Thursday, 17 November 2011

Thoughts on the first Fortnum and Mason protesters trial

This is a subject that I've been thinking about for a while.  Whether UKUncut are correct about their reasoning for occupying Fortnum and Mason, today's sentencing of the protesters for doing little more than standing about in a shop seems wrong to me.

One of the things that interested me in the reporting was that in an article from the Morning Star, the Metropolitan Police Chief Inspector in charge of the operation confirmed that the only people he had not arrested "were women and children carrying shopping bags."  

This raised two questions for me:

  1. Where any men carrying shopping bags amongst those arrested?
  2. What would have happened if the protesters had all bought something?

To be fair, I'm not that interested in pursuing the first line of enquiry, although it might be something that the next group of people arrested might like to ask Chief Inspector Graham Dean when/if they have him in the stand.

The second question is the one that I'm far more interested in.  

It sounds like a silly idea, you're in a shop, which you believe has failed to pay the appropriate level of tax, why on earth would you want to buy something, and thus support the very shop that you're protesting against?

I have a hunch that it may be possible that small value transactions may actually cost a shop money.  My quick workings are set out below.  Please feel free to have a look and try to pick holes in my reasoning, and let me know where I've gone wrong!

So, let us imagine that you've picked a small piece of fruit or veg from the lower ground floor of Fortnum and Masons.  It's cost per weight is likely to be high, compared to a normal supermarket, but remember, that bit of fruit ins't like any other supermarket piece of fruit, its got to be better than one from M&S at that price right?  So, we'll assume you've picked a banana, I can't find a price for M&S banana's, but a Sainsbury's Fairtrade Organic Banana will set you back £1.50 for 5, that's 30p per banana.  I'll assume for the purposes of this calculation that Fortnum and Masons bananas are twice as expensive as Sainsbury's ones, which would make them £0.60 per banana.

Fortnum's will have to pay to buy in the banana's, and get them to the stores, and to put them on the shelves. Given that they are unlikely to pay more than Sainsbury's per banana (they're the same product remember, just more expensive in F&M due to their name), from a bit of digging about on the web, it seems that Organic Fair Trade bananas cost about £0.37 per kilo when bought from the farmer, there will be some shipping charges, and other fees in there too, so if we round that up to a price of £0.50 per kilo to F&M, we might not be that far off.  If each banana weighs in at around 125g, that's 8 bananas per kilo, so each banana costs them a bit more than £0.06 each.  Their profit margin having just paid for the banana to be at their store is now only £0.54.

They then have to pay a member of staff to put those bananas out onto the shelves, lets assume that they are quick at this, and it only takes them 30 minutes to unbox all of the bananas, say 600 bananas.  If that staff member is on minimum wage, the cost to employ them is £6.86 per hour.  So, each banana put on the shelf takes off about a penny of the stores profit, leaving them with £0.53 per banana.

Now comes the fun bit, if each protester can tie up a member of staff for a minute or two, with a serious question or two, e.g. where is this banana from, what percentage of the price goes back to the grower, do you only sell fairtrade/organic fruit? etc. that has a cost for the store.  Per minute you spend with an employee, you cost the store £0.11.  Lets assume you only manage to tie them up for a minute, that's the stores profit down to £0.42, and that's before you've even got to the till to pay.

Once you get to the till, be polite, make small talk, ask the cashier how their day's been, etc.  Talking to people slows their reactions, makes the transaction take longer, and that's what we're interested in.  Make sure that you're not ready to pay.  Your wallet's at the bottom of your rucksack, and you've got to dig it out? Oh dear, that takes time, time is money.  How much money? The same £0.11 per minute we established earlier.  It shouldn't be too hard to drag the time that you spend paying for your banana out to a couple of minutes, that costs £0.22 for 2 minutes of staff time remember?  Now they're down to £0.20 profit on that banana.

Now we need to pay for the banana.  We're not looking to make things easy for the shop here, but we do want to give ourselves options.  

For highest cost impact, pay on a card.  Card transaction fees are apparently the second highest cost a business has, after staff costs.  The most expensive way for you to pay is to use the magnetic swipe part of your card, it takes longest, and costs them most, chip and pin is the next most expensive, with cash the cheapest.  Typical costs are about 2% for credit cards and a set fee debit cards.  For small transactions pay on debit cards, that fee can be as high as £0.20 per transaction.  If we assume that its half of that cost, that makes the profit on the banana £0.10.

If you'd rather not be tracked, you can pay with cash.  For this, you want to pay the wrong amount in the oddest set of coins you can, pull out a handful of change, root through it, hand over shrapnel in batches so the cashier has to count to check your maths are right.  Pay slightly too much, so that they have to work out the change, and you should be able to waste a bit more time.

Now, remember what our friend Chief Inspector Graham Dean said?  He released people with Fortnum and Mason bags.  Don't forget to ask for yours!  Yes you have a rucksack, but you want a souvenir of your time there don't you? That bag also costs Fortnum and Mason money to give to you, they're pretty shiny bags, and whilst Fortnum and Mason can buy them in bulk, they are unlikely to get the cost down below about £0.05 per bag I suspect.  If we go down our card route, we are now left with only giving the shop £0.05 for your transaction.

In return for this, you've got a banana, a nice paper bag, caused the police problems with wanting to charge you, as are you a protester or a shopper, or both?  you;ve also blocked the till for a genuine customer who was going to spend far more than you were, all in all, not too bad for £0.05.

If you can now have a chat with another staff member, maybe ask a question about the building, or enquire about the cost of the teas in the restaurant, or how far in advance you need to book... That took you another minute? Now you've stolen that last £0.05 back from them, costing them money, just by being there.

Now I know that a lot of this is factored into the prices, but it's worth a thought for future demonstrations.  Can you be a customer and cost a shop money to serve you? Of course you can, if you think about it.  Shops like Fortnum and Mason rely on customers having a high value per transaction.  If the opposite is true, they start to feel the pain quite fast.

Would UKUncut have been better off doing things this way?  I think that they might have been, it would certainly have made the court case more interesting.  Aggravated Trespass charges against customers? What shop is going to want that?  And how would the police deal with it?

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Does TFL really have it in for cyclists?

This is written as a response to a fantastic post at the Over the Hills and Far Away blog.  "Cycle Superdeathway" is her term, but I like it so much, I'm going to use it here.

TFL's cycle route planner likes to push people to the Cycle Superdeathway route where ever it can.  The route that it suggests from my house to Clapham gives a great example of this

Prior to CS7 being put in, TFL would suggest that from my home, I cycled to Tooting Broadway, and then along what is now the "Cycle Superdeathway".  This is part of the route that I normally use to get to work, so I know it quite well.

This route is great, on the way to Tooting Broadway, most of it has a bus lane that, although time limited, cars are wary of going into as they can never manage to read the tiny signs that tell them when they can go in it, so I get a full bus lane to myself nearly all the way to Tooting Broadway.

TFL's Cycle Planner never even thinks of this as a route.

Instead it sends  me via Colliers Wood, to the start of the Cycle Superdeathway 7 for both the easy and fast routes, but on some wierd twisty offroad route for the mid option.  The mid option has changed since I looked last, and not for the better.

The easy/fast routes that they use are the same, except that the easy route adds two very dangerous right turns, that are there to avoid a single light controled right turn with an ASL on it.  I know which I think is easier!  Compared to the route I use (linked above), this route adds about an extra quarter of a mile along a narrow fast road that is used by rat running motorists, and has to have flashing signs that warn them to slow down as they are over the limit, before dropping you onto the end of the Cycle Superdeathway, which, to be fair, is better than the nothing that was there before.  This route however leaves a lot to be desired, either as a fast or an easy route. It's certainly not one that I'd want either an 8 or an 80 year old cycling to get the the Superhighway.

The mid route is so obsure that I think that I'd get lost on it, winding as it does round back streets, through a housing estate, crossing a main road, and then across Tooting Common, across another main road, over the railway on a footbridge...  Like I said, obscure.

I think that given the increased focus on TFL's approach to cycling in London, this is an issue that need to be raised with a higher priority.  Good cycling routing can be done.  Google have it for some places that they have the data for (sadly not yet in London), CycleStreets have generally done a fantastic job with theirs although for this journey they sadly fail too.

Whats the answer?  As so often is the case, better data.  Route planning is important but, as ever, very tricky, even with good data.  Without it, its impossiable.  Can cylists like myself help TFL collect this sort of data?  Would TFL accept it?  This is one more area in which the crowd can help, but can't do it all.  I'd love to hear how we can get this sort of data out of peoples heads, and into a central location that other people can benefit from it.  Thats something that the internet should be good at, but how do we do it?

Is it better for TFL to offer a poor service than none at all? I think so.

Is it better for them to offer a service that actively puts cyclist who follow their advice at risk? I'd argue not.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Drivers with more than 12 points on their licence

I know that this has been a contentious issue that has been floating around some of the cycling blogs for a while, but I found 2 sets of numbers that were just over a week apart that quite interested me today.  I did a tiny bit of analysis on them, and then sent a FOI request to the DVLA.  The analysis that I did on the initial data from other people is below.


Is that one extra driver with 36 points the one that has gone from the 23 point place? or is it someone new, or have more than one person jumped about or what. I find this puzzling, but suspect that the simplest answer is the best; that it is simply a mistake on the part of the DVLA.

I would like to thank both Freewheeler (his blog post with the data from 16/05/2011 is here) and Amoeba (his comments on this blog post have the data from 24/05/2011) for asking this question ahead of me.

I'll post more on this once I've had a response from the DVLA.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

That promised post on Local Housing Allowance, from November 2008, with additional comments to bring it up to date.

The post below was written shortly after LHA had been rolled out nationally:
Taken from posts on the HBInfo forums, an amalgamation of points from two posts, to give some context to my reply...

So, six months into LHA and what do we find:-
-LHA rates at a level that even those with above average salaries would struggle to afford.
-Landlords looking up the lha/direct website and pushing rents for even sub-standard property up to the median.
-Landlords beginning to report increased incidences of rent arrears and apparently bumping up the level of deposits to try and cover losses (and all this before the Christmas and winter fuel bills start to compete with payment of rent for LHA recipients)
-BRMAs that have been set too broadly causing people to be priced out of their own communities.
-Localities and LRRs only introduced in the past year or so likely to be reviewed as a result of the post-Hefferenan guidance from the Rent Service, creating a fresh round of winners and losers (guidance which is readily available to all on the Rent Service website).
-Apparently national LHA expenditure levels in the first six months so high that Treasury is beginning to lean on DWP for an explanation and probably demanding that they be reined in, and quickly.
The main point is though that LHA appears to be causing a surge in expenditure well beyond DWP projections and will continue to increase as landlords bump rents up to and beyond the LHA level.  The DWP consistently said this would not happen and that it did not feature as a problem in their evaluation of the pathfinders.

My reply.

I would suggest that this would be because it didn't happen in the Pathfinders...

Remember, the biggest change between the pathfinder scheme and the final scheme was that the excess that was paid to the claimant was capped at £15. This removed the incentive for claimants to find a property that was more than £15 below the LHA cap. This in turn removes the incentive for landlords to charge less than £15 below the cap per week to encourage tenants to move into their property, rather than the property next door.

So, the two situations outlined above would theoretically work like this:

Pathfinder scheme:

LHA set at £120 pw

Property A, rent £100 pw, V. nice condition
Property B, rent £90 pw, V. good condition
Property C, rent £80 pw, OK condition

Claimant takes property C, other landlords find their property is harder to rent, drop prices slightly, rents drop, LHA figures drop, cost of HB goes down, everyone is happy, (except the landlords).

Final Scheme:

LHA set at £120 pw

Property A, rent £100 pw, V. nice condition
Property B, rent £90 pw, V. good condition
Property C, rent £80 pw, OK condition

Claimant will now take property A in preference, other landlords find that low cost of property is not an incentive to rent their property, increase prices, LHA figures rise, cost of HB goes up, only landlords are happy.

Of course this is all very simplified, but I believe is a reasonable estimation of what is/was happening on the ground.

My Solution to the Problem

The largest problem with the Pathfinder scheme was that it could be seen to encourage deliberate overcrowding of smaller properties so that the amount of excess that the claimant received was disproportionately high, thus stopping them from looking for larger properties that were a more suitable size.

If the government had really wanted to produce a properly functioning Housing Benefit scheme that had the desired effect of allowing claimants the security of knowing how much Housing Benefit they would receive, whilst encouraging Landlords to keep rents low, the following approach would have got results much closer to those desired than either of the two schemes tried thus far.

The amount of benefit to be paid would be the lower of either the rate for the number of bedrooms needed for the family size or the number of bedrooms in the property and also remove the cap on the LHA excess. 

This would solve a number of problems with one stroke, by help to lower the Housing Benefit bill, provide claimants with the stability of a known maximum amount of benefit and a genuine choice of properties, provide Landlords with a known rent level, and keep the scheme easy to administer.

An update on the situation at LHA is now (May 2011)

Relatively recently, the Government decided that the Housing Benefit bill was still far to high, and that Housing Benefit could be used as a tool to haelp lower rental prices.

This lead to two main changes from April this year.  The first was to remove the remaining £15 excess.  This will have saved an awful lot of money.  If a council had 5000 LHA claims, all paying out the maximum excess, this measure alone will have saved £7500 instantly.  I still feel that the points above stand, and that leaving the uncapped LHA excess would help to drive down rental prices.  This will still not have had as fast an effect as the second measure implemented by the government.

The second measure implemented was the change from using the median rent level as the figure for LHA, to using the third quartile figure.  This measure in itself more than wiped out most excess payments, and so the cost of rewarding claiminants for finding cheaper property would be reduced anway.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Further thoughts on #copyright

As I had thought it would, the discussion on #copyright has continued throughout the day.  I have mostly just been replying to @graemelambert of the Pirate Party who asked why I thought copyright should be extendable.

He also stated that he felt that 10 years was long enough for an author to take advantage of their work.

I had no ready replys to these questions, except to suggest that series of books such as The Wheel of Time, or Patrick O'Brien's novels are made possiable by the application of a long lasting copyright.

Having considered this angle a little more I suspect that fictional characters may be protected by Interlectual Property rights,  which I suspect Graeme may like less than copyright, although I am happy to admit to this only being a suspicion based on nothing more than his being a member of the Pirate Party, and my belief that this is the party line on such things.

In any case, I have come up with a stronger reason for allowing copyright to be extended. The rights of a creator to control how their works are used. Once again, I cannot see that Graeme will agree with me. If an author creates a fantastic new story, say J K Rowling and the Harry Potter series, is it fair that just by the film studios waiting the 10 years he suggests copyright should last, they can create a multi million dollar film, with no money going to the person that initially created the universe they are using?

I believe that the proposal that I put forward for copyright reform helps to ensure that this would not become an issue. It doesn't just hand this to the creator on a plate. They have to work to protect their rights, but they are available to protect if they want to. It also makes exploitation of the creators harder, as they can just fail to reregister their copyright if they are getting no benefit from their work.

I again seem to have written this rather too late, and whilst tired. I hope it makes sense and gets what I felt needed clarification over, rather than muddying the water further.

Once again, sleep well!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

#Copyright and my solution to the problem

The blame for this post can be laid firmly at the door of .  It was his tweet that lead me to consider how copyright works, and if there is a better way forward.

Given the time of night that it was asked (note the time of this post and weep for me) there were a few responses.  I expect more will show up later on, but of those there this early in the morning, most seemed able to agree on a couple of things:
  1. Copyright is needed in some form
  2. Current Copyright is not totally suitable for its purpose, generally, the time it protects works for is too long.
I have to say that I agree with the basic premise of copyright.  If you create something, you deserve to have the recognition and money from that item for at least a while. 

It should be up to the creator of the work how and by whom it's distributed, but how long should they have this control for, and how long should they be able to stop other people using and expanding on their basic works for? A further consideration is that if I create a work that can only be copywritten (not sure how copyright declines), it is important that the length of time that I have to make money off of it ensures that its worth me doing it in the first place.

I suggested in the discussion that copyright should encourage those creative types to allow their works to 'go free' after a period of time, by making the period of protection less with each time the protection was taken out. The idea being that from the time a work is first published it would be automatically protected for a number of years. I suggested 10 years on Twitter, but a little more thought has lead me to thinking that maybe 15 might be better. Following this period, a work would have to be registered with a central body, who would be able to keep track of copyright, and provide a central base for knowledge. I believe that the British Library has shown an interest in this sort of thing, but most likely not in this form. There would be a small charge for registering a work to continue to ensure that it was kept in copyright, which should cover costs of running the scheme. Each time of registration would cut the time registered exponentially. This would give the following protections:
  1. 15 years from 1st publication *without* the need to register
  2. 8 further years taking the total to 23 years following 1st publication.
  3. 4 further years taking the total to 27 years following 1st publication.
  4. 2 further years taking the total to 29 years following 1st publication.
  5. 1 further year taking the total to 30 years following 1st publication.
From this point onwards, the copyright could then be resought on an annual basis.  I would remove the maximum period limit that is there now, and make it so that only the original creator of the work could renew the copyright.  At some point it will become uneconomic to continue to renew the copyright, and it would then head into the public domain.

Joint creators would both be able to register a claim on a work, which would then be protected in joint names for as long as each party kept up its registration.  If a party let its registration lapse, then the protection would be continued in the remaining names until they too let their protection lapse.

The death of a copyright holder would not immediately return a work to the public domain.  This would only happen at the end of its current registration period, at which point as they could not renew the registration, it would pass down as per that of joint parties.

The biggest remaining issue that I can see with this is that protection for characters in an ongoing series could end before the final book is written.  I would therefore suggest that protection for ongoing characters like this would start from the publication of the last new work including them by the original author.  Thus if books are published at years 0, 5, 10 and 15, the automatic protection for the characters in the book would continue for a further 15 years, even if no more was done with the first book.

This scheme places a good amount of control of creations in the hands of their creators, whilst allowing a sensible time for them to exploit their works.  Taking the example of an author, I would envisage them signing up to deal with a publisher to publish the book for 15 years at the start.  Few publishers would want to bet on the life of the author, or the authors not falling out with them during the 15 years, and not renewing the copyright.  However, 15 years should be long enough for a company to make a good return on its investment in new creators.

I'm sure that there are many further niggles to this system that I've not spotted, but your thoughts, and constructive criticism of this will be hugely appreciated.  If you have any queries about my proposals, let me know those too, and I'll do my best to formulate an answer for you!

Sleep Well!

First Blog!

Well, here goes nothing.

I've been meaning to start a blog to ask the detailed questions that I have about some aspects of discussions that I find happening around me, and questions that I have from events going on in the world.

Generally where I have a view, I'm hoping for feedback on it.  My positions aren't set in stone, but I do like to play devils advocate a bit.

I'm always interested in others positions, but would ask you to give me something to go on in your comments, not just a "you're wrong!" Please let me know /why/ I'm wrong!

Posts that I know are coming up are ones on #copyright (thanks to @DavidAllenGreen for this one), things the 138 @UKUnCutters in Fortnum and Masons could have done to stop them being arrested, and an old one that I wrote ages ago about changes to Housing Benefit, and how it Local Housing Allowance could have been improved given my experiences of it from the assessment side.

Thanks in advance for your support and comments!