This Week with Brian
Including an undeliverable project, a fat bonus, water action, expecting more and getting less, a GDPR fine brewing up, buying teaspoons, Chinese aviation, skinny dipping, declared interests, this season’s tips, a four-pointed letter, a missing inventory, more slots, cucumber cats, greenlash, everything is fine, a unique word, the usual suspects and an unfaithful servant.
Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).
If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at [email protected].
• It’s never a great look when you have a multi-billion pound project that’s already gone more than twice over budget and you’re told by an official body responsible for just such judgements that achieving it – which will cost yet more money – is effectively impossible. That is the situation that HS2 finds itself in with the 2022-23 Infrastructure and Projects Authority annual report stating that the rail line is “undeliverable”. Just to be clear, there are five grades for ongoing projects and this is the worst. Even Ofsted only has four. Imagine something that’s one worse than “inadequate” and you get the idea.
Your Local Area
• There must have been good reasons for HS2 but I couldn’t remember what any of them were. I had a look at HS2’s website to remind myself. Under the heading “Why HS2?” (a question many might be asking), three were suggested.
“It will transform Britain’s railways, creating capacity for more local services and freight trains.” That may be so on the area that it affects but I’m struggling to see how it can do any of this on the the stretches of the GWR main line that we live between. One, to the south, has these last few years had a drastically reduced service between Bedwyn and Newbury as a result of IET trains being redeployed elsewhere. The line to the north suffers from having no longer any stations between Didcot and Swindon at all, despite calls for at least the Wantage Road Station in Grove to be re-opened. Quite how the extra capacity in the HS2 area is going to help us here is a mystery. Every area of the country could point to a similar story.
Even the alleged benefits in HS2’s backyard don’t seem to justify the cost and disruption. In 2019, Midlands Engine suggested that 73 stations on the national network would “benefit from improved passenger services as a direct result of the capacity released by HS2.” There are about 2,700 railway stations in Great Britain, so that’s about 3% of them. This doesn’t seem like a great return for the sharp end of £100bn.
“It will be a zero-carbon alternative for long-distance travel.” Well, yes, it might be, if you regard London to Birmingham as “long-distance” and if all the electricity used to power it comes from renewable sources. The same could be said for other railway lines were they to be electrified. The International Railway Journal said that, in 2019, only about 42% of the network was electrified: and also claimed that a cost of about £1m per single track kilometre was possible. There is about 32,000km of track in the UK, so that leaves about 19,000km still to be electrified. That’s about £19bn. Let’s double it, to allow for what HS2 describes as “prolongation and delay costs.” Let’s double it again, just in case. That’s still cheaper than HS2.
“It will help spread prosperity and opportunities to the midlands and the north.” I find the last part of this hard to follow given that it will not, for now at least be going to “the north” unless you have a very flexible definition of what “the north” means.. An interesting feature of HS2 is that the shorter the route has got, the more its costs seem to increase. Phase 1 now will now see the line link a currently non-existent station in north west London to Birmingham.
Something has clearly gone very wrong with this project. As with a high-stakes poker game, the time has passed when it can be pulled back from. One thing’s for sure: the management consultants and construction companies have done very well out of the line, and will continue to for many years. So too have the staff at HS2. Private Eye 1604 tells us that despite the IPA’s lamentable judgement and the fact that on HS2’s own admission in July seven of the 12 key performance indicators had not been met, the CEO’s £636,000pa salary was recently supplemented with a £40,000 bonus: “Why,” Lord Gnome adds, “is not explained.”
• The BBC reports that the UK’s six biggest water firms are facing legal action over claims they underreported pollution and overcharged customers. “The claims are being brought,” the articles explains, “by Professor Carolyn Roberts, an environmental and water consultant represented by Leigh Day Solicitors. Leigh Day says it is the first environmental collective action of its kind.” Thames Water is one of the water companies being sued.
This is no surprise to me. Information provided by the excellent East Garston Flood and Pollution Forum in our village suggest that the monitoring equipment that’s used to measure discharges from our pumping station into the SAC and SSSI River Lambourn is defective. The fact that on at least one occasion this resulted in Thames Water reporting that discharges were even higher than the reality makes no difference: wrong is wrong and the figures therefore can’t be relied upon.
Again with Private Eye 1604 on my desk, as it was for the above section, I learn that the main owners of Yorkshire Water, another defendant in this case, are the investment arms of the governments of Germany and Singapore and a New York-based private equity firm. It’s hard to believe that the investment motive for any of these was clean rivers. We are where we are with the ownership of water companies. As with HS2, this has perhaps gone on too long for any major change of policy to be easy.
• I could go on. The railways and the water are two aspects of life where it’s beyond all doubt that the quality of the service falls way beyond what we were promised and what we might expect to receive. One could argue the problem with both was privatisation: that false markets were created in sectors where no competition existed or could ever exist in order to seduce us into believing that the private sector could solve the problems state ownership couldn’t. Whatever the merits or otherwise of this, there are also deeper points at work.
Railways and water are only two aspects of public life which are in some form of crisis. To this we could also add, in no particular order, our energy infrastructure, the NHS, social care, the legal-aid system, recycling, local-council finances, housing, defence spending, arts provision and potholes. All of these have suffered, so we are told, from decades of under-investment. The inference is that by pouring money into them we can fix the problem. As HS2 has shown, however, money on its own is not the solution.
The question turns on what we expect to receive from life by right, here in the UK. Between the late 1940s and the early 1980s there was a compact in place that if we paid our taxes and played the game then we’d be looked after in our later years or in times of hardship. A number of alterations to this status quo have since intruded themselves into this, including longer life expectancy (so creating more complex needs and so higher costs), a shift from progressive to regressive tax, the complicating effects of privatisation on many services, ever-increasing expectations of what we expect to provided with by right and the ever-increasing realities of climate change.
These extra demands have made meeting these obligations impossible. They are also incompatible with the reluctance of governments to accept that we need to pay centrally for services that we all enjoy and which benefit society as a whole. We either have to accept that we get less, or that we pay more (either through taxes or charges) and get something better.
There’s also a huge problem here. As the experience of HS2, and also of our water companies, have shown, paying more money doesn’t guarantee anything in the way of returns. What’s therefore needed is a complete reform of the way that contributions to these are made.
Let’s have a quick look at three areas; the above-mentioned water and rail companies and also our local councils, which provide (often as agents of the government) a number of services on which we all rely.
- Water is, aside from air, the one thing that we can’t do without. The UK’s drinking water seems to be generally OK (though we shouldn’t be complacent) but the waste system is not working. Again forgetting all the water bills we’ve paid before, should we prepared to accept charges higher than the regulator’s maximum to get something better? Some would say we should. Others might say not. However, I don’t trust the water companies to use this extra money to do the right thing. Can some informed but dispassionate authority be established to ensure that extra sums raised are sent on the investment that’s needed rather than on dividends? To do so would rather undermine the point of having private water companies at all. None the less, perhaps we should try this. We have regulators. They should be made to do more regulation, which might include taking control of some of the expenditure. Burt can we trust them?
- Railway privatisation seems to have been an even greater catastrophe. The complexity and the expense of the fares alone put many people off. Re-nationalising it presents headaches, particularly given how awful BR was and how profligate the government-controlled HS2 has been. Can we accept we have learned from past failures? But who would run the nationalised rail system? Could they be accountable? Would it be better than the muddle we have now?
- Local councils seem to operate on a much more accountable system. They provide most social-care and education provision, road maintenance, recycling, refuse collection, planning control and environmental protection amongst a host of other services. The main direct way they raise this is through council tax (the percentage of the total revenue each council receives from this varies widely), generally limited to a 2.99% increase each year, with an additional 2% for social care if the authority is responsible for this. There’s a fairly direct connection between the population and the councils, not least through local councillors and elections every four years, which ensure some kind of accountability, although councils can’t charge more with the promise of better services and make their pitch at election time. I can’t, however, vote for the board of HS2 or Thames Water unless I buy shares, in which case my influence will be proportionate to my investment (ie pretty small).
Do we feel that most services we currently receive are as good as they claimed to be?; and do we think the current arrangements will ensure this can be fixed? Most of us would answer “no” to both, which shows we have a pretty serious problem on our hands, both in terms of expectation and of governance. We can influence our local councils but their own power and finances are controlled from SW1. HS2 and the water firms, and many other organisations besides, seem to be subject to no such control.
The best we can do is get involved in any local groups or charities in areas like flooding, pollution, rail services, social care, education or health and lobby like hell for changes that affect us and thus, in time, others. Think globally but act locally, as the saying goes. There’s a lot to be said for focussed local action: in many ways both state-controlled and privatised solutions have let us down.
• It seems that two popular ways of getting secret documents into the public domain are by publishing them online by mistake or having them stolen from the boot of a car. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has recently managed to employ both of these methods, with the result that the details of everyone who works for the PSNI, including what they do, has been released. This would be bad enough on the mainland but across the water these matters are obviously even more sensitive. A big fine under GDPR rules (up to maximum of £17.5m or 4% of annual global turnover, whichever is greater) seems possible. The problem is that the PSNI might then say that, because of the fine, it needs to cut back on anything that isn’t a front-line service, including IT security.
Much the same could be said of the fines given to water companies. If the money is taken out of the sector which has infringed it’s likely to make the situation worse. Perhaps the answer is to expect a bit more personal responsibility and sack or fine the people at the top who earn the big bucks and should make sure these things don’t happen.
Few such approaches match the perfection of the idea hit upon by the Chinese government in the late 1990s when the world was living in fear of everything computerised packing up on the stoke of midnight on 31 December 1999. Aviation was felt to be particularly threatened. Beijing decreed – as only Beijing can – that all employees of the state airline above a certain rank should be in the air at this time. Talk about focussing the mind.
Perhaps in the case of data breaches, the directors should be forced to publish all their personal numbers and passwords and, in the case of pollution, the directors should be obliged to spend half an hour skinny dipping just downstream of the leaks. In the same way, footballers who pull their tops off after scoring will be obliged to play the rest of the match with their shirts pulled over their heads. There’ll be a number of little changes like this introduced when I take over…
• And finally
• Another high-street name seems about to vanish, with Wilko announcing on 10 August that it’s gone into administration. The store in Newbury has been more and more empty these last few months so I’m not that surprised. This reduces by one a shop where you can buy things like teaspoons without having to go online.
• This article on the Reuters website suggests that there’s a “greenlash” going on: a back-tracking on climate policies in Europe, despite record-breaking summer temperatures and the fact that most countries have passed laws mandating action. The main problem is the cost, or the perception of it, which have been seized upon by right-wing parties. Many of these day that climate change is caused by humans in the first place. If you start off from that point then it’s easy to see the whole reaction as state-sponsored intervention in our lives.
• Speaking of which, an excellent letter in the Newbury Weekly News this week from John Downe of Hungerford who criticises some regular correspondents on this subject for not declaring what are sometimes “strong vested interests.” He cites the instance of Hamish McCracken, quoting from his LinkedIn page a cv which includes a career spent in the oil and gas industry. John Downe wonders if the paper might publish some fact-check articles alongside future similar letters. This seems unlikely as such things are not quick or easy to write. Another suggestion he makes, by implication, is that correspondents should be more honest about their backgrounds. That seems unlikely as well.
Some volunteer this anyway: a few letters further on, Dr David Cooper declares him to be from the Say no Sandleford campaign, which leaves no one in any doubt as to where he’s coming from. Ross Mackinnon’s letter (which I’ve looked at above) volunteers the fact that he’s a Conservative Councillor.
The paper is certainly to be congratulated for publishing letters on a wide range of matters, which are often in stark contradiction to each other, and which effectively make up the NWN’s opinion column. Clearly we all need to exercise healthy scepticism and check the backgrounds of those who write in. Thomas Jefferson is credited with having told us that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” This is also, perhaps, the price of truth: as these days might also be a subscription to LinkedIn.
• The football season is about to kick off. My view is that other 19 teams are playing for second place as it’s hard to see past Manchester City. If they do win it again this will be the first time in the leagues 135-year history that a team has done this four times in a row. This is something we should celebrate as in many other countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Scotland, this is commonplace and thus rather boring, unless you happen to support Bayern, PSG, Celtic or whoever. My tips are Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Man Utd in that order, Wolves, Palace and Luton going down, Villa winning the League Cup and Brighton the FA Cup. Place your bets accordingly…