Time to end uncivil and nasty politics

George W. Bush has congratulated Joe Biden on winning the US presidential election, and called him a “good man” and the election “fundamentally fair”.

Many of us were not particularly impressed with Bush when he was president, but then we could never have imagined anyone as awful as Donald Trump holding that office. Bush’s statement today shows him, if nothing else, to believe in fair play and decency.

In this, Bush takes after his father. Bush senior was the previous US president to lose an election, to Bill Clinton, and only serve one term. When British prime minister John Major called him to commiserate him, Bush told him that he had been impressed with Clinton’s knowledge, adding that he would be “good to work with”. It’s hard to imagine Trump saying that about anyone. (In fact, John Major also made a similar comment about Tony Blair to Bill Clinton after losing to Blair in 1997.)

The late George Bush once said, “Because you run against each other that doesn’t mean you’re enemies. Politics doesn’t have to be uncivil and nasty.” Hopefully, the ousting of the president who those terms describe perfectly can be the start of a return to a politics characterised by civility and fair play on both sides of the Atlantic.

Didcot Power Station cooling towers demolition

At about 7am, the remaining three cooling towers were demolished.

Didcot Power Station cooling tower demolition 1

Didcot Power Station cooling tower demolition 2

Didcot Power Station cooling tower demolition 3

Didcot Power Station cooling tower demolition 4

Didcot Power Station cooling tower demolition 5

Didcot Power Station cooling tower demolition 6

The demolition scared hundreds of birds, which flew around crazily following the explosions, and also set off burglar alarms even a couple of miles away. It also caused a power cut not only in Didcot but in Abingdon, Wantage, Wallingford and further afield, apparently due to an issue at the substation that is right next to the site of the cooling towers.

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Boris Johnson and bus deregulation

With the unfortunate news that Boris Johnson is to be the next prime minister, I thought it a good opportunity to highlight a post from 2007.

Johnson had written in his Telegraph column how bad he considered the bus network in London to be, suggesting that London should adopt the system common throughout the rest of the country, which is effectively a free-for-all where different companies run whatever routes they want, where there is no central timetimetabling or ticketing, and where often it is not possible to use the same ticket on different operators’ services.

In response, the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, had defended London’s buses. As Johnson was at the time MP for Henley, in Oxfordshire, I decided to write a letter to the Telegraph pointing out that buses in Oxfordshire, using Johnson’s proposed system for London, didn’t really work that well. A slightly edited version of the letter was printed in the newspaper.

Johnson became Mayor of London the following year, but his plan to change the way London buses worked never saw the light of day. So that’s Johnson Nil, Me 1…

A net gain for tree protection

There have been a number of reports in the media about the practice of placing nets over trees in order to stop birds nesting, with individuals and organisations complaining about the effects on wildlife, even with petitions and calls to outlaw the practice.

Surely they are missing the point. In many cases, the alternative to having nets over the trees would be that the trees would be cut down, with exactly the same effect on birds’ ability to nest there, only much more permanently, with lots of other adverse effects on the environment too.

Most of the nets have been placed on trees on sites earmarked for development. However, work on trees is not supposed to be done during “bird nesting season”, usually taken to mean between March and August or September. If developers do not remove trees before March, they risk having their plans held up.

Landowners are often not allowed to remove trees when they want to. There are various ways that trees can be protected. The strongest is a Tree Preservation Order (TPO). Individual trees or groups of trees that are considered important, either as specimens or for their contribution to the landscape, can be protected by a TPO. It is then an offence to damage the tree, punishable by a large fine and the requirement to replace the tree in the same spot. Then there are conservation areas. These are areas, often historic parts of a town, that are protected in order to retain their character. This covers changes to buildings but also trees. In addition to TPOs and conservation areas, when a developer gains planning permission to develop a site, certain conditions can be applied. This may include retaining certain trees, or presenting a arboricultural method statement and landscaping plan to the local planning authority. Often, until the conditions are met, no work may be carried on on site.

The nets people are complaining about are largely on sites either where planning permission has been granted, but conditions attached to that permission have not been discharged; or else they are sites where permission has not yet been granted. If placing nets over trees was banned, the risk would be that developers would speculatively remove unprotected trees from sites in case they gain planning permission, to ensure they are not held up by nesting birds. In other cases, where the trees are protected, it may mean the trees survive for one more season before permission to remove them has been granted. But surely people are campaigning on the wrong issue here?

The real problem is too many trees are being removed from development sites. Housebuilders want to squeeze as many houses as possible onto a plot in order to maximise their profits. Commercial developers want to build the largest units they can. Public sector organisations don’t want trees to obscure their shiny new buildings and expensive corporate-style logos. Funnily enough, where trees are covered by a TPO and permission to remove them is refused, developers manage to work around them quite happily. Mature trees are an extremely valuable resource. They are essential for harbouring wildlife, clean the air and make the area a more pleasant place for people to live and work. Instead of campaigning to ban nets, people should be campaigning to reduce the number of trees that are destroyed by developers every year. This should in turn make the use of nets unnecessary as large-scale removal of trees is no longer part of the development plans.

Local councils often come in for a lot of stick, but it’s worth remembering that up and down the country, there are councillors who genuinely care about protecting the environment in the local area, and there are forestry officers who passionately care about trees and will do what they can to stop greedy developers and otherwise unaccountable organisations from removing greenery in order to maximise their profits or their egos. They deserve credit for the work they do. If you see nets on trees, just remember that behind the scenes, council officials are quite possibly trying to stop the trees from being permanently lost as a bird nesting site, or at least ensuring that a decent replacement landscaping scheme is approved before any work starts. Remember: the alternative to tree nets could well be no trees at all.

Tuition fees: Blunkett should do more homework

Former Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett wrote a piece for the Guardian last week, arguing that instead of cutting university tuition fees, the government should reduce the interest rate that applies to the loans that cover repayment of the fees.

I am not going to argue one way or another when it comes to fees. It’s a complex issue. However, Lord Blunkett’s mathematics don’t quite add up, and the article contains at least one glaring error. I have previously written an explanation of the student funding system, which has changed little since it was proposed in 2010.

Lord Blunkett makes the point that a cut in fees would damage some university departments, a claim I have no issue with, and maybe that alone is a reason not to cut fees. However, the remainder of his argument is flawed. He claims that a cut in fees would only benefit (my emphasis) those students who currently pay off their full loan before the 30-year time limit, when any remaining loan is written off. On the other hand, he says a reduction in the interest rate that is charged from the current 6.3% would increase the likelihood of the total amount being repaid.

While 6.3% sounds high in the current period of exceptionally low interest rates, can it really be claimed that cutting this rate has a significantly bigger effect on repayments than reducing the amount borrowed by nearly a third? This is actually not straightforward to calculate as it is necessary to make assumptions about future inflation rates and rises in earnings. However, cutting the original loan amount certainly means that some people who currently would not repay the loan would do so, as the initial amount is smaller, and the amount on which interest is accrued is smaller. Therefore, cutting fees would benefit some people who do not currently pay off their loans in exactly the way that cutting interest rates would.

Lord Blunkett focuses on low earners in his article, and this is where he really should have done his homework. The 6.3% rate already only applies to graduates who earn more than £45,000 – not a small amount. Lower interest rates apply to lower earners, but this is conveniently omitted from the article.

The other glaring error is that the article claims graduates repay their loans by paying 9% of their income each year. This is incorrect, although whether it was really what David Blunkett wrote, rather than a Guardian subediting error, is anyone’s guess. The repayment is 9% of income over £25,000. So someone earning £30,000 pays £450 per year, or 1.5% of their income. And someone earning £25,000 pays nothing. This is the same whatever interest rate applies to the loan. The idea was never that students all paid off their loans, but this is the crucial point that so many people fail to understand.

The tuition fee system is far from perfect, and I wouldn’t like to be the one tasked with sorting it out. However, it doesn’t help when commentators and people in the public eye continue to spread misinformation about it. I grade the former education secretary’s article C- at best.

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