest groups that are far more influential than Hollywood and big content are on their best day.” They are going to be using all their money and power to try and get the Government to stifle this innovation in manufacturing, to impose regulatory and criminal-legal blocks to this new industrial revolution.

We need a political movement that doesn’t bow and scrape to vested interests, that is willing to craft laws on patents, intellectual property, and copyrights that support innovation. If Britain is to get the start on the new industrial revolution that we had on the last one, vested interests will need to be fought, and old orders broken down.

What do you know – I think that’s a job for us again. Only us.

Sheffield

What fortune, then, that our current leader sits in Sheffield. The great cities of our industrial empire should be the backdrop to our cause. We have rugged stuff to do.

Published in: on June 25, 2012 at 11:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Murderous bus driver let off with lightest sentence possible

A bristol bus driver who used his bus as a weapon to run someone over, badly injuring them, has been given the lightest possible sentence by Bristol Crown Court.

The video on the BBC report is shocking: the driver swings his bus into the cyclist, throwing him some distance and causing grevious bodily harm.

The driver, Gavin Hill, 29, was given 17 months in prison and a two-and-half-year driving ban.

This is an obscenely light punishment.

This was premeditated assault in which a weapon was used – a particularly dangerous weapon. In any other circumstance, had he used an equivalent weapon, 18 months would have been the starting sentence. The maximum could be seven years.

Even worse is th paltry driving ban, a good portion of which will pass while he is behind bars anyway. Someone who ever commits a serious assault like this and uses their car (or indeed bus) as a weapon should be banned for life.

An utterly disgraceful decision, but sadly typical of the way in which drivers in this country, even murderous ones, are coddled by the law.

Published in: on February 16, 2012 at 6:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Disturbing online copyright enforcement tactics from SOCA

The Serious Organised Crime Agency, having (apparently) solved and abolished all human trafficking, major gun crime, and industrial-scale money laundering, had some time on their hands. So, of course, they have started set about policing copyright infringement and taking down websites they suspected of distributing copyrighted music.

The use of one of the most powerful law enforcement agencies in the country to enforce a civil matter is worrying: probably unlawful function creep that suggests, with the most benign interpretation, that their boss (one Theresa May MP) isn’t exercising proper oversight.

The tactics they used were even worse. The SOCA notification page suggests that they are monitoring anyone who visited a particular website and recording their personal details, and that anyone who had used the site to download songs would be liable to ten years imprisonment. Ten years in the slammer for downloading some R&B music.

Note also that SOCA, a Government agency, repeats verbatim a line from the music recording industry’s PR people: that “as a result of music downloads, emerging artists have had their careers damaged. If you have illegally downloaded music you have damaged the future of the music industry.”

And the damage that an illegal music download can do is worth ten years in chokey.

Well really.

Let’s look at sentencing guidelines to see what you can get caught doing and get less than ten years in prison.

You can commit grievous bodily harm. You can commit an unlawful wounding. You can assault someone occasioning actual harm. In fact, if you assault someone you’ll probably get a community order, 6 months in a cell at most. Attempted murder can net you less than 10 years if you fail to actually hurt the victim. You can actually kill someone while driving that involved a deliberate decision to ignore (or a flagrant disregard for) the rules of the road and an apparent disregard for the great danger being caused to others AND GET LESS THAN TEN YEARS.

So according to SOCA, downloading an MP3 is worse than wounding someone with a knife or running them over and killing them.

Downloading a song is apparently worse than committing cruelty to a child of the most serious sort. Beating up a kid will get you two years at most.

You can even rape someone and it be judicially better than downloading a song, if you avoid actual penile penetration of your victim. Bonanza.

Maybe you feel like robbing someone by threatening them with a weapon or by using force so as to actually injure them during the course of the robbery? Less than ten years.

You can successfully carry out an aggravated burglary. You can raid a house wielding a knife, traumatise and steal from its inhabitants, and get significantly less than ten years imprisonment.

Which is to say that you can actually break into the house of an “emerging artist”, threaten them with a knife and rough them up a bit, then steal all their CDs, instruments, and recording equipment, and be treated, in sentencing terms, less harshly than if you downloaded one of their songs from a website.

I’d say that the British criminal justice system had its priorities wrong if SOCA’s claim was true… which, of course, it’s not.

Which makes me wonder… what are the sentencing guidelines for an officer of the law making outlandish threats and lying to the public during the course of his duties?

Published in: on February 15, 2012 at 9:51 pm  Comments (2)  

Cyclists are law-breakers

“I’ll stop running cyclists down when they stop jumping red lights.” The response, apparently, of a good portion of British drivers to the current cull of cyclists by the haulage industry.

I’m not going to go into the arguments about whether cyclists breaking the rules of the road is justified. Those arguments being, briefly, that a lot of the rules are designed to solve the problem of motor-traffic that bikes simply aren’t; that obeying the rules can sometimes actually put cyclists in danger from traffic; that cyclists are forced to do so by a negligent lack of safe and continuous infrastructure. All true, but it’s still the case that most cyclists who jump red lights do so because they are assholes. So many do it even when it involves screaming through pedestrians who, after waiting and waiting, have finally been given right of way to cross the street without being mown down by truck drivers.

So I’m not going to defend it. What I am going to say is that it absolutely pales in comparison to the quantity of law that motor drivers break incessantly.

Running through red lights. On my average 20-minute urban commute I probably see three or four cars jumping red lights. Most are amber gambles gone bad, some are because after queuing at traffic lights forever they are going the hell through this junction right now. Others (black cabs, mostly, I find) scream across pedestrian crossings because they are dicks. Jumping red lights is not a distinctively bike problem.

Breaking the speed limit. Want to do an easy test? Drive down the motorway at 70mph. In theory you shouldn’t be overtaken. In practice, you’ll be the slowest thing on the road. My local council have made it easy to test how many drivers obey 30mph restrictions too, by installing vehicle-activated signs that flash a warning when people are speeding. My estimate is that a good 80% of vehicles are doing more than 30, some by very significant amounts.

Driving using a mobile. Technically 3 points on the license and a £60 fine, but scarily common. The head of road safety at the AA, has said that there are probably 100,000 people driving around using their phone on the roads at any one time. Ed Balls and Harriet Harman were both caught doing it, the latter actually crashing because she was busy chatting on the phone.

Driving without insurance. Hard to measure, but the amount of accidents on the 30mph residential street racetrack outside my house that end with participants just yelling at each other then driving off probably suggest it’s pretty common.

Driving with fog lights on. The Highway Code says: You MUST NOT use front or rear fog lights unless visibility is seriously reduced (see Rule 226) as they dazzle other road users and can obscure your brake lights. You MUST switch them off when visibility improves.” It can technically get you points on your license and a fine. Yet on the average commute I see maybe 20 cars and taxis with fog lights on. I can’t quite work out why this is. Maybe they genuinely don’t know how to use their car: I pointed it out to one driver stopped at a junction, and he just pawed at his dashboard ineffectually then shrugged at me. Maybe they are such bad drivers that they don’t know what fog lights are or what the glowing sign on the dash means. Maybe they think they are bling lights for added disco. Odd one.

Making illegal manoeuvres, driving the wrong way down one-way streets, making illegal turns: all entirely common.

Stopping in advance stop lines for cyclists and in yellow box junctions.

Use of the horn. The Highway Code states: “Use only while your vehicle is moving and you need to warn other road users of your presence. Never sound your horn aggressively. You MUST NOT use your horn while stationary on the road or while driving in a built up area between the hours of 11:30pm and 7.00am except when another road user poses a danger.” You can technically be fined for using a horn, yet at any given time London’s roads sound like the Salvation Army band warming up.

Oh, and let’s not forget the thousands of people, mainly pedestrians, killed or seriously injured on London’s roads each year. That probably counts.

The point is that drivers are so coddled that their crimes are largely ignored by the police and the media.

Our roads, barely policed or regulated, are full of criminal drivers, speeding about in tonne-heavy steel boxes in a way that is negligent and dangerous.

Let’s get some perspective here.

Published in: on February 8, 2012 at 7:18 pm  Comments (4)  

Hackney Wick police see how infrastructure failure endangers cyclists

The local police safer neighbourhood team were out on my commute home tonight warning cyclists about breaking the law on Victoria Park Road. They seemed to accept, though, that Hackney Council’s failure to provide safe lanes on an important cycling route was causing scores of cyclists to either put themselves in danger or conflict with pedestrians on the (also inadequate) pavements. I’m also hopeful from my chat with the SNT officer that the police in Hackney are actually already advocating for better infrastructure.

There is a busy eastbound cycle route on Hackney’s southern border. The safest ways to get from the City to anywhere in or beyond northeast Hackney pass through or around Victoria Park. One such route skirts the north of the the park, then diffuses as it hits Well Street Common. It’s always busy, and in the few minutes I was there talking to the police more than a dozen riders passed.

The problem is that the people planning the transport infrastructure did not prioritise the cycle route – so it is broken for one stupid moment by a one-way street.

Victoria Park Rd is part of the Hackney Wick racetrack circuit: traffic here routinely breaks the speed limit. We can see that, because the council did helpfully provide those warning signs that flash on when cars are going too fast – and they come on for almost every car. How many? We’ll never know, because Hackney Council would apparently rather not think about it, let alone do anything.

On the north side, the pavement is both narrow and fenced off with railings; on the south side there is a bus shelter. Even if you walked your bike here you would come into conflict with pedestrians.

The road is wide enough here for a short contraflow cycle path, just linking up the two parts of the route. Instead, the lack of thought by the council is just asking for cyclists to risk putting themselves at danger by rushing the wrong way up an unregulated road of speeding traffic, or to annoy pedestrians on a narrow, crooked, fenced-off pavement.

This wouldn’t be a particularly difficult fix, especially compared with the killer junctions that still dot the borough, so the failure to do anything about it is just symptomatic of the lack of real attention given to cycling under Mayor Jules Pipe’s leadership. But the local SNT, and apparently also the local Labour councillors, do believe that the community safety issue here is the cyclists who are put at danger by bad traffic planning, not the risk to the abstract integrity of the one-way system from forty yards of cyclists being encouraged to break the law.

Published in: on January 17, 2012 at 7:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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