Death Sticks?

Graphic health warning splashed across the plain packages of cigarettes that cost millions of lives (and pounds) every year.  Surely, one of the most obvious steps our governments could take if they really cared about the misery inflicted by one of the world’s worst legal vices.  Cynics might suggest that, as tobacco taxes bring in twice as much money to the British Exchequer as is shelled out on direct NHS treatments, there is little incentive to clamp down on this lucrative industry that makes globally, every year, more than £30bn.

I was astounded to learn that cigarette manufacturers make only a penny of profit for each “death stick” sold, making the average life of a smoker worth $10,000 to Big Tobacco.  Almost as heart-breaking is the fact that – in the last few years – smoking has actually increased in the 20-34 years-old bracket and every year 200,000 of those aged 11-15 in the UK start smoking.  How on earth can they miss, or ignore, the warnings? 

One doctor has proposed that the price of a packet of cigarettes be set at £20, forcing those addicted and unable to stop to seek help.  In fact, he argues that these dirty, health-sucking pleasures have become relatively more affordable over the years.  In Austrailia, hard-hitting black packaging with lurid pictures and stark messages seem to be scaring away potential smokers.  There even appears to be more movement from the UK government to clamp down on these cancer-causing scourges.

Yet, why stop there?  Surely, first contact with tobacco for youngsters comes not from a packet, but being slipped a plain-looking, relatively innocuous roll of paper from someone you trust as a friend and probably even admire as a rebel.  What’s to stop smokers emptying out the lethal contents of their packets into more stylish containers, so they are not reminded of the harms every time they reach for another puff. 

So, we need to brand the actual death sticks with messages that cannot be ignored.  Instead of creamy white and light orange, which I’m sure were deliberately chosen to appeal to smokers, a black and yellow colour scheme, along with a vivid toxic warning, would be much more effective at scaring away all but the most hardened nicotine addict.  I’ve tried to mock-up a quick idea of what this could look like, using the technology available on my simple desktop computer. 

Tobacco should never have been allowed to establish such a foothold in our society and wreak untold havoc.  We should be making every effort to ensure our children can enjoy a future much less smokey and much more rosey. 

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Renovation Required

Regeneration is a theme close to my heart and I simply cannot understand why we allow so many once beautiful, useful buildings to fall into terminal decline.  When we’re tearing-up unspoilt countryside to build new houses and still there’s a shortage of home, how on earth can we let good built spaces go to ruin?  Why is there no strategic vision?

One case in point is Grant Lodge in Cooper Park, Elgin.  As you can see from the original, black and white photo below, this is a venerable piece of architecture, which actually dates to 1750 and was gifted to the town for use as a Public Library from 1903.  Even in the 70’s and 80’s, the building was smart and well-maintained.  However, in 2003, disaster struck in the shape of a fire that almost completely destroyed the structure.   11 years have now passed with only debates, proposals and reports on what to do about the Lodge.  Whilst money is a factor in a challenging economic environment, Moray Council still hold £140,000 from an insurance payout – funds that should have been invested in repairing the damage. 

What this demonstrates is the need for central government to reform taxes on property.  There should be a hefty bill for buildings that are empty and lands that is left unused, which would give a clear incentive for the development of more business, agricultural, natural, leisure and residential offerings.  Colleges need to be training and equipping students for renovation and remodelling jobs with a wide variety of hands-on apprenticeships.

Another area where we could see real improvement is converting the top floors of old town centre buildings into flats for people who like to live in the heart of a community, above the shops, restaurants and businesses that can make life even more exciting.  Sitting on land should not just be socially unacceptable, but econimically impractical.  There must be no expectation that land-grabbing could be a long-term investment, which will grow in value, but instead a realisation that – in an increasingly crowded world – space is too valuable a resource to be left derelict. 

We need to make renovation a requirement, maintenance a must, not just allow irresponsible landlords to make excuses and continue to blight our communities.

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The Bizarre Injustices of Public Service Pensions

As the latest arrangements stand, Public Service pension contributions, for the likes of teachers, seem to be rather iniquitous. 

For example, if my annual salary is £31,999 and falls into the 8.3% contribution bracket, then I will pay £177.06 per month towards my pension (according to the “Teacher Pension Calculator” online).  However, if my P60 says £32,000, then my contributions leap to £202.67 p/m.  Over the course of a year, for an increase of salary by £1, I will lose £307.32.   Of course, these higher levels came into force as of the April 2014 pay cheque, and who knows what hikes will be foisted upon us in the future?

How is this fair?  Surely, the tiered system needs to change to become more like income tax where contributions are calculated as they fall into different bands.  So, the first £10,000 is protected by the personal allowance; £10,001 to £15,000 yields a levy at 6.4%; £15,001 to 25,000 at 7.2%, and so forth.  This would be much better and money could be recouped by increasing the top rates of pension contributions on those who can most afford the burden. 

I complained about these iniquities during the SPPA consultation, but heard absolutely no response.  In fairness to my MSP, Richard Lochhead, he is investigating the matter and I wait to hear the outcome.  Obviously, saving for retirement is very important – and Public Service workers are still part of a generous scheme where employers contribute 14.1% of member’s salary – but the aforementioned anomalies should be addressed.  The fact I’ve heard precious little about this issue makes me wonder if our pensions are either too opaque to properly understand or our workers too resigned to relative penury in a retirement that keeps receding further into the distance.  Watch this space…