Tag Archives: Economy

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible

I noted a while ago on Facebook that I’ve been neglecting my blog. Even the tweets have been a little erratic of late. There’s a simple reason. Summer is the season in which freelance journalists are most in demand to cover for staff (or increasingly other freelances) taking holiday.

So this blazing hot summer, I’ve been a reporter for a recruitment news website, recruiter.co.uk, for which I covered a ‘talent management’ conference to hear a BBC human resources executive explain why long serving staff will be shunted aside to bring on new recruits. I’ll come back to that another time, but it was a not untypical example of workplace ageism from people who really ought to know better.

I’ve also finally made a foray into fashion after 30-odd years in the game, spending three days subbing The Fashion at the Guardian, long enough to know I won’t be on trend this autumn.

And I even tried a day at the Methodist Recorder. Nice people, but I’m from the Stephen Dawkins side of the argument, so it felt a bit hypocritical. Then again. earlier this summer I had a cordial chat in Chancery Lane about working on the UK website of Voice of Russia, which now seems to have been merged with RIA Novosti news agency and rebranded Russia Today (but please don’t confuse with RT on your TV). Not the best time to take the Putin rouble, though there is undoubtedly a need for a balancing voice to far right Ukrainian propaganda.

This is, I think, the first summer in which there has hardly been a silly season to speak of in the media. Wherever you look, the news has been too damn serious for much of the time whether in eastern Europe or the Middle East, in particular. Perhaps the Pope has a point about a creeping third word war.

Closer to home we have the referendum in Scotland. I’ve read Iain Macwhirter’s column in the Herald today, and suspect that were I a Scot I’d be a Yes voter who really wanted devo-max. But that just seems to have been beyond Westminster’s imagination. As, let’s face it, had been the need to rebuild the North’s infrastructure to rebalance the economy away from London until, ooh, the last week or so. Funny how elections concentrate the mind.

This has all been on top of work at the Observer on news and the New Review, the Guardian including the obituaries department, and Public Finance magazine which, coincidentally, also runs a column by Iain Macwhirter and deserves a wider readership among anyone interested in the business of goverment. End of plug and nearly the end of the holiday season.

I intend that normal service will be resumed with more frequent posts. But first, I’ll be tasting the fresh air and fine food of Cumbria. Then I’ve two magazines to produce…

 

 

 

Greek efficiency drive puts squeeze on extra virgin olive oil

Olive trees in Tseria, a village in the Taygetos mountains. Photograph by Paul Nettleton

Olive trees in Tseria, a village in the Taygetos mountains of Greece. Photograph by Paul Nettleton

 

It may be a cynic who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing, but politicians often seem to fit Oscar Wilde’s description rather better.

Take the current proposal to ‘modernise’ the Greek economy by permitting the adulteration of one of the country’s great contributions to our food, the extra virgin olive oil produced with care, skill and not a little love by small producers across the country.

The idea, if you can call it that, is that by blending the olive oil with cheaper vegetable oils, manufacturers will be able to produce in greater bulk and penetrate new export markets, including the all-important China.

The only sop to the agricultural co-operatives and the single estate producers is that the blends would have to be clearly labelled as such.

The irony of Greeks having to ruin perfectly good olive oil in the quest to sell to a supposedly communist nation that makes its money by undermining the industries of the ‘free’ world with cheap plastic knock-offs should be obvious.

The proposal ranks with the ruination of the British loaf through the Chorleywood bread process or the threats to ‘improve’ competition by removing the purity laws that govern the production of German beer.

Apparently it’s all the result of an efficiency study commissioned by the Greek government from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, in Paris. It delivered 328 pages recommending changes to regulations for commonly used products.

‘A cause of war’

One politician is quoted by the Associated Press on Ekathimerini.com as calling it ‘a cause of war’. As if Greece needed another set of bright ideas imposed from outside the country.

I noted last summer that craft beers are beginning to make inroads into Greece. In the UK, they’ve rescued many a pub that the big ‘hospitality’ chains can’t sustain now they’ve been divorced from the brewing of their primary product – beer.

Perhaps the Greeks would be better advised by a delegation of Shoreditch’s finest from London’s micro-breweries than a bunch of economists trained at the École Nationale d’Administration.

Among the best of the Greek olive oils are those pressed from the koroneiki olives grown in and around the Mani peninsula in the southern Peloponnese. These are not the big, tasty purple Kalamata olives you buy to eat, but they are just as vital a crop for the local growers.

You can find these oils in UK supermarkets if you are prepared to look beyond the ranks of Spanish or Italian blends (the latter often including Greek oil bought in bulk and shipped across to give some flavour to the Italian stuff). It’s well worth the effort.

Better still you should travel to the Mani, see the olive trees in the foothills of the Taygetos mountain range and taste the oil in the local cooking. Though beware, some tavernas are shipping in sunflower oil in the alleged interests of healthy eating. I suspect that was another diktat from Athens.

Missing: a UK government policy for maxed out families

So the latest economic statistics show that a broadly based recovery is taking hold in the UK. Phooey!

Even with the best gloss on the percentage growth figures, total GDP remains below that before the crash of 2008.

And the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, has been casting about for a form of words to explain why interest rates cannot rise even when unemployment falls below 7%.

Of course, the latest jobless statistics were published before a couple of high street banks announced a further cull of staff.

You only have to look at continuing falls in house prices in regions such as the North-east of England to know that recovery is still to arrive outside London and the commuter belt.

But that’s all right. Transport for London has been told to expect treble the predicted number of commuters to arrive daily at stations such as Farringdon when Crossrail opens. That means more house price rises in the South, boosted by the Help to Buy scheme that has already delivered more Stamp Duty to Treasury coffers. Yes, with one hand George Osborne gives, with the other he takes away.

Meanwhile, the rest of the nation suffers a brain drain of the brightest and best. And small- and medium-sized companies still cannot borrow the money they need to expand, which just exacerbates the problem.

At least the government has a policy on that issue. What goes unmentioned in ministerial comments about the economy is any policy to deal with the drag on recovery, and the personal tragedies, represented by household debt of £1.4 trillion. There are nine million people living with serious debt, according to the government’s Money Advice Service.

Christmas spending

It’s not as if ministers don’t know the scale of the problem. I imagine Iain Duncan-Smith still reads the reports published by his Centre for Social Justice. The staggering figure above came from Maxed Out, a report written by a Labour former minister, Chris Pond, which put the average household debt at £54,141 compared with £29,000 a decade ago.

That figure might well have increased after the Christmas spending enabled by payday loans. During Debt Awareness Week this month, the StepChange debt charity reported that it was approached by new clients owing £230 million.

In the absence of a policy, the top result on Google when you search for ‘UK government policy personal debt’ is headlined Options for paying off your debts. We all paid to bail-out the banks and endured the so-called Great Recession from which the wealthy appear to be recovering considerably faster than the rest of us, helped along by a cut in the top rate of income tax. But there’s no bail-out for families trapped by debt that they were encouraged to accumulate, nay had thrust upon them by the banks and credit card companies during the last credit-propelled ‘recovery’.

So what’s the government’s answer? A rise in the minimum wage to restore its lost value. Peanuts compared with the national wealth squandered on saving the RBS group etc etc. Oh, and more cuts to benefits to drive people into Mac jobs on zero hours contracts.

But the bankers must have their bonuses, or the service economy of the capital might suffer. Heaven knows what hardship City traders might suffer if all the Polish plumbers and Bulgarian baristas went home.

Household debt

What won’t happen soon is any meaningful reduction in household debt, and particularly the consumer debt that has trebled since 1993 to reach £158 billion. That’s bad news for the high street and bad news for manufacturers looking for domestic sales growth. It will also mean more family breakdown and more personal insolvencies. Perhaps it’s time for a national policy on debt forgiveness for families.

I don’t doubt that jobless statistics will shortly record a reduction to below 7%. But how many of the people losing their jobs in the months ahead will be joining those scraping a living in the growing army of the self-employed? Or eking out an existence on a pension taken too early, because some employers just don’t take on older workers.

And what’s ahead for those in work? Not much in the way of pay rises so far, with increases in wages running at 0.9% while inflation under the Consumer Prices Index is at 2.1%. I don’t know whose cost of living that index records, but it doesn’t match the increases in my energy, food or travel bills.

Still, the dwindling band of full-time staff can make up some of the shortfall by working longer hours, filling the gaps in the workforce by those let go, under contracts of employment that invite you to ‘be helpful’ with catch-all job descriptions. Oh, and don’t forget to clear the kitchen sink before you go home.

 

 

 

Cumbria Day: Rory Stewart and the let’s work together ethic

A train crossing the Ribblehead Viaduct on the Carlisle to Settle line. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

A train crossing the Ribblehead Viaduct on the Carlisle to Settle line. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

Politicians have a job on their hands to win back the trust of voters after the expenses scandal.

Chris Huhne’s conviction for persuading his wife to claim she was at the wheel when his car was caught speeding on the M11 didn’t help.

Then there are the Lib Dem and police inquiries into allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by Lord Rennard, that are said to have blighted the political careers of some promising female candidates.

And I’ve watched with some horror, but also some understanding of the frustrations of electors, the growing protest vote for Ukip, a party defined like the National Front and BNP by what it hates and fears rather than what it cherishes and supports.

So it was with genuine pleasure that I read on Rory Stewart’s blog about Cumbria Day at Westminster in which all six of the county’s MPs recently put party difference to one side to support a showcase for local businesses.

These ranged from Cranstons, purveyors of fine food and meat since 1914 (that’s the Cumberland sausage and pies sorted) through a trio of small breweries (Ulverston, Hard Knott and Coniston to wash them down) to the Lake District Cheese Company, Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company, New Balance Trainers and Stobart Air. Tourism, a key local industry, was also well represented.

Stewart, who is Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border, said: “It has been a wonderful opportunity for all MPs to work together on a cross-party basis for a county we all love. It has put Cumbria, its products and our beautiful landscape in a much-needed spotlight.”

His belief that there should be more cross-party work was echoed by the other MPs, representing a part of Britain where the Boundary Commission recently defied common sense and geography in its proposal to cut the number of constituencies.

The attention – and even the prime minister popped in – was much needed because one of the first acts of the Coalition was to wind up the North West Development Agency in the public spending cuts and snatch away vital funding for projects such as the £100m Barrow marina village, now being kept on life support by £3.25m of capital spending from the borough council.

The government’s meager replacement appears to be £900,000 from the Big Lottery and Eric Pickles’ Department for Communities and Local Government under the Coastal Communities Fund grant scheme.

I sense on my visits north that there’s a growing belief that if you want something done, you’d better do it yourself, if only because the siren voice of London mayor Boris Johnson is heard more loudly at Westminster.

Faster, faster broadband

Stewart’s support for trying to make something of the Big Society in the Eden Valley and in particular his campaigning for rural high speed broadband have found echoes in Arkholme, to the south in Lancashire, where residents are laying their own fibre network rather than wait for BT’s engineers.

In Rails in the Fells (Peco, 1973), David Jenkinson writes about the Settle and Carlisle Railway, then under threat of closure after escaping the axe in 1963 under the Beeching Plan. He points to the irony of the entrepreneurial Midland Railway providing a local service as an accident of building a through route to Scotland, while its state-owned successor sought to justify closure despite the hardships it threatened to bring rural communities with little alternative public transport.

Today, Cumbria’s people and MPs share a can-do attitude that puts the government and BT to shame for past failure to invest in today’s equivalent of the Victorian railways. Remember all that talk of the information superhighway and its power to transform the economy.

Now, even the Connecting Cumbria project will justify its success when:

    •  At least 90% of properties in Cumbria have access to a connection of at least 25 megabits per second by 2015;
  • Where a 25mbps connection is not available, access to an internet connection of at least 2Mbps.

Hardly ambitious by, say, South Korean standards, where the average peak connection is a reported 48.8Mbps. You can see why Cumbria’s MPs feel the need to work together to have the county’s voice heard in the corridors of power.