editorofthechron

The blog of the editor of the Congleton Chronicle Series. We cover east Cheshire and north Staffordshire, which are at the very top of the English Midlands Views expressed are not always official newspaper policy.

Advice for new councillors

With the area’s new councillors now all settling in their new roles, this week I offer some advice . . . .

(1). The most important thing to remember is that you’re not important, so don’t start thinking you are. The council upon which you serve is important, your role in society is important, the office of councillor is important, but you are not.
You may be popular but the odds are that you are on the council because someone pinned a rosette on you, of a hue that your voters preferred.

This may seem a little harsh, but as editor of the Chronicle I know I’m not important either.

The previous editor held that position for 40 years and during that time he was the person everyone wanted to speak to. As his deputy, they’d sometimes deign to speak to me, but usually they wanted him.

Then one week we ran a small panel saying I was the new editor. On Monday morning the situation was reversed: everyone wanted me and the calls for him stopped coming. Now: either I’d miraculously gained enormous wisdom and influence over the weekend, or it was simply the position that was important. Obviously, it’s the latter, much as I’d like to believe the former.

You’re on the council now and you’re the person to go to, but if you lost your seat they’d all go to someone else.

(2). Your loyalty is to the people who voted you in, not any political party you may belong to. Voting along party lines or because of national policy has no place on a local council.

It’s noticeable that politicians regularly go over to the USA and come back with good ideas (sometimes not so good) but none has ever returned with the basic element of local government in America: town councillors (or at least the US equivalent) are not elected on party lines. They are elected on their own achievements, as individuals.

As an aside, this is the reason local newspapers endorse candidates in the US — there is no wider implication. We could (say) have recommended Denis Murphy or Sam Corcoran or Glen Williams but as soon as we pick a candidate, we favour a party. This stifles honest debate about candidates.

As a further aside, we could ask why this is. It’s not terribly good for democracy.

It obviously makes it easier — parties can round up people and stick a rosette on them, and people know for whom to vote, without having to bother reading about candidates. This is a rather lazy form of democracy, and people do get elected who have no interest in doing so, standing just to make up the numbers.

The downside is that independents, who may well be very talented, just not interested in political parties, find it harder to get elected.

Maybe one of our more adventurous councils could try and sever the links between party politics and councillors.
Incidentally, Congleton Town Council’s code of conduct implies that party politics has no place on the council.

Members are told that “you must act solely in the public interest”; “you must not place yourself under .. . obligation to outside individuals or organisations”; “you should exercise independent judgement . . . reach your own conclusions on the issues before you and act in accordance with those conclusions.”

That last point includes the phrase “(you) may take account of the views of others, including a political group,” but the general tenor of the code is to vote independently. We shall be watching for anyone putting party before people.

Talking of which:

(3). We (in the media generally) are not out to get you, or your council. Do your job correctly and fairly and don’t say anything too stupid and you’ll have no complaints about your Press coverage. Councils generally complain about negative reporting but in fact most reporting is either positive or neutral. You’ll just remember the bad stuff, that’s all.

As long as you remember point (i) — that you’re not important in the first place — you won’t go wrong.

Talking of the media: you stood because you wanted to help people and get involved. You didn’t do it to get your photo in the Chronicle, or any other newspaper. Some causes need publicity, and we’re happy to help, others do not. But whatever you do, you doing it for its own sake, not to get publicity.

But:

(4). It’s also true you won’t get praise for your good work, only complaints for your failings. That’s human nature. You can do 99 good things, but it’s your one cock up that people will complain about, probably by writing to the  Chronicle. Suck it up. And don’t complain to us: we can run a report every week for a decade but the one week we lose it, odds are someone will write in saying “I don’t know why I bother writing our reports when you never use them…..”.

There you go.

Don’t believe in your own importance, put your people first and don’t expect praise.

Why did you stand for council again?

Mad Markers of Mansions: myth or miscreants?

You smell gas, your legs no longer work, your husband sees a dark stranger outside, a neighbour picks up a cloth, sniffs it and keels over . . . . Pretty scary, uh?

This was the experience of residents in Mattoon, Illinois, during the mid-1940s. Those attacked by the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, notably Mr and Mrs Bert Kearney, the victims of the first Mattoon case to be reported by the media, described the gasser as being a tall, thin man dressed in dark clothing and wearing a tight-fitting cap.

Victims reported smelling an unusual odour, being overcome by nausea and being unable to use their legs. When police arrived, however, they could smell nothing.

The police increased patrols, the FBI was called in and citizen vigilantes roamed the streets.

Now it’s accepted there was no Mad Gasser of Mattoon and that it was all a case of mass hysteria. Oh, those wacky people of small town America in 1944.

Except: England 2015. Gangs of mystery men no-one has seen roam the land, looking for victims. None are ever spotted, but, like the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the modern bogeymen leave behind panic and small clues.

Yes, it’s the Mad Markers of Mansions, the ghostly beings who are reported to be leaving chalk marks on houses (we only said “mansions” because it was alliterative) across the area, indicating a wide variety of targets: people without dogs, people with dogs, people with old dogs, people with corn dogs, vulnerable people, old people, rich people, gullible people who believe whatever they read on Facebook….

No-one has seen anyone make a mark but everyone seems to believe the markings are being left by dognappers or burglars or gypsies. Or even burglarising gypsy dog thieves.

As you can tell, we don’t believe a word of it. It just doesn’t seem logical.

Think about it:

• It means burglars/dog thieves — we’ll just call them bogymen from now on — are casing out houses twice, once armed with chalk making obvious marks outside houses, and running the risk of being caught, and once when they come back and actually break in.

• Talking of which: there hasn’t been an epidemic of break-ins or dog thefts.

• It would mean the bogymen ran a hugely organised operation — there are chalk marks all over the place. Yet bogymen by nature tend to operate alone. You do get gangs, but most are loners.

• No-one has ever seen anyone making a chalk mark.

• It’s pointless (i): Bogymen  aren’t stupid — mobile phones and the like offer the technology to mark houses. Why risk being caught when you can use Google maps?

• It’s pointless (ii): marking houses with chalk only makes sense in the absence of other identifying features. Unfortunately for the bogyman theory, we already identify houses quite well, giving most of them street names and numbers.

• Finally, myth-busting website snopes.com reports that warnings about bogymen tagging homes with coloured stickers, stealing of canines for the use of, was originally circulated in the suburbs of Perth, Australia. Strewth!

In February 2013 it moved to the UK — many people in Perth are of UK origin. But animal welfare authorities in Perth, inundated with phone calls, said the warnings were “completely unfounded.” Similarly, in March 2013 officials in Yorkshire denied that bogymen were placing stickers or other markings on vehicle tyres.

By this year the bogymen had crossed to the US, where they were tying plastic bags to trees as a harbinger of doom, or at least dognappers.

According to Facebook, criminals marked dog-owning homes by tying grocery bags to trees, but no-one stopped to think how the bogymen would know the difference between dogfight bags put there on purpose and bags that had simply blown there.

Clearly there are some sort of chalk marks appearing, but whether it’s kids or workmen, we don’t know.

The Yorkshire warning over marks on tyres arose because of the red and yellow dots/stickers put on tyres by manufacturers (red dots denote the heaviest part of the tyre and a yellow dot the lightest, usually by the valve, apparently).

Does anyone know who would leave chalk marks on footpaths? Email us (no questions asked!)

Someone does appear to be leaving chalk marks, but we’d guess it’s a mixture of pranksters and assorted workmen.

As in 1944 in Mattoon, Illinois, imagination does the rest.

We wuz right!

National newspapers and pollsters might have been surprised at the results of the General Election, but readers of the Chron should not have been.

My faith in the bookies over the pollsters proved absolutely correct.

A number of pollsters, quizzed on their total failure, admitted that they had ignored results that didn’t seem to fit the perceived way things were going.

What they meant was the way the media shaped the reporting of the election: the national media can only handle excitement — predictability doesn’t sell papers — which is why neck and neck races and landslides are so popular. Last week’s result was seen as neck and neck, except by the bookies.

I wrote that the most likely outcome would be the Tories with the largest number of seats, Labour in Scotland wiped out, the Lib Dems given a kicking, SNP the third largest party, Labour unlikely to do well, and UKIP ending up with only one or two seats, as well as all the losing party leaders out of a job. Pretty close.

I did think that a lot of people would vote Tory once they actually got in the election booth, because the Tories’ record on the economy was a known quantity. Unfortunately I didn’t write this down, because I didn’t want to appear biased.
Based on highly researched analysis — a friend in Rochester — I also said that UKIP’s Mark Reckless would lose his seat. Not bad at all, mainly thanks to William Hill, of course.

***

Locally, and predictably, the Tories retained control of everything. Even people who didn’t vote for her seem to have no problem with Fiona Bruce, who is a good constituency MP. The Moorlands used to be vaguely marginal but the lack of any big-hitting ministerial visits this year showed that Karen Bradley, another hard-working MP, has got the seat sewn up for the Tories.

More worrying are Cheshire East Council and Congleton Town Council, who, particularly the latter, became even more Tory. Regardless of party politics, dominance by one party has the potential to go wrong, as the Lib Dems showed when they ran Congleton Borough Council. The ability to do whatever you want can be good if you have good ideas, but a few bad apples can cause things to go awry.

Cheshire East Council seems to be getting better under Michael Jones, even though at times he’s like an unguided missile, but Congleton town’s rather heavy handed handling of the DDU episode is a cloud on the horizon. It is remarkable that Cheshire East’s ineptitude over the local plan seems to have had no effect at all on voters.

The Conservatives on both councils might feel the public endorsement means they can’t be criticised, but all those who voted for them have the right to expect well run, democratic, efficient and transparent councils. The Chronicle, if anything, will be keep an even closer eye on what they’re doing, in the absence of any real opposition.

***

Nationally a lot of people seem unhappy at the result. I have every reason to be among them: hardly any of the people I voted for won seats.

(In the spirit of transparency, I expect from our local councils, nationally I voted Green because I think global warming is an issue that dwarfs all others and a “greener” lifestyle would ease the pressure on the NHS by encourage people to take more exercise. Locally I voted for all the main parties, because I believe in balance).

Those who complain miss the point of democracy. The alternative is not some other form of democracy where everyone gets their way, but something much less pleasant: oligarchy, a monarchy or dictatorship. No votes are “wasted”. The deal is not that all votes get people’s choices elected but that votes mean the process is being observed and adhered to.

Not for nothing do people without democracy take to the streets and demand it, or form lengthy queues when they get it. Not for nothing do dictators fear democracy, rigging ballots and intimidating or murdering opponents.

Your vote might not have counted this time but it will do next, and politicians know they will be held to account.

***

To go back to the beginning and the media message: it also seems that some in the media are trying to create the illusion that UKIP had an effect on British politics, and has a role to play.

It seems to me it failed completely. This election was its big chance to grab a share of power and it didn’t. Only one MP and its charismatic leader failing to get elected is not a success, especially when its expectations were (probably) for no more than 6-10 seats.

It’s no wonder UKIP doesn’t want Mr Farage to resign (assuming it wasn’t all planned to begin with).

One possible reason for its poor performance is, ironically, Europe. Despite claiming to be different to other politicians, UKIP MEPs are just the same, but worse.

According to figures compiled by The Independent in 2012, over the previous three years the party’s 12 MEPs had tabled no reports, 11 had tabled no opinions, nine had signed no written declarations or motions, and seven had tabled no amendments to reports, ranking them at the bottom of all 753 MEPs.

UKIP would say that as it doesn’t agree with the EU people should expect no more, but of course its MEPs keep all the money and expenses that Europe has to offer.

Mr Farage is still an MEP and in his resignation speech said: “I intend to take the summer off, enjoy myself a little bit; not do very much politics at all,” suggesting that his work as an MEP is still not high on his agenda.

Final Election Watch . . .

It’s election day today (Thursday) so I’ve tried to keep politics out of this issue but letters page stalwart Sam Corcoran (Labour) wrote in complaining that I didn’t fact-check some of the claims (made in the hustings and letters pages etc) in last week’s issue.

He’s done his own fact checking — obviously fairly biased towards his own party — so I thought I’d use his letter as the basis for a final Election Watch.

You would be foolish to take any headline claims seriously. Both the main parties are manipulating the numbers in a way I’ve come to mentally label “gas boiler lottery”.

My gas boiler broke this year and cost me £2,500. If I was a politician I could claim I was “£2,500 worse off” under the Tories without saying exactly why. Conversely, I could have won £5,000 on the Lottery and claim I was £5,000 better off.

This is a crude comparison but politicians use figures crudely, taking the worse figure possible for their opponents’ budgets and then dividing it by the smallest number they can morally use, to get the most damaging figure.

Both, for example, often use tax figures based on “working households” paying tax — but only working households. Pensioners are excluded, as are nonworking households, yet they all pay tax too. By just using “working households” (probably “hard working households”) a politician can make tax plans look much more damaging.

Anyway, back to Sam Corcoran’s letter.

He wrote: “I was sorry not to see your Election Watch fact check in last week’s papers as some of the lies being peddled need rebuttal.” Lies? Strong words indeed.

He cites:

• “Labour ran up the biggest debts in our history”. Sam said this was not true because the UK’s net debt now was higher than when Labour left office.

This is true, in a court-of-law-leading-question sort of way.

From 2002–2007, Labour increased national debt, which it spent on health and education. Under Tony Blair, the country had four years of budget surplus, but Labour increased the debt.

The Tories (and the next government) are stuck with this and older accumulated debt because the average growth of public spending is about 3%, and much of this is automatic, such as rising pensions.

Both parties are stuck with managing the deficit, and both are reluctant to go into detail.

The Tories will continue to make the cuts we all know and love; Labour seem to be committed to borrow an extra £25-£30bn for capital spending, which is what they did last time they were in, spending it on schools and health.

If you’re a Tory tutting at Labour borrowing while in budget surplus, instead of paying off debt, consider that quantative easing seems to have just made the very wealthy even wealthier and the top end art market has boomed. In four years, the global turnover in sale rooms almost doubled since the slowdown of 2009/2010. The New York Times said that US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke was “a major patron” of the art market.

• “The Conservatives never promised to eliminate the deficit in this Parliament”. George Osborne said in his budget speech in June 2010: “That deficit will then be eliminated to plus 0.3% in 2014-15 and plus 0.8% in 2015-16. In other words, it will be in surplus”.

Sam seems to be wrong here. George Osborne promised to eliminate the STRUCTURAL deficit by 2015-16, not the deficit. Tedious semantics I know, but this is how politicians work.

The Tories CAN claim not to have promised to reduce the deficit. They did promise to reduce the structural deficit, which they failed to do by as much as they promised. Because of this, they’ve tried to say they’ve reduced spending as a percentage GDP but this is also untrue.

• “The Conservatives have fixed the economy”. Sam said this was not true and he appears to have a point. Some facts:

(i) Living standards up to 2013 rose more slowly than expected but after 2013 speeded up more than expected.

(ii) Consumer confidence has been low for 12 years (ie back into Labour) and is now improving. The official rating for confidence fell into negative figures during the early years of the coalition but has picked up. At the peak of New Labour, confidence was rated +10, during the early years of the coalition it fell to -30 and is now +4.

(iii) The gross domestic product in the UK expanded 0.30% in the first quarter of 2015 over the previous quarter.
As a comparison, the growth rate averaged 0.61% from 1955 until 2015. The all-time high was 5% in the first quarter of 1973, the record low -2.70% in the first quarter of 1974.

Sam wrote: “The Conservatives inherited a growing economy, but destroyed that growth by making sudden ideological cuts in 2010.” That’s also sort of true. Growth was about 0.3% in 2008 but crashed around 2009 (Labour) to -2.2%. By 2010 it had jumped back to over 0.4% and was rising but slowed, peaking at a full 1% mid-way through 2010 before dropping back. Then it kind of goes up and down around the 0% mark.

The economy is probably not doing as badly as pessimists feared but neither is it fixed. It all depends whether you agree that:

• “Labour caused the financial crash”. Sam said this was not true and was denied by Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England.

In fact Mr King — whose bank must also carry some of the blame so he’s got a dog in the fight — said there was “a shared intellectual responsibility” across all the political parties, bankers’ speak for “everyone is to blame”.

Politicians of all hues failed to control the banking sector, probably because it was too complex, bankers were big donors, and the biggest fools sound the most confident.

While the banking collapse fell on Labour’s watch — and Labour raised the debt despite running a budget surplus — both main parties allowed the banks to be less well regulated, from Maggie T to Gordon B.

• Tax. If you’re still reading, you’re doing well because I’m running out of steam, which of course is what politicians hope. Repeat enough dodgy figures enough times and people won’t have the energy to check them all.
Sam made a point about tax: this is the point where both parties get hard to follow.

Labour claim working people will be £1,600 worse off under the Tories, but this doesn’t include pensioners, tax and benefits changes and is based on year-old figures. The Tories ditto. You can’t really believe anything you read about tax. Both parties are going to cut services and raise taxes; Labour will borrow more to invest in public services.

As a final Election Watch warning: readers of the dreadful Daily Express need to be aware that its owner Richard Desmond has donated £1m to UKIP. This obviously affects its reporting.

I say “dreadful”: a Washington Post article branded the Express “evil” for a headline that read “80% want to quit the EU”. The Post noted: “The headline is beyond misleading; it is an outright lie in any meaningful sense of the word.” It added: “It seems that the Express isn’t a real newspaper . . . (it’s) in the same category as those Nigerian spammers. The difference is, perhaps, that from the outside it looks like a legitimate (if low-brow) newspaper, so it’s polluting the public discourse.”

Another media-related issue is the non dom tax debate. The most famous non dom in the media is the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere. That newspaper had a go at Ed Miliband’s father; the abolition of non dom tax loophole would raise very little in actual revenue but annoys the Daily Mail very much, as well as forcing the Tories to take a stance.

Readers of either newspaper should thus treat any stories with even more suspicion than usual.

Talking of UKIP: I‘ve not fact-checked Mr Farage’s claims as most are very misleading but tedious to check, as with houses being built for immigrants, which I wrote about the other week.

For example: his claim that 60% of the 7,000 people treated for HIV at £25,000 a year were “health tourists” is not true, not least because NHS records do not make it possible to make the claim he did.

For a start, 6,000 people are year are treated, not 7,000.
What is known is that 46% were from the UK and 54% are not (the possible source of
Mr Farage’s “60%”).

But some of the 54% were from countries where HIV treatment is free anyway (so not “health tourists”), or from countries with whom the NHS has a reciprocal agreement — ie the money can be claimed back, or offset against the cost of Brits treated abroad.

Some of the 54% would have a right to use the NHS — like Mr Farage’s own German-born wife.

Around 30% of those were from poor countries, 25% from Africa, but some of these would have UK citizenship.

Happy voting.

SNP the third party in Parliament?

The elections are getting closer; the various news outlets are lapping up the polls and generally getting more frenzied.

But: what everyone should understand is that a foregone conclusion doesn’t do the polling companies — who make their living from uncertain outcomes — any favours. It’s not much use for newspapers either, which like to build up events to a dramatic climax. That sells papers.

You know the outcome is really predictable when they start running “polls of polls,” the point where the media starts to eat itself.

We noticed that in the last few big ballots (Scottish referendum, American elections) the bookies got it more or less right, while the media and its need for speed hyped an increasingly fictitious neck and neck race up to the end.

It’s obvious when you think about it: bookies have their own money to lose. They need to be accurate enough to make a profit. They need to be clear and level-headed.

Polling companies, on the other hand, generate more business by describing a fluid and ever-changing world.

So for the elections on 7th May, we’ve been keeping a closer eye on William Hill, posting the results each week on social media.

***

As you might expect, the most likely outcome is another coalition.

The odds of us getting no overall majority is 1/10, after being 1/8 a couple of weeks ago.

If you don’t understand odds: this means William Hill thinks there’s a 90% chance of this happening.

As for the Conservatives getting an overall majority: the odds are 15/2 after being 6/1 last week (but 15/2 the week before).
This means William Hill is giving them an 11% chance of winning outright.

On the other hand, a Labour majority is now 28/1, slipping from 22/1 last week and 20/1 the week before. In percentage terms, this is just a 3% chance of them winning a majority.

The odds for getting the most seats stay with the Tories: the Tories getting the most seats is at 1/3, while for Labour it’s 9/4 and UKIP 200/1. The Lib Dems are still 1000/1.

This means William Hill thinks there’s a 75% chance the Tories will have the most seats but only a 30% chance that Labour will.

As for UKIP and the threat it poses — it’s clear the bookies regard it as a minor party. UKIP, however, is clearly gambling that the two seats it wins will prove crucial.

A UKIP majority is at 200/1 and the bookies’ predictions for UKIP seats is:

● having no seats – 6/1, after being 8/1 (ie more likely than it was a couple of weeks ago);

● one seat now 11/4 after being 10/3 and 7/2;

● two seats 7/2 after being 4/1 and 9/2 (ie getting more likely);

● three seats 9/2 after being 5/1 earlier (slightly more likely than it was but less likely than two seats or less);

● four seats 6/1;

● five seats 12/1;

● six seats now down to 20/1, drifting from 16/1 and 12/;

● nine seats 33/1, drifting from 25/1 and 20/1.

In percentage terms, this means William Hill thinks UKIP has a 14% chance of winning no seats, 26% chance of winning one seat, a 22% chance of two seats, and is 18% likely to win three seats, the percentages falling away after that.
UKIP currently has two seats, both popular constituency MPs who went for by-elections.

***

The odds of a Lib Dem majority have tumbled in the last week, but only from 1000/1 to 500/1, so we reckon the biggest question is who will win more seats, the SNP or the Lib Dems?

There’s terrible news for the Lib Dems here: the odds for it being SNP are 1/20, a tie is 16/1 and it being the Lib Dems is only at 8/1.

This means that William Hill thinks there’s a 95% chance that the SNP will have more seats in the next Parliament, while the Lib Dems only have a 10% of being bigger than the SNP.

The Liberal Democrats currently have 56 seats in Parliament and the SNP six, while Scotland sends 40 Labour MPs to Parliament.

This seems to mean that William Hill is predicting the total collapse of the Labour Party in Scotland and a partial or total collapse of the Lib Dem vote in England — the SNP seems on course to win most of those Labour seats, giving it (say) 40 Scottish seats in Parliament, leaving the Lib Dems needing to lose only a dozen or so seats to be smaller than the SNP in Parliament.

Interesting! Obviously, if Hill’s are even close to being accurate, these results would probably spell the end of David, Ed, Nick and possibly Nigel, if he’s personally not elected. Nicola, on the other hand, will be queen. Even more interesting!

Unfortunately, William Hill’s second most likely scenario — after no overall majority — is a second General Election this year.
The odds for that are 3/1.

We might be going through it all again…

Smaller numbers often mean better stories

We’ve been trying to keep an eye on politicians, particularly in recent months, and point out any dodgy facts or claims.

But politicians don’t just reside in council halls: our police and crime commissioners are also elected and — unless Labour gets a toehold in government and abolishes them — they’re going to be up for re-election sometime soon.

They’re less likely to attempt to be misleading than regular politicians but we still like to keep an eye on them and Staffordshire’s police and crime commissioner’s regime has been guilty of “big number” syndrome: in other words, using a big number because it looks impressive but omitting the context. We use the word regime on purpose, because we’re not blaming anyone and we don’t think Mr Ellis sits there and dictates the release of information; it’s a cultural thing.

Our curiosity was piqued at the end of the last year when Staffordshire Police issued a Press release on Mr Ellis’ Cars Behind Bars campaign, taking uninsured cars off the road.

Obviously, it’s a good campaign: uninsured drivers are a scourge and the antithesis of a responsible society. They deserve to be caught and we have no problem with the cars being seized.

But the Press release said: “In the last 18 months, a total of 73 higher-value uninsured vehicles have been sold off at auction raising almost £50,000, with the proceeds going back into local communities in Staffordshire.”

It’s the kind of thing you should stop and question, so we did. The £50,000 sounds impressive, as it was meant to — it’s a big number.

But it’s raised from 73 cars, which means, when you stop and think, that each car only raised £684. But the Press release calls the vehicles “higher value”, and we wondered why high value cars only made £700 a pop.

So we sent in an FOI request and got the facts behind the £50,000.

First of all, high value: under the police definition, “higher value” is really “any value” — higher value cars are those with a value of “scrap plus”, and refers to cars that are worth more than their scrap value and storage costs combined.

This pretty much answered our query but we also got a list of the seized vehicles and the results are interesting.
Although there were some actual “high value” vehicles in there, the top price went to a Ford Transit van, which sold for £5,150, nearly £1,000 more than the next best vehicle, a Vauxhall Insignia that sold for £4,560.

Knocking off recovery and other costs, the Transit made £4,781 for police funds and the Vauxhall £4,141.
After these two workhorses there were some genuine surprises: some chump went out on a Harley Davidson while not insured, the police selling it for £3,000 at auction (net total for funds, £2,616.2).

Similarly a BMW 3 Series made £2,720 (£2,351) and an Audi A4 £2,660 (£2,241) but after that, next in the list is a Seat Ibiza at £2,500 (£2,231). A Subaru Impreza sold for £1,460 (£1,141.2).

The vast majority of cars were sold for less than £1,000, with even prestige marques making pennies — an Audi A3 sold for £350 (£200) and a Jaguar X Type for £440 (£171).

At couple at the bottom of the list actually lost the police money — A Citroen C5 just about breaks even, a BMW lost £37.80 after costs were deducted and a Zeijang off road bike cost even more, £68.80.

The makes of car seized reflected the car markets, with Ford (mainly Focus) and Vauxhall the top seized vehicles.
Some trailers also lost money though we mention them to warn uninsured drivers — you’ll lose both your car and your trailer. Bearing in mind the cost of vehicles, the trailers were fairly decent, the seven seized selling between £650 and £500.

All this is not going to win us scoop of the year but it’s a shame that someone is going for a headline figure when there are so many good little stories buried in there that would act as a better deterrent in publicity: that top-selling Transit was possibly owned by a trader who lost his work vehicle, the Harley must have a good story behind it and the trailers are warning that it’s not just the vehicle that’s seized.

Foodbanks: easier to use as weapons than do something about the causes

One topic that politicians are fond of abusing is that of foodbanks.

Some topics seems too explosive for them to take control of, such as the debate on drugs or how the NHS should cope with the fact that it can’t cope with our expectations of it.

Anyone daring to question the current drugs policy — putting the control of a substance with which many of our children have contact in the hands of psychopaths — would be pilloried by the tabloids. Anyone suggesting that the non-state sector might have something to contribute to the NHS as it faces an aging population is ridiculed by opponents for wanting to privatise it.

Similarly foodbanks: no politician can talk seriously about them, because that might mean them admitting that their policies leave people starving. Politics is failing the very poor.

For a start, it’s wrong to say foodbanks are a phenomena of the Tory Party’s rule and a result of changes in the benefits system.

In Congleton, New Life Church’s foodbank has been going for ages but wasn’t called a foodbank — it was called Storehouse and just helped out people in need. There are lots — no-one knows the number — of other unofficial stores, which all existed before foodbanks became news.

The reason foodbanks are in the news is down to The Trussell Trust, the largest operator of foodbanks and the only organisation for which figures exist.

It was founded in 1997 (PM: Tony Blair, Labour in power) and its own website reports that it was in 2000 (still Tony Blair) that it started foodbanks in this country.

It originally started to help people in Bulgaria, using money left by Betty Trussell, mother of co-founder Carol Henderson.

The charity’s website says: “While fundraising for Bulgaria in Salisbury in 2000, Paddy (Carol’s husband) received a call from a desperate mother in Salisbury saying ‘my children are going to bed hungry tonight — what are you going to do about it?’.

“Paddy investigated local indices of deprivation and ‘hidden hunger’ in the UK. The shocking results showed that significant numbers of local people faced short term hunger as a result of a sudden crisis.”

Paddy started Salisbury foodbank in his garden shed and garage, providing three days of emergency food to local people in crisis.

In 2004 the UK foodbank network was launched teaching churches and communities nationwide how to start their own foodbank. That’s 2004 — still Tony Blair, still Labour.

But the rapid ascent of foodbanks is a bit of a meaningless number.

It’s like iPhones: as soon as they were introduced they sold by the bucketload. There was a previously unfilled market out there.

Similar, politicians’ claims about the rise of foodbanks are based on Trussell Trust statistics and reflect the fact that it didn’t exist and then it did, rather than a recent collapse in society.

It’s true that foodbanks grew by 10% under Labour, but that was the early days of the trust. Foodbanks have increased by over 22% under the Tories, but that’s because they are filling a pre-existing demand and the trust is growing.

We should really be asking why politicians of all hues have clearly done nothing about people going hungry for decades.

In effect, the issue has only come to light because a random woman died, her son set up a charity to help in Bulgaria and then randomly met a hungry woman in Salisbury.

We discussed this on Facebook and a common reaction is that foodbanks are frequented by scroungers who could buy food if they wanted but prefer to blow their money on cigarettes and big tellies.

We don’t really buy this: we don’t think people voluntarily beg for food. It’s probably demeaning and embarrassing for many, and of course you can’t just rock up and ask for six tins of beans and fresh loaf. People need to be referred to foodbanks.

According to the Trussell Trust’s 2013/14 report, nearly 1m used its foodbanks though this total does not track repeat visits, so if you went back twice you’d be counted twice.

The trust itself found that two thirds of people only visited once over a six-month period, which gives it 700,000 unique visitors.

There are probably no figures for fraudulent foodbank claims, so here’s a bit of guesswork.

Benefit tax fraud in 2012 was £1.6bn, out of a total benefit budget of £159bn. If you assume that all those people who fraudulently claim benefits also con foodbanks, that means just 1% of users are scroungers — 7,000 people out of 700,000. But that won’t happen and it’s easier to forget to say you’ve got a job than it is to lie face to face to obtain a small supply of food. Spongers are a tiny percentage.

The point is that foodbanks are clearly needed in this country by people who can’t afford to buy food and this seems to be a long-standing problem that politicians have failed to address.

It is not the result of any one party’s policies and certainly not the result of the Tory benefit cuts.

To repeat: we should really be asking why politicians of all hues have clearly done nothing about people going hungry for decades, and why it’s taken members of the public to bring the issues to light.

Whoever wins the election is going to build a lot of houses. . . .

Last week’s column looked at UKIP’s Nigel Farage’s claim that a new house was built every seven minutes to house immigrants: we decided it was true on one reading of the stats, but the country needs one house every two minutes anyway. And it could equally be claimed that far fewer are needed for immigrants — we reckoned one every 28 minutes, not every seven.

The next obvious question is: if we need all those houses, what are the various parties’ policies for house-building?

According to the Confederation of British Industry, Britain needs to build 240,000 houses a year to keep up with population growth. That’s the figure from a body that represents the building industries, and that’s where the two houses a minute comes from.

Writing in advance of the manifesto launches, this proved a little hard to unearth, until someone kindly sent us a Local Government Information Unit briefing (we won’t say who it was in case we’re not supposed to have it). The unit is a think tank that serves local authorities.

Two facts to bear in mind:

(1) The Local Government Association is calling on whoever forms the next Government to allow councils to build 500,000 new homes. The LGA is the cross-party organisations that represents nearly all local councils in the country.

(2) All the main parties are promising to build lots of houses, probably 200,000 to 300,000. To give this context, building started on 137,010 new homes in 2014, 10% higher than in 2013 and the highest annual total since 2007. Whoever gets into power is going to build more houses than we’ve seen in the last 12 months, and keep building for five years. It’s a lot of houses.

The Conservatives have pledged to build 200,000 discounted starter homes for young first-time buyers (and to continue with Help-to-Buy and Right-to-Buy) over the term of Parliament. They don’t say these are council homes, so we assume it’s down to the private sector.

If they built all 200k starter homes over a five-year Parliament, that’s 40,000 a year. If developers build 25% starter homes on any new development (an optimistic figure), that’s 200,000 homes a year, pretty close to the CBI’s figure. If we assume the CBI has inflated the figures a little for its members’ sake, it’s probably about right.

Labour has committed to build “at least” 200,000 new homes per year by 2020, while giving first-time buyers a priority in certain housing growth areas to 125,000 new homes funded by the new first-time buyer ISA. Again, that’s about what we need.

The Liberal Democrats go better and have promised to increase the rate of house building to 300,000 homes per year, more than the CBI says we need. At least house prices would come down.

The Lib Dems would force councils to allocate land to meet 15 years’ housing need in their local plans, which would be bad news for Cheshire East Council, which is struggling to identify five years’ worth. They would also help first-time buyers onto the housing ladder through a Rent-to-Own scheme.

UKIP is a more vague: it says it will protect the Green Belt by changing planning rules and offering developers funding and tax incentives to build one million new homes on brown field land by 2025.

That’s 500,000 new homes in the next Parliament or 100,000 a year for the next five years. This is much less than everyone else, less than we apparently need and less than the number of houses needed even if Nigel Farage’s figure of 74,500 homes built for migrants each year is knocked off the CBI total: UKIP would build 65,500 fewer homes a year than we actually need.

We think Mr Farage is being deliberately vague. He hopes to wield the balance of power in the next Government so most of his policies don’t matter — he’ll agree to support anything as long as the Government takes us out of Europe.

We’ve seen the Green Party mocked for its pledge — to build 500,000 new council homes by 2020 — but as we said above, this is actually the figure requested by the LGA, “the national voice of local government” as its website claims. The Greens also want a “living rent” and rent increases capped to inflation. They would abolish both Right-to-Buy and the “under-occupation’ deduction from housing benefit.

We’re not making any conclusions about this: the facts are that the three main parties are promising enough houses to fill the housing need, the Greens are backing the Local Government Association and UKIP wants to build far fewer houses than we need.

Immigrants’ houses and lost jobs: the myths

Nigel Farage’s claim on the leaders’ debate last week — that we need to build a house every seven minutes to house immigrants — bugged me for several days, until I looked into it.

It turns out it’s kind of true, but filtered through the, er, truth kaleidoscope, of a politician. It’s depressing how politicians of all parties spout figures as fact, knowing that most people are too lazy to look them up.

The facts are these.

The Confederation of British Industries believes Britain needs to build 240,000 houses a year to keep up with population growth. That’s total growth, from a body that represents the building industries.

There are 525,600 minutes a year, which means that the CBI believes one house should be built every two minutes.

The Office for National Statistic (ONS) gives a net migration of 298,000 for 2014. Assuming a household of four people**, those people need 74,500 homes — and this would appear to be the one house every seven minutes that Mr Farage refers to.

This needs to be set against the one house every two minutes we need in total, and ONS figure is all migrants, from footballers and bankers to East European labourers. (To save you working it out, using the CBI recommendation, immigration accounts for 30% of new homes needed).

But the figures don’t account for East Europeans coming over and living 23 to a room in rented squalor, or — a lesser number — for people who come over and go and live with family.

Referring to the former: the Joseph Roundtree Foundation says that 75% of recent migrants live in rented accommodation — that would be 223,500 people, using the ONS figure for net migration. Rented accommodation, by definition, exists, so they don’t want new homes.

That leaves 74,500 immigrants wanting private homes (either for themselves or the people whose houses they buy). Divide by four to get the total number of families and you get migrants needing only 18,600 homes which is 7% of the CBI total.

That’s one house every 28 minutes for migrants, a lot less than Mr Farage’s figure. It’s a crude sum but then so’s Mr Farage’s, so it’s only fair.

And even using the 70k-houses-for-migrants figure, we still need 165,500 houses, or a house every three minutes in total.

** I aired this on Facebook and someone questioned the average family size of four people: the average household in the UK is 2.3 people. But (i) Mr Farage’s figure seems based on a four person household and (ii) the 2.3 average includes pensioners and widow(er)s, who are less likely to want new houses but reduce the average household size, particularly with an ageing population. The UK has a higher percentage of households with three or more children than three-quarters of European Union countries.

***

Sticking with immigration, the facts are hard to pin down, and politicians bend the stats to suit.

To give it some context, I recently heard an interview with American Adam Davidson, an economist and founder of US podcast Planet Money.

He was discussing whether poorly paid immigrants take local jobs, a common complaint both here and in the US.

He said there was “zero debate” among economists that high-skilled migrants — people with degrees — helped the country, and generated wealth.

Turning to unskilled immigrants (eg Mexicans legging it over the border), he said there was a “slight debate”.

He said nearly all economists agree that, long-term, these unskilled workers make Americans better off. The debate centres on whether they hit the income of low-skilled Americans, mainly African American males in inner cities. The most pessimistic put this at $1,000 dollars – unskilled Mexicans cost high school drop-outs in deprived areas about $1,000 a year. This is highly debated, and most economists believe that the unskilled migrants have no effect or a small one, much less than $1,000.

One case study is south Florida, in 1980: 120,000 Cubans landed in a short space of time and 45,000 of these were working age, representing about 7% of that city’s working population.

Economists found this flood of cheap workers had no impact on wages (again, there was some disagreement) but said Mr Davidson: “If you don’t see big effects, you’re probably talking about minor effects”. In other words, the fact that the economists argue about the fine detail means there probably was no big effect.

He said immigrants complemented native workers, not substituted them (in the same way as an iPhone is a substitute to a Samsung but a complement to headphones).

He said immigrants often worked alongside native born workers. He’d studied construction sites in Brooklyn, often seeing two or three native-born skilled Americans owning the company, employing cheap migrants to do the grunt work.

But they weren’t taking local jobs: having cheap labour made contracts cheaper, which made the work more affordable for more people, and so the pie got bigger — more people could afford to use builders and there was more work all round.
Mr Davidson said immigrants were a net burden locally (using health and education services) but a net benefit nationally, as working family members paid tax.

Concluded Mr Davidson: “Immigration is essential. Take away the immigrants and we are in real, real trouble -— look at Japan, they are in profound trouble.”

As Mr Davidson pointed out, America can be very under-populated — Alaska and Montana are among the least densely populated areas in the world — but it’s probably a fair bet that we’d see a similar picture here.

National finances for beginners

Politicians are all vying for your vote and don’t really care if they bend the truth to get it. From a few weeks ago, here’s my simple guide to the national budget. I got a U at GCSE maths so if you spot any mistakes let me know.

DEBT refers to the amount of money owed by the UK Government, built up over many years, by many governments.

This one is easy: someone lends you a tenner and your debt is a tenner.

Net debt is the debt minus the Government’s liquid assets.

Debt has increased in recent years and is now about £1 trillion.

No politician can claim to have reduced debt.

Debt was £811bn around the time the Tories/Lib Dems took over. In December it was £1,111bn.

THE DEFICIT is the difference between the Government’s expenses and its revenues — what it spends and what it gets.

For example: if you borrow £10 a week to meet a shortfall in your income for a month, your debt is £40 and so is your monthly deficit.

The next month your deficit is still £40 but your debt is now £80 (two months at £40).

If you only borrow £20 the next month, you’ve halved your deficit (£40 to £20) but your debt still goes up by £20, to £100. Politicians can thus claim to have halved improved things by reducing the deficit, masking the fact that debts are rising.

It could have been much better: between 1998 and 2001, under Tony Blair, the country had four years of surplus, but Labour just increased the debt.

If Labour claims to have reduced the deficit or run a surplus it won’t mention this.

The Tories (and the next government) are hamstrung because the average growth of public spending is about 3%, and much of this is automatic — rising pensions, for example.

GDP. Debt can also be expressed as a percentage of total economic output, or GDP (“gross domestic product”).

The debt looks better if national productivity is on the increase: if you borrow £50 off a friend and your household has £200 coming in, you’re less financially robust than next door, if they owe £50 but have £400 coming in.

STRUCTURAL deficit is where simple comparisons break down. This is the budget deficit (income v outgoings), adjusted to account for the cyclical nature of the economy. The deficit automatically falls when the economy grows, so the structural deficit excludes the effect of this. It’s the deficit that’s not affected by economic performance.

It’s this more complicated (easier to fiddle, I’d suggest) figure that George Osborne promised to eliminate by 2015-16.

He failed, hence the Tories’ attempts at making up stats to claim some kind of success.

The Government has reduced the structural deficit but not as much as they promised.

Because of this, the Tories are now trying to say they’ve reduced spending as a percentage GDP but this is also untrue.

The debt, £811bn at the 2010 election, was 55.3% of GDP while December’s £1,111bn was 70.7% of GDP.

The national debt is forecast to hit 74.7% of GDP this year and peak at 79.9% in 2015-16, before falling slightly by 2016-17.

At which point whoever is in power will claim the credit.

The UK’s 77% of GDP should also be compared to Japan’s 225%, Italy’s 120% and the US’s 75%.

In the late 1940s, UK debt was over 180% of GDP, and around that time we set up the welfare state and NHS.

Mr Cameron was of course criticised for saying the cuts had not reduced economic growth, when the Office for Budget Responsibility says it has.

From 2002–2007, Labour increased national debt to 37% of GDP (37%!), because it increased spending on health and education (the social security budget also rose).

Whether borrowing to spend on schools and hospitals is good or bad is another debate, but Labour increased the debt.

INVESTMENT BORROWING: it’s also worth knowing that borrowing is both borrowing to fill a revenue deficit and borrowing for investment.

This is like you borrowing £20,000, £5,000 to clear a credit card debt you ran up while out of work (debt) and £15,000 for a house extension (investment, but still a debt).

There IS a difference between the parties here: in 2007, Labour borrowed £37.7bn, of which £28.3bn was investment. In 2013, the Conservative-led coalition borrowed £91.5bn, but only £23.7bn was invested, so the Tories can claim to have cut something, even though this is public sector investment.

As a percentage of GDP, public sector investment has shrunk from 3.5% to 1.5% under the Tories.

As is moderately clear above, a booming economy reduces the deficit (or even creates a surplus) making repayment of debt easier.

Unfortunately politicians of all hues believed the bankers’ claims that it would ever be thus (“No more boom and bust” and all that tosh) and Labour was happy to increase debt while in budget surplus.

After 2008, debt increased sharply because of the recession (lower tax receipts, higher spending on unemployment benefits). This also exposed a structural deficit, caused by excessive spending.

There was also the minor matter of Northern Rock, RBS, Lloyds…

I think I’ve got this right but I’m not the only ones to find it complex: last year David Cameron was told off for saying the Tories were “paying down Britain’s debts” when he meant deficit, the same mistake the-then Moorlands MP made in a letter to the Chronicle a couple of months ago.

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