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Friday 24 January 2020

Dealing with sudden death

Growing up during the Cold War we reckoned there was a fair chance we would all be obliterated in an atomic storm before reaching adulthood. Living in the middle of Europe's largest military airfield - East Anglia - made us even more aware of the risk. Then, in Needham Market, additionally, we had the RAF sheep and the Polish spies.

The RAF sheep are the easiest to explain. Just down the road we had a vast underground aviation fuel dump, running for about 2km at the side of a B road. The tanks beneath the grass-covered tumps were connected, we supposed, with RAF Wattisham, our closest nuclear target amongst the scores of UK and USAF airbases across the region. They were cleverly camouflaged and there were no visible signs as to what the vast bumpy fields actually were, except for the sheep. It was whispered that the risk of fire had ruled out the use of gang mowers to keep the grass short (this was old school '70s - even a secret, camouflaged defence facility needed short hair and discipline) so the fuel dump was populated with RAF sheep. And we passed them daily, grazing atop the millions of gallons of incendiary aviation fuel, utterly unaware of the danger, calmly gazing back as they chewed the RAF grass.

The Polish spies were hiding in plain sight. At a time when there was virtually zero trade between the West and the nations behind the Iron Curtain, the Polish tractor and agricultural machinery firm Ursus Bison opened an outlet and service centre just outside Needham Market. The tractors were heavily discounted to ensure sales across East Anglia. Then, to 'improve customer service', they imported a Sikorsky helicopter, a couple of pilots and a ground crew, ostensibly to deliver spares and engineers to farms across East Anglia. We reckoned any farm within spitting distance of a NATO facility that bought a tractor would find the injectors quickly blocked or the fuel pump fouled and a friendly Polish voice on the telephone offering to fly an engineer out immediately. We once had the inevitable conversation, watching the Sikorsky wobble across the sky minutes after a flight of F4s had screamed over our heads at low level leaving us covered in a faint mist of unburned Avgas Kerosene.

"Do you reckon they'll warn them?"

"What, when they launch the missiles? Nah."

Like the blissfully unaware RAF sheep, both we and the diligent Poles would be condemned to instant nuclear annihilation by Soviet nukes. Such was life.

For the millennials, the Chinese plague threat will be the first time anything has actually threatened their lives. Whilst I hope and pray the thing is contained, if it is not it will be up to our generation to set the example as to how to live with the threat of premature death. And being British, I'm quite sure our response will include humour. Even before the first case has been confirmed, you can bet the first joke will have hit the internet.

Thursday 23 January 2020

Time to take a firm grip on Whitehall

I was once called upon to drop everything and go have a look at someone else's scheme. It was essentially an engineering job, with a fair bit sub-surface, and the Balfour Beatty subsidiary who were the main contractor had already spent well into double figure millions, were a year late and only half-done. They were asking the client to double the budget. Well, reader, it was a pickle. They'd jammed the job to a standstill. Just one example - painting. It was a minor part of the job. They were painting steel and had already spent £0.75m putting the first coat on an area the size of a B&Q store roof. It had taken 10 weeks so far. They were using a specially formulated water-soluble steel paint to avoid hazardous fumes to other workers in the sub-surface part, only because of the damp atmosphere it cured at the speed of treacle. So they had a pair of mechanical engineers at £3k a week the pair to monitor paint curing. 

Well they knew they'd screwed up and went into construction industry defence mode - assume that everything you say, write, instruct or report will eventually be used as evidence in the Construction Court. So the monthly progress reports were bound volumes of 200 pages, the Gant charts cramming so many activities onto each A3 sheet  that you'd need a scanning electron microscope to read the text and the project team meetings attended by about 30 had to be held in the canteen - the largest space on site.

And it really wasn't their fault. They lacked any form of cogent leadership, and in the circumstances did what headless, directionless professionals will always do - retreated into rigid professionalism and risk-aversity. Well, I advised the client that it was a Gordian Knot. Further time extensions and budget increases wouldn't clear it, and the main contractor knew it. He had to pull the plug. He did, of course - but there was a sting in the tail. If I was so bloody clever, I could finish it. I did. The painting? My newly-appointed tame lead engineer and CDM supervisor were both sympathetic to my suggestion, and we closed the site to all other trades for 48hrs whilst a paint team used the solvent-based 'Jotun' paint used on North Sea oil rigs and finished it off. Cost £20k. And not a penny spent on mechanical engineers watching it dry.

I bore you all with that anecdote to underline the point that the HS2 scheme seems to smell awfully familiar to the job above and a few other failures I have seen. For a start, it's too big. Too big to be managed as a single scheme. Then it's irrelevant; the route it improves is not London to Birmingham but Brussels to Birmingham, and is part of the Ten-T spoke-and-hub transport corridor scheme devised to connect the subject nations of the EU. Finally, it adds nothing extra to GDP apart from the construction costs. Even Keynesians at least aim to get £1.50 of economic benefit for every £1 spent.

So scrap the London to Birmingham route in favour of track, signalling and crossing improvements and minor realignments of existing tracks. Split the balance of the Northern interconnects into coherent smaller packages and let them manage themselves. Look at modal swaps; do we really need steel wheels right into city centres, or can we have rail interchanges further out and rubber wheels and light rail  in the centres. More trams, everywhere - they're one of Europe's delights and I love them.

Allister Heath sums it up in the Telegraph; there's more at stake than just taxpayers' money 
This is a key test of Johnson’s determination: does he really want to help the rest of the country, or is it just PR? If the former, as we all hope and believe, he should replace HS2 with a whole list of new infrastructure projects focused on the North and Midlands, including roads and rail connections between cities, and cancel the London to Birmingham link. If he bottles it, the message will be grim: the Blob will have won a psychological victory, and its appetite for Tory flesh will have been whetted.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

The BBC: Managing decline

Tony Hall's deliberately designed surprise resignation was timed for one reason only - to allow the nation's biggest woke tax bludger, if it chooses, to mobilise for war with the government and people of Britain. The BBC faces the 2022 mid term review and the critical 2027 Charter renewal in the unique position of not only facing a hostile Conservative government, but having lost public support. The Thatcher government tried to muzzle the BBC with little success because at that time Auntie enjoyed widespread public backing - but the BBC of the 1980s was not the BBC of the 20-teens. Then we took Only Fools and Horses to our hearts - it could simply not be made today by the BBC unless it starred a disabled lesbian and Rodney was Sudanese.

De-criminalising non-payment of the licence fee would be a good first step from 2022. On compassionate grounds alone, criminalising the poor, over 70% of whom are women, for failing to pay the TV tax at a time when the deeply flawed UC system forces many to use food banks is simply morally unjustifiable. The BBC cannot continue to use its force and power to persecute so many of the most vulnerable in our society.

Allison Pearson does a reasonable job in the Telegraph this morning of capturing our feelings at what must now be the managed decline of the BBC; a certain regret, a nostalgia for the good times in the past, but a recognition that it has developed behavioural problems that mean we can no longer give it house-room. She writes
If you look at an electoral map of Britain, amid a vast sea of Tory blue, there are a few small islets of Labour red. Those islets are where BBC staff live and from which they draw their ideas......To justify demanding a TV tax from every household, you have to truly speak for the nation, not an elite corner of London.
The selection of Tony Hall's successor will tell us much about how the BBC will face its nemesis; in co-operation with the government and people, managing decline to ensure the best is saved and the worst woke waste is ditched, or whether they want a high-profile showdown during which they will lose even more public support and risk fouling the brand for all time. 

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Britain's booming 'austerity' economy

Two charts that bear close study form the base of today's post. The RSA's Fabian Wallace-Stephens (who with a name like that should probably be standing for Kier Starmer's Deputy in the Labour leadership hustings) has looked at the fastest growing and shrinking occupations from the Labour Force Survey - here are the charts (clicky) and my comments below.

The first thing to note is the degree of substitution - occupations having the same skill sets and that enable workers to migrate from one category to another. This includes for example workers who move from sales and retail assistants jobs to call-centre jobs. Secondly are the changes in the structure of the labour market away from permanent employment by a single employer to a melange of self-employment and short term and temporary gig work; the full-time waiter is being replaced by a new breed of actress/waitress/whatever who may supplement their instagram enabler role with a few evening sessions carrying plates at the local pizza parlour. Without the counterpart to these charts - the charts that map the rise and fall of business and commercial activities - some changes are misleading.

However, a few trends are noteworthy. Supporting the Prime Minister's undertakings and undermining the NHS Cassandras, we have seen about 70,000 more nurses between 2011 and 2019 and an equivalent additional number of nursing auxiliaries and assistants. We have seen almost 80,000 additional care workers and 65,000 nursery nurses and assistants. Just those four categories have gained some 285,000 additional workers, demonstrating the growth in demand. What we must do now is work out how to pay for it.

The internet impact on retail is clear, with significant losses in shop and retail jobs offset by the growth of some 100,000 delivery driver jobs, and I suggest many more amongst the huge 4159 admin class gain* (nec = not elsewhere classified) are part of the internet shopping logistics tail. I'd suggest the one anomaly in class 7111 - massive female losses in retail sales but a modest increase in males - may be due to the blokeyness of mobile phone shop staffing.

The clear gainer though is what we used to call IT. As one would expect as we transition into the next wave of an AI economy. And the most visible impact is on central and local government - both clear losers, and not as the unions would have you believe from 'austerity' but from, well, change.

And one overall change that is inescapable - and confirmed by an unemployment figure that has dropped substantially during this period - is that employment growth overall greatly exceeds shrinkage; obvious in the images even given the exaggerated job-shrinkage scale in the graphics. And that really is good news.
Evening Standard, 21/01/2020 - * another increase for SOC 4159

Monday 20 January 2020

Time to come to heads with the BBC over bias

Nominations are open this week for Select Committee chairs and the appointments and memberships of the committees could be interesting. At a time when the Conservatives have a stonking majority in the House, the opposition will seek to use the Select Committees to win media airtime. You will remember the Brexit Committee during the last session, under the Chairmanship of Hilary Benn, with 14 remainiacs dominating the 7 leavers and including Joanna Cherry and Stephen Kinnock. They lost no opportunity in piling onto pro-Brexit victims and in calling every Project Fear crank and nutter to listen with smiles and nods at their inflated drivel.

Well, no doubt you'll be pleased to learn that the Brexit Committee is back, and still to be chaired by Labour. Whatever fond wishes the Prime Minister had about relegating Brexit to obscurity after the end of the month and concentrating on trade deals will be dashed - the Brexit Committee will see it as their chosen mission to Keep Brexit Alive. There may well even be a SecondReferendumber or two sitting. Their task will be to seize on every minor glitch in negotiations (there will be many) and to summon ministers with the sole objective of seeking to bully and humiliate them. I don't know how Parliament can deal with this.

The Committee will be encouraged no doubt by the eagerness of the BBC in giving them disproportionate airtime - and we must make this a subject of intense scrutiny and complaint, possibly even legal action. There are 28 Select Committees. An unbiased, fair and objective reporting of Parliament's activities would balance reporting of the activities of them all. If the BBC gives undue eminence to the anti-Brexit activities of one single Select Committee, the organisation's access to Parliament should be suspended. It's time to get serious about embedded BBC bias.

Here is the full list of Chairs up for nomination this week -
Backbench Business Committee (non-Government)
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Labour)
Defence (Conservative)
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Conservative)
Education (Conservative)
Environmental Audit (Conservative)
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Conservative)
Exiting the European Union (Labour)
Foreign Affairs (Conservative)
Health and Social Care (Conservative)
Home Affairs (Labour)
Housing, Communities and Local Government (Labour)
International Development (Labour)
International Trade (Scottish National Party)
Justice (Conservative)
Northern Ireland Affairs (Conservative)
Petitions (Labour)
Procedure (Conservative)
Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs (Conservative)
Public Accounts (Labour)
Science and Technology (Conservative)
Scottish Affairs (Scottish National Party)
Standards (Labour)
Transport (Conservative)
Treasury (Conservative)
Welsh Affairs (Conservative)
Women and Equalities (Conservative)
Work and Pensions (Labour)