Saturday, August 30, 2008

Could this be in store for 2011?

There was a very interesting comment made by a poster on Tuesdays thread which seemed to indicate that some Lib Dems locally are considering the possibility of pitting current Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders against current Conservative Mayor Nick Bye when his first mayoral term of office comes to an end in two and a half years time.

The poster, under the name 'Yellow Ribbon' said this: "some Lib Dems are trying to keep the job of 'Lib Dem prospective mayoral candidate' open until after the result of the next General Election."

Many of us in the local Conservative Party have been wondering for a while why the Liberal Democrats have not begun at least to groom a potential rival to Nick Bye. 'Embedding' candidates very early on was a Lib Dem innovation - Adrian Sanders was first picked to fight Torbay in 1990 so that by the time he won in 1997 he was already a very familiar figure to voters. So you would have expected the Lib Dems to have picked a mayoral candidate long ago and had him or her promoting themselves by being used as a spokesman to 'front' attacks on the Mayor.

Up to now we assumed that the Lib Dems were in some confusion over the mayoralty, indeed we had presumed that the party was so heavily committed to trying to abolish the post altogether that they couldn't find anyone prepared to stand, and that was the reason for the continuing vacancy.

With even the Lib Dem high command admitting that nearly all the South West Lib Dem MP's seats are likely to be lost it must have crossed some in the party that their chances of holding on here in the Bay have significantly diminished since the 2005 result and deteriorate further with every day that Gordon Browns government continues to disintegrate and the public become more and more determined to be rid of New Labour.

'Yellow Ribbon' has raised the intriguing possibility that the reason that the Lib Dems haven't picked anyone is because some of their people want to keep the job 'open' so that, if bay MP Adrian Sanders does lose the Torbay seat at the next General Election he could take up a new role - standing against his old rival Nick Bye in the elections due the following year.

Possible, but unlikely in my view. But what do you think?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

If the Russians do come, it's good to know we have the best Pilots.

We had some friends round for drinks last night and along with several thousands of others we watched the awesome display by the Red Arrows. As they swooped and dived with our beautiful bay as a backdrop I couldn't help but feel proud.

Unfortunately the over-use of our military in a number of international conflicts in recent years has blunted in the public mind that our armed services primary role is to defend this country from attack.

Up until the collapse of the Soviet Union all of Europe, including Britain, was facing the clear and present danger of invasion by the Soviet Union, a fact quickly forgotten during the 1990's. For forty years after the end of WW11 the Russians had tanks and guns ready to flood across their (very nearby) borders to invade neighbouring states and at fairly regular intervals they did it, in Czechoslovakia, in Hungary and in Afghanistan.

Our airspace was regularly intruded upon illegally by Soviet spyplanes and our air defences were routinely tested by Soviet fighter jets and bombers who wandered into restricted airspace to see how quickly the RAF would respond; and of course we knew the co-ordinates of our major towns and cities remained programmed into hundreds of Soviet Nuclear missiles.

The public were only too keen to ensure our military had the best equipment and the highest standards of training and personnel and they were happy to pay for the security and peace of mind - throughout the cold war the percentage of our national wealth spent on defence remained above 4% and was often at 5 or 6%.

How different are things today. Figures from Nato show that Britain lags behind the United States and France as well as smaller countries such as Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey in the share of national wealth it spends on defence.

Government figures show that 2.5 per cent of the UK's GDP — or around £32 billion — was likely to be spent on defence in 2005/6 compared with 4.4 per cent in 1987/88.

The MoD has been forced to borrow from private companies through the Private Finance Initiative to ensure that the Armed Forces are prepared for the 21st century.
Figures obtained by the Conservatives show that troop numbers fell to an all-time low in 2007, our entire available army could sit and watch a match together in Wembley Stadium. The Royal Air Force has seen offensive squadrons fall from 16 to 11, and the Navy has lost eight destroyers and six frigates. Soldiers' leave and training has also been squeezed.

The peace dividend has been a mirage, Russia is once again flexing her muscles and the diplomatic temperature has cooled to it's lowest since the 1980's.

Russian aggression is nothing new, but perhaps the war in Georgia has acted as a timely reminder of just why we need to maintain an armed service corp that is fit for purpose, not against terrorists on the underground or for 'peacekeeping' in some far away desert but for defending our island against attack by another country, however unlikely that may seem.

The lesson of history is that conflict is more likely to come to those who are unprepared for it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Yet another piece of New Labour nonsense?

Vociferous local activist Mark Hellyer has been in the newspaper again complaining about the process for making complaints about the conduct of councillors; in particular independent councillor Julien Parrott.

Without going into the details of Mr Hellyers 'complaint' (I have read the story twice but don't fully understand what exactly Mr Parrott did except ignore Mr Hellier, making him even angrier than usual, which I'd have thought many people would applaud) the question that this story has raised once again is who are the 'Standards Board of England' and what are they for?

This from their website:

"The Standards Board for England provides an independent, national overview of how local authorities promote and improve the ethical behaviour of their members.

We assist local authorities in this work by providing support and guidance, as well as investigating cases which it is inappropriate for authorities to deal with themselves. We are a non-departmental public body, set up by an Act of Parliament."

So the whole function of this quango of appointed people (appointed by the Secretary of State, with no democratic oversight whatsoever) is to re-enforce a system whereby appointed officers on a council can sit in judgement of the councillors elected by local residents; to enforce ethical behaviour.

OK I can accept that there may be some need to ensure that local councillors don't, for instance, have a conflict of interest over a planning application but we already had the best system ever devised for monitoring this - it is called "an opposition".

Add to that another very active form of local scrutiny called 'the press' and the need to have an expensive, Government controlled network of enforcement of ethical behaviour seems both pointless and undemocratic.

If a councillor; or other elected representative such as a mayor really did behave in an unethical way then you would imagine that quite soon the political opposition would raise the issue in public and then, at some point, the voters would be able to judge whether this was what they want from their elected representatives and presumably they would chuck the offending councillor out; without any help from the 'Standards Board'.

Of course what the Standards Board is increasingly being used for is trivial complaints designed to cause political damage to the accused. Often (as in this case) the complaint is being made by someone who is not standing for election or elected and therefore is not themselves covered by any code of conduct whatsoever.

This is of course at the heart of the problem. Politics is by nature divisive and we have evolved a perfectly good system over hundreds of years for playing out these divisions in council chambers and Parliaments across the country guided by self-imposed Standing Orders; good manners, and open proceedings that the public and press can witness for themselves whenever they like. In a debating chamber both sides are signed up to the same rules of conduct and both are open to challenge and scrutiny - this is fair and proper.

In his efforts to claim foul Mr Hellyer has made the same mistake that the Kingskerswell Alliance did last year, he has exposed himself to criticism of Hypocricy. Mr Hellyer is entirely self-proclaimed; he has been elected by no-one and his potential conflicts of interest, political allegiences or other political activities are neither owned up to or able to be scrutinised.

Mr Parrott, unlike Mr Helllyer, has an electorate to answer to and it is they who rightly guide his actions, not some Government appointed quango costing taxpayers many hundreds of millions of pounds.

As it happens since both Mr Hellyer and Mr Parrott go to great lengths to deny any connection to any political party I feel able to judge the affair totally dispassionately.

Game set and match to Mr Parrott.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Confirmation - we are in recession.

This has just been confirmed by the ONS:

In the second quarter of 2008, there was zero growth in UK gross domestic product (GDP) in volume terms compared with the previous quarter (revised down from the preliminary estimate of 0.2 per cent).

The level of GDP is 1.4 per cent higher than the same quarter of 2007.

Between quarter one and quarter two of 2008: The volume of output in the production industries fell by 0.8 per cent, within which manufacturing also fell by 0.8 per cent.

Output of the service industries increased by 0.2 per cent. Construction output growth is estimated to have fallen by 1.1 per cent.

Household expenditure fell by 0.1 per cent.

The BBC report says "UK economic growth ground to a halt between April and June, according to the latest official data.

The services sector, the backbone of the UK economy, grew just 0.2%, while manufacturing output fell by 0.8%.

"The figures are very weak and suggest the UK economy is already in recession," said George Buckley, an economist at Deutsche Bank.

The 'economic downturn' has become a technical recession, and in my view there is a lot worse to come as unemployment, repossesion and business failure rates all dramatically lag the leading indicator GDP figure by six months to a year which means all through 2009 there will be further gloomy news even if the recession turns out to be short and shallow.

Mind you, the indicators are that far from being short this recession may be quite long - there is an awful lot of private debt out there that is going to have to be either paid off, written off as a bad debt or eroded by inflation before the economy can begin to grow again.

Oh the hubris of a Chancellor who claimed for ten years that he and he alone was the master who had banished recession from the British economy for good.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Vacuum at the heart of Government

The Russians invaded Georgia on August 7th.

Since then there has been a flurry of frantic international diplomatic activity to prevent Russia from over running her neighbour completely and to end the fighting while keeping Georgia as a separate sovereign state.

Leading the international charge have been the French, the Germans and the Americans who have all managed to both shore up support for Georgia and still persuade the Russians to accept an international peacekeeping force to enter the region.

From Britain? So far almost nothing except a lame statement from the Foreign Secretary.

Ten days after Georgia was invaded and our Government has still to go there, our even meet the Georgian Ambassador in London.

David Cameron was able to steal a march on the Government by visiting Tblisi over the weekend, he was hardly rushing but he was nonethleless the first major British statesman to visit the country and to pledge support for the Georgians.

Why is this? Does Gordon Brown really support the Russians? Is this a spectacular return to the old Labour days of backing the USSR whatever they do?

No, it is worse than that, far worse. Sources in Whitehall are letting it be known that the real reason HMG have been so inactive and slow to respond is because -wait for it- David Milliband and Gordon Brown are not on speaking terms and cannot agree what 'line to take' over the crisis leaving FO mandarins frustrated and embarrassed.

This is a foretaste of the next twenty months, as the Government implodes with power visibly ebbing away from Gordon Brown each passing day.

The fascinating thing about democracy is how power can transfer even before a vote is cast. Senior civil servants have a duty to the Queen to run the country efficiently and properly and when a Government is in it's dying days you can sense the machinery of Government moving to auto-pilot waiting for a clear direction from a new administration.

Big decisions that civil servants believe a new Government won't want, such as for instance agreeing to a new runway at Heathrow, become frozen and all over the country quangos and departments begin to second guess what a new Government might want to do differently.

This can work well in cases where projects are known to be supported by the new Government. Take the slow machinations of deciding on the Kingskerswell bypass - at regional level the RDA and department of Transport will be well aware of the expressions of support for this road made by David Cameron and at a time when other projects may be mired in doubt we could get a decision quite soon.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

This made me laugh.

Someone has been very busy creating a very good spoof of my blog and I must admit it has made me laugh (but not too much, mind. Wouldn't want anyone thinking I had a sense of humour or anything).

My wife had a look and said rather wryly 'someones got too much time on their hands'.

Of course this is connected to the previously referred to Westphalia-on-sea blog which has caused such amusement in political circles.

Most of the local political class have decided that the site and it's author(s) are closely connected with the local Lib Dem fraternity and although this is (fairly lamely) denied by them it is clear that even if they aren't responsible directly they must be providing much of the content.

It's good to know that their activity is these days confined to a parallel virtual universe because they sure as hell aren't doing very much in the real world.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

1991 and all that.

What do Freddie Mercury, The Birmingham Six, Terry Waite and Bob Maxwell have in common? Well it was 1991 that they were the faces in the news; and while they were on our TV screens (Terry Waite and the Birmingham Six were released while Maxwell and Mercury died that year) we were listening to Chesney Hawkes, Bryan Adams and Jason Donovan and watching Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2 and Beauty and the Beast at the cinema; the Gulf war was in full swing and John Major was abolishing the Poll Tax and launching his Citizens Charter.

What is the relevance of remembering the events of seventeen years ago? Why have I dredged up these pointless facts?

Because 1991 is the last time in the UK when inflation stood at 4.4% - but unlike July 2008 in 1991 inflation was falling - fast; you have to go back much further, to the 1980's to find the last time inflation hit 4.4% on it's way up- and this had to be followed with 11% interest rates before the 1991 falls began to happen.

It wasn't enough to head off a massive property slump and economic recession which lasted through until the 'green shoots of recovery' finally arrived in 1994; by which time inflation had all but disappeared.

Today we are in a situation where inflation is rising and hit 4.4% last month when we all know that there is much more pain in the system yet to feed through to the figures; food fuel and water charges are up 20% or more and the headline rate seems destined to breach at least 5% before this run is over.

Gordon Brown has lost control of our economy and claiming that the global credit crunch is to blame won't wash - on the same day as our shocking figures the French announced a slight drop in their inflation rate and trhroughout the rest of the developed world inflation is lower than here; and under control.

There are a generation of business people and decision makers out there who have never had to deal with inflation; never had to cope with their company profits shrinking in real terms even when the figures go up; there are senior civil servants and business leaders who were still in university the last time our economy faced these kinds of stresses. How will they react?

And then there are a whole new generation of puzzled households finding that their living standards are visibly deteriorating even as their earnings rise ; because taxes and prices are rising even faster.

It took nearly 20 hard years to squeeze out the endemic inflation that had plagued the British economy since the 1960's. I honestly believed that policy makers and politicians had learned the mistakes of the past, and having eradicated the desease we could get used to life without it; sadly I hadn't factored in Gordon Brown.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Who said this and when?

I am determined that as a country we never return to the instability, speculation, and negative equity that characterised the housing market in the 1980s and 1990s."

"Volatility is damaging both to the housing market and to the economy as a whole. So stability will be central to our policy to help homeowners. And we must be prepared to take the action necessary to secure it. I will not allow house prices to get out of control and put at risk the sustainability of the recovery."

"The timing of my measure should help to avoid a return to the conditions of the 1980s where the failure to take early action guaranteed worse problems later on. I believe these measures will help to ensure a more balanced recovery."

"It is essential that consumer spending is underpinned by investment and industrial growth. Britain cannot afford a recurrence of the all too familiar pattern of previous recoveries: accelerating consumer spending and borrowing side by side with skills shortages, capacity constraints, increased imports and rising inflation."

"In similar circumstances some of my predecessors have ignored these signs while others have deluded themselves into believing that growth, however unbalanced, was evidence of their success. I will not ignore the warning signs and I will not repeat past mistakes."

I will give you a clue; it wasn't Ken Clarke, Norman Lamont, John Major, Nigel Lawson, or Geoffrey Howe

Monday, August 04, 2008

Why the slump won't stop the Mayor.

There has been some public worrying recently about the likely effects of a serious property recession on the mayoral vision for Torbay.

No doubt the current recession and property crash will damage investment in the short term; businesses like individuals are finding it hard to borrow money for property purchases and the signs are that this situation will get worse in the months ahead. How lucky therefore that so much of the existing development is from large businesses who are more resiliant in a recession; and most of which is nearing completion. Others will not be so lucky and I do expect some high profile victims to surface over the coming months - there are several largeish housing developments completing around town and one wonders how long some of these small property companies can last if no-one is able to buy their expensively completed flats and houses.

Property development is famous for it's slow progress - Docklands redevelopment in London was on the drawing boards for nearly 20 years before a single brick was laid at Canary Wharf. It was long-term political thinking that allowed the time and space for a major redevelopment to occur that is only now reaching maturity - having survived through three major property downturns and the bankruptcy of the original developers.

The whole point about having a mayor in the first place was to give Torbay some long term vision after decades of short-termism had robbed the bay of inward investment. The mayoral vision is not supposed to be about next week, next year or even the next five years but about declaring a destination for Torbay that may come about in a decade or two- in other words long after any current downturn has long gone. And in stating, clearly, where he wants to take Torbay in the future our mayor has given business and their investors the confidence to come forward with ideas and plans of their own - some of which happened quickly like the Balloon and the Beefeater, others which may take longer such as the Carey Arms and Oldway, some which will take much longer such as the development of the Riviera Centre and a few that may never come to fruition at all.

Where a recession may impact more immediately is in the plans by the town hall to release capital by the sale of land assets, at the moment developers are stone cold on buying land to add to their stock and this definitely will impact on the availability of capital receipts to spend on some of the much prized regeneration ideas that have been put about.

In the meantime it is worth sparing a thought for the thousands of mostly self employed craftsmen and tradesmen who have found their work drying up. Lets hope for their sake that this recession is short and shallow.