Is George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse about to hit the buffers?

George-Osborne

George getting out in time before the Northern Powerhouse runs into trouble

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My last post on the national repercussions of the Great Western electrification shambles has elicited some very interesting information about why Network Rail got into such a big overspend. (£1.2 billion on a £2.8 billion project)

If the information is accurate – and it seems to be based on some sound sources – it would suggest that George Osborne’s strategy to boost the North through better rail connections is about to come to a grinding halt because it has not been properly costed.

Through Tim Fenton well known for his caustic comments on the media oligarchs on his Zelo Street blog , I have become acquainted with an extraordinary obscure debate about the  safe clearances needed to install overhead electrification.

Ever since the electrification of the West Coast mainline in the 1960s Britain has had narrower clearances than the bigger gauge continental railways. We even had a derogation under the EU. But according to rail expert Roger Ford a serious blunder during the privatisation of the rail engineering which meant all the papers justifying the narrower standards were lost. So we now have no derogation because we lost all the paperwork to justify it.

Why this is important is that the higher clearances will add huge costs to ongoing rail electrification projects in every tunnel and under every bridge on the line. They will have to be higher margins between the top of the train and the wires.and the structures  They will  also have to raise the height of every planned pantograph- to protect people and staff coming into contact with it.

Now it appears that if each situation is given a special risk assessment it might be possible to get round the rules – but that will add to delays and costs and will have to be approved by British regulators – the Office of Rail and Road- even if we have left the EU.

As Roger Ford wrote in his December bulletin: “When all this was reviewed by the relevant British Standards committee it was agreed that, while the previous  2.75m clearance  was not justifiable as a minimum limit in a standard, it might be justifiable subject to a risk assessment.  So, according to Network Rail, electrical clearances below 3.5m are possible – with risk assessment.

” What’s really infuriating about this safety-by-diktat, is that the engineers concerned know that it is irrational and yet they go along with it. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of bureaucracy over common sense is that good engineers should do nothing.’

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Picture of Great Bentley station by Ben Brooksbank

Now obviously this is going to effect more lines than just the Great Western – and this is where George Osborne’s plans  turn to dust.

Already costs are rising on the Midland main line electrification from Bedford to Nottingham and Sheffield. With a critical National Audit Office report likely it is possible that electrification  will stop dead in its tracks at Kettering and Corby – nowhere near the real North.

And the Trans Pennine electrification – another Osborne  project -might stop altogether.

No wonder George Osborne is now going to be editor of the London Evening Standard – he will want to be well clear of the North. This is just a brilliant example of how our incompetent and overrated political amateurs  don’t properly assess what they are  doing.

And the public are  always the losers – in this case the travelling public.

 

Why millions of passengers will face years of overcrowded trains because of a staggering electrification blunder

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Electrification work Pic Credit:South West Business

overcrowded train

Today’s Vision of future travel: Overcrowded train Pic credit:BBC

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If you want to know what is wrong with the present state of  Britain’s railways look no further than a recent National Audit Office report into the mess that is the Great Western electrification scheme. I have written about this in Tribune

As reported at the time the cost overrun and delay totalled a mouthwatering £1.2 billion on a £2.8 billion scheme and led to the scheme being curtailed with delays to the Cardiff to Swansea electrification for up to five years and  similar delays for the electrification of branch services in the Thames Valley.

But the damage  goes much further than just the Great Western Mainline to Cardiff and Bristol electrification scheme, bad though that is, the National Audit Office reveals. It will affect train capacity hundreds of miles away

The electrification was supposed to be the catalyst for the release of rolling stock across the country improving train capacity and phasing out old stock that has been around for decades.

The NAO reports: Under the original plan:

Electric trains from Thameslink would replace diesel trains in the Thames Valley from May providing more capacity to reduce overcrowding

Thames Valley could then release diesel trains to the west, providing more capacity for passengers on the Bristol, Exeter and Cornish networks

West Devon and Cornwall routes would then release diesel trains to support service improvements on Northern franchise routes

New Super Express Trains from the Department’s Intercity Express Programme would replace ageing diesel High Speed Trains on the London to Swansea line cutting journey times from London to Cardiff

The London to Swansea route could then release the diesel High Speed Trains to address capacity issues on intercity routes in Scotland.

An additional fleet of diesel and electric ( Bi mode trains) capable trains recently ordered by the train company, Great Western Railway,  would be introduced in the south-west, providing more capacity and faster journey times on London to Plymouth and Penzance routes.

Now:

Diesel trains due to go to the west in 2017 will be retained until 2019 as electrification is completed and new electric trains are phased in

Passengers in the west (Bristol, Exeter and Cornwall routes) will now have to wait almost two years later than scheduled to see benefits such as more capacity.

Passengers on Northern franchise routes may have to wait an additional nine months as trains are retained in the west to protect services

Great Western Railway has also had to make additional orders of new bi-mode  trains to prevent the cancellation of services on busy Oxford to London routes.

The result according to the NAO will mean higher costs as diesel trains cost more to maintain, lower revenue because of lack of capacity and a bill for converting older trains to comply with stricter laws on helping disabled passengers that would not have been necessary if they had been replaced.

But it goes further than the NAO findings. The privatised rail companies- many owned by state railways in France, Holland and Germany – will be allowed to raise fares every year regardless- so they charge commuters more for inferior services but spend the profits modernising train services in France, Holland and Germany.

And they won’t care if the trains are overcrowded as they can maximise revenue. If ever there was a case for reforming the rail system and ending privatisation this is a perfect example.

A British made overseas aid scandal that has ended in ruined reputations for the people who promoted it

Mail on Sunday story

The Mail on Sunday story that started the scandal. Is there more to this?

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In the last few days one of Britain’s bigger contractors to our overseas aid programme has voluntarily suspended participating in bidding  for any new work and seen the resignation of three of its principal founders.

Adam Smith International – turnover £130m  and making a £17m profit in 2015 – makes  a lot of its money promoting overseas aid programmes funded by the  British taxpayer in places from Afghanistan to Jordan, Nigeria, St Helena, Syria. Iraq and Libya to name but a few. It also received funds from  among others the Canadian government, the European Commission and the World Bank.

However last year it faced an expose in the Mail on Sunday which revealed that it was attempting to hoodwink  a Parliamentary committee investigating the role of  private contractors by encouraging favourable views of its work.

That committee – Commons Select Committee on International Development – produced a damning report last month which concluded it had tried to mislead Parliament.

It concluded that Adam Smith International behaved improperly and it was only the failure of the company to convince MPs that they are not being reported to the Committee of Privileges for misleading Parliament.

The report said : “Adam Smith International has acted improperly …It overstepped the mark in soliciting the submissions of written evidence, including  applying pressure to beneficiaries to submit evidence with implied or explicit references to continuation of funding.

“ASI sought to unduly influence the International Development Committee by engineering the submission of what at first sight appeared to be independent evidence of its value and effectiveness as a mechanism of development delivery. We are very concerned at the serious lack of judgement displayed by ASI…, the actions of ASI went well beyond what was appropriate.

“That we did not accept the material in question as evidence meant that we were not misled or influenced. This reduces the seriousness of the impact and therefore we are not seeking a referral of this matter to the Committee on Privileges.

“Nevertheless, we deplore the sort of inappropriate conduct that ASI staff have engaged in—particularly the attempts to conceal ASI’s involvement in collecting the beneficiary testimonials and the inappropriate pressure that was put on beneficiaries to provide testimonials”.

The committee were not wholly satisfied and planned a further investigation with a report due at Easter.

adam smith intrernational

Then last week the top people in charge of the company quit.

William Morrison, Executive Chairman of ASI, said in a statement on its website:

“The company’s mission is to foster the social and economic development of some of the poorest and often most conflict-ridden countries in the world. Our comprehensive reform emphasises the importance to our staff of this mission.  We regret that certain deficiencies of policy and procedure resulted in our failure to meet the highest standards of corporate governance, such that we did not meet the expectations of DFID and the public, to whom we are accountable.”

The organisation is to reform itself as “an enterprise with primary focus on a social mission, with a mandate to consider its triple bottom line, taking into account its social, environmental and financial performance.”
It will also establish a foundation and reinvest a significant percentage of net earnings in developing countries, in part through the new foundation.

It announced three founding directors – Andrew Kuhn, Amitabh Shrivastava and Peter Young – will step down. And William Morrison himself , a founding director and ASI’s Executive Chairman, will step down after leading ASI through the restructuring.

Looking back through early Companies House accounts show the firm originated as an off shoot of the Adam Smith Institute – a neoliberal think tank – and its first directors included two founders of that think tank Madsen Pirie and Eamonn Butler. The Institute was recently revealed in a survey to be the least transparent about where it got its money.

One of the other directors Peter Young, who has just quit, had been there 24 years.

The highest paid director was paid £223,000 a year and the remaining directors shared another £500,000 a year between them. Malcolm Rifkind, the former Tory foreign secretary, is also a non executive director.

The company was nearly struck off the Companies House register  in December – but the action was withdrawn in February.

One can only wonder whether there is more to this story than even meets the eye – given how quickly it has started a damage limitation exercise. One waits the MPs findings with growing interest.

Has Theresa May got it wrong over the Brexit negotiation plan?

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Theresa May

Theresa May, Prime Minister Pic Credit: conservatives.com

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Theresa May is about to trigger Article 50 and go into negotiations with the other 27 European Union countries to sort out arrangements covering British trade with this huge market. It is a complete mystery how Britain is going to play its cards and Theresa May doesn’t want to give anything away.

However  a fascinating  post  from Stewart Wood, a former adviser to  Labour PM, Gordon Brown and  later to  Ed Miliband, suggests that she does have a strategy but it may be the wrong one.

Drawing from his experience in Whitehall  he suggests that Theresa May plans to draw from her experience as home secretary where she successfully negotiated an opt out on police and criminal justice matters – choosing to opt back in to measures she accepted.

She plans to use this to apply to the whole British negotiation.

He writes : “Her plan is for the UK to leave the single market en bloc, but renegotiate continued access to it on preferential terms for some key UK industrial sectors as part of a wider free trade agreement. According to this vision, these lucky sectors would continue to enjoy de facto membership of the single market, but without the requirement to be bound by decisions of the European Court of Justice. Problem solved, our Prime Minister thinks.”

So will this work? Not according to Stewart Wood because  the mechanism she is using does not apply here.

” So it can work again, right? Wrong. The strategy of “exit then cherry-picking” worked with the JHA decision in 2014 for a simple reason: it was set up as an “exit plus cherry-picking” deal in the Lisbon Treaty itself. It is a colossal error to think that the same approach can work in the case of Brexit – a negotiation of phenomenally greater complexity, played on multiple chessboards simultaneously, where interests between the EU and the UK are nowhere near as simply aligned, and where opt-outs have not been negotiated by existing treaty provisions.”

I gather Stewart Wood’s views are reflected in Whitehall thinking. But whether Theresa May is taking any notice is another matter.

What it does mean is that if he is right  the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and the Scots Nats are going to have a field day if they decide to hold the government to account. Also all the sectors – from the car industry, the financial sector and technology to name but a few – might vote with their feet to maintain unrestricted access to the EU. Interesting times.

View story at Medium.com

By-election horrors:Labour’s dilemma and the faux fear of UKIP

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Labour’s: What future? Pic Credit :BBC

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Yesterday morning’s results for Labour were  very bad news. For the governing party which has presided over years of austerity and facing a real crisis over the NHS  to win Copeland from Labour is a disaster for the Opposition. Ed Miliband, after all ,managed to win a mid term by-election  in Corby from the Tories, even if he went on to lose the seat at the next general election.

Ignore any specific excuses -. the locality, nuclear industry,a bigger  rural seat – if Labour want to be in government they have to appeal to a broader sector of people and win marginal Tory seats back -not lose marginal Labour seats to the Tories. Theresa May cannot believe her luck – her message that the Tories will govern for all the people and not the privileged few has resonance whatever the facts.

It is not that Labour don’t have good policies for the NHS, community care, social housing, the railways – to name but a few – but they  have no overall vision of what type of society they want Britain to be in the twenty first century and can’t seem capable of explaining it. Also some local councils in Labour areas have the problem of being seen as the Establishment because they been in power for decades. And :Labour’s stand on just defending the NHS is not enough – that has been made very clear in Copeland.

Labour’s win in Stoke on Trent looks good news – given UKIP threw everything at it including their new leader – as part of their strategy for a new dawn replacing Labour as the working class party. But note that the Tory vote held up well and that the turn out was  36.7 per cent which was even below the 46.5 per cent turn out on the same day at a council by-election in Devon which saw a shock Lib Dem win from the Tories. That means the majority of people in Stoke on Trent were disengaged despite  austerity, Brexit and the NHS.

But we should not be so surprised over UKIP’s defeat – anyone watching council election results – outside their Essex and North Kent heartlands – would have realised they are a busted flush post the referendum. In council election after election their vote has been falling and they have even failed to get candidates to stand in seats where an existing UKIP councillor had quit – for example in Norfolk and Newquay in Cornwall. Their latest humiliation was in the Forest of Dean where a Green candidate who came last in a previous election won a seat  from UKIP. Note in Copeland UKIP came fourth behind the Liberal Democrats.

To my mind Labour has to refocus its attack on the mainstream parties. It has to challenge the Tory mantra that they are governing for everybody and  take into account the revived Liberal Democrat campaign in opposing Brexit. Otherwise they will continue to lose seats to both parties – particularly at local level with the May council elections looming.

This means that Labour’s current position on Brexit – to support it  but then pledge to hold the government to account over the  EU negotiations – has to be real. This means that if the deal for future trade,jobs and freedom of movement for Brits is going to be bad, they should combine with the Lib Dems, Greens and Scot Nats and even the Northern Irish parties if they oppose it, and demand a referendum on the terms. This will be a referendum on the facts of what real life will be like after Brexit not one on a vague hope of ” let’s take control”.

There is one other thing Labour needs to do. What was completely unreported this week was an extraordinary council by-election in Winklebury in  Tory run Basingstoke and Deane. Here a Labour candidate overturned a safe Tory majority,increasing the party’s vote share by 31 per cent and getting almost double the Tory vote on a 29 per cent poll.

Labour’s Angie Freeman told the local paper: “I really wanted to win this seat so I could do something for my community.It’s very humbling to know they believe in me and trust me and I’m determined to do my best for this community.

“I live here and know the issues that affect people well, so I will look to actively tackle the problems we’ve got.

“I’ve seen Winklebury go from a thriving community to become such a rundown area.

“We’re losing everything.First the GP went and now with the school too, enough is enough, so I will fight it as hard as I can.”

From what I can gather people in Winklebury couldn’t care a damn whether the Labour Party was led by Jeremy Corbyn or Tony Blair. But they did care that a local person wanted to fight for them under the Labour banner to protect their community. They obviously didn’t believe that Theresa May or Basingstoke Tories that they were governing for everybody.

Now Labour has a lot of new members who joined and the May council elections are going to be the next big political event. Doesn’t it make sense for Labour to galvanise these Young Turks and get them to stand for local council seats and vigorously campaign on local issues? After that we can tackle the issue of the leadership.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will David Cameron’s National Citizen Service deliver results for poor disaffected ” hard to reach ” youth?

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David Cameron with some National Citizen Service students on a Teach First partnership. Pic Credit: Teach First

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One of David Cameron’s  legacies from his  ” Big Society ” initiative is the creation of a National Citizen Service for 15 to 17 year olds where they could go to summer camps.take part in adventurous sports like rock climbing and kayaking  and undertake community work and local projects for four weeks.

He bequeathed Theresa May with a bill setting up a national trust with a Royal Charter so it could be implemented nationwide. So enamoured was David Cameron with the idea  he has agreed to be chair of the patrons of the new trust.

But since Theresa May took office it has suffered two body blows. She has limited the money and dropped a commitment to a statutory requirement for schools and colleges to publicise it. None of this has had much publicity because of Trump and Brexit.

As a result it will have less money and less publicity.

Her action coincided with a damning National Audit Office report which questioned its ability to deliver and control the money it has already received.

The NAO warned : “The Trust has spent little time understanding costs and where savings could be made. The Trust has four strategic objectives: growth; quality; cost and sustainability. Its business plan includes a number of cost control initiatives at the early stages of implementation. “

“Based on a full unit cost, NCS risks being financially unsustainable in the future. Our analysis shows that in 2016, the estimated full unit cost exceeded the expected unit cost by 19%

“On this basis, it will cost government £560 million to provide 300,000 places in 2019-20, 32% more than the £424 million funding currently allocated. The unit cost will need to fall 29% from £1,863 in 2016 to £1,314 in 2019 to provide these places within the available spending envelope. “

Worse the report found that the trust had little ability to control costs.

Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO added: “NCS is now at a critical stage…. The OCS (Office for Civil Society) and the Trust have shown that NCS can attract large numbers of participants, and participation has a positive effect on young people. These are no small achievements, but it remains unclear whether these effects are enduring and whether NCS can grow to become ‘a rite of passage’ available to all 16- to 17-year-olds.The OCS and the Trust now need to think radically about the aspects of the current programme that work and how best to achieve NCS’s aims at a more affordable cost to the taxpayer.”

The question is what is the NCS for? Will it just be another project high jacked by pushy parents who want their sons and daughters to have an attractive CV when they apply for a university place? Or will it serve as a genuine catalyst to give ” hard to reach ” young people an idea of community involvement.

One  working class area  where it is working is Barnsley.

The local MP,Dan Jarvis, Labour MP for Barnsley Central, is strongly behind it  and has promoted the scheme in his constituency.

“It obviously needs to be value for money but it is vitally important it gets to “ hard to reach “ kids as it can change lives.

“People sometimes think I am keen to promote it because of my army background and want to introduce it as a return to conscription. This is not the case – it is more than one needs the scheme to be put on a national basis.”

He says the success in Barnsley is helped by projects run by the town’s football club and also a recent exchange with the London borough of Newham which helped kids broaden their horizons.

At the moment the jury is out. Will it expand to benefit the working classes or just be another middle class ” rite of passage”. Who will win out- Barnsley or Eton?

I have also written about this for Tribune magazine.

Hidden:The secret influencers bankrolling centre right think tanks to change your mind

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Policy Exchange – direct line to government but secret about donors. Here Theresa May address a seminar as home secretary Pic Credit: Flickr

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An important report was published today by  Transparify , examining British think tanks whose reports and proceedings influence government policy on anything from education to health, and attitudes to smoking and climate change.

What it reveals is that while a number of British think tanks are open about who funds them – including the Institute for Government, Transparency International and the Overseas Development Institute- and some like RUSI ( the Royal United Services Institute )have improved their transparency – some of the most influential think tanks which impact on current Tory government policy are extremely secretive.

Nearly all of the secretive think tanks are on the Right of the spectrum. They are the Adam Smith Institute,Policy Exchange, the Centre for Policy Studies,Policy Network, Civitas,the Institute of Economic Affairs, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

What the report reveals is that the largely US financed Adam Smith Institute – a firm advocate of privatisation and libertarian thinking particularly over smoking- does not disclose ANY details of its donors or where it gets its money . It is dominated by a sister organisation Adam Smith International (UK) ltd, which receives British taxpayers money and World Bank cash  for advising foreign governments and has a turnover £130m. Adam Smith International has its own website  which does provide details of its projects and staff- and shows its projects vary from assisting privatisation to good governance. It only has one project in Jordan tackling climate change.

ASI’s American equivalent, according to the report, has filed a tax return showing it has received $1.2 million in donations but only spent just over $5000 in the US.

The Centre for Policy Studies, according to the report, has been active in fighting further regulation of the tobacco industry. It does not disclose its donors.

The Institute of Economic Affairs, according to the report, also has had backing from tobacco companies. It also claims it managed to change Government policy over the funding of charities financed by a ” mystery ” donor.

The report says : “In early 2016, The Independent reported that the IEA had “secured [a] change in government policy” on the back of a £15,000 donation from a “mystery donor” whose identity the IEA refused to reveal. The IEA told the newspaper that it had met with ministers or officials “as often as we were able” to discuss the proposal with them.”

Policy Exchange – which is a very active think tank with frequent debates involving MPs from all parties – and  very influential.  It was forced to withdraw large sections of one study The hijacking of  British Islam which controversially named mosques up and down Britain of spreading hate speech – which turned out to be untrue. Again we do not know all the donors to Policy Exchange but we do know it has strong links with ministers, including Lord Maude, a former civil service minister.

According to the Sunday Times, Policy Network was initially bankrolled by Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, a banker who by 2002 had reportedly donated £250,000 to the organisation. It is had not published details of donors for two years and is dominated by prominent Labour right wingers. Its president is Lord Mandelson who runs his own lobbying consultancy Global Counsel.

Finally there is the case of  the International Institute for Strategic Studies which appear to be transparent but missed out donations totalling £25m from one big donor, Bahrain.

Leaked papers revealed that secret memorandum of understanding had been drawn up between the think tank and Bahrain’s ruler to fund the organisation. The report says:

The Guardian reported a figure of £25 million, noting that this would account for “more than a quarter of IISS’s income“. Compiling data from multiple sources, pro-democracy group Bahrain Watch arrived at a figure of £30 million, corresponding to just over a third of IISS‟ overall income. The Middle East Eye published calculations according to which Bahraini funds may add up to nearly half of total IISS income.”

Given Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, as reported on this blog, launched his new ” East of Suez” policy in Bahrain – it appears that Britain will be driven to defending Bahrain should a new wave of Arab unrest spread. It now appears in return that Bahrain will be in a strong position to influence the British government to present itself as a modern liberal society when it is obviously not the full picture.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against the Adam Smith Institute, Policy Exchange or the Institute for Economic Affairs campaigning on any issue they want in a democratic society – including if they want to take up issues raised by tobacco companies or climate change.

But I am against secret backers using think tanks to try and influence government – and  public debate from  behind the scenes – and creating the illusion that these bodies are simply independent researchers with no agenda.

Transparify have done an invaluable job in drawing attention to this. The full report which has not been funded from external sources is here.