Have you noticed in recent months that plastic carrier bags are more readily available at supermarket checkouts? That, at least, is my experience. Instead of asking if I need a bag, checkout operators automatically start packing my goods and look hurt when I ask them to desist. There is a reason for this. When the coalition took office in May, it dropped Labour's monitoring regime and supermarkets got the message that threats to tax the bags had been lifted. Plastic bag use fell 48 per cent over four years but, in May, was already rising again. So much for leaving the corporate sector to tackle environmental damage by "voluntary agreement".
The same will happen with health damage. As the Guardian reports, the government has delegated policy-making on diet-related disease to "responsibility deal" networks comprising companies such as McDonald's and PepsiCo, assured them it favours "voluntary not regulatory approaches" and asked them to identify legislative "barriers" they want removed. I wonder if it has occurred to ministers to set up "responsibility deal" networks with the unemployed, homeless, working poor and disabled of, say, Liverpool and Glasgow. They could be invited to reform welfare and identify barriers to claiming benefits.
Putting the social into housing
Here is a little tale that casts light on these supposedly austere times. It comes from Tim Leunig, reader in economic history at the London School of Economics. Over the past year, he tells me, he has spoken at three commercially organised conferences for social housing professionals. The cost for each person attending (or, rather, for his or her employer) ranged from £576 for two days to £1,200 for three days, including accommodation in posh hotels.
Since social housing has only two revenue sources - the government and tenants - Leunig wonders whether it was really necessary to engage, for example, Armando Iannucci and Janet Street-Porter as after-dinner speakers, and announcers to introduce conference speakers as though they were rock musicians. He also asks if social housing folk could possibly stay in Travelodges.
I doubt many such conferences were held when we had straightforward council housing, owned and run by local authorities. Leunig raised this matter in his column for a housing magazine owned by an organiser of such events. You can't read it, though. Mysteriously, its publication seems to have been delayed.
Taking the Michael
We can expect more lavish conferences in education, too, as the private sector's role increases. It is reported that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, plans to strip local authorities of their role in funding schools. Instead, money will be distributed by a new Education Funding Agency. Schools will be allowed, among other things, to save sufficient money to build or rent new buildings.
Even the more stupid Tories can see this doesn't fit with policies of devolving power and scrapping unelected quangos. But there's more to it than that. Landed with management functions previously performed by local councils, most schools will outsource to private "edubusiness" companies. (For examples, read last week's New Statesman supplement on education policy.) These companies will run chains of schools and will be well-placed to use revenue streams to raise loan capital for new buildings. In other words, they will act rather like local authorities, except they will take hefty profits, pay their executives even better salaries - and organise much more expensive conferences.
I have always hated getting up in the midwinter dark - birds wait for sunrise, so why shouldn't I? - but at least I know dawn is at worst an hour away. Now, a private member's bill, on which ministers apparently look favourably, proposes to keep British Summer Time all winter and make mornings even darker. I am old enough to remember 1968-71 when we also stayed on BST. Everybody I knew hated it and celebrated the end of the experiment. Figures about how road casualties fell in those years struck me as spurious, since the breathalyser and 70mph speed limits were both introduced shortly before 1968.
But what puzzles me most is the suggestion that a change in the clocks must make sense because it brings us into line with the rest of Europe. Look at the map: most of Europe is east of London. At this time of year, sunrise and sunset times in London and Berlin are almost
identical. If lighter winter evenings bring such benefits, why don't other Europeans also want them?
The media industry defines success in peculiar ways. Consider Tina Brown, who has just become editor-in-chief of the ailing US weekly Newsweek, following its merger with the online Daily Beast, which she launched two years ago. Brown, appointed editor of Tatler at 25, has also edited Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Talk magazine. Her latest appointment, like all her others, prompts admiring newspaper profiles. The Independent quotes an American journalist describing her as "the best magazine editor alive". How so? At Tatler, she "electrified the British media by spending the money of its wealthy new owner" on star writers and photographers. Smart thinking, huh? The Independent further notes that, when Brown left the New Yorker in 1998, it "was still making massive losses"; that Talk folded after three years; and that the Daily Beast has "no demonstrated ability" to turn a profit.
So has "the best magazine editor alive" ever run anything that, er, made money? Or isn't that important?
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005