Peerages for eels, and other stories

The eels are in trouble. A little story seeped out last week: the eel population in the Thames has fallen by 98 per cent in the past five years. There are now only a few loyal creatures left in the river's murky waters.

Every three years or so, the eels make an Odyssean journey from the Sargasso Sea to the rivers of Europe. (It's like their version of the Grand Tour.) The Thames used to be a resting place, cradling them after their exhausting travels. But it seems they've had enough of us, even though they were the adventurous souls who recolonised the river after its "biological death" in the 1960s.

It's a sad tale, the disappearing eels, rendered only a little less so by the existence of an ebullient conservationist whose life's work is to look after them. Dr Matthew Gollock, the Thames conservation project manager of the Zoological Society of London, seems baffled by their absence. "Eels are mysterious creatures at the best of times, but we are very concerned about the rapid disappearance," he says.

Mysterious creatures! I don't think of an eel as being mysterious. Slippery, I suppose, with a sort of Peter Mandelson-like ability to slide around silently, popping up when you least expect it to strike fear into your very soul. (Have you noticed the Mandelson Slide? It's as though he's on tiny wheels.) But mysterious?

I ask Gollock to explain. "We don't know a massive amount about them," he says wistfully.

Gollock became obsessed with the creatures while doing his PhD - on eels and parasites. "I get gooey whenever I see them," he says, which is remarkable when you consider that eels, in all their gimlet-eyed glory, usually make people shudder. "I'm quite a champion of animals that people don't support. I'm not really one for cute and cuddly."

No, he is not. But Gollock is a champion, in all senses. Hearing him talk about eels made me think I should devote my life to the cause. "People turn their nose up at eels, but they're so tenacious!" He talks about their "spirit" - the strange, awesome compulsion they have to slither thousands of miles across the seas to London, where they while away 20 years or so of life before going all the way back again. They swim 4,000 miles to die. To die! They deserve medals just for that.

Unsurprisingly, we have had a hand in the sorry saga. The natural, unpredictable changes in eel behaviour have been compounded by human activity - man-made dams and the effects that climate change has had on oceanic currents have contributed to keeping them away. But I wonder whether, if we all had a bit more Gollock in us - the surging enthusiasm, the love of the uncuddly, the lifelong commitment to an unpopular creature - we wouldn't be in such a God-awful mess on our little planet. Eels, if you're listening, come home. Or could we do a swap? We'll send Mandelson Sargasso-wards if you come back. He'll swim - or slide - it in no time. And I'm sure we could arrange an absurdly long job title and a few peerages for you all, if you like.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.