Wednesday, September 27, 2006


A former nurse who won her High Court battle against hospital ward closures yesterday said that it was not a genuine victory. Pat Morris, from Altrincham, Greater Manchester, risked her home and savings on waging a campaign against Trafford Healthcare NHS Trust after it decided to cut beds at her local hospital without consulting the community. Mrs Morris, 65, resigned her nursing job to concentrate on her legal battle and faced having to pay the trust's legal costs had she lost the case.

Yesterday Mr Justice Hodge backed her view that the trust's decision in March to close 26 rehabilitation beds for older people without consultation had been illegal, and ordered that it be quashed. However, he refused to order that the two wards at Altrincham General Hospital, where Mrs Morris worked for several decades, be reopened immediately. Mrs Morris and her barrister, Anthony Eyers, who worked on her case for no charge, said that they expected NHS managers to pay lipservice to consultation but to keep the wards closed.

Mrs Morris said: "There are no winners today, only losers. They will just go through the motions only to tell us the wards will stay closed. The challenge has been made and the trust have been found wanting, but the elderly, vulnerable people of Altrincham still don't have their care close to home. "I don't have to pay thousands of pounds, but in human terms we have still lost a lot in the last few months. I have no regrets about bringing the case, except that the judge decided it was not his duty at this time to reopen the beds."

Mr Justice Hodge said that the trust would have to reach a new decision after public consultation. He added: "It cannot be right for this court in its discretion to order the reopening of the wards on the basis that there will be a public consultation which might legitimately then decide to close them again."

Mrs Morris has led the campaign against the cuts at Altrincham General since resigning from her job there in 2003 after 16 beds were cut. She was a member of the Patient and Public Involvement Group, a watchdog representing local residents, but left to fight her battle. At one stage the entire hospital was threatened with closure, but Mrs Morris, a former Tory councillor, organised a self-funded series of public rallies, letters and petitions. Hundreds of people turned up to her public meetings, but it was Mrs Morris who sought the judicial review on behalf of the group Health in Trafford. She risked an 80,000 pound bill for legal costs if the judgment had been made against her.

Trafford Healthcare NHS Trust, which is 9 million in debt, will now have to pay its own legal costs. Mrs Morris was awarded her costs, which were less than 1,000 pounds.

Mr Eyers described the ruling as a "Phyrric victory". He said: "It has ramifications for the whole country because it gives a green light to trusts that they can act first and take the legal flak later. They may have to fight, but they can act with some certainty that their decisions will not be reversed. I now expect the trust to make a series of empty promises that they won't deliver on." Mr Eyers said he had taken the case pro bono as a matter of principle: "I live in the Altrincham area and so it had some personal resonance, but NHS trusts, like any public body, should be accountable to the people they serve." He said the same principles had been behind Mrs Morris's fight: "She would have given every last penny she had if it had achieved something for the people of Altrincham."

Trafford Healthcare NHS Trust said that it had cut the beds because "it was no longer a safe place for patients to receive care. Anyone visiting the hospital would be struck by the dilapidated state of the buildings and the nursing and medical staff were no longer confident that they could provide safe services". [And whose fault would that be?] It added that four public meetings would be held next month to decide the future of in-patient wards at the hospital


Jamie Oliver: what a 'tosser' [jerk]

St Jamie's school-dinners crusade returns tonight, providing yet another unhealthy serving of food fears with a side order of parent-bashing bile.

The man in the checked shirt wobbles towards the bus, ice-cream cone in hand, not sure whether to keep licking or run faster. Then disaster strikes: he drops the cone. As he looks down in horror, the bus pulls away. Unperturbed, the fat feckless f*** scoops up the ice-cream from the ground and stuffs it in his mouth.

The man in the checked shirt is Jamie Oliver, all padded up in a fat suit. And the scene is the trailer for the latest phase in his ‘school meals revolution’, Jamie’s Return to School Dinners, which airs tonight on Channel 4. The implication is that unless we all respond to Jamie’s call to arms, we’re ignorant scum condemning many of today’s children to a life of disabling obesity and chronic ill-health.

Giving children the option to eat relatively fresh and nutritious food during the school day is an attractive one. But Oliver’s crusade is based on distortions about the quality and importance of children’s diets, and a contempt for any parent who doesn’t fit in with his idea of how they should be raising their kids.

This contempt no doubt extends to Julie Critchlow and Sam Walker, two mums who have started a ‘junk food’ run for kids at a school in Rotherham, northern England. They’re taking orders and cash through the school fence and returning with food from local takeaways. ‘This is all down to Jamie Oliver. I just don’t like him and what he stands for’, Walker told the Sun. The Sun, never afraid to take a cheap shot, described the women as ‘junk mothers’ who exhibit ‘the kind of feeble parenting that turns kids into fat, lethargic burger addicts in the first place’ (1). Oliver is not the only one who thinks that parents who won’t toe the line are neglecting their kids.

In tonight’s programme, Oliver doesn’t hold back. ‘I’ve spent two years being PC about parents. It’s kind of time to say if you’re giving very young kids bottles and bottles of fizzy drink you’re a fucking arsehole, you’re a tosser. If you’ve giving bags of shitty sweets at that very young age, you’re an idiot.’

The programme demonstrates that running a one-man revolution is hard work. In Lincolnshire (a relatively poor farming county) he discovers that many children aren’t offered hot meals at all because school kitchens were closed under the last Conservative government. He tries to get local businesses to fill the gap – and then discovers that even those model ‘healthy schools’ he set up down south are running into problems. Kidbrooke School in the London borough of Greenwich, the place where it all started in the first series of Jamie’s School Dinners, is losing thousands of pounds because it no longer sells crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks at break times. The kids buy their treats on the way to school, handing their money to local shops rather than the school. The extra government money provided after the last series is insufficient to cover the shortfall.

Oliver seems to spend his whole time firefighting. Up in Lincolnshire, he arranges for a local pub to provide meals to nearby primary schools. That means mass catering in a totally unsuitable kitchen before parents and taxi drivers deliver the food to the schools. Unsurprisingly, hygiene standards at the pub are well below what would be expected in a school, the food quality suffers as the chef tries to eke out a profit, and parents drop out as their initial enthusiasm fades. In the end, the pub pulls out, no doubt thinking they needed the whole loss-making operation and bad publicity like a hole in the head.

Oliver makes his life a lot harder by his prejudices about processed food and local production. Why a Panini filled with meat and a couple of sprigs of basil is any better in terms of nutrition than a ham sandwich made with white sliced bread is never explained. He insists on emphasising small and local provision – even when it is clearly unsuitable – over trying to persuade the big caterers with their economies of scale to alter what they provide. The whole operation is doomed to be unprofitable, so businesses quickly lose interest. His schemes only keep going because dinner ladies work unpaid overtime – which they eventually tire of, considering that even when they’re getting paid, it is only the measly minimum wage.

So Oliver’s tone becomes increasingly intolerant. He is unable to comprehend why others are not as motivated as he is. ‘This is not the Jamie Oliver show, this is not a fucking pantomime.… I’m here because I truly care. I’ve got other shit to do’, he says. When a mother drops out of the Lincolnshire pub scheme because her little boy isn’t keen on the pasta and rice served up, Oliver suggests dismissively that they have a chat with the nutritionist who came up with the menus, implying that she was letting her son down. And when a young teacher is found with some junk food ‘contraband’ in her bag, he charmingly suggests: ‘That’s no way to live, darling. You’ve got to have some pride in yourself.’

Oliver’s crusade is the product of the panic over obesity and children’s diets and his campaign only helps to stoke these fears further. Far from being an unwelcome critic, he is helpfully touting the New Labour line on food, health and the inadequacies of parents. No wonder that when he meets Tony Blair at the end of the latest programme, Blair says he will happily extend the increased funding for school dinners for another three years. Oliver leaves triumphant, perhaps forgetting that at the start of the show he was moaning that the same amount of money was inadequate.

If we were facing an impending health disaster, changing the kind of meals children are served during the school year would make little impact. But in fact, as we’ve noted elsewhere on spiked, no such disaster looms. A diet of Turkey Twizzlers, chips and beans is not perfect, but it is perfectly adequate. Oliver’s horror stories about children vomiting their own faeces and dying en masse before their parents have no basis in reality.

As for adult eating habits, they are not determined in the school canteen. Children have always been rather conservative eaters who prefer all the ‘wrong’ foods, yet experience shows that they still grow up healthy and that their tastes mature. If our childhood eating habits mattered that much, most of us would have long since perished. What Oliver fails to comprehend is that he could provide haute cuisine and lots of kids would still refuse. Rejecting school meals in favour of bunking off down the chip shop is just another minor act of teenage rebellion.

While Oliver has been received with almost universal praise in the media, there are signs of a backlash from catering staff sick of working longer hours and parents sick of being lectured on how to bring up their kids. If the Rotherham example is anything to go by, maybe eating junk food will become more than teenage rebellion – perhaps it’s a way for parents to tell the patronising ‘tosser’ where to go, too.



A new cemetery is to have all its graves aligned with Mecca - making it the first council graveyard in the country to bury the dead in Islamic tradition, regardless of their religion. Headstones in the new 2.5 million pound High Wood Cemetery in Nottingham will face north-east - as Muslims believe the dead look over their shoulder towards Mecca. This is the way in which all followers of Islam in the UK are buried. But the move has upset the Church and led to complaints that the policy discriminates against the city's majority Christian population. The traditional direction of burial for Christians is facing east.

The Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, the Rt Rev George Cassidy, criticised the decision. He said: "This is a sensitive issue to all people. I hope the situation will be reviewed with wide consultation and a policy introduced that takes account of the needs of all." The decision was made by Steve Dowling, Nottingham City Council's Services Director for Environment and Public Protection, after liaising with the city's multi-faith Cemeteries Consultative Committee. He said: "For people of the Muslim faith this fits in with a religious requirement, but it will also ensure a tidy appearance for the site. People can choose to be buried facing another direction but if they do not specify that, they will be buried facing north-east. The vast majority of people do not express a preference."

But Brendan Clarke-Smith, Tory councillor for Clifton North, said: "I was totally bewildered when I read about this decision. I spoke to one of the local Muslim groups in my area and they were equally surprised by what had been done. It is utterly ridiculous and I know it'll create a lot of ill feeling both in Nottingham and the country generally." The clergy and critics of the policy at the new 40-acre cemetery are supported by Raza Ul Haq, Imam at the Madni Masjid Mosque. He said: "It is part of our religion for the dead to be aligned with Mecca. It is very important. But for Christians, if they want to face somewhere else we support them."

Last night a spokesman for the Institute of Cemeteries and Crematorium Management said it was the first time he had heard of any public cemetery in Britain choosing to have all its gravestones facing north-east, in line with Muslim tradition. "It is unusual,' he said. "It would seem appropriate if there was a large population of Muslims." In Nottingham, however, Muslims make up less than five per cent of the region's 500,000 population.

Nigel Lymn Rose managing director of A.W. Lymn Funeral Directors, and a past president of the National Association of Funeral Directors, said Mr Dowling had told him of the decision when he went to High Wood for a site visit and asked whether Muslims had been taken into account. He said: "I was astonished to be told, "Oh yes, we're burying everyone so they are aligned to Mecca. It will make things easier." "It's one thing to be buried facing north-east because that is the way the cemetery lies, or the plot within it - it is quite another thing to learn that you have been buried facing that direction because it follows Islamic law."

Brian Grocock, a councillor who took part in the consultation process, said: "I don't know how this has become such a big issue. "The consultations went on for three or four years. We had people of all faiths represented at the meetings - or they certainly had the chance to attend. Nobody I know had any objections to the plan." So far at Highwood there have been just six burials - of which three were Muslim.


Should childhood come with a health warning?

This week, a group of experts raised critical questions about how we mollycoddle children - but they also indulged some childish prejudices

The modern world is damaging our children, according to a group of eminent experts. More than 100 children's authors, scientists, health professionals, teachers and academics joined Sue Palmer - education consultant, broadcaster and author of Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It - in signing a letter to the London Daily Telegraph on 12 September 2006. It ran under the headline: `Have we forgotten how to bring up our children?'

Children are suffering, the experts claim, as a result of junk food, school targets and mass marketing. The modern world is not providing them with what they need to develop, apparently, which includes: `real food (as opposed to processed "junk"), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in, and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.'

I share some of the concerns of the signatories, particularly the fact that children now have fewer and fewer opportunities to play outdoors. Children are often no longer able to play in the streets, walk or cycle to school, play in local parks, or just mess about with their friends away from the supervision of parents and teachers. And yet, many of the letter-signers' concerns seem to be shaped more by contemporary prejudices about modern living than by expert insights into what makes children tick.

Take the denunciation of junk food. As has been argued elsewhere on spiked, `there is no such thing as "junk" food. Our digestive systems do not distinguish between fish fingers and caviar.' (See Hard to swallow, by Rob Lyons.) We are bombarded with warnings about unhealthy modern diets and eating habits, yet life expectancies continue to rise - in great part due to vast improvements in most children's diets over the past 100 years.

And consider the warnings about new technologies. We are told that `since children's brains are still developing, they cannot adjust - as full-grown adults can - to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change'. Most serious neuroscientists would dispute such a crass statement. Also, the idea that children find it difficult to adjust to `ever more rapid technological and cultural change' runs entirely counter to our everyday experience and to most scientific research. Numerous studies highlight the extent to which children are able to grasp and master new technologies. Indeed, many adults don't understand or use new technologies with the same ease that children do, which perhaps explains why they are so prone to seeing such technology as scary. We should be careful not to transpose our own, adult discomfort with technological and cultural changes on to children.

As former commissioning editor of spiked and freelance writer Jennie Bristow argues in an online debate sponsored by O2 to be launched on spiked next week, titled `Young People, Mobiles And Social Networking': `The fact that mobiles and the internet allow children access to "social networks" beyond the geographical boundaries of their daily lives is often seen as deeply scary, but it shouldn't take too much imagination to see that there is a positive side as well.'

It is not screen-based entertainment that is restricting children's play-space. Instead, it is adults' over-anxious desire to remove children from all risks. Adults are overly concerned with keeping children under their control and protection, and out of harm's way - which means they often end up restricting children's opportunities for `real' play. It could be argued that it is precisely because children are increasingly denied the freedom and space for experimentation and play in the `real' world that they are using the virtual world to try to gain some autonomy and independence.

The best thing experts can do for children is to argue for them to be given more freedom - not to do whatever they want, of course; they need clear boundaries set by parents. But unsupervised play isn't just some kind of childhood luxury that kids can do without. It is vital for children's healthy emotional and social development. Study after study has shown that it helps to develop children's ability to negotiate social rules and to create their own rules. Children need to learn to deal with risks and develop the capacity to assess challenges. They also need to be given the opportunity to develop resilience to life's inevitable blows. In short, taking risks in childhood goes hand-in-hand with developing new skills.

There is a danger that the experts feed into current fears for children's safety, thereby exacerbating the problem they are trying to alleviate. As Frank Furedi, spiked contributor and author of Paranoid Parenting, argued in the online magazine The First Post this week: `Despite their admirable intention, the authors of this letter may unintentionally contribute towards reinforcing a culture where every childhood experience comes with a health warning.'

The letter in the Telegraph ends with a call for a public debate `as a matter of urgency', in order to address the `complex socio-cultural problem' of an increasingly restricted childhood. Although children's lives have improved in very many ways over the decades, the signatories are right in highlighting that we do face a problem. Clearly, we need to ask some serious questions about what an increasingly structured, sanitised and relentlessly supervised world is doing to children. But it is important that we identify what the real problem is, rather than pointing the finger at easy `junk' targets and labelling children as fragile and easily damaged. So, let the debate begin.


Impoverishing and disruptive effects of land-use restrictions in Britain

Appeasing the property-owning English middle classes, the green lobby, the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the government insists that newly-built housing confine itself to brownfield sites. Britain's antiquated planning system is always absorbing yet more government guidance on housing design, energy use and all the rest. But it gets more Byzantine each year for a reason: to make houses more difficult to build. In particular, the government will not allow working-class people to spread out and invade Britain's green and virgin soil.

The government prefers to cram people it regards as plebs into transport-free cities that are more and more tightly packed. Land must not be claimed, cheaply and easily, from nature. Instead, it must be expensively and with great effort `reclaimed' from horrid, man-made contamination.

As prices for houses around East London's Olympic Village will soon attest, the result is, once again, that the demand for a decent home with reasonable transport links far exceeds supply. It has long been evident that the Thames Gateway area, billed as Europe's largest housing development, will in fact see relatively few new homes built. But it has now become clear that the 40-odd overlapping quangos responsible for the Thames Gateway have, to all intents and purposes, turned it into the London Thames Gateway. An area which was supposed to fan houses out to the east coast will confine them to the east of the nation's capital.

Powered by green dogma, the government's rush for brownfield development is truly zealous. Some 74 per cent of new dwellings in England are now on brownfield land. By reaching this figure, the government is, in 2006, far exceeding its own target for 2008, which was that 60 per cent of new-build should by then be brownfield.

What an achievement! This is a beating of targets of which Joe Stalin would be proud. But through its eagerness to achieve high levels of housing density, the government also fuels the current wave of Malthusian sentiment around the issue of immigration.

As Neil Davenport has pointed out previously on spiked, today's elite outcry over levels of immigration panders to the backward idea that society's problems are caused by there being too many people. But a recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, a London think-tank, has just highlighted a related but highly important issue. `What will bring the worst of all worlds', its chief executive Douglas McWilliams writes, `is to have the immigration but not the infrastructure, which will condemn all of us to traffic jams, rising house prices and overcrowding in schools, hospitals and elsewhere'.

We can leave Mr McWilliams to his own views on immigration. But his point about infrastructure is absolutely right. In certain local authorities, services such as education and health may well be unprepared for a relatively rapid build-up of local concentrations of immigrants. But in relation to accommodation, it is not the immigrant influx that leads to the perception that Britain is overcrowded and overpopulated, so much as the government's fanatical pursuit of high density in housing - a kind of Brownfield Brutalism that would condemn us all to a nicely designed broom cupboard. I am always suspicious of the view that the white working class feels itself `swamped' by immigrants. But to the extent that towns - Dover, for example - feel this way, it might be apt to blame, not immigrants, but the government's failure to fund expanding infrastructure and greenfield housing.

Ministers fairly crow that the average density being achieved across England is now 42 dwellings per hectare (6). Indeed, Yvette Cooper, minister for housing and planning, has boasted that while densities were `only' 25 homes per hectare in 1997, New Labour can now build 1.1million homes `on less land than the previous government set aside for just 900,000 homes - saving an area of greenfield land greater than the size of Oxford'. But what is a hectare, anyway? It is 10,000 square metres. So 25 dwellings per hectare of land in 1997 = 400sqm for each dwelling, or a land area of 20x20m. And 42 dwellings per hectare in 2006? That's 238sqm for each dwelling - in other words, little more than 15x15m of land.

This is a really drastic reduction in living space - and New Labour has achieved it in just nine years. Today, when so many of New Labour's policies increase urban atomisation and anomie, we are forced into a cheek-by-jowl huddle of smaller and smaller flats, at bigger and bigger prices. And then New Labour has the nerve to turn around and blame a surge of Rumanian criminals as a threat to Britain's social fabric.

Like Gordon Brown's sale of public sector assets, and like green efforts to conserve energy, the rush for brownfield land in fact produces very few savings - in this case, of greenfield land. Why? For two reasons. First, Britain is already predominantly green. Brownfield land is so modest an expanse that even the tightest patterns of house-packing can, at best, free up little land for greenfield status. Second, the government, not content with restricting people's ability to find housing, has anyway long been busy creating new green pastures.

Take Yvette Cooper's saving achieved by going brownfield - an area `the size of Oxford'. That turns out to be a saving of 3,300 hectares; in other words, a colossal 0.01 per cent of the land cover of Great Britain. On top of that, the government has already been adding more land for the Green Belt: a total of 19,000 hectares between 1998 and 2003. A further potential 12,000 hectares of Green Belt has been proposed in emerging development plans.

As it happens, 19,000 hectares is an area the size of Liverpool. So the Green Belt, which we are always being told is on the point of being `concreted over', has actually undergone an expansion that is modest, but much bigger than Cooper's Oxford-sized `saving' of greenfield land through Brownfield Brutalism. It bears remembering that the land cover of Great Britain is 23.5million hectares, used in 2002 as follows:

-- intensive agricultural land - 10.8million hectares, or 45.96 per cent;

-- semi-natural land - 7.0million hectares, or 29.78 per cent;

-- woodland - 2.8million hectares, or 11.91 per cent;

-- settled land accounts for 1.8million hectares, or 7.65 per cent;

-- water bodies - 0.3million hectares, or 1.28 per cent;

-- sundry other categories - 0.8million hectares, or 3.42 per cent.

If settlements are added to the `sundry' component (largely transport infrastructure such as roads and railways), then built-up Great Britain consists of about 2.3million hectares, or just 10 per cent of the land available. But in terms of `settled' houses and workplaces, the figure is actually well under 10 per cent - it's 7.65 per cent. In terms of housing alone, it must be heading towards five per cent, or lower, perhaps. But there is more. It turns out that more than half the land cover of England - 55.2 per cent of the most urbanised part of the UK - is officially `designated' as more or less untouchable: it is of special scientific interest, a special protection area, a special area of conservation, an area of outstanding natural beauty, a National Park, or a part of the Green Belt. In fact, among countries belonging to the Organisation of Economic and Commercial Development (OECD), the UK as a whole has about twice as high a proportion of protected land as the average. Everything is already being done, and then some, to ring-fence the pastoral idyll of the property-owning classes.

We can now see just how immature Ruth Kelly's call for a `mature' debate about immigration really is. Even when we omit Dartmoor, Snowdonia and other great swathes of beauty, Britain has room enough for immigration. But in practice, government policy continues to ensure that housing is both a growing symptom of the British economy's narcissism, and something that is powerfully hard for anyone - immigrant or not - to get hold of. The British economy is narcissistic because its whole focus is on face, not on the creation of genuine wealth. `Look at me!', cries the City to international money capital: `Come into my parlour.' `Look at me!', cries Britain's housing stock: `I am an ageing legacy of the past, but the government guarantees that I will always cost you more and more money.' ....

For the middle classes and a fair bit of the working class, housing has become that much more central to students, newlyweds and parents. For fortysomething parents, indeed, `parenting' is an issue that, to a large degree, revolves around housing. And as if that were not enough, Blairite ex-minister Stephen Byers has confirmed the centrality of housing to family discourse in the UK by setting a hare running about the abolition of inheritance tax, most of which revolves around houses. Alasdair Darling, tipped as Brown's successor at the Treasury, has repudiated Byers. But whatever the outcome, Britain's preoccupation with the money tied up in housing promises only to grow more intense.

Britain's problem is too few houses, not too many immigrants. Nowadays, all roads lead to housing - even if none of them are real roads. In more than seven years, from 1997 to 2004, New Labour has managed to build just 145km of new motorways. It has blighted rural areas with a colossal 400km, or 250 miles, of A roads. And in urban areas it has managed just 99km of A roads. No wonder people feel congested in cities, and cut off in rural areas. The genuine wealth that investment in new infrastructure represents is not part of Gordon Brown's brief. He would rather delude himself, and us, that he is taking what he calls `tough' choices; choices, he says, that will `safeguard stability'. His choices are not tough. They are all too easy. Sooner or later, Brown's choices will bring financial and social instability


No comments: