Saturday, 25 February 2017

British media write off Labour

The number of journalists and political commentators writing off the Labour Party for a generation, if not forever, following the Copeland by election result is a facile but typical groupthink. The electorate are totally fed up with all political parties at the national level as is evidenced from the low turn outs in Copeland 51%, and Stoke Central 38%. It is true that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn look unelectable in any general election but none of the parties look to be capturing the mood of the electorate in these troubled and uncertain times. The Tory voters are more loyal than Labour voters at present but a dozen years ago the Tories had been written off forever following the barren years under the dreadful leadership of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.

What no one has reported is that the ten largest cities in the UK: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, and Bristol are all Labour controlled apart from Edinburgh where Labour is the largest party under a proportional representation electoral system. They are for the most part running administrations that are valued by their citizens who discern the difference between local and national politics. Apart from Scotland, where there is an alternative left of centre party, the SNP, there does not seem to be a collapse of Labour at the local level that is assumed by the media. This presumption reflects the fact the national press gave up reporting on local government at the turn of the millenium when they greatly reduced the number of seasoned reporters of local and regional government. Politics is ignored outside the bubble of Westminster and the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales.

It would appear that politics are being redefined, not on class lines but in accordance with values and perspectives on wider issues. These include the role of the state in delivering education, health, housing, care and infrastructure. They embrace the protection of the environment, climate change, social justice, community control, the power of global capitalism, and international issues that include defence, aid and migration. The way that political parties provide clear direction on these issues will determine their future survival. They will have to convince an increasingly knowledgable electorate who are far more fickle than previous generations when it comes to party loyalties.


Friday, 24 February 2017

Rob Roy Way: Callander to Aberfoyle

Ben Ledi from Callander
Friday, 24 February 2017
15 kilometres
3 hours 10 minutes

A dry morning after storm Doris persuaded me to walk another section of the Rob Roy Way from Callander to Aberfoyle. I ran this route regularly in the 1980's when we lived in Glasgow and came out to see my in laws on Sunday. I had also walked the route in the 1990s with two 11 year olds who were raising money for a Leukaemia charity. The route has become more difficult since then with the growth of newly planted trees and today it was covered in deep wet snow over a path that was part bog.

The walk began at the bridge over the river Teith in Callander and took me to the mini roundabout where the back road runs towards Loch Venachar. The old moss covered stone walls and native woodland make it an attractive amble despite the flooding on the road and the row of caravans of Callander Holiday Park overlooking the road. I stopped at Gartchonzie bridge to watch the gushing Eas Gobhain below the weirs at the exit of the loch. There is a seated area and a fine view down the loch to the mountains, which were blasted with snow. The early brightness of the day was turning grey before the rains arrived. A party of volunteers were litter picking and a massive sign had been erected to by the national park to proclaim the newly introduced no camping zone. The National Park has refused to allow new housing and seems to be in hock to hotel owners and tourism chiefs who are more focused on making money than giving folk the chance to enjoy the attractions. John Muir would not have approved, he saw national parks as places for people to enjoy as well as protecting the natural beauty from exploitation for profit.

At the east lodge a car park has been made available and a forestry track climbs steadily through the conifer plantations for about 3 kilometres. By the time I had reached 200 metres in height, the tracks were covered in a wet snow. Passing the small lochan is the high point of the walk, thereafter the Rob Roy Way turns off the track and becomes a boggy narrow path through the forest with burns to cross, tree roots to negotiate. Quite a few trees had blown down in recent high winds and required some tricky diversions. Rain was threatening so I pushed on eventually leaving the forest for a 2 kilometre passage over open moorland with a path that had disappeared into the snow. I was the first walker coming across the Way since the snowfall on Wednesday evening, 36 hours ago.

My aim was the gate into the forest below the Menteirth hills, the snow was less deep here and it was the bogs that slowed me until I alighted onto the forestry track that leads down to Braeval. The path continues along the top of the Aberfoyle golf course, a place with superb views but not today. I dropped down through the golf course and arrived at the village below Dounans camp. I arrived home as the rain began and dosed in the afternoon.

Eas Gobhain below the weirs
Loch Venachar with Ben Venue

Looking north over Loch Venachar to Ben Ledi

The loch an at the top of the route

Slow going in snow and boggy path

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Post-optimism

It has been a dreary start to the year and trips to Glasgow, Dundee, Perth, Stirling, Falkirk, York, Wakefield, Carlisle and Brampton have made me realise how our urban centres are in serious decline with empty shops, commercial buildings and the urban realm all looking in need of extensive repair. Only York has had a sense of vibrancy with the tourism attractions generating lots of visitor expenditure from home and abroad on a bitterly cold February day.

Presumably there are more towns in the south that are thriving. Certainly during visits over the past couple of years to Oxford, Hemel Hempstead, Sevenoaks, Brighton and surrogate southern towns like Chester and Harrogate, I have been pleasantly surprised to find them exempt from the dilapidation that has afflicted northern towns and cities.

Towns in the midlands and north already look like they are broken in the way the remain camp are predicting for after Brexit. The urban fabric is a mess with street furniture and signage cluttered, broken and dirty, pavements and roads a tribute to the failure of the power, telecoms and water providers to restore the public realm, and business premises showing an ever increasing number of vacant properties. Pubs, banks, independent shops and restaurants have closed; it is only charity shops, poundshops, fast food outlets and betting shops that seem to be surviving, if not thriving. There are notices for the reduction of bus services, future shop closures and travel agents suggesting that we escape the depressing UK winter. They serve to confirm the sense of urban decline and pending recession. People are looking sad.

The rundown  of our towns and villages is not surprising given the wage stagnation and benefits reductions of recent years. These have been exacerbated by the most severe cuts in public expenditure since the war, an ever accelerating switch to online shopping and a failure to regulate the street works effectively.

I have spoken to several local businesses in recent weeks and they have all made the same comment. They need to know what is going to happen post Brexit and they all say that orders have slowed down. The uncertainty is beginning to strain their resources and plans are being put on hold or abandoned. The 14 directors that I have mentored this year are almost all dealing with reducing or closing services, disposing of premises and laying off staff. Only two or three are looking at developing new or improved services and even then there is uncertainty about funding for making the changes. Experienced managers in their 50s are being retired with little evidence that their knowledge and experience will be replaced. Austerity is the mother of a fake economy.

I watched I, Daniel Blake and it reinforced the scale of social injustices that are being perpetrated by 6 years of austerity. Even in 2015, 29% of children were living in poverty and 14% of pensioners were living on less than 60% of median incomes. These figures are increasing year on year. The post-truth announcements from government focus on the record number of people employed and the FTSE 100 increases. But these fail to acknowledge that many jobs are part time, non permanent or self employed and they often lack pensions and sick pay, there are a lot of false jobs in the count. The FTSE is soaring on the back of a £ that has depreciated by 20% or so. The UK has become a takeover target for global corporate companies and other businesses are being sucked into mainland Europe in anticipation of Brexit.

As a lifelong optimist, I am struggling to find the upside in all of this. Housebuilding is in further decline and unaffordable; the NHS is in meltdown; education expenditure in England is following the free schools not targeting the shortage of pupil places or much needed investment in existing schools; and sustainable energy initiatives have been sacrificed on the alter of fracking and nuclear deals. The government are still 12% ahead in the opinion polls. It makes you wonder what other damage they can get away without denting this lead.

But even some Tories are now beginning to worry that 2018 could be the year when the public says enough is enough. The convergence of 10 years of austerity, heartless benefit reforms, the ever rapid dismantling of the NHS, the lack of decent affordable housing and the pension deficit have conspired to create an "inequality of wealth that is grosser than any European country", This is what George Orwell had said in 1941 in his essay, the Lion and the Unicorn'. It is probably even more apposite today. The fruits of three decades of neo liberal policies coupled with the dystopian policies emerging in the United States and the loss of trade links following Brexit, there could be a perfect storm that sparks a groundswell of despair arising from the skewed affluence within the UK. There could be a show down with the government.

And 2018 is the Chinese year of the dog.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

National Railway Museum

Rocket replica

A weekend near York for an extended family reunion provided the opportunity to visit the National Rail museum at York. It is a fine facility and does much to generate tourism traffic for a city that is already well endowed with attractions from York Minster to the Viking centre, city walls and the shambles. York may lack scenery, located on the flat and frequently flooded Ouse, but it is well positioned on road and rail networks to attract visitors from most parts of the UK. It is a pity that the national museum was not located in Crewe, Doncaster, or Darlington all of which were formerly railway towns that would be more deserving and benefit more from rail tourism.

Nevertheless it was chance to touch base with the steam locomotives and railway infrastructure that I spent three or four years inhaling between the age of 9 and 13. I spent most Saturdays watching trains on the West Coast mainline and, during school holidays, I raided many engine sheds to cab locomotives and made visits to locomotive works in Horwich, Crewe, Gorton, Doncaster. My geography of the UK was largely gained by knowing travel times to towns on the rail network and my map reading skills honed by locating engine sheds. The names of the locomotives also provided most of my knowledge of countries, cities, greek gods, kings and queens, castles and regiments along in each case with a 5 digit number.

There were lots of memories as I took my 3 year old granddaughter onto the footplate of my favourite locomotive, a coronation class pacific- the Duchess of Hamilton (46229). She seemed interested and asked me how it worked; my impromptu description of being like a giant kettle on wheels was accepted but she knows how to humour me. It was the same locomotive that my grandad had lifted me onto the footplate to be shown the controls by the friendly engine driver as it stopped at Preston whilst pulling a Glasgow bound express.

I was also 3 years old at the time and on the Saturday mornings when my grandad was not working he would ask what I wanted to do, the answer was obvious. The museum had on display the nameplate of another coronation class pacific, Queen Mary(46222), which was my final 'cop' of this class of locomotive. The target for all train spotters was to complete all the 'semis', the name given to this most powerful of all the British locomotives. Happy days indeed.

Mallard, the fastest steam locomotive
The cab of a Coronation class pacific locomotive
Evening Star, the last steam locomotive built for British Railways
46222, my final Coronation class locomotive (semi)

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Is democracy trumped?

The last couple of weeks have seen some of the most bizarre gyrations in political posturing. Channel 4's Washington correspondent, Kylie Morris, confirms through her regular reporting that President Trump is just as bonkers as we had suspected from gasping at the indiscretions that he uttered and tweeted throughout the presidential campaign. Footage from the innards of American states like Indiana and Tennessee suggest that his supporters among the working classes are loving the way he is treating the Washington insiders with the same contempt as his apprentices. It will be interesting to see what they think in a year when their financial plight has been put on hold whilst taxes for the wealthy and corporation tax for companies are reduced. The Sioux tribe have already witnessed his contempt for struggling communities by his approval for the Dakota oil pipeline to be routed across their homelands with army engineers ordered to execute his decision.

His supporters are delighted with his daily brag that things are happening. Terrorists are being locked out; trade agreements are being torn up; companies, journalists, and world leaders are being insulted, ignored or demonised. He is using all the bullying tactics that have made him a gold plated dickhead and it seems to be working with the greedy, the weak and unprincipled companies and governments gushing their support. Witness the way that the republicans, car manufacturers and dependent states, including the UK, are happy to play his games.

China, the European Union and Mexico have called him out and after this morning's rant on the phone to the Australians PM, the equally intemperate Aussies could declare a 'fuck you mate' diplomacy. It is Russia, Israel and the UK that seem the most enamoured with the new President. They are all hanging their hat on him blessing some of their more risky ploys, as in the Ukraine, switching the US embassy to Jerusalem and leaving the EU. There will be deals to be struck in these and many more international agreements but, as he said twice, yes twice folk, it is America first.

Mrs May's ill timed rush to be the first world leader to hold his hand had seemed rash even to begin with. After the President's announcement of the exclusion of citizens from war torn countries and the PMs refusal to challenge this policy, the homage proved to be a diplomatic own goal. Meanwhile the more principled world leaders and demonstrators across many nations have been blowing the whistle on his conduct over immigration, climate change and his name calling of regimes and organisations that are multilateral. As his frenzied playlist of prejudices is further activated with little attempt to discover their wider impact, more countries, corporations and groups will challenge the legality and morality of his infringements of the constitution and international agreements.

In the midst of this there were some strange bedfellows joining the protests. Starbucks, never knowingly oversold, offered to hire 10,000 refugees worldwide and 2 million UK citizens have signed a parliamentary petition calling for the Queen to be absolved from hosting a state visit for President Trump. Senators are considering a fillibuster against some of his nominations for key posts; California is talking about leaving the union; and the National Park service has a twitter campaign objecting to the damage of national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton by oil pipelines approved by the President.

Contrary to what we are being told by some of the media, that populism is usurping liberal democracy, I wonder if it is unwittingly releasing a far more positive worldwide movement. The reaction to Trump's early examples of executive populism could be a powerful and inclusive networked democratic movement. One that sheds the elitism of representative democracy and encourages more collaboration between diverse local and global movements.  It may be that this cloud democracy will be able to overwhelm the narrow, selfish, tax evading, individualistic and nationalistic tendencies that trumpism exemplifies. Hopefully this will happen before the wannabe populists secure more footholds in other parts of the world.

I'm just looking forward to the smile on Kylie Morris's face on the day that Trump is vanquished.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Choose Life

I watched the original Trainspotting film last night and heard the revamped monologue from T2 Trainspotting in the trailer for the new film.

Choose life
Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares
Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently
And choose watching history repeat itself
Choose your future
Choose reality TV, slut shaming, revenge porn
Choose a zero hour contract, a two hour journey to work
And choose the same for your kids, only worse, and smother the pain with an unknown dose of an unknown drug made in somebody’s kitchen
And then… take a deep breath
You’re an addict, so be addicted
Just be addicted to something else
Choose the ones you love
Choose your future
Choose life”



I chose life this morning and it was stunning, really stunning!

Loch Ard trails




Friday, 13 January 2017

Winter Blast

Ben Lomond at the end of Main Street
Banks of the Forth
Lime Craig path from Dounans
Craig Mor and Ben Venue from Lime Craig

Flanders Moss and Campsie Hills from Lime Craig

Ben Ledi from Lime Craig
Ben Lomond from house
Several followers from more distant lands have said that they enjoy the chance to observe conditions in this part of Scotland. So here are some shots from earlier today. The winter has been quite benign so far and this was the first fall of snow in the village. There was an inch or so yesterday but it froze hard overnight to provide good conditions for a morning walk up Lime Craig.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Glasgow: Big is not Beautiful

George Square below the former College of Building and Printing

India Street and the former Strathclyde Regional Council HQ, RIP

I first footed Glasgow for 2017 yesterday. It was a depressing experience with empty shops reaching parts of the city that previous recessions couldn't reach. Much of Sauchiehall street is struggling as a prime retail street with another huge gap where BHS was located; the cancer of vacant units is spreading eastwards. The St Enoch Shopping Centre has lost its vitality with empty units, low rental businesses and little foot traffic despite the sales continuing. Even Buchanan street was bereft of people at lunchtime. There were more people sitting on the pavement with dogs and blankets than there was footfall on many shopping streets. An older man was giving licks to his drum kit in Sauchiehall street in the rain. He had an amplified backing tape that included a vocalist switched to full volume. He had created a no walk zone for passing shoppers. If it was not Glasgow it would have been incongruous.

I made a tour of old haunts: Argyll street pedestrian area was empty, Union street is cluttered with charity shops and pound shops, the old specialist shops have mainly disappeared, the School of Art is still being rebuilt after the fire, the GFT cinema seemed to be the only functioning business in what is now the fag end of Sauchiehall street. Glasgow has closed its public toilets so John Lewis proved useful. It was busy, maybe toilets are the new marketing trick in this former city of retailing.

My old offices in India Street, where I had spent 13 years, had been demolished last year and the gaping space is showing no signs of imminent development. The Scotrail train service was an almost defunct reminder of the blue trains. The old rolling stock was neither clean nor comfortable and progressed at a crawl compared to city trains elsewhere in the UK. The alternative of driving into the city centre is no longer a realistic option. Glasgow's car parking charges are priced to deter both commuters and shoppers, the on street parking contractor must pay a bonus for tickets issued, even a few minutes delay is guaranteed a fine. Most of the public conveniences have closed and the back lanes are dotted with men watching walls.

The sign on the now defunct College of Printing and Building is a large hoarding proclaiming that "People make Glasgow". January may be dank and dull and not the best time to observe a city centre but people will have a massive task to make Glasgow flourish again. The progress in the late 1970's and 1980's was ground breaking and there was another period around the millennium when things picked up. The decline since 2008 shows no signs of abating and even the former affluent suburbs of Bearsden, Bishopbriggs, Giffnock are beginning to look tired and prices are tumbling as the city continues to lose out to Edinburgh. Only the West End seems to be thriving with the university, museums and young entrepreneurs with independent businesses providing an oasis of growth.

The massive new Queen Elizabeth Hospital opened in 2015 costing £842m, with all the ongoing costs that result from PPP procurement, is one of the largest hospital complexes in Europe but is in meltdown. The latest problems of waiting times and poor elderly care, the Red Cross recruited to take patients home, has now resulted in a squad of NHS staff from England being appointed to help resolve the 'super sized but not very efficient or effective' dilemma.

Glasgow's obsession with size and the city centre has become an endemic problem in recent years. Big projects may make headlines but they are often a false economy, they divert attention away from communities. The ribbons of new housing developments along the river are trapped between the river and the expressway and have replicated the mistakes of the peripheral schemes with few shops or facilities. Community involvement seems to have been given short shrift as the City Council and the Scottish Government have pursued iconic, expensive and symbolic buildings.

Developers are always willing to take the profit on these types of development without taking responsibility for the wider environment or facilities. It is a glaekit policy. The urban fabric is worn out and needs urgent attention, the city centre is too spread out for the era of online shopping, and it lacks the charm or facilities to encourage repeat visits. I say this with some despair having lived and worked in Glasgow for twenty years and believing in the 1980's that the city had turned the corner. Yes people make Glasgow but there is a need for some leadership to create more integrated and hospitable buildings and neighbourhoods than has been apparent in the last decade.

Charing Cross Station - nae charm and freezing

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Post-truth team of the year

Post-truth luminaries
Podium finish for this figure of fun
"That was the year that was, it's over let it go," sang Millicent Martin in the days when satire was in its infancy and post-truth was still half a lifetime away.

2016 has shattered many hopes and created a sense of despair about the deceptions that have been heaped on the British public. I was reminded this morning when Minister for Culture, Karen Bradley, was avoiding questions from John Humphries and making false claims about the roll out of super fast broadband. The media inquisitors are just as adept at employing post-truth accusations as the politicians and corporate elite are at reciting post-truth idioms to evade them.

It made me reflect on the major culprits who have made post-truth such an construct of choice for our politicians, media types and corporate elite. There are so many contenders in what has been a bumper year for the post-truth artists formerly known as liars. Here is my post-truth team of 2016.

1. Nigel Farage, always a strong contender for his ability to stay calm when delivering unreasonable, unsubstantiated hateful remarks. He tops the list for his appalling sleight on Jo Cox's husband - "he would know more about extremists than me" after the Berlin massacre earlier this week.
2. Liam Fox for not knowing the price or the value of anything.
3. (Sir) Philip Green for his avarice, arrogance and brashness as he screwed up UK retail businesses and then blamed...
4. Dominic Chappell, a serial bankrupt, for behaving as we expect hedge funders to behave by bankrupting BHS and its pension fund, causing devastation for thousands of loyal low paid staff.
5. Boris Johnson for being the self obsessed purveyor of fiction as fact and all round bad egg
6. David Cameron for calling a referendum and then claiming that the deal he had negotiated with EU leaders had addressed the concerns of the British public.
7. Owen Smith for bullying his way to being the challenger for the Labour leadership and promising Jeremy Corbyn that we could both be heroes, but just for one day, if I could be King.
8. Derek MacKay, the Scottish Finance minister for failing to deliver a progressive first Scottish budget and instead simply pissing on councils and blaming the treasury.
9. Laura Kuensberg for trivialising and failing to provide an objective analysis of political news, something that the BBC used to do so well
10. Jose Morinho for extreme egoism in claiming he is the top coach whilst destroying Man Utd and Chelsea as attractive and winning teams for which I thank him.
11. Dido Harding for spinning the mistruth about talktalk and failing to inform customers of hacked accounts whilst blaming BT for everything.

Mrs May was a non contender having failed to say or do anything yet.

The overseas prize was a tight affair with Donald Trump and President Rodrigo Duerte pushing Rupert Murdoch hard. But he wins it for the 35th consecutive year. His end of the year sprint to purchase Sky after its price had dropped 31% post Brexit was hacking immoral. When he last tried to buy out Sky in 2011 he had been found as 'not fit to lead a major international company' and his son James of 'showing a wilful ignorance of the extent of phone hacking ' by the Culture and Media Commons Select Committee. I suspect that Trump may take the crown next year assuming he survives the travails of being President.

The lifelong achievement award goes without saying to Katie Hopkins.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Social Care: the Government are deceiving, delegating and delusional

Social care but only for the lucky few 

So the social care crisis that everyone agrees has reached breaking point is going to be solved by allowing Councils to increase council tax by 6% over the next 3 years. Mrs May claims that this is a sustainable solution. She is either dafter or more devious than I had taken her for. Most of the media fell for it, the ability of journalists to gather or make any useful diagnosis of government press releases is increasingly disturbing. The BBC in particular are culpable with their health correspondent having a palpable lack of analytical skills. The NHS has been cast by the media as the poster public service in relation to the needs of the elderly. The hard truth has been apparent for years; it is social care that has been underfunded and allowed to disintegrate in the face of a rapidly ageing population with a significant longer life expectation.

Lets examine the facts.
  • Over the next 3 years the Office of National Statistics (ONS) predicts a rise in the number of over 75's of 8.1%. (Over 75s is a better measure of the need for care than the over 65's - the majority of whom live independently.)
  • The increase in care costs over the last 3 years, when inflation was almost negligible, was 7.1%. For the sake of simplicity lets assume that it will continue at this level for the next 3 years. In reality inflation will push these costs higher. 
  • If care costs increase by 7.1% and there is 8.1% growth in the over 75s, the total increase in cost to keep services at present day levels will be 8.67%. Yet everyone agrees that these levels of service are unacceptable.
  • Council tax in England provides only £23bn (24%) of the total council expenditure of £96bn.  
  • The rest of council income comes from charges, 10% e.g. nursery fees, school meals, planning and building control fees and car parking, a further 10% comes from business rates, and 55% from government through the revenue support grant.
  • So over 3 years, the government will give permission for local government to increase council tax by 6%. This will be ring fenced for social care but applies to only the 24% of councils total budget. 
  • That adds up to 1.5% growth in council funding for social care over 3 years compared to a growth of 8.67% in social care needs. 
  • The funding gap may increase further as the introduction of a national living wage of £9 by 2020 and the loss of workers from the EU are factored in.
  • Many existing care providers have claimed that they are operating at a loss and may not be able to survive without increased payments from councils.
  • Sajid Javed is now claiming that the government will fund another £240m for social care but this will be diverted from council's new homes budgets. 
In other words the government will allow councils to raise just a sixth of the total increase in care costs over the next three years. There is no attempt to address the present shortfall in social care provision that has prompted the crisis. It will, of course, allow the government to claim that they have made funding available to councils and that councils must decide priorities. If some councils manage to meet social care demands they will be quoted as a justification of the government's policy. Other councils will be tarred by Ministers who are teflon-coated when it comes to accountability for their austerity policies.

Mrs May, this is not sustainable and it follows a cut of £1.95bn in grants for social care over the last 6 years by the Cameron governments. Social care has been protected by councils as much as possible, which is why libraries and sports facilities have closed, buildings have been allowed to detiorate, roads have not been repaired, assets have been flogged off and dozens of other local services have been starved of funding.

This is a deception that even such post-truth luminaries such as Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Ian Duncan Smith would be proud of. Delegating responsibility for investing more on social care to councils at the same time as stripping them of funding and assets is morally reprehensible. Or it could be that ministers are supine in the face of the social care crisis that they have imposed on the frail elderly and disabled. Justice is being served cold by the May government, it is a cruel twist of Mrs May's pledge on becoming PM. She is, to translate her rhetoric into reality, 'entrenching the disadvantages for the unfortunate many.'