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Friday, 25 June 2010

The coming storm

The idea of retirement, of a golden leisure period somewhere between work and senility during which we get to enjoy the fruits of our labour, is a very recent one. Right up until the last century work would segue straight into senility if you were lucky, or desperate poverty if your muscles and body gave out before your mind did. The concept of retirement was born with the new middle classes, the employed, for whom the distinction between 'life' and 'work' became concrete for the first time. The upper classes never retired because they had nothing to retire from, their work and their life being one.

I worked with a very distinguished old architect who learned his trade under Sir Basil Spence after the war. He was 73 when we engaged him and 76 when he completed the building. He didn't use CAD, of course; he would sketch freehand with astonishing accuracy and a minion would digitise the product. He gave me one of the few buildings I've ever been 100% happy with. As we were snagging, he was already busy on his next commission. He would die in harness, I thought, hopefully sometime after RIBA stage E. His work was his life.

Not so the vast bulk of the population. There is a sense of entitlement and every year we have to work beyond 50 is resented. We expect a healthcare system to see us through to our century, and spend the intervening 50 years playing golf. This mindset is so deeply engrained that to dismantle it is going to be extremely painful - particularly to my generation, who honestly expect the young, the new poor, to bear the entire cost of the boomers' continuing comfort. They won't.

I'm actively looking now to make the transition into a second, less intensive phase of my working life, a mix of something like restoring ancient buildings and rebuilding old boats with a couple of £600 a day consultancy days a month thrown in, or some commercial writing. And plenty of beer and fishing time around it all. If I get it right, 'retirement' will become meaningless. And this, I think, is the way we must all start thinking.

Reclaiming the streets

Three years ago, when Incapability Brown suggested airport-style security check-ins at mainline stations, I wrote;
I recently listened to the views of a very stupid police officer on how to deal with the 'problem' of groups of youths on the street. High fences and razor-wire erected everywhere were this idiot's preferred remedies, combined with Mosquito sonic repellents erected on lamp posts every 30 metres. He saw nothing wrong in turning the streets into something akin to the Warsaw Ghetto - his sole concern was the convenience with which teenagers could be coralled into barbed-wire pens by response cars to make the job of police officers easier.

Unfortunately, when the government takes the advice on a grand scale of 'security professionals' as deluded and as intellectually ill-equipped as this, you get proposals such as Brown's.
Well, Brown and all his silly nonsense has gone, but the myopic fools who can't accept that teenagers are citizens too, and have every right to be present in the public realm, haven't. Worst of all perhaps has been the explosion in the use of those 'Mosquito' deterrents mentioned by this officer; they emit a painfully annoying high pitched whine inaudible to anyone over 25. A bit like Mick Hucknall, I suppose, but permanent. If I were a teenager, I'd be bloody furious.

There is hope. A Council of Europe opinion has condemned their use. The Indie is way-off the mark in it's hope they will be switched off today; I suspect they'll go on being bought and installed for some while yet. But it's a start.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

If Dave is to succeed, he must restore the Petty Sessions

One of the oldest Acts of Parliament still on the statute books is the Justices of the Peace Act 1361. Now down to a single section that even the Blairs' spoilation of historic English Law didn't quite destroy, a translation into modern English is given on the government's Statute Law Database but the definitive legal text remains in that curious Norman Latin English of the day;

"First, That in every County of England shall be assigned for the keeping of the Peace, one Lord, and with him three or four of the most worthy in the County, with some learned in the Law, and they shall have Power to restrain the Offenders, Rioters, and all other Barators, and to pursue, arrest, take, and chastise them according their Trespass or Offence; and to cause them to be imprisoned and duly punished according to the Law and Customs of the Realm, and according to that which to them shall seem best to do by their Discretions and good Advisement; . . . ; and to take and arrest all those that they may find by Indictment, or by Suspicion, and to put them in Prison; and to take of all them that be not of good Fame, where they shall be found, sufficient Surety and Mainprise of their good Behaviour towards the King and his People, and the other duly to punish; to the Intent that the People be not by such Rioters or Rebels troubled nor endamaged, nor the Peace blemished, nor Merchants nor other passing by the Highways of the Realm disturbed, nor put in the Peril which may happen of such Offenders"

The Lord remains, of course, in the person of the Lord Lieutenant, who still appoints county magistrates. The Petty Sessional Divisions in which magistrates courts sat were well established by late Victorian times, when purpose-built courthouses replaced the 'Justice rooms' in Inns and large private houses in which the business of the courts had previously been disposed. Every market town had its own Petty Sessions in which local JPs disposed of minor offenders, issued licences, made Bastardy Orders against irresponsible inseminators and oversaw the attestation of men joining the army. Serious offenders were bailed or held for the Quarter Sessions, for judge and jury.

None of this could survive the Blairs' Injustice Department. Citing the unsuitability of the traditional courtrooms to accommodate offenders in wheelchairs, dangerous terrorists and video link technology, scores of courts were closed and with them went the combined decades of experience and wisdom accumulated by the Clerk and Bench that made these courts locally accepted, respected and valued.

In Suffolk it came down to just five courts as below; now Mildenhall has been closed, and Sudbury and Lowestoft will no doubt follow in the present round of cost-cutting, leaving the entire business of the County to be disposed of in either Ipswich or Bury St Edmunds.

For a County poorly served by public transport, the effect on accused, victims and witnesses will be to reduce justice to African standards, with victim and accused travelling to court on the same bus. The law firms in the market towns, generalists who handled conveyancing, farm auctions, wills and driving offences, will be hard hit too; having a partner from a small Brandon practice sitting in Bury all day only to have his multi-listed case 'bounced' to another sitting can not be compensated for by public fee levels, also to be hard hit. So hardship and injustice for all then - except perhaps the civil servants staffing the Ministry of Injustice, who can tick boxes for disabled access, deploying machine-gun toting coppers in the atria and video links to enable the prosecution of ten year-olds.

And I suspect that before long, there will be no room in these courts for lay justices. District Judges will rule, refugees no doubt from a disbanded CPS, salaried and utterly obedient to their Whitehall masters.

This is a poor day for Justice and a poor day for England. Cameron cannot succeed in devolving power whilst his left hand is busy centralising it.

Crap value - BBC costs 480x the Queen

The BBC has gleefully reported the usual republican criticisms over news that, er, the royal household has requested no increase in the Civil List. The cost of our monarchy remains at £7.9m annually.

At this level, it's not far away from a Premiership footie players wedge, so how's it spent? Is there a succession of dinged Maserati's in the royal mews? Are millions splurged on tacky matching 'E&P' negro neck-chains in gold and diamonds? Does it pay for a vulgar villa in the hills of Marbella alongside the Russian mafia? Does it fund £25k a day shopping sprees for tat and bling with other people's names on from the shops on Rodeo Drive? Well, strangely no.

Most of it goes to paying wages to people. And not fat-cat high wages, but perhaps £13k a year each to a small cohort of loyal staff. And about a million a year goes on giving tea and sandwiches to the Sovereign's subjects. To be frank, £7.9m a year is absolute peanuts. It's the cost of refuse collection for a single London borough. What's more, it's the sort of budget the people who run the BBC suck up their noses every week in white powder.

In fact, the Queen's entire annual budget would pay for just 18 hours of the BBC. The BBC enjoys an income from the Licence Fee and government grant of £3,788.4m a year - some 480x the cost of the Civil List.

£7.9m will hardly buy a single radio studio in the BBC's narcissistic and hubristic new 'media city' in Salford, and the budget for running the Director-General's 'chill zones' and 'mix plazas' for all those dusty-nosed bureaucrats dwarfs the amount available to maintain and upkeep the fabric of the Royal palaces, which would, quite frankly, be rejected as suitable accommodation by the most junior BBC continuity announcement deputy producer.

We've got our priorities horribly wrong somewhere.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Slovenia, Slovakia, Slavonia

It has come to my attention that there is a sporting contest this afternoon with a distant people from a faraway land of whom we know little.

I will be doing the management usual and keeping a low profile to avoid seeing what I shouldn't or not seeing that which I should. So no site visits today. It will be a good afternoon to start early on the valuations.

Outsourcing is not the answer

Economic commentators this morning are enthusiastic over the opportunities for Crapita, Pissco and Interscrew from government spending cuts. This will be the real test of Big State vs Localism.

There are essentially two ways in which the civil service can meet Osborne's targets. It either stops doing stuff, or does everything cheaper. The second option has always been the favourite of central Statists; it allows them to continue to wield control, but of a poor quality, demoralised, outsourced service loathed by the public. The monkeys at the front line of Crapita and Pissco's 'services' catch all the flak and suffer high rates of attrition, whilst the shareholders reap the yields from skilfully negotiated contracts that offer less value to the public purse the longer they run for.

The real answer is for the central State to stop doing stuff. If it really needs doing, most of it can be done locally, and a complete stoppage is better than a poor substitute from Crapita. But what are the chances of being able to prise the clenched fists of the mandarins from the reins of power?

The garlic belt? Mañana republics?

A lack of reverence for our fellow Europeans was in evidence this morning on Radio 4's business briefing, with casual references to the economies of 'the garlic belt' and the 'mañana republics'.

I was reminded of the tale of an English property developer in Galway during the recent boom, frustrated at the interminable delays and prevarications of his Irish contractor. With heavy sarcasm he asked the firm's director whether 'mañana' was a word well understood by his workforce. The straight-faced reply came 'No. There's no word in the Gaelic that implies quite the same degree of urgency.'

Not bad, George.

I'd probably give yesterday's budget an A-. If I didn't get what I wanted on fake charities, the Shibboleth of the BBC or saving pubs, well, these are all mini-campaigns which will continue to be pursued with asperity on this blog.

The BBC in particular is looking very exposed; if it's part of the public sector, then its executives should not earn more than the Prime Minister, its pensions should be self-funded and it should reduce its expenditure by 25% over the next 4 years. The last really would be something; an announcement that the TV licence would fall in cost by £8.50 a year over the next 4 years would be a spectacular win. If, as BBC executives argue, it's not part of the public sector but a thriving commercial organisation, fine too. Abolish the licence fee altogether and let them charge.

And as for the VAT rise, few will notice it. Really. How loud did you howl when it went back up to 17.5% from 15% after Christmas? The Swindleries (sorry, Chandleries for non-boaties) will have to trim their margins a little. We will buy two fewer bottles of wine a month. That sort of thing. And if you're the sort silly enough to buy a brand new car from the showroom, no doubt you'll bring your purchase forward.

All in all, not bad.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Please, George, just three things ...

Please, George, introduce measures to deal with just three things on top of the many measures already signalled for your budget today;

1. Fake charities. These demean and damage the many genuine and deserving charities that will rightly have a greater role to play in the years ahead. Get rid.

2. The BBC. This profligate, bloated, arrogant and unaccountable corporation needs to be brought to heel under proper public control. Taxpayers are forced to pay a Prime Minister's salary to scores of gilded and privileged subversives. Take control.

3. Pubs. Despoiled under Labour's health fascism, beaten and cowed by the supermarkets, closing at record rates; if we lose any more, the very fabric of our nation risks coming undone. They are a vital part of our national life. Give them a chance.

More Magistrates Courts, not fewer

The reported measure to close around 150 of the nation's 350 Magistrates Courts is simply crazy.

Under Labour, they have gone from the cheap, local and highly efficient disposers of petty justice to bloated, inefficient arms of the Central State. The answer to this is not to close them, but to liberate them. A bench of unpaid JPs sitting in a small town court building, perhaps just the courtroom, two or three offices / retiring rooms, a couple of cells, is a local institution dating back into the very infancy of this Realm, and it's worked very well. It's also cheap. A qualified Clerk and a couple of admin staff perhaps. How much cheaper can you get?

The point about Magistrates Courts above all is that they were right in the middle of things, highly visible and the people dispensing justice were local figures. In my youth I recall there being courts at Woodbridge, Stowmarket, two in Ipswich - one for the town, one for the Orwell valley - and in every small market town in the County, sometimes sitting in the Guildhall or Market Hall, very public and very transparent.

This government's move to take the CPS out of most cases that Magistrates dispose of is entirely good - let's go back to the police presenting cases. Let's also restore the licensing functions to these courts, as it's entirely proper that the people who deal with the fall-out of licensed premises also deal with their licensing in the first place. And let's glory in their bloody-minded independence, under Clerks of wisdom and experience. Above all, let's have them back at their 1970s level - local courts, run for local people by local people.

Monday, 21 June 2010

MP in suicide bid

(Poorly remembered from the 1970s but bear with me ..)

A meeting of MPs

Great Heavens! It can't be! It's Trumpington-Smythe!
I'd really forgotten that you were alive
How long has it been now? As long as all that?
Just goes to show you; you're growing quite fat.
Now I remember - it was your name of course
In the News of the World with the blonde and the horse
All dressed up in gymslips - I say, what a lark!
Now, now there old fellow - don't take it to heart
You've still got your health and your strength
Oh, I see; well, I'm sure they are able to cure leprosy
Your good wife is well? Oh, a messy divorce;
Lost your place on the 'Change and your place on the Bourse?
And how is your daughter, the doctor? I see,
but tell me, exactly what is a 'groupie'.
Well, charming to see you - I'm due at a call
What's that? Fifty pee? Buy a rope? End it all?
My dear, you can't contemplate such an end to your life
A rope's such poor taste; here's a pound, buy a knife.

Why VAT on food and books isn't a bad thing

Why on earth shouldn't VAT be levied on food and books? Well, the argument is that VAT is a regressive tax, that the poor would suffer and that it would be unfair. Hang on a minute. Just how many books do the poor buy? Despite books of outstanding quality having been available at dirt-cheap prices for almost two decades, the net book agreement having gone by 1997, the number of books bought by the poorest in society has risen by about zero. Their shelves are filled with DVDs (VAT at 17.5%) and computer games (VAT at 17.5%).

And food, too, should be taxed. Food is so cheap that the recycling mafia is making a whole industry on the basis of the volume that we throw away. People, especially the 'poor', have grown so used to cheap, available food with no preparation that they have forgotten how to cook. I eat extremely well but very cheaply, being an enthusiastic and skilled artist in the kitchen. Lunch yesterday was a Croque Cheval and a can of beer. A slow-roasted pork belly provides dinner and sandwiches for three days. The cheapest beef shin and skirt transforms into a rich and succulent Goulash after three hours in a slow oven. And once you can make a simple roux, then every pasta sauce you care to create is yours for pence, incorporating whatever scraps and left-overs you have in the fridge. Toad-in-the-hole with crisp golden risen batter on the top and a softer, juice-soaked base is one of our great dishes, made for loose change. No, VAT on food won't be a hardship.

Even a higher rate of VAT on alcohol and tobacco won't hurt me. Tax avoidance by personal shopping elsewhere in the EU, or even home brewing and fermentation are simple.

OK, let's bring it on.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

If the last Parliament was Rotten, what is the current one?

If the last Parliament is remembered in history as the Rotten Parliament, I wonder how posterity will remember this one. Limp? Feeble? Of course the new House hasn't yet fought it's first great set-piece battle, the budget debate, but I wonder how impassioned this will turn out to be.

Labour have something of the air of the Nuremberg Nazis about them at present, powerless and captive and forced to watch films documenting their rape and spoilation of the British economy. One or two of them have even mounted the Nazi defence; "Of course I was a party member, but I had no idea this sort of thing was going on. It was a close circle around Gordon that was responsible - the rest of us didn't know".

And whilst Doenitz and Himmler squabble over who will take the Boss' place, where is the Konrad Adenauer waiting in the wings? Where is Labour's clean pair of hands? Labour's ideology of avarice, unfairness and centrist social engineering is utterly bankrupt, and with no leader to embody an alternative, its MPs are bereft of something to be passionate for. Until they find it, I fear they will be whipped and cowed in Parliament, tormented by the jeers excoriating their failure.