Monday 26 October 2015

An electrifying Saturday night

I have to get myself a life. There I was, Saturday evening relaxing in front of the television with a beer in my hand, idly flicking through the channels (because we men are genetically wired to do that) when I happened upon the proceedings of the Public Accounts Committee looking at Network Rail electrification schemes. I had 5 minutes before it started so armed myself with a big bag of crisps and another beer (yes my wife was away visiting her mother) and settled back for some prime time Westminster entertainment. Was I disappointed ........... yes.

There were three chaps being questioned, the head honcho of Network Rail (NR), a similarly suited bloke representing the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and then a somewhat bemused gentleman from the DfT (Department for Transport). A few minutes in and I was shaking my head in amazement that these three had ever been appointed to such senior positions. Later, checking upon the NR guy, Mark Carne I was amazed to learn that he receives a basic salary of £675k per year (that's without his bonus package that can be a further 20%). Goodness knows what the other two earn but I would expect that they are both paid a few quid more per hour than the minimum wage. The trouble is that their answers to the committee demonstrated a basic lack of understanding of the railway, the very thing they are paid so highly to direct and manage. No wonder the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin spouts such rubbish if he is depending on these three for guidance.

I will give you an example:

Question: Why is the Great Western Electrification scheme taking longer to complete and costing so much more?

Answer from Mark Carne: We have found signal wires buried in the ballast that we did not know were there.

I can assure you that it would be a surprise if you did not find signal wires under the ballast. For years now this has been a common practice on the railway and it beggars belief that there are people planning this work who are unaware of the need to reroute these wires before electrification masts can be erected. Perhaps I should not be so surprised as the number of people available to take on such work has steadily declined since privatisation. Just last week I bumped into a friend on Derby Station, an experienced electrification engineer on his way home from consultancy work on the Great Western project and he told me that many engineers have been drafted in from abroad to make up for the shortfall in qualified British engineers. No wonder things are going wrong because we have lost so much local knowledge that used to be such a valuable part of any railway undertaking. All this sort of work was formerly done in house on British Rail, by engineers who were nurtured on the job, with day releases to technical college, sponsored degree courses and an assurance of a career path by which the railways gained an unbroken knowledge base with a pool of retained skills. Privatisation weakened that structure with much of the work now farmed out to consultants. Don't get me wrong, I have been a railway consultant myself but I am well aware that often the skills on offer from consultancies are generic and not specific enough to deal with local peculiarities.

All this is far from objective so ............

I have to admit that I am waffling on a bit here so I have thought about how I could quantify my point. To this end I have compared electrification schemes over the years to see if modern practice is falling short of what was achieved in the past. I made up this little spreadsheet:
No electric trains to run through Belper before 2023 - a delay of 5 years

UK Railways Major Electrification Schemes
Scheme Construction Route Miles Miles per year Coincident schemes Remarks
Years Build time
West Coast 1959/66 7 335 48 48 London > Birmingham/Liverpool/Manchester
West Coast 2 1970/74 4 261 65 65 Extension Crewe to Glasgow
East Coast 1984/91 7 420 60 60 Hitchin to Leeds/Edinburgh
West Coast 3 1998/2009 10 596 60 60 West Coast Route Modernisation
Midland 2013/23 10 144 14 54 Bedford to Corby/Derby/Nottingham/Sheffield
Transpennine 2014/20 6 40 7 Manchester to Leeds (completion is estimated)
GW 2012/19 7 230 33 London to Bristol & Cardiff inclusive
Source: BelperStuff

Just the main schemes are charted here (minor infill work has been ignored) but it is apparent that what Network Rail claim to be difficult to do is in no way an increase on the work undertaken in previous years. It is understandable that the original West Coast Route scheme was planned with only an average of 48 route miles per year as this included significant works to 4 major stations and 3 complex junctions whilst steam trains were still running. By the 1970's the extension to Glasgow and Edinburgh was romping along at an annual average of 65 miles, the later East Coast electrification achieving 60 miles per year but once again including significant station and junction works.  Even the complicated modernisation of the West Coast route managed a similar performance but, turning to the current schemes we find that output has decreased to a cumulative 54 miles per year with the East Midlands electrification now being planned at a glacial 14 miles per year (best not to mention the Transpennine which contains no significant works apart from a tricky tunnel as both Manchester and Leeds stations are already electrified).

So what can be done?

Re-nationalisation is a good start. Bring all this back in house and give our young budding engineers a patch of railway to own, manage, care for .............. and co-incidentally provide them and their families with a secure future. Phase in engineering schemes to be sequential thereby ensuring a properly planned, seamless supply chain for infrastructure kit and new trains. Railways are best managed with gradual, incremental improvements, something we forgot about with privatisation; 20 years of lost opportunities with no new route electrification following privatisation in the mid 1990s, the only significant electrification being the modernisation of the West Coast route. If it had not been for the hastily contrived Tory plan to dismember British Rail we would have electrified the Great Western years ago.

Let us get back to an integrated railway system that is not dependent on a pyramid of blame shifting quasi-government departments, presided over by a minister of state who managed to remain blind to all warnings of time and cost overruns before an election when the whole industry has been aware of these shortcomings for months, some of us for years.

Monday 19 October 2015

A Belper microgrid ............ Tory energy policy kills it stone dead

This third post on energy should have been easy to write ............ and would have been if it had been written just a few months ago. Sadly, a Tory energy policy has emerged that sucks billions out of the sustainable energy sector and at the same time favours the traditional carbon producing and nuclear methods of powering the UK. You don't have to take my word for it: BBC article - UN highlight UK cuts in renewables subsidies, coupled with tax breaks for oil and gas, sends a worrying signal to the coming UN climate summit in Paris.

The Telegraph applauds this move: Oil and gas industry bolstered by reduction in tax rates and new investment allowances worth £1.3bn over five years. These tax benefits, when compared with the billions taken away from the renewable energy sector (Belperstuff - from August 2015 renewables will no longer receive climate change levy exemption certificates, costing the industry £3.9 billion over five years) gives a clear signal of what the Tories intend.

So how does this affect Belper?

Belper was on the brink of taking that first step towards developing its own microgrid. The formation of the "Amber and Derwent Valley Community Energy (ADVyCE) Limited", an initiative aimed at reviving the Ambergate Hydroelectric plant was a key step and was in the process of negotiating startup funding. This was a propitious time because battery technology has now advanced to a point where energy produced by such a facility can be cheaply stored when demand is low (in the middle of the night) and made available for peak use in the morning. If we than added solar power to the mix then those same batteries could be recharged during the day using a combination of Hydro/Solar to provide power in the evenings. Success of the scheme would have made it much easier to fund further initiatives which, following just a few years of investment could have resulted in the Belper area becoming a recognisable microgrid, exporting surplus energy to the national grid whilst becoming net importers during overcast days. A further element would have been a commitment to reduce the amount of energy needed by a program of buildings insulation and the adoption of low power and energy efficient appliances. We must also remember that there are existing commercial  hydro plants in Belper and Milford which could also be a future addition to the microgrid. -  - - - Ambergate Weir

All that is now at a standstill because of the Tory reversal of strategy with schemes such as the Ambergate Hydro finding that their business startup model has just become unworkable.

So we turn to our local MP for guidance and what does Pauline Latham say: 

No suitable caption comes to mind
I agree with the Government that the new goals must be people-centred and planet-sensitive. Environmental and development agendas have often been looked at separately, so this new change in approach is important. It helps tackle a criticism of millennium development goal 7—on ensuring environmental sustainability—which was ineffective because it was not mainstreamed into the rest of the framework. The Government are rightly aiming to ensure that environmental sustainability is mainstreamed right through the post-2015 framework.

Yes Pauline, you don't seem to know what you are talking about and we are finding it difficult to follow your logic. A "framework" that rewards carbon 
emission production over sustainable, renewable, planet friendly methods in no way can be referred to with these words: "central theme of the new sustainable development goals is prosperity; ensuring that human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic progress occurs in harmony with nature", (all quotes highlighted in blue are Pauline Latham's own words, delivered to parliament in September 2015 - follow this link if you want more). Pauline was speaking in a debate on the sustainable development goals to be agreed this month at the United Nations.

There is no doubt that the reversal of the Labour sustainable energy policy has been unpicked and now reversed by this Tory government. This directly harms Belper. We fear that government policy may now harm the wonderful initiative of Derbyshire County Council to promote solar power sites within Derbyshire: (link to results of DCC consultation on Solar Farm sites). 

At the start of this post we referred to the "disappointment" over the change in UK government policy and it seems appropriate to return to this ............. with the words of the UN scientist Jacquie McGlade: 

"What's disappointing is when we see countries such as the United Kingdom that have really been in the lead in terms of getting their renewable energy up and going - we see subsidies being withdrawn and the fossil fuel industry being enhanced."

Friday 16 October 2015

Belper Town Council ............ inconsistent response to planning applications

BelperStuff had intended to post something more interesting today but the report from our town council correspondent just had to be noted.

Belper Town Council met last Tuesday evening and it was expected that they would oppose the new Aldi store for the obvious increase in traffic that the store would generate. Remember that they were against Derbyshire County Council's planned development of care for the elderly, educational and new library facilities on Derwent Street, claiming that the associated 200 space car park would cause traffic chaos on the A6 roundabout (despite the fact that the county council plans shows many fewer car park spaces than 200).

So what did the town council say about Aldi ............. precisely nothing.

I don't think that a planning application has so far been submitted but with a Aldi have posted a prospectus to every household in the town one would expect the local council to be alive to the issue. However, at the last council meeting there was no mention that the new Aldi store has the potential to increase traffic in all the roads leading to the A6 island ........... no mention that the car parking capacity in the town would be further stretched because the current 2 hour permitted stay in the B&M car park would be cut back to 1½ hours because Aldi employs a company that fines customers who stay longer than 90 minutes. Check out this link to an article in the Guardian: Aldi fines motorist £70. This will increase the likelihood of shoppers being fined, as happened to this Belper shopper in 2013: B&M fine shopper £60 - link to facebook.

Aldi are stating that their new store will be complementary to other town shops suggesting that you can buy items in Aldi then go elsewhere to continue your shopping. It would seem that the more restrictive Aldi car parking policy will result in less chance to use other supermarkets and shops in the same visit.

What should the council have done?

  1. Asked Aldi for their estimate of the number of shoppers they expect will visit the store.
  2. Asked Aldi to state how long shoppers will be allowed to park before they are hit with a fine.
  3. If Aldi stated that their 90 minute rule will apply then the town council should have made an assessment on the likely impact on the town's car parking capability, factoring in any possible increase of shoppers in the town who choose to visit the Aldi store.
  4. Lobbied Aldi to adopt the B&M 2 hour parking limit but, if they insisted on 90 minutes, assessed the possible impact on existing town businesses of this change.

But the main question that the Town Council must answer is this:

Why do they find the County Council proposal on Derwent Street to be unacceptable but have no problem with a new shop? Why is it ok to clog up the A6 roundabout with Aldi shoppers but not ok that a lesser number of cars use the same route to access the library and elderly care facility?

In conclusion

BelperStuff has no opinion about the proposed Aldi store. It seems to be a popular development ............. according to the 6 people that BelperStuff straw polled but not one of them knew about the possible parking restrictions or commented about increased traffic. You can find the Belper News Aldi article via this link. Who knows .............. the Town Council may have been in negotiation with Aldi and the Amber Valley Borough planning department to make sure that we do not end up with the "gridlock" that they claimed would be caused by the DCC Derwent Street development, ensuring that the Aldi store would not cause similar chaos.

Sunday 11 October 2015

So why are "microgrids" the future .......... and what are they?

In the last post, "The Tory energy strategy .........." we looked at the Osborne/Rudd plan for our future, concentrating on the nuclear component and how much that will cost. It is obvious that the cost of decommissioning nuclear power stations doubles the cost of energy but is being justified as the best no-carbon emission option. At the same time the Tories have reversed the Labour strategy of investment in alternative energy even though knowledgeable and senior voices in the industry are stressing that the idea of large nuclear power stations to be used for baseload power is outdated. In the rest of the world there is a growing awareness that the energy market is changing with more open and accountable societies realigning their regulations and taxation to better promote that change. The Labour strategy opened the door for our country to benefit from this new world of innovation and emerging technologies but losing the last election has allowed the Tories to re-establish the ascendency of 20ͭth century thinking, our energy dependent on a base of expensive nuclear plants, augmented by fossil fuel generation ........... oh and some off-shore wind generation. We don't have to look too far to find out why the Tories are doing this as there are many reports about the links between Tories and energy companies with even former Tory ministers raising the alarm: Guardian article highlighting conservatives links with fossil fuel lobbyists and of course, as mentioned in the previous post, the present minister, Amber Rudd, is far too close to the industry. The Tory party have received £2.5 million in donations prior to the last election from the energy sector (see this Guardian article from March 2015) so it is not a surprise if their energy strategy reflects the interests of their party donors.

So what is the rest of the world thinking of doing? 

Isle of Eigg
The basis of this new way of thinking is the concept of the microgrid. Instead of a few centralised power plants creating electricity that is then distributed via a national grid there will be a multiplicity of "microgrids" supplying energy to villages, towns and districts ........ each microgrid connected to the national grid, exporting surplus production but also, sometimes drawing from the national network when they cannot supply all the peak load. This approach decreases the number of large power stations that have to be built or maintained and offers the best route for sustainable, carbon neutral means of production to become the norm. Some microgrids already exist, like on the Isle of Eigg in the inner Hebrides which is self sufficient in energy, relying on  solar panels, battery bank, hydro and wind generation which provides the mix of renewable generation which powers the grid.  In the summer months when there is little wind or rain, the 53.5kW of solar photovoltaic panels angled at 30 degrees run the island all day. Look here at the Community Energy Scotland article - it is very informative. The Eigg microgrid is different in that it is not connected to the national grid so is completely standalone. A mainland microgrid has the advantage that it does not have to be the sole supplier from day one but can take time to mature, each year increasing the local supply and relying less and less on power from the national grid. You don't have to take my word for it but look here: Major bank analysts “believe solar will eventually replace nuclear and coal.” This report, to be found on the greentechmedia website, underpins the concept of microgrids and a further article spotlights the importance of ensuring that the national grid is not dominated by vested interests, likening it to the internet: Grid Neutrality: Principles for Tomorrow’s Electricity Sector. This article nails the Tory strategy for what it is, restrictive and preferential to the big energy conglomerates that now have the whip hand in forming Tory policy. Cameron claims that Corbyn hates Britain and is a threat to national security but when he crows over the EDF deal (£76 billion, scaling up by inflation right through to 2061) he shows contempt for this country and its people (that's us) who will have to pay the bill. A prime minister is elected to serve the people, to promote the best interests of the UK, not skew policies for the benefit of those who prop up his party. 

So what can we do?

Lisa Nandy
Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
Tories are in government for the next five years and have already started to enter into contracts with energy companies that will lock us into a counter-intuitive policy for decades to come but all is not lost. In a powerful speech at the Labour Party Conference our Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Lisa Nandy, spoke time and time again of the importance of renewable energy, most notably as the "Clean Energy Boom". No ifs or buts there, the boom is happening and is recognised by Labour who are putting it at the heart of their energy and climate policies. Lisa talked about initiatives at local level and I was reminded of the Derbyshire County Council solar farm project. Her closing words were, "Let us change the story" and it was evident that she believes that we can do just that even though this Tory government are trying to stop this story from happening.

In a previous post BelperStuff highlighted Conor McGinn and his question,  "is labour on the side of history" ............. Conor, Labour's energy policy is definitely on the side of history and in the next post we will look at how it could be applied locally in Belper.

Friday 9 October 2015

The Tory energy strategy is ...... fracking ....... imported gas & oil ..... and a cunning plan

It's all Labour's fault. We didn't get elected. We went into the May 2015 election with a brilliant strategy based upon an alternative energy sector that would employ 1 million workers, dramatically reduce the cost of sustainable planet friendly energy production and turn the UK into a leading centre of excellence for research and development in this field ............. but ............. we failed to get the voting public interested in it .......... scuppered by bacon sandwiches, economic credibility and the SNP; not forgetting the leaching of votes away to the Greens.

Amber Rudd
Now the Tories feel emboldened to follow their instincts and deny the need to reduce carbon emissions. One obvious sign of this is the collapse of the £1 billion scheme to build a carbon capture facility at the Drax coal fired power station : reference this Guardian article and if you want an overview of just how badly the Tories are eroding the nascent eco-friendly industry you should read this further article in the Guardian - Nine Green Policies killed off by the Tory Government or, if you want more evidence yet another article detailing the impact of Tory policiesFrom August 2015 renewables will no longer receive climate change levy exemption certificates, costing the industry £3.9 billion over five years. The minister responsible for all of this is  Amber Rudd who we can trust to be impartial in the way she runs her department despite this: her brother is a top financial lobbyist for energy clients. Well that's reassuring ......... but let's not get sidetracked by personalities, it does not matter who the Tories put up as energy minister, their policies will not change. 

What is really upsetting is how they are able to sell all this to the voter as being a credible way forward for our country, as if the UK was somehow immune from the effects of carbon emissions. Let's not be fooled here, the UK is not entering into an energy crisis that is several levels worse than the problems that beset us in the early 1970's (the oil crisis), despite what George Osborne would have us believe. On the surface the fact don't look too good but bear in mind that since 2005 overall energy use in the UK has fallen by 18%; we are now using 5% less energy than 50 years ago. This is the sort of stuff that the big energy providers (and Osborne) try to frighten us with:

In 2013, 357 billion kWh (TWh) of electricity was produced in the UK. This comprised 70.6 TWh (19.7%) nuclear, 95.7 TWh (27%) from gas, 130 TWh (36%) from coal, 27.4 TWh from wind, 7.6 TWh hydro, 20.5 TWh from biofuels and wastes and 2.0 TWh from solar. In 2012 net electricity imports from France – mostly nuclear – were 6.4 TWh and from Netherlands 5.8 TWh. Preliminary government figures for 2014 are: 20.5% nuclear, 33.6% coal, 30.9% gas.

There is a high-voltage DC connection with France with 2000 MW capacity, and a 1400 MWe link over 700 km with Norway is planned. Per capita UK electricity consumption was about 5000 kWh in 2012.
In 2009, half of British gas was supplied from imports (compared with 32% in 2007), and this is expected to increase to at least 75% by 2015, as domestic reserves are depleted. 
North Sea oil has been a major energy and revenue source for the UK, but the resources are now depleted and the looming decommissioning cost is about £30 billion, with the government liable for 60% of this. 
Did you get that last sentence -------- UK government liable for 60% of North Sea Oil decommissioning .......... that means a sum of £18 billion in the next few years. But this is peanuts in comparison with the sums we will have to pay for nuclear energy decommissioning and it is significant (though hardly a surprise) that the World Nuclear Association UK profile fails to mention that cost but we have to foot a significant bill for the 23 existing (some already being decommissioned) nuclear power plants. There are some facts and figures about this to be found on the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority website which contains this handy chart:

This suggests that over the next 10 years we have to pay £26 billion for nuclear decommissioning but, despite a significant tail off the bills just keep on coming for the next 100 years (and I suspect for ever after). 

Thank goodness the Tories have a cunning plan

Yes of course they have a plan (it's not just fracking and subsurface gasification)......... which is .......... to build more nuclear power plants. There are 19 in the pipeline (perhaps not the best word to use) which at a current industry average build cost of £5.84 billion per plant puts the total planned investment at £111 billion ......... kerching. Obviously they have realised that this is perhaps not such a cunning plan so they are cleverly applying this wording from THE ENERGY ACT 2008:

Funded decommissioning programme

The Energy Act 2008 stipulates that plant operators are required to submit a Funded Decommissioning Programme (FDP) before construction on a new nuclear power station is allowed to commence. The Funded Decommissioning Programme must contain detailed and costed plans for decommissioning, waste management and disposal. The government will set a fixed unit price for disposal of intermediate-level wastes and used fuel, which will include a significant risk premium and escalate with inflation. During plant operation, operators will need to set aside funds progressively into a secure and independent fund. Ownership of wastes will transfer to the government according to a schedule to be agreed as part of the FDP.
That sort of ....... seems to be ....... ok, but the implementation of this wording has allowed the Tories to enter into an agreement with EDF to pay them way above the industry standard for energy the company will provide from a new nuclear facility at Hinkley Point C, up to 2061 .......... at an estimated lifetime cost of £76 billion (that's what is behind the reported £98.50 per megawatt hour - it includes decommissioning). Surely this was not the intention of the act. It should have provided transparency of nuclear life cycle costs including decommissioning so that a fair comparison could be made with alternative sources of energy. Perhaps if I point you in the direction of one more very informed link: The Ecologist - Hinkley C's claimed benefits evaporate under scrutiny.

So where next?

It cannot escape your notice that we are talking about huge amounts of money here. What about if we started to think about an alternative, what about if we took that capital cost of £111 billion for new build nuclear plants and invested it in something different, something more 21st century and not replicate the mistakes of the latter half of the 20th. Well thoughts like that were at the heart of the Labour Policy on energy. It wasn't all good as there was still a residual leaning towards nuclear but at least there was a desire to go for sustainable methods of production. Within the Labour manifesto for the 2015 election there was a section which highlighted a strategy of moving towards more locally produced energy, acknowledging these prophetic words:

"The world is clearly moving towards much more distributed electricity production and towards microgrids. The pace of that development is uncertain. That depends on political decisions, regulatory incentives, consumer preferences, technological developments. But the direction is clear."
Who said this? It was Steve Holliday, CEO of National Grid, the company that operates the power transmission networks in the UK and in the northeastern US. He says the idea of large nuclear power stations to be used for baseload power is outdated whereas George Osborne says that we need a secure supply of nuclear baseload electricity. I know who I prefer to trust.

I am in the process of writing the next blog post which explores just what is meant by the term, "microgrid" and the potential for local initiatives ........... but in the meantime a browse through the The Ecologist website should prove informative.

Monday 5 October 2015

Tory strategy ...... create a crisis then offer dubious means of escape

There is a lot going on at county level at the moment with devolution of services coupled with the proposed spread of responsibilities for newly designated powerhouses. This involves Derbyshire County Council (DCC) because there are plans to increase the hinterland of both Manchester and Sheffield, encroaching on the provision of, for instance, health care and transport in the northern parts of our county. If we factor in the ambition of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to coalesce as yet another regional powerhouse then the future of our council structures seem to be very uncertain. All this is happening without any real debate and I notice that even friends and comrades in my local Labour Party branch, (Belper & Duffield Labour Party Branch - or B&DLPB)who would normally be up with such things, are voicing concerns that these changes have snuck up on us ........ unawares.

It was this BBC article that sparked off our alarm: link to - Sheffield City Region: Elected mayor in 2017 after devolution deal signed. In this article it is stated that: The city region is comprised of the nine local authority areas of Barnsley, Bassetlaw, Bolsover, Chesterfield, Derbyshire Dales, Doncaster, North East Derbyshire, Rotherham and Sheffield.  

Later in the article we find: All four big South Yorkshire district councils, together with five smaller ones in the North Midlands, have been in agreement for some time that their economies are so closely linked that they are the obvious partners to take on extra powers and budgets from central government.
Virtually all Labour-controlled, they set aside their opposition to having a directly-elected executive mayor in order to gain the financial benefits on offer.
In the past few days there has been a considerable amount of email activity in the B&DLPB, sharing further information such as this report: DERBYSHIRE HEALTH AND WELLBEING BOARD 14 May 2015 Report of the Strategic Director Health and Communities DERBYSHIRE COMBINED AUTHORITY AND HEALTH DEVOLUTION which contains details of the thinking behind the Manchester proposals.
Sheffield is honestly stating that they are entering into this devolved process because the Tories are offering cash incentives (£30 million a year for Sheffield) and Manchester are under the belief that their NHS shortfall of £500 million will be halved if health powers are devolved. The really sad fact is that our NHS, and don't forget that the "N" stands for NATIONAL, will be carved up into regional, autonomous sections, that have power over spending but will still be dependent on a national government that retains tax raising and gross budget setting control. This is the next step in the Tory government agenda of slicing and dicing our most precious institution with the ultimate goal of privatisation and a shrinking of the welfare state. Postcode lottery ........... you ain't seen nothing yet.
I was amazed that the Labour position on devolution was not clearly defined at the Labour Party Conference but I suppose that's not so surprising because listening to speeches from our front bench team I don't think they know what the policy actually is. This topic is in the same basket as Trident and .......... well so many others.
I will report on the devolution of transport in much more detail in a following post. Needless to say, Osborne is offering similar to the health sector bribes to regional authorities if they accept the Tory (Lord Adonis) view of a transportation nirvana.
What is perhaps not surprising is that consultation (for such massive changes to the way we govern ourselves (stop laughing) and the way we organise the delivery of such essential services) is spoken of but hard to detect. I have a suspicion that what the word "consultation" actually means in our post May 2015 world is that consultants will consult each other. Once they have agreed upon a wording that sufficiently mystifies the masses then it will be safe to proceed to phase 2; or have we passed that point some time ago and are already moving on to phase 3 ........ whatever that might be ........... but don't be fooled, the ultimate goal is a shrinking of the state and the onward march of corporate provision of all essential services in this land ........ more commonly know as privatisation.

I have no doubt that whilst I am sitting here at my desk there are Tories at their conference spouting off about powerhouses and devolving power to the people. The reality is that it is the responsibility for what will become toxic problems that is being devolved whilst the Tory government will remain blameless at the 2020 polling stations. You just need to see how Osborne and Cameron point the finger at Welsh Labour and their handling of health and education in Wales; they highlight any small discrepancy even as there are parts of England with far worse performance ............. but they never come clean about that. The mayhem caused by Lansley then Hunt is never acknowledged.

Saturday 3 October 2015

East Midlands Electrification ..... annual reduced investment will end up costing more

You might have read the headlines: Network Rail to restart electrification of train lines says the BBC or as the East Midlands Business Link had it: McLoughlin "un-pauses" Midland Mainline electrification.

BelperStuff looks at this in more detail and I apologise upfront to those who have busy lives and more important things to do than spending time trying to find any kind of logic in Tory transport policies.

Diesel trains up to 2023 - some by then 47 years old

An inside source in Network rail whispered to BelperStuff that McLoughlin's pause has already created an upfront £10 million in delay charges and stand down down costs and we can expect more costs in restarting the project that could add up to an extra 1% on the original estimated cost of £500 million. Looking at the East Midlands Business Link article I am disturbed to see them reporting the scheme as now costing £1.1 billion ......... over double the original estimate. Perhaps they are including the £200 million being mentioned as the amount pledged for line speed improvements following a campaign by Nottingham businesses and councils for faster trains to London. That still leaves a discrepancy .............. if you add up line speed improvements + electrification + pause costs and subtract them from the alleged £1.1 billion you end up with an unaccounted extra sum of nigh on £350 million. There are many in the industry who expected a cost overrun but a 50% increase over the line speed and electrification estimation is a bit steep. Perhaps the Minister would care to explain this in more detail to the House of Commons Transport select committee. Perhaps BelperStuff can help him out .......... spreading the project expenditure over 8 years instead of 5 adds 3 years of inflation. It's hard to say just how much this will be but compound interest calculations could come out at around 10% ......... or more. Add in the cost to the supply industry of increased finance costs and reduced margins (because plant and equipment will be less productive by a factor of at least 30%) and you start to see how costs escalate when you pause and then subsequently introduce an "a better plan".

But this is not the only concern. Electrification was supposed to be completed by 2020, the end of the current Network Rail five year plan period (Control period 5 or CP5). We are now told that electrification north of Kettering will not be completed until sometime in 2023 which is 3 years into the next five year plan period (CP6). By any standard of measurement this is a serious delay which the Minister describes as "a better plan". No it's not. Let's be clear about this ........... any major infrastructure project undertaken on a railway route adds minutes to journey times during the construction phase so an extension of 3 years on this project prolongs the pain. The Network Rail CP5 Route Plan for the East Midlands clearly shows the planned extra minutes to train times caused by infrastructure work ; link to East Midlands Route Summary Route Plan. This plan, which provides details of how the route will be operated up to 2020 has already needed to be modified because of the inept meddling of McLoughlin but now will have to be redrafted with elements spread out into a rather vague CP6.

The question has to be asked, why did McLoughlin bring down all that national derision and local opposition onto his head when it was perfectly feasible to review the scheme and make any necessary adjustment without the need for a pause? It is normal to investigate first .......... act second. McLoughlin chose to act first then investigate .......... now capitulate. In the real world an MD or CEO acting in this manner would be ousted with more competent management put in place.We should not forget that McLoughlin is a Tory politician who fully supports this current crowd that are besotted with a smaller state mentality and privatising zeal; the fact that Network Rail is wholly owned by the government (in reality the people) must have them gnashing their teeth. McLoughlin put the blame for the pause squarely at the door of Network Rail, claiming that he had been kept in the dark about supply chain and cost problems to major projects. It seems everybody (and by everybody I mean the opposition in Parliament, rail industry journalists, industry insiders, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee and informed sources such as BelperStuff ) ....... we all knew that there was time and cost slippage on a variety of major projects ............... but the minister had no knowledge. Is that credible?

I once shared a pint with McLoughlin  in Cromford ....... I think back in 2005 and at the time thought him to be basically harmless because he was not in government and I could not conceive of him ever being entrusted with any job that required ............. well you know what I mean. His entry in Wikipedia says it all: Patrick_McLoughlin - Wikipedia

His performance in front of the Transport Select Committee has been full of fudge and evasion. He stated that the pause on East Midlands Electrification would not be harmful because electrification does not deliver increases in train speed. On another date he testified to the Select Committee that electrification of the Great Western between Paddington and Bristol would deliver speed increases because that is a benefit of electrification. When a human brain can accept opposing facts as both being tenable we name that brain as being "oxymoronic". Of course McLoughlin may just have made the odd unintentional mistake, he may well have had knowledge of major project problems before the election, he may be aware of the fact that electrification does in fact offer speed increases or that the unpaused East Midlands project plan is not in fact an improvement .............. the point is that a government minister must be consistent and trustworthy.

Regarding the word "unpause". The press is making much of this and I search for instances where the word has been used by the minister. George Orwell described such linguistic phenomena in his novel, "Nineteen Eighty Four", where he introduced us to the language of Newspeak, a manipulation of words by the government to limit dissemination of the truth. link to Oxford Dictionary blog regarding Newspeak.  Ah yes ......... "unpause" fits right alongside words such as "Universal Credit" which really signify "restricted access to reduced benefits". "Unpause" is acceptable in the sense of computing but using the term in relation to major government expenditures is disingenuous and has the objective to trivialise. Watch out at the Tory conference for any sighting of "unpause" ......... or similar.

I sense that BelperStuff will be returning to this subject in the near future. Goodness, it's past lunchtime. I must unhunger myself.

Friday 2 October 2015

Labour Conference .............. people?

This will be my last specific report from the conference .......... well it did end 2 days ago. I have commented on only a fraction of the issues raised in the main conference hall, barely touched on fringe meetings that I attended and said nothing at all about the plethora of exhibitors stands. I started to write this post last night under a different title, "who now is in control of the party", based purely on a fringe question and answer session hosted by the Progress Group on Tuesday evening. The question asked by one chap in the gallery was, "why did the right lose control of the party." My notes may be slightly inaccurate here as a small voice in my head keeps whispering that instead of the "right" the questioner may have said "centre". I know one person who attended that meeting whose memory most probably works better than mine so if I have it wrong then please correct me.

I was shocked that such a question could be asked without causing the panel even a glimmer of discomfort. As a rank and file member I feel patronised by such a question. The answer of course is wrapped up within the question .......... Labour foot soldiers and camp followers had run out of patience with the centre right of the party that felt that they were entitled to "control" the party so voted overwhelmingly for what seems to be the democratic and inclusive alternative. Time will tell if dragging the centre of gravity to the left will result in a fairer and more equal society. I already feel more comfortable in this party but I cannot rid myself of a doubt about our electability. We failed from a centrist position in 2010 .......... we failed again in 2015 when our positioning was that of a mugwump (a mugwump sits on the fence - mug on one side - wump on the other - reference the USA election of 1884). My instinct is that more of the Labour torso will be on the left side of the fence come 2020 but just how much will be determined by how well we sell ourselves to the electorate at parish, borough, county, capital and devolved national elections in the next 2 years.

I may have changed the post headline but I still gave you a precis of the associated article. I apologise but I had to get it out of my system.

Back to people

I had many varied and interesting discussions at the conference, not just with the Labour faithful but also with many in pubs, hotel bars, shops, buses and .......... well you get the point. I did not delude myself that they were attracted by my good looks and youthful demeanour (my prize possession is my OAP bus pass). No, what made me interesting was the delegate pass that hung around my neck. People would lean in towards me to see if I was part of the travelling circus that had hit town.

Two lads in a pub

I think of the two lads who spoke with me in a pub as I waited for the Progress meeting to start (the one mentioned above). One wanted to know about Jeremy whilst the other initially came out with the usual, "they are all the same". Eventually, the innate intelligence of the "they are all the same" guy shone through and the three of us shared an interesting few minutes. Their question to me was very to the point ........ why do you bother? I told them of my life, the ease with which I found work as a youngster, the night school opportunities fanned by the WEA, eventually winning a place at university where tuition was free and I was given a full grant, then starting a family, being allocated a council house, being paid a decent enough wage in a career that made it easy to eventually buy our own house ............. in short I grew up and prospered in a world that gave me ample opportunities to succeed, a world that was so much better and inclusive than the society within which these two lads were having to make their way. I wanted the current generation, those lads, my grandchildren to have the same chances in life as I have enjoyed and that's why I bothered, that's why I was in the Labour Party.

Moderate Labour MP

Conor McGinn
Just a few yards from the pub was the Wagner meeting hall, the venue for the Progress event. As I entered I was surprised to be greeted by name by a cheery chap, outstretched hand and beaming smile. Conor McGinn, newly elected MP for St Helens North; already appointed as a party whip and a member of the Defense Committee. I had spoken briefly with him earlier in the conference and noted him to be to the centre of the party so I was very interested in how he fared at the question and answer session. I was deeply impressed by his determination when he stated, "just because I am a moderate does not mean that I do not have passion, that I do not care." Conor, if by any chance you stumble across BelperStuff and read this reference to yourself, please forgive any inaccuracies as I often struggle to take verbatim notes, often forced to paraphrase because I cannot keep up with the speaker. Conor is part of the new intake here is the link to reference him on Wikipedia and I am impressed to discover that, since being elected in May he has asked 16 questions about a range of issues. 

Cat Smith
The Progress invited panel consisted of a Times journalist who specialises in making a living from rehashing sparse dregs of  ideas from a cup from which he had first drunk some years ago. His weariness was astonishing so I will not be tempted to give any money to Murdoch to breach the Times paywall. Beside the journalist sat Cat Smith MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood link to her Wikipedia page. Cat had a far more leftist perspective but, despite being a Corbynista did not seem that enthused by his speech. Cat is a contributor to Labourlist so I get the impression that she is more comfortable in print. Completing the panel was Jacqui Smith, former Home secretary and long time Labour stalwart (her Wikipedia entry mentions her support for Blair). To be honest, though she sat at the opposite end of the table to the Times journalist I could not detect any gap between them.

I am looking inside myself with trepidation ........... can it be true that of the few elected members with which I spoke it was Conor who made me feel more confident about Labour's future. He stated that there should be a mechanism for MP accountability (careful choice of words), JC still needs to secure a public mandate (how true) ......... but the one sentence that I keep returning to, "is labour on the side of history". That for me encapsulates the position of Labour in the next four and a half years. Conor, wise words ........... now please, use that intellect of yours to make sure that we are on the side of history. We desperately need an effective front bench who speak with passion about their Labour values. Forget left and right, make our party once again a point of hope for all.

There were many others

Yes many others ........... the lady with two teenage daughters forced to live in two rooms in a conference hotel because of a fire in her housing association home. So far it's been three months and there is no immediate hope of rehousing and they have lost everything.

The policeman patrolling the seafront opposite the conference hall, part of a depleted force stretched thin by Tory cuts. He dutifully could not comment but nodded his head in agreement with the Labour analysis.

The three delegates from Easington in the North East, two charming ladies in charge of a smiling man, led by Heather Wood, who described to me in some detail the problem they face on the Durham & Northumberland coast from "underground coal gassification", which seems to be a horrible cousin of fracking. This is one to watch as it carries with it real risks of massive explosions and the ruination of vast areas of coastal land and the sea bed. Next stop could be the moribund coal seams in Derbyshire.

Then there is the elderly lady who spoke to me as I bunked off early from the conference on Wednesday morning. She asked me if she could use my pass to get into the hall so that she could once again sing the Red Flag surrounded by comrades. Unfortunately, it was impossible to help her as she in no way bore any resemblance to the photo on my delegate's pass.

............ and Marcelo who manages a well known shop on Brighton station. He told me of moving from southern Italy to the UK in 1995 ........ now he has a family, a home, a career and his 14 year old daughter attends a good school. Brighton has been good to him and his family and he in turn is an asset to our society.

Finally, on the train, I spoke to a carriage cleaner who earns £6.63 an hour, working a 44 hour week with no enhanced rates for night shifts or overtime. Can you imagine working through the night for £6.63 an hour. This is how the Tories make privatisation pay for their profit taking cronies ...... on the backs of low paid workers. Under British Railways, cleaners  were not exactly rich but they had enhanced rates for unsocial hours, sick pay proper paid holidays, a pension scheme and many other entitlements including free travel concessions for them and their families. All that was lost to privatisation. Renationalising our railways must include all contracted out services if it is to be socially relevant.

I could go on ........... the Vegans on their exhibition stand who are aware of the potential environmental and societal impact of Veganism, (I am sorry that I cause you distress when I mentioned what I had eaten for breakfast .............. the HS2 campaigners (please contact me) ............ the Trident campaigners ............. the retired quantity surveyor on the train who spoke of his disquiet about Osborne ............. not to forget, the tramp (I still use that most descriptive of words) who slept in the shop doorway, wrapped up in a dirty and disheveled coat, his face red from the cycle of night time cold and exposure to the sun. Hundreds were walking past him but he slept on. There is no dignity in poverty but  ............. but ............ words at last fail me.

Thursday 1 October 2015

Labour Conference ........... back to the future

I know that back to the future may seem to be a headline that is asking for trouble when newspapers such as the Mail and the Sun cast the Corbyn Labour team as throwbacks to the seventies but for those of us who have first hand memories of the Wilson and Callaghan governments what we witnessed at this conference would have been judged as middle of the road in the sixties. Sitting in the conference hall I tried to imagine the media response if John McDonnell had borrowed Dennis Healey's famous comment that he was going to, "tax the rich until the pips squeak" .......... and he was considered to be right wing. Or what of Harold Wilson saying, "I believe the greatest asset a head of state can have is the ability to get a good night's sleep" ............. I shudder to think what the Telegraph would have made of that if Jeremy had included it in his speech to conference. The point is that we live in different times where perfectly sensible economic policies are deemed to be left-wing fantasy. There is nothing shocking about what Labour is now proposing; it follows the mainstream Keynesian economic philosophy that has underpinned our economy since being adopted in the thirties to rescue us from a deep depression, subsequently the cornerstone of our resilience in WW2, the post war recovery and through much of the gains in our standard of living in the past 70 years. It is only when we have deviated from Keynesian principles, during the Thatcher, Major and Cameron years, that inequality and increased social division have crippled our economy ............ but always making the lower economic groupings pay the cost. I discount Heath because his government broadly accepted the Keynesian model but chose (stupidly) to enter into a class war with the miners at a time of uncertain and restricted oil supply. Probably as dumb as Osborne delivering tight fiscal control between 2010 and 2012, thus stalling the successful Brown/Darling strategy of growth that was lifting the UK out of recession. I believe that we would have avoided the double dip if Labour had won in 2010, a view shared by many in the city of London ............ not just us Labour supporters.

I searched for a Healey pip squeaking video but only came up with this Flanders and Swann clip ......... somewhat off message but why not.

Unfortunately there are many in the media, and even some of the right leaning element in the Labour Party who were seduced into abandoning the tried and trusted view that it is the duty of the state to invest in the economy in a downturn thus preparing the country to benefit at the earliest possible moment from the inevitable and state encouraged upturn. They were seduced by the spurious argument that our main concern should be a fight to reduce annual deficits and the overall burden of state debt. How foolish. 

Those to the right of the party have just lost out in the leadership election because they forgot this basic economic formula that created the welfare state and the ascendancy of social democracy and justice ......... oh and of course is the root cause of the increased prosperity in this land. It was not Thatcherism, nor is it Osbornomics .......... it was Keynesian economic theory that has been the engine for good in our society. I call it "good" because the philosophy of the shrinking state that is the Tory model has done nothing to improve economic performance, instead,doing great harm to so many. They claim success for their doctrines but are never able to link any upturn in the economy as being a result of their policies. I expect Corbyn and McDonnell to bellow across the dispatch box ............. PROVE IT .........  when Osborne makes such boasts (where would he be if the price of crude had not slumped). They shout out loud that the Labour Party now opposes austerity, skewering it as a Tory imposter, a foolish doctrine invented by those who put Tory dreams of privatising the state before the health and wealth of our country.

Calm down ....... calm down. I think that attending the conference has done me much good. Despite exhaustion with a punishing schedule and getting rather upset at the obviously weak support for Corbyn from those to the right; even getting annoyed at the inaccuracies and deliberate distortions of the megaphone left (sorry Tosh .... get your facts straight); despite all that I come away from the conference invigorated. It's not that I think Jeremy is going to become the next Prime Minister ............ I'm sorry, sadly I just cannot see him reaching out to enough voters who occupy the centre ground ............ and it's not that I think our increased membership guarantees success, by itself it does not .............. what energises me is the fact that the Labour Party is once again debating, discussing, talking, listening ............. our front bench are making much of our party being democratic ....... not top down but bottom up. Well I am taking that at face value, expecting Tom Watson to make good on this promise ......... now. How this is to be achieved I do not know but I feel sure that one of the first questions asked when I deliver my conference report to the Belper branch will be ......... how can my voice be heard?