By Richard Pickering, Head of Futures Strategy
Meaningful votes The vote in Parliament yesterday was less about Brexit and more about the strength of the Government. The matter being debated was whether Parliament should have ‘a meaningful’ and binding vote on the Withdrawal Agreement to be proposed later this year and to direct any subsequent negotiating position in the event that it is rejected. By a majority of 324 to 298, the outcome of the vote was ‘no’, leaving the ministerial team in the driving seat, and raising a more significant prospect of a ‘no deal’ exit. However, with significant opposition to this position within the Tory party, the question is, what did Theresa May have to give away to win the support that she needed? Although we can only speculate as to what assurances were given, we know that there was a last-minute scramble between the PM and pro-EU Dominic Grieve. The latter is thought to have wanted a Parliamentary vote, but not necessarily the right to direct next steps. May is now dancing an increasingly thin tightrope between Boris’s Brexiteers, and the party’s Europhiles, and she’s running out of rope. Bookies have shortened odds on her to step down in the next 6 months (42%).
Right to Buy The Right-to-Buy policy introduced under Margaret Thatcher has been divisive from the outset. For those on the left, the privatisation of public housing is seen to undermine our ability to deliver rented homes for those in need. For those on the right, the significantly subsidised sale of public assets is seen as a misuse of public funds. It is the combination of these factors that prevents local authorities from replacing rented stock like-for-like out of receipts. In a report published this week, the Local Government Association states that over 6 years, 60,000 homes have been sold and only 14,000 purchased (an annual net shortfall of c. 7,500 homes). This, they say jeopardises the sustainability of the policy. Is the answer to end it? Home ownership is one of the strongest barriers to social mobility. A house in London worth say £200,000 (suspend reality for a moment), purchased for a subsidised £100,000 in 2008, would by now have generated a gain of £160,000; a lifechanging sum for the owner. Further studies show correlations between property ownership and social factors, such as political participation and educational attainment. Ending right-to-buy would undermine these benefits, but to keep it requires the more obvious solution of more funding from the Treasury to build more homes.
Deep blue sea Last week plans were announced to expand the UK’s ‘Blue Belt’ (parcels of seabed around the coast) in order to preserve marine habitats. It is widely quoted that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about our ocean floors, with only 5% having been explored. In the hope of alleviating the resource pressures on land, our gaze is likely to turn to the sea in the future. Who owns what is a good starting question. President Truman claimed the entire US continental shelf in 1945, whereas more recently Russia used a submarine to plant a flag under the North Pole to assert their rights. The ownership around the UK is clearer: The Crown typically owns the first 12 nautical miles from the shore, and various sovereign rights exist to the edge of the continental shelf. The main reason for interest in the sea is mineral wealth; however, the seabed is also being used for new purposes. The UK leads the world in terms of offshore wind capacity (c. 7,000 MW) with Siemens providing the tech for the large majority of offshore wind farms, and investing heavily in renewables in areas such as the Humber region. Meanwhile, Microsoft has recently sunk a datacentre off the coast of Orkney; noting that 50% of the world’s population live near the coast, the sea provides a natural coolant, and deployment can take as little as 90 days.
Smart Street The first street in the world to install electric lighting was Mosley Street in Newcastle. The same street is now set to undergo similar innovation by employing cutting edge smart-city technology as part of the Great Exhibition of the North. Newcastle City Council has partnered with Cisco to deliver their ‘Kinetic for Cities’ solution. This uses smart sensors to help design more efficient solutions for car parking, air quality, repair cycles / road surface quality, and congestion. As part of the exhibition, the data feeds will be displayed to the public on large screens and through an App. Similar systems have been implemented by Cisco to deliver specific ambitions in: Jaipur (traveller safety, tourist experience), Copenhagen (CO2 neutrality), and Kansas (connectivity, resource management). Spotting problems early in almost all areas of life makes the resolution of those problems cheaper and more effective. In Cisco’s words, ‘making the invisible visible’ could have huge benefits for both our cities and our buildings.
State of the nation Uber has become a saviour to both those stranded in the taxi-less wastelands of suburbia, and those who’ve had ‘just one more’ beer and can’t face the prospect of public transport. As a consequence of the latter, Uber’s customer base is perhaps likely to have a disproportionate weighting to those of varying degrees of intoxication. However, as a customer-centric tech platform, there is no resting on laurels or suppositions here. Last week Uber filed a patent for ‘Predicting User State Using Machine Learning’. This identifies ‘uncharacteristic user activity’ such as data input accuracy, data input speed, device angle, walking speed, and the time of the day to determine the ‘state’ of the user. Responding to this information, Uber can then match the user ‘with drivers with experience and training with users having an unusual state’, or simply refuse the request. If you are the kind of person that is prone to having an unusual state, or perhaps you’re just a bit clumsy, you might wish to consider leaving your phone in the hands of your partner from now on.