New Year’s Resolution

Last year, one of my New Year’s Resolutions was to buy an electric car. I’d been thinking about it for a long time, but there were various reasons why the options available were not practical for me.

For one thing I need a lot of space in a car as I need to transport children, dogs, tortoises and now parrots to Norfolk and back on a regular basis!

For another, the cottage we have in Norfolk does not have off-street parking – it’s down a very narrow lane which leads to the sea. This means over-night charging in Norfolk is out of the question, and the county seems to lead the pack when it comes to lack of availability of rapid chargers – the only ones which are really practical for significant charging.

And then, in the middle of the year, things changed. I found out that an enlighted small business in North Walsham, a few miles from Overstrand, had installed a Polar fast charger. Suddenly I had options.

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Polar fast charger at Kelly Clarke Motor Services, North Walsham. Photo: ZapMap user BatVan

So the search for the right electric car began.

Incoherence in Government

A story in this morning’s Guardian perfectly illustrates the policy incoherence that runs to the heart of the current government.

It concerns Britain’s National Cycling network, a linked chain of over 16,500 miles of cycleways which are used by half the number of people who currently use the trains each year.

Sustrans, the organisation responsible for the network, says it would cost £2.8bn to bring the paths up to scratch, as many are potholed or damaged, have difficult obstructions on them, or rejoin highways at difficult or dangerous places.

Meanwhile, we have a Government facing many significant challenges such as meeting the climate change goals, currently likely to be missed, and a National Health Service struggling to cope in the face of an ailing population made sick by obesity and dirty air.

One obvious part of the solution to these challenges is to reduce the amount we drive significantly and to encourage the population to exercise more.

So you would think getting the population on their bikes, as some of our Continental neighbours do so well, would be an obvious part of the plan.

More than half of the UK population lives within a mile of their nearest route and 4.4 million people used the Network last year, making 786m trips.

And each year the network saves the UK economy nearly £90m through reduced road congestion, according to Sustrans. Its health benefits save the NHS the equivalent of 2,206 nurses’ salaries, and leisure and tourist trips contribute £2.5bn to local economies, the charity claims.

The benefits are therefore obvious.

The Government’s response? In his recent budget, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, pledged £30bn for road improvements targeted primarily at motorists.

What about cycling?

Jesse Norman, the government’s cycling and walking minister, said: “This report shows that more needs to be done to make [the network] fully accessible, and that’s why earlier this year the government dedicated £1m to support initial work repairing and upgrading sections of this popular network.”

Doesn’t quite stack up, does it?

Amazon warehouse accidents total 440. What’s the story?

According to a BBC news story “Amazon warehouse accidents total 440”.

While this is obviously bad news for the people involved, is it good or bad compared to the industry as a whole?

The tenor of the story implies it is bad news.

But then the details of the story don’t quite back that up.

Firstly, the 440 figure is the total of four years worth of data collected by the GBM union from local authorities via freedom of information requests. The figure for the last complete year, 2017-2018, was 149.

Is this number high? Well, Amazon says it has 25,000 people employed in the UK and the Health and Safety Executive says the average non-fatal accident rate in the warehousing and transportation support industries category in 2016-2017 was 1,577 per 100,000 workers.

Assuming the rate has stayed about the same the following year, for Amazon to have had an average accident rate it would have recorded 394 accidents. So on these data you could say Amazon is a substantially better than average performer on accidents.

The BBC story quotes the GMB saying : “the actual numbers were probably higher, because some local authorities were unable to provide details of incident reports.”

That may well be so, but frankly they could be double and it still would not be much of a story.

Climate disaster and how to avoid it

Today the IPCC came out with its sternest warning yet about the dangers the world faces if global warming isn’t held to 1.5degC.

The thing is, we already know how Governments can do this. They tax the things they want less of and incentivise the things they want more of. This is simple and it works.

Take electric cars. If you want sales to grow fast bring in an effective incentive scheme. Norway leads the field on this. Its electric car policy saw a huge increase in the sales of electric cars. In 2015 22% of new car sales were electric and this is expected to grow to 30% in 2020. This was achieved through low road tax, VAT exemption, free parking for EVs and access to bus lanes, for example.

Or alternative energy.

Solar energy went from virtually nothing to 3% of the UK’s total energy generation between 2010 and 2017, driven by reducing costs for photovoltaics but mainly by Government incentives in the form of the Feed In Tariff

Government actions matter. Concerned about the rising cost the Government changed the policy in 2016 with the result that solar installations plummeted by 74% year on year in March 2016. Solar will continue to grow because the economics are getting better, but more slowly that it would have otherwise.

Windpower is another case in point. Antipathy to onshore wind has effectively stopped dead development of new onshore wind, the cheapest form of renewable energy. Offshore wind is still growing strongly, though, and is now bidding for contracts below that offered to nuclear projects.

Governments all have a balancing act to perform, trading off the immediate needs of the electorate, without whom they will not remain in power, and the longer-term needs of the country. 

To encourage the growth of more environmentally-friendly transport options – cycling, walking, public transport, electric cars – raising fuel taxes is a sensible policy. And yet petrol prices are a sensitive issue with the public so we have not had a rise in duty for nine years

The best hope of avoiding the short term trap is the law. The Climate Change Act of 2008 was a great example of this – in effect the Government willingly making a rod for its own back.

This law obligates the Government to reduce CO2 emissions to at least 80% below the 1990 baseline. This allows citizens and environmental groups to hold the Government’s feed to the fire if they don’t live up to this challenge. This doesn’t eliminate the short term decisions which will have a potential long-term detrimental effect, but it does make it far more likely that course correction is forthcoming. 

It will be interesting to see what this month’s budget tells us about the balancing act.

Picking stocks

Many years ago when my boys were young teenagers we used to have to take them off every Saturday to play Warhammer, the strategy game you play in person with others with characters you bought and lovingly painted yourself. It became a big obsession with both of them, rivalling even Pokemon and I got to know Games Workshop well.

I spoke to colleagues at work and unless they also had boys of a similar age they were oblivious to the whole phenomenon.

These Warhammer characters were not cheap and the rules of game were so obtuse that it was amazing so many teenage boys became so hooked (or maybe not, knowing teenage boys).

Anyway, I figured this was an interesting business model so I bought a few shares. Today the company was featured in The Economist as the best performing stock in the FTSE 250.

I may have had to wait 15 years, but I can really pick a stock – this one has risen by over 526%.

Remaking Post-Industrial Cities

Interesting talk this lunchtime at the RSA from Don Carter about his new book Remaking Post-Industrial Cities, which looks at 10 cities in the US and Europe and charts their decline and recovery. 

Don Carter, Carnegie Mellon University

Carter looks at the history of the cities in three phases:

  • The industrial powerhouse phase, from 1865 to 1945
  • Renaissance, from 1946 to 1985
  • Re-invention from 1986 to 2015

He argues that there are clear parallels between all the cities he has studied and that lessons can be drawn. 

First up, turning cities around in the post-industrial period takes time and determination. It is important to realise the the scale is large – metropolitan and long-term. This means, a strong vision of what kind of city is being built it critical. And it means strong leadership and being prepared to take risks. Often it has involved very significant investment, such as the Olympics in Barcelona, but these grand plays aren’t enough on their own, as they can fail. 

The successful cases have all developed diversified economies, have strengthened the central city and have invested in culture, heritage and quality of life. 

The over-riding impression at the end though, underlined by perceptive questions from the audience, was that while the city may recover, many of the people who made their lives there often don’t and that tectonic societal upheavals, such as the election of Trump, or Brexit, or populism in Italy, may the cost.

Maybe we can look back on the cities themselves in 20 years with satisfaction that they recovered so well, but what happened to the broader society in the meantime is quite another question. 

Don Carter is an architect, urban designer and developer of international renown. He is currently Director of Urban Design and Regional Engagement at the Remaking Cities Institute, Carnegie Mellon University.

Elon Musk: good news or bad news?

The outcome of the SEC investigation into Elon Musk’s wayward tweet on taking Tesla private could turn out to be either very good, or very bad. 

The requirement by the SEC that Musk and Tesla each pay $20m in fines is trivial for both. The instruction to hire an independent chairman to oversee Musk is the crucial condition. 

Tech company founders have often found themselves in need of outside experience to lead once their enterprises reach a certain size . Those who can make the product, seldom have the characteristics or experience to morph into successful managers of much larger enterprises. 

The best example of this working well was Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to hire Eric Schmidt to front up their rapidly growing company in 1998. It was the persistence of their VC backers which led them to find Schmidt eventually and the arrangement worked like a dream. 

However, there are several reasons why a similar successful outcome may be harder for Musk to pull off, and these are two of the major ones:

Time

The SEC has given Tesla 45 days for Musk to resign the chairman’s role, not a lot of time for such a tricky and sensitive search, especially so since it is unlikely Musk has spent any time thinking about what wants or needs from such a relationship. 

Temperament

Musk has a towering self-belief which seems to cover just about every walk of life – extra-terrestrial colonisation, combatting climate change, rescuing children from flooded underground tunnels. It is perhaps unlikely that he recognises the possible benefits which would accrue from a wiser corporate head, experienced in the ways of public companies. 

It would be very good for the world if a Schmidt-like outcome occurred. Whether it can or not remains to be seen. 

Climate Change: too true to be good

Great summary today at the RSA of climate change from Environment Agency head Sir James Bevan. He was concise and chilling on the enormity of the challenge of climate change and the catastrophic consequences of failure to act decisively. 

Sir James Bevan, Environment Agency head
Sir James Bevan

Sadly, but predictably, he was less impressive in his assessment of the progress being made in Britain and around the world. As a political appointee it would be naive to expect him to point out the inconsistencies between the current Government’s language and its actions – support for fracking, removal of support for on-shore wind, reduction in financial incentives for solar energy, tax breaks for oil and gas, freeze on petrol tax etc, etc. 

“If we don’t get it right Britain will be neither, green, nor pleasant, nor even have much land”

He says governments have to tread carefully because of their electorates, but that hardly covers it. Still, the fact that he is laying out the challenge so starkly (“if we don’t get it right Britain will be neither, green, nor pleasant, nor even have much land”) is a surely good thing.

Instant judgements

There is something very disturbing about the modern habit of making instant judgements about everything, simple or complex. This has been blamed on the 24-hour news cycle which is said to force quicker and quicker stories out for fear that a particular news outlet is going to look slow. It has also been blamed on the rise of social media which has encouraged us all to believe that our voice has a right to be heard and that our opinions are as valid as anyone’s. It has also been blamed on short, modern attention spans.

Whatever the cause, the net effect of all this is quite seriously bad, in my view. Of course it is a good thing that we are not all meekly waiting to be told what to think by those in power, elected or otherwise. In the past this mental attitude of deference has lead to some terrible iniquities, the details of which come out on a regular basis (think sex scandals involving children’s homes or Churches of one denomination or another, or the horror stories coming out thanks to the #MeToo campaign, even now touching China, it seems. 

But there is a downside, too. Take yesterday’s news that there was a terrorist attack on the House of Parliament. We don’t know much about Salih Khater, the driver of the car which crossed lanes in front of Parliament and injured three cyclists and pedestrians before crashing into the barriers. Yesterday he was a terrorist. Today, the police say they haven’t found anything to link him to terrorism and it seems his motives (or reasons, as it could be he or the car malfunctioned for all we know) are a mystery as yet. 

So yesterday it was a daring terror attack, today we are not quite sure, tomorrow or probably sometime later we will find out the truth. 

What effect does this have, though? It feeds the impression that we are living in dangerous times, that we are under attack from people who would harm us. And the initial conclusions are, I suspect, seldom reset. 

In this sound-bite and tweet-driven world there is little room for complexity or subtlety. So far we have reaped the benefits of transparency and ease of publication but at the cost of polarisation and populism.  Consider the reaction to the dreadful collapse of the motorway bridge in Genoa which is being blamed by Italy’s senior politicians on privatisation, corruption and the EU before any investigation has even begun. How could you possibly draw a conclusion like that so quickly? The answer is you can’t, but that doesn’t really work in a rapid-fire world. 

We have yet to work out how to restore some balance and reason in this new environment. But we really should be trying harder. 

Seeing with your camera

This photo illustrates a common theme – that modern audiences of anything spend too much time taking pictures of events they are attending rather than looking at them with their own eyes.

You hear the criticism levelled by musicians and sportsmen and women as well as by commentators.

I think we shouldn’t judge too harshly. This trend speaks to a deeper human need – to make our mark on the world, to record the fact that we were here.

These are hand stencils believed to have been created 39,000 years ago found in a cave in Spain – the earliest examples known to exist. This unknown cave dweller is making his or her mark on the world, very much as having a photo of an epic event you attended on your own phone is. The difference may not as great as we would like to believe.

by Jim Muttram