19 November 2013

Has local government in London left cycling in the wrong lane?

A couple of months ago I wrote to the Crown Estate about its bike-unfriendly redevelopment of London’s Haymarket area, and was rather surprised when their London team offered to meet me and set out Crown’s cycling credentials. I was encouraged to see the company's new Central London developments have fabulous facilities for bike commuters, with showers, lockers, and ramps that allow you to ride straight into the basement parking space.

The past decade has seen an explosion in two-wheeled travel across the capital, while car use has declined. Recent data shows that cyclists make up to two thirds of traffic on certain parts of London’s roads. This is hardly unexpected, given the cost of tube travel and packed conditions. So Crown knows that letting its buildings means accommodating the rocketing numbers of people who ride to work.

But, as we discussed the Haymarket redevelopment over coffee, I realised that the challenge facing Crown is that while car use is falling, budget freezes mean parking revenue has become much more important to the balance sheets of London’s inner city authorities. This is problematic for new cycling infrastructure, as installing bike lanes comes at the expense of income-generating street parking.

Catering for cars might superficially help local authorities’ coffers, but a string of studies have shown that bike lanes, locking points, etc. give huge boosts to local businesses: New York City’s recent flagship bike lane on 8th and 9th Avenues led to local shops enjoying a 49% increase in sales. Saving the £1,216 cost of a Zone 2 annual travelcard frees up money to spend in the local economy, and gets people off our overcrowded tubes and trains during rush hour.

None of this washes with Westminster City Council (Crown’s local authority counterpart). The council would be hauled in front of the Competition Commission if its parking business model was the product of anything other than geography – incidentally only a third of Westminster’s households have access to a car. Sadly, as things stand, it’s difficult enough trying to find somewhere to lock up a bike before going shopping in the West End, wasting valuable time that could be spent in the shops and cafes that pay the council’s rates.

The recent spate of cyclist deaths on London’s roads is, obviously, terrible news. But I fear that the cycle lobby’s focus on fixing the Mayor’s flagship Cycle Superhighways misses a deeper problem: how we get the various tiers of local government to confront the sustained change in our transport use. The private sector manifestly gets where the market is at, as was clear when I saw Crown’s magnificent cycling facilities. Unfortunately, our politicians are stuck making rational decisions based on the perverse incentives of the city’s disjointed government structure. With London’s population gaining an extra 600,000 by 2020, this muddled approach is clearly unsustainable. Bold decisions are required.

First published by Coffee House on November 19th, 2013

8 November 2013

Let’s celebrate 20 years of rail privatisation

Being a Guardian-reading Tory can be rather trying. I switched to the Grauniad a decade back for the paper's superlative arts coverage – I'm a photographer by trade – but also because as a Tory the political slant is like having a cold shower every morning. Reading it over toast and coffee means I'm fired up and know what the enemy is thinking. One of my friends (a government whip under Blair) does the exact thing in reverse, and wouldn't start the day until he'd worked his way through the Telegraph.

But every so often there are times when Toynbee et al become a bit much. This week marks the 20th anniversary of railway privatisation, which the the paper commemorated with a hatchet piece, the essence of which is summed up by the tirade that the 'supposed free-marketeers are gleefully happy about state ownership of British assets, as long as it's somebody else's state that's doing it'. This view – and wider yearning for British Rail – pervades our society, including many of those firmly in of the centre-right. I've even heard senior people in our party mumble that perhaps it was a privatisation too far.

And hankering after BR misses the essence of why we as Conservatives believe that the market, privatisation, competition – call it what you will – is the best way to serve the public need. The issue isn't about who owns the company delivering our rail services (or telephones, electricity, etc.) but ensuring that you and I get a better service as a result of companies in competition with each other.

In the case of our rail network this means franchise operators knowing that if they don't perform they will lose their business at the end of their contract. Yes, we know that the Department for Transport has issues with administering this process, but consider this: for the first time since 1948 the railways now return money to the taxpayer, rather than depending on massive subsidies that successive governments have tried to reduce. Profit isn't filthy, as faux revolutionary Russell Brand would have you believe, it's bloody great because Britain's railways are now running efficiently – and competition from operators across Europe has driven this. Besides, British firms like Go Ahead and Stagecoach have operations abroad. The foreign ownership thing goes both ways.

Perhaps the best example of how the markets work is the demise of Britain's locomotive manufacturing industry. We don't have many train builders left over here, and when our wonderful old InterCity125s were recently renovated the new engines were sourced from MTU, a company based in Friedrichshafen that built Zeppelin motors in World War One. Almost enough to make you think that Brunel would be turning in his grave, until you realise that German MTU was acquired by British Rolls-Royce two years ago. What the Guardian would make of that I don't know.

“Ahh, but train tickets are exorbitant!” comes the protest. I did some research into this, and found a piece* by Barry Doe – the leading commentator on UK ticket prices – which points out that despite all the recent coverage of ticket price increases most franchises have either frozen or reduced their season ticket prices in real terms since 1995. And in that time the cost of the single that I buy from Southern when I go down to visit Dad in Sussex has actually fallen – in real terms – by 7%.

Of course with wage stagnation and rising commodity prices travel is still expensive, and some of the franchises have yet to bring costs down (SouthEastern season tickets have seen a 25% price increase) but the situation isn't quite what the headlines would have you believe. Not bad going for a system that many of us are happy to criticise at will.

* Doe's 'Fare Dealer' article appeared in Rail 731 – not available online, sadly

First published by Platform 10 on November 8th, 2013

6 November 2013

The Camino offers an insight into the European debate

The Camino de Santiago is the historic pilgrimage route across northern Spain, and as a cultural melting pot it had the recent misfortune of being dramatised as a ghastly film, packed with characters you’d normally walk a long way to escape.

Fortunately the reality is much better, and when I walked the 650 miles from Lourdes to Finisterre this summer the sole person I consciously avoided was an American college kid who sauntered along singing at the top of his voice while emitting a powerful body odour. That he was dressed only in boxer shorts with feathers in his dreadlocks didn’t help matters.

Nonetheless it’s the people who make the Camino a lifetime experience, and offering some wonderful insights into the differences in mentalities across Europe and further afield. I spent the first week plodding across the Pyrenean foothills in endless rain, without seeing a single soul walking west. Company came in the form of random encounters with the locals, particularly around meals. A priest from India at the Bétharram Monastery wanted to talk about the great batsmen his country had produced as we drank broth seated on the long benches of the refectory, with the other monks completely confused until we moved on rugby. And the waiter at one of the bistros who resignedly acknowledged that the French way of life was doomed, which seemed pretty reasonable given that most shops seemed only to be open for a couple of hours in the morning, and with local farms still almost pre-industrial in their miniature form.

On the morning of my third day the butcher in Arundy attached a large scallop shell (the traditional symbol of pilgrims en route to Santiago) to my pack, and from then onwards every boulangerie was a chance to warm up and talk to the intrigued locals, although saying I was walking to Santiago felt fraudulent given that Galicia was still a fair few mountain ranges – and 1000km – away.

So making it to the popular starting point of St. Jean Pied-de-Port after a week on the road was a bit of a relief. Passing through the town’s fortified Porte St. Jacques I was met by a cacophony of languages, frenzied unwrapping of new equipment and nervous anticipation of the first major challenge of the main Camino: following Napoleon’s steep route over the Pyrenees. The sharp early morning climb wasn’t brutal enough to stop the wild hand gestures and emotional outpourings of the girl from California. Nor did it stifle conversation with the chain-smoking chap from Stuttgart, who didn’t understand that a ‘C’ in GCSE German meant my grasp of his language was limited to menus and the occasional war film, and constructing sentences with ‘potato salad’ and ‘hands up’ didn’t seem conducive to the spirit of the walk, or European harmony.

The route itself is inherently cultural rather than deeply scenic, but that’s part of the joy of traversing a large country – you take the rough with the smooth. The back streets of Spain’s isolated villages revealed some of the Iberian Peninsula’s desperate poverty, interspersed with stonkingly beautiful towns: medieval Viana, where Cesare Borgia is buried, was particularly pretty. Dormitories ranged from charmless municipal accommodation to the isolated medieval pilgrims’ hostels where Mass was celebrated by candlelight. And of course the mountains of Galicia were spectacular, more than making up for the afternoon spent walking past Burgos airport and endless kilometres trudging along roadside footpaths.

Hours of conversation with my fellow pilgrims (very few of them British) as we passed though countless settlements also hammered home some important cultural differences. Dutch incredulity at Spain’s lavish yet half-built motorways that intersected our route. The abundance of hairdressers in the smallest of French villages, and American bewilderment at poor European service. The spectacular mountain settlement of La Faba that was run by a German confraternity, where for the first time in weeks I enjoyed a clean shower that worked, with immaculate bunks and a laundry service, my thanks for which were met with a blank “What else did you expect? We are German!”

There were – of course – frequent sightings of flagpoles flying the gold stars of the European Union. I pointed out to my Spanish companion that this enthusiasm would be unthinkable in England, much to his surprise. “Really?” he asked. “Surely we’re all brothers? Aren’t you proud of Europe in the UK?” I felt awful breaking it to him that back in Blighty the EU is seen as a cousin at best – the sort you hear very little from during the year, before agonising about deleting from the family Christmas card list.

First published by Egremont on November 6th, 2013. Read the daily blog I wrote while walking the Camino at matthewsoccasionaladventures.blogspot.co.uk

13 August 2013

Ignore Labour's rage against the machines

Two months ago I walked into the railway station at Biarritz. Without thinking I headed to the ticket machine on the concourse, pressed the small Union Jack on the touchscreen, and thirty seconds later had my ticket in my hand. Very simple and stress free, which is unsurprising as modern ticket machines are beacons of sanity for the international traveller. I remember the palaver at the Polish Railways ticket counter at Wrocław in 2006, when I was saved by a local in the queue behind me who could translate ‘could I have a single to Poznan for the early morning train tomorrow, and do I have to buy a supplementary ticket for my bicycle?’ Give me a machine every time.

Yesterday, Labour and the TSSA started making a huge song and dance about leaked plans that most of London’s tube station ticket offices are to be closed and replaced by 20 ‘travel centres’ in the major hub stations. Ominously, we’ve been told that – horror of horrors – ‘passengers would have to use automatic machines instead’. Labour’s London spokesman (and rumoured 2014 Mayoralty hopeful) Sadiq Khan told us that this will have a ‘devastating effect’ on commuters.

Old London Transport ticket machines (wemadethis.co.uk)
All of which is complete nonsense. London’s workers are already perfectly happy buying their weekly and monthly tickets from the Oyster machines, and I suspect that tourists to the UK would get better treatment at dedicated travel centres rather than the local ticket counter – if indeed it is open. Most of London’s visitors are already happily navigating their way through computerised menus in their own language, just as I did in Biarritz. I can’t actually remember the last time I used a ticket office, although I think when I did the upshot was being given some sort of ghastly form that I had to post to TfL HQ. Now you can probably fill in that paperwork online; meanwhile, the latest generation of touchscreen machines is guiding Joe Public through a bewildering array of ticket-based adventures.

Of course, this ticket office hoop-la is another example of Labour's inability to stand up to the transport unions. It is madness to be arguing for the value of a chap in a cubby-hole when in most instances a machine will do the same job better. Mick Carney’s predecessors at the TSSA must have felt the same way about automatic ticket barriers – ‘dreadful things that don’t offer the certainty of a ticket clipped by a friendly conductor’ – or something like that, I imagine. Certainly, the failure to embrace modern staffing practices across Britain’s railways in the 1960s did irreparable damage to the economics of operating trains and stations, for which Harold Wilson’s governments need to shoulder a lot of the blame.

These days budgets are leaner, and failing to take advantage of modern ticketing technology ties up funds that TFL would otherwise invest in new trains, signalling and step-free access to stations, all of which are essential to the bothersome business of moving people around. And wasting money on keeping the unions happy pushes up fares – hitting those on the breadline disproportionately hard, which makes Labour’s stance all the more puzzling.

First published by Coffee House on August 13th, 2013

17 May 2013

Power ballads and funny hats: why Eurovision matters

I love the Eurovision Song Contest. Tragically for me it isn't some sort of ironic interest based on poking fun at the funny hats, weird beards and implausible busts – I actually have the wretched thing in my diary and look forward to it each year, although up until now it's been something of a secret shame.

Carola sings Evighet in Melodifestivalen 2006 (STV)
The Swedes are to blame. In 2006 I lived in Stockholm, and they take Eurovision rather more seriously over there. Melodifestivalen is the country's annual talent show that selects their Eurovision entry, and I was horrified to find my friends, who previously exuded Scandinavian cool, staying in to watch it with unnerving enthusiasm. Carola was the eventual winner: her act was typical schlager, a wonderful Swedish word that sums up all the craziness of Eurovision-esque power ballads, cheesy dance music and lengthy hair billowing with wind machines running at full tilt. Carola's song reached #1 in the domestic charts, was promoted around Europe and finished a very credible fifth in the year Finnish monster rock act Lordi swept away all before them.

But I think the whole Eurovision business neatly sums up some of the failings we have in understanding our European partners. Our entries – recently more towards the nul points end of the spectrum – mean we've become accustomed to sneering at the madness on stage each year, and consoling ourselves with just how good the British music industry really is. The red tops do their best to drum up interest in whatever act the BBC has strong-armed onto a plane, but inevitably singing in Eurovision is seen as a hospital pass, with the contest joining siestas, eating horses, long road trips Eastwards and all the other clichés we like to belittle Europe with. We're just too cool for Eurovision.

So when it comes to the actual contest finals the unfortunate performer we've dispatched invariably doesn't stand a chance against acts who are rather more established, and who see Eurovision as an opportunity to build their profiles as commercial recording artists. I had no idea who Bonnie Tyler is, so I asked my cousin, who described her thus: 'I think she's a... something from the... I'm not entirely sure actually'. The Sun charitably called her a veteran. Either way her Eurovision song won't be gaining much airtime in the bars and clubs around London, whereas the opposite was true for Loreen in Stockholm last year.

We did actually choose someone decent a while ago – Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a song for Jade Ewen in 2009, took her on tour around the Eurovision nations and ended up delivering our best result in years. Casting my mind back I seem to remember Britain being genuinely excited about the 2009 competition because Jade actually had a chance of winning. Her career progressed as a result, showing that Eurovision is worthwhile if you actually engage in it seriously, rather than dismiss it as a stitch-up by scheming foreigners.

Likewise griping about bloc voting (when all the Nordic countries vote for each other, etc.) betrays another misunderstanding about Europe. In the democratic voting-by-text era people still stubbornly dish out high points for their neighbours – just as we do with Ireland. But this primarily reflects the degree of cultural integration across the regions of Europe, which makes sense when you put it in context with UK voting – many of the German acts feel like something we might actually hear on the radio, whereas Latvian music just sounds weird. As a result Germany and the UK regularly (indeed reliably) vote for each other. Just don't call it an Anglo-German voting pact – it's just another one of Europe's many little cliques built on proximity and interaction.

First published by Egremont on May 17th, 2013

18 April 2013

The choices Thatcher gave us

At the tender age of 34 I'm really a bit too young to remember much of the Margaret Thatcher years. I can certainly recall where I was when she resigned – walking down my primary school corridor, and passing the much feared French teacher's office. It seemed like the world had ended, given that she'd been Prime Minister for all but one of the years I'd lived.

British Telecom
'Ambassador' telephone advertisement
Yet I do remember some of the perversities of the country back then, which Thatcher's governments were slowly chipping away at as I grew up. We had state-owned British Telecom's standard issue 'Ambassador' telephone. It was cream in colour, with chocolate buttons and what the advertising described as a 'handy personal directory pad, which allows you to note important numbers'. One day my parents came home from a shopping trip to Tottenham Court Road, where they'd picked up an incredibly futuristic grey and black contraption complete with built in digital answerphone (no tape to wear out) and preset autodial buttons. Ominously, it had a sticker on the bottom with a red triangle telling us we'd get in to trouble for using it.

So this in a sense was my grounding in the basics of politics. A clumsy state enterprise that wasn't responsive to demand. My Mum and Dad ran a business from home, and told me that not only did you have to wait weeks for the BT engineer to turn up, you then had to bribe him if you wanted anything done that wasn't on the work specification – or indeed if you wanted to choose the colour of your phone.

Twenty years later and I’ve just gone before the Parliamentary Assessment Board in Manchester. Before I travelled up for my PAB one of my friends suggested that I figured out what three words summed up Conservatism for me – a good exercise, although the most interesting part comes when you compare your words with someone else as it neatly reveals differences in perspective. Mine were responsibility, honesty and choice – although today's endlessly voguish talk about 'aspiration' made choice seem a little passé.

Yet the genius of Thatcher and her reforming governments was in understanding how choice underpins everything, and her passing this week is a timely reminder that aspiration is built on having options. Thatcher's insistence that Cellnet had a private sector competitor (provided by electronics firm Racal) gave consumers choice, and drove both businesses forward – Racal's offspring Vodafone is now a global leader and turns over £46bn annually. Incidentally Frances Spufford's excellent book Backroom Boys describes the transformation of British industry under Thatcher's watch (including the early days of Vodafone) and is well worth hunting out.

Today the battles of the Thatcher years might not mean much to the under-30s. But when you point to the price plans, handsets and networks they can choose from when buying a mobile, and tell them about the old days when your Government approved phone came in three shades of brown, then you can begin to explain how transformational choice has been to modernising Britain in the past three decades. Some of this would undoubtedly have happened with or without the government's help, but Thatcher knew that people are empowered by having options and making decisions, and her promotion of choice – more than any of the more 'headline' events of her leadership – is the foundation for her legacy.

First published by Platform 10 on April 17th, 2013

11 April 2013

Nimbyism? That’s not even the half of it.

Pity the poor Nimbys. Not only has the government’s horrible new planning regime come into force, but last week we heard the pro-HS2 lobbyists describing them as ‘posh people standing in the way of working-class people getting jobs’. Even Isabel blames them for wanting to preserve the idyllic views from their breakfast room window. Being a nimby is so last century.

Alas, calling the naysayers nimbys simply glosses over one of the biggest problems facing our society, namely how government deals with the built environment. This has little to do with preserving greenfields, areas of outstanding natural beauty, Jerusalem – or indeed nimbyism. It is simply that building houses in the countryside inherently designs significant expense into people’s lives. Little consideration is being given to how people are meant to travel to work, with developments usually far away from the local railway station, and money available for local infrastructure from Section 106 levies woefully inadequate.

So the lovely garden that the nice Nick Boles wants families to believe is their right has a nasty price tag attached ever so discreetly: the cost of a season ticket on our state subsidised railways and running two cars on our congested roads, with the cumulative loss of more than a working day a week in the commuting grind rubbing salt into the wound. We’re placing ridiculous and entirely avoidable stress on families, and commuting is penalising people for poorly designed cities.

The good news is that we already have lots of houses fit for families; the bad news is that they’ve mostly been subdivided into flats, a perfectly rational market response to the changing shape of British society. Of course we haven’t built enough houses, and yes, immigration has seen demand soar. But Britons are also leading different sorts of lives from a few decades ago: we marry later, and are more likely to divorce, meaning that fewer people are interested in the old concept of a ‘family home’. We’ve failed to build accommodation in line with the demands of 21st Century life, and the result is soaring rates of flatsharing in poorly converted apartments. Incidentally most young professionals must look at the protests over the bedroom tax with disbelief – in the private rented sector spare rooms get filled very quickly, and sharing your home is common if you’re young and saving for a mortgage deposit.

Frustratingly house building companies – almost uniquely – deliver products that the market doesn’t want. Unlike cars, cameras and computers where ‘new’ is aspirational, the building industry is churning out a product that only a quarter of home buyers would actively consider, a damning indictment that you’d think would merit a stiffer response than the Government merely ‘telling them to think a bit about it’. RIBA has already pointed out how bad regulations are for new homes, with people having to store food in their cars as kitchens haven’t been properly designed. Tragically the new planning regime will merely compound these failings, with swathes of new houses financed by state credit, built in the wrong place and for the wrong target market, and the opposition brushed off as heartless to the challenge of the ‘yet-to-haves’.

First published by Coffee House on April 11th, 2013

28 March 2013

The mentoring challenge

As a photography student I loved the lectures and hours spent in the studio, making mistakes and getting lost in my work. But one of the most important parts of my development was listening to the professional and amateur photographers who came to show us their work. Some were seasoned pros, others had graduated more recently – but they all helped broaden our horizons. Our lecturers promised them nothing more than a bottle of wine and a captive audience, but they inspired us. Some subsequently became friends, and further helped me to find my feet.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I moved back to London, began to build my client base, and discovered that I’d learnt more in six months as a working photographer than I had in two years of photography school. That – of course – is pretty similar to most industries!

But I also realised that in the era of expensive higher education, I could help the sixth formers studying photography in the schools around where I lived in south London, and potentially steer them towards or away from photography at university. I’d benefitted from other people putting their time in to me, and mentoring was a debt I needed to repay. I rang all the secondary schools in the two boroughs my home was straddled between, and offered to talk to their students, show them some of my work and equipment, and explain how photography had transformed my life.

What surprised me was that of the dozens of schools I contacted, only two were interested. One had a strong focus on the creative arts – with a fantastic head of department, who regularly took her students to see exhibitions in town, and practically bit my arm off when I explained why I wanted to get involved. The other was a new 6th Form college with three quarters of the children receiving free school meals, and an inspiring head of sixth form who wanted all her students to have an adult mentor who could give them an insight into the professional world, contact that she was adamant would help them maximise their potential and broaden their horizons.

As a careers and skills mentor I’ve been able to help my students learn the rules of the game, recognise the value of volunteering in developing CVs, etc. – the things that are subconsciously drilled into students with parents working in the professions. And last week I got an email from one of my sixth-formers who’d been offered a part-time job after I prodded her into a round of door-knocking in the field she wants to study when she finishes her A-levels.

Likewise, I hope I’ve opened new horizons for my photography students, as well as given them a glimpse of the professional world on the other side of the expensive creative colleges. And I’ve helped the school’s art department buy equipment that enhances their teaching and persuaded my suppliers to sell gear at cost so that the children are learning with the same tools that they will use if they go and assist commercial photographers. Their excitement when I showed them how to shoot magazine cover portraits in their classroom was a priceless experience.

Of course, it isn’t exactly news to anyone that mentoring is hugely helpful – as I found out when I was a student photographer. The Department for Education’s latest guidance describes how ‘mentoring programmes and mentoring relationships have greater potential than others to maximise impact’, but frustratingly only acknowledges learning mentors (i.e. helping with day-to-day school work) and peer mentors (helping with bullying, moving to new schools, etc.). Nothing on helping children to see the bigger picture of what life might be able to offer them when they finish school, or about their university choices (an area where the state really could do with some help).

I remember a confident young girl telling me at the start of her A-levels that she wanted to do law at one of the UK’s top five universities. She’d chosen to study A-levels in law, general studies, media studies and psychology, and was nonplussed when I told her she would seriously struggle to get a place at the likes of Cambridge or UCL with her subject choices. Her teachers had told her she simply needed lots of A* grades, and the notion that some subjects are seen as ‘soft’ was unwelcome news.

Mentoring can play a big part in breaking down barriers in education and the early years of employment. Many people mentor at schools, but we don’t have a national culture of putting something back into the education system – particularly from white collar workers. How do we change this?

Some local authorities recognise the benefits of mentoring, yet fail to understand that it isn’t a command process – an appeal from a local education authority or council don’t really inspire people in the same way that being directly involved with a school does. I’m not particularly interested in jumping through whatever hoops Lambeth council might have in store for me; conversely I feel a strong sense of loyalty towards the two schools who were initially interested in how I could help their students. They took me purely on my enthusiasm and work experience (and current CRB form), but without spirit sapping paperwork that would deter most people.

There are difficulties: it is easy to match mentors with students in London, while there will be parts of the country where the need is greatest, but where there is a relative lack of people who are able to help. The good news is that mentoring doesn’t require significant money or time from schools – it just needs political leadership in encouraging people to knock on the door of their local school, and ensuring teachers are receptive to the idea of outsiders helping make education truly transformational.

First published by Platform 10 on March 28th, 2013

25 March 2013

Mr. Brown goes off to town on the 08.21*

One of the reasons I was motivated to go out canvassing in the snow last weekend – not something I thought I’d be writing in late March – is the manner in which the Government has got stuck into overhauling the rail network. There’s been a lot of noise about the 50th anniversary of the Beeching Axe, which fell hardest under the Wilson Labour government. But what many of those nostalgic about the steam era haven’t realised is the extent of the work taking place on the railways today.

Of course, there are the high profile schemes – Crossrail and HS2 – both of which will address badly needed capacity shortages, as anyone travelling into Euston or on the Central Line during the rush hour will tell you. But there are other smaller projects that will bring dramatic improvements to local services, such as Manchester’s Ordsall Chord (which the Economist wrote up glowingly last week).

Manchester's Ordsall Chord project (Network Rail)
At the bottom end of the glamour spectrum, hundreds of platforms all around the country are being extended so that longer trains can be run – even the sleepy branch line down to my Dad’s place in the High Weald is having money spent on it. Stations are being reopened, while signalling is being modernised. And not a moment too soon: passenger use of the railways has doubled in the last two decades and continues to grow, despite the economic downturn.

More fundamentally, we’ve taken action to bring the railways into the 21st century. Despite howls of protest from Labour, the Department for Transport has pressed on with reducing the number of ticket offices, which add to the already high overheads of running trains. Besides, when did you last actually buy a ticket over the counter? Most people purchase their tickets online or at ticket machines. Labour has consistently argued the union’s line that this is a precursor to closing railway lines, when the exact opposite is true – by bringing down operating costs we are putting our railways on a sounder footing and ensuring their long term viability.

Around the country, Conservative councils and MPs are lobbying central government for better railway services, and earlier this month Brighton’s Conservative MPs and councillors came out strongly for the innovative Brighton Mainline 2 scheme that will drive economic growth and transform travel across Sussex and Kent.

The next general election will see commuters look at their wallets and purses and ask what we’ve done for them. We’ve got a great story to tell motorists on freezing fuel duty, but railway season ticket costs have increased, albeit at a lower rate than was planned by Labour. Our action to keep these down is a good thing, given that the average commuter spends a fifth of their pre-tax salary on train travel.

So it is essential that we make sure the hard pressed commuter knows about our track record: we are an unashamedly pro-railways government that has balanced protecting people’s pockets with investing in the service they rely on every day.

Or in other words, we need to talk less about the exciting headline projects, and concentrate on telling the people who pour through London Bridge each weekday about the hundreds of small improvements we’re getting done to make sure they can get a seat on a train that’ll run on time.

* Bonus points if you realise that this is a line from the Dad's Army theme tune, rather than an oblique reference to G. Brown, formerly of 10 Downing Street.

First published by Egremont on March 25th, 2013

12 March 2013

Why £9,000-per-year university tuition fees aren't such a bad thing (and Tony Blair agrees with me)

Children in their last year of school are gearing up for what one contemporary Scottish philosopher calls ‘squeaky bum time’. A-level exams in the summer suddenly don’t seem so far away, and shortly the contents of acceptance and rejection letters from institutions will start being broadcast in Facebook status updates up and down the country.

The deadline for art and design schools is later this month, and last week I had coffee with a student I mentor to look at her portfolio and university application. Her work showed plenty of promise, but as we talked I realised that while she was desperate to do a photography degree, she wasn’t particularly interested in using it as the foundation for a career taking pictures – she just liked the idea of studying photography, and would do something different after her graduation.

She’s by no means alone. We have a large number of students in creative tertiary education, many of whom realise during their studies that enjoying something at A-level (often taken as an alternative to boring ‘academic’ subjects) isn’t enough to sustain them through the long hours of working in the studio at their university. Others quickly find out that that their work simply doesn’t cut the mustard when they enter the saturated graduate marketplace. And – being completely blunt – the tertiary sector’s vast oversupply of creative graduates unable to work in areas where their degree have prepared them for is nothing short of scandalous.

To someone with a rose-tinted view of the whole university experience this probably sounds harsh. University is about growing up, finding one’s feet in the world, etc. Yet the ease in justifying a degree in the creative arts is symptomatic of the distance we have yet to travel in shifting society’s attitudes towards tertiary education.

The wretched ‘50 per cent of school leavers going to university’ aspiration was a misplaced and profoundly damaging New Labour ploy to seduce parents. It was also politically very smart: ‘thanks to the government my child is the first in our family to have a university education’. The policy flooded the workforce with graduates, and sent a clear signal to students that choosing not to do degrees made them second best.

At the drop of a hat sixth formers saw areas like photography that really should only be one or two years in duration as the gateway to the newly hallowed university education – albeit in a technical subject that doesn’t give them the transferrable skills and intellectual rigour that employers associate with degrees in subjects like history or geography. Private schools also need to take some of the blame: it’d be a rare headmaster who tells parents that their child isn’t university material having taken £150,000 in fees over the past five years. Better a degree in photography, music journalism, etc, than no degree at all, or so their logic flows.

The danger is that students are supposedly now paying for the bulk of their education. Fundamentally this is a good thing: America’s dominance of the top 100 universities is plainly and inescapably due to their system of fees – not my analysis, but that of Tony Blair in his autobiography, who (rightly) points out that when it comes to recruiting academic staff “those who paid top dollar got the best”.

Tuition fees also address the small matter of successive governments failing to fund universities properly. And as a Head of Sixth Form friend of mine pointed out, “if you’re not intelligent enough to realise that £9,000 a year to go to a top Russell Group university is a bargain, then you really shouldn’t be applying to those places in the first place”.

The scrum of blue chip firms recruiting on Britain’s top campuses hammers home the value of forking out for the best education the UK can offer, and the new fee levels will help ensure that graduates from UCL, Cambridge, etc, can expect their qualifications to stack up globally (with salaries to match) and help ensure our universities continue to churn out world leading research.

Incidentally, as someone who mentors students in two of South London’s most deprived schools, I was really pleased to hear from the teachers there that the new fees structure and bursary support is more favourable for those from less affluent backgrounds than the previous government’s scheme – which is exactly as it should be. Nevertheless I remain to be convinced that many of the wide-eyed UCAS applicants for photography and music journalism degrees will actually find that their three years of undergraduate study has transformed their employment prospects.

More importantly, will their studies enable them to repay much of the £18-27k in tuition fees that they’ve taken on, full of enthusiasm for whatever creative A-level subject they dabbled in at school? Or will they find they’ve been sold a pup by institutions who are desperate to prop up their student rolls with courses of dubious value? It’s interesting to hear Pam Tatlow of the Million+ think-tank (representing many former polytechnics) describe this year’s small increase in university applications as a “recovery”, whereas the market behaviour from this year’s students seems to indicate that for some of the institutions Million+ represents the decrease in rolls of 50-60% could well be terminal. And while this plays out the Treasury’s exposure to the student debt it underwrites grows and grows – after all, the government pays for your education until you’re actually in a position to reimburse it.

So where does this leave my enthusiastic photography student? Higher student fees are here to stay – Mr Blair himself saying that “once introduced as a concept, there [is] no looking back”.

For some disciplines this must surely spell trouble for the idea of three year degrees. The higher end providers of vocational courses will flourish, but institutions without the cachet of the Slade and LCC may well have to rethink how they deliver education to increasingly savvy consumers. Photography, journalism, graphic design, etc. are hardly lucrative careers, so the American concept of shorter ‘associate’ degrees for some vocational and creative subjects seems very sensible: students avoid the £10-15k involved with a third year of study, and employers provide the final polish in the initial stages of paid employment.

My student wants to experience tertiary study, so understandably a single year course doesn’t appeal. I did a two-year photography diploma in New Zealand, and by the end of it I was desperate to finish and get stuck into winning clients and getting proper commissions, as well as avoid an expensive third year – the money saved being more than enough to buy a decent studio setup.

Why is it then that our creative universities stubbornly persist with courses that seem aimed at lining their own pockets and propping up a ill-conceived system? Sure, politicians and society at large need to take some responsibility for fostering the often dubious allure of ‘going to uni’, but there’s a horrible irony in institutions aimed at nurturing creativity being so painfully regimented and unoriginal in what they offer today’s young talent – and cheerfully milking them dry at the same time.

First published by Egremont on March 8th, 2013