Thursday, 31 March 2011

Fred and the Big Society

Fred Smith works for a community organisation providing advocacy and “voice” for a certain community. Now Fred is well aware of how his role is political, how it challenges the established ways of providing communities with “voice” – electing local councillors for example.

Now Fred doesn’t live in the community he advocates for but in a nice little stone cottage about 20 miles away, his family are from a nice comfortable market town and have no connection to the place. But Fred is proud of his job, of the work he does every day. And especially the way he’s able to make a lot of noise about what he sees as important political issues.

Oh, I forgot, Fred’s wages are paid from a grant to the community organisation from the local council. The community doesn’t pay for Fred – except indirectly through their council taxes. Without that payment Fred doesn’t have a job. And, yes, in making savings this year Big City Council who give the grant decide to cut it by 25% - Fred’s out of a job.

Now here’s the Big Society bit. Rather than simply head off back to the cottage, Fred decides to try and find the money to keep his work going. Clutching a presentation, Fred knocks on the doors of local businesses, speaks to people in the local community, chases through a few contacts in the shiny central business district – and makes his case. Fred raises £25,000 – not a fortune but enough to carry on. More importantly there’s a collection of supporters and donors who really do care what Fred does, who want him to succeed and can be involved more.

Fred has replaced one distant council officer managing a grants budget with a larger number of private citizens, local business and others. Fred still has to struggle to get the cash but he isn’t simply standing there, ever so ‘umble, before the state looking for handouts. And because the “community” is now Fred’s paymaster, he’s even closer to them – to what they want. Fred isn’t walking a fine line between local council targets and what the community wants – he can focus exclusively on that community and is really their “voice”.

It’s not easy raising money – especially in poor places – but there are Fred’s out there, some full-time paid folk, some part-time, some volunteers. People who don’t look straight to government to provide the cash, who don’t expect anonymous taxpayers who’d rather their cash was spent on something else to pay for their activism and campaigning.

And these people like Fred – and the people who support them - are the Big Society.


If we’re to have bread and circuses – we’ll need some acrobats!

Yesterday two things struck me – as they do sometimes.

The Riverside Studios in Hammersmith and the Derby and Exeter theatres were among the 206 theatre companies, galleries and arts venues who learned yesterday their government grants would dry up in 2012.

Others had their budgets significantly reduced, with the critically acclaimed Almeida Theatre Company in Islington, north London seeing their grant cut from £1 million this year to £700,000 in 2015 – a real terms drop of 39 per cent.

This was amongst announcements about funding from the Arts Council as part of an overall reduction (to £957 million) of 15% in grants to nationally-funded bodies.

At the same time I read this:

“Health experts are trying to see a shift in public eating habits which could add to improved general health. ASK is a unique Greater Manchester initiative to reduce the amount of salt added to food.

“Participating businesses display the ASK logo in their windows and use cards on tables to demonstrate their support. Most food cafes and restaurants already season their food adequately. For customers, reaching for salt has become a habit rather than it being a necessity.”

Now leaving aside the fact that salt does not cause hypertension (it is a risk factor for people who already have hypertension), this encapsulates the priorities of government to me. There may be a case for reducing funding of pleasure, animation and fun in a time of austerity but I am deeply offended when, at the same time as theatres close, art galleries reduce their hours and dance troops fold, we are spending money on scaring people about health risks.

On the back of other attacks on our simple pleasures – fags, booze, red meat, bacon – this speaks to me of a society obsessed with survival at the expense of pleasure. A place where the little tin gods of the medical profession suck up ever larger sums of other peoples’ cash to berate us with their “healthy living” obsessions.

All this while festivals go unfunded, arts groups fold and films aren’t made. A dour, dreary place filled with safety lectures, health concerns and a dread fear of anything that might seem a little untidy.

So here’s a little suggestion – let’s take all the cash we spend on nannying fussbucketry and spend it on having some fun! On plays, paintings, music, country walks, food festivals, markets – on animation and excitement. Surely that would do more to for mental health, for happiness and for health that all these dreary lectures from doctors and their pals.

After all, if we’re to have bread and circuses – we’ll need some acrobats!


Wednesday, 30 March 2011

“Nice economy you got there. Shame if anything should happen to it.”

Bankers and Government in discussion
The Buttonwood column in the Economist this week asks about the reason for the decline in living standard in the developed world - a decline continuing despite the beginnings of growth. Possible answers lay in Marxism - although the writer reminds us that Karl has "some confusion in his analysis", in the idea beloved of Mervyn King that we became "too dependent on consumption and had to switch to an export- and investment-led model" and in the decline of trade unions in the private sector.

But the favoured answer was very interesting as it points the finger at the financial sector and especially the unhealthy relationship between that sector's interests and the policies of central bankers:

One factor that should perhaps get more emphasis is the role of the financial sector. Central banks have repeatedly cut or held down interest rates over the past 25 years in an attempt to boost bank profits and prop up asset prices. With this subsidy in place, is it surprising that earnings in finance have outpaced wages for other technologically skilled jobs?

Attempts to remove that subsidy are met by threats from international banks to move elsewhere. This is a little reminiscent of the protection rackets run by the gangsters in Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”. It is as if the finance sector is saying: “Nice economy you got there. Shame if anything should happen to it.”


Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Squirrels in sports cars

As readers know, I'm something of a squirrel fan - both the live, fluffy tailed squirrel and the squirrel pie squirrel. And this sign rather tickled me and conjured up images of the fluffy-tailed darlings zipping about in little racing cars - not sure why!

On a serious note, the effort to save England's red squirrels from extinction is one of my favourite conservation stories - the Northumberland Wildlife Trust (along with other Northern Wildlife Trust) runs "Save Our Squirrels". Loads of super pictures and information on their website - and you too can support them!

Meantime here's a (evil grey) squirrel in a sports car:

Monday, 28 March 2011

The meaning of violence...


Seems that some on the left are stuggling with the meaning of words - now I may be in the Humpty Dumpty camp but I do like a nice definition - here's the Concise Oxford Dictionary:

Violence n. Quality of being violent; violent conduct or treatment; outrage; injury (do ~ to, act contrary to, outrage: (Law) unlawful exercise of physical force; intimidation by expression of this.

Violent a. 1. involving great physical force...2. involving unlawful exercise of force...3. intense, vehement, passionate, furious, impetuous, vivid...4. Hence ~ly

It seems to me that putting a brick through a window confirms entirely with this definition of violence and violent!


How open for business is Britain?

Today, with great fanfare, a new "Start Up Britain" campaign is launched:

Prime Minister David Cameron is launching a new private-sector business initiative today called Start Up Britain. It is aimed at encouraging people to set up their own businesses and will be a major part of the governments attempt to encourage economic growth through private enterprise. New businesses will be able to apply for help worth around £1,500 in areas such as internet advertising and IT training.

And the Government has roped in some big businesses - mostly those with a real interest in small business that extends to wanting to sell something to these new businesses!

O2, Virgin, Blackberry, Google, Experian, Barclays and AXA - all signed up and ready! Ready to sell mobile phone services, credit checking, insurance, banking and technology hardware. Not much in the way of philanthropy here - just some big businesses scamming government for a few nice sales opportunities.

And let me tell what the problem is for small businesses - it isn't the cost of IT training or the expense of internet advertising, it's the endless barriers to getting going. Here are a few examples:

Try setting up a bank account. You thought you just walked into the bank with some cash, filled out the forms and bingo, a shiny new bank account! Nope, you need the forms, photo ID, a meeting with a "business advisor" and evidence that the business is established. And if you try to open the account with a grand in cash there's a further pile of questions and forms related to money laundering and heaven knows what else

Then you'll need some insurance. Pretty easy to obtain and you have to have it even if you're only employing yourself. And if you're planning to bid for public contracts there's a whole load more rules - you'll need to spend at least a grand on assorted insurances.

Now find an angel investor. Ah, problem here. The investor will want equity - that's how it works. And regardless of how you and he choose to structure the equity, it has a load of negative tax implications for that investor. Change it to a loan? Oh no, the tax man's wise to that and will still nobble the investor.

So it's a loan from the bank? For a start up business, who're you trying to kid! The banks won't be taking that risk any time soon - unless of course you want a loan on crap terms that the bank insist on treating like a personal loan? Limited liability - that's a laugh isn't it!

I could go on - talk about VAT, about business rates (watch out for double taxation when you work from home), reporting rules, accountancy fees and a host of regulations specific to different types of business. And this is before we get to the burden of actually employing people - you know the "creating jobs" bit! That opens up a whole load more costs and rules - national insurance, PAYE, assorted employee rights (maternity, paternity, sick pay, holidays and so forth).

As my old boss, Judith Donovan put it in commenting prior to the recent budget:

“I passionately believe SMEs are the engines of growth; this Government so far is paying lip service to that concept while cuddling up to big business; we don’t need schemes and incentives and special favours.

“Yorkshire folk will do it for themselves if given a level playing field; lift the ridiculous and onerous employment law burdens for businesses employing under 10 people and the Yorkshire economy will fly; I should know. I built an SME to over £10m turnover and I sold because of these appalling laws and I would never start another business while they persist.”

Setting up a business is a pain - sometimes it's the only option but no-one enjoys it, there are huge bureaucratic barriers and costs before you can do anything, let alone start making some money!

There are plenty of people who would love to start a business. They don't bother because, right now, the cards are stacked up against the start up - regulation, tax, more regulation, more tax, controls, dictats, instructions, all things of no point, value or purpose to the businessman or woman.

That's what has to change - not lending us a tenner and getting Google to provide some second rate IT training.


Sunday, 27 March 2011

UK Uncut - it's really about envy not tax

 "He went as purple with jealousy as a purple stick of purple rhubarb! (Noel Langley, in 'The Land of Green Ginger')"

It seems that UK Uncut's attack on Fortnum & Mason has revealed the truth behind the organisation's campaigns:

We are not all in this together – the government, big business such as ABF, banking sector and the wealthy who shop here are in it together and are choosing to make everyone else pay the price for the banks greed and wreckless (sic) gambling.

As one blogger has pointed out, Fortnum's owner is a private trust itself owned by one of the world's biggest charitable foundations, Garfield Weston. And, more to the point, there's no apparent evidence of any tax dodging:

Now this is definitely not what UK Uncut should be about; going after the wealthy just because they choose to shop somewhere that is expensive?

Again, as a reminder, ABF, Fortnum & Mason and Wittington Investments are all ultimately owned by the Garfield Weston Foundation, the 14th largest charitable foundation in the world.

So when you put this together, you’ve got a lack of verifiable sources on tax avoidance, a store targeted simply because it is owned by a group that has a majority shareholding in another group that might be dodging tax, and ultimately everything is all under the control of a charitable foundation.

It does seem that UK Uncut targeted Fortnum & Mason simply because rich people shop there - simple, straightforward, green-eyed envy. And I thought they were such nice folk!


The truth of place lies in hearts not ruins

When Hugh de Morville, Norman baron built this little keep up in the hills of Westmoreland, it was forever. The King had granted him the lands and he built his home among those hills better to control and direct what went on. Yet today, having passed from de Morville hands - perhaps as punishment from the fates for his part in slaying Thomas a Beckett - the keep stands ruined, unused, guarded by just a gate plus a few sheep.

It was not for ever but for a blink in human history that this great man presided over his lands and his men. Today new great men preside - governing, ruling, directing, controlling. And like great men of the past they will be forgotten, their works will wear, ruin and decay - recalled only by travellers wondering why such a structure was built in such a place.

Hugh was Norman, spoke French and sat atop a pyramid of power in Westmoreland. But today, the local people don't speak French and aren't Norman. The language of England prevails, corrupted here by celtic words and places - nearby Pen-y-ghent, one of Yorkshire's three peaks proclaims this heritage. To understand a place we have to look behind the buildings, beyond the architecture - we must look to the people and into their hearts. There we will find the truth of place - as Houseman wrote:

In my own shire, if I was sad,
Homely comforters I had:
The earth, because my heart was sore,
Sorrowed for the son she bore;
And standing hills, long to remain,
Shared their short-lived comrade's pain.
And bound for the same bourn as I,
On every road I wandered by,
Trod beside me, close and dear,
The beautiful and death-struck year:
Whether in the woodland brown
I heard the beechnut rustle down,
And saw the purple crocus pale
Flower about the autumn dale;
Or littering far the fields of May
Lady-smocks a-bleaching lay,
And like a skylit water stood
The bluebells in the azured wood.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

"Everything is within the state, nothing without the state" - today's marcher motto

Back in the 1980s – that age evoked so charmingly by Ed Miliband recently – the word “alternative” was captured and held prisoner by the forces of the left. To be an ‘alternative’ comedian wasn’t to be funny (although some were this doesn’t include Ben Elton) but to be ‘left-wing’, ‘progressive’ and above all else against “The Tories”.

In the end the alternatives weren’t really alternatives at all – there was much talk of “defending”, “fighting”, “mobilising”, “organising” and, of course, “striking” but little of substance as to the alternative being proffered.

Now, we find the same voices crying out, a coalition of the self-interested and the prejudiced descend onto London disrupting the pleasure of tourists, the weekend of locals and the choices of visitors. To achieve what is unclear except that this is a march for the “alternative”.

 For some, such as the Unions the alternative is for ordinary people to pay more taxes and for government to cripple future generations with debt so their members can continue to consume what the nations earns (and remember, dear reader, that public servants – however valued – are solely consumers, they do not produce wealth or income) regardless of the interests of those who are producing that wealth.

For others – the spoiled children of UK Uncut in the forefront – the aim is to disrupt and annoy, to make a petty point and to adopt again that squadrista role of doing what the government refuses to do (not that they will succeed in this, of course) in “maintaining services”.

Behind all this lurks to prejudice, the hatred of business and enterprise. People clutch at a specious belief in the moral superiority of public service and wallow in ugly envy of others fortune. These people – who somehow believe, like Mussolini, that “everything is within the state, nothing is without the state” – are screaming for the good state, be it motherland, fatherland or the nanny, to care for them, coddle them, provide for their every whim and need. And to take the money for it off those “other” people.

This March for the Alternative is the political equivalent of a toddler’s tantrum.


Friday, 25 March 2011

Some parents shouldn't be let loose with names...


Michael Crick reports on Ed Miliband's carefully constructed audience in Nottingham and speaking of one questioner says he was:

...a former councillor called Len, who admitted he'd actually been christened Lenin, and that his parents had called his brother Stalin.

Amazing! I once knew a lad called Sid - his full given name was Siddhartha. Some parents, eh!


We don't need a "National Food Plan" - not even slightly

I’ve been holding off talking about food strategies despite Bradford’s little colony of Green Party councillors ramming one down the District’s throat helped by assorted rent-seekers and political activists. But Mary Creagh, the opposition lead on food has penned an utterly stupid, misinformed and largely ignorant article in the Guardian that requires comment. Ms Creagh leaps into action on the back of a report from the Sustainable Development Commission:

It is a wake-up call for ministers, warning that "policy development within government still remains inadequate". It makes for challenging reading with serious recommendations on how to define and respond to food poverty in the UK.

Now, leaving aside that the Green take on food – obsessing about “food miles”, local production, grow-your-own and organic production rather than how to sustain cheap food production – is the very antithesis of what poor people need, you have to wonder when Ms Creagh starts talking about food prices and makes this suggestion:

Food will be one of the defining issues of the next century – but compare the political attention it is given compared to climate change. We need as much attention on food security and sustainability in the coming years ahead as we have devoted to climate change in the last decade. That means an urgent food plan at home and an international-style Copenhagen agreement for food. It also requires the missing ingredient from government – leadership.

The perennial response of the socialist – managed trade, market intervention and a host of boondoggles for “food strategists” to fly off to and feel important – will make no difference to the issues raised. So for Ms Creagh’s benefits let me explain:

1.       The cheap food strategies of supermarkets (much though I hate the places) have provided more social benefits than all the state intervention over the past 50 years. Ordinary families can afford to eat – indeed, judging by the streets of Bradford: overeat – at a cost unheard of by their ancestors
2.       Developments in higher yield crops, the use of pesticides and fertilizers and other agro-engineering innovations – including GM varieties – are further extending that cheap food strategy
3.       Other pressures – growing population, dietary changes in China and India, non-food crops such as biofuels and climate variation – are pulling in the opposite direction to this cheap food strategy
4.       Our (indeed that of the entire developed world) food policy has been misplaced and producer dominated – in Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy results in skewed land prices, corruption, subsidy for not farming and a host of other insanities. It also kills more people in the developing world that any other western policy

We don’t need a “food security” policy or another load of green cant about “sustainability”, we need just three things:

1.       Free trade in agricultural products
2.       The scrapping of producer subsidies
3.       Ending the restriction on GM crops and other innovations

If we do these three things we will go most of the way to solving the “problem” that Ms Creagh identifies. And, if people like me want to eat locally-grown, quality food, the market will provide for us too  – whether we wish to be locavores or gourmets. All the government has to do is bog off out of the way! To paraphrase P J O’Rourke, we need to take food strategies round the back of the barn and finish them with an axe.


How old is "old" - Bradford's over-50s housing strategy

Readers will be aware that I currently chair Bradford Council’s Social Care Overview and Scrutiny Committee. For our meeting next week we have a report – on its way through the Council system – entitled:

“Development of the Bradford District Housing Strategy for the Over 50s”

Now I don’t wish to bore you with the content of this report but to discuss whether there is any substantive case for the Council having a “strategy” for housing people who have managed to stay alive for half a century. First though here’s the Council’s patronising “case for age 50”:

The district’s Older People’s Partnership works on behalf of those aged 50 and over; this strategy uses age 50 as a threshold to align itself with the Partnership.

Most people in their 50s won’t think of themselves as being old, indeed we’re constantly
hearing phrases such as “50 is the new 40” in the media. But it’s a time of life when many will start to see their children leave home, and some will be lucky enough to start thinking about easing off, taking a bit of time to enjoy life a little more or take part in volunteering activities.

Using age 50 allows the strategy to be more than sheltered housing and care homes. Fit, healthy and active people in their 50s and 60s are in an excellent position to start thinking about where they would like to live in the future. Cohousing, co-operatives and Local Housing Trusts all present additional opportunities for those that plan ahead.

Now, I’m a little sensitive about this having just reached that half century mark but I really can’t see anything about the housing needs of people aged 50-65 that differ from the housing needs of those aged 35-50. And, more to point, most fifty year olds are getting up every morning and travelling to a job. They are paying off the mortgage on their family home, tending the garden, having a holiday if they’ve got the spare cash and carrying on in the same manner as they did prior to reaching that great landmark age.

The really worrying thing about this strategy is it’s inference that people aged over 50 are likely to be inappropriately housed – in the state’s opinion at least:

“Enable older people to have their families living close to them by freeing up much needed family accommodation. Ensuring our existing housing stock is used as effectively as possible and reduce pressures on land.”

So there you go – government thinks we’re greedily taking up important “family housing” by staying in our four-bed detached with garage and garden. Yet again we see the triumph of patronising state planning directed at a section of the community who really aren’t asking for any special treatment and for whom – in the main – the private sector will provide more that adequately. Indeed, when we want to move house that’s precisely what we will do and nothing that this strategy says or does will change this truth.

There is a good case for supporting the very old – people who really do need support of some kind or another. But very few of these people are aged 50-65 – indeed you’ll struggle to find many under the age of 80 living in sheltered and extra-care housing. The housing needs of this group can be met through the existing housing strategies – we do not need a strategy for “Over-50s housing” especially one with the title:

“Great Places to Grow Old”

Patronising or what?