Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Why speed limiters would be a poor solution

So once again at Christmas time the Government has dug out those old chestnuts for a new attempt at making some decent stuffing. This year it is sat nav driven speed limiters that make it onto the fire for a slow roast. These voluntary devices will save the world, cutting down on fuel emissions and reducing road accidents as we cut speeds to the legal limit we are told.

So the questions have to be are they a good idea and will they work?

Sadly there are a few technical issues to resolve.

1) The mapping is not available off the shelf. Yes, Ordnance Survey have a road network that underpins the geometry used by Teleatlas and Transport Direct/DoT and Navtec have their own alternative. But none have a legally accurate speed model. Nor is it as easy as mapping all the road signs as many don't match the legal orders to the metre.

2) If captured it will have to be updated for every vehicle every time a new road is added or speed limit changed else people wouldn't be able to drive on new roads. The current best commercial release is every 6 weeks from Ordnance Survey using an on-line push service to commercial customers.

3) GPS is accurate enough to work. Well most of the time it is, assuming the right chipset is used, the satellites are visible, your windscreen is not attenuating the signal, you have locked on, you are not in an urban canyon need I go on :-)

4) Even if you are 20m out it doesnt matter really. I suppose it doesn't.... if the road parallel has the same speed limit. My sat nave regularly places me on the service road parallel to the one I am driving in the Southampton area, and as readings are taken at 2sec intervals I have seen it on rare occasions jump off the motorway onto the feeder road alongside... oops that has a 30 limit... can I have my power back before... BANG too late... how much does a 2 hour closure of a motorway cost?

Then there are the safety issues

1 Overtaking the tractor on the rural road is far safer with foot down get by then brake back to the speed limit if you have exceeded it than being stuck at 60 edging past.

2 Will urban users really want to wait the 2 or more minutes it may take for the first satellite lock?

3 I use cruise control regularly on motorways and some straight urban roads when clear the problem with it is it doesn't stay exactly at speed its at best + or - 3mph over 10 minutes worse on steep hills, sure you watch the road not your speed readout but you relax too much

Finally will it work on fuel reduction?

I have to say from personal experience no. On the urban cycle congestion and the stop start acceleration will kill off your economy in any case so its on the open road that things will count.

But for the majority of law abiding users it will have no effect at all. In fact it will make matters worse!!

On what do I base this claim? Well every car I have driven overestimates speed at 70mph by between 4 and 8mph compared to a GPS at steady speed. Compare 3GPS at the same time and they agree to within .2 of each other. As a commercial driver this has given me the confidence that is safe (from a speeding ticket point of view) for me to drive to the GPS not the speedo. The result my long term economy has dropped from 57 to 54mpg (diesel).

I suspect that people like me, who generally drive within the limit, will be those most likely to fit the device. For us the thought would be if I put my foot down I still won't break the limit so I'll trust government technology to ensure I dont break the law.

Those who would make economy savings, the 85-90+ driver, wouldn't touch this with a bargepole in any case.

So is there value in what is proposed?

For the big picture, no this is a red herring.

However if the government are prepared to front the cash to enable local government to produce a nationally consistent set of speed limits in a digital form accurately reconciled with the legal orders AND the road signage, which is then freely available, regularly updated and integrated to all Sat-Navs systems on the market so that all a driver needs to do is glance at their sat-nav screen to know the speed limit then this particular chestnut might actually lead to something tasty and nutritious in time for Xmas 2009.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Emperor Browns new Clothes

First the Germans said, it now the IMF have followed suit Far from being the saving of the British economy the VAT cut is looking more and more like the Emperors new clothes.

But should we be surprised, while the big retailers are happy to pass the savings on what about the rest of the economy.

The publican running a microbrewery "I cant afford to change all my menus and beer prices are actually going up, the duty change over cancels the cut in VAT and that is permanent"

The small builder (and the haulage sector) "increases in fuel duty mean we are paying more not less tax and we cant claim that back"

Hotels personal experience "none of the hotels I use on a regular basis have changed their prices so all this means is margins going up"

Sure I have saved some money as a result the vacuum cleaner we needed to buy was £3 less but I saved far more by shopping around for the Children's presents than I did from VAT changes.

So where are we left, in 373 days VAT will return to normal and if the commentators are to be believed we will still be in deep recession. Potentially worse the rise may even create a double dip scenario with firms either forced to cut margins or see a further hit to spending.

We need confidence back by that point if we are to survive.

So is it working? Just look to the high street today

The Officer Club : up to 70% off

HMV: 2008 chart albums 2 for £10

B+Q: 50% off sale starting tomorrow on bed, bath and kitchen furniture

Adams: savings on everything bar the spring 09 collection

Waterstones : large range of 3 for 2

The sales have started and it isn't even Xmas eve. Compared to this the Chancellors offering is an expensive red herring.

Then look at the queues the bigger the cuts and the cheaper the branding in any case the bigger they were, The Works, Primark, Waterstones were all busy. In short shoppers were trading down and again by far more than 2.5%.

Now the figures in January will tell their own story as no doubt will be the number of businesses in receivership but now is the time for the Chancellor to be bold.

If the stats show the VAT cut isn't working it should be reversed immediately. With the money saved he should.

Invest in insulation of all public buildings.

Underpin the housing market by purchasing vacant property across the country and use it to reduce council housing waiting lists and homelessness.

Initiate further investment in infrastructure modernisation across the UK.

If the chancellor thinks getting the public deeper in debt for consumable items is the way out he is little more than giving whiskey to the dunk on the street corner. We do need to spend but we need publicly visible signs of our investment to build confidence in the rest of the economy not just a cheaper wii to fill our days while we sign on and look for a non existent job

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Environment must gain from car bailouts

This week two key factors emerged in relation to our car industry.

Firstly the EU have passed new targets that will reduce CO2 emissions by 20% in 2020 including new targets for vehicle emissions. Secondly it appears at least one UK maker will be cap in hand to the Treasury looking for a bail out to keep in in business over the coming months.

Now let me make it clear I without hesitation support the need for a financial package to the industry. Without it the same decimation of communities that followed the Tory butchery of the coal mines in the 80's will be seen in communities across the land as not just the big factories close but so do all their component suppliers.

However this must not be a blank cheque. If the government are in effect to take a large share in the car industry then it must do so with two reforms tied to the back of its money.

First the industry management processes must be streamlined and modernised. Then second the money must be tied to short, medium and long term commitments to improving the environmental friendliness of their product.

This can be simplistically be done in many ways however I suggest 4 key commitments to start the process off

1 Remove the most polluting variants from their range within six months
2 Place environmental friendliness on a par with safety in all advertising
3 Refocus new research on technology that improves fuel efficiency especially in the stationary traffic jam scenario
4 Commit to the original more ambitious targets that the EU originally proposed for this weeks legislation before the industry lobbyists got their claws in

That way not only will we have a car industry left after this crisis passes but we will have one configured towards ensuring our children have an environment left in which to own their own car in the future

Friday, 19 December 2008

Powys Leisure centres under threat ?

So having turned out the lights and forced the elderly off our streets (good crime reduction idea.. I think not) Powys are turning their attention to the entire community especially those who wish to keep in shape or learn to swim.

It would appear that leisure facilities are under "review" It seems that 16 leisure centres for 125k people is too many.

Of course looked at another way since 16 centres are all that is needed to cover 25% of the land area of Wales we only need another 48 to give everyone the same geographic access as Powys residents. Somehow such a suggestion would be laughable, after all that would mean only 1 or perhaps 2 centres for the whole of Cardiff and there is the core of the problem. Close any of the existing centres and you force residents on a 30+ mile round trip to the nearest alternative. Put another way it would be like expecting all Cardiff residents to use leisure centres in Newport.

The subtext is more interesting though. "areas under scrutiny would be opening hours, leisure centre activities, usage and pricing policy" in short we won't close them but you are going to pay though the nose to use them.

Lighting may have been a thorny question for many but the loss of one of these facilities would be a major hit for any of the towns concerned and send a clear message to the town concerned that they are no longer important.

Looking wider than the obvious it does raise serious issues about how government funds are apportioned to Welsh authorities. No settlement can be completely equitable due to the conflicting demands but there are clearly identified costs of delivering services in rural areas over an above urban ones.

Perhaps what we are seeing now is real impact of this lack of central understanding, or perhaps we are seeing the reality that the all party cabinet and lots of independent councillors just don't work in holding the officers to account and services suffer as a result.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Is an i_pod the new dead sheep?

It is not for me to criticize Nick Bourne for buying an electronic device to enable his learning of the Welsh language. If it helps him communicate with his electorate a significant proportion of whom speak Welsh as their first language then his actions are to be applauded. However his choice of player leaves a lot to be desired and his justification opens up significant questions of his approach to government.

Take his defence in todays Western Mail as an example

“I’ve made it absolutely clear it’s primarily for learning Welsh. There is no music on it.”


If that is all you needed what was wrong with the £20 generic player from any high street store. My own Sansa only set me back £80 and I can listen to Radio Wales and keep up with the news on it.

If this is indicative of the opposition approach to value for money then what confidence can we have in a future Tory administration led by a man who claims of the public

They want a Wales that doesn’t draw this hard and fast distinction between the public and private sectors – people just want decent healthcare that is paid for

How will he be able to determine what is best when he is incapable of identifying when a generic product is as good for the job as the more expensive brand. After all isn't that just the problem clinicians face every day?

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The Scientific way to turn off the lights

One of the hottest potatoes in Welsh local government has been the issue of streetlighting and when to turn off.

To date councils have offered seemingly random selections done the deed and waited for the howls of protest. However there is a different and more scientific approach.

Almost every authority will have their streetlights stored within a geographic information system. In these cases it becomes possible to treat the issue in the way you would a planning application and check them against a set of consulted upon constraints.

Do they light:
steps (sourced off Ordnance Survey mapping);
CCTV cameras (source Crime and disorder partnership);
road junctions (sourced off Ordnance Survey mapping);
safe routes to schools (source education department);
access to care homes;

The list that can be developed is easy to imagine. The question then is a case of rating each light in turn and switching off those that fail to meet a certain criteria or weighted score.

While the outcome itself may be painful at least we would provide a transparent consultative approach to the problem with which the electorate can be engaged

Monday, 8 December 2008

Kirsty victory a big step forward

Its no secret here in Wales that I have supported Kirsty for a long time as a potential Welsh Lib Dem leader. So todays result is a great one for me personally. However I also think it is a great day for politics in Wales too and marks the first step in the changing of the guard, as well as being the first female leader she is also the first leader who was too young to vote in the 1979 referendum and marks the change over to the devolution generation of politicians.

But why is it good for Wales? because Kirsty will bring a passion to the heart of welsh politics that has been lacking for a long time. Yes we have had politicians of great political conviction (Mike German and Richard Livsey are great examples from within our own party) but both were good solid figures when it came to speaking to an audience. There is also a long tradition of inspirational speakers too but it is a long time since we in Wales had a leader who is both.

And that is what the opposition must now fear, all their leaders are worthy individuals but they lack the spark to ignite a fire in the belly.

Kirsty is capable of that.

When she talks about reigniting the flame of liberalism she means just that. The last 6 months have not been the best for us in Wales as sting of by-elections defeats in held seats have taken the gloss off the progress we made in May. But we now have a chance to step back over the Christmas period and take stock as we prepare to focus our resources towards progress in next years European elections and beyond.

Because let us make it clear with a new leader and one capable of inspiring new supporters and members Wales has a new fresh vision to consider and our politics can only be enriched by that prospect.