Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Water, water

From a particularly mild and warm autumn, it appears that colder and wetter weather is now on the way. It’s timely, therefore, to reflect on water.

First, the water we do want. We should continue to celebrate the fact that we have permanent access – apart from the occasional hiccup -to fresh, clean, wholesome water, a situation not enjoyed by most of the world’s population.  But, are we now paying more than we should be?

Rising water bills are making their own contribution to David Cameron’s growing cost-of-living crisis. Water prices have risen faster than in any other major economy. The average cost of water bills rose by 3.8% in April 2013 to £388. According to OFWAT, more than 2.26 million UK households now spend more than 5% of their disposable income on water.

Yet, the water companies appear to be making exceptional profits whilst ducking their tax obligations. In September, Yorkshire Water revealed that it had made £186m profit last year, but not paid a penny in corporation tax. Severn Trent paid out dividends of almost £160m last year, as well as paying its chief executive more than £1m. David Cameron’s coalition government seems to have no interest in tackling rising water bills, so it will be left to some of us to try to keep this issue in the spotlight.

Then, there’s the water we don’t want. The 2012 Climate Change Risk Assessment said that flooding is the greatest environmental threat to the UK. For many of us in South Yorkshire and North East Derbyshire, the devastating 2007 floods remain in focus. And 8000 homes were flooded last year. Yet, in the comprehensive spending review, the government cut the flood capital budget by 27%, whilst the government itself estimates that the number of people at significant risk of flooding will double to at least 2m by 2020.  So the government is now planning to invest £138m less in 2015 than the minimum investment its own experts have said is required. That’s not clever.

And now we learn that, after the near collapse of the flood insurance negotiations, the government hasn’t done a deal, but has reached a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with the insurance industry. Some homes and businesses have been totally excluded from the arrangements, and the government itself says that it is more than likely that the scheme will run out of money in the first 20 years, so expect higher premiums.

Get the sandbags ready.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Not picture perfect

Last week, the Conservative Party unveiled a photograph of its MPs, which was promoted as the first ever picture of the Conservative parliamentary party in the Chamber of the House of Commons.

However, the photo was not all that it seemed. It didn’t take long before it was revealed that several of the MPs apparently smiling along with the Prime Minister were not actually there when the photograph was taken. Clearly photo-shopping is not just for fashion magazines.

Actually, it struck me that photo-shopping accurately sums up David Cameron’s whole approach to promoting his policies. Unlike Nick Clegg, who is perfectly happy to promise something he has no intention of keeping – like student fees, Cameron presents enough verifiable information to make you believe he’s presenting an accurate picture, whilst hoping to get away with ignoring key facts and issues which fatally undermine his case. Let’s take a few examples from the last week.

David Cameron has consistently told us how the steps he has taken will secure a range of Conservative parliamentary candidates for the next general election which is more representative. Now we learn that, of the 48 aspiring MPs chosen to fight the election to date, only 14 – less than one in three – are female and just one is from an ethnic minority background.

Then he said that Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze was ludicrous and unaffordable before, a few days’ later, revealing that George Osborne is going to announce parallel proposals in the Autumn Statement – presumably these will be unaffordable too?

Once, David Cameron was telling us all about his intention to ‘hug a hoodie’, when actually we can now see that his real intention was to make them homeless. According to the latest statistics, 16 to 24-year-olds have lost services worth 28 per cent of their income since 2010 and the announcements made at Conservative Conference will push that far higher.

And then there’s Help to Buy, which Cameron presents as helping those on lower incomes to get on the property ladder. Leaving aside the almost universal criticism, across the political and economic spectrum, that fuelling inflation in an already over-valued market is dangerous, we now learn more about the details. Those purchasing the lowest valued homes and having the least available deposit will pay significantly more than those getting help to buy a home worth £600,000. Clearly, it’s that latter group, who would need an annual income approaching £150,000, who Mr Cameron believes is most worthy of support and subsidy.