Tuesday 30 June 2015

Tomorrow's Blues - - - - a Tory budget

George Osborne will give his "Summer 2015 Budget" speech to parliament on Wednesday 8th July. As I write this, just 8 days away. There is much speculation about his intensions with many agreeing that it will entail a £5 billion child tax credit cut plus another raft of cuts to bring the total up nearer to £12 billion, some suggesting as much as £15 billion. On top of this it is anticipated that the top rate of income tax paid by those earning above £150,000 per year may be cut from 45% to 40% ............... a tax cut that is basically a handout to the rich.

Before BelperStuff wades into this, for the benefit of those who are already feeling miserable at the prospect of a smug Osborne turning the screw ever tighter on the disadvantaged, I offer you a distraction with this song that could have been written for such a true blue budget:

Tomorrow's Blues - played by Colosseum in 2003. I first saw this band in 1969 and they are still touring in 2015. If you want more of Colosseum and less of Osborne then follow this link.

For those of a more masochistic persuasion ........... read on:

Tax cut for the rich

If Osborne doesn't cut the top rate of tax this year then he will do it at some point before the next election, however, most believe that he will cut the tax from 45% to 40%. To put this into context, for a taxpayer earning, say, £200,000 per year they will see their tax bill reduced by £2,500 whilst those earning £1 million will be gifted £42,500. How many will benefit?


As you can see, the 5% tax cut would do nothing for the majority of tax payers; by my calculation only 1 in 150 would benefit (and I am being cautious here). Government figures show that there are 6,000 taxpayers earning more than £1 million so that group alone will be handed at least £255 million but as there are a considerable number of them earning more than the base £1 million the final handout will be very much more. Only the treasury will know the true amount. From the figures generated when Labour raised the rate to 50% and then the ConDem government lowered it to 45%, we can be somewhere close if we assume that Osborne plans to hand over to the rich around £1,500 millions per year (£1.5 billion). To put this into perspective, the annual amount taken away from poorer families by way of the bedroom tax is around £320 million. So, when we compare the bedroom tax with tax cuts for the rich ............ for every £1 taken from the poor £4.68 is handed to the rich. We will find out next week if Osborne ramps up his bid to usurp the Sheriff of Nottingham as the most villainous scourge of the poor. Have a look at this brilliant piece of work by Professor Rebecca Tunstall if you want to know more about the impact of the bedroom tax.

Child Tax Credit cut

It is estimated that the proposed £5 billion cut to tax credits will mean that some families lose up to £1,670 per year .......... let's not forget that these are not the rich but families whose wages are not sufficient to pay all the bills. The poorest 30% of households will suffer the most but it is worth bearing in mind that child tax credits are an important element in the income of millions of households in the UK right up to those bringing in a combined £32,300 per year.

ONS/BelperStuff Socio Economic Income data 2012 - 2013
A word of warning on this last graph - - each of the socio-economic groups comprises around 2.6 million households. Based on income each group is a mixture of single persons, couples with or without children and pensioners. That means that the above graph contains averages, some households receiving no tax credits whist others are heavily dependent upon them. If I can find more relevant data I will return to this post and amend it.

That said, this graph gives us reason to be concerned. The 2nd decile has an average annual gross income of £15,638 and receives 8.68% of that income as tax credits; that's an average of £1,358 per year. You hardly need to take your socks off to work out that any cut to child tax credits will have a devastating effect on families. 

It is no co-incidence that much is being made of the statistic that there has been no relative increase is the rate of inequality in the past twelve months or that child poverty has remained static at 2.3 million. This is all part of the rhetoric used in the build up to the budget to justify the eventual cuts. Osborne will try to sell the idea that austerity has had no adverse effect on the poor.

It was Mark Twain who drew attention to the phrase:

There are lies, damned lies and statistics

or to quote Colosseum:

The future is here, welcome to tomorrow's blues.


Sunday 28 June 2015

Should the Tory Transport Minister resign?

The "postponement" of the Midland Main Line electrification scheme, announced last week was not the only rail related revelation. The Transport Minister, Derbyshire MP Patrick McLaughlin was also forced to make public a report which showed that in 2012 the Department for Transport (DfT - his own ministry) had grave doubts about the viability of HS2. The report, written by the Major Projects Authority, clearly stated that:
Patrick McLaughlin

“The department believes however that the costs of this project are so large, and over such a long period, that it will not be able to afford it alongside all its other likely spending commitments.”

I wouldn't advise reading it as it is a very shallow assessment of HS2 as a work in progress but it does question the economic benefit and robustness of the costings; the devil is in the detail. OK, so this is a report from 2012 and here we are in 2015 finally getting to read it after the minister tried to hide it. What is significant is that there are further reports from the MHA which the DfT has indicated will not be made public. So what is there to hide?

The proposed HS2 routes

Perhaps it's the fact that the initial cost of the 330 miles of HS2 was assessed as £33 billion (based on 2011 prices) and the current government estimate is £43 billion. There is also the 2013 report of the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) which puts the price at £80 billion. I have my doubts about this figure which costs HS2 at £242 million per mile when the HS1 was built for £80 million per mile. How much official agreement in the DfT is there for the IEA assessment?

The point I am making is that Patrick McLaughlin was aware of all this from 2012 and must also have been aware of the difficulties of delivering the much vaunted 5 year investment strategy on the existing rail network. Railway industry journals and other more general news media have made reports of time and cost overruns, many reports as early as 2013 so how come the minister has only now realised the difficulty of spending over £8 billion a year without a concerted, preparatory effort to ramp up the number of available skilled individuals and the manufacturing and logistical capacity to resource these plans. The record of Labour in comparison is exemplary. Whatever our disappointment might be that the Blair/Brown governments did not more effectively grasp the railway nettle by re-nationalisation of more than just the infrastructure they did seem to understand that there is a finite ceiling to investment, a limit as to how much can be achieved in network improvements in any one year. That figure was about £4 billion a year. It is to our shame that we did not exploit the chance to significantly increase rail project capacity when we were in office but we became entangled in the impossibility of trying to make a botched job of privatisation work. What follows will hopefully develop this point.

A short history of rail investment

McLaughlin lays the blame for this current failure squarely with Network Rail overspending and failing to deliver on time but seems incapable of understanding the root cause of these problems. A cynic would say that he does indeed understand the problems but chose to ignore them before the election .......... putting party before country ............ (I am stiffing a yawn as I write this).

There are only so many qualified and trained railway personnel in this country, only so many factories and equipment suppliers that can successfully translate those billion pound investments into on time, on cost major rail projects completions. Before privatisation British Rail understood this so had a rolling modernisation program that ensured a sustainable framework within which British industry could function. This provided sustainable employment, training, apprenticeships ............. in short, a secure living for communities throughout the UK. It also meant that most resources could be supplied by UK based industries with imports kept to a minimum. Privatisation did away with all that and, coming on the back of the massive loss of industrial capacity masterminded by the Thatcher/Major governments, resulted in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs. 

One element of British Rail that was lost as a result of privatisation was the BR electrification team that was based in Doncaster. This team worked year in year out on electrification projects; as one was completed they moved onto another ......... a continuous flow that provided electrification on the West Coast route to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, Anglian routes between London to Cambridge, Kings Lynn and Norwich, St.Pancras to Bedford and the East Coast Route to Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh. Continuous modernisation at minimal cost spread over 30 years. Privatisation between the years of 1994 and 1996 put paid to that. The industry was initially consumed with the contractual morass which was to become the privatised norm so there was a hiatus in electrification ................ oh except perhaps for the Heathrow Airport to Paddington scheme (most still use the underground as it's much cheaper). 

Then, during the Labour term in office, there was some continuity with the construction of the HS1 which brought the Eurostar into St.Pancras (68 miles) and the West Coast Route Modernisation which effectively renewed all the overhead electric wiring and associated infrastructure between London, the North West and Glasgow/Edinburgh. These two projects effectively used up the available industrial and logistical rail resources between 2000 and 2009 at a combined cost of roughly £2 billion per year. Beside these projects there was a steady flow of improvements, maintenance and renewals on the rest of the rail network. The next project to start up was the East-West Crossrail route across London, due for completion in 2018 at an initial estimate of £14 billion ............ but costs have risen because station and train costs were not included ........ it will end up nearer £20 billion.

The proposal to electrify the Midland mainline between Bedford and Sheffield was part of a wide ranging raft of improvements contained in the Network Rail plan published in 2009. This plan proposed a number of infill projects, a similar strategy to that carried out by British Rail. Much of this has already started but both of the proposals for mainlines of relevance to the North have been sacrificed. To postpone electrification to Sheffield is very short sighted but the decision to halt the work between Manchester and Leeds seems to be absolute folly as this scheme is particularly cost beneficial as it is relatively easy to complete and has very low mileage costs (in comparison to other schemes). Both these schemes cost peanuts in comparison to the electrification of the Great Western or indeed, the HS2.

So what now?

It would be refreshing to see McLaughlin apologise to Alistair Darling because his comments in 2013 have proved to be correct. Perhaps the minister would also like to correct the assertion that only 10 miles were electrified under Labour when the combined mileage of new and renewed electrification was nearer 700 miles.

It would also be good if he explained why he thought you could double the annual amount of rail investment without first ramping up the base of skills and production capacity.

Then he could explain why he kept to the triumphalist script right up to the election when he must have know that the investment was not going to be delivered. He must have known for some time that the East Midlands and Trans-Pennine schemes would be halted and that there were serious official doubts about the HS2.

He might also like to explain why the railway network now costs 4 times as much to run as it did when it was British Rail (and that includes inflation - try reading this report from Manchester University, "The Great Train Robbery"). He and his Tory friends usually point to the increased number of passengers as vindication forgetting that railway costs are usually calculated by capacity, not ridership. On this measure the current performance is not so good.

If he feels that any of the above is impossible to explain then he can always take the easy route .......... resignation.

Chances are that McLaughlin will be backed to the hilt by his cronies as there is an emerging narrative that this all the fault of Labour: Daily Mail article that eventually manages to convince itself that it is all the fault of Labour in 2001. Yes it's the creation of Network Rail that is at the root of all the trouble. Let's forget the fact that it was the Tories that rushed through an ill-conceived privatisation in 1996 and created Railtrack, the company famous for declaring a "maintenance holiday" as a means of saving money. Many in the industry breathed a sigh of relief once that organisation was consigned to the dustbin. Network Rail was and is far from perfect but for the past 5 years the Tories, most noticeably Osborne, Cameron and McLaughlin have been singing it's praises, right up to and beyond the election. If it was so bad why did they do nothing about it within that 5 years or did they not notice. No, this is a result of Network Rail debt being transferred to the public purse as a result of the application of EU rules of accountancy in 2013. Prior to this it was considered a private debt though governments could claim credit for the investments. Now we can see the effect this change is having with the treasury digging it's heels in and refusing to accept more debt. This is the reality of Tory investment in infrastructure. Just look at the spin now being put on this article in the Telegraph urging a return to full privatisation of the railways but notice that it is written by our dear old friends the Institute of Economic Affairs in the shape of their Head of Transport, Dr Richard Wellings. He seems to be linked with the Libertarian Alliance (a link to their blog - don't go there if you are squeamish or about to eat your dinner) which has the aim of fighting "statism", the goal being a truly free society. I include this quote from Wikipedia:
"It has been suggested that their advocacy of complete free speech and the abolition of taxation and government intervention in economic and social life combines elements of liberalismconservatism, and anarchism".
It would seem that I am unlikely to bump into Richard Wellings at a Belper Labour Party branch meeting in the near or distant future. The fatal flaw in his free market approach is dealt with in "The Great Train Robbery" analysis where it is clearly shown that private investment into our railways is negligible; what private money there is has led to some amazing cash cows for the lucky investors (don't get me started). Full privatisation foundered under Railtrack because it was under capitalised so why should it be any different 14 years after the failure of Railtrack. Without the intervention of the Labour government none of the improvements claimed by the Tories as their own would have been possible. 

Is it too much to hope that this vital element of our national infrastructure could one day be run in a sensible manner ............. free from political dogma .......... a railway that provides good, affordable services for the travelling public and freight customers? All this makes you nostalgic for Clause IV.

Railways depend upon public investment so should be managed accordingly.

Bring back British Rail - a 21 century version.

Thursday 25 June 2015

East Midlands railway electrification is postponed (cancelled)

Bad news

Whilst this post was being written this BBC news item has emerged confirming the cut.

Last night BelperStuff attended the AGM of the Civic Forum. A main feature of the evening was the presence of  Network Rail who gave an update to the railway electrification scheme and how it affects the line through Belper. It all seemed very reassuring with the target date for electric trains through Belper in 2020. There were continued assurances of full consultation on planned work to the Belper bridges with plans for the type of masts to carry the overhead wires still to be decided. Leaving No.28 I am sure that many felt comfortable about the scheme.
An East Midlands diesel train leaves Milford Tunnel

But ....... (yes I was taught never to start a sentence with the word "but") ..... but nobody asked the simple question, "is the scheme in danger of being cancelled?" On that same day an article in the Guardian warned of a possible announcement that the Midland Main Line electrification could be cancelled Network Rail funding gap article in the Guardian. Just weeks after the election where the Tories boasted about their commitment to rail investment they are now backtracking, the modernisation of the East Midlands route being slated for cancellation. It is even more galling because the announcement will be made by a Derbyshire MP, the current Minister for Transport, Patrick McLaughlin.

I am reminded of his performance in 2013 when he jeered at a former Minister for Transport, Alistair Darling, when the latter warned that the spiralling costs of the HS2 scheme would have the effect of cutting investment on the existing network link to BBC item in 2013, HS2 costs could mean railway nightmare

In another 2013 interview McLaughlin was bullish about his commitment to rail investment:

We hope that the Guardian article is incorrect and that the electrification of the route between Sheffield and London is not cut. McLaughlin has made himself a hostage to fortune by insisting that his government will invest unprecedented amounts of money into the existing rail network, even to the extent of stating that under the Tories there will be no cost overruns so there is no question of cancellations of rail investment schemes. I hope he honours that commitment.

For an overview of the route and the electrification scheme this Wikipedia article is very informative.

I have to admit that I find it hard to believe that this scheme will be cancelled as there are a whole raft of interlinked plans that would be affected. A new fleet of InterCity trains is being built in a brand new factory near Darlington. These trains are destined for the Great Western route between London and Bristol etc., the East Coast mainline between London, Leeds and Edinburgh and also the West Coast mainline between London and Birmingham/Manchester/Liverpool and Glasgow. A number of electric trains were due to be cascaded from the East and West coast routes onto the newly electrified Midland Mainline If this does not happen we will still rely on HST trains for our journeys to London that were built in 1976 and which were planned for withdrawal when electrification is completed. If the electrification does not happen these trains will have to run for many years to come.

BelperStuff is an enthusiastic supporter of the line being electrified through Belper. It will have an immediate effect on air quality as electric trains are far more efficient in the use of energy with costs being one third cheaper than diesel trains. With faster acceleration station stops are also less time consuming with say a stop at Belper adding 3 minutes to the overall journey time whilst with diesel trains it is 4 minutes. Electrification makes the argument for more Sheffield - London - Sheffield trains calling at Belper much more compelling.

Continuing the environmental theme, cancellation effectively stops the plan to create an electrified freight spine from Southampton through to the North East which would have replaced many of the diesel locomotives passing through Belper with non-polluting electric locomotives.

All this in jeopardy because of Tory right wing dogma and the drive to create a budgetary surplus within the next 3 years .......... because that is what is really behind this proposal. They have learnt nothing. The way forward must be to invest in infrastructure which in turn generates growth leading to enhanced tax revenues which naturally bring about a balanced budget without any need of cuts.

Wednesday 17 June 2015

How many die after having their benefits stopped?

This is an important question because so much of the Tory strategy relies on the myth that benefits are being claimed by people who don't deserve them. This policy has caused untold misery and it is vital that the number of people affected be made public; how many have been wrongly assessed or subjected to unlawful delays in payment.

I urge readers of BelperStuff to visit Change.org via the following link:

Publish the statistics showing how many people have died after their benefits were stopped

Policies are proposed by governments but ultimately they are held to account by the electorate. Governments protect themselves from judgement by suppressing the release of information such as this. The Change.org page for this petition links to a very informative article in the Mirror: try this link to the Mirror article. It features the courageous Maggie Zolobajluk who created the Change.org petition.

Update on Saturday 20/06/2015

After you have signed the petition why not contact BelperStuff via the "comment" button at the bottom of the post and suggest a suitable caption for this photo of Ian Duncan Smith. BelperStuff will re-edit this post with the best submission.

From anonymous: I D S - his real name is Oswald so he should be known as O D S

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Low wages - a doubling of inequality since Thatcher came to power

The intention was to crack on with part 2 of the Belper Town Council meeting report but the news that Osborne plans to slash £5 billion from child tax credits had BelperStuff ferreting around for information on the Office of National Statistics website (ONS) link to relevant page on ONS website. This stimulated the inner nerd so all thought of the town council was forgotten as sleeves were rolled up, MS excel ignited and for the next 2 days the only physical exercise was the frequent trudge to the fridge for yet another Pedigree. Out of this self imposed alcoholic purdah the following has emerged:

Statisticians have developed a system by which they can slice and dice economic and social data into a meaningful pattern, this they call the Socio Economic Grouping. There are 10 groups, conveniently from the "Bottom", through numbers "2 to 9" and then finally at the top of the heap ......... yes you've got it ...... the "Top" group. These gradations reflect elements in our society, from the poorest to the richest.

This post concerns the low wage culture that so bedevils our society; believed by the left as being the root cause of so many of our ills. The ONS data enables us to see the reality of this culture and what better way than to create a pie chart of the amount of wages and salaries entering into each household, delineated by their socio economic group (don't forget, this is an annual amount per household and not per individual - my apologies for not creating a more accurate graph title):

Source: ONS/BelperStuff

Each group (or in the official jargon "decile") roughly comprises 2.5 million households so there are indeed 2,500,000 households at the bottom of the heap that, on average receive in wages £46 per week compared with a similar number of households at the top averaging £1,450 each week. Obviously no household could survive on £46 so society has developed a system of redistribution involving a range of benefits and payments to help those on low incomes survive poverty (sorry about this but it does no harm to restate just what is at the heart of the welfare state).

The following graph includes all those benefit payments and believe me when I say that benefits are even enjoyed by the "Top" group. It also includes all forms of taxation, from income tax to VAT and beyond to give a comparison of net income.

Source: ONS/BelperStuff

So, even after adding in tax credits, child benefit, housing benefit, JSA .......... etc. the lowest group of 2.5 million households have to manage on £99 per week whilst the top tenth of society struggle on with £1,345 per week. So much for redistribution. What is shocking is the inexorable rise in the wealth of the top group compared with the stagnation at the bottom. The message that inequality is increasing is often diluted because it is so oft repeated. The graph shows the reality, that inequality is an evil that defied even the best efforts of Gordon Brown. Yes despite what you may hear about Labour's failure to lift poverty, without some serious injection of cash by successive Labour chancellors the poverty experienced by the lower 12 million households would have been abject.

You have to pinch yourself to be reminded that the UK is listed as the 6th largest world economy ............ but the most successful economy in the world, the USA also has problems with poverty and inequality; the major root cause once again being low pay as evidenced by this video:

US low wages video

So what can be done about it? If BelperStuff had all the answers then the roads around Belper would be gridlocked with motorcades of politicians from the more socially aware governments seeking advice on how to provide a decent standard of life for all their citizens. However, it's not so difficult to pint (freudian slip ..... I meant point) out one very salient detail. Before that great battle between capitalism and the welfare state, so enthusiastically fought by Thatcher and Reagen and now Cameron via Osbornomics, the ratio of net income between the top and bottom deciles was 1:7 (the top tenth of society earning after tax 7 times that of the bottom tenth). By 2013 this ration had doubled to 1:14. We dread to think what the ratio will be as this present government cuts and cuts again between now and 2020. It is the deadly combination of tax cuts for the rich and ever more swinging cuts to compensatory benefits for the poor that creates inequality.

So all those big ideas, Thatcherism, monetarism, unfettered markets, privatisation, globalism ........... and a whole bunch of other 'isms ............ have been paid for by the poor. I seem to remember reading that the Japanese lifted their post war economy by adopting a ratio of 1:5, that no individual could earn a net income more than 5 times that of the lowest income. How's that for starters? It's not just about a living wage but a wage ratio that is equitable and fair for all.

BelperStuff hopes to follow this post with other targeted analyses. It's not just the bottom households that have had to suffer so we intend to highlight the effect that Tory philosophy has on the so-called better off households, the working poor. Watch out for more in the "numbers behind the news" series.

Saturday 13 June 2015

Belper Town Council meeting - 9th June 2015 (part 1)

It is the intention of BelperStuff to comment on the Belper Town Council (BTC) meetings as soon a note of the proceedings are to hand but the resultant post has been some delayed this week because there was seen to be a need for some fact checking. I also have to admit that some of the delay has been due to a sinking feeling in the BelperStuff editorial heart when checking through the details of the meeting. Perhaps the best way forward is just to plough through this, point by point and see where we end up.

Members of the public

John Porter
As usual members of the public are allowed a few minutes to comment on any item listed on the meeting agenda and once again this brought up the complaints made to the Amber Valley Borough Council Standards committee about the behaviour of the Town Council in 2013/14. If you remember, last month this item was brought to the attention of BTC by John Morrissey and this month it was the turn of John Porter who, in May, had unsuccessfully stood as a Labour candidate for Belper East in the town council elections. He mentioned that BTC had voted that the report and findings of the Standards Committee should not be made public. Mr. Porter was raising this once again because it was listed as an agenda item so why not draw a line under the affair by making the findings public and then the newly elected council could get on with managing the affairs of the town with no distractions. The complaints related to the ousting of the Mayor, Deborah Biss (I think that should be Madam Mayor) and Councillor Fisher from their positions on the council; the town then being administered by a working group comprising the remaining 14 councillors, the Deputy Mayor taking over mayoral duties. When the item was addressed later in the meeting the current Mayor, Dan Booth, apologised for the Town Council's conduct and hoped that would be the end of the matter but as we have no idea what it was he was apologising for his apology had no merit. If the findings were made public then that apology would have some meaning.

Other speakers were Alan Cox who offered a home to Mr Potato Head at the Cottage Project and Dave Fisher who spoke in his capacity as treasurer of the Road Safety Committee and mentioned the ongoing battle with speeding motorists and the desire for a Belper by-pass.

That concluded the public speaking part of the meeting ............. look I know that you are all desperate to read the next installment in the life and times of Mr Potato Head but you will have to wait ............... we'll get there eventually but first there are some serious issues that we need to think about.

Derbyshire Children's Holidays

This charity, which provides holidays for deprived children asked the council to help fund holidays for 14 Belper children. There was some debate about this as it emerged that last year 5 Belper children had been involved and it was stated that the council had donated £1,400. The charity had stated that each holiday costs over £700 and certain councillors questioned this sum, the consensus being that a total sum of £1,400 for all the children seemed about right. Councillor Nelson was concerned that some Belper children might miss out but Councillor Joe Booth suggested that the BTC contribution for each child should be no more than £100, the meeting finally agreeing this ..... a maximum of 14 children at £100 each. Obviously BelperStuff is not comfortable with this as the obvious question should have been ...... just how many deprived children are there in Belper ........... and how many of those have no chance of a holiday. Just what is the criteria to be deemed eligible for a week with Derbyshire Children's Holidays? Not one councillor asked about this.

Researching into this matter soon turned up this interesting link Queen's award for Derbyshire Children's Holiday charity  and if you want to know more then click this link to open up the the DCHC website.

BelperStuff finds the above very disturbing, especially when it would appear that the BTC once again banked a large sum of money in the last fiscal year, salting it away in the General Reserve. We will not know the exact figures until the annual accounts have been audited but there is a suspicion that the £360k saved up to April 2014 could easily have swelled to over £400k this year. So, a council that in some years has banked and saved £45,000 finds it difficult to spend more than £1,400 on deprived children.

This should be no surprise because in this same week we have been stunned by the news that George Osborne is minded to cut over £5 billion ( that's £5,000,000,000) from the element of tax credits that relates to children. This would amount to an average cut of £1,400 per year for the average impoverished family. Try this link for a report in the Independant concerning proposed Tory cuts to working family tax credits. If this wasn't bad enough some "eminent" Conservatives urged Osborne to relent from such savagery because it would make the Tories look bad. I kid you not. But ......... birds of a feather .......... note the coincidental sum of £1,400 in both the national and local Tory concerns about children in poor families.

Food Festival Committee

The Food Festival committee is chaired by Wendy Moore of Fresh Basil, obviously the ideal person to co-opt. It was therefore a surprise that Councillor Nelson questioned her role as chairperson, his comments followed up by Mayor Dan Booth with the statement that a co-opted chair of a 5 person committee could not exercise the casting vote if the councillors were split 2 : 2.
Try as we might, BelperStuff can find no reference in any local government rules, regulations or more general guidance to back this assertion up. It would seem that if a council decides to co-opt a member of the public onto a committee then they can also allow that person to vote. We have the precedent of Dan Booth being co-opted as a councillor at the end of 2013, the council deciding not to hold an election for the vacancy. He was immediately granted full voting rights and was even named as Deputy Mayor before anybody had the chance to vote him onto the council. So why was that correct but the idea of Wendy Moore being allowed to be an effective committee chairperson is unthinkable. We deserve better from our councillors. If there is a definitive legality that barr's a co-opted committee member at parish level from voting then the town council should make reference to it rather than making vague statements. 

BelperStuff will have no hesitation in posting an apology if it is pointed out that we are in error in this matter.

A further note regarding the Food Festival deliberations seemed somewhat vague and, seeking clarification from our BTC meeting observer proved to be unsuccessful as he also could make no sense of what was being said (perhaps we should start to pay him then he might be more observant). There seems to be another problem with the management of the Food Festival. It was only a few months ago that the council decided to appoint a commercial company to run the food festival but it was reported in the meeting that the chosen company is struggling to perform this task. No doubt we will learn more in the coming weeks.

But what about Mr Potato Head?

Belper Bus Garage
If it means that much to you I suggest that you follow this link for an item on the BBC website. Yes it's true, Councillor Nelson once again waxed lyrical about Mr Potato Head (MPH) stating that he would end up high above the bus depot's doors on Chapel Street ........ but he had not asked the bus company if they would agree to it. One of the councillors commented about insurance and a question was to be asked of the BTC insurers if MPH was covered for third party liability. Our correspondent's notes degenerate into a series of zzzzzz's at this point but thinking about it, the placement of MPH may well incur some expense, perhaps to anchor it (sorry ...... him) securely or to indemnify an unwary pedestrian if that anchor proves to be insufficient. BelperStuff hopes that the eventual sum is no greater than the £100 that our true blue councillors deigned to spend on a deprived Belper child.

Please forgive me ......... there are a few other matters mentioned by our correspondent but I'm going to throw in the towel tonight. This is all too depressing but I will try to complete this report in part 2 tomorrow. Goodness ..... it's already tomorrow. What a waste of an evening. 

Monday 8 June 2015

Derwent Street housing development - - - - is this what Belper needs?

In an earlier post we looked at Derbyshire County Council's plans for the Thornton's Factory site and now it is the turn of the planned housing development. Unfortunately we are not so enthusiastic about the plans that gained the approval of the AVBC planning committee on ...... well ............. looking on the Amber Valley Borough Council website this seems to be unclear.

The BBC featured this development on 4th April article link but reference to the AVBC planning website shows that this approval is incomplete and still at the "outline" stage.

Derwent Street -planned housing development for 107 dwellings
To clarify the position BelperStuff contacted the planning department and spoke to Derek Stafford (Assistant Director for Planning & Regeneration) who stated that final approval was dependent on the completion of a contractual arrangement between the relevant councils and the developers on supportive infrastructure, basically who pays and who provides public spaces and amenities and a consideration of the impact on local schools. No completion date for this process was to hand. It would seem to be quite normal (and proper) for a scheme of this magnitude to be subject to such protracted negotiations. It does however feel like a fait accompli (a done job).

The drainage and sewage plan still awaits finalisation but hopefully this will not be a monetary consideration for local government; the water industry was privatised by the Tories claiming that such a move would provide better services - let them prove it - and with a conservatively estimated (admittedly by BelperStuff) water, drainage and sewage annual income of a minimum £40,000 from the 107 households, any additional investment should be borne by the water companies.

Looking at the plan it is evident that the three large buildings spaced along the top of the site must be multi occupation which, if made up of 1 and 2 bedroom apartments would be a welcome addition to Belper housing stock as such accommodation is much needed in the town. In the 2011 Census, 31% of Belper Central residents were living alone with only 15% of housing being suitable for them. Many who live on their own would welcome the chance to downsize from homes more suited to family occupation.

Reading through the AVBC planning report upon which outline approval was granted these comments are noteworthy:

6. Housing Strategy Officer This site falls into the Belper local housing market area which has a high demand for affordable housing. In line with Council policy the development should consist of 30% affordable housing with a mix of social rented and intermediate housing. The rented accommodation should represent at least 90% of the affordable housing total, which has been identified as the tenure that can meet most needs of households living within the borough on low incomes. The current Derby Strategic Housing Market Assessment update (July 2013) has indicated that housing need could be met with a mix of affordable housing that consists of approximately 72% social/affordable rented and 22% intermediate housing. The intermediate housing would help households that could not afford market rent/sales but could afford more than social rented accommodation. It is suggested that the latter tenure mix will help with the viability of developments. The affordable house types in most demand are 2-bedroom family houses and 1 bedroom general need apartments. The proximity of this site does however provide an ideal opportunity to also deliver specific affordable accommodation for either people over retirement age and/or other vulnerable groups (bungalows and apartments).

........................... to be honest this is somewhat unclear. Has the target 30% affordable housing been met and  ................ are the proposed dwellings of the 1 and 2 bedroom variety as stated in the Housing Strategy Officer's contribution?

Site of 4 proposed dwellings to the south of Derwent St.
The report also states that the 4 dwellings situated to the bottom right corner of the plan, effectively the only houses planned for the south of Derwent Street, should be avoided if possible. So, have they been agreed?

Firestone House to be demolished
The other report recommendation was that Firestone House should be retained if possible. This is a relatively new building which has never been used although there have been planning applications amending the planned use. Now it is deemed surplus to requirements though on the plan the space it occupies will only be used as limited parking space. What a waste of money and potential.

The plan also shows the most southerly of the 3 apartment buildings being crammed into the fenced off area which can be seen in the adjacent photograph, the back wall being hard up against the site south eastern boundary, effectively close to the front bumpers of the cars parked in this photograph. It is to be expected that the eventual build will differ from the plan but hopefully any amendment would be subject to a change of scheme application to be made to the AVBC planning department.

This post is a very limited appraisal of this scheme. The overall impression is that this is a wasted opportunity for Belper, the chance to build a stylish and affordable Riverside Community being lost because unremitting cuts to both local government power and the ability of public bodies to raise finance to invest in such schemes has been frittered away by Westminster. We now have to depend on private development initiatives, in this case a failed Tesco development being parceled up and sold off to limit the losses from previously bullish, expansionary plans that were always over optimistic. Is this the way to care for our town's future?

Despite brave attempts to offer an alternative narrative ............. who can forget the exciting architecture promoted by the Civic Forum ........... instead of Belper leading the way with innovative town centre regeneration it looks as if we will be stuck for years to come with yet more 3 bed semis. For those of us who have seen what is possible this is heartbreaking. The chance to build well insulated, low energy homes with 21st century know-how rather than yet another rehash of outdated thinking is symptomatic of a country that fails to tackle the real issues with which we are confronted.

Affordable housing in a small town near Berlin
The above is an example of how housing need is tackled in other countries. This development is predominantly 12 x 2 bedroom apartments (average of 75 square metres) per building, with underground parking, high insulation thus low energy consumption and wonderful communal green spaces and safe play areas. The plans for Derwent Street suggest that on a similar footprint we would build 4 homes with parking. Such a scheme as this one in Germany could be easily adapted to fit in with the architectural feel of Belper, far better than the blight of suburban blandness that the current Derwent Street scheme offers. The prime objective of developers is to make money so why is it unthinkable to maximise town centre land use in a similar way to this German model. It doesn't cost any extra per household and offers the chance to exploit the potential of collective alternative energy production and significantly reduces the area of built on land.

Friday 5 June 2015

Fifty shades of blue - - - a Belper News article

It's a rare thing to find an article like this in the Belper News so BelperStuff felt compelled to bring it to your attention:

Fifty Shades of Blue link

...... 'nuff said.

After post edit: I know I wrote 'nuff said but thinking about this article in the Belper News I realised that I am not in full agreement ............ yes I deplore what the Tories now feel empowered to do but I do not see 2020 as the year that Labour dies. There are many of us in the party who will do our damndest to make sure that this does not happen. The way forward must be to continue to fight against inequality and injustice but do it in such a way that we have a credible alternative, positive plans for the country, our people, the environment and our economy. We are not short of good ideas even if our "leaders" seem to be a tad short sighted.

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Inequality ----- more thoughts from Antwerp

Thinking back to yesterday's post I realise that it was somewhat on the darkside. BelperStuff proclaims itself to be a humorous look at politics from the left so today's post will hopefully redress the balance even though we are exploring the concept of inequality.

To those who were foolish enough to follow the link to Jan Fabre's video I apologise by bringing to your attention another Belgian talent, this time a musician; Admiral Freebee (taking his name from a reference by Jack Kerouac) is much loved in Belgium and I particularly like this song:

Boy you never found.


The Welfare State exhibition at the M HKA started me thinking about the differences between Britain and Belgium. Only two days before at the function we attended (a book launch) it was all about the similarities and a world without borders but looking at the Belgian concept of a Welfare State made me concentrate on the differences. There are many Belgians who look across the North Sea at the much privatised UK, fearful that the effects of Thatcherism and misguided Osbornomics might take a hold in their own country. Belgium is undoubtedly more equal as a society than Britain but how long this lasts, nobody can tell. The mood in the EU and a possible diminution of elements such as the Social Chapter is of real concern as right wing governments such as the Tories in Westminster push for a weakening of state sponsored welfare. Changes such as these would have consequences for countries such as Belgium that still try to maintain a positive social framework.

So what are the differences? 

I found a very interesting piece of research here: European Commission - Social Situation Monitor - Income inequality in EU countries. This compares the relative wealth of countries and reports on the distribution of wealth in the EU. Use is made of the Gini coefficient to give a level of consistency to the generated figures, described within the article thus, "The most widely used measure for income inequality is the Gini coefficient. The maximum possible value of the Gini coefficient is 1 (when one individual has all the income in a country), while the lowest value is 0 (when everyone has the same income)".  The following chart is perhaps the most illustrative:

This shows us that Belgium (BE), in 2011 had a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of around €32,000 per inhabitant whilst the UK was way below this at just under €27,000 per inhabitant. Woeful British productivity is a major factor in this bad performance.

If we refer to the left vertical axis of the chart which measures the Gini coefficient it becomes apparent that here too Belgium outperforms the UK with a figure of 0.26, whereas the UK scores 0.32, which means that the wealth generated in Britain is concentrated in fewer hands, gravitating towards the rich whilst the poor get less. In comparison, wealth generated in Belgium is more evenly spread therefore the UK is a far more unequal society.

The UK is in fact one of the most unequal states in Europe ......... but the Tories call this a success.

This post started out on a lighter note but soon reverted to type. Perhaps another song from Admiral Freebee will make amends:

Rags n' Run


Monday 1 June 2015

The Welfare State - a visit to Antwerp

It may seem to be an astonishing fact but the BelperStuff editorial team do possess passports and do at times venture abroad. That's why the blog has been quiet for a few days as a journey was made to Belgium .............. to be exact to attend a function in Antwerp. I will not dwell on the nature of the event we attended save to say that it was over fairly quickly so extending the visit by a couple of days afforded an ideal opportunity to explore the rich cultural life of the city and of course to add a few more names into my densely annotated "bars that I have visited" notebook. Oh yes, Antwerp is indeed the place where life is lived between beers.

We've visited Antwerp many times but despite repeated attempts have never managed to exhaust the supply of museums. This time there was a decided social theme to our choices with "150 years of social photography" at the Maagdenhuismuseum (formerly an orphanage for young girls) and then an exhibition entitled, "The Welfare State" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA).

The photographs charted some of the most poignant and painful episodes in our history since the invention of photography, from the devastation of Gettysburg, the inhumanity of the Nazi death camps to more recent deprivation in mental institutions. The exhibition featured the work of many photographers and was spread across the rooms and annexes that make up this complex. One room, reached via a long corridor lined with small snapshots of homeless people turned out to be the refectory of a legal school, the moribund serving range screened off from the body of the hall upon whose walls were hung heartbreaking images of unwanted Indian girls, the afore-mentioned mental institution inmates and then immigrants and asylum seekers, holed up in squalid shacks, waiting for the world to decide what to do with them. On the day the emotion that rose to the surface was a a concern for the loss of dignity of those being photographed, a feeling of distasteful voyeurism that led me to initially criticise the very nature of the exhibition ........ but ....... in the couple of days since the visit the sheer enormity of the misery and loss of life and potential has seeped through me and now I forgive the urge to capture such images. We become hardened by the familiarity brought on by daily repetition of images in newspapers and on our TV screens but by bringing these photographs together in one place we are reminded of the sheer scale of senseless suffering and of the fact that decade after decade, century after century we fail to learn the lessons of war and poverty. Our so-called leaders making the same mistakes over and over again.

So, it was with a hope of a more comfortable experience that we took the tram to Antwerp Zuid and the Museum of Contemporay Art ....... M HKA. What could be nicer than a celebration of "The Welfare State". All would have been well if we had gone straight to the second floor but we made the mistake of innocently strolling into the hell of Jan Fabre on the first floor. His retrospective, entitled "Stigmata" was a series of videos of his art performances and a veritable sea of tables on which he displayed the instruments, tools and odd objects that had been used in the making of the performances. Coming fresh to the world view of Jan Fabre is quite disconcerting as you gaze at his ever more manic attempts to suffer for his art .......... and this is the root of the problem. He observes, in this video in which he talks about himself that the inspiration he gained from the suffering experienced by Flemish artists as they made their art was the wellspring of his work. Unfortunately he confuses the pain of self harm, his predominant theme, with the incidental pain experienced by the masters that accompanied their creative process. Perhaps a preoccupation with the process is inevitable in performance art and if that is so then surely it is unwise to make a comparison with an artistic form where the product, such as a painting is viewed without any reference to the struggles of the artist.

Eventually we escaped upstairs but the madness and noise from Stigmata could not be avoided as it rose up through the floor. I spoke to an attendant who ruefully commented that the quiet as they arrived for work, before they switched on the videos,  and the peace that descended on the museum as they turned off the lights at the end of the day was sheer heaven. The vision of Dante summoned and dismissed at the flick of a switch. Discussing the exhibition on the train home my better half commented that Mr Fabre lacked intellectual depth. If you are a masochist and enjoy a man sandpapering his legs for your artistic pleasure then you have a couple of months before peace once more descends upon the M HKA during daylight hours.

Now, thankfully to "The Welfare State" ......... link to the exhibition .......... and what a joy this was. Finally, eight artists and their comments on attempts to mitigate the deprivation caused by war, disease, hunger and ignorance. The exhibits comprise a wonderful display of poster art, sculpture, photographs, juxtapositions and film to look at the role of the state and a care nations' care for its people. The accompanying book (at €2 an absolute snip) introduces the exhibition with a well written piece by Anders Kreuger, who details the fundamental principles and objectives of the move to state care and basic services across Europe, most notably post WW2. It was somewhat disquieting to read of the easy acceptance of the idea that the welfare state is in decline ............ the reason being that from the early 1970's oil crisis world economies have been under pressure, the post war period of high growth coming to an end inevitably reigning back the investment in social expenditure. "Let us indeed remember that want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness - the "five giant evils" (yes Beveridge is quoted) - have not yet been vanquished."

Kreuger cites the Flemish economist Herman Deleeck, latterly of the Belgian CD&V party and in particular to his critique of the "paradox within the post-war Western European welfare state, which he named the Matthew Effect, after Matthew 13:12, "For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath"" Of course, as Christians point out, this was a reference to the rewards of faith but using this quotation as short hand for the outcome of current political "wisdom" seems very apt. One cannot help thinking of Conservative doctrine in the UK, but now, sadly a Labour Party that feels compelled to join with the Tories in lowering the amount of benefits that a family may receive. This article in the Independent has shaken me to the core. It's as if Jan Fabre has been recruited as a strategic thinker by the Labour Executive. The drift away from collective responsibility, justified by the complacency of those who "hath", inevitably leads to the number of those that "hath not" increasing as inequality becomes an accepted fact.
The trip to Antwerp was certainly stimulating, from the photographic art chronicling the suffering inflicted upon humanity over the last 150 years ......... to the 40 years of self-inflicted pain of a minor talent ............ to the efforts made in the last 70 years to alleviate suffering and to lift society onto a higher plain.

Thank goodness that Belgium supplies those of us possessing an unprotected mind with such a copious selection of soothing liquids for the brain.