Thursday, 3 July 2014

Will the new Bank of England mortgage regulations really change the housing market?

In an attempt to control the UK housing market the Bank of England has recently put in place new regulations on mortgage lending. The BofE claims the new rules will help to control the UK housing market; at a closer look it doesn't seem like they'll have much of an effect at all.

The new rules mean mortgage lenders will not be able to lend more than 15% of their total new residential mortgages at a loan to income ratio of 4.5 times or above. Significantly, the 15% limit will apply to total mortgages completed as opposed to total value. It all sounds quite good on face value, why wouldn't it be a good idea to stop people getting into too much debt relative to their salary? This should protect consumers, no? Take a closer look at the figures and you'll see the new regulations actually leave room for banks to increase the current average loan to income ratio of 3.22.

Firstly, only 9% of new mortgages at the moment break the 4.5 limit. Banks could increase that on average by 6% and still be within the rules. The only area that will really be affected will be London were 19% of loans break the 4.5 rule. Secondly, the rules will only apply to banks lending more than £100m meaning small banks and building societies will be exempt. An attempt to avoid 'too big to fail'? I think so, however even the big banks are only limited on total mortgages completed as opposed to total value. Limiting total value banks could lend isn't something I could see happening  despite the fact it would be far better for the housing market in the long term; admittedly with a few casualties along the way.

The new rules also require a 'stress test' be used to make sure borrowers can repay their loans in the event of a rise in interest rates. The BofE now requires lenders to test borrowers ability to repay their loan over 5 years with a 3% rise in interest rates. Most lenders already apply a test of 6-7% so I can't see many cases when a 3% test would be useful.

In short the new rules leave plenty of room for the housing market to grow nationwide with a small chance of a cooling in London, the later being the main aim I feel. Considering the amount of foreign money thrown at London property, prices could continue to rise while income stagnates and Londoners aren't able to buy because banks are limited to the 4.5 rule across 15% of their mortgages. Good for investors, bad for those just wanting a place to live.

We need to get away from looking at houses as an investment to live in and start looking at houses as just homes. How we do that however I have no clue.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Hardwell Odyssey incident, completely blown out of proportion?

For the second time in a week Northern Ireland hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. The Ross Kemp Extreme World documentary highlighted a minority element within Northern Ireland bent on holding everyone else back. The Hardwell incident painted a picture of a city with serious youth drink and drug problems. Unfortunately neither have been fabricated, however the later seems to be have been blown out of all proportion.

It's important to note that 10,000 Hardwell tickets were sold, admitting persons aged 16 or older. Of those; 108 needed treatment of some kind, 17 went on to be admitted to hospital and none of those admitted were deemed to be in a serious condition, according to the Belfast Telegraph. When you consider 17 is 0.17% of total attendance in and outside the Odyssey, it's not a lot. 17 people out of 10,000 is a number to be expected considering the drinking culture we live in, it's in no way a surprising figure.

To put the 0.17% figure in perspective, in 2011/12 there were an estimated 1.2 million alcohol related hospital admissions across the UK, 1.875% of the population. Even assuming some people will be admitted multiple times, 1.875% is still significantly higher than the 0.17% rate following Hardwell. The London Ambulance service deals with an average of 197 999 calls relating to alcohol everyday, 71,905 per year. At peak one in every five 999 calls are alcohol related. The London Ambulance figures are based on information given at the time the 999 call is received, or where alcohol is recorded by frontline staff as being the main reason for treatment. The figures don’t even take into account other incidents such as assaults, minor falls and other injuries that may have happened because someone had been drinking. Hardwell just put large numbers of people consuming alcohol in one location, the rate of hospitalisation was nothing special when compared to the rest of the UK. 

Laverys in Belfast can hold 1700 people at capacity, if the average age was around 18 would you be surprised to see 2 or 3 people needing to go to hospital (none serious) factoring in underage drinking?

The Northern Ireland nightlife could suffer as a result of something relatively average when compared to cities across the UK.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Is a women's Tour de France in 2014 a realistic goal?

I want to make it clear from the outset, I am not against the idea of a women's Tour de France. Of course the pinnacle of cycling should have gender equality, whether it realistically can happen within a 12 month window is the question we should be asking.

A recent petition [found here], addressed to Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme requesting gender equality has been championed by many as the necessary first step. The petition, from the pen of Emma Pooley, Kathryn Bertine, Marianne Vos and Chrissie Wellington, requests that a women's professional field is added to the 2014 Tour de France. The petition doesn't request that ASO simply add a racing schedule that includes women, but that they run a professional race for women in conjunction with the men's event. It's requested that such a race would be run at the same time, over the same distances and on the same days; I don't feel that it's reasonable to request such an event within a 12 month time frame. To be frank, I feel such a request is actually doing the women's professional scene a disservice. A push for so much, so quickly, has the potential to put ASO off. Surely approaching them with a petition requesting to race the final Champs Elysee stage of the 2014 Tour in its entirety would be a realistic goal, the first step of many on the path to gender equality. 

The Tour de France is a monstrous machine, one which already poses significant logistical challenges. We're talking 1200 hotel rooms reserved daily, 1500 vehicles, 13,000 gendarmes and around 4500 accompanying persons including cyclists, mechanics, drivers, managers, journalists. Is it realistic to superimpose a women's event within 12 months? ASO don't start planning the next edition of the Tour after the previous edition has ended, it's a process that begins years in advance. ASO will already have financially invested in planning the 2014 edition, it's unreasonable to expect them to alter those plans immediately at their expense. Why couldn't the petition have requested to have an event in conjunction within say 4 years, giving time to plan properly such a huge undertaking. It seems to me that this petition hasn't considered that it would take far more than a year to integrate successfully an identical women's event with the men's.

I'm not qualified to discuss the sport science aspect of a women's Tour, something which Emma Pooley very rightly pointed out to me on Twitter recently. I had mistakenly said that a women's Tour over the same parcours would be too physiologically demanding. I was responsible for promoting the same myths of physical limitations the petition seeks to debunk, for that I apologise. I don't however feel that a massive jump in race duration and distance for just one event each year is in the best interest of the sport. The average stage distance at the 2013 Giro Rosa was just over 100km, the average at the 2013 Tour was 162km. If I'm wrong on this please correct me, but surely it would be better to gradually increase the distances of all the existing women's races on the calendar and build towards the same distances as the men? Speaking from my own limited racing experience, I wouldn't want to enter an event three times longer than anything I'd ridden previously with stages on average 60% longer; I'd much prefer to build up to such a grueling task. If racing over the same distances is something the women's professional peloton desires, they'd also need the UCI to first change the rules restricting race length before any route could be planned. Something much easier said than done, the UCI aren't exactly famed for their decision making abilities. Thanks to the UCI I now own a pair of illegal socks, five years ago I wouldn't have thought that possible.

I think it's very unlikely that we'll have what the petition requests by July 2014, but that isn't to say the petition will have been a failure, far from it. The four women at the centre have ignited the debate and that was always going to be the starting point. True gender equality across cycling as a whole will take time, it isn't something that can be forced through overnight. I'm almost certain that the close to 100,000 people who've signed the petition would sign another pushing for the inclusion of women on some level at next year's Tour. Compromise is going to have to come from both sides. I fear that such a demanding request will be ignored by ASO, whereas a petition requesting simply inclusion on a smaller level to begin with would be far more likely to succeed.

As always, discussion or correction welcomed......

Monday, 12 August 2013

Is America to blame for North Korea's nuclear weapons program?

Up until January 2003 North Korea were part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The objective of said Treaty is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament. On the 10th of January the North Koreans gave notice of a withdrawal from the Treaty alleging that the U.S. had started an illegal uranium enrichment program. The withdrawal became effective on the 10th of April, but did they really pull out because of an illegal enrichment program?

In September 2002 George Bush had begun formally making his case to the United Nations for an invasion of Iraq; stating Iraq was "a grave and gathering danger". In his state of the union address the following January he refered to North Korea, Iran and Iraq collectively as the 'Axis of Evil'. By February an invasion was almost certain and by March troops were on the ground in Iraq. Kim Jong Il watched as George Bush followed through on his administration's preemptive strike policy, I believe this to be the event that significantly increased North Korea's drive to build nuclear weapons. It would seem Kim Jong Il felt Saddam was ousted because he didn't have nuclear capabilities, the world takes you seriously when you have a nuclear bomb. 

Three weeks after the invasion of Iraq, North Korea officially withdrew from the NPT and three years later they announced they had successfully tested a nuclear device. It would appear that North Korea invested in nuclear weapons technology as a defence strategy and not to attack the rest of the world like the US government would like everyone to believe. 

While I'm not condoning it, building nuclear weapons to protect yourself from a global bully could be considered a perfectly rational response. If North Korea ever do use a nuclear warhead, aggressive American foreign policy will be largely to blame. Not that they'll ever admit that.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Should ecstasy be a prescription drug?

Next week, BBC Panorama will air an edition focusing on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and how it affects serving soldiers, veterans and their families. Curiously the Ministry of Defense releases suicide statistics of serving soldiers but ignores the rate of suicide in veterans. According to a 2004 article in The New England Journal of Medicine, 18% of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had PTSD and more died from suicide than in combat. Obviously as the war in Iraq became more violent, more soldiers died from combat, it's reasonable to assume the number returning with PTSD also increased, and as a result the suicide rate increased. Hopefully Panorama will be able to back these assumptions up with facts, as yet I haven't found anything I deem reliable on the subject for 2012.

If large numbers of soldiers are returning with PTSD, you'd assume that doctors could treat afflicted people in the most effective and efficient way. This isn't the case. Doctors currently treat PTSD with selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors and benzodiazepines with limited results short term, suffers can be left unable to function in society for years despite receiving treatment.

In 2011, the first randomised controlled pilot study into the safety and efficacy of methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA/ecstasy) in a psychotherapy setting was published. The study found that after two sessions of ecstasy assisted psychotherapy, 10 out of 12 subjects no longer had the disorder. That's an 83% success rate over a matter of weeks or days. The study also found that there where no negative neurocognitive effects and they had no negative drug related events. Under the supervision of a doctor, fatal or damaging reactions to ecstasy are almost unheard of.

Why don't we give people the opportunity to relieve disorders such as PTSD with a drug shown to be effective? We allow cancer patients to pump themselves full of incredibly toxic drugs or be exposed to radiation in the hope that it will increase their life expectancy. Major surgery can have serious risks of death but we afford people the opportunity to make an informed decision; ecstasy should be no different.

So why is ecstasy still a controlled and class A drug and unavailable to doctors?

Put simply, some illegal drug policies are written on misinformed public opinion and not evidence based. The majority of the British public view ecstasy as extremely dangerous; yet when scientists such as Dr David Nutt use evidence and years of research to show that alcohol is far more harmful to users and society than ecstasy, he's branded a 'mad man' by the Daily Mail. David Nutt was sacked from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs because he used scientific evidence to show that horse riding was a more dangerous activity than taking ecstasy. He was appointed to advise on drugs, yet when he did just that he was sacked because it wasn't what Home Secretary Alan Johnson wanted him to say. If the public are misinformed and view ecstasy in the same light as cocaine and heroin, Johnson knows that he and his party will lose votes by going against that view whether it be evidence based or not.

In my opinion ecstasy should be available for doctors to prescribe. The UK government has sent thousands of men and women to fight unnecessary wars in foreign countries in the last decade, if they survive the least we can do as a society is help them return to a 'normal life'. Can you imagine if a banned drug cured 83% of cancers and the government criminalised patients?

As always, thoughts welcome.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Why aren't benefits means tested for the over 65?

Polling stations for the 2013 local elections are now open across England. More than 2,300 seats are to be contested in county council and unitary authority elections, including the seat for South Shields vacated following the resignation of David Miliband.

What I find interesting is that in a time of austerity the predicted turnout for the 18-34 age group is well under 50%, even the during the last general election only 51% of that age group made it to a polling station. I'm not sure whether it's a general lack of interest in politics or a mentality of 'my vote won't matter'; the later couldn't be any further from the truth. A high percentage turnout for a particular age group is vital if you actually want the Government to listen to what you want.

The average turnout of voters aged 65 or over during the last general election was 76%; the highest turnout of any age group and a fact politicians are well aware of. You only need look at how quick David Cameron was to dismiss Iain Duncan Smith's suggestion that wealthy pensioners should give back their free bus pass, television licence and winter fuel allowance. Cameron has promised that all benefits available to those over 65 would remain in place regardless of their financial situation, essentially he's trading a few billion pounds for a few million votes.

Benefits should always be means tested, it should be a system helping those who truly need it and not those who feel they deserve it because they've worked hard all their life. The over 65 are the only age group to receive full benefits regardless of whether they need it or not. Every other age group has had to deal with significant cuts, why should the over 65 be any different?

An unemployed person in their mid-twenties isn't entitled to job seekers allowance if they have more than £16,000 worth of savings. A multi-millionaire pensioner can claim a full pension, free bus pass, free television licence and receive a winter fuel allowance at the tax payers expense. Where's the fairness in that?

It's incredibly unlikely that the Conservatives will make any significant cuts to over 65 benefits this close to a general election, they can't afford to lose the votes. It would seem that David Cameron is willing to take from those who'll have less of a say in whether he remains at 10 Downing Street.

In 2009 Cameron claimed a Conservative Government would take 'unpopular' decisions, how about you actually follow through on that David?