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Archive for August, 2009

Tuesday
Aug 11,2009

London Councils are warning that the three year settlement for the payment of special grant in support of concessionary fares is under review and that the third year of agreed funding may not now be paid to London Boroughs at the level that had previously been promised.

If this were to happen, it would be a breach of faith between central
government and Londoners.

I am sure that Department for Transport ministers realise how sensitive a topic this is, particularly when the Local Government Association has had to describe as “problematic” a recommendation in a research paper that they had commissioned that proposed means-testing concessionary fares, with the Daily Mail polling its readers on whether to introduce a means-test and with the matter certain to be an issue in the London Elections next year (and no doubt the General Election as well).

 So I trust Department for Transport ministers will kill this suggestion quickly.

The Labour Party in London has always had an excellent record on
concessionary fares and it would be unfortunate if that record appeared to
be tarnished by a redistribution of funds away from the Capital, as is
apparently being considered.

Monday
Aug 10,2009

My attention has been drawn to Kevin Anderson’s very sensible and balanced analysis of the Gary McKinnon extradition case.  It is far more measured than Mayor (and part-time Telegraph columnist) Boris Johnson’s rant.  I wonder who earns the most from his journalism – the one who provides analysis or the one who rants with cavalier regard for fact?

Sunday
Aug 9,2009

The lead cartoon in today’s Sunday Times lampoons David Cameron “preparing” for Government – is Murdoch’s patience with policy-lite Conservatism running out?

From The Sunday Times

Gerald Scarfe cartoon: August 9 2009

Sunday
Aug 9,2009

I have had a nightmare:  David Cameron and the Conservatives win a General Election next summer, despite slow but steady improvement in the UK economy; George Osborne is appointed Chancellor and slashes public spending and hikes the VAT rate up to 20%; and then it all gets a whole lot worse ….

This is not an idle fear.  The Tories’ policies have been tried before.  Governments have thought that their countries were pulling out of economic recession and have adjusted the public finances too early and too soon.  The results were dire.

Two articles in this morning’s Observer spell it out.

Nick Cohen reminds us what happened to the Roosevelt administration in 1937:

“Christina Romer, head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, has warned him not to repeat a similar failure to grasp how fragile recoveries can be by Hoover’s successor, Franklin Roosevelt. In 1937, when the American economy was at last on the mend, Roosevelt’s administration thought that it could restore order to the public finances, only to see its spending cuts and tax rises send a healthy economy back over the edge.”

Cohen goes on:

“With his sniper’s eye for an enemy’s weaknesses, Peter Mandelson noted the other day that the Tories were talking about cuts in public spending with indecent “relish”. And, indeed, many Conservative core voters are delighted by the prospect that Cameron will have to reduce radically the size of the state, rather than lead the moderate, consensual administration he thought he would be running before the crash.

If the Bank of England is right, however, and the crisis is not over, it is far from clear when Osborne can start cutting spending and raising taxes. He must want to get the pain over with early in a parliament while he can still blame Gordon Brown for the nation’s woes. As Robert Chote from the Institute for Fiscal Studies says, he must also be aware that if he does not offer a plan to cut quickly, investors may panic and push up the price of British debt.

Maybe Mervyn King will offer him a way out and tell him that quantitative easing can take the strain, and the Treasury should not be distracted from reforming the public finances. But if he doesn’t, or if he does and he’s wrong, the Cameron government could make the same mistake as the Roosevelt administration and enfeeble a recovering economy.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the paper, Heather Stewart reminds us of the salutory lessons from Japan in 1997 and again in 2007:

“In 1997, years after the stockmarket crash, Japan’s leaders, keen to get their public finances back under control after years of trying to prop up the economy, decided to raise taxes. Their timing could not have been worse: not only were consumers and businesses still too weak to withstand the hit, but the Asian financial crisis was about to sweep through Japan’s neighbours, causing havoc.

Again in 2001, when recovery seemed assured, the Bank of Japan tightened interest rates, the government tightened fiscal policy – and the economy slumped back into recession. It was only then, when the Federal Reserve, too, was slashing interest rates to offset the impact of the dotcom crash, that Japan finally embarked on its drastic experiment with quantitative easing, buying back bonds in a massive operation known as “Rinban”, a policy that lasted until 2006.

As is their wont, economists are divided about how effective quantitative easing was in securing Japan’s recovery. But there is more of a consensus that it was because the remedies came too late – and policymakers kept snatching away the medicine before the patient’s recovery was assured – that deflation took hold and became endemic.”

We know, of course, how experienced the Conservative team are in such matters.  After all, David Cameron was advising Norman Lamont at the time of the “Black Wednesday” debacle – so it is must be all right.  However, some nightmares come true ……

Friday
Aug 7,2009

Normally, I would be quite squeamish about the idea of someone having his genitals drenched in Sambuca and then having them set on fire and I would be cringing with sympathy for the man concerned.  However, the story of  Stuart Feltham leaves me singularly unmoved.

His version of events is that he was having a quiet night out with a few friends at the end of his holiday in Crete when a women suddenly appeared, poured something over him and set it alight.

Her version of events – and the women in question is being feted as a national heroine in Greece for the defence of her honour – is that he was drunkenly propositioning her, grabbed her breasts and buttocks, and then exposed himself to her.  She threw her drink at him and walked away, only discovering later that he had (stray cigarette?) caught alight.

Obviously, I don’t know what happened, but I know which version sounds more plausible.

I also know that too many British people behave atrociously when they go away on holiday and that many European resorts are trying to restrict the heavy-boozing and boorish behaviour of their UK visitors.  Frying the worst offenders’ genitalia may seem a little harsh, but I suspect it would make them pause for thought ….

Friday
Aug 7,2009

I am not the sort of person who wets themselves at the sight of a steam locomotive and, whilst I had a train set when I was a child, it was a very small one and I grew out of it by the age of eight.  However, I have to admit to enjoying a visit to the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden this afternoon.  It is the first visit I have made there (apart from a brief foray into a drinks reception there last year), since it was re-opened following a major re-fit in 2007.

It is now well laid out with a trail to follow – starting 200 years ago and moving forward.  It is sensibly inter-active (early on, pressing a lever tells you how many tonnes of horse manure were deposited on London’s streets each day in the early 1800s, leading to the high-spot of a simulator for those who want to drive an underground train down the Edgware branch of the Northern Line) and for a moment I was even nostalgic for the inimitable smell of a 1960s tube carriage.

Currently, the Metropolitan Police, the London Ambulance Service and the London Fire Brigade are also on hand to provide street safety tips to children.

Thursday
Aug 6,2009

Most national Governments – whatever their political complexion – over the last 35 years have been centralist rather than localist.  In May 1975, Anthony Crosland famously declared in a speech at Manchester Town Hall that the party was over for local government.  The restrictions were intensified when the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher took over in 1979 and Tony Blair (allegedly scarred by his experience of being rejected by Hackney Labour Party as a prospective council candidate and then by his first-hand experience as a local MP of the delights of Durham County Council) was noticeably suspicious of Labour councils from 1997 onwards.  It is only in the last few years that this trend has begun to be reversed – albeit only at the edges.

For example, the Sustainable Communities Act of 2007 enables local authorities to ask central government for additional powers to better achieve the well-being of their local communities and this can include having transferred to them the powers of other public bodies.  This is not legislation that one would have expected first-term Blair or any-term Thatcher to have promoted, but it does begin to recognise that local government does have a pivotal role in the delivery of local provision.  If local democracy is to mean something, it has to be about local people electing local councillors to determine the level of local services and local taxation.

Since the high-tide of Margaret Thatcher’s attack on local government, the Conservatives have been on a long journey regarding localism.  In recent years, their enthusiasm for devolution has no doubt been encouraged by the increasing number of Conservative councillors around the country (they were virtually an endangered species by the mid-1990s).

Essex County Council, which is of course Conservative-led (by no less a person than Lord Hanningfield currently dealing with his own “little local difficulties“), has come up with a series of bids to the Department of Communities and Local Government to use the provisions of the new Act.  (I am sure plenty of other local authorities have done the same, but I have not seen their bids reported.)

Essex have proposals on exempting the County from landfill tax, on adjusting local welfare benefits (to tailor benefit rates to reflect the local labour market and to support relevant local training schemes), on rejigging youth provision(with a view to encouraging volunteering) and on the County Council taking over the non-emergency patient transport.

They are also asking for powers (as the Council puts it) to:

” develop and agree a set of minimum standards for government agencies, non-departmental public bodies and other specified local partners. These would reflect the quality of service required in Essex and should be developed for the: Homes and Communities Agency; Environment Agency; Highways Agency; East of England Development Agency; Arts Council England East; Sport England East; Natural England; English Heritage; Business Link East; East of England Tourism and East of England International.  ….  propose that Essex County Council – as an elected community leader – be given the power to ensure that local standards are met. This might mean requiring specific action of an organisation, replacing local staff, devolving responsibility to local providers or bringing services under the control of the council itself (together with supporting resources).”

They have also asked for the power to run local referendums on key local issues.

Now I don’t agree with all of these, but what I find exciting is that the Sustainable Communities Act is doing what it set out to do: stimulating local councils to think innovatively about how they can best increase local well-being and ensure that local people get the sort of services they want.

Another achievement of this Labour Government.

Tuesday
Aug 4,2009

Totnes Conservatives have selected their prospective Parliamentary candidate on a 24.6% turnout – not of Party members, but of all electors in the constituency.  At a cost of £38,000 every elector was sent a ballot-paper and invited to vote for which of three Conservative candidates they would like to see selected (to aid the process a reply-paid envelope was included).  In total 16,497 people voted and the successful candidate, a local GP named Sarah Wollaston, got 7,914 (it was a first-past-the-post ballot – none of this new-fangled preferential voting for the Conservatives).

There have, of course, been Parliamentary by-elections with turnouts of this size – so there is no question that this is a very respectable rate of participation.

The Conservatives will presumably be well pleased with the result of their decision to hold a primary in this way.  Not only have they been seen to communicate with and consult all voters on who should be the next MP (or at least the Conservative candidate), but nearly 8,000 electors will feel that they have a personal stake in turning out and voting in the General Election to vote for the candidate they chose at this stage.  The Conservatives also know which of their three possible candidates went down best with the local population.  It will also boost the name recognition locally for their nominee and it will make any canvassing conversations that much easier (“Do you remember being asked to help us choose our candidate?”).

It is interesting that the primary electorate chose the least political of the three people on the short-list – rejecting two prominent local government figures, in favour of a doctor.  This may say something about the status with which politicians are currently held by the public at large.  However, I wonder whether a typical selection process involving just Party members or Party members sitting on the constituency committee would have produced the same result.

I suspect this sort of open process will become increasingly the norm – particularly when political parties are selecting in “safe”  seats the person who will effectively become the next MP or where a tight fight is envisaged and they want to put up the candidate with the best chance of success.

However, there are a number of consequences that all of the political parties will have to come to terms with.  First, what benefits does membership of a political party bring if you have no more say than any member of the public in who should be the next candidate for Parliament?  Second, will the popular beauty parade approach discriminate against those with a solid (but un-flashy) record fo party service?  Third, how will the process be funded (£40,000 per constituency soon mounts up)?  Fourth, how will the primary campaigns be regulated (should there be expense limits for the candidates, will public advertising be allowed etc)? Fifth, will primaries favour candidates with personal wealth or strong financial backers and, if so how can this be mitigated?

These questions do not mean that the selection in Totnes should be a one-off.  On the contrary, I think the idea of primaries like this would be helpful for the democratic process itself.  However, we should all start devising the answers to those questions pretty quickly.

Saturday
Aug 1,2009

Lord Paul Myners, the Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury, has told the BBC that there should be a requirement to list the names and earnings of the most highly remunerated bank employees below Board level.  This has provoked the predictable squeals of anguish from the British Bankers Association and the like.

However, given the pivotal nature of the banks in our economy, it is difficult to see what reasonable grounds there are for them to resist this extra transparency.

I am reminded that the collective noun for bankers is a “wunch”.

As in: a wunch of bankers.

….. Oh forget it.