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.

E-cigarettes should not be allowed on buses

No Vaping Sign, 6/2015, Starplex Cinema, by Mike Mozart of TheToyChannel and JeepersMedia on YouTubeI have sometimes found the debate on e-cigarettes a little puzzling. Some experts argue that they are probably not completely safe, and therefore that they should not be allowed, or at least that they should only be allowed on prescription, or from chemists. If e-cigarettes were a completely new, stand-alone activity that had been invented, there might be such an argument. However, the debate is completely changed and distorted out of all proportion by the fact that e-cigarettes are, in the vast majority of cases, used as an alternative to a highly dangerous and addictive product: the conventional tobacco cigarette. The latter is a product that would certainly not be legal if it were invented today, but for unfortunate historical and societal reasons, we are stuck with it for the time being as governments around the world put in a huge amount of effort to persuade people not to use it. Anything that can be used as an alternative that helps people to give up smoking must be welcomed. Even if it is not entirely safe, vaping is clearly much, much less harmful than smoking. If must therefore not be seen as a stand-alone product, but rather in the context of tobacco smoking, and should be at least as easy to obtain and use. Even if a small number of people start to use e-cigarettes who did not previously smoke, I would say that’s a small price worth paying for the health benefits enjoyed by others who give up smoking, and chances are, many of that small minority of non-smokers taking it up might instead have been tempted to start smoking if e-cigarettes were not available.

I therefore cautiously welcome the general thrust of a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which argues that more use should be made of e-cigarettes as a tool to reduce the number of people smoking. However, the BBC News homepage had the slightly sensationalised headline, “Vaping on buses ‘should be considered'”. The actual article has a more sensible title and makes it clear that the MPs call for “a debate on vaping in public spaces, such as on public transport and in offices”, but I find this suggestion a cause for concern. Some news outlets have suggested a change in the law to allow vaping in indoors public spaces, but in fact it is not covered by the smoking ban as it does not constitute smoking. Vaping is generally not allowed on public transport, in workplaces or entertainment venues because the owners of those buildings and vehicles choose to prohibit it, just as they did for smoking for many years before it was banned by law.

While I am quite clear that vaping should be a widely available alternative to smoking even though there is probably a small health risk associated with it, that does not extend to allowing people using e-cigarettes to expose other members of the public to their vapour. The effects of vaping, first- or second-hand, have not been studied in any depth. There is absolutely no reason why a member of the public who chooses to live a clean life and has no wish to smoke or vape should be subjected to either while going about his or her business in public. No-one likes the idea of the “nanny state” where government tells people what to do, but it is sometimes necessary when behaviour causes a burden on the state, such as smoking on the NHS. However, where the government does need to act in a civil society is to protect its citizens from the actions of others. By all means allow people to make choices that may harm their health, within reason; but the wishes of those who do not wish to do so needs to take priority where there is a conflict of interest.

I can see no reason for allowing e-cigarettes to be used in places where smoking is currently prohibited. As long as e-cigarettes are as widely available and convenient to use as conventional cigarettes, surely that’s good enough? While it’s nowhere near as unpleasant as cigarette smoke, vapour in public places still invades others’ personal space; being enveloped in a cloud of vapour can be a strange experience. Sometimes it can have a fruity or perfumed smell, but some people choose to use products that give a smell similar to tobacco smoke, which is quite unpleasant. As I pointed out earlier, smoking would never be allowed if it was discovered today, and nor would smoking in public, yet it took governments many decades to have the courage to ban the latter to a limited extent. The last thing they should consider now is to allow another form of antisocial activity to become entrenched in public, which would then have to be similarly addressed in 10 or 20 years’ time. It would be much more sensible to retain restrictions on where e-cigarettes can be used – which are currently largely voluntary and self-policed; already part of the norms of society – rather than to allow an activity to become normalised in public, and therefore difficult to reverse in the future.

If it is really considered necessary to make vaping more convenient in terms of where it is permitted in order to persuade more smokers to switch, I have a suggestion. It’s about time the current laws on smoking in public places were reviewed. It is still unacceptable to have to breathe in others’ smoke while walking down the street, entering a building or waiting at a bus stop. Instead of increasing the number of places people are allowed to vape, why not restrict where they can smoke? Vapour is less unpleasant and less likely to trigger someone’s asthma as they walk along the street, or get into office air conditioning units as smokers congregate outside. A purely indoor ban on vaping is sufficient to protect others. On the other hand, smoking could be much more heavily restricted to remove the last remaining pockets of unpleasantness that non-smokers – including ex-smokers keen not to re-start – have to face daily. Make the office smoking point vaping-only, and tell people to leave their cigarettes at home.

New BBC Weather page with MeteoGroup forecast

In 2015, it was announced that the Met Office had lost the contract to provide the BBC’s weather for the first time since forecasts started in 1922, with the contract instead going to MeteoGroup. Towards the end of last year, it was announced that MeteoGroup were behind schedule in their work towards providing the BBC’s forecasts, so the contract with the Met Office had to be extended until March.

This week, I discovered that the BBC Weather website looked different in one of my browsers. They must be selecting people at random to try the new MeteoGroup-powered website. Not only is the data provider changing, but it seems the BBC have taken the opportunity to tinker with the layout of their weather pages.

The new BBC Weather website, with forecasts from MeteoGroup
The new BBC Weather website, with forecasts from MeteoGroup

The new page has a wider layout with an updated look and feel. As is now increasingly common in an era when people are switching to tablets, the page is shorter, to avoid the need to scroll on a landscape screen. One thing that is immediately noticeable is the lack of colours indicating the temperatures throughout the day. The BBC tried to remove these in a previous update in 2011, and ended up having to add them back after “user feedback”. In fact, the colours are present in the new layout for the daily average temperatures, but as far less prominent stripes of colour below the daily forecast (or above the currently selected one). The colours are, however, not used at all for the hourly temperatures, a reversal of the previous situation. Another change is that there is no longer an option to switch between “graph” and “table” views, with the graph view forced on everyone. I happen to prefer the view with the temperatures lining up, but this choice has been taken away. Details such as the humidity and pressure were previously only visible on the five-day forecast page in table view, so these are currently missing.

Thankfully, the BBC has retained its classic weather symbols on the new page. The wind speed indicators have switched to a circular outline rather than filled circles. There is also a new symbol and a percentage, showing the probability of rain during that hour.

The old BBC Weather page with data from the Met Office, showing the "Table" view
The old BBC Weather page with data from the Met Office, showing the “Table” view

The new layout looks OK, but they really need to bring back the colours for all the temperature values, and also the option of table mode with all the old data. But how about the quality of the new forecasts from MeteoGroup? Clearly, it’s too early to say how accurate the forecasts will be from the new provider. Having said that, on the day I took the screenshots above, MeteoGroup said the next hour’s weather would feature hail showers. The Met Office’s version predicted sunny spells. Out of the window: nice and sunny. While I realise it’s not exactly a thorough comparison, it’s possibly not the best of first impressions of the MeteoGroup forecast.

Of course, anyone who objects to the Met Office being replaced like this can always go directly to the Met Office website. This should contain exactly the same information as the old BBC forecasts. Unfortunately, it does lack the bold BBC weather symbols, instead having its own cartoon-like versions, and the differing shades of orange are no match for the familiar BBC temperature colours. It does, however, have more details about weather warnings, and includes some additional information, for example giving both the wind speed and maximum gust speed separately (the BBC usually give the former, but switch to showing gusts once they are over 40mph, which is why the wind speeds reported always jump from the 20s to 40s and never show a value in the 30s!)

The same weather forecast on the Met Office site
The same weather forecast on the Met Office site

The Met Office site also carries advertising, despite being a .gov.uk branded site. The BBC, of course, never features advertising, so we have the slightly bizarre situation of being able to view a forecast from the private MeteoGroup free of advertising, or a forecast from the UK Meteorological Office complete with adverts.

I feel some sort of Greasemonkey script or similar is in order to restore the perfect weather page. How about the new BBC page but with colours; or the Met Office page with the BBC’s symbols and colours? The numbers used for the image filenames on the Met Office site are identical to those on the old BBC site, ranging from 0 for a clear sky at night, to 31 for a rather alarming-looking whirlwind symbol, which thankfully we do not usually see in UK forecasts. Hopefully, though, no hacking will be required, and “user feedback” will ensure the best aspects of the old layout will be retained in a way that works with the new data from MeteoGroup. But anyone who tires of spurious warnings of hail showers will know where to look for a second opinion.

Airbnb: Turning homes into hotels

The original premise of Airbnb seemed like a good one. If someone had a spare room, they could let it out as a bed and breakfast room to bring in an extra bit of cash. The person staying would be a guest in their host’s home, meet them, probably chat with them in the evening, and share breakfast in the morning. However, Airbnb has turned into something quite different. It is now used by professional landlords to let out entire properties on a day-by-day basis. Unsurprisingly, a landlord can make much more money from such short-term lets than they can from a long-term tenant paying monthly.

Turning a home into a de facto hotel is quite unfair on the neighbours, who have to put up with different people arriving each day or week, and with guests’ behaviour, which may not be of the same high standard as when they are at home. Councils are starting to take action, with London banning property owners from letting them out short-term for more than 90 days per year, and there are plans to introduce a similar restriction in other cities such as Edinburgh and Liverpool.

The Rotunda, Birmingmam. By Erebus555, CC BY-SA 3.0 licenceThe craze for turning homes into hotel rooms has been around longer than Airbnb, however. In 2007, the Rotunda, an iconic, cylindrical office building in Birmingham, was extensively refurbished and converted into apartments. Due to its location and being a famous building, these flats sold for a hefty premium. A significant number, however, were bought by a company trading as Staying Cool, for use as “serviced apartments”. I thought at the time that this was simply a euphemism for turning them into hotel rooms. It seemed rather unfair on people who had bought their apartments to live in, for them to discover they were sharing the building with a hotel, despite no planning permission existing for such a use. Today, some of these rooms are available for £300 or more per night.

It seems a grey area exists where “serviced apartments”, including Airbnb-style lets, are concerned. English planning law defines various use classes. Class C1 is for hotels, and class C3 for “dwellinghouses”. Most homes will only have planning permission for C3, and indeed the Rotunda was granted change of use to class C3. Why, therefore, are people allowed effectively to run hotels from their properties? The idea of planning law is that local councils can decide whether a certain site is appropriate for use as a hotel, particularly regarding nuisance caused to neighbours. It’s unlikely a few flats in a building would be given such permission unless certain facilities were provided, maybe even a separate entrance and lifts.

The solution to the problem of Airbnb could be to tighten up the planning rules. If someone wants to let out a single room, as was the original idea of Airbnb, of course that should be allowed, as long as it only involves letting out part of the property, and the host actually lives there too. If, however, it’s a case of letting out whole apartments as hotel suites, change of use to C1 should be required, and then it would be up to the authorities to decide whether such use is appropriate. Landlords should not be able to profit hugely from turning their properties into hotels at the expense of people who are looking for somewhere to live, and people who have the enjoyment of their homes ruined by holidaymakers or party-goers.

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