Village Remembrance in Bampton

In need of bacon, as one often is on a Sunday morning, I nipped into the Bampton shop just before the village remembrance parade. A young lad, about thirteen I’d guess, walked in and moved, a little hesitantly, towards a spot just in front of me in the queue. The usual uniform. Trainers. Trackie bottoms. Hoodie.

I noticed he had a handful of change. A couple of pound coins, some silver. As though he’d raided his moneybox.

Royal British Legion poppy

He gave me a nervous smile and said “‘Scuse me…”

He reached past me to the box of poppies and the collecting tin by the till. He carefully dropped his coins into the box, took a poppy and a pin. My turn to smile.

The youth of today, huh?

Splat the rat

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.
Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Most councils use conflict-based ‘traffic calming’ schemes as speed reduction measures and to discourage drivers from using certain roads.  They call roads like these – the roads people use to get to work, to go shopping and home to their families – ‘rat runs’.

In my own village in West Oxfordshire we have had ‘calming’ imposed on each of the four ‘rat runs’ into the village.  The reason?  Pressure from some residents that traffic was too fast.  Accident history certainly didn’t give a reason for engineering measures – 12 injury accidents in 5 years, not one speed-related – but ‘fear of speeding traffic’ was significant enough to justify pinch-points and chicanes.

Not so calm

It seems Bampton’s calming caused more crashes in its first six months than the entire village had seen in six years.  It certainly caused many column-inches and minutes of airtime discussion in the local press. Even years later there’s still plenty of evidence of conflict – broken glass, bits of bodywork and scraped posts in the traffic calming.  And residents still say speeding traffic is a problem.

The road safety results?  Well, we don’t know.  No surveys were carried out before the calming was imposed, so it’s hard to measure.  

Calming-caused crashes?

Crawley, another rural West Oxfordshire village, has no history of speed-related crashes, but ‘fear of traffic’ was a concern for some residents.  The County Council installed the scheme of urbanised concrete, posts, lights, signs and humps you can see in the pictures.  They also imposed more bumps, a chicane and narrowing on the tight hills leaving the village. 

Approaching, it’s impossible to see if it’s safe to start driving through the chicanes. That’s because they’re designed to force drivers onto the blind side of the road into the face of unseen oncoming traffic. And, just to make sure they don’t make it through the new hazards quickly, the bumps slow them down and keep them exposed to danger for the maximum length of time. 

The new Crawley scheme was quick in claiming its first victim – just a few days after it was imposed.  You can see the results in the pictures. 

What’s the problem?

Conflict-based calming in action.
Conflict-based calming in action.

These schemes rely on bringing road users into conflict. They could almost have been designed deliberately to cause maximum aggression; clearly telling one set of drivers that they have right of way, then forcing other drivers into their path.  It doesn’t slow traffic down, it just promotes tension, aggression and conflict – completely unnecessarily and with absolutely no benefit.

That’s because conflict narrows and concentrates drivers’ perception and observation to dealing with the conflict – not driving safely.  For one group it becomes all about getting their vehicles over the hump, through the chicane and past the road furniture without having an accident.  For the other group, it means forcibly insisting on their right of way by speeding up, driving aggressively straight at opposing vehicles, hooting and gesturing. Perfect for ensuring that both sets of road users are agitated, aggressive and distracted as they drive through villages.

Politics over safety

One wonders whether the politicisation of road safety might be largely to blame.  After all, a councillor faced with a committee of residents railing about ‘fear of speeding traffic’ rapidly sees voters fleeing to his rivals.  This means he must do something and, more importantly, be seen to be doing something.  Ideally, “something” means a scheme that is perceived to punish those horrid drivers who speed through our village – whilst leaving us free to speed through theirs. 

In fact, shared space schemes would be far more effective in reducing speeds and enhancing the environment.  That’s because they don’t promote aggression and conflict – they promote ambiguity in which road users have to negotiate their way safely as equals.  Shared space does away with the forests of shouty signs, urban concrete and jarring humps – the visual cues road users rely on to know what they should do – and makes the environment more natural and ambiguous.  Ambiguity has the opposite effect to conflict; drivers slow down and observe more widely as they search for visual cues.  Each group is equally discomfited by it, so no-one can aggressively insist on their ‘rights’.   

As Hans Monderman, architect of the shared space concept in Holland, argued:

“Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.”

Perhaps it’s time to stop promoting conflict and one-size-fits-all urban ugliness.  Instead, we could look at schemes that not only enhance villages but make them safer and more pleasant too. 

Time to be practical, not ideological, about transport

There’s been a lot of fuss in Oxford lately about Oxfordshire County Council taking £4m in bus gate fines.  Even the RAC has waded in to suggest that the system of fining drivers is ‘broken’.  The fines are an issue, but the bigger issue is the ideology that drives so much transport policy.  “After all,” the argument goes, “bus gates are there to help keep the traffic moving…”  But if that’s the case, why are congestion-busting motorcycles not allowed through?  The answer is ideology.  Buses and taxis are collective.  Cars and motorcycles are personal transport.  Public ownership (or regulation) good, private ownership bad.

But we need to ditch the ideology and get practical.  ‘The Transport Debate’ is still a little like the trench battles of World War One. Both sides have dug in behind the wire and are busy shelling each other – even after years of it doing no good. Progress is being measured in inches, and no-one’s really winning the battle. It’s time to come out to kick a few arguments around in no-man’s land.

Time to update transport policy
Time to update transport policy

Is it all about cars?

It’s axiomatic that the car brings a huge degree of personal freedom – but it brings it at a cost. The cost is decreasing massively as cars and the fuels on which they run become cleaner, but it still needs to be addressed. The question is ‘how’? Is the best way forward to restrict, tax and impose or is it to improve, educate and empower? What’s the best way to give people viable, real-world transport choices?

So far, most of the solutions to pollution and congestion have focussed on making cars harder to use – either financially or physically. Most current transport policy appears to be negative and sometimes seems motivated more from an a priori ideological dislike of cars than a desire to change things for the better.

There is much talk of ‘restriction’, ‘management’ and ‘compulsion’. Looking at some of the concrete wastelands that have grown up to cater for the car, it’s easy to see why. But we need to examine the problem from a different angle.

Rather than emphasising what a bad thing cars are and punishing drivers, let’s push the positives of other modes and try to develop some affordable, efficient car alternatives. At the same time, let’s remove the restrictions and controls that have led to more congestion, more pollution and more pain for drivers as local authorities compete to make life harder for them.

The best tool for the job

There are some journeys where the car is the best tool for the job – generally multi-destination trips, or where public transport lacks flexibility, distances are impractical to cover on a cycle or there’s too much to carry. There are plenty of others where other modes are better and there are some journeys that don’t need to be made at all.

We’ve forgotten the human beings somewhere in all this legalese.

Do we need to commute?

One in every six journeys in the UK are to work, yet many employees do not have to be in the workplace every day, and could easily work from home. Assume they spend thirty minutes each way commuting and you’ve saved half a working day’s travel by sitting in the spare room with a laptop as well as slashing peaktime congestion.

When people don’t have to struggle through the daily commute they’re more efficient too. The Telework Association believes that productivity rises by 10-16% if people work at home. Unfortunately, many employers seem reluctant to give their staff the trust and flexibility teleworking needs and the Government offers them few tax incentives for doing so.

What is an ‘unnecessary’ journey?

Cars are an efficient method of getting around with large amounts of luggage to more than one place. For getting to the office two miles away, picking up a bottle of wine at the off-licence or a host of other in-town journeys they are usually more trouble than they’re worth. This is why – quite reasonably – there is a lot of talk about ‘reducing unnecessary car journeys’.

The problem is – who decides what’s unnecessary? There is no way I would take the car a the three mile round trip to the library, but I’d probably use it to collect a washing machine, yet the two journeys are treated as identical by local authorities and penalised equally. The alternatives – a small council-run fleet of Long John cargo bikes, more short term parking spaces or just plainly less onerous parking restrictions – never seem to occur to anyone. No-one seems to think of promoting motorcycles as a core commuter mode. In fact, “unnecessary” seems to mean “something the council doesn’t like.”

Instead, the Council makes it as difficult as possible for me to use my car, but only promotes the alternatives half-heartedly.

Promoting the alternatives

We’re told to get out of the driver’s seat, but sadly, the alternatives are seldom promoted positively. There’s a distinct hairshirted whiff of ‘worthiness’ as we’re encouraged to cycle not because it’s fast, fun and efficient, but because we’re ‘doing our bit’

How much congestion is council-caused?
How much congestion is council-caused?

Then there’s public transport – slammed by the Audit Commission as ‘expensive, unreliable…and that doesn’t go where people want.’ At the same time, it’s more expensive than in almost any other country in Europe. The Government spends less than £12bn a year on transport – yet somehow seems surprised when trains crash, roads crumble or there is tube chaos and people use their cars.

Rather than making the car as unpleasant and expensive to use as public transport we need to give people viable transport choices and allow them to choose the mode that suits their journey best. This means empowerment, education and investment not more restrictions, taxes and compulsion.

RAF Manston officers’ mess party tricks. Revisited.

It was in 1993 when she was 70.

I’d thrown a party and, of course, Ma was invited too.  She wasn’t the sort of mother you’d leave off the invitation list.  Not only were parties her natural element, but all my friends adored her.  There would have been trouble had she been left on the bench. She drove up from Somerset in her venerable automatic Volvo 323, in which she could out-corner and out-face most other drivers on the road.

She arrived on Friday night and, as ever, we did a little damage to a bottle of gin as I cooked supper.  Her, leaning against the kitchen worktop, peppering the conversation with tips; “Splash of sherry vinegar with that, Darling.”  She told me about her old people; the ones she visited and went shopping for.  She was still managing a local charity shop – full time – and keeping the local Parochial Church Council on the straight and narrow.

She recounted all the news over the meal, how she’d sent her latest fundraising idea up to head office, how the new vicar was settling in (“I think he may be a little evangelical for St John’s.  He won’t sing the gospel the way Geoffrey used to”) and her plans for holidays with her thick-as-thieves friend Christine.

The next evening, the party started.  Friends rolled in from across Oxfordshire and from far further afield.  Bottles were opened, glasses filled and, as ever, Ma held court from her accustomed chair.

I loved the way friends who were barely a third of her age would sit on the arm of her chair, keep her glass filled and listen to her stories.

And such wonderful stories.

And she looked so innocent.
And she looked so innocent.

She’d grown up in Kent in WWII, where she’d lied about her age to start driving ambulances and nursing at Dover’s underground hospital.  She’d tell the story of how she’d cycle to work through German air raids, sticks of bombs plummeting from ‘planes overhead “And of course, I knew I was safe. I had my tin helmet on.”

She’d tell the stories of how she used to be invited to cocktail parties at RAF Manston where various pilots would vie for her attention, plying her with cocktails.  “Well, I’d drink the first couple then tip the rest away under my chair.  I do wonder what the poor mess steward must have thought the next day.”

She was in the middle of one of these stories – about one of her mess party tricks – when something happened that will stay with me always.

“So, I’d balance a pint of beer on my head, get down on all fours, then lie down, light a cigarette and then stand up again.  All without spilling a drop.”

A barked laugh, and “Ha! I’ll bet you couldn’t do it now!”

One of my friends, intending nothing but a little joshing, instantly ended up on the pointy end of Ma’s gimlet stare.

“Would you get me a pint of beer and cigarette?” He looked relived to leave the room, but came back a few minutes later bearing the beer and a scrounged packet of Marlboro.

Ma stood up from her chair, thanked him, smiled broadly and took the pint from his hand.  After a typically comic sham of being the worse for wear (she could drink me comfortably under the table) she placed the pint on her head. With both hands, just to be sure.

Ma never needed to say much to command a room. Just walking in would usually do it.  So by this point, other conversations had died and everyone had turned to watch.

She loved it.

She went down on one knee, then the other.

Absolute silence.

From there, she lay flat on the floor, her arms in front, the pint of beer still perfectly balanced.

“Still so sure?” she grinned up at my doubting friend as she gestured for him to pass her the packet of cigarettes.

He did.

She called for a light.

She flicked open the packet, drew a single cigarette, put it to her lips and, despite having given up twenty years earlier, lit it and drew deeply.

Ma, doing what she did so well, larking around.
Ma, larking around, as she so often did.

The beer barely rippled.

Then, she drew her arms towards her, straightening up.

In a single, fluid movement, she stood. She put the cigarette in one hand and took the pint glass from her head.  She took a sip and passed the glass to her provocateur. A pause. “I never really liked beer.  Would you get me another G&T?”

I only heard the second part of the sentence because I was standing next to her.  The rest of the room was cheering, clapping and toasting her.

My mother achieved a huge amount in her 80 years.  But I was never more proud of her than at that moment.

Clipping the wings of small business

In yesterday’s double-dip “Emergency” budget, George Osborne announced a new tax that means that one group in society will be paying around £2,000 more from next April.  No, it’s not hedge fund managers, multinationals or the ultra-rich.  It’s small businesspeople.

A reform or just a tax-grab?

Sneaked in under the banner of ‘dividend taxation reform’, his tax hike on share dividends means people running their own businesses as limited companies and taking basic dividends will pay around £2,000 more tax next year.


Taxing you twice

The Treasury used to believe that it was fair to tax things just once; apart from road fuel where drivers are made to pay Fuel Duty on the price of fuel then VAT on top of the Duty.  It seems that enterprise is now fair game too.

If you run a small business, perhaps turning over £200,000 a year and employing a couple of people, you pay Corporation Tax at 20% on the profits.  Business owners used to pay themselves using those profits (already taxed under Corporation Tax, remember) as dividends, paying no more tax until they hit the higher rate tax band.

Pay an extra £2,000 in tax – to start with

Let’s say, like most directors, you take some of your income in salary and some in dividends.  As of next year, you’ll be paying an additional, new 7.5% Dividend Tax.  Unless you earn enough to become a Higher Rate Taxpayer, in which case it’ll be an additional 32.5% of new tax.

For a pretty average business owner earning around £42,000, that’s going to be an extra £2,000 tax to pay on money that’s already been taxed once. And the Chancellor has made it very clear indeed that he sees this 7.5% tax raid as just the start. Expect to see it rise – sharply – in the next few years.

George has got his sights set on your wallet
George has got his sights set on your wallet

But it’s all OK because this “will continue to encourage entrepreneurship and investment, including through lower rates of corporation tax“. Let’s look at that…

Take the money now, get a bit back later

The new dividend tax hits straight from next April.  Reductions in Corporation Tax don’t start until two years later in 2017 (19%), then slowly phase in until 2019-20 (18%).  And the dividend tax take has a rather greater impact on small businessmen’s income than the reductions in Corporation Tax.  And, in the meantime, the Exchequer will see around £2.5bn in extra tax roll in.

“Aw, diddums,” you’re probably thinking.  “£42k a year, your own business and bitching about paying a bit of extra tax”.  Indeed.  That’ll be £42k that’s come from someone leaving employment and starting their own business.  No more company car, company pension scheme, lunch allowances, private healthcare, redundancy pay, sick pay or holiday pay.  A lot of hours and a lot of stress, sweat and tears in the hope that they’ll – one day – make it.  And most don’t.

Putting the brakes on enterprise

This is a raid on people who are starting out, perhaps a couple of years into running their own business and struggling to make it work.  These are the businesses that are heading down the runway, building up speed and hoping to get properly off the ground.

Osborne said in his Budget:

“This is the first Conservative budget for 18 years. It was Conservatives who first protected working people in the mills, it was Conservatives who introduced state education, it was Conservatives who introduced equal votes for women.  It was Conservatives that gave working people the Right to Buy, so of course it’s now the Conservatives who introduce the National Living Wage. For this is the party for the working people of Britain.”

He should have added “…unless they run their own businesses.”

An open letter to the Chancellor.

Today, George, you delivered your first budget as a Tory chancellor.  Those who voted for you, the people who believed Conservatism was about a hand up, not a hand out and who started their own businesses, are now sitting shellshocked, wondering how they could have been so utterly gullible.  They should have realised that the die is cast at prep school when the scions of the seriously wealthy first realise the earth is theirs, their pals’ and everything in it.

Thanks to you, they’re instantly around £2,000 a year worse off.  That’s because they always believed Tories thought owner-managed businesses were a good thing.  How wrong they were.  As you dish out Corporation Tax and Inheritance Tax cuts to your City pals, the impact of the changes in dividend taxation means small business people feel the pain.  Overnight, they go from getting taxed once, through Corporation Tax, to twice; once corporately and then again personally.  And they’re the lucky ones.

Many of them got a full grant for a university education; one of the most reliable ways of getting up and out of the swamp. Today, they wouldn’t be able to afford it.  No more grants; loans instead.  If they believed that education was about more than landing the plummiest job (no old boy network for them), they’d be screwed today.

But that’s OK. A university education only makes the plebs uppity. They should know their place, shouldn’t they, George?

They’ll have come out of university and rather than enjoying a gap yah or an internship, they’ll have got a job. A shitty, badly-paid job. But they’ll have worked hard at it and clawed their way up a bit.  And worked hard at the next one too.  Then the next.  And the next.  And that’s fine, because they’ll have learned shedloads and done well.  But they’ll also have learned that no matter how hard they worked, some kid with rich parents could always afford a better car, a bigger house, a smarter whatever.  But that was fine too; because they knew that no one could take what they achieved away. Until today.

This latest tax grab on those who dared to believe that they could make a go of running their own businesses is the worst.  Not because it instantly removes a chunk of their incomes, but because of what it means.  It may look, from the outside, as though they’re doing alright.  And, compared with most, they are.  But it’s precarious and a constant struggle.  They know that next month’s mortgage depends on capricious clients, unstable markets, luck and their own climb-that-bloody-hill determination. There’s no safety net, no employer to help out with sick pay, holiday pay, pension provision or benefits.  That’s fine too – their choice.

But George, you and your pals have family fortunes and trust funds that mean you’re able to make mistakes. People like them don’t and can’t.

But that’s fine too. they don’t want help from you or a Ma-Pa corporation. But what they do want is some acknowledgement that your world view – big houses, Pimms on the terrace and a maid to serve it – and theirs, are very very different.  And they want a little certainty; that someone like you can’t simply walk up, whack them round the head with a tax-filled sock and take a chunk of their income away.

George, you talk a lot about aspiration.  Plenty of people aspire and have been aspiring since they started.  But it’s bloody hard to keep at it when someone who’ll inherit a few million stamps their handmade Lobb boot on their head every time they start trying to get up.

You talked today about a level playing field.  But you’ve made it clear that means doffing their caps as they cut the grass, not being allowed onto the wicket to play the game.

Aspiration. Tonight there are plenty of people thinking you don’t have a bloody clue what it really means.

Say what you mean

Councils and the public sector are very careful about how they use language.  This is no bad thing.  It demonstrates an understanding that language is massively, foundationally important. The National Council of Teachers of English rightly says “language plays a central role in the way human beings behave and think.”

But language can be used to obscure as well as illuminate.  For example, earlier this year on Radio 4’s Today programme, a Head of Social Services was discussing the problem of dementia patients in care homes forming ‘inappropriate’ relationships with other residents.  In other words, of lonely, scared elderly people daring to fall in love. She talked with earnest concern of how one elderly lady was ‘supported to leave the room’ when their new partner walked in during a family visit. Translated, this meant she was bodily manhandled and frogmarched out against her will. Dolores Umbridge would be proud.

All this care with words makes the language local authorities use about the private car all the more remarkable. Or perhaps it simply shows what they really think of drivers and motorcyclists.

Let’s start with ‘traffic calming’.

Traffic calming

The term implies that traffic is so aggressive and beastlike that it requires constant ‘calming’.  Councils spend millions on humps, bumps, chicanes, gateways and pinchpoints.  Any motorcyclist who’s tried to negotiate the mess of overbanding mastic, poorly-maintained bumps and displaced gravel on a dark and wet February evening will not be calm. Drivers and riders are pushed, hooted and faced-off with oncoming traffic, made aggressive by artificial constraints. But in Councilland, this deliberately provoked and facilitated, full-on road user conflict is called ‘calming’.

Strangely, most traffic is a lot calmer without it.

No conflict here. Move along now.
No conflict here. Move along now.


In some parts of the country, drivers and riders are faced with slippery, hard-edged, jarring thermoplastic humps.  If you have a back condition, these can be agony to traverse at any speed.  If you’re a motorcyclist riding in the rain at night, they’re as slippery as a slug and lethal.

To your local council, they’re ‘thumps‘. Yes, that council that does soooo much to avoid even the faintest trace of conflict and demonises ‘hostile’ language calls these ‘thumps’.  But, maybe, they just think those evil, private car and motorcycle users deserve being hit up a bit.

Pinch points

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.
Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Pinch points are designed to let just one vehicle through at a time. It’s clearly fine to ‘pinch’ drivers, rather as a spiteful schoolchild might pinch another when teacher isn’t looking. By forcing only one car through a gap at a time, councils promote conflict, anger and immense frustration at peak times. Giving those nasty drivers a quick nip when no-one’s looking is absolutely fine.

Village gateways

In ‘traffic management’ (there we go again – the implication that drivers can’t be left to use their own intelligence) terms, a ‘gateway’ is designed to protect a village and keep those nasty drivers out.  The very antithesis of of the faux-equality and ‘inclusion’ espoused by council thinking. Gateways narrow the road so that vehicles are forced to cross into the opposite carriageway into direct conflict.  Drivers and riders are forced into the path of oncoming traffic with the intention of reducing speeds.

Gateways also illustrate – beautifully – a complete lack of understanding of human nature.  Of course everyone should play nicely, giving way, not rushing, not pushing and not being aggressive.  But gateways encourage and promote the opposite behaviour as drivers insist on their rights of way by driving uncompromisingly straight and hard at oncoming traffic. Others try to sneak in the wake of a lead car in an attempt to get through.

It's all about safety, mostly for councillors' electoral chances.
The sign says ‘Danger! Road safety measure ahead’.

Pedestrian refuges 

See those poor, terrified pedestrians.  See them cower in the face of the evil drivers.  See them huddle, clutching each other on the isles of the pedestrian refuge.  The language is absolutely clear – the car is evil and a threat from which defenceless pedestrians need protection.

Clearly, cars are not driven by normal people with children, families and hearts. They are driven by the sort of people from who society needs to seek refuge.

Severed roads

“Severed” is a pretty strong word. An unusual one too. The dictionary has it as “divide by cutting or slicing, especially suddenly and forcibly.” Powerful language from organisations that would describe the frogmarching of a pensioner from a room as ‘enabling her to leave’. Someone must have gone out of their way to choose such a deliberately aggressive term.

They’re described thus; “Severed roads… provide the ultimate deterrent to rat running.” And imagine a councillor or council employee describing any other group in society as ‘rats’. They’d be taken away for reprogramming faster than a final council tax demand.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 23.44.58
Those damn ‘rat-runners’ trying to get to work to support their families.

Dragon’s Teeth

Another wonderfully hostile term describes white, spiked markings at the entrance to towns and villages.  Dragon’s Teeth.  Cornwall County Council’s website describes them thus: “Dragon’s teeth provide a visual change and narrowing of the road. They are suitable for village entry points. Cost £4,250 – 5,500.”

Designed to give those nasty, selfish drivers a visual nip, the language used is, again, clearly and openly hostile.

What does it all mean?

In the real world, this forensic persnicketiness about words doesn’t matter.  Despite what the language police think, normal, everyday people use unintentionally loaded, prejudicial and caricaturing terms all the time and don’t mean a thing by it.  But councils understand the power of words.  They treat language very carefully and thoughtfully indeed with the white-gloved care one usually gives nitroglycerin.

To hear council employees talking about using ‘thumps’ and ‘pinchpoints’ against any other group in society would be unthinkable. Yet it’s not only acceptable but encouraged when directed against private motorised road users. When councils talk about ‘severed roads’, and ‘refuges’ they’re making their position and view clear.

Their language caricatures drivers and riders as an aggressive, unpleasant, animalistic subgroup.  Certainly, in a minority of cases that’s a fair description.  But the mass of normal drivers and riders are far more considerate; just decent and perfectly normal people going about their everyday business. But private cars and motorcycles has been so successfully demonised that it’s absolutely acceptable to ‘manage’, ‘restrict’ and ‘control’ their use.

There is no other group about which officials would use language like this. So perhaps its time to stop using it about drivers and motorcyclists. Either that, County Hall, or fess up and admit you simply don’t like us.