Monthly Archives: May 2015

What You and Yours did

On Tuesday morning Radio 4’s Today programme trailered You and Yours with a rant that was a masterclass in anti-cycling propaganda. “Should they have insurance like everyone else?” we were asked, and had we seen news coverage of a young child being dragged along after being hit by a cyclist on the pavement. Did we think cyclists ought to take a test before being allowed on the road and were we aware that “cyclist casualties have risen in recent years as the amount of cycling has increased”.

The statement about insurance is deliberately inflammatory and factually incorrect. It is intended to create a Them and Us divide (a little ironic perhaps on a programme call You and Yours. Perhaps it should be changed to You and Yours and Let’s Point at Other People). It’s saying “We are everyone and cyclists are other and different from all of us”. But not everyone has insurance. People who don’t drive or cycle aren’t necessarily insured. Children don’t have insurance. It’s not, in the UK, compulsory to have insurance when you walk out of your front door. Car drivers have to have cover but that is because they are in charge of something that on average weighs 1300kg and can legally travel at speeds in excess of 110kph. That speed and mass combined gives them much greater kinetic energy than a cyclist or pedestrian and consequently the ability to do much more damage far more frequently.

In addition, whilst it is not compulsory for cyclists to have insurance many of them do. It’s quite difficult to get home insurance or any kind of 3rd party cover that doesn’t insure you against an accident on a bike. Insure yourself against someone breaking into your house and stealing all your worldly goods and insurers are so confident you won’t do much damage that they chuck in 3rd party cycling insurance with it. Join British Cycling or the CTC and you’ll be insured. Take part in an organised cycling event and the organisers will have you insured. Contrast that with the estimated 1.2 million uninsured cars on the road in 2013 and you can see that it really is not as simple as cyclists being uninsured and “everyone else” being insured.

The incident with the cyclist hitting a toddler was horrific and should never have happened. But the use of the story here is again inflammatory. Contrast the way that story was used with the reporting of Jeffrey James who crashed his Audi outside a school injuring 9 people, 5 of them children. James had a coughing fit and hit the accelerator rather than the brake. Somehow this resulted in him flipping his Audi onto its roof. The reporting does not condemn him and crucially doesn’t ask why people are in charge of vehicles near schools if something as simple as a coughing fit can cause such carnage. You might be thinking well this was an accident whereas cycling on the pavement is deliberately doing something illegal. In which case you might want to consider the case of Matthew Trvdon in Cardiff, who deliberately used his van as a weapon (though in that case the outgroup is the mentally ill. Motorists again are not targeted as collectively responsible).

As for the test, over 80% of adult cyclists have a driving licence thus they are versed in the Highway Code as much as any other driver ever is. There is bikeability/ cycling proficiency training available but a test isn’t compulsory for the same reason insurance isn’t compulsory – you cannot do as much damage. But the mention of the test is an important rhetorical device because it leads into the question about cycling casualties. By referring to cyclists not taking a test the implication is that they are the ones not trained and therefore the ones more likely to be the root cause of a collision, in contrast with the nice trained, insured driver who was also involved. Citing accidents as if they are part and parcel of problems caused by cyclists puts the responsibility with those cyclists rather than examining what’s actually happening. Logically, if numbers of cyclists goes up, collisions involving cyclists will go up, because there are more of them. You’d get more collisions if you put more drivers on the road too. The stat cited on the You and Yours website that 19,000 cyclists were killed or injured in 2013 is fairly useless without context. Which has gone up by a greater proportion, numbers of cyclists or accidents? Could it be that there is safety in numbers and accidents increase at a slower rate? And who causes these collisions? The fact is that in the majority of collisions involving cyclists and drivers it is the driver who is at fault. Without that context what we have is just more of the same incendiary, poorly researched and unanalysed nonsense.

I’ll confess that I haven’t listened to the entire You and Yours broadcast. I like my blood pressure where it is and I listened to enough to know that no-one was likely to make an effort to counteract the damage done by the advertising for the programme. #YourandYours was trending on Twitter, much of it from incandescent people who happen to travel by bike (see what I did there? Good isn’t it. The BBC don’t have a monopoly on manipulating language to their advantage). I’ve yet to see a response from anyone involved in the programme apologising for using rabble-rousing language against vulnerable road users, but Rajeev Gupta, producer and reporter on the programme, came out with “Wonderful that #youandyours is top trending… Our phone in on cycling hit a nerve with the UK”.

Now, it’s not that hitting a nerve is wrong per se, it’s just that as a goal on its own it’s inadequate. Katie Hopkins frequently hits a nerve, generally by making attacks on vulnerable groups in society who already face prejudice. Her “cockroaches” rant directed at immigrants brought her dangerously close to 1930s European rhetoric and brings me dangerously close to invoking Godwin’s Law. In contrast, when Alan Rusbridger hit a nerve by supporting Edward Snowden he attacked one of the most established and entrenched powers the world has ever seen. It’s easy to hit a nerve when attacking a small nervous mammal and if you’re the the one doing the hitting you take a minimal risk. When going for a bear, whilst it might be sensitive to attack, the consequences for the attacker are rather greater. It’s why people don’t often have the courage to do it.

I suggest that in future, if You and Yours wants to hit a nerve, it picks a better target. How about going for drivers? No. Why not? After all, the majority of them admit to law breaking in one way or another. They’re so keen on speeding they find ways to spot speed cameras and post information about their whereabouts. They kill and maim, often with impunity. Lorry driver Joao Lopes killed twice because his vision was poor and he didn’t wear his glasses to drive, a fact the police admit they failed to investigate first time around. Put “car crashes into kitchen” into an internet search engine and you’re spoiled for choice with stories about drivers who failed to see entire houses and then drove into them. Drivers are so shit at so many things that the richest of them have specialist lawyers to get them out of these situations. Why doesn’t You and Yours examine that?

Sadly I don’t expect journalists on Radio 4 to start this kind of investigating. They are very much from the Hopkins’ school of picking on outgroups because they think those groups will not bite back. It would take a certain amount of bravery to tackle a group that holds more power and to question entrenched attitudes. They should however take care when attacking the small and nervous. As Terry Pratchett was wont to point out, sometimes a small mammal turns out to be a mongoose.

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Post-election blues

Other than the election result, there are two things keeping me awake at night. One, my horse’s saddle doesn’t fit and two, I’ve been given notice to leave the home that I rent. The saddle very much comes under first world problems. It bothers me because I’m responsible for my horse’s welfare and have been working him in a saddle that is restrictive, although his previous owner spent a lot of money on it and had it professionally fitted. Despite my concerns, I can see that in the grand scheme of things it’s not a bad problem to have. The problem with my home is much more serious and something you might hope would be encountered only in the developing world not the first world. Sadly this is not the case. Even in supposedly developed countries those who rent are second-class citizens and security of tenure is a distant dream.

Trying to find out my rights as a tenant, I came across this little gem. In case the page gets edited, here’s a screen shot of the text I find particularly worrying:

Renting_cropped

So according to this advice “renting is always temporary anyways” , I should feel sorry for my landlady/ landlord, and knowing that at any time you might be given two months notice to get out is not a huge problem because “I guarantee the stress of having to sell to kill debt is a lot greater than having to find a new place to rent”. It’s difficult to know where to start with this, but I’ll go through point by point.

I relocated for my job. I have a two-year contract. I had hoped that I would be able to live in one place for those two years. It doesn’t on the face of it seem like a big thing to ask. Instead, one year into the contract I find I have to move. This means paying another agency fee; paying removal expenses; using up annual leave to pack and move; going through that awkward time between one deposit going out and another coming back and all in the knowledge that wherever I move, I will have at most 12 months security.

As someone who rents, I find myself on the hunt for cardboard boxes. Not just now. I mean every time I think there’s an opportunity to get hold of a strong, fairly large cardboard box I take it, both the opportunity and the box. I stash cardboard. I am particularly fond of boxes just the right size to be crammed full of books but still lift-able. I thought this weird but other people I know who rent also live in a perpetual cardboard box hunt. This should not be a normal way to live your life, but it is. Insecurity does this to you, you are always thinking that at some point, another move is on its way and not necessarily at your instigation.

As to me feeling sorry for my landlady, well to a degree I do. I don’t want to go into her circumstances here as they are just that, hers. I have some idea of why she’s selling and I know she doesn’t want to. To that extent I feel sorry for her. Where I have a problem however is that the sale was actually quite predictable. House owners get to check out tenants but the reverse is not true. Had I been able to check out my landlady, and charge her for the pleasure, I would have decided she was not financially secure enough for me to want to rent from her.

Regarding the stress of finding somewhere to rent, well perhaps if you’re always assuming that renting is a quick fix, or something you do until such time as you can buy a place, maybe. However, I’m not alone in knowing I’ll never have the cash to buy. Even if I saved every penny and sold the horse, the sums don’t add up. The house I currently rent is for sale at more than 8x my salary meaning I would not be able to get a mortgage on it. Within a 5-mile radius of where I live the only property for sale within my price range is land with no housing on it. Average property price in my county is around 13x the average salary. On an average salary for this county, if you shopped around in the poorer areas you could get something for around 6x your salary. These figures mean that for many people, renting is something they will need to do in the long term, not something they do in the interim until they have the wherewithal to buy. And it’s not just the stress of finding a new home, it’s the stress of knowing you can get booted out because someone else has a problem that really isn’t of your making.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve lived with people being shown around my home. Initially I was not given notice to move, as the landlady didn’t know how long the sale would take and she depends on my rent, meaning she hedged her bets. This meant that legally I didn’t have to let any prospective buyers around but I did, although I insisted on 24 hours’ notice. On one occasion I flat out refused access because the estate agents attempted to give me two hours’ warning before showing someone around. Within 3 days I received a phonecall from my landlady saying she would have to give me my official notice to end the tenancy. Strange timing, that, and according to her, the estate agents had told her to give me notice, it was not her decision. If you think it isn’t stressful having strangers tramp around your home loudly discussing how many bedrooms it has and how quickly they can get you out, try it for yourself.

I’ve heard the argument that landlords would not want to rent if they had to offer more security to which I say Good. Perhaps if fewer people wanted to get rich quick on BTL, house prices wouldn’t be so ridiculously out of line with wages. And if they’re worried their houses will be trashed by bad tenants again fine, don’t do it. We now have a situation in which the new Housing Minister is a landlord thus it seems unlikely that tenants’ rights will be increased. The Tories, having sold off council housing in the 1980s are busy planning the sell-off of housing association stock. And yet it seems to me that a good way to avoid risks for both tenants and landlords is to have common ownership. If houses for rent were owned by councils or housing associations we wouldn’t be in a situation in which landlords suddenly have to sell up, leaving stressed tenants in fear of being homeless. The current situation doesn’t work and yet this government is bent on pushing us further into it. Unsurprising really, as it helps those who have gain more, whilst those who have not lose out to an ever greater extent.

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