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Saturday, 11 June 2011

The economics of refuse collection

It is, paradoxically, good news that Eric Pickles has failed in an effort to force local councils to collect domestic refuse every week. Not that weekly collection, or even daily collection, is a bad thing, but it is no business of central government, and certainly no business of the EU, to micromanage local arrangements for refuse collection and disposal. 

For decades, the unit costs of refuse collection in real terms have fallen. Initially, in response to high labour costs, dustbins were no longer collected from back doors but had to be moved to the edge of the curtilage for collection. Then black sacks* at the edge of curtilage, then black sacks at edge of footway, then wheely bins at edge of footway. At the same time refuse freighters got bigger and were fitted with compactors to reduce the number of trips to discharge. Now that transport and fuel costs are the challenge, economies are being made with the freighters themselves. These long-run cost adjustments saw the annual cost of refuse collection fall to around £30 per household - the price of a couple of cinema tickets. Not bad in anyone's book. And there were no appreciable economies of scale; the minimum economic size of a refuse collection round is one that keeps one crew and one vehicle fully employed and further savings from running 1,000 are marginal. So a perfect local service.
It was, of course, the EU that distorted the whole thing to the great cost of British householders. First with recycling targets, and then with landfill reduction targets. Recycling targets have pretty well doubled collection costs - to collect separate waste streams you need pretty well twice as many vehicles and crews for the same overall mass of refuse. Or you need to halve collection frequency with the same fleet. Landfill targets have hit disposal costs with the imposition of a punitive landfill tax. The offsetting income from the sale of recycled material has been minimal, and certainly hasn't covered the increased collection and disposal costs.

The positive externalities, the environmental benefits, simply don't stack up. Firstly, there's absolutely no shortage of landfill in the UK. Secondly, much of the waste collected as 'recyclable' isn't. It's either too contaminated or too poor quality to be sold, or there's no market for it, or even that (councils being institutionally dim-witted) it actually degrades the environment. Councils converting collected garden waste to compost, for example, in open windrowed heaps are actually causing 16x more dangerous greenhouse gas (methane) to be emitted  than had the householder burned it on a back-garden bonfire (CO2). So massive volumes of 'recyclable' material actually ends up in landfill. The only reason it's collected is that the EU counts the %age of recyclable waste collected, not the %age of waste recycled. Once you've collected your target, you can tick the box and dump it to landfill. 

Let's hope for a long, hot, sweltering Summer with several 'Unite' strikes thrown in; as putrescent waste rots into a heaving mass of maggots and stench in the fortnightly wheely bins and overflowing waste spills fox-strewn across the footways with used nappies stuck to the soles of householders' trainers and black clouds of bluebottles filling every kitchen. Only then will the real impact of the EU on ordinary lives be apparent. 

*I once sat in an Edinburgh tea room to overhear two elderly Morningside ladies discussing whether they were getting enough 'blaeck sex'. After spluttering my coffee I worked out they were not discussing ebony lovin'. 

Friday, 10 June 2011

Blair hasn't grown in wisdom

Blair was never the sharpest knife in the drawer. His wife Cherry has always been the one with the brains. Yet I suppose there's there's always the lingering hope that if he spends enough time in the proximity of clever and wise people that some of it might rub-off. The reports of his most recent interview for the Times (£) suggest it hasn't worked, and that the man hasn't grown in wisdom at all. The more he tries to wear the toga of a Statesman, the more he appears a naive, silly and crass little man with unformed and jejune opinions so asinine that no respectable journal should give them much heed, the more he draws attention to his own failure. 

Margaret Thatcher of course was a consummate Statesman of a competence recognised across the political spectrum and Blair squats in her shadow like a pygmy. The Telegraph piece quotes her final book Statecraft, “that such an unnecessary and irrational project as building a European superstate was ever embarked upon will seem in future years to be perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era.”. Folly. Foolish. Failure. Blair. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The limits of the State

As a footnote to the post below, to the growth of 'insidious encroachments by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding' that so constrains true liberty, I came across the words of Edmund Burke again this morning, on the limits of the State:
That the State ought to confine itself to what regards the State, or the creatures of the State, namely, the exterior establishment of its religion; its magistracy; its revenue; its military force by sea and land; the corporations that owe their existence to its fiat; in a word, to every thing that is truly and properly public, to the public peace, to the public safety, to the public order, to the public prosperity.
The creeping and suffocating mass of petty rules, regulations, licences, permissions, constraints and proscriptions enacted and enforced by what Nisbet terms 'invisible government' forms our real chains; the most proximate threat to our freedom and liberty is not the despot, but the Council prodnose, the clerk, the petty functionary. Often schooled only in one single section of one single Act of Parliament or one Statutory Instrument, these minor parasites nevertheless intrude offensively into the everyday lives of us all. As Nisbet puts it
But of far greater importance in the· realm of freedom is that invisible government created in the first instance by legislature and executive but rendered in due time largely autonomous, is often nearly impervious to the will of elected constitutional bodies. In ways too numerous even to try to list, the invisible government-composed of commissions, bureaus, and regulatory agencies of every imaginable kind-enters daily into what Tocqueville calls "the minor details of life."
It's control over the funding of this 'invisible government' that will be critical to limiting and even shrinking it; Richard North's 'Referism' at a local level can deprive the State of the means of regulating and enforcing EU law in your borough, even if it can't get us out of Europe, or stop Brussels making regulations. 

Take Trading Standards departments. These used to be consumer protection bodies, the people to whom you complained about shoddy goods or sub-standard work. These days, an army of barely-qualified lawyers on conditional fee agreements will undertake such work without involving the State at all; which is just as well, for the Trading Standards departments now have no time for the public. They're almost wholly engaged on enforcing EU and Parliamentary regulations, entrapping retailers in selling scissors to under-18s, making sure shops don't sell incandescent light bulbs or herbicides. So abolish 'em. Just get rid of them. It's do-able. 

Let's get a list together of all the useless regulatory functions carried out by our councils. An FOI request will reveal the cost, and passing the details to your local paper will give them the ammunition - that the council is closing the library, but keeping half a dozen prodnoses to spy on shops to see if they sell booze to teens. 

The legislation may require councils to enforce these petty regulations, but it doesn't prescribe the resources that must be applied. If we can get our local councils down to a single clerk responsible for enforcing the lot, we'll still be within the law. But our lives will become immeasurably better. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Whatever happened to ..... Sociology?

In the 1970s you couldn't turn the radio or the television on without a Sociologist popping up. The new concrete universities fell over themselves offering Sociology degrees, thousands of students read the same half-dozen entry level textbooks then available and academic reputations were built on more-radical-than-thou self publicity. Although many did become social workers of one variety or another, many more became civil servants. The discipline was universally left-wing in the UK; the credo of sociology was based on the power of the State and the right of the State to regulate other people's lives based on the sound scientific principles of Sociology. But there was a problem. Real scientists (of whom there were still a few about in the 1970s) denied that it was a science at all, and placed it firmly in the arts / humanities schools. The term 'social science' was therefore coined, meaning stuff that couldn't be verified by independent experimentation, but that claimed scientific credentials nonetheless.

And so it was to a large extent across the Atlantic. UCLA and Sociology went together like pork and beans. Except the Americans produced the curiosity that never survived in Britain; a right-wing sociologist. Robert Nisbet was schooled on Edmund Burke and de Tocqueville rather than Max Weber or Karl Marx. And he had the temerity to write
The greatest single revolution of the last century in the political sphere has been the transfer of effective power over human lives from the constitutionally visible offices of government, the nominally sovereign offices, to the vast network that has been brought into being in the name of protection of the people from their exploiters. It is this kind of power that Justice Brandeis warned against in a decision nearly half a century ago: "Experience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when the governments' purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachments by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."
In fact, if there's one essay I would urge you to read this year, if you're not already familiar with it, it's Nisbet's 1976 "The New Despotism". Not only does it stand the test of time, but it sets out clearly, succinctly and unambiguously the ideals and the threats that are more significant than ever and that have brought many true Liberals together on 'Orphans of Liberty'

As for sociology, it is so equated with the evils of Rousseau, Marx, Central Statism and the tyranny of Welfarism backed by the law (see Booker's various columns) that it's out of tune with both Blue Labour and Blond's Red Tories, both of which movements are communitarian rather than Statist, local rather than central, horizontal rather than vertical in approach. 

Monday, 6 June 2011

I should have what he's got ...

From the 'Mail' today :-
For three years, Mrs Palmer kept a detailed diary on his activities – including sessions in his garden hot tub with women, and when he had sex in his bedroom. In one of her notes, she wrote: ‘I saw Mr Collins in his hot tub with two women. He said “get your t**s out, b****”.’ In her diary, she also recorded when women stayed overnight with Mr Collins. And she noted the comings and goings of male visitors, some of whom ‘wore baseball caps’. 'I could hear Mr Collins in his hot tub,’ she said. ‘The music changed to panpipes to which Mr Collins was occasionally shouting “Oh yes, oh yes”.’
Mr Collins, who is on incapacity benefit, was fined £100 for breaching the noise abatement order, and faces a further bill of £365 in legal costs after failing in an appeal.
In publishing Mrs Palmer's and Mr Collins' addresses (12 and 14 St Julian Grove, Colchester respectively) the Mail has probably ensured an anonymous supply of interesting electrical appliances for Mrs Palmer and a stream of intrigued female callers for Mr Collins - so win-win, really.  

Sunday, 5 June 2011

It's bedrooms that count

As an amateur architectural historian one of the most fascinating aspects of our evolution has been the way we have slept in England over the centuries. From everyone curled up on the floor of the Hall, to the Solar, a tiny separate room for the Lord and his family, to the early modern adoption of two separate rooms for parents and for offspring (with servants on the floor), to the hugger-mugger jammed in 18th century of strangers sharing beds, to the Victorians' exact hierarchy of spaces and sharing our social progress has been mirrored by our sleeping arrangements. In the last century scientific socialism, in the Parker-Morris report, tabled out the State's allocation of sleeping space to the people; one person needed a dwelling of 33m2 with one bedroom, two persons needed a slightly larger dwelling with one bedroom. And so on. It was a space rationing system that would have been familiar to those in the Soviet gulags, and completely alien to the notion of private ownership and choice. 

However, fools such as Andrew Rawnsley and George Monbiot who still believe it's the business of the State to regulate how many bedrooms each of us has are still spawning the fatuous rubbish in our newspaper columns. Rawnsley in today's Observer calls for more housebuilding to get the young onto the property ladder, and offers the following asinine comment;
In just one year, 1953, Harold Macmillan presided over the construction of 300,000 new homes. He understood that a property-owning democracy could not be realised unless there were enough properties.
And there was me thinking he was just urgently replacing the housing stock destroyed by German bombing.

Monbiot honestly can't understand why, between 2003 and 2008, there was a 45% increase in the number of under-occupied houses; 37% of dwellings, nearly all owner-occupied, are now officially classed as under-occupied. Monbiot agonises;
Why is this happening? I've spent the past few days wading through official figures to try to find out. None of the most obvious explanations appear to fit.
Well George, try this. Over this period the government, planners and housebuilders delivered dense developments with large numbers of studios and one-bedroom flats because that's what the demographics suggested the rationing-system should produce. Then they insisted that a third of them be occupied by bad neighbours - as social housing. Young homebuyers aren't stupid. They realised that such properties were a poor investment, losing value immediately on purchase, and hard to resell when the lifts were full of social housing piss and the stairwells full of social housing crack-foil. So they shunned them. They were bought instead by first-time buy-to-letters cashing in on high rents and easy Housing Benefit. Many of these developments therefore became instant slums, and discouraged even more young buyers from investing in them. What they bought instead were two and three bedroom homes, many older, away from social housing, and that were decent investments. In many areas the price of an older two-bed property was equivalent to that of a new studio - a no-brainer, one would have thought. The surge in under-occupancy, in other words, was a direct result of attempts to distort the housing market through planning controls and land rationing and of social engineering experiments. 

To 'correct' this, Monbiot wants more social engineering in the form of taxing those with empty bedrooms and Rawnsley simply imagines we're still not building enough studios and one-bedroom flats. Silly targets such as those adopted by Boris that are based on the number of dwellings rather than the number of bedrooms also encourage the distortion of the market and the creation of new ghettoes. It's bedrooms that count.