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 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


There is a good posting on the constructive way in which the Localism Bill has proceeded through Parliament: 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.