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The BBC have been releasing details of how savings will be made now that the coalition have cut the budget.  One area of spending that has been of particular interest to the newspapers has been the corporation’s wage bill, and especially the wages and expenses of the very highly paid senior management and “talent”.

We were recently reminded of the BBC executive expenses after Ben Goldacre wrote a column about Benford’s Law — the fact that in large data sets which are distributed across multiple orders of magnitude the leading digit of data points is more frequently ‘1’ than ‘2’, ‘2’ than ‘3’, and so on.

BBC executive expenses are just such a data set, and two years ago John Graham-Cumming checked how well individual execs’ expense claims matched the ideal Benford set. These were how the frequencies of leading digits looked in the expense claims of former “director of people” Stephen Kelly and current “director of audio and music” Tim Davie compared to the expected frequencies:

A massive excess of expense claims with ‘8’ as the first digit. What were they? “Road/bridge tolls”. That is, the Congestion Charge. We pay — or were paying — BBC execs to drive their private cars around central London. (Road tolls stopped being listed in the reports at the same time as the BBC switched expenses systems (long before the WEZ abolition) — coincidence? Change in the reporting? Change in the rules?)

Chief Operating Officer Caroline Thompson isn’t claiming the CCharge, but she does have a large excess of claims in the £10-19 range — they’re taxi rides.

While a few BBC managers might need reminding that the Central Line stops right outside both Broadcasting House and Television Centre, I can imagine many legitimate reasons for busy BBC execs to be making these journeys by the chosen means, as they go about meeting important people all around town, and it’s only fair that they be compensated for legitimate expenses incurred fulfilling their duties. What doesn’t seem fair is that we pay them to drive twice.

When I mentioned the CCharge expenses story to a BBC friend and NUJ member, they replied with an FOI describing the current “car allowance” paid to BBC senior managers:

There are three levels of car allowance that senior managers are eligible for:

Executive Board members receive £12,900 per annum
SM1s receive £7,800 per annum
SM2s receive £4,800 per annum

These allowances have not been increased for at least 10 years.

The BBC’s Director-General, does not receive a car allowance. However the Director-General is entitled to a car and driver under earlier arrangements. The Director-General has no entitlement to a personal car allowance or fuel allowance.

Financial Year Total Paid in Car Allowance (£)
2008/2009 3,381,439
2009/2010 3,470,119
2010/2011 3,279,866

None of this is really news, none of it is unique to the BBC, and it’s not the greatest of scandals, I just find it weird. The recipients of this benefit can, so far as I can tell, spend it on whatever they like — no need for them to put in a claim for it, or prove that it’s being spent on cars rather than season tickets or bicycles or recreational drugs or whatever BBC managers like spending their money on. It’s really just an arbitrarily named “allowance”, one of several, in reality a part of their salary but hidden from the official figures and the BBC’s published wage bill. But the fact that senior managers expect a “car allowance” is another nice little statement of our car addicted society.

My NUJ friend pointed out that the execs are very interested in cutting the allowances bill. They’re particularly keen on the allowances paid to frontline staff for things like working unpredictable hours. So far, the car allowance has escaped the notice of the knife wielders.

Passive driving

“The ideal of the ethical man,” wrote the great Victorian scientist and liberal Thomas Henry Huxley, “is to limit his freedom of action to a sphere in which he does not interfere with the freedom of others.”

At Bath Skeptics in the Pub in April, Ian Walker talked about transport-related (ir)rational behaviour and policy.  One of the ideas he talked about was “passive driving”.  The analogy, of course, is to passive smoking.  Every time a smoker lights up in a restaurant or pub or club, the health and life expectancy of all the diners, punters, and staff around that smoker takes a tiny hit.  And those people get nothing positive in return.  In a liberal society, we defend the right of smokers to give themselves horrible slow fatal diseases.  But we expect them not to interfere with the rights of everyone else to their health.  And on the occasions when they can not show that restraint voluntarily, we have to resort to legislation banning smoking in restaurants and pubs and clubs.

Similarly, every time you get into your car and fire up the engine, my health and life expectancy takes a hit, and I get nothing in return.  You get to work or to the shops or to a day out, but I get nothing except a reduced life expectancy. Every time you get in the driving seat, you are making the decision that your journey is worth more than my and everybody else’s health and wellbeing. How big a problem is it?

Well, before the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces and workplaces, estimates were that around 600 people in the UK were dying prematurely each year because of exposure to second-hand  tobacco smoke in those environments.

Exposure to driving in the UK annually causes:

  • over 2,000 deaths in what the DfT describe as road “accidents”, of which less than half are of car users (stats for drivers and passengers are, sadly, all combined). Around 500 pedestrians, just over 100 cyclists, around 500 motorcyclists and a few bus and coach passengers are killed in “accidents”.  A few of those deaths will have nothing to do with cars — indeed, some genuinely will be “accidents” — but most are in some way the consequence of other people choosing to get in a car, a choice that would never bring any benefit to the person killed. As Harry Rutter pointed out at Street Talks, pedestrian deaths are particularly high in children, the elderly, and the lowest socio-economic groups: people to whom the benefits of car use are often out of reach, but who have to suffer the negative consequences regardless.  Motor vehicles are the biggest cause of death in teenagers, who should have a large proportion of their lives ahead of them, arguably making road “accidents” a more important issue than diseases which kill late in life and thus take away fewer quality life years.
  • Air pollution is not a fashionable topic, yet estimates of UK deaths attributable to it are even higher than for crashes, ranging from 12,000 to 35,000. Motor vehicles are not the only contributor to air pollution, but they are the major one.  Air pollution is especially a problem in cities, paradoxically the places that usually have the highest proportion of non-car users.  People living happily in cities without a car — who have perhaps even made the conscious decision to live somewhere within walking or cycling distance of employment and shops and services — again have to deal with the negative consequences of people driving into and through their city.
  • Diseases associated with obesity and sedentary lifestyles are amongst the biggest killers of our time: cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes, even dementia.  We know that these diseases can be prevented or delayed by regular exercise — cycling, for example — and that exercise is therefore one of the biggest predictors of life expectancy.  But while a great many people in the UK would like to be able to make their regular short journeys by bicycle (not so much because they worry about their health, but because it’s cheap and simple), very few do.  The overwhelming reason people give for not cycling is that the roads are far too uninviting: because they’re full of fast moving and badly driven motor vehicles.  Every time somebody chooses to drive a car, the rest of us get none of the benefit, but we do get dangerous, intimidating, noisy and smelly streets, in which normal people will never want to ride a bicycle.

That’s just to list the obvious ways that other people choosing to drive has negative health consequences for you and me.

I was reminded of all this because today the Association of British Nutters Drivers are back in the news demanding their freedoms.  Nurse turned Tory MP, and now parliamentary under-secretary of state for health, Anne Milton said last week that allowing residents to close their residential streets to motor vehicles on sundays so that their kids can go out and play might be a good thing.  The ABD are said to be amazed that their freedom to drive wherever and whenever they like might, for just one day a week, come second to other people’s freedom to choose how to use just a little bit of their own neighbourhood. Once again, the ABD behave like spoiled children, throwing their toys around when told it’s somebody else’s turn to play.

The ideal of the ethical man is to limit his freedom of action to a sphere in which he does not interfere with the freedom of others.  The Association of British Drivers fail at this most basic principle of ethics.