Fight to save the iconic Gay Hussar

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Gay Hussar restuarant- a fight to save it as it is due to close June 21. Pic Credit: wikipedia

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The news today  that one of London’s iconic restuarants, the Gay Hussar, is closing on June 21  will  be a catalyst for a fight back.

The sad decision was  announced by manager John Wrobel at the end of a very convivial lunch for Old Guardian hacks last week leading to today’s  excellent article in the Observer by  Rebecca Smithers.

Some less kind might say a fitting end for us retired or semi retired reprobates. But  as she writes this has been a regular venue for Left wing plots and meetings between journos and sources. I myself  confess that the odd confidential document might have been slipped into my hands before I left  there after dining on  herrings and soured cream and crispy duck with red cabbage.

The place was also the venue for Michael Foot’s 90th birthday, a superb collection of political cartoons loaned by Martin Rowson featuring the great and not so good and it is not unknown for right wing dissenters to dine there. My previous lunch there was with an independently minded Tory peer.

The wider issue which pushed its closure is globalisation and a fierce policy of raising business rates (rents automatically seem to follow) which is leading to the disappearance of many independent businesses  and their replacement by franchised national chains.

The planned closure of the Gay Hussar follows the disappearance of the Gran Paradiso in Pimlico and Luigis in  Aldwych. And it is not a problem confined to the capital.  My local town, Berkhamsted,  has lost the House of High Tea, a popular cafe which had a eye watering selection of brews for precisely the same reason- a tripling of the rent.

The decision by its conglomerate owners Corus Hotels  appears to have taken place in Kuala Lumpur pushed by the big jump in rent  prompted by the business rate  rise.

However all is far from lost.

John Goodman, the energetic chair of the Goulash Co-operative, is riding to the rescue.

Ina an email sent out to the members of the co-operative last night ( I declare an interest I am a small investor), he says:

” At last our moment has come! The day for which we have all been waiting has unexpectedly arrived.

“We learned a few days ago that Corus, the owners of the Gay Hussar, intend to close the restaurant some time in the near future, despite still having four years to run on the lease, which is held by Corus subsidiary The Restaurant Partnership (TRP). Our understanding is the long suffering and loyal staff, who do so much to make the Gay Hussar what it is, have already met with HR managers.

“As your directors, we immediately called an emergency meeting for Monday 14th May to discuss our action and have been working on it intensively since then.

We understand that Corus/TRP has been in discussion with the landlord and has reached an arrangement for early termination of the lease. This will give the landlord vacant possession and they will therefore be looking for a new tenant.

“Two of our number, including our legal and property advisers, met the landlord’s representatives on 16 May to discuss their intentions. They told us the building was not for sale but they expressed interest in offering us a new lease to continue the operation of the Gay Hussar, albeit in an upgraded form. In such circumstances there are a huge number of questions to be answered, involving finance and the potential operation of the restaurant.”

He ends with a rallying cry:

“In due course, and if our plans make progress in the way we hope, we will re-open the Goulash Co-operative for additional and fresh investment and investors as we anticipate a good deal of interest. We would ask you to alert friends and family to join in this great venture to keep the Gay Hussar and to develop further its enormous potential.”

Let battle commence!

 

 

 

 

 

Revealed: Dishonest Eurostar’s disabled unfriendly direct service to Amsterdam

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The new Eurostar Amsterdam Service : Not fit for the disabled Pic Credit: Eurostar Jo on Twitter

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It should have been a synch. A brand new train service direct from London to Amsterdam to a hotel opposite the city’s Central Station. An ideal break for myself and my disabled wife with passenger assistance.

The technology works – the superfast new Eurostar trains make the journey there on time- a cool three hours 41 minutes door to door- and could probably do it quicker as the train slowed through Antwerp and leaving Brussels.

But the rest was the stuff of nightmares and the return direct journey is  a fake  forcing everyone to change at Brussels onto other trains – due to the British obsession of  ” taking control of our borders”. And this is before Brexit takes effect.

But the real scandal is the way Eurostar treat disabled people by making false promises and leaving people in the lurch – made worse by poor internal communications and different national systems.

I made sure we had disabled help by contacting Eurostar in mid March and was promised help in London, Amsterdam and Brussels. So it should have been no worries.

The help at London St Pancras worked both on the way there and the way back and the train left on time.

It was only on the journey that things started to go wrong. The service is packed to Brussels – which is the first stop – but then most people get off including the entire train crew. The service then  takes on Dutch crew and becomes a bit of ghost train with few passengers yet going on to Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

We were a bit puzzled by first the Belgian crew and then the Dutch crew asking what disabled assistance we wanted – which was some wheelchair assistance at Amsterdam from the platform to the exit. A few minutes before arrival we were told that there would no wheelchair assistance only someone to help get my wife off the train.

The person did arrive and was more concerned that my wife didn’t fall down the gap between the train and platform – as they wanted to lock the train up. We were then left entirely in the lurch by both the Eurostar staff and the station staff to find our own way out.

I tweeted my complaint to Eurostar and they responded with this:

Thank you for your details. We can see that the Eurostar Assistance Team sent a request to assist you on 14th March to our counterparts. We are sorry to hear this did not happen and have forwarded your feedback. For your return please go to the Information Desk in Amsterdam Centraal Station on arrival and they can arrange for your assistance to Thalys train. At Brussels Midi you need to go to Eurostar Assist Desk by ticket gates . Each terminal has been advised of request of assistance.

On the way back the real drama began. At Amsterdam Centraal yes they knew we had assistance but we were suddenly told they do not provide wheelchairs except for emergencies. If my wife had fallen over or fell off the train they would help. The information office is on Platform 1 and the train departs from Platform 15 and you only get 20 minutes notice of which platform.

Luckily the woman took pity on us – since no way could my wife get to the train on time – because she walks slowly and was suffering as well from an arthritic knee to add to our problems.

The member of staff  broke the rules and despite being reprimanded by another staff member en route took my wife on a wheelchair to the station platform allowing us to get the train.

Then there was Brussels. There was no one to meet us off the Thalys train and although it came into Brussels Midi at platform 3 and Eurostar is on platform 1 there is a long walk through a shopping mall to get there. So given Eurostar allowed less than 50 minutes for the change, it took us nearly 30 minutes to hobble along in pain. I did go ahead to Eurostar to get assistance but there was a huge queue which spilled  onto the concourse for the train. When I tried to reach the assistance office inside the entrance I was blocked by other passengers ( there were no staff at the entrance) for queue jumping and they wouldn’t let me pass.

When we did get there – Eurostar had to act fast and the wheelchair man was almost running to get the train. Only to be delayed by British immigration  who were quizzing two dark skinned people in front of us about their right to come to the UK. The woman immigration official  reading as though from the UKIP handbook told them ” We don’t just  allow anyone to come into our country” . I suspect she was personally recruited by Theresa May to create ” a hostile environment” for people of colour.

We got there just in time but the train left late because of ” boarding problems” caused I suspect by the immigration jam. I suspect all Eurostar trains will leave late after Brexit.

Back in England West Midlands trains provided an excellent service at Euston and on the train back to Berkhamsted with the guard personally making sure my wife could get off the train there. Ironically West Midlands trains is mainly owned by Dutch railways.

Frankly if you are disabled do NOT go by Eurostar to Amsterdam, fly instead. Their service is not fit for purpose and the Brussels interchange is likely to continue until the end of 2019 because there are no customs facilities at Amsterdam. I am doing a separate investigation into why this has happened and the news will not be good for British  people wanting to travel to Europe by rail.

Eurostar responded:

 “We can see that you and your wife did not receive the right support during your recent journey. As part of the booking process, our teams did not correctly request the assistance services at each point of the journey and for this we sincerely apologise. I would like to respond to your specific questions as follows:

 We offer assistance services (for wheelchair users and other passengers with reduced mobility) in Amsterdam which are provided by NS, the Dutch railway operator. These services are available for passengers booked in the dedicated wheelchair space, and also for other passengers traveling in standard seating. These assistance services are available by contacting Eurostar at least 48 hours in advance of travel. The special assistance service provided by NS at Amsterdam is an escort from the meeting point to the platform. Unfortunately, NS does not provide wheelchairs as part of this assistance service. ( my emphasis)

–          On arrival into Brussels on a Thalys service, the special assistance services are provided by SNCB, the Belgian railway operator.  SNCB will meet the passenger at platform level and escort the passenger to the Eurostar Assist welcome point at the Channel Tunnel Terminal. From this point, Eurostar team members will escort the passenger through Eurostar check-in and up to the platform to board the train bound for London.

–          At Eurostar stations the Eurostar Assist welcome points are located on the main concourse with all check-in facilities. There are Eurostar Assist welcome points when departing from London, Ashford, Ebbsfleet, Lille, Paris and Brussels.  In Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Marne-la-Vallee, Lyon, Avignon, Marseilles and ski destinations – there are Special Assistance points in these stations usually provided by, or on behalf of, the station manager. We will pass your feedback on regarding your experience and your inability to access the Eurostar Assist welcome point due to congestion.

 “We do strive to make Eurostar journeys as seamless as possible for all of our travellers, and will be sharing your comments with our partners. In addition, we will be updating our website with more information about the Special Assistance services, and specifically about the connecting return journey from Amsterdam, in direct response to your feedback. (my emphasis) We thank you for your feedback which has helped us to continue to improve our services to passengers with assistance needs.

Hidden in plain sight: Labour trains a new generation of political activists

labour_conference Pic credit politicshome

Labour Conference 2017: the top of the iceberg Pic credit: politicshome

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The Labour  Party conference this year was like one huge political iceberg.

The ten per cent that was visible was dominated by the passionate, football chant style support for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell – as the architects of a Labour revival that had seen membership soar to 569,500. It did unveil new and radical policies.It suppressed a public row over Brexit  which I notice Danny Finkelstein on The Times saw as shrewd politics, leaving divided Tories to take the flak. It contained a dispute about whether there was anti-Semitism among  Left wingers despite the best efforts of Guido Fawkes ,the Daily Mail and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to stir the pot.

But under the eyes of the media ( who were given very restricted access to the conference hall) the hidden 90 per cent of the Labour conference was carrying out another revolution which will ensure that the current revival of political activism among the young has a long term future.

Contrary to what most Conservatives would like to think the 369,000 new party members who joined after Corbyn became leader are not all former card carrying members of the Social Workers Party, the Communist Party and other Left wing groupings. And they even applies to those who joined Momentum

Just on a micro political point, members of the local Labour Party in Berkhamsted and Tring in  Hertfordshire have jumped from about 40 to 450 as a result of Corbyn.. If they were all committed former Communists, I think I would have noticed. Having lived in Berko since 1983, the town is not known for having Marxist banners festooned all over Berkhamsted station or the civic centre.

No the truth is – thanks to lack of any political  or civic education in our schools – they have ideals, strong views but little hard knowledge of how to participate in a political democracy. Many may be savvy with social media but need to know how to use it for the benefit of the Labour Party.

There were sessions on door knocking, electoral law, what becoming a councillor is like. making Labour Party branch meetings more fun, championing equality, building up women’s forums,  getting more disabled friendly meetings and how to use the traditional and social media to get your points across. There was also advice on how to tackle the problem of success, too many new members swamping local meetings.

Jeremy Corbyn has already transformed interest in politics by doubling the percentage of people involved in party membership in Britain. Now it looks as though Labour is going to get the new membership to engage in democracy. to help them win the next election. Even if only 10 per cent of the membership become fervent activists – that is still some 57,000 people – more than half the total Tory membership, I am told.

What is going to be interesting is when that hidden 90 per cent of the Labour iceberg hits  the opposition at the next election. Will it be the  sinking of the Tory Titanic or will the Tories try and steer well clear and come up with something new.

 

 

 

 

London Midland admits it got it wrong over its passenger assistance service

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Rather a lot of stairs to go up or down if you are disabled or have a buggy at Berkhamsted station if the lift is out of order.

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London Midland has admitted that a ” breakdown in communication ”   meant it didn’t know that one of its stations was unstaffed, had a faulty lift and that its  emergency passenger help service didn’t work last Sunday.

The admission came in an email from the company in response to a complaint I lodged after being dumped at Berkhamsted with my disabled wife Margaret at the end of a weekend break from Liverpool.

I highlighted this in a blog earlier this week purely because I thought the situation was potentially dangerous and that train companies should be more careful in ensuring that their passengers can travel safely.

An email from Sarah Brassingham, a customer relations adviser, admits :  ” Unfortunately there was a breakdown in communication that meant that the team at Milton Keynes Central were unaware of the issues at Berkhamsted that evening, which were obviously compounded by the issues with the help point on your arrival.

Steps are being taken to address this with the stations and Passenger Information teams, and our Facilities team are resolving the issues with both the lift and the Passenger Information points as quickly as possible.

I can assure you that we take any assistance failures extremely seriously and apologise again for the inconvenience and distress caused.”

We have been offered a rail refund for the Milton Keynes to Berkhamsted journey but it does raise wider questions. One solution would be to ensure that whoever helps a disabled person  to get on the train informs the guard about the person’s destination – so if there is no one there the guard can help. at the other end But that still doesn’t get over the problem of faulty lifts or emergency help systems not working.

London Midland say their policy is ” Pre-booked assistance is provided by the station team at staffed stations and by the Conductor on board the train when the station you are getting on or off the train at is unstaffed.”

That raises another question. London Midland still has guards. If Southern get their way they won’t be any and presumably if they have any unstaffed stations disabled people won’t be able to get off the trains or be unable to travel.

That is one reason to back the RMT union case to keep guards on trains and fight the company and Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, who want to get rid of them.

 

 

Thames Water: Unfit to protect our environment

 

Sewage around Marlow pc credit Environment Agency

Raw Sewage and foam around sailing boats on the Thames. pic credit: Environment Agency

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The record £20m fine for  Thames Water’s multiple pollution of the River Thames and its tributaries  with over 1.4 billion tonnes of untreated sewage shows  how badly the company was managed.

It makes the incident where the company polluted the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal seem small fry compared to the damage the company caused to humans, livestock. wildife and fish across Hertfordshire,Buckinghamshire, Berkshire  and Oxfordshire.

Thames Water admitted 13 breaches of environmental laws over discharges from sewage treatment works in Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley and Little Marlow, and a pumping station at Littlemore.

It also pleaded guilty to a further charge on March 17 over a lesser discharge from an unmanned sewage treatment plant at Arborfield in Berkshire in September 2013.

The court at Aylesbury also took into account seven further incidents at sewage sites on the Thames in 2014.

thames waterWhat was extraordinary was the lax attitude of  top managers who ignored warnings from staff about failures in the system

 No wonder the judge Francis Sheridan said: “This is a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs. It should not be cheaper to offend than take appropriate action.”

He added: “What a dreadful state of affairs that is.

“Logbook entries reflected the pathetic state of affairs and the frustration of employees.

“Thames Water utilities continually failed to report to the Environment Agency despite (managers) being fully aware of the issues and reporting governance.”

He later said of the firm: “There is a history of non-compliance.”

Anne Brosnan, the Environment Agency’s chief prosecutor, said in The Guardian: “Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works. Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the EA as required.”

But should  we be surprised? Thames Water is a remote multinational making huge profits – and a £20m fine – large as it is – will still hardly dent a £742m annual profit.It is also only a quarter of the annual dividend paid to investors.

And it’s owners include Kuwaitis, the Chinese, Canadians and other international foreign investors . What will they care if fish die in Oxfordshire and  humans running sailing clubs become ill.

They are now claiming it is better managed and promising tigher controls. But they won’t want to sacrifice the bottom line and have a captive audience who can’t live without water or disposing their waste.

If ever there is a case for the return of  public ownership Thames Water have made it today. They have proved themselves unfit to protect the environment.

 

 

Whitehall doesn’t rule OK: How Wendover canal trust tragically missed out on a £1 million payout from river polluters

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Thames Water’s pollution of the Wendover Arm led to the £1m fine

Over a year ago I raged about the injustice of the very wealthy Thames Water private utility being fined £1m for polluting the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal  with sewage because they ignored a simple £30,000 repair to the outfall of Tring sewage works. The article is here.

I thought it was particularly unfair on the volunteers who are restoring the canal  and decided to write to our local MP, David Gauke, who is now chief secretary to the Treasury, suggesting that the government might reimburse the fine to help the trust. which desperately needs the money.I also lobbied David Lidington, now leader of the House, to see, as Wendover is in his constituency, whether he would back the idea.

Conservative Party Portraits

David Gauke MP, the Treasury minister said No

David Gauke took a long time to reply ( he admitted that his office had mislaid my letter) but finally at the end of January he replied from the Treasury.

His answer was a resounding NO. He wrote: ” Fines are considered a tax-type revenue and government departments and their agencies, in this case the Environment Agency, are legally obliged to surrender these receipts to the Treasury. revenue surrendered to this account is not ring fenced for any specific area of government funding..”

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Full Text of Letter saying NO from David Gauke

Imagine my surprise then to see this press release  on the same day from the Environment Agency.

Environmental charities receive over £1.5 million from businesses which broke environmental laws

This revealed :

“There are 26 Enforcement Undertakings on the new list with payments ranging from £1,500 – £375,000, including 6 companies that have agreed to make 6 figure payments: ( among these were)

  • Northumbrian Water Limited (£375,000) for pumping raw sewage into a tributary of the River Tyne.
  • Filippo Berio UK Limited (£253,906.91) for failing to recover or recycle packaging waste.
  • Anglian Water Services Limited have made two separate payments (£100,000 and £100,000) both for causing pollution incidents which killed fish.

Among the beneficiaries were the Nene Country Park in Northamptonshire and river trusts  on the Tyne. The list of enforcement undertakings is published here:https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/enforcement-undertakings-accepted-by-the-environment-agency

It shows a much wider group of people have benefited.

So I wrote back to the minister which led to this reply last week from Department for Environment and Rural Affairs.

Yes they had been able to do this since 2015 – by accepting Enforcement Undertakings to cover river pollution rather than taking companies to court.

The court case involving Thames Water was in 2016. But here’s the rub -because the pollution took place in 2012 and 2013 it was not covered by the change in the law.

david gauke letterTwo points from this tragic state of affairs. First I am surprised by the ignorance of David Gauke that as a Cabinet minister he didn’t know his own government had changed the law.

Second it seems very unfair the Wendover Arm Trust has lost out. Perhaps pressure should be put on Thames Water – who has just been fined for polluting the River Thames – to give a donation to the trust. And certainly  if they repeat this pollution immediate representation should be made to the Environment Agency for an Enforcement Undertaking so money can be handed out to the trust in future.

 

How the government is allowing the Japanese to profit from captive London and Brummie commuters

 

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Earlier this month the Department of Transport extended its recommended list of bidders to run Britain’s railways to a privatised rail company in Japan.

It shortlisted East Japan Railway as a minority partner with the Dutch state rail company Abellio, in the consortium West Midlands Trains Ltd as one of three groups bidding to take over the West Midlands franchise next October. which provides commuter services into London and Birmingham including my home town of Berkhamsted.

But more significantly it decided that East Japan Railway would qualify as an approved bidder for any other franchise up for grabs until 2020.

The Telegraph presented  the bid as a move by a company at the cutting edge of technology as it provides some of  Japan’s bullet train services.

But anyone thinking those on the crowded commuter routes will be whisked in by a super bullet train service should think again.

The story is in fact the exact opposite once you study the company’s latest annual report.

What it shows is that the bedrock of the company’s regular income is its commuter services around Tokyo not its bullet trains. And the prospect for making any more money out of them is a tad bleak.

It reveals that the company is currently facing a downturn in its commuter services serving Tokyo partly caused by a declining population and is looking to expand abroad. It currently provides no services outside Asia – where it is helping develop a mass transit rail system for Bangkok and improve train services in Indonesia.

The annual report says: “Generally, Japan’s declining population is seen as unfavourable for the transportation industry. However, our performance in fiscal 2015 proved that, even in an era of population decline, we can grow revenues by steadily implementing various measures.”

These include developing stations and encouraging more retired people to use local trains as the number of commuters decline.

With lower fares in Japan than the UK, the move could give the operator access to the lucrative London commuter market and it could also offer its services to maintain and build new trains for the British market.

So in other words commuters using London Midland trains to get into Birmingham and London Euston will be contributing to  profits which can be repatriated to Tokyo to offset the declining  Japanese market.

Which makes an investment in London Midland a one way bet for the Japanese since the current Tory government will ensure fares rise every year and the growing population in the UK will all help boost profits.

I would not be surprised to see government ministers in the transport department helping themselves to directorships and consultancies with the company a couple of years after they have stepped down from their posts. After all they have done them a great favour.

I have written about this in Tribune. The three consortia bidding are:a consortium run by London and West Midlands Railway Ltd, a subsidiary of Govia Ltd (a joint venture between Keolis and Go-Ahead Group)’ West Midlands Trains Ltd, currently a wholly owned subsidiary of Abellio Transport Group Ltd with East Japan Railway Company and Mitsui & Co Ltd as minority partners; and MTR Corporation (West Midlands) Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of MTR Corporation (UK) Ltd which runs the Hong Kong rail system.

The new London Midland operator will take over in October this year.