Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The pig-headedness of the climate change sceptic

Anyone with a financial interest in maintaining the status quo with regards to energy usage and pollution will go to great lengths to deny strong scientific evidence. On their side are all of the other people who don't have a financial interest in fossil fuels or energy but like to keep their heating and/or air conditioning on, like to drive their large cars everywhere, fly regularly, leave the lights on to save the effort of flicking a switch and believe that greener energy will cost them significantly more.

Let's just forget the environment and consider costs.

Admittedly, building newer, greener energy systems will initially cost money. But the continuing efforts to plunder the planet's natural resources does too. Take drilling for oil. As supplies that we're already guzzling reduce, not only does it become more expensive to buy, it also becomes more difficult and thus more expensive to find the next source. Deeper drilling means hotter temperatures and that requires more money spent on the research into and the production of materials that can withstand these temperatures and still do the job. Then there are areas where the materials used are subject to incredibly acidic, corrosive environments which requires different research and different materials. And this cycle will keep on going, costing ever more money in research and development until eventually, we've used every drop of oil or gas the planet can give us.

So instead of investing in harnessing renewable energy such as tidal power - to take one example - energy companies are spending money on chasing the next source of oil or gas. Tidal power is a very interesting source. For one thing, unlike wind and solar, we can predict exactly when and where power can be harnessed. For an island like the UK, it should also be possible to establish a constant system - where different tide times from around the UK are used to balance out the wave power being harnessed (where one tide goes out, another is coming in) and thus, ensure that there are no peaks and troughs. I say "should": research is already under way into the best ways of doing this. Once tidal power systems are in place, the only certain costs will be upkeep (although of course, improvements will be made from time to time).

Failing to adequately fund new energy is not only short-sighted, it makes no economic sense in the short-term. The sector is already employing more people in the UK than teaching and there is a huge capacity for growth. Employment means people earning and paying tax back into the economy. In the UK, where our earning power in energy is not the greatest (we have little oil and gas and much of the energy work undertaken in the UK is by non-UK companies who pay their taxes elsewhere - what little taxes they pay, that is), the benefits to our economy of growth in this area would be huge..

The constant denial from the right has echoes of the fight to recognise the dangers of smoking. Common sense won that battle in the end; we just need to keep going.

Friday, 11 July 2014

British Rail: the naysayer’s favourite story of state failure

I’ve been trying to find out what really went wrong with British Rail. I failed to find anything. I then turned to finding out information from the time to support the modern idea that it was badly run. I haven’t been able to find that out either. (If anyone can point me in the direction of any real information from the time that supports either of the above, do let me know – I’m always willing to see the other argument).

What I did learn is how the idea of privatising the railways came to be: and I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t some grand plan with widespread support, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Thatcher, the original queen of state-stripping (now of course totally out-classed by the current mob), didn’t see it as worth pursuing. There was no evidence that it would appeal to the private sector and there was little interest in the conservative front bench, or ministers and peers who had previously been involved with transport. Not only did the opposition and the Unions opposite it, so did the majority of the Tory party – with many voicing fears that it would destroy the railways. A leaked proposal to hike up prices by 16% in the South East, with further rises to follow (the intention being to make it appear more profitable to potential private buyers), caused outcry. The idea was killed off.

But then Thatcher was ousted and John Major, elected with only the proposition of electoral defeat ahead of him, needed policies. Rail privatisation was thrown into the mix and seemed to fit the bill. With a policy like that, the government could show they weren’t afraid of bold ideas and the right wing press, always happy to help by a spot of state-bashing, got stuck into British Rail.

The public can be easily convinced that something is wrong with a public service and scared that they were losing money to a failing state-owned system, privatisation didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

I still don’t think it would have been this policy that caused the shock victory but whatever it was, somehow, the Tories stayed in power. With a narrow mandate, they needed to make their promises stick and so the privatisation of British Rail was on. Inner discussions considered a few ways of going about it and the party and its private backers settled on the model of regional franchises and between 1994 and 1997, British Rail was pulled apart and sold off.

Fast-forward 20 years and we now have a good model to use in arguments against the privatisation of large public sector organisations.

The rail franchise which is the most cost-efficient to the taxpayer and the most highly-regarded by passengers is the only one which is not privately-owned: East Coast. East Coast put profits from fares back into the business and pays for improvements to the rolling stock and the service they provide. And there are no shareholders to satisfy. East Coast has paid almost £800 million to the treasury in less than five years. That is more than Virgin have paid in 15 years.

As a result of privatisation, our railways are now more expensive to passengers, more expensive to tax payers and less reliable. It should be impossible to believe that privatisation is now going ahead in the NHS. Yet we’re under Tory rule and pretty much anything which takes taxpayers money and puts it into the hands of the wealthy is to be expected.