Why forecasts for London's future are as fickle as the British weather
Years ago, when I lived at the seaside, I was surprised to find that nearly every household there made a small fortune by camping out in their garage and letting every room in their house to holidaymakers.
That was one big surprise. The other was how much these tycoons hated the Met Office.
With the passage of time I found out why. It wasn't the institution itself that they hated, it was the dismal weather forecasts it was so profligate with in summer. One irate native told me that a single bad weather forecast for Devon and Cornwall could cost the South West upwards of 15,000 holidaymakers, and take weeks of good weather to make them consider coming again.
True or false, what these bedand-breakfast businesses really hated was unfavourable meteorology. A really discouraging weather forecast had them gnawing the carpet. How they yearned for a right-thinking tourist board in charge of all weather forecasting. One staffed by fanatics sworn to keep the sunny side up even when the coast was being lashed with rain.
I recount these provincial anecdotes because just such a mischievous reversal of the relationship between data and information seems to have settled like a meteorological depression over the future of London. I refer, of course, to the battle of surveys designed to answer an increasingly crucial question - are most London residents desperate to leave the city and become Postman Pats in the Dales, or do they really thank their lucky stars they are living in the congestion zone, and wouldn't be happy anywhere else on earth?
Surveys of attitudes to urban life have been the stuff of crusading politics for centuries. As recently as the 1960s it was government policy to reduce the population of Greater London by decanting its citizens to the provinces. But now the question of what these citizens actually want has become ammunition in an unscrupulous policy war.
For example, last month the London Evening Standard published a survey-based news item headlined: '60 per cent of workers want to quit the capital.' This shook the urbanites who took only nine days to come up with a survey-based rebuttal.
This one was headlined: 'Forget country life, Britons prefer the city.' While the first of these reports clearly (if implausibly) claimed that two-thirds of London's working population was actively considering leaving the city in the next 12 months - and a quarter of all London company directors would move to the South West immediately given the chance - the second flatly contradicted it. This one insisted that 'the average employee prefers the hustle and bustle of city living to the peace and quiet of the countryside'. It went on to claim that 'central London is the most popular place to live', in a 'modern apartment'or a 'Victorian town house.'
Setting aside the cost of such desirable accommodations in central London and such other contemporaneous issues as a quoted preference for 'polluted cities such as London, Birmingham or Leeds', an air of wish fulfilment hangs over this whole exercise. Surely the pro-London survey should also have picked up on the city's 'huge problems in transport and housing, widespread poverty, rising gun crime and gang culture All so serious that school and hospital staff are quitting their jobs and fleeing the capital.'
But then these less palatable urban delights were cited in a third report, emanating from the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit and published on another page. Just as whenever a committee is involved market forces go out the window, so when weather forecasts or population surveys become dodgy dossiers, both sides have something to hide.