QE, austerity, trade… has the UK anything left to prop it up?

"No action" is not an option.

You would have to travel a long way to find anyone more safety-conscious than a coal miner. So you might have found it strange that when steel pit props were introduced miners objected with a ferocity that shocked management. Their reasoning was simple; before a wooden pit prop broke it gave out a characteristic creak. Steel props shattered without any warning signal. Your chances of getting away before the cave-in became vanishingly small.

So where’s the creaking pit prop in the UK economy? You wouldn’t have to look much further than the behaviour of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England. The committee seems to have been intent on stealing the thunder of the "Greatest Central Banker of His Generation", otherwise known as Mark Carney, even before he has had time to warm the seat of the out-going Mervyn King. The MPC has been implementing Carney’s favoured ideas (promoting bank lending) whilst laying the ground to stop him increasing the Quantitative Easing (QE) programme by voting Sir Mervyn down on the issue four meetings in a row. At the same time Charles Bean, a voting member of the MPC, has, once again, been waving the spectre of negative interest rates in the face of the markets. As the old leader faded others have jumped into the vacuum before the new one arrived.

But the reality is that the lending policies won’t deliver the impact that some expect. The Funding for Lending Scheme is tiny compared to the size of the overall economy whilst some of the Help To Buy schemes meant to promote the housing market look positively dangerous if interest rates start to rise. Besides, consumers, who are seeing their real incomes decline, are still historically geared-up to their eyeballs and are highly sensitive to even small interest rate movements. They aren’t likely to throw a credit party whilst government expenditure is continually cut in real terms during the next five years, a policy to which both the UK coalition and the opposition parties are committed. In short, as in the past four years, housing approvals are going nowhere – that prop has been taken away.

The spending freeze has reinforced the sense of economic hibernation to the point that there is no obvious domestic engine for growth in the UK. To compound the situation our nearest and arguably most important trading partner, Europe, is still in the grips of a decline. Either Mr Carney will get round the MPC nay-sayers and extend QE to a level unthinkable even to the Japanese or politicians are going to have to start spending again; such a volte face would provide the Labour Party with a purpose and relevance that it has now lost.

"No action" is not an option. The electorate won’t have it, especially when they can organize themselves through social media on a level and with ferocity never seen before. Either way, by design or by accident, the pound would take the strain if more and more stimulus is poured into the economy just to prop it up. The defining moment for Mark Carney may yet be how he handles a sterling crisis that will feel like a mineshaft collapsing in on him. The creak is there if he wants to hear it.

Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney. Photograph: Getty Images

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.