Friday, July 29, 2011

A luxury you can't afford

The deadline for comments on plans for an HS2 train from London to Birmingham has now passed and I still don't understand the massive enthusiasm for it - especially as the trains will have to be built abroad and the real beneficiaries will be London, Manchester and Leeds (in that order) and I still find it hard to believe they can find the money.
The service will be the railway equivalent of the M6 Toll, smart and very nice to use if you can afford the price.
But with Virgin from London to the NEC now about £240 return (first) and £120 (second) how many people will stump up maybe £400 and £200 to save half an hour?
I know "time is money" but there are limits. Civil servants and other people who are not paying their own way will be the only users so the majority of rail travellers will see no benefit.
To make matters worse, the train goes to Euston so passengers will have to use the tube to Kings X if they want to connect with Eurostar.
Hvaing just endured a standing-room-only train from Bristol, I am more than conscious of the need for extra capacity on the railways. But when you get on a four-carriage push-me, pull-you going all the way from Penzance to Edinburgh you have to ask why on earth they can't simply add more coaches to existing trains.
HS2 is a rich man's dream, a taxpayers' white elephant and a politician's stab at leaving a permanent mark on the country. But with a bill running into countless billions it is still a luxury we cannot afford.

Friday, July 22, 2011

More people; no more jobs

Is it good news that the population of the Black Country has increased in the past 12 months by 4,500?

It’s supposed to be, at least for the Black Country Consortium in pursuit of its 20-year “vision”.

The Consortium is a quango run by the leaders of the local councils with other public sector worthies and a few businesspeople thrown in for window-dressing.

It is dedicated to increasing the area’s population.

So it will be happy with the latest figures showing there are now 1,096,500 people living in the Black Country (or “residing in the sub-region” as the officials put it).

It seems the biggest increase was in Sandwell where the population rose 1,800 to 292,800. Dudley is the most densely populated area, with 307,400 residents, while 256,900 people live in Walsall and there are 239,400 in Wolverhampton.

The Consortium’s stated aim is to increase the area’s population to 1.2 million by 2033 so it’s well on its way.

The question is why the leading lights in the Black Country should feel the need to state this as one of their main purposes in life when – without trying – they are bound to reach the target.

It surely hasn’t escaped their attention that the population of the whole country is growing faster than at any time in history.

It’s risen by 3.1 million in the past decade. The Office for National Statistics puts the country’s population today at 62,262,000.

The ONS reckons the population will rise by another 4.3 million by 2018 and hit 71.6 million by 2033.

These are massive numbers. They are due partly to everyone living longer, partly because young women are having more babies – especially the more recent arrivals into this country – and because of the unstoppable rate of immigration.

If the Black Country Consortium can’t entice another 100,000 or so to move to the area then it really will have been a waste of space.

As the population will soar with or without the help of a 20-year vision for the Black Country, the real question is what on earth will all these extra people do?

It’s all very well hoping for a bustling and busy metropolis with lots of shiny, happy people in it. But how is everybody going to earn a living?

The prospects are not good.

First off, the Consortium wants us to earn an average of £3,806 a year more (excluding inflation) than we do now. It’s a nice idea and one I’m sure we can all support.

Surprisingly, the Consortium thinks it’s already making progress. It says average pay in the Black Country rose by £228 a head – double the national increase – in the past year.

It’s hard to believe, especially when the number of people earning anything at all is on the slide.

The Consortium wants to create 112,613 new jobs just to bring the Black Country employment rate up to 80 per cent of the national figure.

But their own “state of the Black Country” report suggests we are further away from that than ever.

At the moment, almost one person in every five of working age has no work, compared with 12.5 per cent nationally.

That’s 124,890 people who could be in jobs but are actually workless.

The Consortium thinks it needs to get 39,578 of these people, almost a third, off the dole if it is to achieve its ambitions.

Unfortunately the number of workless people soared 16 per cent in the past nine years and there are few signs that the trend will be reversed in the near future.

There is only one way more jobs can be created and that’s if private-sector businesses grow and flourish – especially as public sector jobs are falling.

So there will have to be more companies setting up shop or expanding. At the moment there are still 32,350 businesses in the Black Country and let’s hope they all continue to prosper.

Last year 3,270 new firms opened for business in the Black Country but the start-up rate has fallen by a third in seven years. And the area needs 1,000 more new companies every year to reach the national average.

It seems the Consortium is pinning its hopes on a boom in advanced manufacturing, building technology and construction, aerospace, business services and – with depressing inevitability – green industries.

Let’s hope this analysis of the economy consists of more than simply looking at what businesses are doing well and hoping for the best – though I doubt it.

There are many excellent companies in the Black Country. Mostly they will live or die according to national, European and global economic trends well outside the control of a few local councillors.

What they need from the locals isn’t fatuous reports and pie-in-the-sky targets.

They need lower local taxes, better roads, cheaper parking and no bus lanes, easier planning permissions, fewer rules and regulations and better-educated school-leavers.

They need encouragement and opportunity – not the dead hand of bloody-minded bureaucracy.

It’s hard to believe encouraging more people to move to the Black Country is likely to help – unless all the newcomers are rocket scientists, I suppose.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

MPs 0 Murdochs 1

What kind of security is that? How can protesters get through to attack someone at a Parliamentary hearing?

It sums up the whole fiasco of the phone-hacking inquisition which was largely a pathetic non-event.

The only person to come out of it well was the News International emperor himself.
Rupert Murdoch started off like a deaf old man who needed his wife to keep him upright. But gradually he became forceful, passionate and you realised how this man could have built himself a global media empire.

While the father was by turns humble, proud, forceful and self-righteous, James was largely rational, reasonable and realistic.

The MPs clearly had very little idea of how a multi-national corporation is run but James’s level of ignorance of detail was somewhat surprising, given that he’s had nothing else to think about in the past couple of weeks.

And it may well be he’s had the wool pulled over his eye by his executives from time to time.

He should have known more and found out more before his appearance but still, the
MPs weren’t exactly penetrating.

This won’t put the scandal behind them but the Murdochs certainly didn’t do themselves or their empire any harm.

This will be pored over for weeks but really it was a dreary piece of afternoon telly.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

1. If the Head of the Met resigns for employing a News International deputy editor who was not, at the time, implicated in the phone hacking scandal, where does that leave the Prime Minister?

2. The claim is that, unlike Sir Paul Stephenson, Cameron was not responsible for investigating the allegations and is therefore in a different position. But is that right?

3. Was Cameron warned and warned and warned again about the dangers of employing Andy Coulson (originally on £400,000 a year)?

4. If he chose to ignore the warnings, why was that? Was it because of the overwhelming desire to ingratiate himself with News International and the Murdoch empire?

5. If that was the case, was it justified as the only way he could win power?

6. If the answer to that is yes then how come he didn’t actually win and was forced into this unholy alliance with the Lib Dems?

7. If Cameron were forced to quit over the scandal – unlikely I know but not, now, entirely impossible – would Nick Clegg become Prime Minister?

8. Why is no-one talking about the much bigger scandal at News International – the fact that it pays scarcely any tax in this country? When will someone address that question?

9. Which is most hypocritical: the BBC’s gleeful coverage of the whole affair; Steve Coogan’s spluttering and incoherent rage; the idea that somehow Ed Miliband has come out of this well; or Gordon Brown’s rant against the evil empire?

10. Is anyone surprised to learn that some police officers accept a bung now and then from News International reporters?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

British railways hit the buffers

This story has been sidelined along with many others by the witless witterings of a world holding its hands up in dismay like a maiden aunt at the phone hacking scandal but any day now, the nation which gave the world the railway will no longer be able to build a single carriage or engine.

The nation which created the world’s greatest train journeys – across Canada, India, Africa, and South America – is giving away the last vestige of its proud heritage.

The nation which built France’s railway system and sold them 6,000 steam engines by 1880, the nation which not only built but drove Germany’s first train, is consigning another of its once-great industries to the history books.

That nation is, of course, our own. The Government has chosen to hand a multi-billion-pound contract to build trains for London’s new Thameslink line to Germany.

As a result, Britain’s last surviving train manufacturer is to lose 1,400 jobs at its Derby factory and the remaining 1,600 employees are working on borrowed time.

The Canadian owners, Bombardier, will run-down the plant while it finishes existing contracts.

Then it will almost certainly have to close – another nail in the coffin of this country’s once world-beating industry.

There are many reasons for the long-term decline of the British rail manufacturing. If the Derby train works were still British-owned, the bosses might have fought harder to save it.

But responsibility for this rests squarely with our benighted Coalition.

Its decision is unbelievable, inexcusable and unforgivable.

It’s unbelievable because no other industrialised country would let it happen. French railways buy French trains, German railways buy German trains, Japanese railways buy Japanese trains.

Only here are we prepared to destroy our own industry and throw away good, well-paid, productive, home-made, high-skill jobs.

The decision is inexcusable because Ministers are feebly trying to shift the blame for this pathetic decision onto either the last Labour Government or the European Union or, preferably, both.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond refuses to discuss the details of why Germany’s Siemens bid was better than Bombardier’s.

He claims that, if they had wanted to protect British manufacturing, the last Government should have adjusted the tender document when it first asked companies to bid for the contract.

And he says he might get sued by Siemens if he went back on the deal now.

These excuses won’t wash. The Government has had a year to do something about this before making a decision on who wins the contract.

In a complicated £3 billion deal it is not beyond the wit of even this witless crew, to secure British jobs, British skills and British expertise.

Labour and the EU may be partly to blame – but that is no excuse for this craven Coalition’s bid to pass the buck.

Mr Hammond points out that Siemens will create 2,000 jobs in this country as a result of the contract – but those jobs would have been created in the supply chain if Bombardier had won so that’s irrelevant.

The decision is unforgivable because Prime Minister U-turn-Dave has been trying to convince us his Coalition is devoted to the development of British manufacturing industry.

In March, he shipped the entire Cabinet to Derby in a PR stunt which managed to fool some captains of industry into the delusion that the Government actually cared about their future.

Yet the writing was on the wall a year ago when the Government cancelled an £80 million grant to Sheffield Forgemasters aimed at helping the company develop products for the nuclear power industry.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was accused of betraying his own Sheffield Hallam constituents.

He preferred to spend £80 million on a pointless national referendum on electoral reform, which shows where his priorities really lie.

The economy is struggling to recover from recession. Living standards are falling. Public sector workers are planning an autumn of discontent.

Why, then, would any half-way competent Government fail to take advantage of a rare opportunity to boost this country’s manufacturing industry?

The truth is the Government doesn’t give a fig about manufacturing. Its economists think our future is in selling services to other countries – we’re particularly good at banking, they say, to ironic jeers all round.

They think it’s “protectionist” to spend taxpayers’ money on our own manufacturers. And it would be – if there were a truly free market anywhere else in the world. But there isn’t.

Our political masters don’t care if companies like Cadbury and Jaguar, our sea and airports, our leading football clubs or our national newspapers are all foreign-owned.

Before he became a national joke, Business Secretary Vince Cable promised us a “Cadbury law” to protect British companies from foreign ownership.

But like Mr Cameron’s Cabinet meeting in Derby, he wasn’t serious. It was all to look good and grab a quick headline.

It’s still not too late for the old LMS works in Derby. Perhaps some of our MPs can earn their money for once.

U-turn-Dave could reverse this decision especially as it pulls the rug from under one of the Coalition’s other dreamtime schemes – the colossally expensive high-speed rail link between Birmingham and London.

If the trains aren’t even going to be built in this country, there goes yet another excuse for our political masters’ vanity project of the century.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Why I will buy the 'News of the World'

I shall buy the “News of the Wold” this Sunday for the first time in years – as a small protest at the nauseating hypocrisy of our politicians and the BBC.

The phone-hacking allegations aren’t good. If it’s illegal, it should not happen.

But the queue of MPs desperate to condemn News International via the BBC – effectively a commercial rival of BSkyB – is even more dismaying.

Usually, they fawn on Rupert Murdoch and employ his cast-offs like Andy Coulson but now they pretend they want to prove they are somehow more moral than him and his organisation.

Actually they want to seize the opportunity get their retaliation in for the stories his papers have written about them in the past – and the stories they fear may be written about them in the future.

Of course, those other papers not involved in phone hacking – largely because their editorial budgets wouldn’t stretch to it – are sanctimoniously clambering aboard the bandwagon in the hope of settling old scores.

But the real victim of this flammed-up furore will be press freedom. The result will be new regulations on the press, a reduction in the ability of newspapers to make mistakes – and a sharp increase in secrecy, concealment and hypocrisy in high places.

It’s what politicians want. It’s what Hugh Grant wants. It’s what the BBC seems to want as well.

Buy the “News of the World” and support freedom, democracy and the right to know (even if it does mean supporting the right of newspapers to make mistakes sometimes).