Issue 115: 2017 07 27: Education (Lynda Goetz)

27 July 2017


More cash, more rights or more discipline?

By Lynda Goetz 

At the beginning of last week, Justine Greening managed to magic up £1.3bn in extra funding for schools, although it quickly emerged that there was in fact no extra money from the Treasury and that this was going to have to come from savings in other parts of the education budget.  The move was made in response to criticisms from Tory MPs that Theresa May’s failure to deal with concerns over struggling schools had been a contributory factor to the party losing its majority in the election.  Campaigning by teachers and parents over school funding had been one of the elements in the revolt against ‘austerity’. The result is effectively that, as critics have pointed out, Ms Greening is ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’.

This week, according to Camilla Turner (Education Editor of The Telegraph), official figures released by the Department for Education (DfE) showed that attacks on primary school teachers had gone up, with a 75 per cent increase over the last four years in younger children expelled for this offence.  This official data is available for anyone to access on the website and like most statistics can be interpreted in a number of ways.  It is absolutely true that the number of pupils permanently excluded for physical assaults on adults in state-funded primary schools has been on the rise over the last few years; however, in contrast, the number in secondary schools and special schools has remained much the same or, in the case of secondary schools, actually gone down.  Wading one’s way through government statistics and the way these are collated is not exactly a fun occupation, however; in attempting to make comparisons over the years, one is faced with the fact there have been different ways of collecting such data and different ways of presenting it.  At the end of the day it appears difficult to determine whether things are getting worse, getting better or remaining pretty much the same.  FullFact showed this very clearly by their analysis of a similar headline in the Daily Mail in 2013.  However, such occasions are always an opportunity for comment.

Chris McGovern, a former DfE advisor and chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, is reported as saying: “The lack of discipline is due to poor control, which comes down to the way teachers are trained. Part of the problem is that the culture has changed so the rights of the pupils are often seen as equal, if not more important, than the rights of the teachers.  Our view traditionally is that the teacher is in charge – but now student rights trump everything.  A major reason why the country under-achieves in education is poor discipline”.  Kevin Courtney, general Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, however felt that a focus on exams and narrow curriculum was leading children to becoming ‘disengaged’, leading to behavioural problems.  WorthLess? (the West Sussex schools campaign for Fairer Funding) clearly feels that most of the problems are cash-based, as do many throughout the country including the Labour party, of course.

What are the rest of us to make of these conflicting assessments of the problems faced by schools?  It is certainly the case that students these days are far more in the driving seat than has ever been the case in the past.  Their rights and opinions are sought in all sorts of ways.  We have moved on from the days of the School Council where a few well-behaved pupils were asked to be on a pupil body and allowed intermittently to bring minor matters of concern to the attention of departmental staff and the head teacher.  Only this week, the Universities Minister Jo Johnson announced plans to introduce a contract between students and the institutions they attend, which he admitted could lead to them being able to sue their university if there were to be a ‘material divergence’ in their degree course from what they had been led to expect.  True, this applies to universities, not schools, so to over-18s, not children in primary or secondary schools, but it does lend weight to the argument of Mr McGovern that ‘student rights trump everything’.  Even university league tables have, as we know, been revised to include an element of  ‘student satisfaction’.

Is more cash the answer?  A US study conducted over 40 years and reported in the press in April 2014 claimed to find that money was not the answer to improved education.  Andrew Coulson, Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the CATO Institute (the American libertarian think tank), who conducted the study stated that there is essentially no correlation between what states have spent on education and their measured academic output.  Not only that, but apparently the statistics also show that decreases in spending have no discernible effect in negatively influencing student scores.  A Heritage Foundation  report in 2008 appeared to come to the same conclusion.  By our own admission (Commons committee report), ‘There are only a few English studies sophisticated enough to provide robust estimates of the impact of school spending on attainment’.  The few there are do seem to show that increased spending does have slightly more impact on those with special needs, which does to some extent justify the government funding allocations, which are biased towards more deprived areas.

So, could discipline be the problem as Mr McGovern considered?  Peter Tait, writing in Telegraph Education in March (The Elephant in the Classroom) this year seemed to think so.  ‘Persistent disruptive behaviour’ is the most common reason for exclusion according to the government statistics, which does suggest that many teachers may be unable to control classes.  This supports the view put forward by assistant general secretary for policy at the Association for Teachers and Lecturers, Nancy Ellis, that a major problems is that so many experienced teachers have left the profession and that inexperienced staff struggle to keep control in the classroom.  As in the GP profession, many older experienced staff have left teaching; some because they have reached natural retirement age; others because of ‘stress’ and others because of the excessive paperwork and lack of control many feel they have over what is taught and the limitations imposed by the focus at all levels on exams.

This country has for some reason never valued or respected teachers in the way they are respected in other countries, where their role in educating the next generation is seen as important.  Here, we have gone rather with the view that ‘those who can do; those who can’t teach’, which hardly shows esteem or respect for a job so vital to society.  Perhaps, rather than bleating about the amount spent per pupil, we need to look at the amount spent per teacher – not just in ensuring that they have excellent education themselves, but that they have the support of parents, head teachers and governors in exercising discipline in the classroom.  Children may have rights, but their views on how things should be should perhaps not be allowed to prevail in situations where discipline is necessary.  Teachers must also be allowed to use their own imaginations and, particularly at primary school level, have the scope to ‘engage’ children without the dead weight of SATS exams and government imposed standards which can have a ‘dementor-like’ effect of sucking the joy out of learning.  Let us get back to the fun and thrill of learning so that fewer children are ‘disengaged’ and feel the need to assault staff.  It is rather telling that this is happening increasingly at primary school level, surely?


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Issue 115: 2017 07 27: Week in Brief: UK

27 July 2017

Week In Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right


BREXIT NEGOTIATIONS: Last week’s round of talks ended with little agreement.  Points at issue include whether EU citizen should be able to bring their families to the UK without restriction, whether the European Court of Justice should have any jurisdiction in the UK, whether the British people can continue to belong to the European healthcare scheme while on holiday (under this system care is provided locally but charged to the home jurisdiction), the circumstances under which the UK should be able to deport EU citizens, whether UK citizens living in the EU should have voting rights and, of course, the financial settlement.

According to The Times, the government is proposing to suggest leaving free movement in place for two years after Brexit.  The plan which has been devised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, is said to have gained Cabinet support although Brussels is understood to wish to restrict British citizens living abroad to the state in which they are now living.  There is plenty of room for confusion over all this with all parties regarding the others’ proposals as inadequate.

SINGLE MARKET AND LABOUR: Jeremy Corbyn has clarified the Labour Party’s position on the single market, stating that the UK would have to come out of it because it is dependent on EU membership. Instead they would seek tariff-free access.  This stance is likely to result in further clashes with pro-EU Labour MPs and particular Chukka Umunna, who is emerging as their leader.

Government News

PENSION WAIT: The government has accepted the recommendation made in a report by John Cridland, former boss of the CBI, that the pension age should rise to 68 in 2036.  The age, which equalises between the sexes at 65 next April, will increase to 66 in 2020 and 67 in 2028.

GROUND RENTS: The Government is to take action to deal with abuses by housebuilders selling leasehold property, and in particular escalating ground rents.  In an article in The Times, Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, pointed to an example of a house costing £200,000 where the ground rent would increase by 3000% to almost £10,000 by 2060.  Apparently freestanding houses are also being sold as leaseholds in order to exploit this source of profit.  There are also excessive charges for making alterations et cetera.

It is understood that in the north of England banks have become reluctant to lend against properties with escalating ground rents, which makes you wonder why lawyers acting for purchasers have not pointed out the downside to their clients.  Are we going to see a series of actions against solicitors?  The government is to consult on proposals but some areas are likely to be difficult, for example how to deal with existing reversionary interests which have been acquired by investors.

UNIVERSITY CONTRACT: Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, is to consult with the Office of Students in relation to the rights which students should enjoy in return for the tuition fees which they pay.

MIGRATION: According to figures produced by the Office of National Statistics, net migration into the UK has increased the population by 250,000 people a year since 2004.  That is more than the increase resulting from the number of births exceeding the number of deaths.

LICENSING DRONES: The Department of Trade has announced that users of drones weighing more than 8 ounces will need to register on a database, after taking an online test.  Hopefully this will alert them to safety and legal requirements.  Other proposed reforms are signal disruption around prisons and government buildings.  A ban of unofficial drones within a specified distance of an airfield is also being considered.

IMF DOWNGRADE: The IMF has downgraded its predictions of UK growth this year to 1.7%.  In April it estimated 2%.

MINIMUM WAGE: The new minimum wage threatens to bankrupt disability learning charities which provide overnight supervision. Although the Government has agreed to stay HMRC’s enforcement of the legislation in such cases, the fact remains that unless something is done the new wage rates will make vital services unaffordable.

POLLUTION: The sale of new diesel and petrol cars, including hybrids, is to be banned from 2040.  From then on all vehicles will have to run on electric power.  The change, which mirrors a recent pledge by France, will be a problem for vintage car owners as it becomes more and more difficult to find places to refuel their vehicles.  On the other hand it may save some of the 40,000 premature deaths which occur each year because of pollution.  The government has also committed £255 million to be spent with local authorities on dealing with nitrogen dioxide from diesel vehicles.

Other Politics

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS: Vince Cable, MP for Twickenham, has been elected unopposed as leader of the Party.  He has suggested that he might be able to recruit MPs from the other parties to create a party of the centre.

STUDENT DEBT PLEDGE: Jeremy Corbyn has denied that he made any pledge to wipe out student debt as part of the last election campaign.  Although his manifesto contained a pledge to abolish tuition fees going forward, he had been unaware of the amount of the outstanding debt and had done no more than to say that his party would look into how the burden of that could be reduced.  This appears to be true but its force has been undermined by the fact that statements made by shadow ministers Imran Hussain and Sharon Hodgson indicated the opposite.

FRACKING ABUSE: Arfon Jones, police and crime Commissioner for North Wales and an anti-fracking campaigner, has been criticised for objecting to his force assisting Lancashire Constabulary to deal with protests against Cuadrilla.  Supporters of fracking say that this was a misuse of his official position.

Law and Courts

SUPREME COURT: Baroness Hale of Richmond is to be the next president of the Supreme Court, replacing Lord Neuburger who retires later this year.  Lady Hale will be joined by another female Supreme Court judge, Lady Justice Black, making it the first time that there has been more than one woman at the top level of the judiciary.

KNIFE CRIME: Figures produced by the Office for National Statistics show an 18% increase in the level of violent crime.  Murder is up by 9%, excluding the victims of Hillsborough.  Knife crime rose by 20%; gun crime by 23%.  The Government is currently under pressure to deal with a spate of acid attacks and is holding a consultation on the sale of knives online.  Commentators suggest that the crime wave may be linked to the decline in stop and search for which Mrs May received so many plaudits as Home Secretary.

CHARLIE GARD: The parents of baby Charlie Gard have accepted that irreversible damage to his muscles means that his quality of life would not justify further treatment.  Accordingly they have decided to abandon the litigation against Great Ormond Street hospital.

POLICE CHASE DEATHS: According to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, 28 people died in police chases last year of whom two thirds were bystanders. The police shot six people dead last year and 14 people died in police custody.


FLOODING: A freak storm devastated the Cornish village of Coverack with 100mm of rain falling in less than three hours.  The weather is thought to have been created by rising hot air in France.

GRADE INFLATION: The proportion of firsts awarded by universities has increased, with almost 30% of Russell Group students graduating with a first and the Royal Academy of Music awarding firsts to 64% of its undergraduates.  The Higher Education Policy Institute are concerned at the possibility of  “grade inflation”.

SOUTHERN COMFORT: Overtime bans and strikes planned for Southern Rail have been called off as talks resume between Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, and the unions.

MORNING AFTER PILL: Boots the chemist has been criticised for refusing to reduce the price of morning after pills on the grounds that they might be overused.  Boots is now looking for a cheaper pill than the one which it currently sells.

TIME LADY: Arguments have broken out over the new Doctor Who, actress Jodie Whitaker, with high minded talk of role models, gender specific casting and the possibility of using ethnic actors.  All this seems to ignore the fact that there can be no right or wrong about which actor represents a fictional character.  In the end the question depends upon who will get the best audiences.

OXFORD AWARDS: According to The Times newspaper, the Europe Business Assembly, an entity controlled from the Ukraine but also with a presence in Oxford, is selling prizes and awards which appear to be linked to Oxford University even though that is not in fact the case.  The EBA hosts conferences and arranges ceremonies, some of which include that famous Oxford character, a man in the uniform of the Yeoman of the Guard.

ENGLISH SPORT: England women won the 2017 cricket World Cup at Lord’s, beating India by nine runs with eight balls remaining. Chris Frome secured his fourth victory in the Tour de France and said that he hopes to compete for another five years.

GLOBE THEATRE: Actress Michelle Terry is to be the new director of the Globe Theatre, replacing Emma Rice.  Although Ms Terry has no experience of directing she is an accomplished Shakespearian actor and an enthusiast for his work.


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Issue 115: Crossword – The Brexit Bog

27 July 2017

Crossword by Boffles

The Brexit Bog


To see a printable version of this crossword

Issue 115: Crossword – The Brexit Bog – printable

27 July 2017

Crossword by Boffles

The Brexit Bog


    7  EU principle problematic when people are involved (4,8)

    8  Roll call for politician thought to favour a soft one (7,1)

    9  Will UK plc be such afterwards? (1,3)

  10  Hard or soft or not at all – public ……. differs (7)

  12  No doubt, we will have to in regard to some points in the negotiations (3,2)

  14  Let’s hope it will not result in such a downturn (5)

  16  Will there be a customs one between Eire and 22dn? (7)

  19  Northerner likely to have got his kilt in a twist over it (4)

  20  All too likely that we will be for leaving (8)

  21  Financial business we are going to have to fight to retain (4,8)



    1  Some think the answer is to join the European Economic one (4)

    2  Will it make our economy more like this one? (6)

    3  Says the EU can go whistle for any money (7)

    4  How are farmers going to do so without foreign workers? (4)

    5  The Parliamentary one will be endless (6)

    6  ‘Say not the …….. nought availeth’  Clough – the Brexiteer’s motto? (8)

  11  Lloyds of London is going to write them in Brussels (8)

  13  Tough-talking Frenchy with a clock (7)

  15  2dn manufaturers of these are worried (6)

  17  No deal would be the last one (6)

  18  Hooray –  we can still go into it with the European ….. Agency, a non-EU body (5)

  22  In short, only UK region with an EU land border (2)


Issue 114: 2017 07 20: Contents

20 July 2017: Issue 114

The week’s news –

your chance to catch up:

Image of elliptical decal with £$€ and Financial News caption


The Price Of Politics by John Watson

What do we get?

A Cashless Society by Lynda Goetz

Is this really what we want?

The Royal Mail Marshmallow by Frank O’Nomics

The outcome of the Royal Mail’s pension dispute may set a key precedent.

The Electric Sheep Fold by J R Thomas

Do we need an electronic archive?

A Double-Edged Sword by Neil Tidmarsh

En garde with anti-corruption laws.

Tick Tock by Robert Kilconner

Mr Barnier’s clock moves on.


Sew So by Chin Chin

Competing with the little old ladies.


Mosquitoes (by Lucy Kirkwood)

at the National Theatre

reviewed by Adam McCormack.

Watts 200: Celebrating England’s Michelangelo

The Watts Gallery, Guildford, Surrey

reviewed by William Morton.

Thank You For Your Patience

The Hackney Showroom

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Puzzles, Cartoons and Calendar

Cartoons by AGGro.

Crossword by Boffles: “Sicily”.

Solution to the last crossword “Sporting Times”.

What’s on in July 2017 by AGGro

Earlier EditionsLarge 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list

Issue 109: 15 June 2017

Issue 110: 22 June 2017

Issue 111: 29 June 2017

Issue 112: 06 July

Issue 113: 13 July

Issue 115:2017 07 27:The Beguiled (J R Thomas)

27 July 2017

The Beguiled

A film by Sophia Coppola

reviewed by J R Thomas

A film by Sophia Coppola is always something to look forward to; the tingling anticipation of a thing of beauty to be sure, a gentle intelligent fusion of music and photography and well-directed acting; and a thoughtful, subtle pointing to some human condition, usually of the female persuasion, that gives much rumination for the post-cinematic stroll home.

Her latest piece of moving art is “The Beguiled”, Ms Coppola’s adaption of the book by Thomas P Cullinan.  It is almost everything that one would expect.  The acting is professional to pip-squeaking level, the music is supportive and subtle and suitable, and the photography very well done indeed, with the American Deep South of 1864 providing a series of shimmering ghostly backdrops in the plantations, plus Miss Martha Farnsworth’s  School for Young Ladies providing the sort of interiors that Pre-Raphaelite art was invented to record.

1864 was a busy time in the Deep South; the Civil War was about to be over, defeat looming over the Confederacy, and the cannons are booming away constantly in the background.  Oddly, nobody amongst the Young Ladies seems in the least phased by this looming or booming; one might expect that just occasionally one of Miss Farnsworth’s pupils might say “Cor, that was a bit close” or worry about the future for her menfolk, but no.  But, as it is said that the First World War battlefield guns in France could be heard in London on quiet days, maybe the cordite action is so far off that nobody is unnerved by the booming, and they assume that all will be well in the end.

But what does disturb the young ladies – seven of them pupils of various ages and two teachers, including Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), her nervously charged deputy – is the presence of Corporal John McBurney, a severely wounded Unionist soldier, found by the youngest pupil whilst gathering mushrooms. (Would you let a ten or so year old out gathering mushrooms in the middle of a war?  Maybe the guns were indeed a very long way off.)  Head teacher, proprietor, and presumably daughter of the departed plantation owner, Miss Martha is nursing him back to health so she can turn him over to the Confederate Army, who presumably will not continue the medical support programme.  Martha and her girls come to the slow realisation that army nursing standards may be poor, so he is allowed to stay on, to be useful around the school.  But the two teachers and one of the pupils seem to have ulterior motives as to what he might be useful for, viewing his potential talents widely, not surprisingly as plays the wounded John McBurney with a charming Irish brogue (one can’t help wondering if Ms Coppola has been watching Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon too often).  He too has ulterior motives, as men are often said to have, not dissimilar to that of those ladies, but his main motivation is not to be handed over to the Confederate Army.  And that is quite enough plot.

It has to be said that, in spite of the superior technical standards of this film, it seems a strange tale.  This may be because your reviewer is of the male persuasion.  He, as it happens, took with him a person of the opposite sex (her motives were not in the least ulterior, we should put on record) and she found it a carefully crafted insight into the motivations and responses of women, faced with challenging and difficult circumstances.

Your reviewer might also be influenced by having read the book (often a mistake, but it was a long time ago), a complex piece of writing which contains a range of perspectives, some misleading, as to what is going on.  It also contains, as Confederate households tended to do, a black slave, a housekeeper, who is not beguiled in the way everybody else seems to be.  Ms Coppola’s omission of the racial nature of life in the Farnsworth School is one of the stranger recastings of the tale, though one Ms Coppola has strongly defended.  Cullinan wrote a physiological thriller of an intensely gripping nature; much of that has drifted away in the new film, replaced by a more dreamlike exposition of trouble and stress building in the closeted mansion.

There is in fact a previous movie which starred Clint Eastwood as the soldier and Geraldine Page as Miss Farnsworth.  This was Clint’s first real departure from his lone lawman genre and was too much for his fanbase (or perhaps not enough); the film flopped, though it is now highly regarded as one of Siegel and Eastwood’s best.  Siegel followed the book closely, displaying its complex messages fairly faithfully.   In both originals the soldier does not have Irish heritage, a strange modification by Ms Coppola, the racial cross currents are core, the mushroom gatherer is thirteen (so fine to be out in the woods alone), and the “school” was then a seminary, which students of Civil War films know that they always were.

So the message here is probably; go and see the Coppola version if you want film-making of the highest standard; but if you want a well-told tale maybe the Siegel/Eastwood version will suit you better.   Though maybe it is simple as this:  ladies should go to the Coppola offering; gentlemen stick with the Siegel one.


“Beguiled” by Sophia Coppola is on general release and playing at various cinemas now.  “Beguiled” by Don Siegel is available on various film on-line distribution sites, or on DVD. 


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Issue 115: 2017 07 27: Live long and prosper (Frank ONomics)

27 July 2017

Live long and prosper

Countering the Catch-22 of the state pension

By Frank O’Nomics

Naomi Campbell may have cause to be a bit upset.  As someone in the UK born just after 5th April 1970, she may just miss out on being able to claim a state pension when she is 67, having to wait at least another year.

There is a strange irony in having an announcement that the government is contemplating raising the age at which we can receive pensions at almost the same time as news that the growth in life expectancy in the UK has started to tail off.  Surely this suggests that the  state can be more relaxed about funding shorter retirements?  Sadly, the recent State Pension age review by John Cridland really just acknowledges a much longer-term increase in longevity, and the report on life expectancy is somewhat questionable.

The Cridland Report starts reassuringly by recommending that the State Pension age should continue to be universal across the UK but, in bringing forward the rise to 68 from between 2044 and 2046 to between 2037 and 2039, it leaves us wondering whether further changes will be made before those born after 1970 hit the critical age. The report argues that the pension age should increase over time to reflect life expectancy, which for many raises the Catch-22 prospect of never quite getting old enough.  If that is the case what do we need to do to address the potential retirement income shortfall?

The State Pension age is increasing because there is no pot of money to provide the pension, and it is clear that future generations will not be able to afford to pay for an ever-increasing retired population from tax receipts.  Every year that the pensions age is increased saves the government 0.3% of GDP.  It also leads to increased employment rates.  If everyone worked one year longer it would add 1% to GDP.  By bringing forward the increase to 68 by 7 years the government can save £74 billion.  Given that there will be growing demands on the healthcare system, such savings are likely to be badly needed.

If the increase is inevitable, just what will the likes of Naomi miss out on?  The current state pension is £159.55 a week or £8,296 per year so the victims of the delay will need to save sufficient to cover this shortfall if they had previously expected to rely on it.  For Naomi this may be just take one day of “getting out of bed for less than £10,000”, but for the majority it will be a more difficult task.  If we then look at the Catch-22 scenario, where we never quite catch-up with a rising State Pension age, we will need to save a great deal more.  Generating a sum equivalent to the current State Pension would require a pension pot of £161,850, and if you wanted to ensure that the income generated kept pace with inflation, that pot would have to be £276,900.  This would involve a lot more trips down the catwalk.

You might suggest that this gloomy scenario does not fit with the moderation of increases in life expectancy.  A recent review by Sir Michael Marmot showed that the rate at which lifespans were increasing had halved since 2010, to around one year longer every 10 years for women and every six years for men.  Commentators have extrapolated this trend to suggest that life expectancy will start to fall – but this seems very speculative.  Looked at over the longer term, there have been similar slowdowns in increases in life expectancy, with considerable volatility over any three-year period.  Future advances in healthcare, and particularly any improvement in treating diseases such as dementia (where the death rate has been rising) could prompt a fresh spurt in expected lifespans.

Are fears of never getting a State Pension justified?  Given the increase in the proportion of the population that will be made up by the elderly, it seems eminently possible that, at the very least, the State Pension could become means tested.  This may seem entirely reasonable for retired super models, but for many it would mean a fundamental review of their saving plans.  Anyone currently aged 40, who needs to make up a £8297 income shortfall when they are 68, would need to start saving into a pension an additional sum close to £700 per month.  Clearly, if they wanted to retire earlier this sum would be higher, just shifting your target age to 67 involves saving another £60 per month.

There are ways of mitigating the increase in the pension age to 68.  One is to allow those who are poor, or ill, to take a pension earlier.  The latter would make sense given the longevity issues, but the former raises some moral hazard issues – what is the point of saving for a pension if the state will cover me if I don’t? The other alternative would be to allow people to take a reduced pension at an earlier age. This would seem to be a much fairer basis, both in helping those who cannot find employment, or find work too demanding, and in incentivising others to carry on working by offering a greater pension when they stop.  Hopefully such alternatives will be reviewed before the government finally legislates to bring forward the increase to 68.  The Cridland Report argues that the pension age should not change by more than one year over any 10-year period, and that individuals get 10 years notice of any change.  This does at least mean that we will have some time to adjust our saving patterns – but that adjustment can only be up.


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Issue 115:2017 07 27:Digging Deep(J R Thomas)

27 July 2017

Digging Deep

What will HS 2 achieve?

by J R Thomas

Whatever the pressures on the finances of the country, whatever turmoil assails the senior management, however many rearguard actions the doughty protestors continue to fight, HS2 will soon begin serious construction works.  HS2 is the rather anonymous and dull pseudonym of the greatest construction project of our age, the largest length of new railway built in 120 years; since indeed the Great Central Railway, to which long narrow piece of history we will return in due course.

But firstly, a little more on HS2, which follows, surprise, surprise, HS1.  HS1 runs from London to Paris; HS2 will run from London to Birmingham.  HS1 swoops under the English Channel as it makes its way to the City of Light; HS2 will tunnel through the Chilterns on its way to the Workshop of the World.  To be fair, nobody has called Birmingham that for fifty years but that defunct nickname is the ostensible reason and justification for building this particular railway link.  Birmingham, like many British regional cities, has lost its way, its wealth, and its style.  London has become overwhelmingly the economic powerhouse of the UK; a role that Birmingham had for most of the nineteenth century.  (Yes, Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, Glasgow, we know, you were successful city-states, but without a doubt, Birmingham was the premier.)

But somehow, after the Second World War, the regional centres never recovered.  The decline had set in after the First World War as Britain’s position in manufacturing and trade went into a slow decline.  Destruction by bombing, the dislocation to many industrial activities caused by the switch to war production, the failure to invest adequately post-war, and most of all, the growing socio-political weight of London, just accelerated the decline of the great regional cities.  In the 1960’s well meaning but mostly poorly thought out and badly executed investments into the infrastructure of the declining areas achieved very little.  Birmingham got a six lane central ring road, a noose which strangled both the city and its suburbs, and the city centre rebuilt in finest 1960’s concrete and cladding, much of the nineteenth historic cityscape vanishing.  What was never addressed though was what Birmingham might be for, what it might do, in the brave new post-industrial world.

Much of what Birmingham had done – making things, from shotguns and jewellery to cars and railway carriages, ended.  Nothing much new appeared in its place.  The growth in the modern western economy in which Britain (let us not forget) is a world leader, was in ideas; the most remunerative employment was in thought-manufacturing.  Banking, insurance, IT, the digital economy; that was where the money was, and is.  Those new industries grew elsewhere – mostly in the south east.  Although employment remains at reasonably high levels in Birmingham and the surrounding West Midlands, comparative levels of earnings have fallen further and further behind that great thought factory a hundred miles south.

So how do you solve that problem?  Well; building a £56bn railway is probably not the way to do it.  (We should say that a lot of that £56bn will be spent in London and nearby – tunnelling into Euston, building a new terminus, and hiding the railway in the sensitive suburbs.)  There are already two railways to Birmingham and they are both quick, reliable, and have been modernised.  Investing £28bn, the phase one portion, into sunrise businesses, turning Birmingham into a sort of Silicon Valley of central England might work (though probably not if the money were under the control of politicians and quango placemen).  A cynic might indeed suggest that regional cities tend to do better when they are, if anything, worse connected to London, not better.  In fact, that cynic might suggest that building a very fast railway line will have the opposite effect to that publicly advocated for it.  The beneficiary will be the very strong metropolis at the southern end, not the struggling one at the northern end.  Birmingham may well become, unless the city mothers and fathers are very determined and imaginative, a commuter suburb of London, as the Great Wen sucks in cheap labour from the low cost Midlands.

Birmingham is not the only place to which HS2 will reach out its long wavy tentacles; Manchester and Leeds and Sheffield will get connections in due course.  Those cities may fare better than Brum; as they are further from London they are less likely to be turned into commuter pools.  Manchester in particular has developed as a centre of economic excellence in its own right.  The reasons for this are not especially complex; it had for many years a city council chief executive, Sir Howard Bernstein, who saw his role as no less than to reimagine and reinvent the regional economy.  As a result he made Manchester the one UK rival that London has (polite nod to Cambridge which also has achieved a smaller version of a modern techno-bio economy).  Manchester has become a centre for many growth businesses, especially centred around what are politely known as the creative and media industries, but also in fashion design and insurance.   This was crowned by the BBC’s somewhat unwilling wholesale shift of many operations to Salford, Manchester’s twin city across the Irwell, taking many highly paid executives north, but more importantly, financially anchoring many of the back-up and production processes which support TV and film making.

Manchester has one of the slowest and more unreliable London railway services of any major UK city.  Preston, twenty miles to the north west, has a very fast and reliable one; but is one of the most depressed towns in the north west (along with Liverpool).  We could continue this game for dozens of locations, but you probably already get the thought.   Fast rail services do not seem to make much difference to the prosperity of major cities – except possibly opening them up to the suction of London.  Local enterprise and resourcefulness do.  That £56bn to be spent to take HS2 to Birmingham and phase 2, (or HS2b, or HS3)  to Leeds, Sheffield, and Manchester might well be much better deployed in improving the existing rail network, and excuse our bad language, the motorway system, many worker’s tarmac of choice, and still the most reliable and flexible way of getting around, at least at local level.

But HS2 is going to be built, barring the most extraordinary change of governmental stance.  It is unlikely that will happen – there are too many jobs at stake, 16,500 so far (though they could work on small local schemes just as happily).  The government is too far committed already – though the same government only last week scrapped the (more advanced) electrification of the Great Western main railway from Cardiff to Swansea, and of the Midland mainline from Nottingham to Sheffield.  Which brings us, having taken the scenic route, back to the Great Central Railway, the last mainline to be built in England.

Finished in 1899, it was designed to bring fast railway services to the West End of London from various Midland towns, the GC favouring Leicester, Nottingham, and Sheffield.  It was built to the highest standards, with easy gradients and large radius curves, entirely with private capital – and turned a profit, though not as great as its chairman, Sir Edwin Watkin, had hoped for.  It was mostly closed down in the 1960’s and 1970’s by British Railways, though a lot of the track bed is still extant.  So why not simply and cheaply reopen that, at least for freight trains?

That would fulfil its original purpose.  Sir Edward had a grand plan of which the Great Central was just phase 1.  That is where you might have heard of him before.  He conceived a great railway route from Europe to northern England.   Watkin got control of the South Eastern Railway and in 1888 started digging a Channel Tunnel, getting a mile out under the sea before work was stopped for public fear the French could invade through it.  Which is how many northern citizens may be feeling before long about HS2 – an economic invasion route into the north for London.


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