Monday, 26 December 2011

A symphony of delights

Warning: this posting contains unashamed nostalgia and inexpert musical appreciation.

On Christmas morning, Clemency Burton-Hill played Victor Hely-Hutchinson's "Carol Symphony", which instantly cast me back to my childhood. It wasn't so much the music, but the recollections of the gentleman on the phone who requested it. Like me, he remembered it not from the 1984 television adaptation of "The Box of Delights", but from a 1940s radio production. I see from wikipedia that it was first produced in 1943, but since it is unlikely that this version was recorded - cut on discs in those days - it must have been the 1948 serialisation that I first heard*. Wikipedia has just two cast members listed, implying that the rest were as in 1943, but in my mind's ear I have Carleton Hobbs as the villain Abner Brown. (Hobbs was also a memorable Eeyore to Norman Shelley's Pooh, and recounted in a radio programme celebrating his career that he had based this characterisation on the actor-manager Ben Greet of whose company he had been a young member.) I definitely remember Harman Grisewood as the narrator and the magic of his speaking John Masefield's closing words as the final movement of the Carol Symphony played in the background.

Magic is not the word I would use of the Barry Rose/Pro Arte recording which Burton-Hill used on her programme. The performance is enthusiastic, but the sound quality is poor for a LP recording and the balance is wrong. I see that it was recorded in a cathedral, which may account for my impressions. In the movement based on "The First Nowell" a rhythmic figure on the harp accompanies the melody in a lower register. (This trick was a distinctive feature of arrangements for the Glenn Miller band. It also features in Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto, which I assumed to be the inspiration for Hely-Hutchinson, until I checked the dates. However, it seems that Rimsky-Korsakov in "The Invisible City of Kitezh" anticipated all of them.) It is far too dominant in the 1966 recording.

Rob Cowan made amends this morning by playing part, including the "First Nowell", of the performance conducted by Gavin Sutherland, the CD of which I rushed to buy when it was issued a few years ago. The playing of the Prague Philharmonic is superb, as one would expect, and the recording quality is excellent. If there is one slight quibble, it is that the Czech orchestra does not get under the skin of a very English piece - a complementary criticism to that often levelled at English orchestras playing Bohemian music.

This all raises the question: how does the Boyd Neel 78, which was the recording presumably used by the Home Service in the 1940s and 1950s to accompany "Box of Delights", compare? Does the BBC record library still possess a copy of this version?

Also, could Donald Macleod feature Hely-Hutchinson in a future "Composer of the Week"? In view of his slight (in both senses of the word, it appears) output, he may not deserve a full five hours, but perhaps one day's slot in a week devoted to BBC Directors of Music.

* On a Kolster-Brandes wireless set - valve, of course - on top of a cupboard in a corner of cramped married quarters in Aldershot. KB used to advertise themselves as suppliers of radio to the Queens, and it occurs to me now that grandfather Little, who had been a steward on the Cunard liners, may perhaps have obtained our set at a discount.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Clegg did his best over Euro debt

Some Liberal Democrat members were informed by a senior parliamentarian in the party soon after the Brussels "veto" that Nick Clegg had worked hard on keeping the UK in the dialogue which aimed to secure the viability of euro economies. The deputy PM had not only been in constant touch with David Cameron, but had also in the weeks before the Brussels conference spoken to many other heads of government in the EU. It is gratifying that his role has been made public by Sir Graham Watson MEP here.

There is also confirmation of the miscalculation made by the prime minister:
Aware of the difficulty Cameron was in with Conservative backbench sentiment, Nick Clegg worked hard over a six week period to try to prevent such an outcome. He met or spoke to the prime minister every day over the last three weeks to convince him of the danger and to help him devise a strategy to manage it. He also spoke to many other EU leaders. What he had no control over was how the PM would play his cards in the meeting.

By most accounts, Cameron got off to a bad start. Not having been present at the European People's Party pre-summit meeting in Marseilles (since his first act as party leader was to withdraw the Tories from the EPP), Cameron had little sense of the mood within Europe's majority. At Thursday night's supper he spoke strongly against regulation of financial services (particularly the hedge funds which finance the Tory party), which cost him sympathy among leaders who feel such regulation to be necessary. When offered by the chairman, later, a choice between agreement among 17 on closer union on the basis of Protocol 12 (which requires no treaty change and therefore remains within the existing treaty framework) and a new intergovernmental treaty, Cameron said it made no difference to him. Finally, just before 4am (when he could reasonably have asked for a postponement of business until later in the morning) he presented a list of demands to move the basis of decision making on financial services legislation within the single market from qualified majority voting to unanimity 'to protect the city of London'. He had clearly decided to go all in and, unsurprisingly, his bluff was called. At the press conference to explain his stance he was visibly shaken.

Mr Cameron may be an expert on PR, but he clearly overestimated his abilities as a negotiator.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

A spiral argument

Why was Greece in so much trouble? Because she had debts which the markets thought she might have difficulty repaying.

Why is the euro in danger? Because it is the currency in Greece.

Why is Italy in danger? Because it is in the eurozone.

Why is the euro under threat? Because it is the currency in Greece and Italy.

Why is France in danger? Because it is in the eurozone.

Why is the euro near to collapse? Because it is the currency in France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal ...

Why is the (French) managing director of the (US-based) International Monetary Fund predicting global economic disaster? Because the euro is under attack.

Apparently, economists in South-east Asia and the Far East, where nations are still enjoying growth of over 4%, are bemused by the apocalyptic language emanating from transatlantic discussions. They see our current economic difficulties as a local European & North American concern. One imagines that the oil sheikhs are equally unconcerned.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Counting the b******s

I recommend "The Westminster Hour" on Radio 4 on Sunday nights for a less blinkered view than in the more often quoted TV politics programmes. In particular, the back-bench MPs who comprise the panel for the regular discussion of the week's topics are generally refreshingly objective. There were good examples last Sunday. Mike Gapes, Labour chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, presented rather more positive policy on the European Union than the party's front-bench spokesmen have been doing. On the same subject, the Conservative Andrea Leadsom sought to show that her party was rather more Europhilic than the headlines following the Cameron veto suggested. She claimed that it was only a few high-profile Tory MPs who were actually against membership of the EU.

However, she would surely accept that there are more Europhobes in the present House than before the 2010 general election. She should also have counted the most enthusiastic supporters of David Cameron's "veto" after the prime minister's statement in the House the next day. I made it 21: Sir Peter Tapsell, John Redwood, Peter Lilley, Bill Cash, Bernard Jenkin, Andrew Rosindell, Dr Julian Lewis, Mark Pritchard, Nadine Dorries, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Steve Brine, Philip Davies, David Evennett, David Nuttall, Andrew Selous, Peter Bone, David Rutley, Mike Weatherley, John Baron and Mrs Anne Main, not to mention Phillip Hollobone. There were only two or three asking questions on her side who appeared to share her views on Europe.

Some of those I have listed would protest that they do not want to leave the European Union, just that they want to remove all the regulations that originated in Brussels. But surely that would amount to the same thing? One cannot envisage the 26 EU nations, all signed up to progressive social, industrial and agricultural legislation, allowing unrestricted access to their market to sweatshop Britain, competing on unfairly advantageous terms.

I liked the contribution to Monday's proceedings by LibDem Bob Russell: "I bring some grandfatherly advice to the proceedings. I urge the Prime Minister to let the dust settle, keep calm and carry on carefully, but please to abandon the Carlos Tevez approach to Europe. Bridges need to be built, and the first bridge the Prime Minister can build is to get Tory MEPs to rejoin the group of mainstream European conservatives." This raises two points: first, that the prime minister may not have found himself isolated in Brussels last week if his MEPs had still been in the centrist conservative EPP group, talking to their fellows, and he himself had been more involved in earlier negotiations. Secondly, after passions - some of the exchanges in the European Parliament recently have been pretty fruity - on either side have cooled, Britain's relationship to the EU will be seen to have practically not changed very much. More damage has been done by the triumphalist puffing of David Cameron's stance than by the "veto" itself.

On this side of the channel, it is certainly no reason to renege on the coalition agreement. Certainly, most of the press (remember, most is Tory and no paper is philosophically Liberal Democrat) are asserting wildly that this is the beginning of the end, and even some LibDems on the fringe are speculating on the same lines. The latter should consider whether they really want to give up a restraining influence over government policy on health in England and on benefit cuts, not to mention positive contributions on business development and local democracy.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Another government agency closes local offices

News is coming through that DVLA is to close its remaining local offices. No doubt the Welsh Labour Party will jump up and down about the loss of jobs in Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea, but they should be reminded that Labour's response to the economic downturn in 2008 was to close job centres and inland revenue offices throughout Wales, with more serious consequences.

One has to accept DVLA's reasoning that, for the business it transacts, the local office network is not cost effective. On the other hand, there are times when members of the public need dialogue with a friendly official after fruitless telephone interchanges or attempts to access a busy web-site. The logical answer is to create more one-stop-shops, which have proved so successful in bringing a range of council services back to neighbourhoods. Combining the public faces of several departments which affect people's everyday lives in single local offices in strategic locations could take pressure off the centre, as well as benefiting the citizen, at a more reasonable cost than each department's maintaining its own branches. One could even make use of existing crown post office premises or local authority's public counters.

Labour outed as legislation addicts

It became clear over the Blair-Brown years that New Labour regarded the House of Commons as no more than a legislative production-line. They seemed to revel in the thousands of new offences they had created in their thirteen years in office. Because they couldn't get off the massive log-roll, they couldn't prevent a jam at the end of their administration. As a result, poor legislation was rushed through in spring 2010, while some useful measures were lost.

Last Thursday, Angela Eagle, the shadow Leader of the House, revealed that they were suffering from withdrawal symptoms. She asked (Hansard 8 Dec 2011 : Columns 419-420): "In 20 years in this place, I have never known business statements to contain so little legislative substance, especially so early in a Parliament. There has been little even resembling Government legislation in this place for weeks now. Will the Leader of the House explain why the Commons is twiddling its thumbs ?"

They still have not realised that passing laws is not a good thing in itself. Liberals down the years have instinctively resisted new legislation without overwhelming justification. At the Business Ministry, Vince Cable and Ed Davey have put principle into practice with the "one-in, one-out" rule.

New Labour have not adjusted to the new Commons where debate, especially on topics chosen by back-bench members (pdf), is returning to its traditional place in the balance of business.

Where Angela Eagle does have a point is that there should be more pre-legislative scrutiny, so that obvious nonsense can be ruled out of draft legislation before it comes to Parliament formally. The Health and Social Care Bill is a case in point. (Fortunately, the resulting Act will not apply to Wales, but it does have implications for those in the north and the Marches, who have to reply on English hospitals for some procedures.) The Leader of the House, Sir George Young, could not resist pointing out the hypocrisy of Labour who habitually denied sufficient time for discussion of Bills when they were in government. However, in answer to a later question from Diana Johnson (Labour, Hull North) he stated: " It is the objective of the coalition Government to have more pre-legislative scrutiny and more Bills introduced in draft. We think that that leads to a better scrutiny process in the House of Commons."

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Local public service pay

Mention of reviewing public service pay in the regions (presumably including Wales) in the chancellor of the exchequer's autumn statement reminded me of this idea for civil service pay, posted in another place 2 years ago:

I came up with a scheme some time ago, which I thought combined fairness and professionalism within the service with value for money.

 The principle of fair comparisons (taking all aspects of remuneration, including pensions & allowances, into account) should be revived. In order to avoid charges of prejudice, the necessary research would be carried out by a university department, management school or consultancy which is independent of government, and which has an established good record in the field of pay research.

 That would apply only to mobile (people who can be posted anywhere) general-service grades. The pay rates of local staff should be based on the minimum necessary to recruit staff of the required standard. I would see these as being agreed by local managers across departments, and reported to Treasury.


Note:

1. This is for the civil service only. I would not have the government dictate pay rates to local government.
2. Pay rates would be determined by people on the ground, not by Whitehall.
3. Civil servants who joined a mobile pay grade, i.e. they accepted that they could be posted anywhere in the country, would be entitled to the nationally-negotiated rate, wherever they were recruited.
4. The whole thing would be a package, fair comparisons for national pay, local rates for non-mobile grades.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Some naive observations about the siege of the euro

1. Why, if the euro is a failing currency which had only 24 hours to be rescued, has its exchange rate against the pound sterling remained constant within two or three pence for the last year? (and 1a. why have there been so many "24 hours to save the euro"?)

2. Why is it so disastrous for the euro if Greece has trouble repaying its bonds, while similar troubles in California and other States do not impact the dollar?  California would have the 7th highest GDP in the world if thought of as a country, well ahead of Greece and not far behind Italy. (The dollar is on credit watch, but only because the US is deemed to be paying too much for welfare benefits, it seems.)

The news that China is riding to the rescue of troubled euro-zone nations reminds me of a couplet* from the 1960s when we were alerted to the fact that communist China had the hydrogen bomb: "the little yellow uncle, with his billion-candle sword". Since then, China has come to realise that the renminbi is more powerful than the bomb, and could soon become pawnbroker to the world. Uncle indeed.

*The full poem, a prize-winner in a 1960s Guardian competition to update Rudyard Kipling, follows. It was perhaps a sign of the times that the first prize-winner was also dedicated to a white supremacist regime in Africa, that of Southern Rhodesia.

The Song of the Munt

For the bullwhip in the morning,
And the hunger in the sun,
For the fly-embroidered corpses
From the bloody Gatling gun.

For the puddle in the schoolroom,
And the eyeball at the chink,
For the short, contemptuous glances
As the frosted glasses clink.

For the fraudulent redemption
Of that butchered Jewish priest,
For the pass card on the tramway,
And the laughter of the feast.

With the certainty of sunrise,
As the vengeance of the Lord,
Comes the little yellow uncle
With his billion-candle sword.

D.F.Juniper

I wonder if the author is a relation of Tony Juniper, one of the more competent junior ministers in Gordon Brown's government.


Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Feedback is off the air, so I shall have to complain here

The BBC is getting more partisan. Not content with broadcasting only Europhobic opinions of the current siege of the euro zone, it has started a series on the Royal Mail by a clearly biased Dominic Sandbrook. In a contribution to the Daily Mail headed: "The last post: The shameful betrayal of the Royal Mail", he states:

"it is notable that Margaret Thatcher never seriously considered privatising it. Like most people of her generation, she saw Royal Mail as one of the bulwarks of the British state — an institution of which the nation could be proud.


"All this was to change, however, when Tony Blair arrived on the scene in 1997." 

He conveniently glosses over the move to privatisation and the massive post office closure programme started by John Major and continued under Blair/Brown. It is no surprise therefore that Sandbrook implies in the radio broadcast that the closures started much later. "Since 2008, both Labour and coalition governments closed hundreds of post offices," he asserts (my italics). In fact, one of the first statements of principle by Liberal Democrat Ed Davey on taking office in the business ministry was that there would be no new post office closures, and he has clearly stuck to that.

If he is wrong on the fact of the closures, can we trust his other assertions? In fact, should not Sandbrook be described as a "political commentator" rather than a "historian"?

Stop the fat cats buying our democracy

The Unlock Democracy movement has emailed to say:
"Last year the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced that he would be launching cross-party talks to clean up party funding, arguing that: 'The current rules by which funding is received and spent have got the balance wrong. They allow a system in which wealthy donors and vested interests are far too prevalent. That advantage is wholly unacceptable, and the perception of politicians in the pockets of their paymasters is deeply corrosive.'
"All of this still applies and with the recent scandal surrounding former defence secretary Liam Fox, the need to take big money out of politics has been highlighted once again."

To send a message to the party leaders that donations need capping, go to
http://action.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/share-party-funding 
Unlock Democracy's campaigning activities cost money. If you can afford to give a little money to help stop Big Money, you can make a contribution here:

http://action.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/caps-donate

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Another sign of intelligence in ravens

The crow family includes probably the canniest birds outside the parrots. They clearly have a sense of fun. One of my aunts recalled watching a magpie lure a cat out along a slender branch and just as Felix was beginning to be uncertain of his grip start bouncing on it. I have seen a raven tease a cat on the ground and also heard on a radio nature programme a description of ravens in the Brecon Beacons taking advantage of a period of wintry weather by sliding down an icy slope on their backs.

Now it seems that not only do ravens have a caring side, they may also use gestures. This article reports observations of ravens picking up such objects as stones or moss and showing them to a fellow, not always a female. It is a long way short of language, but it does show that attention-seeking is not confined to primates.

Third quarter party donations figures published

The Electoral Commission has published the donations accepted and borrowing by all political parties during quarter 3 of 2011 (July, August and September). The headline figures for Conservative, Labour, Scottish Nationalist and Liberal Democrat parties are respectively £2,744,618, £3,529,270, £1,988,657 and £1,199,623. No figures are available for the Welsh Nationalist Party - either Plaid Cymru have broken the law by not reporting their donation income within 30 days of the end of the quarter, or they failed to garner as much £7,500 in the period.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

2011 already a climate record breaking year

If reporters covering the U.N. climate talks in Durban needed confirmation of the World Meteorological Organisation's evidence that continued global warming was causing extreme weather events, they had it on hand. Yesterday violent thunderstorms drenched Durban and flooded the basement of the conference centre where envoys are meeting.

Reuter reports: "The WMO, part of the United Nations, said the warmest 13 years of average global temperatures have all occurred in the 15 years since 1997. That has contributed to extreme weather conditions that increase the intensity of droughts and heavy precipitation across the world.

"'Global temperatures in 2011 are currently the tenth highest on record and are higher than any previous year with a La Nina event, which has a relative cooling influence,' it said

"This year, the global climate was influenced heavily by the strong La Nina, a natural phenomenon usually linked to extreme weather in Asia-Pacific, South America and Africa, which developed in the tropical Pacific in the second half of 2010 and continued until May 2011.

"One of the strongest such events in 60 years, it was closely associated with the drought in east Africa, islands in the central equatorial Pacific and the United States, as well as severe flooding in other parts of the world."

Arctic sea ice shrank to its second-lowest extent and lowest volume on record in 2011.

Our own Met Office released its own preliminary temperature data for this year, ranking 2011 as the 11th warmest year on record. Its series dates back to 1850.

[Thanks to Reuter and Sydney Morning Herald.]

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Out of nowhere

No doubt we will know before the end of the week how and why Gary Speed died, but like so many I was shocked at the news and feel bereft.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

What about the wars where we did well?

This posting is prompted by yet another radio programme on the subject of the Second World War, this time on the resistance to the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands. What surprised me was that it was shoehorned into "Open Country", nominally a countryside magazine programme, as if it had been necessary to accommodate overspill from more appropriate slots.

Television is even worse. On any day, there does not seem to be a page of the EPG which does not carry at least one title raking over the embers of World War II. To be sure, this mechanical recovery of the last scrap of material has thrown up some valuable stuff, like the long-overdue recognition on peak-time television of the key role played by Colossus and of Alan Turing. (By the way, we need a documentary on how in the 1950s and 1960s we ceded our lead in computing to the Americans. My favoured villains - surprise, surprise! - are the banks.)

But overall there is something rather sad about this preoccupation with "our finest hours". It's not as if Britain's record is immaculate. We could have prevented the Nazis gaining strength in Europe. We would have struggled to survive if it had not been for the American intervention; at best, we would have retained nominal independence as a client state of a German empire. It would have been a similar story in 1914-18.

This is a plea for a reduction in programmes about wars where we have been rescued by other nations or into which we have been dragged by the USA (e.g. Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan) usually to the detriment of our finances. It is a plea for two, at least, of our success stories to be brought to the attention of the present generation. There have been reassessments (e.g. here and here) of our defeat of the counter-insurgencies in Malaya and Brunei, suggesting that our motives were not pure and our conduct of the war was much less gentlemanly than the general public realised at the time. (In fact, the general public were told very little about Brunei.) But we fought these campaigns successfully without outside help, professionally and without leaving the large-scale local resentment which has marked Iraq and Afghanistan. Lessons about planning, and about winning hearts and minds, should have been learned by the Americans from British experiences in SE Asia.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Not all sweetness and light with Middlesex Conservatives

Courtesy of Guido Fawkes:
Turbulent Tory Take-Off at Heathrow By-Election

As the Tories announce their candidate for the upcoming Heathrow Airport by-election, there was some rather loud grumbling in the ranks last night. CCHQ have gone with the seat’s two-time general election veteran Mark Bowen. He’s the head of the Tory group on Hounslow Council and is looking to over turn the late Alan Keen’s 4,658 majority.


Given that the local press declared Bowen had “virtually accepted defeat” before polling day in May 2010, many boys and girls on the CCHQ approved list feel there should have been some semblance of an open contest, but it was all quiet from HQ. So imagine how well this email was received, hot from the Candidates Office, hours before last night’s announcement was made:


“I am expecting every candidate on the Approved List to rise to the challenge and take part in the campaign and polling day. If you are unable to visit Feltham & Heston, you can help out in other ways by joining our call centre in Millbank or at CCHQ Midlands based in Coleshill.

I am enclosing your Campaign Support Record Sheet. Therefore it is vitally important to print a copy and take it with you whenever you go to Feltham & Heston. This sheet will be signed by one of our Sector Agents each time you go. At the end of the campaign the completed sheet should be returned to the Candidates Department at CCHQ”


It’s not the request that is causing feathers to be spat, rather the patronising handholding and school trip worksheets, handed out in silence about how the decision was being made. So unity and vigour for December 15. It’s going to be a frosty winter on the stump..


What price Liberal Democrats replacing the Conservatives as challengers in this seat?

Municipal dynamism

I subscribe to a daily email from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) database. (By the way, if you hold a library ticket for Neath Port Talbot - or most other public libraries for that matter - you can look up the ODNB database free of charge, either from a computer in the library branch, or from your own at home. Ask a librarian for details.) These messages consist of a single biography, usually tied to an anniversary of birth or death. Today's is a bit different. The anniversary is that of the extension of Birmingham in November 1911, for which John Nettlefold, industrialist and housing reformer, was largely responsible.

John Sutton Nettlefold was born into the family firm. He ran their steelworks in Rogerstone for three years, but  left the company (which eventually formed the "N" of GKN) to become managing director of Kynoch Ltd in Birmingham, the name living on in IMI Kynoch plc. He married into the Chamberlain dynasty and became a Liberal Unionist (i.e., the branch of the party which opposed Gladstone over home rule for Ireland) member of Birmingham city council for the Edgbaston-Harborne ward. The ODNB entry goes on:  "As chairman, from 1901, of the council's newly created housing committee he played the dominant role in developing the city's housing policy. Nettlefold's particular concern was to relieve overcrowding in city centres. He set his face against the existing model of providing housing for the poor, which involved slum clearance in city centres, both because this encouraged landlords to neglect their property in the expectation of compensation, and because of the expense it imposed on ratepayers. Rather, he believed in dealing with unfit houses on an individual basis, by requiring that landlords ensure that their properties were fit for human habitation. Under his leadership Birmingham's housing committee dealt with 4000 houses in this way between 1902 and 1907. He also rejected municipal house building as a solution to the problem of poor housing, since this required subsidy by ratepayers to keep rents low. Municipal housing, Nettlefold argued, amounted to charity on the rates.

"Nettlefold's distinctive scheme for remedying the housing problem was radical, but not socialist. It relied on private builders, yet involved a degree of intervention by local authorities and was linked to the emerging concept of town planning, of which he was a pioneer. His ideas were set out in his two books A Housing Policy (1907) and Practical Housing (1908). One influence was the garden city movement, but the model upon which he most directly drew was the town extension plan, a German concept made known in Britain by the Manchester philanthropist Thomas Horsfall in his book The Improvement and Dwellings of the People (1904). This offered a model of low-density housing, with a plentiful supply of open spaces and adequate amenities, located on the outskirts of cities, but with good transport links to the town centre. [...] he organized the Birmingham Playgrounds, Open Places, and Playing Association on the model of a Chicago organization which had insisted on the provision of playgrounds as a municipal function, important in forming children as citizens."

"Nettlefold proposed to bring these ideas about by allowing the purchase of land by councils, who would lease it to private builders to build houses for rent. He sought new statutory powers to enable the planned development of undeveloped land within city boundaries, making possible the planned development of entire districts. At the same time he proposed relaxing building by-laws, which he believed unnecessarily inflated building costs. His emphasis was on the development of the estate as a whole, to ensure adequate light, air, and ventilation, with plenty of space between houses, and gardens at front and back. His ideas were applied in the development of Moor Pool estate in Harborne, on 54 acres of land two miles from the centre of Birmingham. In 1907 Harborne Tenants Ltd was established to promote the erection, co-operative ownership, and administration of houses on this land, and at the same time the Harborne Society was formed, with Nettlefold as its chairman. A firm of local architects developed the site, where 500 houses were built at a density of 9.25 houses per acre, and the tenants were co-partners as well as tenants of Harborne Tenants Ltd.

"Any wider application of Nettlefold's plans, and in particular the town extension plan, required legislation to give local authorities town planning powers, and through his involvement in the Association of Municipal Corporations, of whose planning committee he was the chairman, he lobbied for town planning legislation to give local authorities power to control the laying out of land for housing within their boundaries. He was the leading speaker in a deputation from the association that met the [Liberal] prime minister, Campbell-Bannerman, and the president of the Local Government Board, John Burns, in August 1907 to discuss the planning of suburbs. Planning was necessary, he argued, to prevent 'the haphazard extension of towns' creating 'new slums' (The Times, 26 Oct 1907)." What emerged was the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909, too limited in its scope to meet Nettlefold's ambitions, but a step forward.

It is interesting to see the birth of strands of thinking on housing which continue to this day in both progressive Conservative (a party which most Liberal Unionists finished up in) and Liberal Democrat policies. He rejected centralised socialist planning, but embraced cooperation. He also realised that councils had to provide a driving force and that the excesses of private landlords had to be curbed.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Not all showers are green

Research by Unilever has revealed that the long-held view that showers use much less water than baths is only partly true. While a traditional shower uses about 62 litres of water over the average usage of 8 seconds, some power showers can get through 136 litres in the same time. The average bath takes about 80 litres – but you can't take a book into the shower.

Dodgy government tax deals to be revisited


The "Independent" reports today that pressure on the government to review the “sweetheart” deals which were reached between the Inland Revenue (now part of HMRC) and large corporations has borne fruit. Goldman Sachs is not the only corporation coming under examination. Vodafone is also implicated. Credit goes to the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, and to Private Eye magazine for keeping the matter in the public domain.

At a time when too many people on low incomes are being taxed and IR errors have led to demands for back payment, it is wrong for wealthy organisations to be seen to be getting away with paying less tax than they should. UK bondholders, too, may have started to see danger signals: part of Greece's debt problems stem from large-scale tax avoidance and evasion.

Good news on public borrowing, not so good on the deficit

In spite of gloomy remarks by the prime minister during his walkabout yesterday about the deficit reduction not going as well as anticipated, government borrowing in October was less than the chancellor's target. This results from slightly higher than expected tax revenues. However, these may not last if the gloomier predictions of the country's economic growth come true. We should glean more from the chancellor's statement next week.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Norwegian computer on a USB stick

FXI Technologies, a Norwegian start-up company, has announced their "cotton candy" device which aims to "allow users a single, secure point of access to all personal Cloud services and apps through their favorite operating system, while delivering a consistent experience on any screen. The device will serve as a companion to smartphones, tablets, notebook PC and Macs, as well add smart capabilities to existing displays, TVs, set top boxes and game consoles." It is based on a British-designed ARM central processor and uses Google's Android (in turn based on the Linux operating system). The FXI release is here.

Northern Rock: an answer

It appears that one of the answers about the timing of the reprivatisation of Northern Rock, raised in an earlier post, is that the Treasury was compelled to sell its majority stake under a commitment made by Labour. In a pact with the European Commission signed by Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, the UK government had to cede control by 2013. Clearly, the chancellor did not want to be in the position of having to make a "distressed" sale if information about the deadline leaked. Robert Peston's story is here.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Steve Webb's hopes and fears for pensions

Liberal Democrat Voice points to the Liberal Democrat Pension Minister's interview by Ros Altmann of Saga. He said: “We need to move from a system that’s fiendishly complicated, that still leaves millions of pensioners living in poverty, to one, ideally, where we have a single, simple, decent state pension on which people can build.”. However, he admitted that the Bank of England's programme of quantitative easing led to volatility, "not knowing what you are going to get and an issue about poor returns.”

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Never mind Bilderberg: fear the Vampire Squid!

There have long been conspiracy theories about the Bilderberg group. However, Paddy Ashdown put it in its proper perspective in his published diaries: He says: "There are a group of anti-European conspiracy theorists who persist in believing that the Bilderberg Conferences (which incidentally I attended with John Smith [the Labour leader before Neil Kinnock]) are a deep laid Euro-American plot to return to Hitler-type policies by
imposing an United States of Europe. All I can say is that the (only) one which I was invited to attend in May
1989 seemed to me to be totally harmless and conspiracy free - and if anything mildly boringly left-of-centre."

What people should genuinely be worried about, if this article in The Independent is accurate, is the influence that merchant bank Goldman Sachs (nicknamed "the vampire squid" on Wall St.) has in European chancellories. Stephen Foley writes that: "The bank's two dozen-strong international advisers act as informal lobbyists for Goldman's interests with the politicians that regulate its work." He lists Mario Monti, the newly-appointed prime minister of Italy; Otmar Issing, who, as a board member of the German Bundesbank and then the European Central Bank (ECB), was one of the architects of the euro; Peter Sutherland, attorney general of Ireland in the 1980s and a former EU Competition Commissioner; Mario Draghi, who took over as president of the ECB on 1 November; and Petros Christodoulou, head of Greece's debt management agency, as either advisers or former employees of Goldman Sachs. Additonally, Lucas Papademos, Greece's new "technocrat" head of government, was at the National Bank of Greece when Goldman Sachs arranged the iffy money transfers which hid Greece's real indebtedness and enabled the country to be accepted into the eurozone.

Goldman Sachs were treasury advisors to the Blair and Brown governments, and have presumably continued under the coalition.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Why sell the good Northern Rock now?

Ed Balls has a good point, for once. The recovery may be slow, but it is happening and one would expect Northern Rock to be more valuable twelve months down the line. As it is, Virgin Money is picking up the part of Northern Rock which excludes the dodgy mortgages for at least £400m less than the government - that is, we taxpayers - have put in.

One explanation is that the Chancellor wants some ready money in a hurry, to finance some Keynesian measures to stimulate the economy or, worse, because JSA payouts are higher than anticipated. More likely is that the silver-tongued Richard Branson has persuaded Osborne that no other buyer, now or in the future, would promise to keep all the branches open and all the staff on the payroll for three years.

The remaining question is: how soon will it be before the Magpies display "Virgin" on their shirts, or will the sponsorship remain with the "bad" bank?

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Does anyone know Eynon Hanfstaengl?

Following a recent posting on an Overgrown Path leads to a mini-biography of "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, an early financier of the Nazi party who switched sides after the "Night of the Long Knives". There is a reference to a grandson, Eynon - probably this man. What intrigues me is the very Welsh forename. Is there a personal Welsh connection with the Hanfstaengl family? One assumes that "Putzi" was interned for a time on the Isle of Man as were so many escaping Germans, of whom the British authorities were suspicious. However, that link appears tenuous, and it must be the next generation which connects with Wales.

Marine Conservation Zones

The Welsh Government will be going out to consultation in early 2012 (rather later than planned) on the identification of Focus Sites for marine conservation. It seems that these will form a long-list, from which will be drawn up a shorter list of Potential Sites, leading eventually to three or four highly protected Marine Conservation Zones. These sites will support ecosystem recovery, enhancing resilience, and should improve our understanding of the marine environment. Progress on the process is logged here.

The RSPB is asking us to watch out for the public consultation when it opens. The organisation says that this will be a great opportunity to speak up, save Welsh marine wildlife and help ensure a sustainable future for our fragile seas. In the meantime, it asks for support via its online "Stepping up for Nature" pledge at www.rspb.org.uk/marinepetition/ and writing to our Assembly Members to urge the Welsh Government to step up for Welsh seas.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Network Rail devolving

It is not clear from the official announcement, but it could be that Network Rail managers in Wales could have more autonomy in future. The announcement speaks of devolving routes rather than regions, but this must be seen as a move towards making the rail infrastructure corporation more responsive to local concerns.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Localism

There is a good posting on the constructive way in which the Localism Bill has proceeded through Parliament:  http://www.libdemvoice.org/liberal-democrats-localism-bill-25853.html It was heartening to see on BBC-Parliament last week Andrew Stunell accepting on behalf of the government amendment after amendment from the Lords,winning grudging acceptance from the Labour front bench.

Contrast that with the way the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition arrogantly forced through the Assembly the measure that gives ministers powers to merge or amalgamate councils with minimum debate and consultation.

Friday, 11 November 2011

"Natural tremors, triggered prematurely"

In yesterday's "Material World", Prof. Ernie Rutter, co-author of the report into the recent Lancashire minor earthquakes, linked to hydraulic fracturing near Blackpool, said that several minor earthquakes a year could be expected in the area naturally. The science of hydraulic fracturing, which has been used in the oil industry for many years to increase the productivity of ageing wells, was well known. All that Cuadrilla's activities did was to induce tremors which would occur in the natural order of events.

However, on the same programme, Prof. Stuart Haszeldine sounded a warning that the Blackpool tremors, although minor and not causing any damage, were greater than would have been expected.

It seems to me that the precautionary principle should apply here.

There are previous posts here and here.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Tobacco is a gateway drug

For some time I have felt that as many people have started on the path to addiction to hard drugs via tobacco as through cannabis. Logically, those who advocate harsh treatment of dealing in cannabis, as a gateway drug, should apply the same punishment to sellers of cigarettes.

Now it seems that evidence has been found that nicotine has a physical effect which might accelerate cocaine addiction. In experimental mice, "nicotine actually changes the expression of genes linked to addiction". It will be interesting to see whether the logical follow-up experiments will be carried out. As the "Discover" article says, "alcohol and marijuana are frequently described as gateway drugs, and it will be interesting to see if they do anything similar to the brain".

Yet another blow to the Post Office network

NSI (the former National Savings) is closing its Easy Access savings account. No new accounts may be opened from the end of this month, and it will operate for existing users only until 27th July next year.

Its interest rate may be minuscule, and certainly does not keep pace with inflation, but having access to ones money over the counter at post offices can be a virtual life-saver in areas where there are few bank branches and not many more ATMs. Bank branches are still closing but, thanks to Liberal Democrats in government, there will be no local post office closures during this parliament. A paranoid might suspect clearing bank pressure as being behind NSI's move.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Campbell Christie

Another figure from my past has departed this life. It was obvious to us more moderate members of the CSCA (an ancestor of the PCS union) in the 1960s that the Christie brothers were interested more in the wider political field than the lot of ordinary clerical civil servants. The CSCA was no more than a stepping stone. Campbell Christie's subsequent career, as detailed in this Independent obituary, confirms this impression.

However, we should be grateful for the enthusiasm he showed for the Scottish Convention, which led to repatriation of powers to a Scottish Parliament and thence to devolution (though of regrettably fewer powers) to Cardiff. It needed a pressure group outside of the Scottish Liberals to make the concept acceptable. One thing that the obituary does not make clear is that today's major beneficiary, the Scottish National Party, shunned the Convention.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Conservatives persisting with Labour's legal aid cuts, LibDems resisting

Peter Black has the story.

If the government is worried about the increasing cost of legal aid, then they should seriously look at enforcing "equality of arms" - setting an hourly rate for legal aid and insisting that the other side in court sticks to the same rate.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

That EU vote

I have extracted from Hansard the list of those MPs who voted for Monday's motion calling for a referendum on the European Union and attached the party affiliations. Although most "ayes" are ultra-conservative - and in the Labour context, that would include Kate Hoey and Frank Field - there are one or two who voted "for" on grounds of pure democracy. Both Gisela Stuart and Adrian  Sanders can be counted as broadly supporting membership of the European Union (though Ms Stuart can be rated a critical friend). There are also some unreconstructed socialists - Dennis Skinner in the van - who have always been against both the EU and the EEC which preceded it on the grounds that they were rich men's clubs. Sadly, the latter have rather more grounds for complaint than the first.

In copying across the names, it was surprising how few I knew. It has been observed that many of them were not in the last Parliament. Most were not alive when we last had a referendum on the subject of European cooperation. It goes without saying that none had a memory of European conflict on a large scale. It was this memory that convinced Winston Churchill (though he didn't see the UK as forming part of it), Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath of the need for a European Community which was more than just a common market. It is incorrect to say that Heath concealed his political objectives. He may have emphasised the economic advantages of union, but he was open about his political vision.

It was Mrs Thatcher who promoted (and if anyone doubts that she once did, BBC-TV has the evidence to prove it) the EEC as just a trading bloc. Mind you, she was not above giving up UK powers in the cause of the City. I wonder how many of her young disciples realise that it was Mrs T who opened up our ports to Spanish and Portuguese fishermen as part of a deal which gave access to the Spanish insurance market to British companies. Which reminds me: one hopes that reform of the Common Fisheries Policy is still high on the agenda of our ministers in the Coalition, as it is for our MEPs. (I doubt that we will make any progress on the other reform we have had in our manifesto, because too many Conservatives benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy.)

What shocked me in what little of the debate I was able to watch on BBC-Parliament was not just that the motivation for so many of the supporters of David Nuttall's motion was to unwind most of the social protection legislation originating in Brussels - that was well-known before the debate - but also the desire on the part of one or two to abrogate the European Convention on Human Rights as well. These were people who knew full well the difference between the EU and EHCR.

Ayes:
Andrew, Stuart (Con, Pudsey)
Baker, Steve (Con, Wycombe)
Baron, Mr John (Con, Basildon & Billericay)
Bingham, Andrew (Con, High Peak)
Binley, Mr Brian (Con, Northampton South)
Blackman, Bob (Con, Harrow East)
Brady, Mr Graham (Con, Altrincham & Sale West)
Bridgen, Andrew (Con, North West Leicestershire)
Brine, Mr Steve (Con, Winchester)
Bruce, Fiona (Con, Congleton)
Byles, Dan (Con, North Warwickshire)
Campbell, Mr Gregory (DUP, East Londonderry)
Campbell, Mr Ronnie (Lab, Blyth Valley)
Carswell, Mr Douglas (Con, Clacton)
Cash, Mr William (Con, Stone)
Chope, Mr Christopher (Con, Christchurch)
Clappison, Mr James (Con, Hertsmere)
Cooper, Rosie (Lab, West Lancashire)
Corbyn, Jeremy (Lab, Islington North)
Crouch, Tracey (Con, Chatham & Aylesford)
Cruddas, Jon (Lab, Dagenham & Rainham)
Cryer, John (Lab, Leyton & Wanstead)
Davidson, Mr Ian (Lab, Glasgow South West)
Davies, David T. C. (Con, Monmouth)
Davies, Philip (Con, Shipley)
Davis, rh Mr David (Con, Haltemprice & Howden)
de Bois, Nick (Con, Enfield North)
Dinenage, Caroline (Con, Gosport)
Dodds, rh Mr Nigel (DUP, Belfast North )
Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M. (DUP, Lagan Valley)
Dorries, Nadine (Con, Mid Bedfordshire)
Drax, Richard (Con, South Dorset)
Engel, Natascha (Lab, North East Derbyshire)
Field, rh Mr Frank (Lab, Birkenhead)
Field, Mr Mark (Con, Cities of London & Westminster)
Fullbrook, Lorraine (Con, South Ribble)
Godsiff, Mr Roger (Lab, Birmingham Hall Green)
Goldsmith, Zac (Con, Richmond Park)
Gray, Mr James (Con, North Wiltshire)
Heaton-Harris, Chris (Con, Daventry)
Henderson, Gordon (Con, Sittingbourne & Sheppey)
Hermon, Lady (Ind, North Down)
Hoey, Kate (Lab, Vauxhall)
Hollingbery, George (Con, Meon Valley)
Holloway, Mr Adam (Con, Gravesham)
Hopkins, Kelvin (Lab, Luton North)
Jackson, Mr Stewart (Con, Peterborough)
Jenkin, Mr Bernard (Con, Harwich & North Essex)
Jones, Mr Marcus (Con, Nuneaton)
Kelly, Chris (Con, Dudley South)
Leadsom, Andrea (Con, South Northamptonshire)
Lefroy, Jeremy (Con, Stafford)
Leigh, Mr Edward (Con, Gainsborough)
Lewis, Dr Julian (Con, New Forest East)
Lucas, Caroline (Green, Brighton Pavilion)
Lumley, Karen (Con, Redditch)
Main, Mrs Anne (Con, St Albans)
McCabe, Steve (Lab, Birmingham Selly Oak)
McCartney, Jason (Con, Colne Valley)
McCartney, Karl (Con, Lincoln)
McCrea, Dr William (DUP, South Antrim)
McDonnell, John (Lab, Hayes & Harlington)
McPartland, Stephen (Con, Stevenage)
Mercer, Patrick (Con, Newark)
Mills, Nigel (Con, Amber Valley)
Mitchell, Austin (Lab, Great Grimsby)
Morris, Anne Marie (Con, Newton Abbot)
Morris, James (Con, Halesowen & Rowley Regis)
Mosley, Stephen (Con, City of Chester)
Murray, Sheryll (Con, South East Cornwall)
Nokes, Caroline (Con, Romsey & Southampton North)
Nuttall, Mr David (Con, Bury North)
Offord, Mr Matthew (Con, Hendon)
Paisley, Ian (DUP, North Antrim)
Parish, Neil (Con, Tiverton & Honiton)
Patel, Priti (Con, Witham)
Percy, Andrew (Con, Brigg & Goole)
Pritchard, Mark (Con, The Wrekin)
Reckless, Mark (Con, Rochester & Strood)
Redwood, rh Mr John (Con, Wokingham)
Rees-Mogg, Jacob (Con, North East Somerset)
Reevell, Simon (Con, Dewsbury)
Robertson, Mr Laurence (Con, Tewkesbury)
Rosindell, Andrew (Con, Romford)
Sanders, Mr Adrian  (LD, Torbay)
Shannon, Jim (DUP, Strangford)
Shepherd, Mr Richard (Con, Aldridge-Brownhills)
Simpson, David (DUP, Upper Bann)
Skinner, Mr Dennis (Lab, Bolsover)
Smith, rh Mr Andrew (Lab, Oxford East)
Smith, Henry (Con, Crawley)
Stevenson, John (Con, Carlisle)
Stewart, Bob (Con, Beckenham)
Stewart, Iain (Con, Milton Keynes South)
Streeter, Mr Gary (Con, South West Devon)
Stringer, Graham  (Lab, Blackley & Broughton)
Stuart, Ms Gisela  (Lab, Birmingham Edgbaston)
Sturdy, Julian (Con, York Outer)
Tapsell, rh Sir Peter (Con, Louth & Horncastle)
Tomlinson, Justin (Con, North Swindon)
Turner, Mr Andrew (Con, Isle of Wight)
Vickers, Martin (Con, Cleethorpes)
Walker, Mr Charles (Con, Broxbourne)
Walker, Mr Robin (Con, Worcester)
Weatherley, Mike (Con, Hove)
Wheeler, Heather (Con, South Derbyshire)
Whittaker, Craig (Con, Calder Valley)
Whittingdale, Mr John (Con, Maldon)
Wilson, Sammy (DUP, East Antrim)
Wollaston, Dr Sarah (Con, Totnes)
Wood, Mike (Con, Batley & Spen)

Tellers for the Ayes:
Mr Peter Bone (Con, Wellingborough) and
Mr Philip Hollobone (Con, Kettering)

Thursday, 20 October 2011

We promised an "in or out" referendum - we should keep our promise

There has been a failure of nerve on the part of Liberal Democrats in government. We should trust the people to give the right opinion and go along with the Conservatives calling for an "in-out" referendum in a debate in the House next Monday. (One trusts that the referendum would be an advisory one, rather than binding.) Menzies Campbell made it part of his campaign, and Nick Clegg took it over.

If nothing else, the fact that so many Tories are in favour of coming out should convince most Labour voters to opt for staying in!

Later: Peter Black points out that our 2010 manifesto called for a referendum if "a British Government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU". I plead guilty to not checking the actual wording, before writing the headline. However, I still think that an in-out referendum before the end of this parliament would lance a boil.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Plan A Plus

Nick Thornsby joins me ("The 50p tax rate should stay", second paragraph) in calling for moving swiftly to complete the coalition's promise to take the first £10,000 of earnings out of tax.

Another suggestion for increasing economic activity without chucking a fiscal uey and thus frightening the gnomes of the rating agencies, comes via the October issue of "railwatch", the magazine of the Railway Development Society.

London Midland recently introduced new Bombardier class 172 trains to routes around Birmingham (there's an enthusiast's video here). Railwatch says that this "is the train that should transform the lives of people who are currently shuttled around the railway network in crowded and unsuitable trains [...] Building more class 172s would be a good way to relieve the problems of unsuitable Pacers and overcrowded Sprinters. It could also secure Bombardier's future in Britain." The magazine goes on to advocate Bombardier's being "asked to build about 100 electric power cars for the diesel Voyager and Meridian trains [...] so they use electric power when they are travelling 'under the wires'. And Southern, which already operates Bombardier Electrostars, wants 30 more units to meet an expected increase in passengers."

The magazine then lists a number of other train operating companies which could benefit from modernised or augmented fleets, all provided by Bombardier. In addition, it points to various line re-openings and/or electrifications which could be brought forward.

There must be examples, in other fields, of schemes which involve capital spending mostly within the UK and which could be brought forward by a year or so to improve our sluggish economic performance and put Plan A back on track.

Cost of energy supply

Peter Black states that the agreement reached by Chris Huhne with the energy bosses is not enough. The fact that energy costs are a major contributor to the rise in inflation announced yesterday points up the folly of privatising a natural monopoly, namely the distribution of electricity and gas. For instance, Western Power Distribution recently announced profits of roughly 40% of turnover.

It's a bit rich for Ed Miliband to criticise the coalition government for allowing energy rises to rise, when his party had thirteen years in which to reverse the measures creating the current sellers' market.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Wrexham - breaking records again?

I wasn't looking forward to two days in Wrexham for LibDem conference last weekend, (a) because last time I was there there was a huge snowfall overnight; and (b) because the weather forecast was rather mixed. In the event, Saturday was beautiful and Sunday was pleasant until I got back to Neath, when the heavens opened. I would not be surprised if the temperature on Saturday broke records for the middle of October. People were sitting outside in the garden of the Plas Coch pub in summer attire. (I must put in a word for this hostelry, where we had our pre-conference get-together, situated as it is by the top entrance to Glyndwr University, on whose campus we were meeting. The bar was staffed adequately at all times, and the people were efficient and unfailingly friendly.)

Conference was enjoyable and productive (some reports are at aberavonneathlibdems.blogspot.com) and the only blight was the sporting results. It seems that only Scarlets and, appropriately, Wrexham FC triumphed over foreign opposition - the latter while Kirsty was delivering her keynote speech about 100 metres away from The Racecourse ground. Perhaps the national rugby team should insist on taking Kirsty on their next campaign overseas.


Saturday, 15 October 2011

Bristol heritage

Hats off to Bristol Culture for web-pages which allow people to investigate the city's past: http://bristolculture.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/know-your-place-bristol/

This is something which would be invaluable here for tourists and residents alike. It is unlikely that any one authority would have the money to mount such a scheme, but perhaps Swansea and Neath Port Talbot who already share in the West Glamorgan Archive could pool some cash and top it up with private sponsorship? Both centres have great pioneering industrial heritage to show - and Neath can boast the Romans, too.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Special tax treatment for Goldman Sachs

No doubt Labour will attack the coalition government over the chief taxman's decision to let Goldman Sachs off around millions of pounds in interest on delayed national insurance payments. It is not clear from the Independent's report, but it was in December last year that Dave Hartnett, permanent secretary for tax at HM Revenue & Customs, waived the interest, estimated at £20m. However, there is more detail in the Private Eye expose ("Dave reckoning?", Eye no. 1299) quoted by the Indy. The affair goes back to the start of the Labour government and should have been settled in respect of Goldman Sachs as far back as 2005.

Starting in 1997/98, 22 firms had instituted a scheme to avoid paying national insurance on bankers' bonuses. By 2005, this had been judged to be illegal, and 21 firms had coughed up. Goldman had been allowed to wriggle for another five years. The Eye says: "By the time the bank lost the technical point in a tax tribunal last year, it should have received a national insurance bill for more than £23m plus interest going back 12 years and approaching the same amount again." But there was to be no penalty for having resisted for five more years.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

In which I agree with Adrian Hamilton - twice.

It is a rare day.

Not so much a murder plot as a screenplay

It is, for all the reasons Hamilton gives, incredible that the Iranian government should sponsor an assassination attempt on the ambassador of a fellow-Islamic nation, and a powerful one at that. That is not to say that some ultra-Shi'ite group wouldn't strike at the leading supporter of Sunni Islam. Nor is there one controlling mind in Iran. It is administered less by a government than a collision of interest groups. Nevertheless, it is more likely that the plot, if it existed, is a provocative act by some third party.

Come on, let's hear it for the little guy

The refusal of the Slovak parliament to ratify the initial EU support package for Greece at the first time of asking may have had more to do with domestic politics (the departing PM had made it a vote of confidence), but there was a point of principle too. Slovakia is a new member of the EU and was in no way a party to the finagling which brought Greece into the euro.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Interesting developments at the top of the civil service

There is to be a three-way split following the departure of the current cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, Sir Gus O'Donnell. This raises questions about lines of responsibility and the possibility of "turf wars" which I thought might be investigated at Deputy PM's Question Time in the Commons yesterday, but not one MP raised the subject. Even the quality press has been caught out. The Guardian report comes nearest to speculation of the ones I've seen.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Neath and Port Talbot Ramblers

I have recently received the October to March programme of the Neath & Port Talbot Ramblers Association. Non-members are welcome to join the group on two or three walks before deciding whether to join the Ramblers' Association, though there is advice that people should be suitably shod and clad, and provide their own necessary food and drink.

Walks take place on most Sundays, starting at 9:30. The meeting point is the Prince Of Wales Drive car park, by Neath Civic Centre.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Mortgage designed to encourage energy-saving

The Ecology Building Society has launched a discount scheme which rewards energy efficiency and carbon saving measures. C-Change Retrofit offers 0.25% off its standard variable rate for each grade improvement made in either the energy effiiciency or environmental impact rating once works are completed - on the whole mortgage, for the full duration of the loan.

This is a departure for EBS. They say: "for the first time, we're extending our mortgage range specifically to support people who own ordinary properties. With our homes using three times as much energy as our cars - contributing over 27% of our [carbon dioxide] emissions in the process - we feel it's essential to help everyone make their home as eco-friendly as possible. We hope that adding a cheaper mortgage to the prospect of lower energy bills and better air quality will provide a tangible incentive for people to live more sustainably."

The EBS autumn newsletter also includes some helpful links to other organisations with an interest in retrofit.

http://www.superhomes.org.uk/

http://www.carbonlite.org.uk/carbonlite/

http://retrofitdiaries.org/

http://www.greatbritishrefurb.co.uk/ (Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs is an advocate)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Balconiers' 40th Anniversary Celebration

The St Helen's Balconiers were founded in August 1972 as a result of a then county record hard-hitting opening partnership of 330 by Alan Jones and Roy Fredericks during the match against Northamptonshire at St Helen's. In the immortal words: I was there.

Since that day, the Balconiers have committed themselves to maintaining Glamorgan's playing matches away from Cardiff, in the face of great commercial pressure. That means such as Colwyn Bay, as well as Swansea. (I wonder if we'll ever see county cricket back at the Gnoll, though.)  The County has now recognised their efforts and, in connection with their drive to increase the membership of Glamorgan Cricket in west, north and mid-Wales, as well as celebrating the anniversary, have agreed to pay for Balconiers' membership in their 2012 membership package.

There is a special "Price Buster" membership of £99 (offer expires 31st October), details on www.glamorgancricket.com. To contact the Balconiers' Chairman, email john.balconiers at hotmail.com.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Port Talbot railway station

Network Rail's proposals for rebuilding the station have been formally submitted and are available to view as planning application P2010/0865 on the council's website. They will no doubt come before the planning committee before the end of next month.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Human Rights Act

Peter Black has beaten me to commenting on Theresa May's desire to take the Human Rights Act 1998 off the UK statute book. However, I would just like to emphasise that if the HRA were still in place, we would still be bound by the European Convention on Human Rights. Repeal of the HRA would mean a return to the situation where the aggrieved had to take their case to Strasbourg instead of having it settled here. The HRA enabled complainants to cut their costs and cut the time spent in waiting for a decision (there is currently a huge backlog in Strasbourg). In view of Lord Carlile's assessment of European Court of Human Rights judges, the quality of decision-making is probably better, too.

We must not let a few hard (and possibly apocryphal) cases, such as Theresa May cited in her speech today, deprive justice to the majority of deserving cases.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The cops of the world are now the vigilantes of the world

James Stewart has morphed into Clint Eastwood, Destry into Dirty Harry.

When the news came through that Osama bin Laden had been tracked down and assassinated, I admit to having felt relief (though no triumphalism), while regretting that, because of the reported fire-fight, it had not been possible to capture him alive. That mood shaded into disgust as the truth was gradually revealed, that Osama had been shot in his bed. Since that incident, more ostensible terrorists have been killed, more often than not by armed drones, as in the recent assassination of Anwar al-Awlaqi.

The United States, even though she has long claimed extra-territorial rights and stood aloof from most international tribunals, used to abide by the rule of law as she saw it. Punishment came after conviction, not before. Now that even a relatively liberal president can order a remotely-controlled (with all the dangers of "collateral damage" which this implies) missile attack in a nation with which the US is not at war on a man who has not even been brought before a court, we should all be worried.

HELP WANTED: Ad sales and business development for Norwegian News web-site

HELP WANTED: Ad sales and business development for this website

One of my Facebook favourites; I hope they can find someone to take this web-site forward.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Which is the blip, this summer or this autumn?

"Last night on Twitter, noting that according to the Met Office this summer is one of the coolest in decades. Guido mocked Global Warming Theory"(from Guido Fawkes on August 31). On the brink of what is predicted to be the warmest October 1st on record - in parts of Wales, at least - has he commented on climate change again?

As he virtually admits later in the article, extreme weather events are seized on by partisans on either side of the global warming argument. What counts is the run of climate statistics over a period.

He also mocks a paper of 2000 which claimed that winter snowfall in the UK would be a thing of the past. On the other hand, I can remember an earlier study (unfortunately, too early for the Web) which predicted that, as ice south of Greenland receded, the warm North Atlantic Drift would tend to flow further to the west, reducing the warming effect on the British Isles.  Also, as this official Scottish-Norwegian educational briefing explains, when snowfalls do occur they will tend to be heavier.

And why is Chinese billionaire Huang Nubo buying land adjacent to northern sea-lanes, which would become more heavily used as circumpolar passages open up? Follow the money.

We can rebuild him

You would have thought that puerile jokes about Ed Balls' surname would died out by now. It is over fifteen years since Michael Heseltine made his "it's not Brown's, it's all Balls'" quip at a Conservative conference. Yet this week's "Private Eye" captions its pictures of the shadow chancellor in action on the football field: "Spot The Balls-Up".

Clearly, he will have to change his name. One recalls a former prime minister who was born with "Ball" as a last name. He sensibly dropped it and became "John Major". Ed should copy this, and since his surname is plural, become "Majors". To complete the macho image, he could borrow the forename "Lee" as well - after all, he is the 37 Billion Pound Man.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Too much hype

Political reporters do spout some rubbish. Norman Smith of the BBC described Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour conference today as "crucial". Chambers Dictionary's main (ignoring street slang) definition of the word is "testing or decisive; essential, very important". The speech is hardly more testing than the Labour leader's first Prime Minister's Questions session. Unless he makes a complete pig's ear of it, it is not going to be critical for Miliband, given the longevity of Labour leaders and the fact that he is still in the honeymoon period. Given that virtually all Labour's business backers have already deserted and that affiliated trade unions will remain loyal, it is not critical financially.

Electorally, the spring 2012 conferences, before the local government elections, will have more impact. By then, the various internal committees will have reported, and Labour will have a coherent set of policies to be judged by.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Balls dismissed even before he speaks

Commentators have not waited for Ed Balls to deliver his widely-trailed Liverpool speech, but have condemned it already. Mary Ann Sieghart is especially destructive. She concludes "In order to be listened to again, [Labour] has to display a high degree of humility. Shadow ministers must admit that the last government wasn't always good at spending money wisely. They must accept that the public sector will now have to make do with much less, just like families all over the country. And they must acknowledge Brown's irresponsibility in assuming that his debt-fuelled boom would last for ever.

 "The question is: can Balls face doing all that? The man for whom the words 'dogmatism' and 'certainty' could have been coined? The man described by Anthony Seldon and Guy Lodge in their latest biography of Brown as a 'mafia politician' and 'Rottweiler' who bullied Treasury officials to massage their forecasts so that Labour wouldn't have to cut spending?"

Any claims to a new "golden rule" should be judged with that last sentence in mind.

[Later] In the event, Balls apologised for just two specific things: the 75p pension increase, and the abolition of the 10p income tax rate. He would have done well to have listened to former Labour general secretary, Peter Watt, interviewed on Sunday's "World at One". While Labour did not cause the economic crisis, Watt said, "we weren't in as good a position as we should have been when the recession hit." He reckoned that until Labour came to terms with that fact, they would not have credibility in the country at large. There was virtually no evidence of that in today's speeches from Liverpool.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Denmark's Liberal BOGOF*

The headlines in this country may have proclaimed yet another Scandinavian female prime minister - and then probably just because she is married to a Kinnock - but the following posting from Liberal International reminded me that Denmark has two fully-accredited Liberal parties.

More seats for liberals in Danish parliament

Both LI member parties in Denmark achieved excellent electoral support in last week's parliamentary elections. LI full-member Venstre, led by outgoing Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen remained the largest party, increasing their share of seats to 47 in total, whereas LI full-member Radikale Venstre reached its best electoral result in 38 years, increasing their number of seats from 9 to 17. Although remaining the single largest party, Lokke Rasmussen's Venstre is likely to lead the opposition while social democratic Helle Thorning-Schmidt, supported by Radikale Venstre, is set to become Denmark's first female prime minister - despite her own party's electoral defeat. In a statement Lokke Rasmussen assured Venstre's supporters that the party will keep pushing for a strong reform program and leave ‘a significant political footprint'. Radikale Venstre's leader Margrethe Vestager, expected to take a seat in the next government, said her party is ready to ‘take responsibility'. Negotiations for appointing the new cabinet will begin in October, until which Lokke Rasmussen's cabinet will remain in office as a caretaker government.


(*Buy one, get one free)


Edgar Allan Poe would have been happy in Turkey

"A town council in central Turkey has taken a radical step to avoid any premature burials," reports Memphis Barker in The Independent, "equipping its morgue with an electronic warning system – just in case any of the bodies it contains show signs of life."

(Edgar Allan Poe appeared to be obsessed by catalepsy and premature burial.)

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Norman Baker on transport under the coalition

Norman Baker's speech to our autumn conference is here. When I watched it on BBC-Parliament, I was heartened by the amount of LibDem philosophy which has informed the Ministry of Transport's programme. Particular points of interest were the confirmation that electrification of the Valley Lines would be investigated (though sadly there was no mention of a study of the benefits of electrification west of Cardiff), localising decision-making and his ambition to see the end of "RPI plus" in regulation of rail fares. Railfuture will also be pleased that he made no mention of guided busways.
 (All right, so it's a Scottish train, but it's a bit more attractive than the Sprinters and Pacers on Swanrail.)

Monday, 19 September 2011

Savage cuts?

Thanks to Liberal Vision for putting me on to this graph and to Daniel Furr's blog (disclaimer: I do not go along with most of their economic liberal content). It demonstrates the take-off under Gordon Brown from around 2002. It also shows that rhetoric about coalition spending cuts is inaccurate.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The headlines are already written

LIBERALS SAY YES TO DRUGS
Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats today voted for addiction hell.
Hard-working families will be torn apart by druggie free-for-all under Liberal plans.

and the leaders will say:
We say to David Cameron: wake up! The Birmingham conference of the Liberals has finally revealed the true face of the most dangerous political party in the civilised world. The party which has insinuated itself into the so-called coalition. Liberals would throw away the victory enjoyed by Britain and America in the war against drugs and drag this proud nation down to the level of Holland and Portugal, where illegal drug use has sky-rocketed since legalisation.

Except that all the "facts" above are misstatements. Portugal has decriminalised drugs, not legalised them. The Netherlands have decriminalised to a limited extent. Proscribed drug use has actually declined in the last ten years in Portugal, while there has been no improvement here and the situation is worse in North America.

The motion passed this evening was hardly conducive to a free-for-all. It actually reads:

F20 Protecting Individuals and Communities from Drug Harms

Conference notes:
I. That drugs are powerful substances which can have serious consequences for the individual user and society in general; and that it is therefore right and proper that the state should intervene to regulate and control the use of such substances as it does the consumption of legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco and both prescription and over-the-counter medicines.
II. That the misuse of drugs can blight the lives of individuals and families and the purchase of illegal drugs can help to fuel organised crime.
III. The need for evidence-based policy making on drugs with a clear focus on prevention and harm-reduction.
IV. That there is increasing evidence that the UK’s drugs policy is not only ineffective and not cost-effective but actually harmful, impacting particularly severely on the poor and marginalised.
Conference further notes:
i) The positive evidence from new approaches elsewhere, including Portuguese reforms that have been successful in reducing problematic drug use through decriminalising possession for personal use of all drugs and investing in treatment programmes.
ii) That those countries and states that have decriminalised possession of some or all drugs have not seen increased use of those drugs relative to their neighbours.
iii) That heroin maintenance clinics in Switzerland and the Netherlands have delivered great health benefits for addicts while delivering considerable reductions in drug-related crime and prevalence of heroin use.
iv) The contribution of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to the 2010 Drug Strategy consultation which states that “people found to be in possession of drugs (any) for personal use (and involved in no other criminal offences) should not be processed through the criminal justice system but instead be diverted into drug education/awareness courses or possibly other, more creative civil punishment”.
v) The report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy whose members include former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former heads of state of Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Switzerland, the current Prime Minister of Greece, a former US Secretary of State and many other eminent world figures, which encouraged governments to consider the legal regulation of drugs in order to, “undermine the power of organised crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens”.
vi) That the United Kingdom remains bound by various international conventions and that any re-negotiation or new agreements will require international co-ordination.
Conference believes that:
A. Individuals, especially young people, can be damaged both by the imposition of criminal records and by a drug habit, and that the priority for those addicted to all substances must be healthcare, education and rehabilitation, not punishment.
B. Governments should reject policies if they are demonstrated to be ineffective in achieving their stated goals and should seek to learn from policies which have been successful.
C. At a time when Home Office and Ministry of Justice spending is facing considerable contraction, there is a powerful case for examining whether an evidence-based policy would produce savings, allowing the quality of service provided by these departments to be maintained or to improve.
D. One of the key barriers to developing better drugs policy has been the previous Labour Government’s persistent refusal to take on board scientific advice, and the absence of an overall evaluative framework of the UK’s drugs strategy.
E. The Department of Health and devolved equivalents should take on a greater responsibility for dealing with drugs.

Conference calls for:
1. The Government to immediately establish an independent panel tasked with carrying out an Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, to properly evaluate, economically and scientifically, the present legal framework for dealing with drugs in the United Kingdom.
2. The panel also to consider reform of the law, based on the Portuguese model, such that:
a) Possession of any controlled drug for personal use would not be a criminal offence.
b) Possession would be prohibited but should cause police officers to issue citations for individuals to appear before panels tasked with determining appropriate education, health or social interventions.
3. The panel also to consider as an alternative, potential frameworks for a strictly controlled and regulated cannabis market and the potential impacts of such regulation on organised crime, and the health and safety of the public, especially children.
4. The reinvestment of any resources released into effective education, treatment and rehabilitation programmes.
5. The widespread provision of the highest quality evidence-based medical, psychological and social services for those affected by drugs problems; these services should include widespread availability of heroin maintenance clinics for the most problematic and vulnerable heroin users
.

Speaker after speaker, many at the sharp end - doctors, care workers, bereaved parents - came up to attest that the current regime is not working. The final resolution* is a sober, evidence-based, attempt to move forward. It is a sad fact that in some previous years, conference committee has fought shy of allowing progressive motions on substance abuse to go forward. Congratulations to them for being bold this year.
*there were some minor amendments, whose text I do not have to hand

 

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Picking up the pieces

As might have been expected, Neath Port Talbot council resolved unanimously not to proceed with the meeting I referred to yesterday. In the light of the reports of two deaths in Cilybebyll which we already had (and the news of the third fatality came through as we were sitting) nobody felt that this was a day on which we should engage in political debate, let alone a discussion on members' allowances.

There has been much criticism of the scale of TV reporting. Correspondents contrast the sixteen deaths and many more injuries on the roads of the UK every day with the loss of just four men. My response is that multiple fatalities on the roads do make the headlines in Wales. More to the point, my English friends ignore the emotional charge of news about mining disasters, something which we thought we would not see again in this country. There was also the human interest in the families waiting in Rhos community centre with dignity, hoping against hope that there would be a happy outcome.

Secretary of State Cheryl Gillan announced that there would be a full investigation, probably after the machinery of the Health and Safety Executive had already started moving, as it was compelled by law to do. It is generally assumed that water broke through from an adjacent flooded abandoned working. If so, it is important to determine the circumstances which caused this. What cannot be doubted is the promptness, extent and dedication of the rescue effort.

I may not know personally the men who died, or their families, but I know many people who do. I feel their sorrow. Nor must we forget the survivor who is fighting for his life in Morriston Hospital. I trust that he will pull through.

Peter Black, one of the local AMs, has blogged on the tragedy. I echo Peter's remark: "In the meantime our minds and our hearts now turn to the families and their grief. They have borne the trauma of the past few days with dignity. It is time to leave them and their community in peace to come to terms with their loss."