Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Osborne Out

More disastrous, awful news about the economy today and a pathetic performance from our part time Chancellor of the Exchequer. Get rid of him, Dave. Send him off to play politics somewhere he can do no harm. Let's get a Chancellor who understands that the cuts, though damaging to the government electorally and the excuse for all of this union militancy, are actually nothing like enough. We need real cuts so that we can also cut taxes without ramping up spending even further. As it is the cuts that aren't cuts are going to turn into spending increases as the economy refuses to grow.

Labour can take no solace in these figures either though, not that this will stop them. Their own prescription of slightly slower cuts and additional spending for now makes even less sense. It's only a matter of time before the UK's credit rating is downgraded. With Labour in power this would have happened some time ago. We cannot afford to spend more. We have to live within our means and that means real cuts and real pain, not the phony austerity this increasingly useless government has foisted on us for no real gain. The one message they successfully put across was just a message. This is a government on borrowed time.

The Greatest Show in The Greatest City - London 2012

So, the waiting is nearly over. The big day is close to dawning. London's moment in the sun, well at least daylight dependent upon the weather, is now close. In fact, thanks to the peculiarities of Olympic scheduling, some events actually get underway today and tomorrow before the official opening ceremony. Another cock-up? No. It's only women's football.

But what of those cock-ups and the British whingeing these last few days?Well, it's just part of the way we are. It is, if you like, the opposite side of the coin to our refusal to be too vulgarly triumphalist about things. Other countries can engage in nationalistic breast beating, we Brits prefer to be pessimistic and then pleasantly surprised by how things turn out. I ascribe it to years of watching our football and cricket teams.

And when you think about it this is the perfect antidote to the Beijing Games, in which everything had to be perfect including a winsomely pretty little girl miming to the voice of another who was deemed insufficiently attractive and perfect.

We have freedom of speech in this country. We assert our right to complain and whinge. Our newspapers reserve the right to find fault and stories about queues and minor inconveniences. We are good at pessimism. In contrast however, when the chips are down, we all rally round and the Dunkirk spirit emerges. We saw that the day after that joyous day when we won the Games and beat the cocksure French. We hadn't really expected to win them, but that made actually getting them all the better. Beating the Frogs just added to the joy.

Then, the next day, when the jihadist morons struck, you saw us at our best. That day the London transport system completely stopped in a manner we hope not to see ever again, let alone this next month or so. Then we uncomplainingly coped. We can you know.

And anyway, it's a contrast to the totalitarian games. Complaining and whingeing in China would have led to your being disappeared in the middle of the night. We've still managed to get the venues built and in fine shape in plenty of time but with some good cathartic complaining to show how much better democracy is. In China they had bullying and browbeating to present a united front to the world, which wasn't convinced anyway. Here we have Boris and Dave telling us to grin and bear it and to walk to work if possible. And for God's sake avoid London Bridge station. The world watches and waits. It will be worth it in the end.

But do you know what? I think it will be worth it. London looks fabulous, especially now the sun is shining with the flags and the logos and the art and the new facilities. I've even come to appreciate Wenlock and Mandeville, the one eyed mascots. I still hate the logo though, and I'm not even Iranian.

And beneath our surly and curmudgeonly exteriors we are all secretly quite excited really. We just don't like to show it. It's our way. In the same way that the Diamond Jubilee brought the crowds out despite the rain, so we will watch and enjoy ourselves and feel a quiet swelling of pride.

This is the year when it is actually okay and even desirable to be patriotic. We usually leave that sort of thing to foreigners. We've already got much of it right, with only really quite minor glitches of the sort that are quite excusable for an event of this size in a crowded and busy city not ruled over by a totalitarian government keen to show off to the world. London is about to show the world how it should be done without crushing and trampling people . We know how to party and the smiles on our faces will be genuine when it all goes well. Maybe we will even make FIFA wish they hadn't been quite so dismissive of our bid for the World Cup.

It all starts now. I'm not ashamed to say I'm really quite excited.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

An Englishman's Home.....

Yesterday's census news, revealing that Britain's population has swelled by 3.7 million to over 63 million, will have surprised few. Yet the figures still have the power to shock. Thanks to an ideological decision by Labour that they never acknowledged let alone put in a manifesto, our population swelled by the size of three and a half Birminghams. London is now home to 8 million people.

The economic benefits? Well they are hard to quantify, whatever the economists and Left say as Migration Watch has shown time and time again. One proponent of immigration was yesterday reduced to arguing that at least we no longer have a shortage of plumbers. But even if we take the claims at face value they put Labour's boom into perspective.

As so often with such ideological policy making however it is a double edged sword. Even if immigration boosted the economy it also costs us more in terms of health care and education. How much of Labour's much boasted about increase in public spending went in fact on this extra 3.7 million people? The party that presided over this boost to the population also tried to impose congestion charging on us, lest we forget. The next time they accuse the Coalition of chaotic policy making they should be reminded of that.

And speaking of congestion, what about housing? In my post criticising our dithering prime minister last week, I alluded to the problems of our dysfunctional housing market and the urgent need for government to address these problems by building a lot of new houses, a policy that would have the advantage of solving the problems regarding the shortage of decent homes, address market failure and give a much needed boost to the economy. There would be a shortage of homes in any case but it is made all the more problematic when 3.7 million more heads need pillows.

But let's expand on the story and illustrate just how acute those difficulties are. We all know how ridiculously difficult it has become for people to get on to the housing ladder these days as first time buyers, especially in London and the south east. But it is increasingly a problem for renters too, unless they are content to spend a considerable amount of time living in a room in a house share or hostel, the only viable options for those on low incomes who cannot rely on housing benefit.

Recently I myself was shown a studio flat, that is one room which is a living room, bedroom and kitchen all together and a bathroom attached. This glorified room in the by no means salubrious north Islington area of London, was available for the startling sum of £1038 per month. The reason why a landlord was charging such an apparently outrageous sum? That is what Housing Benefit would pay for someone out of work to live there. This means that, in the event of this unemployed person finding a job, they would need a job paying £500 a week to make it approaching worthwhile and even that would be a stretch with the cost of travel and living generally in London. And that is just a ground floor studio flat in a building that has seen better days. That is the state of the rentals market.

Except it gets worse. Thanks to this ridiculous state of affairs, many people can only dream of such private space and have to consider shared accommodation. If they are lucky they can get into a decent house or flat share and will have friendly and amenable housemates. For this they must pay in the rather more reasonable region of £100 a week. But that remains a large chunk for those on say minimum wage or even £300 a week. Shop workers and many office workers can only dream of their own homes.

And if they are less lucky they might have to stay in a hostel. Now these are something of a mixed bag, with some operated by charities and housing associations but other, generally less wholesome operations, run by some of our more cynical landlords. These are most common of course in London where the shortage of accommodation is most acute and people most desperate. Hostels are generally supposed to be stopgap solutions, but all too often they can become long term or permanent, or at least as permanent as any operation can be when your tenure is not assured and you can be given 7 days notice at any moment.

Take Ridley Villas and Cape House, a couple of filthy, decrepit, badly run, vermin ridden hell holes run by the same company in Dalston, east London. The residents of these range from the unemployed to the employed on the black market and still claiming to be unemployed and thus entitled to Jobseekers Allowance and Housing Benefit, to the really employed and paying their own way because they cannot afford or find anything better. Dalston does at least have the advantage of being a great and vibrant neighbourhood in easy reach of central London.

For the most part however these sort of establishments inevitably tend to attract a certain sort of clientele ripe to be exploited by a cynical management. There are those with mental health issues, ex prisoners (the government pays a higher rate for these) and indeed these latter residents will feel at home because many of the rooms are about the size of prison cells, albeit without the toilets now considered de rigeur at her majesty's pleasure. And of course there are various recent immigrants come to these shores for varying reasons including many Poles and other east Europeans.

And those claiming JSA had better be working on the side or have friends and relatives they can touch for extra money as it will be the only way they can live here and eat at the same time. The management have identified the 'service charge,' an additional charge residents have to pay on top of their Housing Benefit and out of their JSA amounting to £25 a week - close to half of their weekly income. Oddly this charge is not levied on those paying privately who pay a going rate of £100 a week. Benefit claimants pay £125 for the privilege of living in a filthy room, sharing it with cockroaches and mice and having to traipse down the corridor to visit the toilet or take a shower. It remains unclear what exactly is the service they receive for this sum, indeed I was told by some of the homeless charities that they no longer refer clients to these two hostels because they are ripping people off.

Benefit claimants then are a nice little earner for these vile establishments. They get their money direct with a nice little add-on in cash each week from the residents themselves. Oh and they highly illegally open residents mail to check on their benefit status so as to not miss out on any changes of circumstances. This is excused by a document shoved under people's noses on the day that they move in which purports to ask their permission for this criminal act. Few question it.

And they are also not above a little benefit fraud. They prefer to employ their staff from among the residents, so much easier to get away with only paying the minimum wage. But these employees are engaged on a part time basis - up to 16 hours a week - so that they can continue claiming Housing Benefit. Additional hours, of which there are plenty, are paid cash in hand.

This is the state of our housing market, particularly in London. Those on benefits or low paid jobs, the sort enthusiastically taken up by recent immigrants to these shores, have little hope of cheap and affordable social housing and so they must rely on the private sector. Private landlords are making a mint, often from the state itself.

Politicians seem not to have heard of the law of supply and demand. Supply long since ceased to keep up and then the politicians waved millions more in to the country to add to the pressure. The low or even average paid face the double whammy of downward pressure on wages combined with upward pressure on housing costs. Home ownership is now a ridiculously unaffordable concept for hundreds of thousands, possibly millions. Even being able to rent a private home of their own will remain elusive for a substantial portion of London's 8 million people.

This is Labour's legacy, albeit with a substantial contribution from Margaret Thatcher. It is also the legacy of our membership of the EU. Our current economic travails were born in an illusory boom and the rampant inflation it spawned. Only radical action on many fronts starting with a massive building campaign will restore some equilibrium and fairness and mean that our most vulnerable fellow citizens are no longer preyed upon by landlords Dickens would have enjoyed describing.

Friday, 13 July 2012

The Man With The Golden Nectar

Is nothing sacred? It seems that, thanks to product placement, James Bond, in the next 007 movie, Skyfall, will be seen drinking lager. Lager? They're not kidding, the sky really is falling in.

On the plus side however, I'm told that Bond gets to use his new tipple as an exploding weapon, as he insists on having it shaken but not stirred.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Time to Ditch Dithering Dave?

These have not been a good few months for David Cameron and the Coalition. This last week has just added to the impression of a government out of control and chaotic, trying inappropriately to ram through ill considered change few want to save face and give Lib Dems some red meat for their party (we all thought they were vegetarians). Yet on the really big issues, like the need for more airport capacity for London and care for the elderly, not to mention the big decisions necessary to get our stalling economy moving, there is no Coalition consensus and so no policy. It is dither and delay.

But it is pointless blaming all of this on Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems. Yes they have proven to be a roadblock on some issues, not least the EU, and are now kicking up a stink because their back of an envelope ideas for Lords reform are heading off to that crowded back burner, but who has let them dictate in this way? The prime minister. The leader is failing to lead, having presumably failed to notice that the Lib Dems are in no position to dictate to anyone. Sometimes one can't help thinking that he is a little too keen to rid his party of that nasty image. Not that being nice to the forever hypocritical and sanctimonious Lib Dems impresses anyone.

A bold and brave politician would see the need now to grasp the bull by the horns and start governing in a bold and brave way. On everything, from the EU to an estuary airport; from elderly health care to trimming the welfare state by getting radical with ridiculous universal benefits; from reform and simplification of our tax system to a radical programme of house building to boost the economy, provide much needed homes and use them as an enticement for people to work to qualify for that housing, now is the opportunity to rally the troops and govern decisively with a clear vision for what is needed and what can be done. The one area where this is happening is in education, where Michael Gove has dared to ignore the Lib Dems and seems to have survived remarkably unscathed.

Instead of boosting his Conservative credentials (reading out lists at PMQs doesn't count) Dave preferred to try and ram through the Lib Dems ridiculous Lords proposals instead. He got a deserved bloody nose. Note to the PM, you have recently shown yourself to be adept at performing U turns when policies prove unpopular. But why only with Tory proposals? Are Lib Dems immune? You are the prime minister. It is your job to put an end to the follies of all of your ministers, not just those from the blue side.

This is a government that looks like it is running out of steam. Yet there is no obvious reason for it to do so. But the man leading it has to drive things forward. He has a deputy prime minister who got above himself, a Chancellor who is clueless on the economy and whose political skills, if indeed they ever existed, seem to have deserted him. The traditional way for PMs to assert their authority is to reshuffle. Now is the time to do so and revivify this listless government. Some of us are starting to think that it is the man at the top who needs shuffling out of Downing Street.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Olympics Broadcaster

The BBC launched its big and bombastic promo for its Olympics coverage last night. They are usually very good at this sort of thing and had clearly thrown an awful lot of money at it. I'm not sure about it though. I shall have to see it again.

But the Olympics is a very very big deal for the Beeb. It is the Olympics broadcaster. It has to get this right. In an era when its sports rights are disappearing faster than Usain Bolt, this is an opportunity for auntie to show what she can still do.

But they have to get the tone right. They cannot afford another Jubilee style cock-up, especially now that we know that George Entwistle, the man who presided over it, is to be the new Director General.

It should start right from that first night on 27th July. Who is the commentator going to be? Indeed, speaking as a former announcer, who is going to be entrusted with the responsibility of introducing the whole thing and getting it all under way? It's a big moment, the biggest in British television history. They have to get it spot on.

I've given it some thought and this is what I would say if I were still an announcer and given the big night. No room for trivia, this is an occasion to go big:

So, seven years of planning, building, training and rehearsing are finally at an end. The whole world is watching and watching via the BBC, the Olympics broadcaster as the world's elite arrive with their bronze, silver and golden dreams. You won't miss a thing with our coverage across TV, radio and online - we'll bring you the best seat in the house, starting with an opening ceremony that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. This is BBC1 bringing you the greatest show on Earth. This is London 2012.