The best things in life are free – unless Hampstead’s horrible hedgies get their way

A parked Bentley with the number plate I H8 TAX summarises everything that's going wrong with our beloved Heath.

Once again, towards the end of the month, money starts getting tight, but the weather is still lovely and holiday-type things must be done – so, what to do? The Wallace Collection, for a start: that’s good free fun. It is, for some reason, an incredibly sexy place and not just because it has that amusing Fragonard showing a young man looking up the skirt of a girl on a swing.
 
Everything there is voluptuous somehow and Howard Jacobson chose well when he made it the scene of a lover’s tryst in his novel The Act of Love. That takes care of one afternoon, then.
 
Loafing around Regent’s Park with some bread, cheese and a chilled bottle takes care of another; but the third afternoon is the best, because someone has paid me unexpectedly early and although I could hardly call myself in rude financial health, I can at least top up the Oyster card and go somewhere on public transport. I’m only going to Hampstead Heath – my fellow columnist Mr Self regards pretty much everywhere on the mainland as being within walking distance, which I think is rather splendid, but I am not going to inflict a three-mile walk to the Heath on the Beloved, especially as we are going to be walking around a lot when we get there. Also, as she is not a native Londoner, she has never seen the Heath before and I am rather keen on introducing her to it.
 
The Heath figures prominently in the childhood of anyone who grew up, as I did, anywhere near it. I don’t think there was ever a time when I was not aware of it, of its improbable vastness in the middle of the city. And the older I get, the more amazing I consider it. As readers of this magazine will be acutely aware, these are terrible times, with our freedoms under threat from all sides – from freedom of association to the meanest use of the word “free”: that is, free from cost. You can still, thank goodness, just bowl up to the Heath and walk straight in. (I gather you are now supposed to pay to use the swimming ponds, which is academic for me, as the days in which I would expose my body clad in swimming trunks to the world have passed.)
 
So, one beaming Thursday, we do just that, along with a couple of buddies who know the Heath at least as well as I do – and it is marvellous. We do see some Lycra-wearing people walking up and then down, and then up and then down our chosen hill again, using those extremely silly walking poles, but they, too, have their liberty, so we confine ourselves to mild mockery while we eat our picnic.
 
Eventually our friends peel off and the B and I are alone, so I show her through paths I remember from my childhood to the tree you can climb inside, and then on, using only my nose to guide me, to the Spaniards Inn for a pint. I note with approval the blue plaque on the house next to it, which reminds us of Henrietta and Samuel Barnett, Christian socialist reformers who did much to make Hampstead such a pleasant place and to lift the poor out of squalor. It is on the way back to the Hovel that I notice the Bentley parked outside one of the impossibly adorable houses in the higgledy-piggledy streets between the Heath and Heath Street. It’s not so much the Bentley itself – after all, London is now seething with them – it’s the number plate: I H8 TAX. You geddit?
 
Now, while the relationship between the taxman and me is not a simple and straightforward one, it is a matter of my own incompetence rather than outright objection to the principle. So I am not, I must confess, very amused to see this number plate. It is not hard to come to some ungenerous conclusions about the charming man – it will be a man – who thinks this is a terrific joke.
 
I think back to the plaque for the Barnetts on their old home by the pub and speculate about the kind of people who now buy such properties. I imagine a London a hundred years hence and the plaques that will decorate the walls of Hampstead. “—, hedge-fund manager, lived here from 2012-2040.” “So and so, arms dealer, lived here off the blood of thousands between 2000 and 2020.”
 
You get the idea. We are living in an age that would seem to consider the very idea of positive social reform as a quaint mug’s game. London is now a playground for the rich and they have had enough of being within smelling distance of the poor. I am also aware that the body responsible for Hampstead Heath is the shadowy City of London Corporation and I wonder how long it will be before its overlords monetise it.
Ice cream on Hampstead Heath, sunglasses optional. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.