Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Aycliffe is in danger and needs your help.

(You can read a more detailed explanation of the Boundary Review as it impacts on Aycliffe here.)

We know that the government is changing the constituency boundaries; that is unstoppable.

However, you may not have realised that there is a real danger in this that Aycliffe will lose the Greenfield-Middridge electoral district (i.e. most of the town west of Burnhill Way/Westmorland Way) to the Bishop Auckland constituency.

The problem affects the ‘Shildon East’ ward, which sits on the boundary between Bishop Auckland and Sedgefield. It includes both Thickley (in Shildon) and Greenfield-Middridge (in Aycliffe). If ‘Shildon East’ is placed in Bishop Auckland, 4232 Aycliffe voters are stripped out of whatever constituency the rest of Aycliffe is in.

At the recent Boundary Commission hearings in Darlington, I made an impassioned plea for the commissioners to split ‘Shildon East’ down the middle (as, in fact, it was split in the 2010 general election). This would allow Thickley to go into Bishop Auckland, and Greenfield-Middridge to go with the rest of Aycliffe. But readers need to know that splitting a ward like this is not allowed under the Commission’s rules (unless I have managed to convince them that there are ‘exceptional and compelling reasons’ to do so).

Sadly, what readers also need to know is that many of the other speakers at the hearings argued that it would be better to move Shildon East into Bishop Auckland. If that happens, we will ‘lose’ 4232 Aycliffe voters to a different constituency. This would, of course, only affect general elections – town and county council elections will remain unaffected – but being split between two MPs will divide and disadvantage Aycliffe.

What can you do?
If you agree with me that it would be a tragedy to lose Greenfield-Middridge back into the Bishop Auckland constituency, then please write to the Boundary Commission for England, 35 Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BQ, or email

Tell them that you want Aycliffe to remain a ‘discrete electoral grouping’ – in whatever constituency it ends up.

Readers will be delighted to know that – unlike many ‘consultations’ – the Boundary Commission really DOES listen to what local people want. So they WILL be influenced by a strong desire from Aycliffe not to be split.
If ever there was a time when Aycliffe needed you to put pen to paper, or to send an email, it is now.

‘Shildon East’ ward. If it goes to Segdefield, Shildon loses Thickley. If it goes to Bishop Auckland, Aycliffe loses 4232 voters – including Middridge and the Greenfields, Chase, Byerley Park, Alston Crescent, Meadowfield, Bluebell and ‘the Dales’ estates.

A Jolly Good Strike

So I joined the picket line demo.
There were about 100 of us.
Mostly older, but a smattering of younger people.
We had all gone in our cars.

It was all a bit jolly for me. Everybody huddled together so the newspaper reporter could take a photo – and smiled and waved their flags.
There was even a little chanting!
‘What do we want?’ ‘Fair pensions.’ ‘When do we want them?’… but I was the only person who said ‘at age 65’.
At the end of each bout of chanting, there was a kerfuffle of giggling and chatting, because everybody, actually, was a tad embarrassed.
These were not experienced seasoned, militants.

Next to me, an older man – an area Union organiser – explained to two younger teachers what ‘working to contract’ comprised. They generally agreed that it was impossible in a school where there was not a united intent amonst the staff. One of them worked in an Academy; she let her flag cover her face in the photographs.

The pickets offered a leaflet to all those people going into work, but it was all very polite and ‘Hello Pat!’ Meanwhile, on my teachers’ forum, we were hearing about teachers who had gone into work ‘because they had too much work not to’, or ‘because they could not afford to lose a days pay’. Funny how the words ‘blackleg’ and ‘scab’ have almost left our vocabulary.
Funny how so many workers nowadays utterly fail to appreciate the importance of the word: ‘Union’.

An Anger-free Action
The last thing I want to do is to undermine these good people, or those millions of people who have given up a day’s pay to support the action.
But I was left wondering where the anger was.

People who become incandescent with rage when someone steals a Christmas decoration from their garden have not yet fully appreciated that the government is planning to take thousands of pounds from them – much of it when they will be too old to work to replace that lost income.

And I was left with the feeling that it is too soon for real anger yet.
Those of us who remember the 1980s will remember what it was like after ten years of Tory cuts, when it wasn’t merely a case of ‘making financial adjustments’ but really was a case of ‘cannot afford’ – when it wasn’t a case of ‘making these shoes last’, but of shoes which had a hole in them and you had no money to buy another pair.

The Times headline today was ‘Osborne Strikes First’ and – having read his Autumn Statement yesterday – it strikes me that he has done much more damage to these good-willed, genial people than their strike could ever do to him.

Give it time, and the anger will be there.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Getting Involved ... in Aycliffe

(This post is purely for anybody following up my letter in the Newton News on how to get involved in local Aycliffe politics.)

Keeping informed:
Once you have joined twitter, you can follow me @johndclare.

Debating local issues:
For a leisurely debate, you can post on the Great Aycliffe Town Council website forum (posts are moderated).
For a bit more fun, you can join the Newton Aycliffe Labour Group of Branches facebook page.

Local Labour Party Branches
There are two Labour Party Branches in Newton Aycliffe:
- Aycliffe North-West branch meets in the Navy Club at 7:30pm on the fourth Thursday of most months. I will publish reminders on twitter, or you can contact the Secretary Vince Crosby on

MP’s office
The MP’s office at 4 Beveridge Walkway is open Monday to Friday between 9.30am and 5.00pm, and appointments can be arranged by calling 01325 321603.

Newton News
The Newton News is also available online.

Supporting the Pensions Strike

The following is an explosion of anger at a blog supporting local government workers who are not going on strike. Not quite blacklegs, because ununionised, but little better. Shame on them.
The blog supported the move to career-average pensions, and also the need to work for longer, but sympathised with people who would struggle to pay increased contributions.
This 'rant' is not comprehensive, but it makes some points I have not seen elsewhere.

Sorry – you have written a ridiculous, ill-thought-out article.

1. Career average
For me to support this AT ALL, it would have to be accompanied by some pretty tough negotiation on conversion rates, and not be merely a mechanism to reduce the final pension (my first monthly salary was £84).
In careers such as teaching, it would damage those teachers who chose to spend a long time in the classroom with the pupils; if we were to move to a final salary scheme, teachers joining the professional would need to be warned that – to get a good pension – they needed to go for promotion as far and as fast as possible, however appropriate that might be. Conversely, it would mean that failure at interview did not mean you missed THIS promotion – it would damage you for the rest of your life.

What I have against the government’s scheme in ALL its facets is that it is being applied retrospectively to people, some of whom may be 49 years of age and have been in the job for a quarter of a century. It may well be acceptable to say to NEW entrants that you are offering a career average scheme (it can be part of whether they decide to take the job or not). What is NOT acceptable is to attract a person with one scheme, wait until that person has based his/her whole career pathway and retirement plans upon that expectation, wait until it is too late for that person to leave the job or significantly alter his/her career … and then announce that everything that he/she had expected is changing/reducing.

For me, it is breach of contract, pure and simple. What would your credit company say if you suddenly wrote to them announcing that you were finding it hard to pay for your car so you would henceforth: (1) pay less monthly, (2) pay for fewer months and (3) base your repayments on the value of the average family car in 1974?

2. Work for longer
For me, this is also heinous.
It is utterly inappropriate in high-stress professions such as teaching, where some members barely get out with their mental health intact; can you REALLY see teachers (every teacher) ploughing on in the classroom until they are 68? What about public sector jobs (e.g. bin men) which require physical health and strength?
And it curtails by three years the general freedom/right of workers to choose to retire early with an actuarially-reduced pension.

But most of all, for me, it strikes me as THE most ridiculous overall economic policy to make older people work longer when we have youth unemployment of more than 1 million. When we talk public sector, we are not just talking about professional, qualified workers such as you lucky people – we are talking about hospital cleaners, dinner nannies and the like, on low pay with few or no qualifications.

Does it make any economic (or indeed financial) sense to force these people to work an extra three years, so that they can contribute what is in effect a pittance extra to their tiny pensions – and thereby keep an army of young people out of work on the dole? Surely the amount we will save on those pensions is peanuts compared to the £billions we will have to shell out in JSA etc.?
And the joke of it is, of course, that – when we are thinking about these VERY poor-paid workers who will only be getting very small pensions – the simple truth is that the State is going to have (at the end of the day) to make up in benefits every penny it saves on their pensions.

3. Higher payments
I’m sorry to be blunt, but your point about higher payments illustrates just how little you have thought about this, and how shallow (and selfish) your thinking is.
Because the increased payments are the LEAST of the government’s actions.
Changing to a career average scheme, deferring the end-date – these are substantive, contractual changes.
Increasing the payments – however annoying – is something that happens all the time. Mortgage interest rises, petrol prices go up – it is something we are used to, and have come to expect. You can negotiate a wage increase, or get a promotion, or simply adjust your spending and wait until inflation dulls the pain.
The damage done by increased contributions (in effect, a rise in taxes) can be easier borne because it is being applied to people who are still in full employment earning their full wage.
So – although I might play hell about it – I wouldn’t go on strike merely over increased payments.

4. Pension schemes
What is worst about the government schemes, and the statement that ‘we cannot afford pensions’ is that it is unrelated to the state of the various pension schemes. I am led to believe that the Local Government Officers scheme is in danger of becoming unviable; by contrast, I am told that the college lecturers’ scheme is in credit. As I understand it, the measures introduced by the Labour government will have solved the pension shortfall in the next couple of decades.
So the government’s assault on pensions is not, therefore, not related to the health of the different pension schemes – it is part of a more general assault on the public sector, to make them pay ‘their share’ (and let’s face it, the ‘lion’s share’) of the deficit reduction.
Moreover, it is regressive. Along with benefit cuts, the VAT rise and other government measures, it is aimed at a sector of the population huge numbers of whom are positively poor, and all but a handful of are decidedly ‘ordinary’.
And it aims to make them pay, moreover, not only out of their pockets now, but by reducing provision in a future when they will no longer be able to work and determine their own situation. It is therefore a truly terrifying and abusive measure, exercised upon the old-and-frail-to-be.

And, of course, it is ultimately a class war. The people proposing the pension changes – apart from those duped by government propaganda – are all people whose financial arrangements for their old age do NOT depend on gradually building up, incrementally from their wages, a small assured income for their old age. They will fund their retirement out of income from their property and investments – and it is to maintain the (sinful) yields from those sources that they are trying to erode the comparative pittance that hospital cleaners, council receptionists and the like were hoping to take into their retirement.

SHAME ON YOU for not being in a Union. Shame on your for breaking the strike.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Why Is the Labour Message SO Muted?

Let’s Face It, the Tories have Won the Propaganda Battle
Talk to most people out there, and they believe – unshakably BELIEVE – that Labour profligacy caused the economic crisis, that the public sector is a leech upon the taxpayer, that immigrants are flooding the country, that teachers’ pensions are unaffordable, etc. etc.
Despite the fact that these opinions are demonstrably not true, these things are now so entrenched, so unassailable in many people’s minds, that the Labour leadership appears to have stopped trying to deny them, and seems, rather, to be trying instead to ‘move on’ from them. Certainly, Ed went through an embarrassing period of ‘apologising’ for Labour’s past ‘mistakes’ which I never agreed with.

Tory Lies and their Impact
If you’re going to tell a lie, said Hitler, tell a big one. And the Tories have perfected the art. For much of the time, we seem to be living in an alternative universe where facts do not matter.
Take, for instance, Michael Gove at a recent conference to mark the launch of new research on the history of History teaching. Here is the run of events, as described by an eyewitness:

David Cannadine started the proceedings with a clear, passionate but evidence-based account of the development of history teaching over the past 100 years – with two major recommendations - don't tinker with the National Curriculum – it works; but do make history compulsory to age 16; and one major observation 'there never was a golden age of history teaching...'
Then up stands Gove with his pre-prepared, ill-informed, cliché-repeating mantra about 'woeful' lack of knowledge, as if David Cannadine had said nothing at all.
For his 'evidence' Gove trotted out once again the ephemeral 'Matthews' research at Cardiff (previously much quoted by Niall Ferguson) but entirely misrepresenting even that. And then launched into a critique of GCSE based solely on a misunderstanding of the SHP GCSE specs.

Of course, the Tories have the press on their side. None of the above was mentioned in the Guardian, which reported Mr Gove’s speech in much more respectful tones:

British history is being neglected in schools because pupils' exam choices cluster around the rise of Nazi Germany and the American wild west, according to the education secretary, Michael Gove.

So perhaps there is little we can do as individuals to correct the impression that all History teachers are irrelevant idiots consciously undermining Britain’s glorious heritage.

The Art of ‘Presentation’
But is it ALL down to a Tory press?

I wonder how much of the problem is simply ‘presentation’. If you look at the Tory lies, they are all very ‘headline-worthy’. I am always struck by how complicated and lacking-in-impact Labour’s recent proposals have been in comparison: e.g. ‘Labour’s five-point plan for growth and jobs: 1…’ (people have lost interest as soon as you say ‘Labour’s’). And as for: ‘Yes we agree that we need to reduce the deficit by cutting government expenditure but the government is cutting too far too fast’ – the mantra of the early days of opposition – everybody had stopped listening by ‘Yes we agree’!

Tory pronouncements are simple soundbites, which impact and stick. Particularly, they have the appearance of common-sense – the EU is removing our sovereignty, benefit scroungers are fleecing the system, etc. These statements are, in fact, TRUE … with significant reservations. This makes them particularly hard to refute, because the refutation involves, not a simple statement, but a detailed argument.

The Impotence of Labour Logic
I read recently a most fascinating article by Rhiannon Lockley in the Labour Left’s Red Book about Labour’s failure to impact on the working class. The critical issue she addressed was the intellectualisation of the Left’s message to an audience who saw it – and rejected it – as an attempt to ‘tell them what to do’.

I remember coming across this attitude years ago during a Personnel Committee meeting when – as I argued the case of one interviewee – a very senior councillor stormed out, accusing me of ‘telling him how to vote’. And if you think that was an isolated exception – after a recent Branch meeting when I urged members to respond to the Boundary Commission proposals for our town – I received yesterday an email from one man complaining: ‘I do resent being told to do what you think is best for Aycliffe’. This was an educated, older man, in a position of high responsibility … but he was utterly incapable of appreciating the differences along the spectrum from expressing an opinion, through arguing a case, urging action, and invoking duty, to issuing an instruction.

I am, of course, hugely persuasive, which is why even people who should know better merge listening to my opinion with having to agree! But this makes our task even harder. Because the truth is that – the more compelling our argument – the more likely it is to be rejected by listeners whose underlying prejudices it challenges. As long as we make powerless points and they can ignore us, that’s fine. But as soon as we begin to win the debate, they get angry and reject us … on all the silly grounds they trot out all the time – that we’re fanatics, troublemakers, doing something which will have dire consequences and even wreck the cause in which we believe.
And, when all else fails, that we have no right to tell them what to do or what to believe.

It’s hard not throw your hands up in despair and cry: ‘We’re lost!’ Britain has some of the most draconian immigration laws in human history (much worse than the ‘isolationist’ immigration laws of 1920s USA), the influx of ‘foreign’ workers is free movement of labour under our EU terms of membership, and immigrants contribute £billions to the economy. But as soon as you begin to explain this, you’re ‘preaching at us’. Teachers’ pensions are far from ‘gold-plated’, and part of a contractual agreement imposed upon new recruits up to 50 years ago … but the people who say they are unaffordable do not want to discuss details like that.

How can Labour, therefore, get its opposition message across?
Labour has not always been clueless in the propaganda stakes. ‘Britain’s not working’ and ‘Things can only get better’ DID have a significant and permanent impact. One of the lovely things about the 1997 election was a small plastic card with the Five Things Labour Believes on the back. Simple and effective – you simply left one in every house you visited. There ARE rules to this kind of thing, and we have some very clever people in the Party, so I cannot for the life of me see why our bon mots are so useless today.
Moreover, not all Tory gambits hit the mark, and we need to be ready to capitalise. NOBODY, for instance, believes that ‘We’re all in this together’. So why the Labour Party hasn’t responded with a ‘Some of us are more ‘in’ it than others’ I don’t know.

Beyond better soundbites, however, the Left is knocking.

Authoritative statements – though fairly impervious to argument – ARE vulnerable to satire – the strongest voices on the Left, at the moment, seem to be comedians such as Marcus Brigstocke and Andy Parsons. But if you think how long it took Spitting Image to displace Margaret Thatcher, you wonder whether satire is effective enough on its own.

Another strategy which has overturned prejudice, of course, is non-violent direct action – such as used by Martin Luther King to confront institutional racism. So all hail the #Occupy movements. The frenzied outrage against the coming TUC ‘Day of Action’ demonstrates that it, too, is having an impact – the sight of hundreds of headteachers and civil servants on protest marches IS regarded as a powerful argument. But Labour supporters need to realise that, as soon as the demonstrations turn violent – if even a small portion of the crowd start looting – then the middle class swing round behind authority, behind the government, and all gains are irrevocably lost … which is why, of course, the Labour leadership tends to distance itself from the very actions which could secure it mass support.

As for myself, the other day I met a man who reassured me that there ARE people out there who care, who think things through, who are persuadable … and who do appreciate my attempts at moderate rational arguments in the Newton News! As the Tory government measures increasingly begin to bite, Labour needs to hold on to its trust that there will be more and more people prepared to listen.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Supply and demand – the difference between Labour’s and the Tories’ economic strategies

A few days ago, Labour launched their Five-Point Plan for Jobs and Growth. It involves:
1. A £2 billion tax on bank bonuses to fund 100,000 jobs for young people
2. Bringing forward long-term investment projects
3. Reversing January's damaging VAT rise
4. A one year cut in VAT to 5% on home improvements
5. A one year national insurance tax break for every small firm that takes on extra workers.

Yesterday, the inimitable @MrJacHart – who is a great blogger and worth following – satirised it as:
1: Spend 2: Borrow 3: Spend More 4: Borrow More 5: Blame everyone else when it doesn't work
which is as hilarious as it is scurrilous!

Labour’s strategy – demand-led growth and why it will succeed
However – and I will deal with Mr Hart’s objection to borrowing below – one thing you have GOT to admit about Labour’s plan for growth and jobs is that it is a DEMAND-LED plan.

Labour sees the truth, that the economy is languishing because demand is falling. The more cuts, the more people tighten their belts, the more businesses suffer and fail, the more the economy languishes. It is the vicious ‘cycle of poverty’ being played out in our economy … (in Sedgefield) in our community.

And it is this that the Labour Plan is self-evidently trying to address.
The jobs for young people, the advance in investment programmes, the tax break for firms that take on more staff – these are all going to put wages in people’s pocket, wages which they will spend, wages that will increase demand and get the economy going.
And the cuts in VAT will put more money in consumers’ pockets – money which (especially if they are poor) they will go straight out and spend – with the concomitant stimulus to shops and businesses.

The Tory strategy – supply-led growth and why it can only fail
By contrast, the Tory plan is a ‘SUPPLY-LED’ plan.

The Tories, with justification – and, it has to be said, with the agreement of by far the majority of the British people – think that it is the deficit which is the main problem facing Britain today.
They are therefore taking steps to cut government spending, fully aware that this will reduce demand.

This is because their hope for economic growth does not lie in consumer demand, but in business enterprise.

The rich – the businessmen, the entrepreneurs, the City of London – are, in Tory thinking, the ‘wealth-creators’. To do anything which might drive them away would be a disaster (which is why Cameron opposes a ‘Robin-Hood tax’). Rather, we need to coax and cosset them, so that they can create wealth. It is the Tory hope that a revitalised and vibrant private sector will take up and compensate for the losses in public sector jobs.

Much of the Tory economic strategy, therefore, is to do just that. How do we encourage forms to invest, expand and employ more people – we reduce corporation tax. How do we persuade the energy companies to build £billions-worth of new generating equipment – by giving them a deal which allows them to charge huge subsidies to the consumers. Allowing private firms into the NHS market, selling the nationalised banks at a huge loss, freeing up planning restrictions. Etc. Etc.
Unsurprisingly, the CBI LOVE this approach, and are lobbying the government for MORE incentives. You can expect presently further initiatives to ‘cut red tape’ (i.e. erode workers’ rights) and undermine the minimum wage.
The idea is that, by offering companies incentives and freedoms, they will respond by expanding ... and taking on more workers.

The problem is, however, of course, is that it palpably isn’t working. The economy continues to languish. All those incentives … and no growth. What could be going wrong?

The reason, of course, lies in the nature of capitalism.
Private firms do not exist to benefit the community. They are not there to provide jobs, or boost the economy. They are there to make profit!
So all the evidence suggests that Small and Medium Enterprises are using the reduction in corporation tax, not to expand, but simply to beef up their bank balances. The energy companies have increased their prices and profits to the point where it has become a national scandal. And when it comes to making deals with the government, the private sector is brilliant at making absolute monkeys out of the civil servants and laughing all the way to the shareholders’ meeting.

I do not blame the companies for this. I blame a government which was so unaware of the nature of capitalism that it put its faith in supply-led economic growth.
It can never work.

Demand-led, debt-free growth
Let’s return to Mr Hart’s lampoon of Labour’s Plan for Growth and Jobs.
Yes, it’s hilarious – but is it true? Is Labour’s Plan no more than a borrow-and-spend disaster?
Answer: to a degree, yes. Proposals 2-4 ARE non-funded.
And in this I completely support Mr Hart; we MUST stop borrowing.

But we have to stop borrowing without damaging demand because – as we have seen – demand-led growth is the only way to boost the economy. (Supply-led growth is not a viable option.)
And to do this without damaging spending and demand, we need to find a way to increase our income, rather than decrease our expenditure.

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I think we need to start TAXING – taxing the rich (so well done Labour on proposal 1).

The ‘wealth-creators’ need to be made to understand that, if they hand over appropriate amounts of tax, it will not damage them! If we put those taxes into the pockets of – especially, poor – people, those people will just go straight out and SPEND that money … buying goods from the very same companies that handed over the tax!!!
So taxes INCREASE company turnover, and pre-tax profits.
And we all gain.

Right-wing commentators on the current 'austerity' budgets often draw parallels between today and the post-1945 period, when Britain similarly was faced with huge, seemingly impossible debts. I suppose it is the shared concept 'austerity' which attracts them.
But what they usually fail to point out is that in 1945, Britain had a FAR higher rate of tax than today. In 1944, the introduction of PAYE had extended tax to many more of the population. Income tax in 1945 was 45%, and surtax (on incomes over £2000) was 52.5%. Compare that to today, with a base rate of 20% and rich people going mad about a 50% higher rate on incomes over £150,000.

Perhaps the difference is that, after the war, there was much more a sense that 'we are all in this together'.
Today it's just a soundbite.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Official: Austerity and Tax Cuts are a Recipe for Disaster

I found this article – – by Conservative MP Nick de Bois confusing beyond measure.

It was touted on twitter by @MrJacHart – a fierce right-wing tweeter whom I would be terrified to cross – as proof that ‘confidence in the economy is not just a matter for the City, but a matter of economic life and death’.

But when you read it, it says to be saying anything BUT that.

A ‘buried’ report and its implications
Mr de Bois starts by lifting the lid on a CBI report which has been ‘buried’. Bless him for resurrecting it, because it’s dynamite ammunition for the TUC and the left, but why…?

Anyway, according to Mr de Bois the business community is in despair, with three quarters saying their view of the economic outlook had worsened considerably since the summer, and three out of five business leaders preparing to alter their business strategies in consequence. It is very honest of a Tory MP to blog this news, but it’s hardly a ringing endorsement for the success of Tory policy, is it? It is telling us that Labour was correct, that austerity DAMAGES the economy, reduces demand, and harms industry. This isn’t just some left-wing blogger saying so – it’s the CBI (recycled by a Tory MP)!

What hit me most about Mr de Bois’s comments was his revelation that 38% of firms surveyed by the CBI are planning to lay off staff. (And I presume the ‘altered business plans’ also include downward pressure on wages.)

What strikes me about this is that – whether the economy succeeds or fails – it seems that I suffer.

If the economy fails, says the right, many of you will lose your jobs and things will be BAD! That, apparently, is why we are implementing austerity measures.
But what Mr de Bois is telling me is that, under austerity, many of us will lose our jobs and things will be bad ANYWAY!
So what’s in it for me?
It strikes me that the government is wanting us to support an austerity programme primarily so the rich don’t have to suffer like we, the ordinary people, are going to have to suffer … whatever.
Forgive me, but I just can’t seem to work up a great deal of enthusiasm for such a policy.

The failure of Tory tax measures
The next thing, Mr de Bois addresses is the tax issue, saying that Tory fiscal measures had ‘set the right direction; by reducing corporation tax more money was left in the hands of businesses which could then be reinvested via spending on goods, services and crucially staff.’ This, we know, is the Tory mantra for economic growth. If we let the firms
the 'wealth-creators' make bigger profits, those firms will be able to expand and the economy will prosper.
However, Mr de Bois then goes on to tell us that:

‘Venture Finance, having surveyed 500 small and medium enterprises business owners and directors, found 47% have cash reserves but are unwilling to invest it in their business because they feel the economy is too uncertain.’

Hang on. So let me get this right… What Mr de Bois is telling me is that, given the Tory economic policy of austerity for the poor and tax reductions for the employers, the poor are going to get hammered ANYWAY … and the employers are just pocketing the tax break.

The answer is tax, not austerity
Elsewhere on this blog I have argued fiercely that the economic problem is not so much government overspending, as inadequate tax revenue. Mr de Bois believes sincerely in the government’s economic strategy, but NOTHING he has told me convinces me that it is not steering us inevitably towards disaster.
As Mr de Bois blogs:

‘The strategy of building up the bank balance whilst waiting for clearer economic horizons could fast become a vicious cycle, sending everyone back into economic stagnation.’

I would only demur at the word: ‘could’.

Friday, 18 November 2011

AAPs - time to go

The Problem
A nice man came recently from Durham County Council to talk to the Town Council about the performance of the local economy. He was quite enthusiastic about the way the county council was engaging with the local Area Action Partnership (AAP) – ‘GAMP’ (the Great Aycliffe and Middridge Partnership).
So I asked him could he think of any way that DCC could work with the Town Council! Given that GATC has a budget of more than £2.5million, compared to the AAP’s available funding of £150,000, you would have thought he would have been glad to do so. But no. The look on his face told me that, not only had he never thought of such a thing before, he really could not think of any reason to work with the Town Council at all.

Three days later, I went to the CDALC (County Durham Association of Local Councils) at County Hall. Proceedings were opened by a lovely woman who turned out to be Vice Chair of the County Council. After saying hello, much of her welcome turned out to be a eulogy about DCC’s excellent relationships with the AAPs. Given that she was welcoming a meeting of local councils, I could not help wondering whether she was simply being tactless, or whether she was trying to tell us something.

At that same meeting there was a stall advertising DCC’s consultation about Community Buildings. Surprised that I hadn’t heard about it (DCC always used to email me about new consultations), I went home to check it out. It turns out that they have stopped informing people of new consultations, moved them to a webpage in the bowels of their website, and started consulting instead through the AAPs. So there was no wonder I hadn’t heard.

And then, barely a couple of days later, I got the County Durham News, enthusing about the AAPs and announcing that a recent review and consultation about the AAPs had proved them ‘fit for purpose’.

A Misleading Report
Now the review – when I had eventually tracked it down through the labyrinth of the DCC website – actually proved nothing of the sort. You are welcome to read my more detailed analysis here.
• Most of the comment had come from consultation with DCC’s AAP officers, or with the AAP executives or boards.
• The response of the broader AAP membership of 5000+ was less than enthusiastic to say the least (of 279 who could be bothered to reply, a quarter rated the performance of AAPs in ‘engaging residents and service users’ as either fairly or very poor, and a third did not feel that their local AAP provided an ‘important point of contact for local people to discuss local public services’).
• And the few people
who commented who were not directly connected to the AAPs were even more negative – in particular asking why the AAPs needed an administration levy of 40% of income, by what democratic right they exercised their functions, and why only one Town or Parish councillor was allowed on the AAP boards (all these questions were left unaddressed).

Instead – despite such a lukewarm and partial response – the review not only declared the AAPs ‘fit for purpose’, but resolved:
1. to use the AAPs for consultations in the future (which explains a lot)
2. to enhance the power of the AAP Board Chairs, who already attend the County Durham Partnership, to influence its decisions. (This alarmed me greatly, because even the larger local councils are not even asked to attend the CDP, never mind influence its decisions.)
3. to use the local Town and Parish Councils (TPCs) to publicise the AAPs’ ‘successes’ (which is just downright cheeky).

The Cuckoo in the Nest
Now to be fair, not all the responses in the review were hostile. Half-a-dozen smaller TPCs had praised the AAPs, and some were positively sycophantic. And I can understand why a small TPC, with a budget perhaps of as little as £20,000 – most of it earmarked for standing administration and revenue charges – would get excited when it was invited to take part in spending £150,000 on the local community!

But, for the Larger Local Councils – all of which will spend
every month more than the entire AAP's year's budget, and which will probably spend more each year than the AAP on community projects – the AAPs are a threat and an outrage.
The AAPs are unelected, officer-led quangos. They are deeply compromised – almost a third of the board members are County Councillors, a third are interested ‘partner’ organisations, and the ‘independent members’ are not only self-proposed but are selected by the other 14! I can fully understand why the County council would prefer to consult such an organisation, rather than the established, independent, outspoken, critical larger TPCs – but I cannot understand how DCC can pretend that it is a valid ‘consultation’ to do so.

I have an awful suspicion that the AAPs, who were always the cuckoo in the nest, are just beginning to shuffle around and are starting to push out the TPCs.
Yet the TPCs are the democratically-elected representatives of the people – elected explicitly to be their voice.
The whole thing is most concerning. We are tut-tutting about non-elected technocrats replacing elected MPs in Italy … whilst our County Council is replacing the elected TPCs with corporatist quangos in our own backyard.

Conclusion and Recommendations
The pub in Aycliffe Village is called the North Briton, in memory of the publication by the 18th century politician John Wilkes, who once famously declared that ‘the power of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’.
Perhaps we need to say the same of the AAPs?

The AAPs are not an organ of local democracy, and their development marks the replacement in local politics of democracy by corporatism, sponsored and implemented by the County Council.
Although there is a perceivable role for AAPs where parishes are small or non-existent, where people are represented at TPC level by a larger local council, there is no need for an AAP, whose functions the Larger Local Councils could do cheaper, better.

We need to insist:
1. that the County Council resumes conducting consultations through the TPCs (at least the Larger Local Councils)
2. that the Larger Local Councils should be given a place on the County Durham Partnership (and its thematic committees)
3. that the Consultative Councils Committee be revived as a point of contact between DCC and the TPCs.

Durham County Council Consultations

Again, this rant is aimed at Aycliffe people.

From time to time, Durham County Council publishes consultation documents on which residents are invited to comment. Since these consultations usually announce changes which affect our lives, I would advise everybody to ‘have their say’.
Until recently, there was a scheme whereby the County Council emailed you about new consultations as they happened; this seems to have ended. Instead, you now have to keep track of County Council consultations yourself at:
(alternatively go to the DCC home page, and do a site search for ‘Consultations’).
If you bookmark this page, you will be able to check it from time to time for new consultations.

There are currently THREE consultations which affect Great Aycliffe. Actually, we fare relatively well in all three, but you might wish to reply to these consultations saying that you agree (to prevent objections from other areas causing the County Council to change its mind).

1. Household Waste Recycling Centres – the County Council is closing down six HWRCs through the County. Our Heighington Lane HWRC is set to stay open, but it might be worthwhile replying to say you agree. (If it closes, we will have to drive to Roman Way.) You can reply, slightly inconveniently, by completing an online 14-question survey.

2. CCTV – Great Aycliffe will come out quite well if the consultation goes through. Of 141 cameras which are proposed for decommissioning throughout the county, only 3 are in Aycliffe – one at the police station (which is closing anyway), and two on Town Council premises (which the Town Council can take over). The Town Council has formally welcomed the consultation recommendations, but you can email to give them your views.

3. Community Buildings – faced with huge cuts to its budget, the County Council is having to rationalise the 120 community buildings which it owns. The plan is to target just 36 of them for £2.15 million investment (provided they formulate a business plan and find 30% matched funding), though future work will not be funded by the council. The remaining 84 buildings are not initially targeted for funding and will either be sold, or offered to the community under ‘asset transfer’.
It is an ‘everybody loses’ plan, but given that the buildings need £7.5 million capital investment and £2.5 million a year to maintain, it is difficult to see what else the County Council could do in the current circumstances.
The ONLY Great Aycliffe building involved in this is Aycliffe Village Hall, and it is one of the 36 buildings prioritised for investment, but if you live in Aycliffe Village you will be very interested in this consultation.
It is intended that the consultation team will be present at the GAMP AAP forum on 22 November (at 6pm in the Newton Aycliffe Youth Centre), and DCC will be meeting with the Village Hall Committee.
The detailed proposals are available on the Consultations webpage, and you can respond to the consultation on

John D Clare
You can follow Councillor Clare on twitter @johndclare

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Getting the message across to Aycliffe

This rant is aimed at local Aycliffe people – mainly at Aycliffe Labour people. Although some of the principles involved have wider application, the specifics are solely about Aycliffe.

I am going to finish this rant by asking you to do some things, but I am going to start by asking you three questions.
- What are the three current DCC consultations affecting Aycliffe?
- What is Labour’s Plan for Jobs and Growth?
- Are you Blue Book, Purple Book or Red Book?

If you know the answers to all three, you are a very clever person and can probably stop reading.
If not, read on…

You see, I think we are woefully ignorant about political matters.
I’m not talking about the vast mass of people ‘out there’ whom we sometimes impugn, who would prefer to watch X-Factor than attend a GAMP meeting.
I’m not even solely talking about the rank-and-file of Labour Party members, whose ‘activism’ is often confined to attending the odd Branch meeting.
No – I’m talking about people who would like to think themselves ‘active’ in politics – local councillors, Branch chairs and secretaries, union reps and the like.

To be fair, I am not surprised that most of us are woefully ignorant about political matters. Now we are out of power and have a Tory government, it is almost impossible to keep up with the welter of government initiatives-in-power that need opposing, of County Council initiatives-in-response that need consulting and of Labour Party initiatives-in-opposition that need supporting.
If you are married with a job to hold down and a family to look after, I would think it is impossible to keep up with everything without neglecting your personal responsibilities.
And in a ‘stagflation’ world of increasing expense and falling real wages, it is expensive attending meeting after meeting, never mind going on conferences.
How CAN one keep up with what is going on?

When you go to Labour Party meetings on renewal, facebook and Twitter figure only slightly below direct intervention by the Almighty Himself as the great hope for salvation.
I don’t know about outreach – in fact I have my doubts – though I can tell you that facebook will be of no use in ANY way to the Party until Party members start to use it.

But Facebook could be THE ANSWER for the local Aycliffe Labour Party person who wants to keep up-to-date with what’s going on in local and national politics.

General Advice about Facebook
The thing to remember about facebook is that it is a social networking site. The clue to its nature lies in the two words ‘social’ … and ‘networking’.

The best way to imagine it is like an old-style pub from 20 years ago, full of groups of people sat round talking. You need to remember that you’ll be happiest if you sit with a group of people whom know you and who like you, and also to realise that you intervene in other groups’ discussions at your own risk.
When you join facebook you’ll be asked to seek ‘friends’ and you’ll be pestered by people asking you to be their ‘friend’. Some people have thousands of ‘friends’, and leave their facebook page open for all the world to see and contribute. My strong advice, especially if you are older or a bit nervous of the technology, would be to have only family and your closest friends as ‘friends’, and to set almost all your privacy settings to ‘friends’ only.

It is really easy to join facebook. When you have a facebook account, you will need to join the Newton Aycliffe Labour Group Of Branches (NALGOB).
When you have done so, you will be ready to go … either as a Lurker, or a Worker.

Facebook 'Lurkers'
There are many people who drop by the NALGOB page … and just look.
Especially when threads are getting a bit heated, there are many people who simply would not dare to contribute.
They are called ‘lurkers’.

I think this is a GREAT use of the medium. We don’t have many regular posters, but between us we cover a broad range of matters. Vince Crosby shares things about the NHS and other local government matters. Kate Hopper regularly directs our attention to the latest Labour Party initiative. Lilith Moon is our ‘radical’ – she acts as our political ‘conscience’ and posts about social justice matters. And of course, there’s me, usually ranting about one thing or another.

Facebook isn’t a very good place for a long rational argument (which is why I write my rants on this blog). So most posts consist of a simple comment such as: ‘This made my blood boil’, followed by a link to an external document (for instance a webpage, or a newspaper article).

If you are a ‘lurker’, if you visit the NALGOB facebook site regularly, it will be a simple matter to ‘keep in touch’ with what’s going on. You will visit the group page, and scroll down looking at the different topics. At best, you will be able to get an idea of what is kicking off, and who is saying what, simply from what you can see on the facebook page, but at worst it will merely need you to click and skim-read the link.

As you do so, regularly, you will find yourself becoming more up-to-date, and more politically-aware, and you will find your opinions becoming more formed and sophisticated.

Facebook 'Workers'
The Newton Aycliffe Labour Group Of Branches is organised as an open discussion/debate page.
(We have fought very hard to keep it as such in the face of opposition from people who thought it ought to ‘toe the Labour Party line’.)

That means that any NALGOB member – within the accepted rules of netiquette – has the right to say anything he or she likes about any topic on the page. There is no censorship and, unless you swear or become personally abusive, you can speak your mind without fear or favour.
Of course, you have at the same time to allow others the right to disagree with you, and it is up to members to keep discussions pleasant and restrained.
Where they are becoming a bit heated, someone usually steps in and calls for calm!

So, whilst we are delighted to host as many ‘lurkers’ as want to do so, we have a hope that you may one day start to contribute.

The nicest way to do this is to ‘like’ a post. It seems very little, but you have no idea how gratifying this is for someone who has posted their opinion online! Whether it is their first time or their millionth post, EVERYBODY gets a little thrill when they know that what they have said has been accepted by someone else … who agrees. Please throw your ‘likes’ around liberally – it builds up individual confidence and group morale.

Perhaps, one day, you will dare to join those people who post IN a thread. Perhaps you will share your ‘take’ on the issue, or just reinforce someone else’s view.
Or even – if you have come across something which is politically interesting or infuriating – you will start your own thread. Starting with a sentence explaining what it is all about and what you think about it, you will copy and paste the link and hit return. Publish and be damned, as they say! And you will have become one of those facebook ‘workers’ keeping the ‘lurkers’ entertained and informed.

Twitter will keep you more up-to-date than facebook, more quickly, more easily.

General Advice about Twitter
The thing which will help you understand about Twitter is to think of it as a bulletin board.
People who post on Twitter (‘tweeters’) have a Twitter account and, every time they have anything to say, they tap it in, send it off and put it out there! Unlike Facebook, Twitter has a length-limit (147 characters, including spaces), so what tweeters say is short, sweet and to the point. Like facebook, however, it IS possible to include a link to a bigger document, so you will find tweeters often make a short point, and then put the link to their blog, or a newspaper article etc.

Because you are allowed so few words, Twitter is NOT good for debates. I follow some pretty awesome political thinkers, but when they get into an argument with someone else the ‘debate’ dissolves into a series of clever-dick, bitchy ‘retorts’ from which neither side comes out well, to be honest.
Rather, Twitter is about getting information and ideas ‘out there’, where they can work their effect.

Listening to the Twitter
Signing up for Twitter is even easier than signing up for facebook but – if that is all you do – you will never get anybody else’s tweets (and nobody will ever read what you tweet).

So you need to find people to ‘follow’. You find these people in a number of ways. If you know their Twitter-name, you can ‘search’ for them. Also, you will find that Twitter bombards you with ideas of people whom it thinks you might want to follow. And as you go on, you will find other people who seem ‘OK’. It’s easy to ‘follow’ them – you just click on the name, then click on ‘follow’.
‘Following’ someone simply means that, every time they tweet, you get to see it on your timeline.

I strongly advise you to follow sparingly. There is a temptation to follow the BBC, CNN, the Huffington Post, afneil etc., but all that happens is that every minute you get thousands of tweets arriving from all across the world and there is no way you can read them. Instead, my advice would be to choose a small group of people to suit your interests, and keep to them.

I, for example, follow family and friends, a few History Teachers, and a small group of people caught up in the Bahrain atrocities. For politics, I have found the following people informative and challenging, whilst being able to keep up with their posts:

(and of course @johndclare).

Twitter – better than any other way on earth – will keep you informed and up-to-date about the issues that matter to you. I knew about #Occupy three days before it reached the BBC News, and have followed heartbreaking minute-by-minute tweets about massacres in Syria and Bahrain which never made British TV or newspapers at all. This is the kind of thing that, when you read it, you copy the link and post it straight onto the facebook NALGOB page!

And, as for finding out about Aycliffe issues, I am asking everybody who posts something relevant about Newton Aycliffe to add #Aycliffe to their tweet. This way, if you enter #Aycliffe into your search box, you will be able to see everything that has been tweeted recently about Aycliffe.

Again, the key is to check into your Twitter account every day. I have bookmarked my email, NALGOB fb and Twitter pages, and I simply go in and check all three every day in the same way that I pick up and read the letters which the postman puts through my letter box.

Tweeting on Twitter – Getting the Message Out There!
As time goes on, you will collect a small group of ‘followers’ – people who have asked to be sent your tweets. Unlike facebook, you cannot stop this – you are not asked to approve ‘followers’ in the way that facebook asks you to approve ‘friends’ – though you can block pests.

I have assembled a very eclectic group of followers including – as well as family and friends – some History teachers, some history students who use my revision website, some people from Bahrain, a smattering of windfarm campaigners and a few Labour activists … and an American TV executive! Some people, in a vulgar way, have thousands of followers; I prefer a small select audience. Quality not Quantity.
But whoever they are, every time I tweet, every one of them gets to know what I have said.

The other way I am asking people to ‘get the message out there’, however, is that when you think or find something about Aycliffe that you want to tweet, please add the #Aycliffe tag to your post, and it will appear on the #Aycliffe timeline for the Twitter-lurkers to read.

You will have realised that neither facebook nor Twitter are particularly ‘outreach’ tools and to be blunt they never will be or can be. They are not RECRUITMENT tools, and they most certainly do not make the initial approach.
On neither facebook nor Twitter are you forced to receive information or statements you did not ask for – you only get to hear from people whom you WANT to hear from.

Having said that, both facebook and Twitter ARE open to anyone who WISHES to listen, and so – eventually – we might hope that people will join to see what we are saying, because they are interested. Personally, as the Tory cuts bite, I suspect we will see this more and more.

But for people to gain a benefit when they DO decide to check us out, we need to be using the media positively and impressively.

Therefore, I am asking you all personally PLEASE to:
1. sign up to Twitter and facebook, and join the Newton Aycliffe Labour Group of Branches group (if you do not know how, ask someone like Mark Catmull or me to show you).
2. bookmark and check the NALGOB fb and #Aycliffe pages every day when you check your emails.
3. ‘like’ posts and contribute to debates on facebook, and tweet to the #Aycliffe, whenever there is something people ought/might like to know.

We are in a cyber war. The Independents have twice tried and failed to run a website. Now we need to ‘fill the ether’!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

‘Sit down, you’re rocking the boat.’

I am continually being told – and have been all my life – to shut up because I’m apparently upsetting ‘people’.
The evidence for these alleged indiscretions is usually an outraged complaint from someone I thought was on my side.

The latest is that, apparently, single-handedly, I am saying things that will ‘snuff out even the slightest spark of interest in the Labour movement’.

Now, apart from a suspicion that my detractors have a tad overestimated my electoral influence, things like this always stop you in your tracks. I genuinely don’t want to upset anyone unnecessarily, and I certainly don’t want to harm the Labour Party.

And then I think: John Wilkes, Feargus O’Connor, Nye Bevan.
What would they have said?

Would they have called a Focus Group and issued a propitiatory statement to soothe the majority whilst upsetting as few people possible?
Or would they simply have said what they believed?

People nowadays despise politicians. They think (admittedly somewhat unfairly) that they are self-serving position-seekers.
They think they lack integrity.

Perhaps the issues are linked.
Perhaps people would find it refreshing to return to politicians who actually say what they think, rather than what they think people want to hear – politicians who have principles, rather than simply parroting a bland, safe ‘party line’.

It’s nice to be popular.
But sometimes you’ve got to tell it how you see it.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Are Wind-Turbines 'Here to Stay' in Britain's Energy Policy?

This blog entry has taken me a fortnight to write. By sheer chance, finishing it coincided with an article in the Telegraph by Chris Huhne which warned us that 'wind turbines are here to stay'.

To be honest, I am sure they are. The government, supported by the Labour Party, is absolutely determined to go down the wind-farm route. The left and the idealistic are even more pro-windfarms. Opposition is restricted to the right, and to climate change deniers who are easily dismissed as 'cranks'.

If you are pro-wind energy, then this rant will not change your mind. But perhaps it will raise some questions.
I recently read an essay which stated that the moral case for renewables was 'irrefutable'.
It is not.

The Present Cannot Go On
First let’s start with something we all agree on; the present situation cannot go on. Britain’s power stations are not only high-carbon, they are old and about to reach their sell-by date. So we MUST build new generating capacity.

The second thing that nobody can disagree with is that Britain has made certain commitments to implement renewable energy. I suppose these could be broken, but it would be bad form.

There is also, thirdly, a general consensus that – for a variety of factors including political instability in the supplier nations and inevitable, gradual depletion of reserves – gas and oil are likely to become increasingly expensive, and that it would be wise to explore alternative sources of energy. This is coupled with a feeling that, as gas and oil decrease, there is going to be an increased reliance on, and need for, electricity.

And climate change? I really do not know what is happening to the climate and – for the purposes of this article only, of course – I do not really care who is right and who is wrong. What I do know is that, even if the Climate Change Doubters are totally right, there can surely equally be no doubt that we need to take maximum care of the environment. Fourthly, in policy terms, therefore, we need to proceed as though Climate Change was true, even if it turns out not to be so.

A ‘Renewables’ Strategy
Given these constants, the government’s energy plan looks increasingly to meet future electricity needs from renewable energy, of which it has identified eight key sources, and of which onshore wind is generally regarded as the cheapest and most viable. The capital investment will need to be met from the private sector, so part of the energy strategy involves offering the energy companies a deal sufficiently attractive to attract the investment. Nevertheless, there is a hope – given that there will be a global move to renewables – that Britain will be able to develop trade in renewable energy technology and that (perhaps from huge off-shore wind generating stations) we will even be able to export energy to the rest of Europe. In this way, there is a hope that the investment will eventually pay itself back.
Moreover, since wind and waves are free resources, there is a perception that the energy they supply will similarly be ‘free’ and – with the Prime Minister offering local communities a ‘stake’ in the revenue a local wind-farm will generate – the more sanguine pundits are predicting a future of cheap electricity and an end to fuel poverty.

The only problem with this vision is that it is mistaken.

Let’s Talk About Wind-farms
I have a number of problems with wind-farms as the great hope for a renewables future.

Now, it is true that, when I suggested on twitter that ‘to support wind-power you either have 1. not to have looked into it; 2. to be wilfully blind; 3. to be foolish’, I was given a hard time by a number of people. In particular, one critic forwarded the email address of a university professor who is an expert on wind power and asked me if I thought he was an idiot.
OF COURSE I do not think the professor is an idiot! But that does not make wind-farms the correct answer to our energy needs, and it does not make everything I say on the subject wrong.
I will email this to that professor, and will be happy for him to correct any factual errors I make.

The Problem with Wind-farms
My first beef with wind-farms, however, strikes me as factually incontrovertible – they are not a reliable form of energy.
So why are we being asked to rely on them for our energy?
I’m not interested in a detailed, essentially sterile, debate about capacity versus output – whether it is 20% or 30% – or even 40% (which it most certainly is not by the way).
No. It is more important – and incontrovertible – that wind-farm electricity has two key drawbacks:
1. output from an individual turbine can fluctuate wildly, not just from day to day, but from moment to moment, so it is NEVER a secure form of energy.
2. there are times – mostly in the middle of summer, and in the middle of winter (when we need electricity most) – when there is a high pressure system over Britain and no wind blows anywhere, sometimes for whole days at a time.

Surely, if people would just stop for a minute and be reasonable, no one in their right mind would really suggest that it is sensible to rely for our electricity on an energy source which fails, frequently, and without warning?
Would you accept a car, a bridge, a freezer, a computer, a chair, a heart-lung machine … ANYTHING else … on those terms? In a world which relies on reliability, it makes no sense to choose a power source which is inherently UNreliable.

Any apology you read in favour of wind-farms, therefore, almost immediately embarks on an investigation of how we can compensate when they are not working.

Some of the apologists admit that this backup will most likely be a gas-generator which will be ‘ramped’ up and down as necessary as the wind-farm output falls and rises.
Now there is a secondary problem with this, inasmuch as – used thus inefficiently, it seems to be the case that the reserve power station will therefore produce more CO2 pollution than it would if it had simply been used full-time at 100% efficiency. I have even heard it claimed that, used in this way, such a station produces MORE extra CO2 than the wind-farm is saving, and thus the net effect of a wind-farm is an INCREASE in CO2 emissions – but even if this is hyperbole, you get the idea.

However, you don’t have to be a university professor to appreciate the primary problem with needing backup power stations capable of supplying 100% of the electricity which Britain needs! Remember that we are talking real life – MONEY – here … so can anybody tell me what sense it makes to buy a power station to backup the wind-farms, when that power station could supply all our electricity needs on its own? I know there are rich people who have a bicycle, and get their chauffeur to drive behind in case it rains, but most of us can only afford the one car, and we drive it ourselves. So why are we doing the equivalent for our electricity-production? Given the costs involved, surely it is a bonkers policy! Whatever we put in place as the RELIABLE generation-source to backup wind-farms, surely we need to ditch wind-farms and just go with that?

I have noticed recently certain writers, perhaps realising this Catch-22, are starting to offer other, ‘sustainable’ suggestions about what the backup-for-wind-farms might be. The WWF (apparently the country’s largest NGO) and Ecosys (a renewables lobby) have proposed an interconnected system covering all Europe; the wind, goes the argument, MUST be blowing somewhere in Europe, so when the wind stops blowing in Britain, we will simply pipe in the electricity from where it IS blowing.
Now – apart from the political reservations I might have about relying on e.g. the Serbs or the Greeks for the electricity to power our operating theatres, and apart from the fear that there might, indeed, come a time when there was, for a limited period, no wind ANYWHERE in Europe, and apart from the worry about the cost of having to buy, for substantial portions of the year, our electricity from continental suppliers – have you seen the biggest flaw in this scheme? It requires substantial OVER-capacity across Europe. For, if we are going to supply Europe when the wind is blowing here but not in Europe, we are going to need enough wind-farms, not just to supply ourselves, but to supply (when it comes to it) ALL EUROPE.

It surely has to be a daft idea which suggests covering each area of Europe with enough wind turbines to supply all Europe. By my reckoning we are going to need at least ten times as many wind-farms to meet our own targets AND THEN SOME MORE to supply Europe. You are not going to able to move for wind turbines. It is surely impracticable?

The Cost of Wind-Produced Electricity
It is true that the wind and waves are free, but the perception that the energy they supply will be ‘free’ is desperately mistaken.

Firstly, there IS a cost to producing wind-power. God knows how this is made up – maintenance costs, transfer, profit, repayment of capital investment, standby generation cost … our university professor will be able to tell us better, but I think I am correct in saying that the electricity companies are paying something in the region of £45-£50 a megawatt for it.
(For comparison, according to Chris Huhne, ‘offshore wind is assessed at £130 per megawatt hour, gas with carbon capture at £95 per megawatt hour, and nuclear at £66 per megawatt hour’. But coal is about £25 and gas even cheaper, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering).
Now I know what you are thinking. If onshore wind is twice as expensive as coal-produced electricity – might that be a price worth paying to save the earth?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Since wind-power is so commercially unprofitable, and since the capital investment is so huge, the government has had to do some very costly deals to persuade the generating companies to get involved.

It is not a straight subsidy; what happens is that the government allows the electricity companies to claim ROCs (renewable obligations certificates) on every megawatt of wind-power they produce, sell them to themselves (at about £45-50 a ROC), and then TO CHARGE THAT COST TO THE CONSUMER.
Thus the ROC system works like a subsidy, but it is paid by the consumer, not the government, and it works by at least doubling the price the companies charge for renewable-produced energy.

Now, as somewhat of a ‘leftie’ politically, what strikes me about this is that it is just about the most regressive form of taxation that could have been devised by a coven of fascist Machiavellis. It is not just that the extra cost is a much greater proportion of a poor person’s income than that of the rich. It is worse than that. The rich have their cavity wall insulation, lagged lofts and new boilers – their energy needs are proportionately lower, and some of them have PV panels on the roof and are selling electricity back into the system and claiming their own subsidy! So it is the poor, with their low energy ratings, and especially the old, with their outrageous need to keep warm, who are doubly-disproportionately hit by a form of hidden taxation which at least doubles the cost of renewable energy and charges the extra … mainly to them!
To a criminally disproportionate degree, those turbines you see have been paid for by old age pensioners.
We are marching about student fees, petitioning about the NHS, striking about pensions, but supporting a ‘green’ energy plan which is taking the cost of capital investment PLUS the profit sweetener for the companies … from the aged and the deprived.
It leaves me speechless and outraged.
‘I’d do a pact with the devil to get green energy,’ proclaimed one friend.
We already have.

The Planning Cost
As I have been writing this rant, it has occurred to me that much of my hostility to wind-farms comes, not so much from the turbines themselves, which are indubitably a ‘green’ way of producing electricity (providing you can find somewhere inoffensive to put the commercially-unviable monstrosities). What angers me much, much more are the appalling governmental iniquities which are being employed to foist them upon us so that the government can meet its emissions targets.

Take, for instance, planning. Many readers will be familiar with the recent Draft National Planning Policy Framework (DNPPF), and its presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’. What you may NOT have realised is that in the DNPFF, wind-farms are declared to be sustainable by definition (paragraph 146 declares that ‘the wider environmental benefits associated with increased production of energy from renewable sources’ are among the ‘special circumstances’ which will permit development even on Green Belt).
Even worse, in paragraph 153 it states:

‘Once opportunity areas for renewable and low-carbon energy have been mapped in plans, local planning authorities should also expect subsequent applications for commercial scale projects outside these areas to demonstrate that the proposed location meets the criteria used in identifying opportunity areas…’

This final provision amounts to wind farms by sleight of hand! What it says to developers is that, once a Local Plan has identified an area as appropriate for wind farms, they can apply to site a wind farm ANYWHERE provided that they can demonstrate that the criteria in the new area match the criteria in the designated areas – thus the DNPPF amounts to a carte blanche to build wind farms almost anywhere a wind farm would be feasible.

People like me, who dare to question the wisdom of wind-farms, are often labelled ‘NIMBYs’. ‘Not in my backyard’; it is nonsense. It’s not my backyard I’m worried about (I’ve got one coming across the road); it’s YOUR backyard I’m trying to protect.

And if you doubt my claim that, in regards to wind-farms, the DNPPF amounts to a revocation of local planning self-determination, listen to Chris Huhne speaking at the Renewables Energy Conference in October 2011:

‘We’re reforming the planning system, to ensure it’s no longer a brake on sustainable development … We have introduced a fast-track process for consents. And we will close the Infrastructure Planning Commission and return decisions on major energy infrastructure to democratically elected minister … It’s a comprehensive action plan to accelerate the UK’s deployment and use of renewable energy.’

I would only ask one question. If wind-power is so good for the environment, the economy and jobs, and if (as Mr Huhne contended) 73% of people would support a wind-farm in their area … why has it been necessary to ride roughshod over local planning powers and impose this centralised autocratic system to force through planning consent?

Other forms of Renewable Energy
I’ve been ‘green’ for a long time – probably much longer than you, reader. But if we are to go green successfully, we have to do so sensibly. Closing our eyes and hoping is NOT, long-term, going to produce anything but disaster. There is no pause for reflection, no impartial review of outcomes. No, we plough on regardless – ‘We will not heed the naysayers or the green economy deniers’, Mr Huhne assured the Renewables Conference.

But – whilst I reserve my real hostility for wind-farms – surely there is someone out there big enough to admit that many forms of renewable energy have serious, significant weaknesses.

Biomass is an effective way of producing electricity. Indeed, there is a biomass plant a couple of miles north of my house which produces as much electricity as all 45 of the wind-turbines proposed for the site a couple of miles east of where I live. (There is an increasing lobby to use biomass to ‘fill the gaps’ for wind-power.)
But waste is finite – AND we are supposed to be eliminating it – and one has to question, in a world of famine, the ethics of growing trees and, God help us, food to fuel biomass plants.

Marine power (tides and waves) is technologically not advanced enough to be a serious player. Offshore wind is hailed as the great hope, but capital investment is so great that progress is touch-and-go.

Renewables which MIGHT work
If there are any great hopes for the future, I would see them in heat-exchange technology and photovoltaic cells.
Heat-exchange technology – particularly air source heat pumps – has to be the most climate-friendly energy source of all. Whereas all other forms of heating CREATE heat (which inevitably escapes into the environment), air source heat pumps take heat out of the air round your house, from which it escapes … where? Well back into the air it came from, of course!
Neither do photovoltaic cells do anything except take energy which has already arrived on earth and harvest it for you to use in your house.

Surely any government in its right mind would now be funding frantic research into these two ‘most sensible’ forms of renewable energy, to bring down costs and increase efficiency? But neither of these sources is regarded as a large-scale solution for the problem. Photovoltaic energy is not even one of the eight forms of renewable energy identified in the government’s 2011 Renewable Energy Roadmap, and the government has recently reduced the feed-in tariff.

Towards an Acceptable Green Energy policy
So what do we do, then? Throw up our arms in despair and go back to coal? Or shrug our shoulders, accept the wind-farms, and line the electricity companies’ streets with gold?

I think it IS possible to envisage a green energy policy, but – if it is to be successful – there are a number of ‘MUSTs’:

1. Fair Funding
It is no longer acceptable to fund capital investment from the bills of the poor. If there is to be support for capital investment, it must come from increased direct taxation, where it can be progressive, as it should be.

2. Reduction in Usage
There are two sides to an energy equation. One way to meet our future electricity needs is to increase capacity; another way is to reduce usage.
At the moment, government action on this is half-hearted and directed – as always – at the consumer, who is exhorted to half-fill the kettle and turn down the heating.
A much better way would be to direct legislation at manufacturers. If government were to set ambitious energy usage targets for appliances, and ban the sale of appliances which did not meet those targets, you can be pretty sure that appliances which meet those targets will suddenly, miraculously, appear on the market.

3. Legislative action
If I ruled the world, I would change building regs so that any new building erected from 2011 HAD to have a south-facing roof covered in photovoltaic panels. I understand that there would be significant problems if the government did the same for air-source heat exchange central heating, but it should nevertheless be possible to gradually introduce penalties/subsidies which will move the building industry increasingly in that direction. Again, you can bet that industry would rapidly adapt, technology would improve, and prices fall.
Compared to the severity and impact of emissions legislation on industry, this would be small fry.

4. Carbon Capture
Carbon capture is expensive, but it is do-able. In a world where renewable energy is so obviously 'not yet there', would it not make sense to place our hope
and research funding – for the moment in improving carbon capture technology, and introducing renewables when they are viable?

Or you can carry on building hundreds upon hundreds of wind-farms.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Share The Wealth

(Or The Blind Leading the Blind - The Sheer Lunacy of Merkel and Sarkozy)

Greece is a failure waiting to happen.
Any idiot can see that.
And NOT because of the Greeks – they are just a typical scapegoat-figure.
But because of the plan.

Why the Greek Bail-Out Will Not Work
(Please note that NOTHING in this section has not been said already.)

Greece has got into debt; they have borrowed too much. This has happened because they had a revenue-expenditure shortfall, which they funded by borrowing.
It is in this light that we need to consider the last ‘rescue package’ offer, which included:
1. austerity measures to redress the revenue-expenditure shortfall
2. ‘writing off’ a huge amount of their debt
3. lending Greece some more (and in our turn borrowing more to do so).

It didn’t work last time, and it won’t work this time:

1. Austerity does not balance the budget. Austerity damages the economy, which throws people out of work, which bankrupts firms, which throws more people out of work, which all reduces the tax-take, which WORSENS the revenue-expenditure shortfall.

2. In the meantime, ‘writing off’ the debt doesn’t work either; it merely transfers the problems from the Greeks to us and our banks.

3. And solving a debt crisis by lending more has to be the silliest solution in the history of humankind.

I am not alone in realising the impossibility of the rescue package.
So why are our political leaders ploughing on with it?
What’s the first rule when you find yourself in a hole?

The Solution
What needs acknowledging is that cutting the ‘expenditure’ side of things only makes the debt-problem worse.
And if cutting the ‘expenditure’ side of things does not solve the revenue-expenditure shortfall … the only answer surely is to look at the ‘revenue’ side.


And this needs the wealthy, who control government, to agree to them.

They need to come to terms with the fact that the ONLY answer is to dig into their own pockets and pay off the debts.

Share the Wealth
Now, when we talk about raising taxes, the rich usually manage to wangle things so that we don’t really tax the rich. The burden tends to fall regressively on the lower rungs of society.

Government needs to realise that taxing the poorer end of society is tantamount to austerity measures.
The thing about the not-so-well-off is that they tend to spend all they get. In terms of demand-led economic stimulus, therefore, taxing the not-so-well-off (e.g. by abolishing the 10p level, or raising VAT) just damages demand, because they have to reduce their spending by the amount of the extra tax they are having to pay.

The ONLY answer to the current deficit/debt crisis is A TAX ON WEALTH – a tax which will make the very rich draw out of their savings and pay off the debt.
And let us start again .. more carefully.

This is true in Greece, and it is true in Britain.
And it is time our political leaders were brave enough to say so.