Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Affordable Housing

From time to time, people talk about the need for "affordable housing" - most recently by Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, at the Labour Conference. But what do we mean by 'affordable housing'?

The first thing to look at is the cost of housing. Taking data from Lloyds Banking Group's website, it is very clear to see that average house prices have risen, fairly steadily, but does this, by itself mean houses are not affordable? The answer to this is clearly no - assuming wages have risen at a similar rate!

Rather helpfully, the Lloyds Banking Group website also has data about the ratio of average house prices to average salaries.
A close study of this chart indicates a long-term ratio of 4 - i.e. a person on an average salary going for a 100% mortgage would need to be able to obtain one that was equal to 4 times their salary. To me, this still seems a little high because, when I first looked to buy a house, the going rate for a mortgage was 2.5 times the higher wage plus 1 times the lower, or 3 times a single wage. This point aside, the chart still shows that - despite the economic collapse in 2008, current house prices are nearly 4.5 times an average salary. So, does this mean that, if mortgage lenders offered mortgages at 5 times a person's salary, everybody would be able to afford to buy a house?

The simple answer is no, because the ratio given above is based on average salary and, in April 2009, this was £35,638, rising to £35,830 in April 2010. HM Revenue & Customs helpfully publish tables showing who pays what taxes. One of these shows the number of people paying tax at various levels, in the tax year 2009-10, which is summarised in the table to the left.

This shows that up to 27,846,000 people earned below £30,000 so, even if they could get a mortgage at five times their salary, they could not afford an average house. It is also worth remembering that, when people talk about affordable housing, they often refer to certain 'essential workers' who need to be able to live all over the country. These include:
Given that, in August 2012, the Lloyds Banking Group reckoned an average house cost £160,256, that means these two groups would require a mortgage that was a staggering 7.5 times their salary! This is, clearly, not affordable.

But what if these individuals went for something smaller?Well, the long-term ratio for house prices to earnings was 4 so, for a moment, let's assume that most mortgage lenders will offer an individual a mortgage at four times their salary. That means that, if our essential workers are to be able to afford to buy a property, then they need to look for homes that cost less than £82,000 - only just over half the average house price. A quick search on Google shows that there are properties available in this price range, but in a limited range of locations and generally only as part of a part-buy/part-rent scheme.

But, even at this level of housing, 15,596,000 people still wouldn't be able to afford to buy their own home. So what about the lowest paid people? DirectGov gives the current minimum wage for an adult as £6.19. Assuming a person works 48 hours per week (the current maximum under the Working Time Directive) this works out at an annual salary of £15,450. Maintaining our assumption that everybody can obtain a mortgage at four times their salary, that means these hard-working individual are looking for properties that cost less than £62,000. Google again shows that such properties are available, but with even less choice of location than the teachers and nurses, and all in part-time/part-buy schemes.

However, looking at the minimum wage does enable consideration of a final problem, and that is to do with the increase in house prices. As stated at the outset, increasing house prices do not necessarily mean that houses are not affordable. But, by dividing average houses prices by 10,000, they can be compared with the hourly rate for the minimum wage since 1983:
This indicates a major problem with the various promises of 'affordable housing'. Even if the current problems are resolved, by ensuring everybody can obtain a mortgage equal to four times their annual salary, and properties are available for as little as £62,000, it will only mean that houses are affordable while house prices rise by no more than inflation. At the moment this is the case - according to the Office for National Statistics house prices rose by 2.3% in the year to June 2012 which is roughly the same as average wage rises and a little less than inflation which, in August 2012, was 2.5%. However, in the UK, it has been usual to regard buying a house as an investment - and the rise in average prices in the late 1990s and early 2000s shows why people have taken this attitude. So, we generally expect house prices to rise by more than inflation.... and the minute that happens, affordable house start to be priced out of reach of the lowest paid people.

If we really want affordable housing, we have to accept that the price of houses rises only at the rate of wages, and that the massive increases of the decade before the economic crises were unrealistic, unsustainable and - most importantly - undesirable.

More on Daylight Saving

Since my original blog about how there is no such thing as daylight saving, a friend had kindly highlighted this short video on the same topic. Written from a North American point of view, it makes many points that are valid here in the UK - such as the confusion caused by different countries moving their clocks at different times in the year.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Which Bus Do I Want?

One of the things I found strange when I moved to Ipswich was the number of bus companies.

Any web search will reveal Ipswich Buses, one of the few bus companies in the country in which the local council still have a stake! A quick trip to the office at Tower Ramparts will even furbish you with paper copies of the route map, various timetables and multi-ride tickets.

However, depending on your route across Ipswich, you'll also spot the bus garage at the Cattle Market. Here one finds the office for First buses and, once again, it's possible to collect maps and timetables, and to buy tickets.

But it doesn't take long before one notices that each office supplies only information about their 'own' buses. So, if you want to catch an Ipswich Bus into the town centre and then catch a First bus to the coast, you will need to visit both offices (or both websites) to collect all the relevant information.

While waiting for a bus at the Cattle Market, it quickly becomes apparent that even this isn't the end of the story. There is now a direct link to the airport, supplied by Airport by Coach. Plus there is the Park and Ride service, Carters Coach Services, Beestons, Simonds and Galloway. All with their own offices, websites, timetables and ticketing systems. The fact that Far East Travel ceased trading in March 2012 has reduced the problem slightly! (A Soames & Sons may also have joined them, or they may just not have a website.)

Suffolk County Council, with their Suffolk On Board website has tried to address the problem of finding out about the local buses, but their maps are colourful but not very useful and, without access to a PC, the information is not easily obtained. I did, once, pick up a copy of their route map when I was at the Ipswich Music Day, but they didn't have any maps available at last year's Music Day.

If you want information about how to get from Point A to Point B then you have to resort to the traveline website, and it's unclear which buses this covers.

Bus deregulation was brought in, by the Tories, in 1985. In the intervening years, any number of people have written about how it doesn't work (as any search engine will quickly reveal). Until I moved out of London, and away from regulated buses, I hadn't realised just how difficult it could be to even find out which bus goes to the place you wish to visit. If the Government is serious about getting people out of their cars then, in my view, they have to address the lack of integrated information about local bus services. If it's easier to put a destination into a sat-nav and jump into a car, who is going to bother trying to catch a bus?

Sunday, 22 April 2012


I'm currently enrolled on the SAVO (Suffolk Association of Voluntary Organisations) 'Community Volunteering' course. One of the tasks I have to complete, to show I know my own volunteering role, is to write a short blog or email to a friend, describing the role I do. So here goes....

I actually have two volunteering roles I do, one with the Ipswich Film Theatre (IFT), and one with the Colne Valley Railway (CVR). For more information about either organisation, please follow the links. Otherwise, to find out what I do, read on.

Ipswich Film Theatre

Normally, when I volunteer with the IFT, I am the Front of House person. This role involves supervising the three (or, occasionally, if there is something on in the Corn Exchange, four) ushers. So my first task is to sort out who wants to staff the kiosk. Generally, one usher will be keen to take on this role, and will already know what is required, so this is just a case of allocating the role. On some occasions, a person will be keen to do the role, but will be unclear on what is required. At this point, I offer them help and advice and, if they are very new to the role, so 'on the job training'.

While the first usher is sorting out the kiosk, and getting the coffee started, I send the other two ushers on the fire walk. This involves walking round the cinema part of the Corn Exchange, checking the fire exits are clear, there is no litter in any of the public areas, no problems (like water leaking through the ceiling) in either cinema and, if required, switching the heaters on. At this time either I or one of the ushers will collect the torches from the projection room.

When the ushers have completed the fire walk, we gather by the kiosk and decide who will be in which cinema. There needs to be two ushers in screen one, and one in screen two. Normally, the ushers happily agree about who will be in which screen. However, as I am qualified as an usher, I can make up the numbers if necessary, or if it means everybody can see the film they want to see.

Just before the IFT opens to the public, I check that the ushers are all clear about what they are doing. I then go upstairs to the 'meet and greet' the public. If there is an event on in the Corn Exchange, the lobby can become crowded, with people needing to be directed to one of the entrances to the Corn Exchange or to the Film Theatre. However, if there is noting on in the Corn Exchange, the lobby is much quieter, and it is just a case of speaking to people as they arrive and, if a new leaflet is out, making sure everybody takes one.

At 7:30, as the film starts, it's time for me to go back downstairs, ensure the ushers have gone into the relevant screens and help to shut up the kiosk. If the person who has staffed the kiosk is the only usher in screen two, I will send them into the screen while I shut up the kiosk. Otherwise, I check they are happy to close up before going into the screen I've previously agreed to be in.

While watching the film, I keep an eye out for any problems. Generally these involve the film in some way - e.g. the sound is not right, or the subtitles are off the bottom of the screen. In these instances, I ensure that either I or one of the ushers goes and speaks to the projectionist, to get the problem corrected. If there is a major problem that can't be corrected (e.g. the individual reels of film having been assembled in the wrong order) I will explain what went wrong, and apologise to the customers, as they leave at the end of the film.

At the end of the film, I wait for all the customers to leave. I then pick up any litter that has been left lying around, check the heaters are switched off and ensure the torches are put back in the projection room.

Colne Valley Railway

I am a member of the P/way Team (P/way = permanent way, i.e. the actual track). Our main role is to maintain the mainline track in a suitable condition for passenger-carrying trains travelling at up to 25mph. But this role is harder to explain in detail as the work carried out during any one session can be totally different to that done at another session. Therefore, this is only an over-view of the work done by the team.

Tasks carried out include:
    1) inspecting the track, and replacing any keys that have fallen out.
    2) replacing rotten sleepers.
    3) jacking and packing the track (i.e. lifting the track to the correct level with a jack, and then packing ballast under the sleepers so that the track remains at that level when the jack is removed).
    4) replacing worn track.
The team is also responsible for any changes or extensions to the mainline, and we are currently installing a new set of points which will allow the run-round loop at one end of the line to be extended. But this is a major piece of work and, as it is beyond where the trains currently run, it is being carried out over several months during the Summer.

The work is all carried out under the supervision of the Head of Department, Paul, who decides what work will be tackled during each session. He will also ensure the work is carried out to a satisfactory standard and that the track is left in a safe condition for trains to use it. Larger tasks on the running track are tackled in the Winter, when the railway is not open to the public, as this means no trains are running and the track will not be used between P/way team sessions.

All training for this role is carried out 'on the job' and, as a long standing member of the team, I now help with the training of new team members.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Price labelling in Sainsbury's

On a recent trip to my local Sainsbury's I wanted to buy some bananas. Being cost conscious, I decided to use the price comparison labels to see which bananas were the cheapest, and how much extra I'd have to pay for organically-grown ones. There were three types of bananas, all clearly labelled with their price and a comparison price:
That's £1 for 5 bananas, so 20p per banana.
That's £1.50 for 5 bananas, which works out at £2 per kilogram. A simple piece of maths also shows these are 30p per banana (although I thought the idea of price comparison labels was that I shouldn't need to do the maths).
That's 52p per kilogram, or 24p per pound.

(Sorry about the quality of the photos - I took these on my elderly Nokia phone, and the camera wasn't brilliant before it spent several years knocking about in my pocket.)
OK, I can see the pack of five organically-grown bananas are dearer than the other two, but are the loose bananas cheaper or dearer than the pack of five, Fairtrade bananas?

I decided to e-mail Sainsbury's about this confusion. Ian McGaan, a Customer Manager, replied, stating:
Thanks for your email. I’m sorry you were unable to compare the prices of our loose and pre-packaged bananas when you shopped with us recently. I can certainly understand your disappointment, as it becomes difficult to tell which is the more cost effective.

Like all major retailers, we sell many of our products by weight, and others by unit. We recognise that our customers have different needs and preferences when shopping with us, and we try to offer as much choice as possible.

This is most obvious in the fruit and vegetable section. For example, you can buy our loose bananas per kilogram. These are weighed at the checkout and allow the customer to choose exactly how many bananas they wish to buy, along with the size. In this example, dependant on the size and weight of the bananas chosen, customers may pay more or less for their fruit.

We also sell a bunch of five Fairtrade bananas. Being packaged, these are more expensive than the loose bananas generally, but are sold by unit. In this case, the customer is assured that they will pay the same amount each time for five. This can be reasonably good value for customers who wish to purchase a specific number. This is also seen in our bags of organic bananas and basics varieties. We also sell products like eggs and biscuits by unit elsewhere in the store, where the customer is more interested in a specific quantity (for example, six large eggs) than an overall weight.

The other way in which we price our products occurs when we have a specific weight for the product as well as a unit price. This can be seen in the Honeyrose Bakery organic banana cake, which weighs 300g and costs £2.69. Because we have a set weight and price for this item, we can provide the customer with a comparison price, which in this case is £0.90/100g. This can be seen elsewhere in the store on most pre-packaged products.

I hope this explains things a little better for you. I'm grateful to you for taking the time to contact us. All customer feedback helps us to constantly improve both our products and services. We look forward to seeing you in store again soon.
So, while he starts by sympathising with my annoyance, he goes on to totally fail to answer my question!

I replied to Mr McGaan's e-mail, explaining how he'd not actually answer the point I was making and, after rather longer than previously, I received a reply which stated:
Thanks for your email. I’m sorry that I didn’t address your point about the comparison labels needing to use the same measurements so that customers can make an informed choice. I understand how important it is in these times to get the best value for money.

The law on how we display weights and unit prices is clearly defined and we follow it. We don't show the price per lb, it’s price per unit or price per weight. This feedback has been passed to the relevant department.

We’re grateful to you for taking the time to contact us. This helps us to improve the quality of the information we provide. We look forward to seeing you in store soon.
Two points caught my attention - while they follow the law on how they display their weight and unit prices, that doesn't answer my original point about how am I meant to compare the price of the pack of five bananas with the price of loose ones. I wondered if it was just fruit that was so confusing and checked labels carefully on my next shopping trip. I quickly found the confusion is even worse in some areas:

So Sainsbury's own cat treats are £1.19 for a pack of ten, or £23.80 per kilogram.

(OK, yes, I can see this works out at 11.9p per stick, but I still thought the idea was that I didn't have to do the maths.)

Alternatively, the Webbox ones are £1.05 for a pack of 6, or 17.5p per unit.
Here the two packs of the same brand aren't even consistently marked with both being £1.05 for a pack of six, but the ones on the left also being 17.5p per unit but the ones on the right being £35 per kilogram.
The other items is Mr McGaan's claim that "We don't show the price per lb, it’s price per unit or price per weight.". So why are the loose bananas shown as 24p per pound? The next time I went to Sainsbury's I took my camera round the fruit and veg department:
So, that's braeburn apples at 75p per pound.
Plums at £2.26 per pound.
Conference pears at 75p per pound.

Like bananas, pears could also be bought loose and in various packs and, once again, it was impossible to compare the price of all the different packs.
Bramley cooking apples at 60p per pound.

Overall, it seems to me the price comparison labels in Sainsbury's are almost deliberately misleading. But is this a big surprise? After all, supermarkets are always trying to get us to spend more of our money in their stores. However, I am disappointed that this piece of legislation - which was designed to help shoppers get the best deal - is being adhered to only as far as the letter of the law goes, and not in the spirit in which it was intended.

There are other supermarkets, but I generally only use Sainsbury's so I can't comment on whether Tesco, Morrisons and Asda actually manage to supply useful information.