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Saturday 22 February 2020

Dimbleby no better than a thief

Throughout Africa, the delusion of corrupt rulers and their apparatchiks that underpins and pervades their thefts is that the organs and instruments of the State somehow belong to them because they exercise power. If you're the Nigerian Minister of Petroleum, they reckon, surely that means you're entitled to more than everyone else's share of the black gold? Why, stealing those millions must be practically legal.

And so with Dimbleby and the hereditary BBC establishment. They think they own it. They don't. Dimbleby's claim to speak for the BBC is no more and no less than mine or yours, no greater or lesser than any British citizen who has paid for every VT editing machine, every redhead light, every executive conference suite, every sound mixer and every HD camera. We all own an equal share, and we all have an equal right to an opinion about the future of the BBC.

The petulance and fury exhibited by Dimbleby and his dags is because of their grossly distorted sense of entitlement and displays a contempt for the rest of us. You don't own the BBC, Mr Dimbleby, and to pretend that you do is theft.

Friday 21 February 2020

The turning of a page

I suppose there must have been other ages in our history in which we saw such rapid change, and many momentous changes that creep almost unnoticed until they are absorbed into our lives almost without fuss. But sometimes it's the little things that so forcefully strike one with a heavy blow. Oh, I'm not some Luddite railing against change - change is a necessary part of our social and national progression. But just sometimes what's gone aches like a lost limb.

Today it's the ban on coal and undried wood. I was, in the jargon, triggered. And suddenly I remembered one perfect evening many years ago, at my little flint rubble cottage in Needham Market one windy Autumn night. I'd made supper, which just needed reheating in the oven, and Jennie drove us over in her battered old Mini to a seventeenth century pub some three miles away. There we sat companionably by the huge double-room inglenook in which an entire Elm root crackled and glowed, sharing a packet of fags under the crooked black oak beams and nicotine cream plaster. We drank no more than about three pints each and drove back home for supper.

Jennie is no more, taken by cancer. Her car would no longer be allowed on the road - one simply doesn't see old cars like that any more. And now that pub fire, which has warmed whole generations of villagers, will be cold for ever more. Of course the pub was closed eight years ago, after the smoking ban, and because no one would risk driving after a pint. The pub was lit by low wattage incandescent lamps, which would have been replaced anyway by harsh plastic-white LED lighting, and the black tar coating on the inglenook would be condemned by the Health for its phenol content. 

It struck me in a moment that in a year or two, not one element of that simple evening would any longer be possible. That's change.

The fire at the Dunwich Ship - another great pub fire I have known

Thursday 20 February 2020


There's something wrong with our water management. It's all something of a mess, muddling along with the best of intentions but a woeful lack of holistic understanding. There is no simple answer, no pabulum. It's complex and it needs strategic direction. Here are some of the elements

Building on flood plains - reducing absorption
I've never known  a mediaeval church to flood, however heavy the rain. The land on which they are built may only be a metre higher than the surrounds, and barely noticeable, but it's enough. The land on either side of the rivers on which there were no houses, grazed in the drier Summer months, held the winter rainstorms. Culverting the rivers to allow development, building on flood plains and paving surfaces in impervious materials on which to park cars mean floods.

The Somerset levels, newly dredged as a result of Owen Paterson's intervention, have not featured in the disaster news this year. Having said that, dredging is not a universal panacea, and many of the areas flooded from the recent heavy rain would be just as flooded if a regular regime of dredging had been in place. Despite the clear view of the Daily Mail that dredging is the universal panacea, it isn't.  However, their story does highlight the regulatory difficulties, see below.

I used to take joy in exploring the little creeks, old wharves and bywaterways of the South East in my tough little Land Rover of a boat - one of which was Faversham. There's a speciality business there repairing, maintaining and restoring Thames barges that is clinging on by its fingertips, choked by a silted waterway. There's an upper tidal basin that used to have a swing bridge, now covered in reeds. It used to serve the adjacent Shepherd Neame brewery, with small coasters able to load beer direct from the cool stores. For twenty years a local group have been trying to dredge the creek and safeguard the economic and employment uses and the sustainability of a centuries-old human development here. Their most recent applications are salutary. They need to get ticks from Kent County Council, Faversham Town Council, Swale District Council, Medway Ports, The Environment Agency and the Marine Management Organisation. Last time I visited, they still hadn't managed to dredge the upper basin.

Faversham Creek

There are sensible measures that can be taken to undo our past misunderstandings of the best ways to handle water. Restoring upland peat bogs which act as natural sponges to hold water is good. Selective planting and land management in ways that hold water in the soil, in fields and hedges is good. Taking rivers out of narrow concrete culverts and putting them back in meanders in flood-able land is good - and all will have benefits for wildlife and for the environment. But we shouldn't be driven by the interests of the biosphere in crowding out human use from parts of the country that have been cultivated and managed for centuries. Again, rewilding measures are not a panacea.

One good example is the work on the River Quaggy in SE London. In Victorian times and in the 1960s it was forced into a concrete culvert and became little more than a storm drain. Today it once again behaves like a river, and the fish and the proverbial Kingfishers are back, as it meanders through the urban parks and green spaces on its course to the Thames.

The Quaggy today
The Daily Mail is quite clear - it's all the fault of the EU Water Framework Directive and Tony Blair, but in reality it's a little more nuanced than that. Ross Clark in the Speccie makes some interesting points, including
Flooding policy changed sharply in 1996 when the old National Rivers Authority was subsumed into the new Environment Agency. I don’t recall it being led by a single engineer in 24 years; its current chief executive is a social anthropologist.
It's not just the EA. Though their eclectic interpretation of the WFD has given us 'Clearing the Waters: a compliance assessment methodology for marine dredging and disposal' - an exemplar of bureaucratic overkill it's hard to better. But it gets worse. In addition to the EA we have the MMO - the Marine Management Organisation, who tell us their mission is "(to) license, regulate and plan marine activities in the seas around England so that they're carried out in a sustainable way". So if your waterway is tidal, as Faversham Creek is, both the EA (freshwater and rainwater disposal) and the MMO (dredging of sea and briny waters) must be satisfied. Ross Clark has found the EA to be run by a social anthropologist; the two quangocrats at the top of the MMO are
Chair - Hilary Florek - Hilary is a strategic communications and marketing specialist with extensive experience in both the public and private sectors.   
CEO - Tom McCormack - Tom has more than 25 years in public service, including senior positions across the Department of Work and Pensions. Tom is passionate about improving colleague engagement and leadership capability at all levels.
So no engineers at the top of the MMO, either.

The waters of, erm, water management in the UK are brown and murky. The whole thing is not simple, and desperately needs a razor-sharp intelligence to re-order it all, a Michael Gove. The problem is that there are simply too few Michael Goves in government, and too many establishment messes such as this.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Is the EU serious about a deal? And does M Barnier even have a mandate?

As the EU is discovering this week, a trade agreement will need not only the agreement of the unelected Commission and token Parliament, but the explicit consent of the 27, and that means of Belgium's regions. The EU's Canada trade deal, CETA, was concluded in 2014 but because it cannot secure support from first Wallonia and now the Netherlands*, it cannot be concluded. Six years on and it's not yet in force, and looks today unlikely ever to be so. CETA is subject to the fads, whims and grandstanding of every tiny little EU statelet.

So when we consider whether we want a Canada trade deal, we must consider whether we want to conclude a trade deal with the unelected officials in 2020 only to see it still not ratified in 2026. One needs a certain trust in one's negotiating partners that they actually have a remit to negotiate on behalf of their principals, and it's not at all certain that M Barnier enjoys that trust.

So far, Greece has threatened not to ratify the trade deal unless the British Museum given them the Elgin marbles. And France has threatened to end the return of asylum seekers under the Dublin convention. And Sinn Fein is seeking a referendum on Northern Ireland's future.

The first is a risible playground taunt. For the second, we return some 6k migrants under the Dublin agreement and take in 2k (mostly for family reunification) so the EU is threatening us with 4k migrants a year when we have 3.5m EU citizens living here already? Please.

As for Northern Ireland, yes, if the people of the province want a referendum on their future we must grant it, and we must abide by their decision. However, it's far from sure whether either the citizens of the province or the Republic of Ireland would be keen. First, finance. Northern Ireland costs the UK about £10bn more each year than it raises in tax - not far short of the £13bn we paid each year to the EU. If Ireland is to keep the same levels of welfare and public services there as now, it will be a painful cost. Ireland currently has a GDP of around £75bn and taxes are just under 24% of GDP. Irish taxes would have to rise to 37% of GDP to pay for the North. I suspect that's why NI polls show that just 25% favour unification with the Republic with 52% opposing.The levels of austerity they would need to endure would be destructive.

Ireland's low tax rate is significant. The EU is asking its members to tax their people more to both make up for Brexit and pay for other aspirations - but the effects of tax increases to pay for the Berlaymont's trillion Euro goggle eyes (we've just punched a €94m hole in that) impact the people of Europe very differently. Ireland has an overall tax rate of 23.5% of GNI, France 48.4%.

% of GNI subvented by EU

Tax rate 1.00% 1.10% 1.20% 1.30%
Ireland 23.5 4.3% 4.7% 5.1% 5.5%
Romania 25.8 3.9% 4.3% 4.7% 5.0%
Spain 34.5 2.9% 3.2% 3.5% 3.8%
Netherlands 39.2 2.6% 2.8% 3.1% 3.3%
Germany 40.5 2.5% 2.7% 3.0% 3.2%
Italy 42.4 2.4% 2.6% 2.8% 3.1%
Austria 42.4 2.4% 2.6% 2.8% 3.1%
Sweden 44.9 2.2% 2.4% 2.7% 2.9%
Denmark 46.5 2.2% 2.4% 2.6% 2.8%
Belgium 47.3 2.1% 2.3% 2.5% 2.7%
France 48.4 2.1% 2.3% 2.5% 2.7%

Increasing the EU's annual charge to its members from 1.0% of GNI to 1.3% of GNI doesn't sound much - but for an Irishman it means the proportion of his tax going to Brussels rises by 1.2%, whilst a Frenchman can shrug off a 0.6% increase.

Hey ho.

*CETA passed the Dutch lower chamber yesterday, but is due to go to the Tweede Kamer next month, where it is likely to fall. Incidentally, the best hashish in A'dam could be bought from a tiny place for locals, very non tourist, called Der Tweede Kamer on the Spui. In my youth I spent many happy hours there, and it's still there today. 

Tuesday 18 February 2020

EU hysterics are not for our ears

For the remainder of this month we are going to have to endure an extraordinary degree of posturing from the EU. It seems that the federation has little self awareness as it continues to shout peremptory demands at the UK - many of which it must know are simply absurd. We can only assume that all this noise is not actually intended for the UK at all, but for their domestic voters. A lot of it comes from little M Macron, who is facing electoral wipe-out as France lies in flames, choked by CS gas, with protesters blinded and crippled by Macron's security forces.

All over Europe roads are blocked by tractors. The pictures tell you a lot. These are not rusty old John Deeres from the 1970s with seats padded with old fertilizer sacks tied on with baling twine; these tractors are state of the art, climate conditioned, computer controlled, GPS driven dream machines with air-sprung cabs, surround sound entertainment and tyres that cost as much each as rental on a Docklands apartment. A basic New Holland T6 will set a farmer back about £54k. Plus VAT. What are all these farmers complaining about? The prospect of falling incomes, of course, as restrictions on nitrates, pesticides and irresponsible herbicide use start to bite. They, like every other pressure group, want more money 'from the EU' which disguises that it is taxpayers who must pay it.

Personally, I think we are now seeing the reverse Europe play. Just as UK governments have for years blamed every unpopular and gold-plated measure from Whitehall on the EU, I think the EU will now blame every unpopular budget move on Brexit. Neonicotinoid ban in Rhine-Westphalia? Brexit. Cancelled road tunnel in the Vosges? Brexit.

David Frost, our chief negotiator, has done no harm in making a reasoned, calm response to the EU's hysteria in a speech at Brussels University. He already has his full brief – which was given to Parliament in a written statement by the PM on 3rd February, quietly released on the day of the Greenwich speech. There are just four major heads -

1. Free Trade Agreement (12 sub heads)
2. Agreement on Fisheries
3. Agreement on Internal Security Cooperation
4. Other areas of Cooperation

We'll give them another document next week, but we can be quietly confident. We've got them on the back foot, and we must not rise to their increasingly hysterical public demands – they're not meant for us.

Monday 17 February 2020

Covid-19 modellers on the ball, despite Chinese lies

It is now beyond doubt that China has been lying to the world about the numbers of Covid-19 cases in Wuhan. The Lancet estimated that we should multiply all Chinese announcements by a factor of 10, but an even more detailed analysis is provided in online Biopharma mag Stat. Working backwards from cases outside China, Imperial College, advisors to the WHO, estimated some 1,000 to 9,700 cases when China was reporting 440. And so for the 1,700 reported deaths to date - read 17,000.

It now seems beyond doubt that Covid-19 is out and now cannot be contained. In the UK we will stop testing once we have 100 confirmed cases - at this point we will have a pandemic. It is likely it has taken hold in London already and we will see many more cases in the next 7 days. An estimated R0 of 2 to 3 means it spreads very easily - it is highly infectious. How quickly it will spread is determined by the serial interval - the time it takes for people to get sick, and the period during which they can infect others. Toronto University has got a useful online modelling tool with sliders - try reducing the serial interval from 7 to 6 days to see the astonishing effects.

Bottom line is that some 60% of us are likely to be infected, and 1% are likely to die prematurely as a result. That's between 300,000 and 400,000 for the UK. Olders will take the brunt, as will those with impaired lung function or impaired auto-immunity. The only glimmer of good news is that economically we can take the hit; Ross Clark in the Speccie reports that a death toll of this scale will cause GDP to drop only by about 0.75% this year. He compares that to the 3.5% to 6% drop in GDP forecast by George Osborne in 2016 if we voted for Brexit.

The other glimmer of hope is the weather. Pandemic viruses spread best when it's cold and dry - the warmer and moister the air, the less chance the virus has of being transmitted in droplets. It's counter-intuitive, but high humidity is a good thing as far as reducing spread. On an personal basis, reducing contacts to the absolute minimum possible is the most effective protection. Not much comfort to those commuting on crowded public transport in London, but for those of us who have the choice, reducing the trip to the shops from twice to once a week and cutting out leisure travel will have a significant effect. Try as much as you can to stay in the 40% who avoid infection, and hope for an early hot Easter.

As for the government, they will have plans for hospitals to maximise survival for those worst hit, but otherwise will pursue a policy of carry on as normal, to minimise economic damage. We're past the point of heroic action, and into taking the hit. As for the Millennials, for whom this will be their first experience of a mortal threat, let's see how far that open borders stuff lasts when the death toll in Africa hits the tens of millions.

Smuggled video showing the dead put out for collection in China. Satellites have also picked up chemical and spectroscopic signatures of vast funeral pyres on the outskirts of big cities.

Ah, they removed that quickly. Must be Huawei servers ;(
For those that missed it, it was filmed on a phone from a moped driving past a stretch of footway outside apartment buildings with many (I counted over 20) bodies wrapped in sheets left out for collection. 

Sunday 16 February 2020

How the Continent has improved since 1973

It leaves me with a warm feeling that we have left the Continent a far better place than it was when we joined the EEC back in 1973. Let me count the ways -

When I was a lad, all foreign animals were infested with Rabies and one was warned not to try to touch or stroke them or die a terrible death. We were also warned that because of very low continental standards of animal hygiene, they were likely also to be infested with fleas and parasites. Foreign animals were not allowed into Britain unless they had spent six months in quarantine - racehorses excluded, of course.

I'm glad to say that in the intervening years the continentals have taken our lead and have massively improved their standards of animal welfare. It is now OK to stroke French cats, though they are still likely to be infested with fleas and worms.

It was on my first school exchange, to St Étienne, that I first encountered the French squat toilet, and my first evacuation was something of an adventure (it was not a subject about which I could have in decency asked my host family, even if my French had been up to it). After a day or two of careful experimentation, I adapted like a native and the sound of the Dambusters theme tune being hummed loudly from the bathroom would greet Mme Dupont every morning.

I'm almost sad to see that the French have now almost universally adopted proper civilised toilets, though they still maintain some of their old ways by neglecting to clean them. The Teutons, too, have taken to British toilets; the German obsession with bowel movements had gifted them with bathroom porcelain fitted with an integral inspection shelf, which allowed them to study their stools closely before consigning them to the sewer. Now their waste disappears around the bend like that of civilised nations, condition decently unseen.

"Never" we were warned "drink the tap water". Only English piped water was drinkable; continental water was polluted filth that harboured typhoid, cholera and raw sewage. When washing one's face, the mouth and eyes must be kept tightly closed lest infection be induced. We learned that we should use something called Badoit or Vichy to brush our teeth, somewhat to the puzzlement of the apothecaries in St Étienne whom I first approached for these mysterious substances, before finding them alongside the Orangina in the local shop.

Now I'm glad to say under British influence many continental countries have improved the quality of their tap water to the extent that it may now be drunk, carefully and with a little care. Though those non-potable water signs are still surprisingly common.

Just imagine. If we'd had another 50 years we may even have been able to show them how to cook and make decent beer and cheese, as well as improve their still appallingly low standards of nationally-made clothing and footwear. Ah well.

Still, it's good to see that some things they had in 1973 are still there, and still popular