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Saturday, 12 March 2011

Fred Goodwin and the Praying Mantis

The world's most incompetent banker, Fred Goodwin, the man whose gross stupidity led to 20,000 job losses at RBS and a £20,000,000,000 bail-out from the British taxpayer, has been recruited by upscale architecture firm RMJM to promote the business overseas. RMJM has linked up with Will Allsop and the company's website describes a new Greek commission - a steel-ribbed building in the shape of a praying mantis.

Although there is no suggestion that the building's design is either a tribute to Goodwin's rapacity or a comment on the rape of the Greek economy by bankers such as Fred Goodwin, RMJM and Allsop must surely be sensitive to the associations that Fred will bring to the project. RMJM have declined to disclose how much Goodwin is being paid, but it is unlikely to be close to the £4.2m he paid himself in 2007, the year before his culpable ineptitude destroyed one of Scotland's oldest banks. 

UPDATE: Fears are growing that RMJM is going down the crapper. After HK based Principal Architect Catherine Siu recently penned a 900 word tirade against CE Peter Morrison, who hired Goodwin, and pressed 'Send to All', a senior architect at the NJ office in the US has walked out last week after berating Morrison in a widely circulated email. the row came after RMJM again failed to meet payroll; the complaint said "The fact that you have chosen to delay payroll, 401k and consultant payments to the US offices again after the recent Hong Kong fallout shows that you continuously do not value your US clients or employees. This pattern is destined to failure, and you should know that your decisions have had a severe negative impact on the families of your employees." The Curse of Fred?
(Source: BD Online 8/3/11)

Friday, 11 March 2011

Sorry, Libyans; it's Hungary 1956

There was plenty of condemnation around in 1956; the West condemned Russia's use of force against unarmed civilians in Hungary, the East and the US condemned Britain and France's use of force in Suez. In the event it was Nasser who triumphed and Nagy who was put up against a wall and shot. Still, no-one who has heard the recording of those last, desperate appeals for Western help from the Budapest radio station operated by the rebels can be unmoved by the plight of the Libyan insurgents as their revolt is cruelly crushed. But the reality is that we can no more send military force to face Gadaffi's T72s than we could to face Khrushchev's T54s. 

The sacrifice of the insurgents in Hungary in 1956 and the despotism of the Soviets led to something infinitely precious in Europe; the destruction of the Communist Party as a credible political force in the West. Until then, the Italian communists had been close to government; after, they were split and destroyed. The CPGB bled members by the thousand and became no more than an irritable little colonic polyp on the seat of British politics. In France, being a Communist was a badge of shame.  

The crushing of the Libyan insurgency will be terrible to watch and I shall avoid it. However, somehow, somewhere, the pain will not have been worthless, and freedom from Gadaffi will come for the Libyans, just not yet. 

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Britain's food basket

The UK has not been self sufficient in food since the 19th century. The Great and second wars brought the realisation that around half our butter, oils, meat, sugar and fruits are imported. Sure, we can live for a while on home-grown turnips and spuds; indeed the wartime cook book was heavy on a variety of dishes made from turnips, onions and potatoes, sometimes in a 'pastry' case made from, er, potatoes, and sometimes with a turnip and onion sauce. After the war we tried greater self-sufficiency in sugar; East Anglia was until recently covered in small mountains of sugar-beet, with 32-tonne artics rumbling through the lanes during the 'campaign' carrying the cargo to be turned into sugar in vast, smelly National sugar plants. We gave that up, content to go back to imported cane sugar, the sites of the sugar beet factories have been turned into bijou housing estates and the region's horses missing their nutritious diet of the flaky, chewy, gritty, sweet beet pulp by-product (it was actually quite good; a handful scooped from feed bin to Barbour pocket often kept me going during a cold afternoon). 

The Speccie's graph (below) showing our annual food inflation running at 6%, about six times that in France, doesn't surprise me. The only reason the French went hungry during the last lot was because the Hun ate all their pies. 

Now take a look at where our food comes from:

Add to that the vast, transport-heavy distribution networks operated by the big supermarket chains that mean that the cabbage in your local Ipswich Tesco may have been grown a mile away but may have been taken to Bridgend and back before you can buy it and you soon start to see that a massive component of our food cost is transport - oil. 

Whilst Jackart has undoubtedly got it right in part that QE has moved speculation away from property to commodities including oil, speculative investment alone can't account for all of the sustained oil price rise, and if high oil prices are here to stay then only two changes will lower food costs. The first is lowered dependence on imports, the second is a more localised distribution and sales network. It just might be that Tesco has passed it's zenith, and is now in a period of managed decline as the era of vast supermarkets and their depots and oil-hungry distribution networks comes to an end. 

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

National Smoking Day

Today's one of my favourites of the campaign year; National Smoking Day. I'll be carrying a couple of additional packs of Portuguese Gauloises today and from lunchtime onwards will sit outside the Weatherspoons next to the pavement where every third passer-by usually asks smokers if they've got a spare ciggie. Today is their bonus day; each request will be rewarded with two ciggies and a smile, as we celebrate the world of tobacco. 

So come on all you puffers! Do your bit for National Smoking Day, and see if you can give away an entire pack of cigarettes to needy strangers today.  

FACT - smokers are sexier, wittier and more fun to be with than non-smokers - it's something to do with our non-aversity to known risks, and our 'live for the day' approach to life 

We can safely call HSBC's bluff

It's one of Parkinson's laws that a large corporation will confidently construct an expensive new headquarters immediately prior to its bankruptcy. Just so with the hubristic banks; as new brash towers arose on Canary Wharf, so the banks failed, rescued only by the largesse of Brown's government, a largesse that has been repaid with singular ingratitude and the rapacious fleecing of the banks' customers. Barclays and HSBC benefited, albeit indirectly, from the bail out as much as the more prominent casualties. And now in a little piqued fit of petulance, HSBC shareholders are mooting moving the bank's 52,000 staff to Shanghai. This won't happen, for two reasons. 

Firstly, corporate location is a long-term game, at least a 25-year decision. As China's economy dominates the world, big corporations will undoubtedly relocate there in time, but slowly, with Chinese staff making up the bulk of the Headquarters population. The 'shadow' HQ needs time to grow and establish, with a gradual transfer of HQ functions, so that when the move comes, it's effectively just the Chief Executive and a few top-table executives who move. The senior Chinese staff will all have spent several years working in the existing HQ by then. On an organisational level, the corporate shift to China is about ten years away at least. 

Secondly, the task of moving 52,000 bankers is as nothing to moving 52,000 wives and 104,000 children away from their rotary clubs and boarding schools, Lutyens-clone homes in Surrey, ponies, grandmothers, Waitroses and cosy social circles. And for many bankers the prospect of a Chinese prison or a round from an AK47 in the back of the head if they screw-up again will be far less attractive than a wagging finger and a frown from the Bank. The BBC can't even get a few hundred broadcasters to move up the road to Manchester without major grief, and HSBC won't even contemplate a mass move to Shanghai. 

In Stalin's words, it's safe to push the bayonet in a bit further. It hasn't yet encountered real resistance. 

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Cameron confident of public apathy?

When Margaret Thatcher set her head to take on the unions she first awarded the police an above-inflation pay settlement and made sure she had the armed forces squared away; she was not a woman to take chances, nor did she want a repeat of Heath's disastrous question "who runs Britain?" to which the answer came "Not you, chum."

CMD is clearly confident of a new public apathy - either that, or has calculated carefully that since there are twenty applications for every new constable post, even trimming police pay will leave him with an intact and loyal, if somewhat green, police force. Enough to man the Shield-Wall, anyway, and tazer a few students. 

How times change. 

Suffolk Council bans 'Evening Star' reporter

As an example of how not to run a council PR office, Suffolk council's press officers have told the Ipswich Evening Star reporter who broke the 'new-age guru on the rates' story, Paul Geater, that they will not speak to him. Woo-hoo! The Star's readers don't think much of the council, its Chief Executive Andrea 'enema' Hill or its Leader, ex-Hambros banker Jeremy Pembroke; from one comment;
I spent 4 years working at SCC and CSD and I have quite intimate knowledge of how things work. I just wished I'd kept a dossier of some of the outrageous things I saw and heard. Blatent disregard for public money at almost every level. A world that operates under its own conditions and rules and there is hell to pay if you stir things up. Very Stalinist. SCC and CSD used to hire £85K-£130K a year contractors like they were going out of fashion. I met so many highly paid yet low calibre people on a daily basis most of whom used to sit in meetings all day drinking free coffee and eating sandwiches. SCC and CSD are still awash with people who add nothing. If Ms Hill was as slick as she claims, the wage bill at SCC would be much less now than when she took office but the local Govt agenda is NOT job cutting it is about expert re-shuffling. I just hope Cameron and Pickles do what they threaten.

More sleaze from Suffolk

It's a fairly well understood rule that when you're in contractual dispute with a supplier or contractor it's not best done to accept lavish hospitality from them. BT have secured a £30m a year contract with Suffolk Council and are currently, as big outsourcing firms do, squeezing more yield from the poor dupes at County Hall. To keep the client sweet, they flew Chief Executive Andrea 'colonic irrigation' Hill on a freebie joytrip to the States. Then she went on another one. In fact she spent two weeks in the US at BT's expense; it turns out that she's made quite a habit of accepting hospitality from BT, declaring another dozen dinners, hotel stopovers and corporate jollies at which well-trained BT minders no doubt flattered and shmoozed the enema queen. The Mail has the story.  

When I knew Suffolk Council many years ago, its officers were a sober and scrimping lot, heirs to those who took the county to Parliament's side during the civil war. The county has more than its share of dissenters' and non-conformist chapels and there's something almost Puritan embedded in the people. Those who spent the Rates did so with cheese-paring care, turning each penny over twice before tendering it, as they say there. Even in the 1980s when London councils were rainbow militant, Suffolk carried on in cream-gloss painted offices with linoleum-topped oak desks that had served them since the 1930s. All that was swept away by the likes of Andrea Hill and Labour's culture of Managerialism, or the New Public Management, driven by the disgraced and discredited Audit Commission, a colossal failure that has seen extravagant new glass and steel office blocks as councils transformed into little more than local offices of the central State. Mediocrity was rewarded, dependence on Prescott's ODPM and its successor the DCLG encouraged. New feudal castles, this time office towers built by KPMG, PwC and the Audit Commission's other best buddies sprang up in our towns and cities, and the corporate giants - Crapita, Serco, G4, BT and the rest - squeezed their ample arses into the council's chairs. 

Andrea Hill and her like are no more than Satraps, a tier of excessively rewarded and pampered chief officers maintained to preserve the fiction that councils are self-governing. Suffolk has seen an exodus of old-school officers, deeply rooted in the county, who have left taking with them collective centuries of experience and leaving in place a talentless, mediocre self-regarding cabal of sycophants and placemen ready to hand the county and its people over to big business. With them comes a culture of sleaze, corruption, avarice and conspicuous wealth. But they should take care, at least in Suffolk.  

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Stupidity at the heart of Suffolk Council

I've no idea why Sally Marlow should have been appointed Head of HR at Suffolk County Council, but clearly an intelligent appreciation of HR doesn't seem to be amongst the most cogent reasons; on excusing the expenditure on some fancy new-age crystal-healing aromatherapy type 'executive coaching' for her Chief Executive, Marlow said;
"In exactly the same way as all members of staff at this, and any other, organisation do, the chief executive receives personal development to support her in her role"
Never mind the illiteracy - after all, English may not be Ms Marlow's first language - it's the stupidity inherent in 'receives personal development' that gets me. Here speaks the sing-song voice of the public sector parrot, not entirely sure what 'personal development' is but willing to regard it as a sort of in-service enema for the benefit of the recipient. She could have parroted
"In exactly the same way as all members of staff at this, and any other, organisation do, the chief executive receives colonic irrigation to support her in her role"
With just as much confidence that what she was saying made sense. Perhaps like the head nurse at Shrublands Health Clinic Ms Marlow has a little clipboard and stalks the corridors of the Council demanding "Has the Director of Finance had his personal development this week yet?"

For Ms Marlow's benefit, and any others misguided enough to believe that HR is an actual profession, allow me to point out that personal development is endogenous; change that happens from within, unlike an enema, which is change that can be applied from without. One simply cannot 'receive' personal development. And with this sort of stupidity at the heart of Suffolk Council, I really wonder where my County is going. 

NB Original story by Sara McCorquodale in the Evening Star