Sunday, 28 August 2011

Luving money

This week's Any Questions featured Margaret Doyle, a Tory Councillor in Westminster with a special interest in sustainable transport. She was on the panel primarily because of her considerable economic expertise; she writes for Reuters' Breaking Views.

Question: Is a tax on junk food likely to be effective in tackling obesity?

Presenter: This, of course, raised by the report that's been out this week saying that, I think it's 40% of us will be obese by the year 2030, or something horrifying of that kind. It raises a health question, it also raises an economic question about the way taxes work. Margaret Doyle, what's your view?

Margaret Doyle: Well, as an economist I certainly believe that taxes work. You know, we respond to incentives, so I suspect that we would see people eating less junk food if it weren't relatively so cheap compared to healthier foods. I'd also like to see kids in school learning a little bit more about how to cook. In other words, not to automatically assume that the easiest thing to do is, you know, buy a burger and fries. And I'd also like to see more exercise. So that's the other side of the equation, and I'd like to see that starting early on, with children walking and cycling to school, which I'm afraid has really decreased.

(A round of applause from the audience.)

The views of the other panellists are heard, and then ...

Presenter: Margaret Doyle, you sounded as if you had a little bit of a moral, sensorious tone in what you were saying, and that you did believe a little bit of it is down to us and the way that we behave.

Margaret Doyle: I do, and I think if you look at, say, how a generation ago children were taught at school to learn how to cook. And junk food possibly isn't actually cheapest over the long-term, certainly not for a family. I mean, for a family it would probably be cheaper to cook a chicken and then boil up the bones for stock. But how many people do that anymore? So I do think that part of it is about education about healthy food. But I do want to emphasise that a lot of it is also about exercise, and I don't think we have yet made our roads safe enough for children. You know, too many parents think they've got to chauffeur round their kids in cars, whereas actually they should be off walking and cycling to the school, to the youth club, to their friends.

I know that Mark Ames from i b i k e l o n d o n would agree with this last point of view, as he explained here.

I have every reason to believe that the majority of Londoners would also agree. So why is it, then, that Westminster and TfL are quietly making things worse?

According to Benjamin Zephaniah:

Every government will tek what dem can get
Every government is quick to feget
Every government can make money by killing
Every government luvs money, no kidding

I do not know how much income the central London boroughs and TfL earn from the car, but I remember something from a few years ago to the effect that Westminster alone generated £60m a year just from car parking / fines. That's a lot of dough.

The case is, developing the proper cycling infrastructure no doubt represents something of a double whammy for a borough like Westminster, because not only would it cost them to build it, it would also cost them in lost car parking fees! Little surprise, then, that somebody such as Margaret Doyle would probably find it easier to be heard on national radio than in council meetings.