Privatisation

The public services are the heart of this country. We rely on the police to uphold the law when we become victims and when others do wrong. We rely on the NHS to save our lives, cure our ailments and provide care. When we have a child, the doctors and nurses of the NHS bring it into the world. When our relatives die, doctors and nurses make sure that they go with dignity. Could we ask for anything more?

Indisputably, Austerity has done incalculable damage to the public services. Police budgets have fallen by 19% since 2010 despite a (albeit sometimes slowly) rising GDP. Police numbers have been slashed and the remaining numbers are stretching themselves across an expanding population. Because of this, the standard of policing is going down along with morale within forces throughout the U.K. This means that the quality in policing is in decline.

There are fewer bobbies on the beat thus reducing community policing effectiveness. This would usually be apparent by a reduction in the levels of gang affiliation and thus criminal acts such as knife and moped attacks. Community policing is also speculated to help in the war against terrorists.

It has now emerged in the ‘i weekend’ that businesses are now paying for police paroles. Easyjet, ASDA, development giant the Berkeley Group and the Westfield Shopping Centres are a few.

Whilst this might seem innocuous at first glance, it is indicative of the pursuit of private interests in what should be a publicly financed, impartial and equal policing system. To bring in corporate interest is to essentially allow bias into the process as well as taking members of the police away from communities that would be better served by community police initiatives.

There is no widespread collective effort to battle the privatisation of public services because the change is happening incrementally. That is the evil of gradualism; people are less likely to notice or even care about change if it happens slowly. It stops becoming the evil you see and more about the evil you had no idea existed until you are being asked to provide medical insurance forms when you go into A&E.

In 2012 the Health and Social Care Act was passed which allowed “any contract over £615,000” to be tendered out to private companies. As Paul Gallagher writes, the process of privatisation has been aided with the passing out of multiple contracts worth around £128m under the watch of Health Secretary, Matt Hancock.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that we might be seeing the Americanisation of our public sector.

Traditional Values Vol. 1: Nationalism

Never before have we seen so many advances and changes to our world as we are seeing today. Climate change, the rise of biotech and infotech. The proliferation of automation and the move toward artificial-intelligence which could either improve our wayso of life, or challenge who we are as humans. The mainstreaming of electric cars and the growing awareness of plastic pollution. Widespread movements to give previously overlooked or unrepresented factions of society equal rights. The rise of Asian economies which may soon rival our own in strength, and may even become superior which could change the ways we conduct business and alter long-standing loyalties. I was even shocked recently to find out that China even has plans to build a base on the moon and mine our little white dot in the sky for hydrogen.

This is the stuff of science-fiction!

The point is: we are in a transitional phase and are suffering the existential question of how to cope with the challenges we read about in our papers and see on our television screens and social media feeds. When faced with an uncertain future, people often look to their past. To “traditional values” to guide them through the turbulence. But what exactly are traditional values and do they offer us any guidance for the future?

Nationalism

Nationalism seems to be on the rise in the West and has led to two of the most significant changes that we have seen in our lifetimes: the U.K’s vote to leave the European Union and the vote in America for Donald Trump as President. As an answer to perceived outside threats, two major powers have turned to isolationism.

Globalisation was a worn out word by the end of the referendum of 2016. As was elites. Sometimes we heard “global elites”. The European Union, as pushed by Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and sundry others, was a product of globalisation.

Leavers pointed to levels of immigration and told the people that it was the European Union’s open border policy that was to blame. Leavers pointed out the disenfranchised peoples of towns that had been left behind when the U.K turned from a material and production economy to a service driven economy. The European Union was blamed again for moving production facilities abroad. The decline of U.K fisheries, blame the E.U. Red passports, blame the E.U. Curved bananas, blame the E.U. Hospital waiting times, blame the E.U. Rise in crime rates, blame immigration, thus blaming the E.U.

So, can the problems listed above be solved by a move toward nationalism as was what happened in 2016?
In regards to immigration, yes, technically nationalism has the potential to cut numbers of immigrants or stop them altogether.

But is that really in the national interest? Or is it in the interest of nationalist groups? For instance, whilst the cutting might benefit those who just want see less faces of colour or to hear different languages on their streets (the nationalists) the nationalist approach itself does not do much for our economy, our public services or for our reputation as “global players” which was a phrase championed by Leavers during the referendum campaign and even now.

Whilst the phrase “global player” was used extensively throughout the referendum, the truth is that the actual action of leaving the biggest and most successful trading bloc in the world was seen by many around the globe as an act of closing one’s own doors on trade.

The NHS is dependent on nurses and doctors from the E.U and further abroad but since the Brexit vote we have seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of people applying for university courses in nursing and a drop in job applications from outside the U.K. This is indicative of the trend that those from within Europe and outside the Union were no longer interested in investing in the U.K.

Nationalists might see this drop in foreign applications as a good thing as there is potential for British citizens to take the jobs. The problem however is that it takes years to train doctors and nurses and, in the meantime, care within the NHS would have plummeted. Ironically, it would be those older voters which chose leave who would suffer the most. With around 100,000 vacancies already within the NHS, this further reduction could potentially cripple certain elements of patient care.

As is being witnessed, the idea of being both nationalist and a “global player” is not compatible.

The main problem of the referendum, however, was that it focused anger outward toward the largely neutral E.U, when the truth was that the problems that the U.K faced were actually born and bred within its own borders.

Austerity due to bailing out the banks that had lead us into the financial crash of 2008. The rise in crime as a result of Conservative initiative to cut policing numbers so that there were fewer bobbies on the beat. (Remember Theresa May telling the police federation to stop “crying wolf” in 2015 regarding police cuts). Disenfranchisement of communities as the economy changed toward services and offices were centralised toward London. Those who were workers within communities who worked within extraction and production were never provided the means to retrain, and were instead left to become outdated.

A lethal combination occurred when the finger was pointed at immigrants for pushing wages down. The fact that immigrants were benign agents in the entire mess of things was rarely pointed out and the fact that it was actually exploitative practices being undertaken by business owners. Business owners have been largely left alone by the most recent governments, after all, it is good practice to be the party of business.
This goes to show that the so-called “global-elites” were actually the people within our own borders. Our very own Prime Minster of the day, David Cameron found to be putting money into offshore Panamanian accounts. For years we watched as the government refused to impose proper tax initiatives that would have seen large companies paying their fair share of tax which could have put toward social ventures for our children, thus keeping them out of gangs and preventing such a sharp increase in knife-crime. Not only were companies doing so, but the Conservatives were helping them maintain the status quo.

Britain has for years now been deeply entrenched in off-shore bank account activity that it the global master on managing assets and transferring money to keep it from the hands of nations. It is estimated that half of all global wealth could be locked up in off-shore accounts.

Image source: wikimedia

In the face of problems that originated within our own national system, people turned to nationalism to sort out the problem. That is a new one for me.

In 2013, the E.U offered to give a £22million cash injection into food banks in order to make sure that they were stocked and operational. This was turned down by David Cameron. Whilst our own government strangled the country, the E.U at least offered some kind of help. But that’s not all. The E.U has also been funnelling money into community projects including social groups and buildings, but this is rarely mentioned. The E.U is also a propagator of worker’s rights and is constantly moving to improve pay throughout its jurisdictions. When we are faced with military or cyber warfare, as we have seen from Russia during the referendum campaign and which the U.S witnessed during the presidential campaign, the E.U has close proximity to share information and make sure that each of its member states has the necessary tools to help fight back.

So, nationalism does not actually offer any real solutions to our national problems. Does it offer solutions to wider world issues? In an age of transnationalism, could countries learn from nationalist ideals?
Climate change is not an issue, it is the issue which will determine the very future of human civilisation. And climate change does not recognise borders drawn by man. A tropical storm does not stop when it hits the American coast. It ploughs through and wreaks untold damage. Plastic does not stop at the English Channel. It sweeps in and becomes part of our ecosystem. Just as much as melted ice does not stay in the Arctic Circle but raises water levels around the world.

And when islands start submerging and already challenged countries face drought and famine, we are going to see mass exodus unlike anything witnessed in documented history.
Unfortunately, nationalist interests have often disregard climate change in order to focus on more provincial initiatives such as kick-starting coal mining operations or doubling down on fuel extraction efforts. In the United States, nationalism is often synonymous with climate change denial as is evidential with Donald Trump’s repeated claims that climate change is a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese.

In regards to solutions to the climate crisis, nationalist approaches fall short. If nationalists really wanted to make a difference, they would join the global effort to battle climate change which would in turn mean that they are less likely to experience such a high influx of immigrants to their borders. Instead of becoming isolationist, it is within nationalist’s best interests to take part in a multi-national approach in order to combat the effects of climate change.

But then what would be the point in being nationalist when all we are going to do is have to work with countries around the globe and put measures in place which, whether we like it or not, would see the adoption of plans to take in refugees fleeing the effects of an unstable and changing climate?

Throughout history, civilisations have moved and shifted as the cattle migrates or as the living conditions change. After all, if the U.K were to become a dessert wasteland, would we not seek refuge in other countries? But we are the beginning of the catastrophic change where the decisions we make today will effect the next generation. We have the ability to make positive differences to the ways we tackle this threat. But are we capable of doing this as nationalists? Surely we are better prepared against the challenges if we work on an international scale?

Capitalist Dystopia

Is capitalist-dystopia its own genre?

Dystopian works feature many end-of-the-world themes. Nuclear fallout, volcanic eruptions, solar flares, the heating of Earth’s core (because of solar flares), the slowing down of Earth’s liquid magma, the uprising of machines, asteroids, alien invasion, climate change. And of course, my favourite: zombie virus.

Last year I read Paulo Bacigalupi’s, The Water Knife. A novel based (as the name would suggest) on corporate interests battling for water rights in a world which has been ravaged by climate crises, and is now facing drought.

The whole way through Bacigalupi’s novel I found my mouth parched by descriptions of dry and arid lands, of characters longing for drink and the constant awareness of rationing what little water is available. But more than anything, I was intrigued and appalled by the depictions of corporate greed and consequential foul-play.

Is this the kind of future with which we should become accustomed?

Spurred by The Water Knife, I read Bacigalupi’s other dystopian masterpiece, The Windup Girl. In this novel, Bacigalupi creates a world bashed and beaten by corporate espionage which takes form in the poisoning of crops, (leading to something horrendous called “blister rust”) outperforming one another by creating genetically modified food and by using money to influence politics.

In both novels (and throughout the Ship Breaker series), the planet has essentially been ruined for financial gain. That ol’ bird, Capitalism. Not the kind of capitalism that frees the shackles from the poor mind you, more the neo-liberal, unchecked-market kind of capitalism.

George Orwell showed us a world ruled by Communism and it could be said that Ray Bradbury introduced us to the world of rampant capitalism with the focus on fast rides and fun times, but the works of more modern writers feels less like a prophecy for the not too distant future and more like something that could take place with the signing of a few pieces of trade legislature.

For example, Catherine Webb/Clare North’s 84K shows a Britain at the whim of mass production and insurance companies who dictate what level of existence is given to people judged by how much money they earn or how much money they owe. Need I say more?

A more comic approach to rampant capitalist-dystopia is Max Barry’s Jennifer Government. Neo-liberalism has won and the world is split between corporations to the extent that all life is split between corporations to the extent that to be employed is to take the corporate name, for example; Hack Nike. The government and police, on the other-hand, have become something that more resembles charity than any real form of leadership. If people want crimes investigated, they must pay.

Science-fiction and dystopian-fiction does the wonderful thing of attempting prophecy. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is more relevant now more than when it was written, especially given the advances in biotech taking us ever closer toward designer human beings. With that in mind, are we much removed from the capitalist dystopias as portrayed by so many other dystopia fiction novelists?
Motor insurance companies monitor drivers through apps in order to gain data. This is done with the premise of decreasing insurance costs depending on how you accelerate, decelerate, how sharply you brake and your average speed. We already allow devices to count our steps and monitor our sleeping habits in order to improve our overall health. Are we really that far from allowing insurance companies to monitor our health so that they can determine our general health habits? And how would that effect our insurance costs? And what other information can be garnered from such apps?

When it comes to corporate influence, are we that far removed from the landscapes of Bacigalupi and Barry when we already witness the political might of the NRA and oil conglomerates over presidential candidates in the United States? What is to stop such forces from gaining more momentum under Trump?

Capitalist-dystopia is so effective because it allows us to entertain the future possibilities of an ideology with which we are already attached. These novels should have the same kind of resounding clout as George Orwell’s warning of Communism faced by the world post World War 2.

#fiction #dystopia

A Tech Too Far

Always read the fine print. Actually, scrap that. Don’t bother. You don’t read it. I don’t read it. We all want facebook on our phones. And whatsapp. And Instagram. These things are tools of the modern age. These services provide that “connectivity” that people have been lauding. And besides, if you don’t agree with sharing your pictures, snippets of your voice picked up by microphone and data on where you live and your viewing habits, well, facebook, Whatsapp and instagram don’t want you.

No, wait. Go back to the fine print. You can choose to “out” of these options. And it is definitely for the best. Why? Well, let’s have a look.

Andy Jones, who wrote an article on behalf of the ‘i’ newspaper titled “Why your social media activity could stop you getting a mortgage” scared the s#!t out of me.

Released today (21st September, 2018), Andy reported that mortgage providers and insurance firms are trialling the use of social media services on people who are seeking their services. No longer will providers request information from banks on your spending habits, but they will look at your viewing history as well.

“Promoting their service, The Online Me, Hello Soda says: “Every time you make a submission for a loan, a house, or a job, someone is vetting your social profiles.” That’s about as comforting as the thought of a stranger standing at the end of your bed.

HMRC, that scourge of the commoner and hero of the super-rich (see upcoming blog) openly says it will “observe, monitor, record and retain internet data” which is available to everyone including “blogs and social networking sites where no privacy settings have been applied.”’

The reason that mortgage lenders and insurance companies plan to do this is because they will better get an insight into your history, your holidays, how you spend your money and so forth. If you are holidaying every month and you’re not rolling in spondulicks then they would bring in a bunch of sun-deprived voyeurs to do a thorough search. When I read that article my immediate thought was: what does my social media say about me?

You see the danger of this now?
Imagine, in a society in the not so distant future, that you go on your annual family holiday and take a picture of the whole lot of you by the pool. And then you get home and apply for home insurance. Your case is decided by someone in an office clicking their way around your facebook profile.

How did they pay for that holiday? Was it with credit? Do they have a credit card? How do they pay that money back? How often? Have they missed any payments? Did they pay for it using nectar points or clubcard points? Let’s look at that image, where did they go? They had their locations settings on when they posted. That’s handy. Spain! Aha, okay. South east Spain. A villa. Aha! Less than five minutes from the sea. On a hilltop. I bet they paid extra for that view. How much was it exactly? Okay, let’s backtrack. Where does this person live? Eastbourne? Hmm… best do a google map search and see what kind of house they have.

If you think I’m dancing with hyperbole, I’m really not. The searches undertaken by the HMRC could “include anything from evidence of lavish spending on faceback to Google Earth pictures proving you have had an extension.” Forget that you paid for that extension with cash that your grandma left you, you have had the extension and that is what matters.

Imagine you wanted to travel the world. You want to have a bunch of adventures and when you get back you want to buy a house. You want life insurance. If something were to happen to you, your partner or the person with their name on your will no longer have to worry that they cannot pay for that house. You will get back from travelling and post a travel album. There you are smiling on top of Kilimanjaro. And an insurance company now has the rights to check out your lifestyle as part of their cover.

Cue the person considering your case, clocking in, sitting at their computer, clicking a few buttons and having access to your profiles.

Ah, they like expensive hikes. Is that jacket North Face? Hmm, that looks like specialist gear to me. Perhaps they spend frivolously. That would have to be taken into consideration.

There you are, arms wide at the top of a cliff, embracing the world with the wind in your hair.

Hmm, what does that say about them? They are after life insurance after all. I’ll put in the report: “likes to take risks”. It’ll likely increase their premiums but it is for the best.

And there you are strapped to another human being as you plummet toward the earth, smiling at the camera, enjoying one of the best, most thrilling and memorable moments you will ever experience.

Okay, wow. Skydiving in New Zealand! I’ll put: “Puts themselves in harm’s way. Likes extreme sports. Higher risk of injury or casualty.”

This is purely speculative, I cannot stress that enough. But I am, however, convinced that insurance companies are becoming more malign in their actions.

In 2016 I purchased insurance for my car. Fire and theft were included. In 2017 I used a comparison site in order to find my next insurer. I found one I liked and went to their page. After answering the questions I was met with that usual five to eight pages that ask you what extras you might like to include in your policy i.e. breakdown cover, jelly-bean scent, you name it. On the first page it asked me if I wanted to include fire and theft for an extra fee. That raises two questions. The first: why was that not included? Second, why are they charging extra for something that should already be included in everyone’s insurance plan?

It is common knowledge that companies are purchasing data. Fintech is a flourishing sector and the more personal it becomes, the more effective it becomes. And the easier it becomes to separate consumers from their money. I’ll be honest, I love when Man-Booker Prize winners are announced. I know that I am probably going to buy the latest winner and probably a couple more authored by the runners-up. If these books have been shortlisted for the most prestigious award in the world of literature…I want them.
That time of the year would be an easy target for advertisers. Waterstones, Amazon, Foyles, it does not matter. I would probably be susceptible.

Let us go back to that annual family holiday. It takes place in the same few weeks every year (as most peoples do considering families are limited to school term times). You have been targeted by a whole bunch of advertisers and marketing companies putting forward things you may or may not need for your holiday. But the fear is that it could get even more personal. If an algorithm can detect brands in the photos you post, you may be directed deals from that brand in the future. Your taste in cars, motorbikes, foods, jewellery, clothes. It can all be used in order to entice people to purchase goods they do not need. But when advertisements are tailor-made around your lifestyle it would become considerably harder to resist.

When I have looked at travel destinations on google, I often get suggestions afterward on places to go and gear to buy on what I recently believed were unconnected pages i.e. pinterest and instagram. This is something that anyone with a social media account experiences day-to-day.

The things that I have mentioned are not some strange conspiracy in which the “establishment” are dominating the world, it is just the future of marketing and risk management. As Rana Foroohar says in the Financial Times post (17th September, 2018) when reporting on a senate meeting regarding fintech, the Treasury “talks approvingly of data sharing among technology companies and big banks to improve efficiency, scale and lower consumer prices.

“The report puts rather less focus on the on the systemic risk and predatory pricing that could emerge if the world’s largest technology companies and the biggest banks on Wall Street share consumer data.”

As mentioned above, this is the possible future of marketing and risk management. But it is marketing and risk management that poses the danger of exceeding a moral boundary.

We are living in an age where the online and the offline world’s perimeters are blurring. We see something funny or something bad and we either tell our friends, or tell the world via a post. Or both. We want to take photos a certain way because we have seen something like it online. We share photos (don’t even get me started on the overkill of parents posting umpteen number of baby pictures) and we share memes. We share life quotes, music videos, book recommendations and generally scream our point of view into what is essentially…storage space. And why do we do it? Because it’s fun.

Maybe it is best that, however, that you pick and choose your data settings wisely. Because fun is not worth painting yourself a target for corporate interest.

Pollution, pregnancy & false data

“Air pollution passes from pregnant women to placenta” – Peter Stubley, i, 17th September, 2018.

My last blog post was dedicated to the effects of pollution on people’s health – dementia in the older generation and early deaths predominantly in children, but also in adults. Well, not too long after this study was released I was shocked to read the latest update.

In an article by Peter Stubley in the i, he claims: “Evidence that air pollution passes from pregnant women’s lungs to the placenta has been found for the first time” before going on to say: “Previous research has indicated links between pregnant mothers’ exposure to air pollution and premature birth, low birth weight, infant mortality and childhood respiratory problems.”

For example on the 1st September, 2008 the Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR) published a paper giving evidence that they had tested on mice and concluded that “In humans, adverse pregnancy outcomes (low birth weight, prematurity, and intrauterine growth retardation) are associated with exposure to urban air pollution.”

This is, however, the first time that definitive evidence has been gathered from placentas from Caesarean section births and confirmed the thesis. “Researchers detected what they believe are tiny particles of carbon, typically created by burning fossil fuels, after five non-smoking mothers living in London…”
The idea that children might be born into this world with a running chance has now been extinguished. Particulates are so dangerous that they effect children before birth. This news was on page 13.

I read that article and sped off to research the issue. This morning before I stepped out of my house to do my morning tasks, I heard something else on the radio that made me stop in my tracks. This news was that executives from Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW have now been known to have meetings with the agenda to deliberately avoid competition. The result: instead of trying to come up with innovative engine designs that would effectively reduce emissions, they held off such advances in order to sell their backlog of diesel and petrol cars.

This is an additional finding in what is currently being called Dieselgate, the scandal broken in 2015 in which Volkswagen was found to be taking part in emissions manipulation. This was done during the testing phase in which the emissions numbers were tampered with in order to make selected cars seem greener. More recent information (as published on 18th September, 2018 by Benjamin Wehrmann on cleanenergywire.org) has brought to light that Volkswagen CEO, Herbert Deiss, knew about his company’s emission fraud software long before he had originally conceded when the story was first broken.

Diesel emissions as we know are among the worst offenders when it comes to pollution. In London the primary culprits are delivery vans, hire vehicles (that are not subject to the toxicity charge, or T-Charge as it is better known) and congestion created by cycle lanes and lack of infrastructure. The city has suffered from illegal levels of particulates since 2010 and is close to Delhi and Beijing in level of toxicity according to an article by Leslie Hook and Steven Bernard and published in the Financial Times on 21st August, 2018.

The problem is that whilst the congestion charge and T-charge seem like an understandable way to deter people from driving into the city centre, business still needs to continue as usual and therefore the charges will be paid in order for trade and traders to access the city. Charges simply do not dampen the effects of what Defra called “the largest environmental health risk in the U.K”. Make no mistake, this claim is not limited to the U.K’s metropolis.

When you first click on to the Airlabs homepage, a company mentioned in Pollution & Dementia (5th September, 2018) you are met with a startling statistic. “92% of the world’s population are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution”. If you doubt the sincerity of this claim maybe take into consideration the Financial Times finding that Airlabs founder, Sophie Power, has deemed the threat of particulates so severe that she has installed an air filter inside her child’s pram. And with good reason.

Another worrying piece of information provided by Airlabs is that pollution hotspots are “places with a high density of people, high emissions and long dwell time. Hotspots in cities usually occur at transport hubs, in parks and playgrounds close to roads, outdoor eating/drinking areas and inside ground floor shops along high streets.”

So, pretty much everywhere we like to go.

Now, consider that particulates are causing dementia, early deaths, and now entering the bloodstream from the lungs and effecting unborn children, the case for change is more evidential and urgent than ever.

Links:

Peter Stubley

i

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/air-pollution-pregnant-women-london-study-placenta-first-evidence-a8539861.html

Airlabs

http://airlabs.com/

@air_labs

Financial Times

https://www.ft.com/content/9c2b9d92-a45b-11e8-8ecf-a7ae1beff35b

Leslie Hook: @lesliehook

Steven Bernard: @sdbernard

cleanenergywire.org

https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/dieselgate-timeline-germanys-car-emissions-fraud-scandal

Benjamin Wehrmann: @BenJoWe

Pollution & Dementia

When 97% of climate change scientists agree that humankind is damaging the planet, it is time to listen. More importantly it is time to act. And, due to recent findings, we need to act now.

Last year an article grabbed my attention. The article was by Katie Forster and published in the Independent, 4th January, 2017. The claim in the article was that living near major roads can “increase the risk of dementia”, particularly when you live within fifty metres of a major road. This was from a study in Ontario, Canada. Having spent twenty-nine of my thirty years living by the side of one of my town’s major roads, I wanted to know more.

Because of the noise emitted from major roads sleep can often be fitful and it is proven that failure to reach R.E.M sleep (or prolonged R.E.M sleep) can lead to memory problems. After all, R.E.M sleep aids “memory consolidation” (the process by which we turn short-term memory into long-term memory) and also boosts capacity for problem-solving skills and aids creativity. So, while noise pollution was a factor in the rise of dementia, another factor was raised but shrugged away. That factor was whether emissions had anything to do with the increase in dementia.

That story in 2017 died down rather quickly and I had not heard much more about it, until a week ago. It was Tom Bawden’s article, written on behalf of the ‘i’ newspaper (28th August) which looked at new research that shows pollution is in fact a contributor to cognitive ability.

“Living in highly polluted areas over long periods of time could hit your verbal and mathematical abilities in later life”. This was the title of Bawden’s article and this time the study was undertaken in China, one of the world’s leading polluters. Lead author of the study Xin Zhang is quoted in the article as saying: “We find that long term exposure to air pollution impedes cognitive performance in verbal and maths tests. The effect of this air pollution becomes more pronounced as people age.”

Cities are by far more prone to the effects of carbon monoxide but the inhabitants see it as a price to pay in order to be surrounded by work and culture. But is it really a price worth paying? Schools in London are advised to keep children indoors during playtime when congestion and lack of circulatory weather patterns creates dense clouds of pollution. To put it into perspective of just how congested London’s air is, Bonnie Christian of Wired released a piece on 2nd February of this year that just one month into 2018 London reached and surpassed its legal pollution limit for the entire year. The title of the article – “How to breathe cleaner in London’s pollution-filled air” – highlights very well the mind-frame adopted by London’s inhabitants. I raised my eyebrows at this title. After all the only time people need a survival “how to” is when they are entering a hostile environment.

Emissions are the cause of “early deaths” – death that occurs before the average age of death in a certain population – “contributed to by PM2.5 (which is particulates in the air that are smaller than 2.5 micrometres)”. In 2009 the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) put the deaths caused by PM2.5 as 29,000. In 2015 nitrogen dioxide was reported to have been responsible for 23,500 deaths according to Defra.

The information above is provided for their respective years. If these numbers of deaths are happening year on year it is clearly a problem of pandemic magnitude. Why is this not splashed on the front page of every newspaper? Why are there no emergency meetings being held in which the government divert sources and funding to help combat the toxification of the air we breathe?

The evidence proving that greenhouse gas emissions are getting worse is exponential. Satellite footage from NASA, NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) as well as research undertaken by scientists from all over the world have proven with myriad statistics that levels of nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane are on the rise. This is reflected by the rise in global temperatures, major depletion of Arctic ice as well as landlocked ice in Greenland.

Pollution poses a threat in our streets, but it does not stop there. Studies have also suggested that the level of C02 in the air is causing “key crops” to wield less nutrients. As many as “half a million Britons could become deficient in protein” as well as suffer from a depletion in sufficient levels in zinc. The study by Harvard University (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) states that “the populations of 18 countries may lose more than 5% of their dietary protein by 2050 due to a decline in nutritional value of rice, wheat, and other staple crops”.

Globally, 76% of the population derives most of their daily protein from plants. Zinc and protein are much needed throughout pregnancy, infancy and childhood in order for children to be able to properly develop both physically and mentally.

Pollution is seen as a distant nuisance. A wrong that will be righted by future generations. We believe, or choose to believe, that someone will come up with a new piece of technology that will clean the oceans. Another piece of technology that will bring back the trees and another that will clean the air. The truth is technologies exist but not on the scale that we need in order to see the vast degree of change needed.

The study from China is a game changer. It highlights the fact that pollution is no longer a layer thickening the atmosphere far above our heads and far from our conscious. Pollution is at street level and pressing up against our doors. Particulates stick in our lungs. Our children breathe them in on their ways to and from school and when they go outside in the playground. The eldest members of our society lose their mental faculties and slip away.

The question is: how are we going to deal with that danger at our door?

There is some good news on this front. Start-up company, Airlabs, has trialled pollution traps around bus stops in heavy-traffic areas which, according to Bonnie Christian’s article, filtered “97 percent of nitrogen-oxide from the air so commuters could breathe easy while waiting for the bus.” Christian’s article was one of the most informative in highlighting solutions to the pollution issus (link below). Christian mentions Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde designing and creating the solar-powered Smog Free Tower which has the “capacity to suck up 30,000 cubic metres of polluted air per hour, cleaning it at a nano-level and releasing the clean air back into the city.’ These are now being used in Tianjin, Dalian and Beijing as well as Rotterdam.

This is a great step in the right direction, but we need more initiatives. Pollution traps at every bus stop and street corner. Every city should introduce Smog Free Towers and aid in the cultivation of plant life. The problem is that, although these technologies are a fantastic move forward in combating air pollution, they are reactive. The very infrastructure that we use and rely on is fossil-fuel dependent. Be it the cars and buses that congest our streets or the container vessels chugging across our oceans, it would be a herculean undertaking to make the transition to green power, but not at all impossible. Naomi Klein in her bestselling book –This Changes Everything, makes a brilliant case of how the green energy movement would create a new global economy.

This kind of change needs to happen soon. Early deaths through respiratory illnesses and early onset dementia simply can no longer be justifiable when we have the potential for change at our feet.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/dementia-develop-living-near-major-main-road-study-mental-disorder-lancet-a7507616.html

https://inews.co.uk/news/environment/how-air-pollution-can-reduce-your-verbal-and-maths-skills/

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/london-pollution-toxic-levels-2018

The New-build Dilemma

It is official – houses are getting smaller.

Here are a few numbers from an article on the subject by Andrew Ellson and Jedidajah Otte in The Times, 20th August, 2018.

On average:

– Houses are now 20% smaller than in the 1970’s

– Living rooms are 1/3 smaller

– Kitchens are 1/4 smaller

– Bedrooms are 1/5 smaller

The road to purchasing a house is littered with potholes, diversions, dead-ends and dodgy signage. It took myself and my partner a year and a half to save up the deposit needed for a house in our area. And we only managed it because of the charity of my parents letting me live rent free in their house. If my partner and I had been renting, it would have taken us nearly three or four years to save for that deposit. That says a lot about our current culture.

New couples, new families and O.A.P’s looking to upgrade in their later years are buying new houses in new developments. Around Crawley and Horsham alone – where I am based – five new sectors are being added. Thousands of houses and apartments. All of them built smaller than the average residence, and – from myriad conversations I have had with labourers on site – with ever cheaper materials. For example: door frames built from compressed cardboard, plumbing constructed from PVC pipework, fake chimneys made from wood and rendered to look like brickwork. As well as plasterboard walls which would crumble if the PVC breaks or splits – after all PVC is far more brittle than copper and more susceptible to changes in pressure and atmospheric conditions.

New builds are not just smaller but also more expensive than the regular property and they are selling on the notion that, because they are modern, they have a longer lifespan than those built during earlier periods. No previous owners. No degradation. A new space to make a new home.

Space aside there is another issue facing those living in the new build houses and that is one of mental health. Statistically those living in smaller properties are more likely to develop mental health and social issues such as depression and anxiety. In cramped conditions, members of the family cannot get the time on their own that they need, as highlighted by Ben Derbyshire, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects who says that “In a two-bed, four person home there is no space to be on your own except in the lavatory. Humans are social animals but they also need peace, quiet and space for concentration.”

Higher property prices of new builds lead to financial anxieties due to buyers taking out larger mortgages. Combined with smaller living conditions leading to mental health problems the precedent being set by property developers is worrying.

Mental health and social issues after all lead to the most amount of work days missed and account for two of every five visits to G.P’s. The financial demand of the house combined with the house itself causing stress and worry would only create a false economy, would it not?

That is not to say that every new build is small, but with prices already high for smaller dwellings, the costs of larger properties are exponentially more and therefore fall into a price bracket that is often unachievable by those living on the average income. As commentator Tim Montgomerie says: “Inflated house prices owe much to the power of a few major builders to restrict the supply of new homes.” If someone wants to buy a house to call a home, they are at the whim of the prices dictated by developers. If you are a high-earner or in a high earning partnership and have enough money to buy a larger property, well, it turns out money really can buy you happiness.

The saleability of houses in regards to number of rooms is another contentious issue that we face in the United Kingdom. We are one of the only nations that sell properties based on the number of bedrooms that it has. In America and in much of Europe houses are sold on the basis of how many square metres are available. While people within the U.K might be happy in the knowledge that they have bought a three bedroom property, the space inside might not be appropriate for either the family unit, or to provide adequate separation space. After all, many properties advertised to have three bedrooms live up to the promise but space is massively lacking. What are sold as double bedrooms can at best fit a double bed and nothing else. I came across many of these houses when looking for the place we eventually called home.

As property developers squeeze as many houses into an acquired space as possible in order to maximise profits, the government is doing little in the way of putting regulations in place in order to set a decent living standard. Instead the “minimum size standards for new dwellings” as laid down by the government is entirely voluntary. This needs to change. The standards should become policy for all new developments not only for the benefit of the inhabitants but, as pointed out above, for the economy as a whole.

Architecture and proper civic planning can be, and has been, a tool for great change. By giving people space in which they can be part of the family unit and when needed to spend time by themselves. By focusing on creating public spaces in order to eradicate seclusion from one another and by bringing back community centres for children and social clubs for adults.

Due to the neoliberal dogma that the Conservative government subscribe to, projects such as this will simply not take hold. Maximising profits for companies and deregulating the market only weakens the government’s voice in matters of public discourse as corporate interest takes control. Prices will rise, houses will get incrementally smaller so that it is barely noticeable, and the effects on buyers will only be negative as a result.

Is this the way we want to go? Of course not. We need a government that will implement change and stamp policy into place to give people the place, and space, that they deserve.