Month: February 2007

Why I object to road pricing

On Newsnight earlier this week Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem Shadow Transport Secretary, supported road pricing. I can understand why, it does seem a good way of dissuading people from using their cars, which is something that Lib Dems often want to support. So I thought I’d be one of the few Liberal Democrats that was against road pricing. Fortunately I see that I am not alone – Jonny Wright and Tristan Mills appear to be with me on this one, but not necessarily for the same reasons.

For me it is primarily that I don’t like the idea of having my every move tracked by the government. A civil liberties argument that Lib Dems are usually all for. I know that they say there is technology now that allows us to be tracked without the specific details of where we’ve been being stored, but that doesn’t make me rest any easier. I don’t want to be tracked full stop. But to muddy the waters yet further though, if the government wants to introduce road pricing I cannot see how they can do it without recording where you’ve gone. What if you want to query your bill? If the information on where you’ve been is not recorded there is no way of proving which roads you used. So really I just object to it simply on practical grounds – I don’t see how it will work and satisfy the majority of people.

What I can also see though is a scenario where people decide to use minor roads to avoid the hefty charges on the busy roads. This then annoys the people in those areas who then lobby the government to increase the charge through their village. At that point someone notices that far from road pricing replacing other taxes it does lead on to a massive increase in what you pay to drive overall. This is in then followed by mass protests by motorists who object to the increase in charges. You will also end up with the ‘road hump situation’ where people want higher charges on their road, but not on the roads they use nearby. Perhaps I am being too pessimistic.

I accept something must be done to encourage cars to get off the road, and I know that improving public transport is not enough on its own. I can see that the congestion charge works well in some places like London. But in a city like Sheffield, the congestion is more of a problem on the routes that go in to the city centre rather than in the centre itself. Plus, we also have Meadowhall on our doorstep, which would simply end up sucking business away from the city centre if we had city centre congestion charging.

The area that I think may be the solution is to remove the other taxes on motoring and simply add something to the cost of petrol. To help rural areas where driving is more of a necessity there could be a discount in the tax for petrol stations with rural postcodes. However, where I accept there is a flaw is that this would perhaps encourage a switch in modes of travel on long-distances (where trains are a very practical option anyway), but it might not do much for cities, where the journey would still be pretty cheap as it is so short.

So all in all, there are flaws in all of the options, but my feeling is that road pricing is definitely not the wonderful panacea that some believe. It could well lead to unexpected problems, and become an increasingly unpopular tax.

Hampstead & Kilburn does the right thing – picking Ed Fordham

I am really pleased to see that the Liberal Democrat members in Hampstead and Kilburn have picked Ed Fordham as their candidate for the next General Election.

Ed is one of those people who is brilliant at identifying people who are keen to get involved and then encouraging them. Ed was one of the first people I met when I joined the Liberal Democrats back in 1995. He had just been elected as Chair of the Stoke-on-Trent local party and he persuaded me to become far more active in the party than I would ever have expected.

Two particular incidents stick in my mind:

The 1997 General Election was the first one where I was active in in the party. I spent most of my time helping Paul Keetch get elected in Hereford, but I also did a bit in Stoke-on-Trent. Ed decided that to encourage a couple of us to become more involved he would ask us to do specific jobs as election agents for two of the parliamentary seats in the city. I ended up as agent for Peter Barnett who was standing in Stoke-on-Trent South. Although it sounds like being thrown in at the deep end, it was a pretty mundane job in somewhere like Stoke-on-Trent as the Lib Dems were fairly non-existent in the city at the time.  But what it did was give us a bit of responsibility that made us feel involved and important to the team.  All I did was help fill in some paperwork, but it was a start.

The other way Ed encouraged me was by persuading me to run for Youth Development Officer of the Liberal Democrat Youth & Students (LDYS) in early 1998. Up until then I had gone along to a few LDYS conferences and had been involved in West Midlands LDYS. Ed persuaded me to run on the grounds that I’d be good at it, I might enjoy it and no one else was wanting to do it anyway. I agreed to do it and then found out I had to run against someone else. I ended up winning the contest comfortably, I found myself on the LDYS exec and life has never been the same since. My time on the LDYS exec gave me a huge confidence boost, got me even more involved and kickstarted everything else I have done in the party.

The reason for this bit of biography though it to show that if Ed can have that effect on one person, what is he going to do to a whole constituency? I was certainly not someone who went in to politics with the intention of it becoming such a big part of my life. It took a while to persuade me to be treasurer of my university branch. But Ed has this knack of enthusing people around him, being passionate about the party and its future and also a supportive friend. He also does genuinely take an interest in what is going on in his area. He is a fairly unusual combination of being outgoing, sociable and fun, whilst also being serious, thoughtful and with some fairly deep and caring interests.

So those are the personal bits, but just give you a bit of background on the seat itself.   Hampstead & Kilburn takes the best bits of Hampstead & Highgate and the best bits of Brent East. At the last General Election, Ed managed to cut the Labour majority sharply with a big swing to the Lib Dems, and that was despite being selected less than a year before polling day. Ed masterminded the election campaign in Camden at the last local elections where we picked up loads of seats. Ed has also worked closely with Sarah Teather since she first won at the by-election, and so the strong image of a Sarah and Ed team working for both Camden and Brent will not be an illusion but a reality.  Glenda Jackson will probably retire, and with the Conservatives now notionally third in the seat many will probably decide to vote tactically for the Lib Dems.  Plus the big one, the notional Labour majority is only just over 1,000 votes.

If Ed can continue to run excellent election campaigns, and if he can generate the enthusiasm in Hampstead & Kilburn that he managed in me when I became involved, then he should be a shoe in. But, he can only do it with help, so please help him if you can. It will be worth your while.


UK POLLING REPORT: Hampstead and Kilburn

Bottled water – devil incarnate or just a convenience?

It is certainly not a new news story that bottled water is both bad for the environment but that it is also no purer or better for you than tap water. This issue comes to mind now following today’s feature in The Independent where some ad agencies were asked to look at how they would promote tap water over bottled water. My office also received a free jug from Yorkshire Water the other week to promote the same message. Incidentally, this latter event caused somewhat of a stir in the office as it took several days for someone to pluck up the courage to open the suspicious looking package in which the jug arrived.

What I would like to know though is what proportion of bottled water is bought on the high street from shops, simply because someone wants to buy a drink when they are out and about. That is the only time I ever buy bottled drinks, and I could just have easily bought Pepsi or Fanta instead. If this is a large majority, then there is probably little scope to reduce the consumption massively, and it is a lot better that people buy water rather than some unhealthy sugar based drink.

The bottled water that is harder to defend is that that is bought in restaurants, cafes or bars simply because it is more fashionable to have bottled rather than tap water. We are also fortunately a long way from many other European countries which have a tradition of drinking bottled water because historically tap water was quite poor. If you go in to any French or Italian supermarket they are full of huge bottles of water. Now that is largely not needed as tap water has improved, but the culture of buying it has not changed.

Which reminds me, I recently travelled down to Westminster for a meeting and was surprised to see how many people in Parliament were drinking bottles of Hildon bottled water. Surely if we are serious about reducing the amount of bottled water we use, then this would be a good start.

Just what an MP needs, a celebrity connection

MPs attempts at trying to look cool by being associated with popular bands are usually doomed to failure. Fortunately in this case it is the Sheffield Star rather than Nick Clegg himself that is trying it, in perhaps one of the most tenuous ways ever of linking together two news stories:

SHEFFIELD may be famous for the Arctic Monkeys – and now it is set to gain an Arctic MP! Lib Dem MP Nick Clegg is to join an intrepid team of politicians who will brave extreme conditions in the Arctic Circle next month to raise money for good causes … The Arctic Monkeys are looking good for more glittering success after being nominated for four NME awards. The Sheffield band is one of five – including Brits Muse, Kasabian and US bands My Chemical Romance and The Killers – up for four titles.

SHEFFIELD STAR: MP and band are on an Arctic roll