What are the benefits of the EU?

June 11th, 2016

world-1264062_640One of the consistent things I keep seeing about the EU referendum is that there is a lack of people setting out what the benefits of staying in the EU are. I think there are a number of things that affect this. There’s an assumption that people understand what is already in front of them. Though we should be aware that, as a nation, we do make a point of not really understanding what is going on. But also because people gravitate towards the negative.

I thought I’d have a go at listing some things that are really beneficial to us as part of the EU. Not all of them have an impact on us as individuals but they do have an impact on us as a country.

 

Medicine – We’re members of the European Medicines Agency. Incidentally it’s based in London so is very much a part of us. This is a great thing. The EMA evaluates pharmaceuticals for use across the EU. This makes mass production of medicine easier and cheaper. If you don’t need to be authorised in every country within the EU then putting medicine into production is much much quicker. This also provides us a benefit in early access to new types of medicine. Pharmaceutical companies like to test the viability of any drug in a part of the market. The NHS provides an easy way to carry out testing so the UK is a good place to start before drugs are rolled out to the rest of the EU.

Getting Ill – Have you ever been ill when you’re on holiday? Accessing medical services in other countries can be massively expensive. Don’t go to the US without insurance. As part of the EU we have access to the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). If you become ill in an EU country then you get access to healthcare.

Education – As we’re in the EU we have access to the Erasmus Programme. This annual 14 billion Euro programme pays for our students to go and live, work and learn in other countries. It supports education and training programmes across the EU. There is an obvious benefit in us learning how other countries work if we want to sell stuff to them.

Free Movement – All of the EU debate that I’ve seen so far has focussed on free movement of people being purely about immigration. That completely forgets the other part of it that means any of us can go and live anywhere in the EU. Any of us can go and buy property in any EU country and live in it or just go and visit it. This also means that if everything gets really bad in this country then we can go and work somewhere else in the EU. Remember in the 70s and 80s when we lurched from one recession to another and people from the UK went to work in Germany?

Manufacturing – Membership of the EU has enabled the UK to take part in building things like Euro Fighter, alright it might be a bit obsolete these days but it’s unlikely any single EU member would be able to construct anything as complex these days. One of our key manufacturers is Airbus, the second biggest aircraft manufacturer on the planet. Building planes across the EU has created well paid, high-tech jobs within the UK.

Peace – The EU has played a massive part in maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. The PEACE programme has invested billions of Euros across Northern Ireland and Ireland to give people an incentive to live together.

Space travel – We’re members of the European Space Agency. At the very least this gives us access to blasting satellites into space but it also calls on the expertise of our universities to create really good jobs.

Science – In the EU we’re part of the Horizon 2020 programme. Over seven years this will invest 80 billion Euros to bring scientists and industry together to invent things.

Culture and Art – As part of the EU we are a member of Creative Europe. This is 1.4 billion Euro programme to fund art and culture. You know all those films you’ve seen with the EU stars at the end? They were funded through programmes like this.

Volunteering – Did you know that any person aged between 18 and 30 can go and do voluntary work for up to a year in any EU country? Well the European Voluntary Service will fund them to do it if that’s what they want to do.

Development – European Regional Development Fund was set up because the UK demanded it as a condition of joining the EU in 1972. The fund targets the poorest areas of the EU and invests in them. The UK has many areas that are amongst the poorest areas of the EU so we tend to get a lot of investment from the ERDF.

There is a comprehensive list of ERDF funded projects here.

Buying things – Have you ever bought anything from Amazon? It just turns up doesn’t it. You have no idea where in the EU it might have come from and there is no reason why you should. On the other hand, try buying something from the US or even Norway. More than likely you will get an extra bill where a courier company has randomly calculated how much customs duty is due and then holds it to ransom until you pay up. Being part of the EU means we don’t have to worry about customs duty.

These are all really positive things and they are the result of us deciding to pool our resources with nearly half  a billion other people.

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Sovereignty

May 17th, 2016

As the EU Referendum gets closer  the one point of  contention that is most irritating me is the question of sovereignty. One of the main platforms of the Leave campaign is the insistence that membership of the European Union has meant that the UK has somehow reduced sovereignty and lost the ability to make its own laws. This is just not the case. The fact that the European Union passes laws that we have agreed to be bound by does not diminish our ability to make law or choose which laws are applicable in our country.

To illustrate this I want to use an entirely spurious household analogy. I hate household analogies but they seem to be popular.

In our house, my wife (Emma) and I, have the same conversation on a daily basis. Well really it’s less of a conversation and more of a question, “what are we having for dinner?” In my fantastic analogy, it’s more than possible for me to randomly shout “you sit there, I’ll make dinner”. It could happen.

At  this point I could leap to my feet and cook up a tasty prawn curry. Now I know Emma doesn’t really like prawns which leaves her with a dilemma, she can eat it up, she can tell me she doesn’t like prawns (again) whilst eating it up or just refuse to eat it. In all cases she has maintained her sovereignty to make the final decision whether or not to eat it. In terms of diplomacy it might not be tactful to just refuse to eat it because a consequence might mean I just refuse to ever cook again. That would clearly not be to her long term advantage. On the other hand lodging a protest makes clear she has the option to not eat my lovely prawns and begins the negotiation about eating better food next time

prawnsAs an added complexity if I decided to try out my new method of cooking prawns, warming them on the window sill for a day and then rubbing sauce on them, then it is clearly in her interest to refuse to implement dinner in its present form. In our house we have managed to agree basic common standards in cooking that each of us won’t wilfully poison ourselves or each other. So far it’s worked. Though in the future if I decided to persistently poison my wife she would not be compelled to keep eating dangerous food, her sovereignty means she can decide that the risk of death outweighs the benefits of free dinner.

This is how the European Union works. At any point, as a sovereign nation, we can decide we don’t want to do this any more. In fact the referendum itself is a manifestation of that.

The claim that we have detrimental legislation imposed on us just doesn’t stand up. The majority of legislation that comes from the EU relates to making common standards for trade. For example, in the UK we might hit on an epic ruse to make cheap paint. We could sell loads of it really cheaply if we get kids to make it and pump it full of lead. We know kids like working and poisonous paint isn’t so bad if you hold your breath. This is isn’t a position that the EU agrees with. We decide to go ahead and pass the Kids and Paint Act 2016. Excellent we now have cheap paint and busy kids.

The EU is faced with two options. It can prevent us selling our cheap paint in the rest of the continent. It can also explain to us that the standards of child welfare and not killing decorators is not compatible with EU membership. We then weigh up how much we like cheap paint against the benefits that being a member of the EU brings us. If each time we think being a member of the EU is better than walking off then we stay and we let the EU law take precedence. “We let” is the most important part of that sentence. We as a sovereign state make that decision.

phoneThere are practical reasons why we need standards. Take mobile phones for example. It makes absolute sense for there to be a European wide standard for phones. Even the most ardent Europhobe isn’t suggesting that we shouldn’t be able to talk to our Euro friends. The simplest method to achieving this, is for all European members to agree a standard based on the most benefits and least disbenefits and then pass it into law for all of us, with each having a say in the debate.

The alternative would be for a small group to agree what looks like a good standard and then expect 28 individual parliaments to go away and talk about it and hope we all come back with the same one in a time frame that means we can all start setting up phone masts.

In many cases where trade occurs across borders it makes more sense for us to agree to let another body make decisions for us.

Which raises the issue of laws being imposed on us. As a safeguard to letting the EU pass some laws for us we have put in place a process that they must be passed by elected EU representatives (people we vote for). As an interesting aside the UK actually writes the majority of legislation that passes through the EU parliament, we’re good at it. Equally around 85% of legislation that goes through the EU parliament has historically gone with the UK vote.

PX*2956596That does leave a somewhat smaller percentage where laws we have opposed have been passed. But in reality that is often our own fault. For years now we have made UKIP the largest party that represents the UK in the EU Parliament. They  don’t vote. It’s tricky to get laws passed in your favour if you refuse to take part.

Also the Conservatives some time ago decided to join the far right coalition of parties. It’s difficult to get your view taken seriously in the EU if you’re perceived to be speaking on behalf of the far right.

So to summarise too many words. We choose to let another body pass laws on our behalf  because in the long run it is too our benefit. And we can’t make false claims about legislation being imposed on us just because we decide not to take part in votes.

We are still, and always will be, a sovereign nation.

 

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Where does our tax come from?

April 6th, 2016

taxAs we, rightly, get vexed about the scale of tax avoidance uncovered by the Panama Papers I think it’s about time we turned our attention to the problem with the tax that is paid. Whilst there is clearly an issue with some people earning income within the UK, and shifting it off shore to avoid tax, this is minuscule to the amount of money that is being removed from the developing world. In the decade between 2002 and 2011 it’s estimated that nearly $6 trillion was extracted from developing countries.

That is a staggering amount of money.

All of that money went somewhere. The simplistic story we have about the use of tax havens is that people take money, they don’t want to pay tax on, and it gets squirrelled away into foreign accounts where it just sits there doing nothing. Money never does nothing. Once that money has been”cleaned” it gets legitimately passed through hedge funds and investments vehicles and finds its way back into our economies.

It buys property in London propping up a housing bubble, it buys our football clubs, it hoovers up businesses and restructures them to become profitable and it becomes intrinsically entwined with our pension funds.

We know, from initial revelations, in the Panama Papers that the secrecy in Panama (and willingness to be complicit) led to the cleaning of the ill-gotten proceeds from the Brinks Matt robbery in 1983. Ethics aren’t playing a significant role in all of this.

The reason the UK needs to be most concerned about this is because we play a significant role in how clean money is moved around the globe because we take a cut. It should come as no surprise that much of the money that moves around the world passes through Crown Dependencies or British Overseas Territories. These tiny population areas account for massive financial transactions purely because we have tolerated a very lax regulation regime. These are all areas that if we don’t have explicit dominion over we do have a lot a of influence.

The City of London is the largest global centre for financial transactions and is closely linked to the operation of these financially ambiguous areas of the world. The financial sector in the UK accounts for around 9% of national output. It’s a greater proportion than manufacturing. Consequently it pays massive amounts of money into the UK as tax revenue. The is is tax revenue that is extremely vulnerable.

This shouldn’t come as a massive surprise. 2008 pointed out to us that a significant amount of our tax take was based on the illegal activities of banks. That’s why we have a deficit.

We don’t seem to have learnt from that and are still massively dependent on the tax income from financial services.

So what do we do if the world does tighten up its act? What if the massive amount of cash stops pouring out of the third world and into international investment vehicles? Simplistically less money gets invested and our tax revenue goes down. The UK has ridden on a wave of asset stripping from the Soviet Union and Africa for many years now and this won’t last forever, hopefully. We need to get ready for that and diversify where we get tax from.

We need to understand that a fairer world is going to cost us.

 

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Rubbish Savings

March 2nd, 2016

binsYesterday Birmingham City Council passed a budget for 2016/17 intended to take another £90 million worth of cuts. That’s an eye watering number but to be honest it’s so large and has happened every year for over five years now. I can’t really comprehend how such cuts can be made each year without us moving to the point where we just pretend we have public services and hope that nothing ever goes seriously wrong in our lives.

As the Government continues its relentless attack on public services there is still a need for some basic functions to be delivered.

But.

Birmingham City Council needs to meet us half way with this and learn to work a bit better. So here is my micro example of how you can save some money by simply being a bit more competent and working as a joined up organisation.

Sigh, this is about bins again. I hated myself for writing about bins this time last year. As an aside, the Council refused to be flexible about that so we’ve largely given up recycling. Leaving an extra redundant bin outside of our house. Today we got another bin we didn’t ask for. We’ve got a lot of bins.

The opposition in Birmingham to the garden waste charge is legendary. Variously labelled as a tax on owning a garden or simply the last human right the Conservatives would leave us with; there is a belief that all waste from your garden should be taken away within the Council Tax. I’m not really bothered, if we’ve got to make massive cuts to social care then I will stump thirty odd quid a year to have some leaves taken away. In the scheme of things it’s not that important.

That doesn’t mean the whole thing doesn’t infuriate me.

Being a conscientious citizen, and being the proud of owner of ton of leaves from last year, I eagerly went to renew my garden waste subscription. Clicking on the link in the friendly Birmingham City Council email it wasn’t hard to find out how to do it.

renew

Eagerly clicking on the link I knew it was only a matter of time before I could once again get to use my only genuine skill. My ability to remember all of my payment details without once having to look at a card.

That was until I met this form.

form

What are you supposed to do with this? It knows I have a bin registered at my property but insists I have to pick a number for an additional bin. As it was only days from the next collection I assumed that some step must be in place to filter renewals from additional orders. Be that some sort of psychic check or even someone just ringing me up.

Apparently not. Today I got my new bin to add to my collection of increasingly redundant bins. Not to worry I thought (this is completely untrue I was actually irritated like I haven’t been in years), a quick call and this will all be sorted. Except there isn’t a contact number anywhere. Fifteen minutes on the City Council web chat won me the right to ring waste management. I was told that there is a wait of twenty working days to remove a bin delivered in error. Yes, a full calendar month.

Now this could be a story of amusing incompetence but I think it points to a symptomatic flaw.

That web form was clearly designed for new customers, little thought (or I would maintain no thought) has been given to renewals. In the third year of the garden waste charge renewals are going to be the predominant users of the form. That means my error is going to be repeated.

There is an obvious and simple solution. Just amend the web form so that the drop down has an option of “Just renew”. Or if that is a particular programmatic challenge just add a zero at the top of the list. Maybe half an hours work.

But things aren’t that simple at Birmingham City Council. Because of the separation between the supplier (Service Birmingham) and customer (whatever the waste management directorate is called these days) this simple change is something that is likely to have a significant cost implication to it. I’ve no idea what the cost to get a simple change to a web page might be but I assume it must be greater than the cost of :-

All of this, times the number of people this has happened to. Of course this could be pure hysteria on my part. It’s entirely possible that as the orders come in the waste directorate can instinctively tell a renewal from a new order. But I would suggest the cost purely to deal with my issue has to be greater than paying someone to add a zero to a drop down menu. At least I would hope so.

Interestingly if you look at my bullet point list above you might notice that the webchat and call centre are managed by Service Birmingham. Theoretically that means they will get paid more money because I’m forced to engage through two channels (it’s the jargon) in order to clear up their error.

It’s simple things like this that save money and make the Council less irritating.

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How Do You Buy Music?

January 22nd, 2016

supportI don’t think I’m carrying out a survey which means I might only have a passing interest in how you buy music. This is more of a rant about how buying music is becoming increasingly difficult and I’m not really sure who this benefits.

I like to buy music as I want something that I know I own and I want to see artists that I like being obviously rewarded. Having said that my preferred way of listening to music is Spotify. The app has all the functions I need and it’s much quicker to find things than sorting through my file structure. Even though I tend to stream most things I still like to buy albums so I’ve got an electronic copy of them. I don’t buy CDs any more after noticing they turned up, I ripped them to MP3 and then they sat on a shelf. That’s a waste of precious plastic.

My difficulty is that the majority of big sellers for MP3s are increasingly hiding behind Apps that I have no interest in and pose a barrier to buying things. I don’t use iTunes because all I want to do is download files. I don’t need anything to manage my files, I don’t need anything to listen to stuff on. The alternative for a while has been Amazon. They have a big library and are quick and easy to buy things from.

They used to provide a handy download client and when you bought stuff it would help you choose where you wanted to put files and then leave you alone. Now Amazon insist that you use their player to manage the music you buy. The player insists that it needs to sync with your music. I’ve been there before, syncing over 600gb of files can take around a week. I don’t understand why Amazon needs to know what I already own before I can buy anything off them.

Having compelled you to use their App they also impose a limit on how many devices it can work on. If like me, you forget to deauthorise old phones, in a couple of years you can find that you hit the limit of 10 devices. This happened to me this week when I was told by Amazon that if I wanted to set up their App on a new PC, and download an album I’d just bought, I needed to wait for 30 days. This is a limit imposed by rights holders. Note I don’t want to use their App, it’s a clunky mess, I just want the stuff I’ve bought.

Google Music similarly insists that you use an App. It does provide you an option to download things you’ve bought twice but it really wants you to have the App. But Google Music has some massive gaps in albums you can buy. It’s not that practical.

The only system that works is Bandcamp. They understand that downloading the things you’ve bought is most important and then provide an App to stream purchases as a bonus. I’d buy everything on Bandcamp but not everyone puts their stuff on there.

This means that more and more I’m being pushed into just using Spotify and not buying the back up copies of albums. If you want to create a sustainable market don’t make buying things massively more complicated than streaming, or even just stealing.

You can tell me how you buy music if you want but I think I just wanted to rant.

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2015 – Albums of the Year

December 21st, 2015

bop_englishAfter dabbling with bending the format last year with 12 albums, this year I’m back to the conventional decimal format with 10 albums. It’s taken me quite along time to try and figure out what 10 I’d go for this year as I’ve been making more of an effort to pay attention to everything I’ve bought. I’ve been keeping Spotify playlist of everything I’ve bought (one song from almost every album) just so I’ve got a record.

Though forgetting I’ve bought an album surely must be a sign that it wasn’t all that good.

It’s been another great year for albums, notably with a much more diverse range of music. These ten are only a small section of the things I’ve spent the year listening to, but these are the best bits.

So in reverse order (including Spotify links to albums), because you need an element of suspense.

10) Grimes – Art Angels – I didn’t really get Grimes first album, I liked listening to it but it wasn’t something that I went back to more than seven or eight times. I’d also heard that this new album was less accessible than the first. I really don’t understand that description. This is a great pop album, really nice accessible pop. Featuring Janelle Monáe it was always likely to win me over and it did. This is probably the most “pop” album I’ve loved this year.

09) BC Camplight – How To Die In The North – This was one of the first albums I bought in 2015 and I think I spent most of the year thinking “It’s all right”. But it really grew on me. I was looking forward to seeing him play at the Hare and Hounds in February but because of our stupid immigration laws he wasn’t allowed into the country. I’m not sure I ever got a refund for tickets. Oh well. There are some classic songs on here that you’ll hum forever.

08) Deafheaven – New Bermuda – I’d never heard of Deafheaven before this year, I’m still not really sure who they are. If you love ridiculously well made 10 minute black metal songs (I’m not even sure this is a real thing) then you’ll love this.  This is probably some sort of concept album, I’ve no idea, I can’t understand a word he sings, but don’t underestimate how epic this sounds.

07) Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly – One of the main things I can’t explain about this album is why I’ve only made it number seven. Every time I listen to it I’m surprised quite how good it is. It’s actually a bit draining getting all the way through it. Kendrick Lamar is 28, I can’t really fathom how good his albums are going to be in the future.

06) Leon Bridges – Coming Home – I love Leon Bridges story. After being heard by Austin Jenkins, from White Denim, they helped him make an album. And it’s a great album. He sounds like all of the classic 60s soul singers all rolled into one, but still sort of unique. It doesn’t sound like an album from 2015 but there is a freshness that means it doesn’t sound like the 60s either.

05) Holy Holy – When the Storms Would Come – I heard You Cannot Call for Love Like a Dog early in the year and instantly bought an advanced copy of their album. It’s everything I thought it was going to be. Clashing guitar solos and well made songs. It’s got a bit of Midlake about it and that’s no bad thing.

04) John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure – John Grant just keeps making albums that get better each time. Nobody else makes songs that are this melodic yet make you laugh. It’s not a weird comedy thing, it’s a real album. Definitely a step up from Pale Green Ghosts and that’s one of my favourite albums ever.

03) East India Youth – Culture of Volume – East India Youth’s first album was good, I still listen to it every now and then, but I don’t think I ever seriously considered putting it on my 2013 list. This album is amazing. I sort of knew that this was one bloke making it up as he goes along but it was only when he was on the BBC Glastonbury coverage that I realised he could make really intricate songs happen all by himself. There are quite a few of my favourite songs of the year are on this album. I genuinely think that there isn’t anyone that won’t love this.

02) Kamasi Washington – The Epic – One of the things that fell out of Kendrick Lamar’s album was discovering Kamasi Washington, who had done much of the musical arrangement for To Pimp A Butterfly. I’m not sure how true it is that record companies suddenly became interested in him and then he “remembered” that he had The Epic sitting around ready to release. I doubt anyone forgets they have a triple album of jazz on a par with Giant Steps sitting about unreleased. I don’t think the John Coltrane analogy is over the top, this is the most amazing jazz album I’ve heard in years. Certainly the most amazing jazz album that I’ve heard that’s been released in my lifetime.

01) Bop English – Constant Bop – The first time I heard this I knew it was going to be my album of the year. Ten months later and it still is my album of the year. It’s another spin off from White Denim. I suppose that the fact my top ten albums have two White Denim linked albums in it shows how much I really want another White Denim album. This album has a little bit more psychedelia in it than I had expected but it works. I was also lucky enough to see them playing in my local pub, making my best gig of the year and my best album of the year nicely linked.

So that’s 2015. Another amazing year for albums.

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Are you sure you want to bomb Syria?

November 27th, 2015

“At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge, which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.” – 1984

It seems bizarre that it is only two years since the Government lost a vote to get permission to drop bombs on Syria and yet it looks like there will be another vote. This time, of course, we’ve decided to bomb the other side. I’m not sure there has ever been an occasion where we’ve quite so explicitly changed sides in a conflict.

My stance on bombing Syria is a bit ambivalent really. In the scheme of things the UK deciding to bomb Syria will have little impact. We have seven Tornado jets that were built in the 80s trying to cover an area of 20,000 square miles. At any time we can only have two of these flying and as you’d expect with old aircraft they’re prone to break down. We do have drones but as we found out recently we’ve already been bombing Syria with drones for the last year.

Coupled with there already being well over a hundred aircraft  in the area we wouldn’t be doing much. We know that after a year of bombing the US have effectively run out of things to blow up so the majority of their missions return without doing anything. Russia are actively bombing things but they seem to be largely destroying the moderate rebels that David Cameron thinks will surge into the centre of Syria to replace ISIS.

My objection to bombing is based on having no clear idea which side we are proposing to be on. Everyone involved in the war in Syria wants something different and I’m far from convinced that ISIS is much of a priority to most of them.

 

Why on earth would you throw yourself in to the middle of that without any clear idea of what success would look like?

We decided to launch air strikes on Libya and the place is immeasurably worse for it. It is entirely possible we can make a terrible situation much much worse. It isn’t worth the risk of doing that just to make us feel like we’re doing something. Sometimes doing nothing is doing something.

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Birmingham Leadership Race

October 15th, 2015

As Birmingham faces an exciting new leadership campaign I thought I’d write down a list of things I’d like to see a potential new leader commit to. Paradise Circus have made a very good point that the Birmingham Labour Party Leadership race serves to disenfranchise a population of a million people. If you don’t even bother to read any more than this paragraph you should sign their petition.

If the Chamberlain Files are to be believed then it looks like we’re faced with a competition between John Clancy, the annual challenger and Ian Ward, basically Albert Bore’s mate. As was pointed out on the Restirred Forum,  before we get bogged down in picking names we should at least have an idea of what we want from someone that rules over a city of a million people.

So this is where I come in with my unasked for priorities. In no particular order and based on no evidence these are the things I’d like to see a Labour Councillor commit to in order to win my vote (not that I’ve got a vote which is part of the problem):-

Transparency – The Council needs to make a proper commitment to transparency. It needs to make contract details, pay scales and commissioning plans publicly available. It needs to provide us with the evidence base it uses to commission services, it needs to involve us in making that evidence base.

Engagement – The Council needs a fully costed engagement plan. More effort needs to be made to go and talk to, and more importantly listen to, the communities of Birmingham. This will cost money and it will involve paying people.

Partnership – In the future the Council will only be able to deliver services in partnership with other people in the city, be they organisations or communities. To make this work the Council needs to commit to devolve budgets to partnerships and let them spend them. Fine be an accountable body but sometimes you need to let go of the cash.

Finance – Yeah we know about the budget cuts, you’ve mentioned it many many times. The Council still has massively more money than anyone else. Instead of telling us what the Council will pay for, tell us what it wants to achieve with the money it already has. This may mean that we need to lose some services but the Council has always been bad at replacing old services with new ones.

Employment – A clear commitment to increasing employment outside of the City centre. This has been neglected for too long. We need to acknowledge that whilst life might be great for some of us in the Guardian featured areas of Birmingham, for others life is generally shit and we’ve just let that happen.

As an addition to that someone needs to make a commitment to keep staff in the Council. Paying everyone over 50 to go away is a stupid way of trying to maintain continuity.

Culture – If we invest in culture then we will have an exciting place to live and we will attract more people to the City. It isn’t wasted money, people don’t want to live in a soulless metal fronted wasteland with a metric ton of shops. Well it does seem that people do want that but retail won’t last forever.

Locality – Give local communities money for them to spend on things they need. Money spent locally has a much more profound affect than if it is spent City wide or regionally. And proper budgets, not £150k to bribe people with skips before an election.

Contracting – Birmingham needs to stop massive contracting processes. Yes, it might be easier from a contract management point of view but it is killing small enterprises and it is leaving the City really vulnerable when contract inevitably fail.

I’ve deliberately left out children’s and adult social care. This is a mess and requires so much more than a trite two sentence summary.

That’s my list. I’ve no idea whether that means anything to anyone but I’d hope that anyone with a hankering to run the largest metropolitan area in Europe would have some response.

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Do You Know How Trident Works?

September 30th, 2015

tridentOver the next few months there will be a lot of hysteria about renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. One of the things that most annoys me about this hysteria is that people seem to be obsessed that Trident sums up all nuclear weapons and a vote to not renew Trident means unilateral disarmament.

Before this debate gets going it would be really useful if people could take a bit of time to think about what Trident is and what it does.  That’s what I’ve been doing, looking things up on the internet. I found these things out on the internet, off Wikipedia. Are these things you knew?

  1. Trident is designed as a system to simultaneously destroy ten cities at once. Using one missile that disperses a number of warheads. The idea being if a country launches an attack against the UK we can then take out most of their major cities in one go. It’s not designed to launch one single warhead but it is possible to equip it with less. It’s actually quite difficult to use it to destroy anything less than a country.
  2. The Trident system allows a full complement of 192 warheads to be fully operational. Because of nuclear non-proliferation treaties we restrict this to 40 warheads. In the future we will restrict this even further to 25 warheads. There is no point where we will ever be able to equip the system to the full extent of its capability.
  3. We lease the missiles from the US, we make the warheads but not the missiles. The entire programme to renew Trident isn’t about missiles, it’s about the submarines they live in. We will never own the Trident system.
  4. Trident came into operation in 1994. The first time we were fully defended by Trident was 1998, eight years after the cold war finished. We’re now talking about replacing it.
  5. The US also uses Trident but they’re not considering the same renewal programme. They’re considering spending less money to extend the life of their submarines rather than building new ones.
  6. Unlike the US, the UK Trident allows the captains of nuclear submarines to launch missiles if they believe the UK has been destroyed. Weirdly this can happen if Radio 4 stops broadcasting. The US system requires full authorisation from the US, they brought in added security to stop rogue commanders. The UK decided not to bother.

Trident is a very good system if you’re considering fighting a continental nuclear war but it doesn’t reflect the world we live in on any level. I don’t like to advocate for a nuclear weapons system that would be easier to use, I’d rather we did unilaterally disarm, but we should consider alternatives.

There are alternatives to the Trident system. We can attach warheads to cruise missiles, it would take us a while to get that working, but we could do it.

The debate about Trident is not a debate about having or not having nuclear weapons. It’s about building some very expensive submarines. That does have an impact on jobs, but that should be part of the debate and not a simplistic argument on whether the country will be defended or not.

We need to have a proper debate about what the strategic threats are likely to be in 20 years time. We should have a proper debate about how we think nuclear weapons could be used and if we as a country are comfortable about that. We need to have a debate about whether we are working with the rest of the world to disarm.

We shouldn’t blindly carry on fighting the cold war just because nobody can be bothered to find out what it is we’re paying for.

 

Posted in Politics | Comments (4)

Hopeless Obsession – Birmingham

August 12th, 2015

libraryBirmingham is obsessed with shiny things. It doesn’t just like them, it’s utterly obsessed with them. When it comes to civic planning it appears that cost and utilitarian value are absolutely the last consideration behind how shiny something looks. I mean that literally, all civic developments have their quality assessed by how much reflective metal they have.

I decided to write this after seeing Midlands Today’s story about the Birmingham Library service not buying books anymore. It seems that this might not be quite the stark dystopian policy that it appears; more a call out from a community library for donations rather than municipal book begging.

Since the library opened it has been dogged by being an obvious vanity project that we can’t afford. I think that much of the furore about opening hours is a political administration trying to score points about central Government funding but I think it also highlights that this thing should never have been built.

So here is my potted history of why it was a stupid idea.

At the turn of the millennium there was a plan. A plan to build a library to replace the brutalist central library. This library, designed by Richard Rogers, was intended to be the catalyst for redevelopment for the Eastside of central Birmingham, creating a learning and technology zone, or hub, or something. There is a fair question about whether this was ever affordable, Birmingham knew it was bankrupt due to systemic gender discrimination, but in those days we didn’t talk about that.

It seemed a good idea. Build something and try and prompt some sort follow on development in an area that needed it. Many people dispute the theory that these big investments do create further development, but it was better than what we ended up with.

In 2004 a new political administration swept to power on the back of promising to build an underground railway in Birmingham. Well it was dissatisfaction with the Labour Party dropping bombs on Muslims more than the underground but we should never forget this was a very real and very crazy plan.

The new administration took a principled decision to rip up any plans that the previous administration had thought up. It didn’t matter what they were or how reasonable they were, they were ripped up. That meant no library in an area ripe for development.

Instead our political leaders decided we would have a new library but it would be squeezed into an area that was already over developed. We would also not use the library designed for us (which wouldn’t have fitted on the tiny bit of land anyway)  but we’d buy one off the shelf. The library we now have had been touted around the great cities of Europe for ages but nobody really wanted it.  Maybe they thought it was boxy.

Which means we ended up with a library that would have no regenerative effect, that was not designed for our purposes and had been aesthetically rejected by many before us. This cost us £189 million.

And we love it.

The lack of having a 21st Century use other than housing books is ignored. The lack of having enough money to run it is ignored. The puff pieces in The Times make it all worth it.

We also decided to knock down the previous library which had direct cultural relevance to Birmingham. Because we need some more offices.

We’re about to do it again.

In September the national media will descend on Birmingham and we’ll be filled with righteous pride as people see the shiny new New Street Station.

Here are some questions you will not see asked:-

1) Haven’t you just glued some bits of metal to a car park?
2) How much train capacity has this £153m development added to the station?
3) Is white the best colour for a station with diesel trains?
4) Isn’t that quite a lot of money for a really big sushi concession?

No, we’ll love it and everything will be fine again. We’ll forget about the perilous state of the Council because we’ll have more shops and they will be very shiny shops.

Every year there is a giant real estate conference in Cannes (The MIPM). Every year Birmingham goes on mass and every year Birmingham is a little bit surprised how pleased everyone is to see us. Many say this is because this is one of the most sought after cities to develop in, many won’t acknowledge that it’s because we will buy literally anything if it is made out of metal.

In Birmingham we use The Simpsons Monorail episode as a blueprint for urban planning.

I won’t even start on the plan for a skyscraper with a built in theme park.

Posted in Birmingham | Comments (0)