Samoa: Boris’s Treasure Island for post Brexit Britain?

The lush tropical island of Samoa in the South Pacific is famous as the last resting place of Robert Louis Stevenson author of Treasure Island.His villa is now a museum and a major tourist attraction set in the hills above Apia, the nation’s capital.

Stevenson is buried at the top of a nearby mountain and reached by a hike through tropical rainforest. There is even an environmental project to preserve the forest in that area.

It was at Stevenson’s villa that five months ago that Laura Clarke the British High Commissioner to Samoa chose to launch a new initiative aimed to boost Britain’s place in the world post Brexit. Here for one day the Union Jack flew from the building while the high commissioner waxed lyrically about how similar the UK was do this tropical paradise. You can read all about it in a FO press release.

Samoa it turns out is one of nine countries that Britain is keen to strengthen its presence as part of a Foreign Office initiative to compensate for losing its influence in the European Union. The argument goes along the lines that for every small country that Britain supports is likely to back Britain at the United Nations as each country has one vote. That way Britain can keep playing a major role without relying on the EU.The initiative goes back to Boris Johnson’s time as foreign secretary.It is being repeated in Tonga and Vanuatu.

The policy could be expensive and the competition could be fierce. In Samoa it will mean building a high commission to compete with the ones already in the capital representing Australia,New Zealand and Japan. In both Samoa and Tonga the main competition comes from China which is aiding Samoa’s education system and operates behind a high security compound in Tonga. The Japanese and Koreans are funding a new bridge in Apia. And both islands have strong links with Australia and New Zealand.

Exactly what new business opportunities Britain will get from Samoa and Tonga is not clear. Neither country relies entirely on tourism but most of their exports are agriculture and both have tiny populations ( they have less than 300,000 between them) and are no substitute for any EU country. Britain could benefit from coconut oil and cream from Samoa. Tonga could send us frozen fish,squash and vanilla beans.

As a visitor to both countries, Samoa is stunningly beautiful and friendly and Tonga is similar. Both have a very strong Christian religious communities dating from the missionaries and still observe Sundays as a day of rest.

In Samoa family is very important and unusually there are few cementaries as nearly all Samoans bury their ancestors on their own land. As well having their own homes they build meeting halls for family events.

Surprisingly for such a beautiful place it is not overdeveloped. There are no huge tower block hotels like Honolulu dominating the coast.Instead it remains rather a remarkable tropical paradise that even Robert Louis Stevenson might still recognise.

Cabo San Lucas: Mexico’s pristine environment on the front line of an American invasion

President Trump is more than keen to build a wall to keep out immigrant criminals, drug dealers and bad people from entering the United States from Mexico.

Yet some 1000 miles away from the proposed wall Americans are very happy to move into a country seen by some as a dangerous hotbed of crime and violence threatening the foundations of the US.

The front line for this “invasion” is Cabo San Lucas a fast growing resort in Baja California some 300 miles south of San Diego and once one of the remotest parts of the world.

Some 50 years ago it was a small fishing village set among spectacular scenery at the ” Lands End” of Baja California a long slither of land separated from the mainland of Mexico by an inland sea and then an extremely isolated home for amazing wildlife.

Every year grey whales from Alaska come and breed in Pacific Ocean off the coast and there are colonies of sea lions and pelicans plus a huge variety of other birds and fish. The local scenery is spectacular with huge rocks and pinnacles rising out of the ocean and a much photographed natural arch. Cabo San Lucas is also on the edge of a giant underwater canyon which makes for fine scuba diving. Outside the resort the desolate desert scenery is full of forests of slow growing cacti.

According to the guides the turning point in Cabo’s history came when the Mexican government altered land tenure law and allowed its original inhabitants to own their land in the village. Instead of sharing the windfall the people lucky enough to own property sold it to multinational corporations at what looked to them a vast profit. Most were American real estate companies who saw the opportunity to create a resort to exploit the stunning scenery and wildlife.

Now there are no original village homes left, local fishing has ceased,and an ever expanding ribbon of hotels,condominiums, apartments ,shopping malls and time shares have been built into the surrounding hills making it the most expensive city in Mexico. Villas with commanding views of the sea sell for seven million dollars. Millionaire yachts dock in the harbour alongside tourist boats.

The resort is and looks American with Walmart, Dominos Pizzas and McDonalds along the main streets. Most shops advertise their wares in English with pharmicists offering sleeping pills and body building drugs without prescriptions.Development has brought advantages for local people with most of the population in tourism or employed by real estate companies. Mexico unlike the US encourages immigration anyone who can earn the equivalent of 2000 US dollars,according to the guides, is welcome.
As a result Cabo has attracted people from other Central and South America to work there.


There are downsides. The pristine scenery and abundant wildlife is under threat by this mass invasion. Also the Koreans and Japanese are overfishing the abundant waters off Mexico though the under sourced Mexican government is trying to limit their activity.
The real dangers are that the overdevelopment of the area could eventually destroy its main attractions. There is also a national park where development is restricted which offers hope. But the town is both an example of pristine nature being exploited by corporate greed.

Report from Aruba: The boom tourist island off crisis hit Venezuela 

Just 18 miles off the coast of Venezuela lies the former Dutch colony of Aruba.The state of Aruba could not be more different from Venezuela.

While Venezuela is facing its worst economic crisis with hyper inflation and three million people have fled the country mainly to Colombia and Brazil, Aruba is in the middle of a tourist boom.

The distance from Aruba to Venezuela is less than that between Dover and Calais so it is not surprising, though it is unreported, that Venezuelans have also sought refuge here. Officially they are deported back to Venezuela if found but unofficially with the current labour shortages many may not be. And unlike the phobia by some in the UK of immigrants flooding the country this small island of 118000 people seems to welcome them.

Aruba is a curious mixture of American high rise resort hotels,holiday apartments and casinos and Dutch social welfarism shown by affordable state housing schemes and a national contributory health service.

Most Arubians are trilingual – they learn Dutch,English and Spanish in school – though Dutch is the official language. They are mainly Roman Catholic rather than Protestant due to the legacy of the original Spanish conquerors of Aruba and their local currency still is the guilder long abolished in favour of the Euro in Holland. Nearly all the supermarkets are owned by the Chinese.

Arubians who want to study medicine or engineering go to Dutch universities and Arubians are proud they have freedom of movement as EU as well Dutch citizens. From March 29 they will have more freedom of movement than the British.

The biggest deal for Arubians is tourism. An estimated 1.8 million people visit the island every year from cruise ships and direct flights from the US and South America.As a result most people are employed by the tourism industry.There is a also a flourishing aloe vera industry as it has a dry desert like climate – it doesn’t rain for 8 months a year.

Intriguingly the country used to refine Venezuela oil but the big refinery was closed. It still imports a lot of its fruit and vegetables from Venezuela – which given the shortages in Venezuela is remarkable.

The main tourist attraction are the beaches – the hinterland when not developed is mainly desert scrub and grazed by goats- goat is staple diet. Wild creatures include iguanas, rattlesnakes which are protected and boa constrictors which were irresponsibly released into the wild.

When the local pest control are called out it is often to remove a boa that has got into someone’s yard.

But what is the most extraordinary is the parallel universe between Aruba and Venezuela – so close together but so far apart.

Bermuda: How shipwrecks can save our dwindling coral reefs 

While global warming and pollution are threatening our coral reefs Bermuda is a rather unusual success story.

Unlike more famous coral reefs like the Australian Barrier Reef which are in decline the coral reef around Bermuda is healthy and expanding.

One reason is that Bermuda is hundreds of miles from the US and other Caribbean islands and has no industry to speak of to pollute the seas.This tiny island has a coral reef far larger than the island itself. The Atlantic Ocean north of the island is in some areas just between three and twelve feet deep.

As a result the area is dotted with shipwrecks. So many ships have ran aground there and many have not been discovered. But here is the interesting point. These shipwrecks are incredibly beneficial to coral reefs. Sunken boats create a structure for corals to grow and are magnets with for fish with plenty of hides holes. And it appears rather surprisingly that the rusting iron of the hulks acts as a fertiliser to help coral establish itself. One of the few cases of human made debris being beneficial.

According to the tour guides who took us there is now growing interest in sinking redundant ships on the edge of coral reefs once they have been decontaminated. They are colonised by the coral which expands the reef.

One example is HMS Vixen a former Royal Navy ship which ran aground a century ago whose hull as the picture shows still sticks out of the shallow water. Here it is a magnet for grey snapper, Chubb and various tropical fish.

Bermuda’s coral reefs are also refuges for turtles which are protected from predators and conservationists have brought back turtle eggs to hatch on the island’s beache to re-establish and expand the population.

Not all Bermuda’s Eco experiments have worked. Just off the coral reef there is an abandoned Eco village. The houses are built on stilts on the coast with canvas rooves and no air conditioning and sound proofing.As a result they are unlettable in the summer when there is high humidity and people’s conversations can be heard from house to house.At the moment the government is desperately trying to flog them off to anybody who might want to use them as a spare summerhouse.

Some facts on tax haven Bermuda which free market Tories might like and Socialists hate. Income tax minimal at just six per cent or nothing for 65000 inhabitants.As a result there is a 17.5 per cent tax on everything that is sold there which is already expensive because it has to be imported. Average house prices are $800000. Cheapest one bed flat $300000. Some affordable houses for $300000 – these are ex Royal Navy homes. Lucky to get a beer for £7 and to eat out for two could cost over £100.

Not much chance of Liam Fox negotiating an independent trade deal – unless he wants to expand its tax haven status with the City. Bermuda doesn’t make anything except rum cakes. So apart from flying them in on direct services between Gatwick and Hamilton don’t expect anything special.

Bermuda until 1960’s had a naval presence. Plans by Gavin Williamson the defence secretary to bring back Royal Navy bases in the Caribbean should make it the ideal centre. A few slight problems.The Royal Navy commissioner ‘s house is a museum, the deep water berths are now cruise ship terminals and the port buildings a shopping mall. Apart from that it should be plain sailing.

Danger on the Line: Damning safety findings that put passengers and train drivers at risk

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People had to step over this live rail to get off the train. It didn’t even have a protected board at the time Pic credit: Aviva Trains

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A  damning report was published this month by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch into an incident nearly a year ago which led to 450 passengers being urged to leave a stranded train and walk along the tracks within inches of a live high voltage electric rail.

The report is not only critical of this incident but raises the question whether there are systemic failures in our semi privatised railways which need urgently addressing. It reveals a string of other incidents that have happened in the last five years.including two cases where express train drivers had to lie under their trains to avoid being mowed down by trains coming in the opposite direction.

These include;

A Virgin Express train driver had to cower under his Inverness to London express just north of York to prevent being mowed down by a 105mph express in the opposite direction. The trainee signalman had failed to tell the driver of the stopped train that he had not halted other trains in the area.

Exactly the same thing happened again at Stafford six months ago when a Manchester to London Virgin express stopped because of a fault. The driver who was badly shaken had to hide under the train to avoid being run over by an express coming in the opposite direction.

Passengers getting out on to the tracks at Gospel Oak and waking to the station in 2013 – and a suburban train going forward without permission to take passengers off at Hackney Downs and almost overrunning a junction where it could have crashed into a train coming in the opposite direction.

 

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You can just see the driver nearly under the Virgin Train north of York from this CCTV picture. Pic Credit: Virgin Trains

This latest report  was about a passenger train that was halted outside Peckham Rye station in South London last November after a fault automatically stopped the train.

The driver , who did not have a guard, got the go ahead from the private operator Aviva’s control centre to get passengers off the train. As the report says:

“This involved passengers climbing down vertical steps to ground
level, very close to the live electric conductor rail (third rail) and walking along the side
of the line for about 30 metres to Peckham Rye station.

“Soon afterwards, an operations manager from Govia Thameslink Rail, which manages
Peckham Rye station, contacted the member of station staff and realised where they
were and what was happening. The operations manager immediately instructed
the driver to stop the evacuation, and requested that he contact the signaller and
his company’s controller for further instructions. ”

…”The train driver and the signaller did not reach a clear understanding
about the actions that were required to safely detrain the passengers. The delay
caused unrest among the passengers on the train and contributed to stress and task
overload of the driver, which affected his decision making. The driver’s experience
and skills did not enable him to cope with these demands, and Network Rail did
not effectively implement its own procedures for managing an incident involving a
stranded train.”

The scandal revealed here is the lack of communication between Aviva’s control centre, Network Rail, the signalman, which all put passenger safety at risk.

Of course both Network Rail and Aviva have said they have taken measures to deal with it. But the report reveals that in Aviva’s case very little has been done – particularly at its control centre. Inspectors returned after the incident and found:
l the environment within the control room was noisy and poor equipment was still
being used, both of which may cause distraction, and the floor plan was still too
small;
2 poor communications (verbal / IT systems and written notes) were observed
and still evident;
3 a lack of coordination and awareness of the different roles within the control
room was still evident”

Simon French,Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents concluded: “Following previous incidents, the railway industry has put in place policies for managing incidents in which trains become stranded. This incident has shown that when things go wrong, these policies may not be effective. …. We are recommending that, both locally and nationally, the incident management arrangements should be reviewed, and processes put in place to exercise them regularly. It’s not enough to have a plan – it must work when it is needed, and if it has never been practised the chances are it won’t work.”

The report on Peckham Rye can be read in full here  and the reports on the Virgin train incidents can be read here and here.

 

 

Premier Bin: Is the minimum wage hotel chain run by Whitbread millionaires and promoted by Lenny Henry going to the dump?

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The Premier Inn in Lauriston Place, Edinburgh or should I say Premier Bin

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I have stayed in a number of Premier Inns on holiday and the atmosphere has always been cheap and cheerful with an emphasis on a good night’s sleep and a good value breakfast.

That is until this year when my wife and I stayed at the Lauriston Place hotel in Edinburgh for the festival. Last year we stayed at its more centrally placed York Place hotel and found it efficient with obliging staff.

During the last 12 months what has changed? For a start there were fewer EU staff which suggests that the chain – in common with national figures released by the government – can no longer rely on people from Europe coming to work here.

Brexiteers- including Jacob Rees Mogg and Nigel Farage – say by halting low paid and unskilled immigration from the EU – British workers will benefit from higher wages and better conditions because firms will have to pay them more.

Well so far if the Premier Inn at Lauriston Place is any guide  this ain’t happening. From talking to some of the staff instead Whitbread are using recruitment problems to make staff double up and do the work of two people or give people huge work schedules which they can’t possibly do in time.

And if that fails they are starting to withdraw services to customers. For three out of five nights we were there Premier Inn stopped offering to serve anyone who wanted to dine in their hotel restuarant if you wanted  to walk in. Notices of apology – rather reminiscent of the privatised rail companies explaining poor services- were posted in lifts and at the front desk. One even included a reference to bad weather – it was raining outside.

And if you did dine there – by getting a rare booking – the menu appeared to be a wish list rather than  an accurate description of what you could eat. The restuarant had run out of rib eyed steak and chocolate puddings – rather basic fare that should not be subject to food shortages in Edinburgh.

And the cleaning was also under pressure. On one rainy day the room was not cleaned until after 4.0 pm. I found the cleaner, a middle aged woman in, I guess, her 50s, exhausted pushing a cleaning trolley in the hotel corridor.

She had five floors of bedrooms to clean and her shift which was supposed to end at 1.0 pm had taken three hours longer because of the large number of rooms (well over 100) that had to be cleaned. We took pity on her and decided our room did not need a thorough clean that day.

As for a pay rises they were out of the question. Instead the company seems to be relying on higher turnover of staff as people leave rather than paying higher wages.

And wages are low -basically the  national minimum wage of £7.83 an hour  rather than the national living wage . The figures are here on this website.

Those with higher responsibilities -like being a chief chef – get on average another 82p an hour.

Compare that with the top management of owners Whitbread. The latest remuneration report of the company shows a different picture -rather similar to the widening gap shown between bosses and workers published this month.

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Alison Brittain, millionaire chief executive of Whitbread, owners of Premier Inn. Pic credit Twitter

Alison Brittan, the  53 year old  ex banker chief executive of Whitbread, under an incentive package can get up to £3.4 million a year if she achieves her targets which include opening as many new Premier Inns as possible.

If she is a failure she still walks off with £1m a year – 20 per cent going into a pension so she’ll be able to retire in luxury  at 60 if she wants to not caring a bit that her staff will have to work until they are 67. I suspect if any of her lowly paid staff failed, they are promptly sacked.

Two years ago her minimum salary was £775,000 – so she has enjoyed a minimum of £225,000 pay rise while most of Britain’s workers have been lucky to get a one per cent increase.

She claims in an article in the Daily Mail  that she only ever stays in Premier Inns. If she does I bet her room is being cleaned while she has breakfast and if she dines there –  she has a  full choice.

I did put put questions to Premier Inn earlier this week about current wages, turnover of staff, and whether  Brexit was making  the recruitment of staff difficult but they could not be bothered to reply or acknowledge the request.

One thing is certain I won’t be staying in a Premier Inn when I go to the Lake District. Sorry Lenny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mobility on the marshes: Two cheers for Natural England and the Norfolk coast path

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The new wheelchair and mobility scooter friendly surfaced path from Blakeney towards Cley

Blakeney on the North Norfolk coast is home to one of Britain’s more unusual natural wildlife reserves – the salt marsh. These  vast muddy flat expanses are  regularly flooded by the sea- and are home to a large variety of sea birds, ducks and migratory geese and perfect places for many unusual plants and flowers.

To really appreciate these large areas  caught between the land and see you need to be able walk for miles between Norfolk coast towns and villages. For some years my wife, Margaret and I have  been able to do precisely that -walking four or five miles  often in a refreshing stiff breeze and ending up in a local hostelry eating  fresh crab sandwiches before returning back to Blakeney.

Since she had a stroke this is no longer possible and I thought the marshes would be largely out of bounds.

 

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The quay at Blakeney

However having just returned from Blakeney I discovered that Natural England who are responsible for England’s network of long distance footpaths and the local North Norfolk Area of Outstanding Beauty have started making the place far better accessible for the disabled.

They have started to convert part of the  Norfolk coast path going from Blakeney to Cley  and from Blakeney to Morston Quay to make it wheelchair and mobility scooter accessible – allowing disabled people to get out into the marshes which previously  only able bodied people could make the  trip.

Unfortunately the new surface does not go all the way to Cley- and the beginning of the Morston Quay route has been blocked off by builders renovating local cottages necessitating a diversion- hence only two cheers- but it is a good start.

There are also two good links on the web that disabled people will find helpful. The Norfolk Coast Partnership has an activity map here.

And there is a partially complete guide to wheelchair access to the path here on the national trail website.

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A typical creek on Blakeney Marshes

Given the present dire situation for disabled people with many losing benefits as a result of the government’s austerity programme – this is one good piece of welcome news for any disabled person contemplating a staycation this summer -once the temperatures have dropped from their present high level.