Thursday, 6 September 2012

Sainsbury's Comes To Portobello

So it has finally come to pass that despite years of resistance from local residents and traders, one of the big supermarkets have found a foothold in Portobello.  

 I attended the public meeting held last night on the 5th of September and listened carefully to the concerns.
Legally speaking there does not seem to be much to be done.  The premise that Sainbury’s are taking over, the Woodwares Hardware store, has been signed over on a fifteen year lease and since it is already a retail property, there is no change of status involved as far as planning permission is concerned.

Local traders are right to be worried about the competition.  It was acknowledged at the meeting though that some local residents will welcome the arrival of Sainsbury’s as it will also supply competition to the Co-Op Scotmid store.

Although there were a few ideas floated at the meeting, I suspect that most of them will prove to be little more than irritations to the major supermarket chain.  That does not mean that they should not proceed of course; all is fair in love, war and high-street retailing.

To illustrate this last point, I am reminded of a friend’s experiences from Norfolk, although in this case the independent store owner set up after the establishment of a Tesco supermarket in the village.  The independent trader had set up a small bakery and delicatessen, partly to avoid direct competition with the neighbouring goliath who did not have a deli counter.  Within a few months that situation had changed, with the store manager setting up such a counter in a direct effort to drive the new shop out of business.

Fortunately for the independent, the specialist pies that were being produced were of such high quality that they won awards.  That quality also meant that the store retained the loyalty of its customers.   Tesco’s was forced to admit defeat upon that occasion.

Assuming that the new supermarket will arrive in Portobello, the independent stores will be in for a very hard time.  In terms of grocery stables, a major player will win on most occasions.  With limited space available to Sainsbury’s though, they cannot be all things to all people.  It is going to take flexibility and the support of local people to survive.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Russian Orthodox Church - Then and Now

For the entire week, the little boy had been telling his classmates that on one evening, he was going to the taken by his family to the circus.  Come the day, he was almost beside himself with expectation of the happiness he would feel.  As the family left the house neighbours noticed that they were unusually well-dressed for the evening’s treat.  It was as if they going to the theatre and not headed for the more informal atmosphere which circus-goers usually enjoyed.

Next day his friends gathered around him.  “How was the circus?” they asked, expecting to be thrilled by the descriptions soon to come.
“I didn’t go to the circus,” mumbled the little boy in embarrassment.  “I was baptised instead.”

The above account is a true story told to me by one of the then classmates of the little boy.  It was the 1970s and the Soviet Union did not encourage religion.  Orthodox priests were few and they usually practised in secret.  The baptism would have taken place in some Leningrad apartment, as would Sunday services.  In those days it took true faith and bravery to keep alive the traditions, after the murder of so many church members in the decades before.  The buildings of the Orthodox Church had been either demolished or turned into warehouses and museums.  In short, the Church was part of the underground.

Things are different now.  After the fall of Communism, the Orthodox Church started to rebuild.  This I saw with my own eyes in the 1990s.  The people coming to priests literally knew nothing of Christian morality.  To my ears the questions asked were often child-like but those asking them were in their forties and fifties.  It was all rather disorientating. 

The Church steadily grew.  The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was rebuilt in Moscow after the original had been dynamited on Stalin’s orders.   It was at this rebuilt cathedral, now the principle church of the Russian Orthodox community, that the female punk band Pussy Riot performed an illegal concert (as reported in the Guardian) two weeks before the Russian Presidential elections which saw Putin returned to the presidency.  A “Punk Prayer” was performed whose lyrics included the repeated chant of “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, drive Putin out!”  Soon afterwards the girls were arrested and the Patriarch of the Church, Pope Kirill called for maximum sentence of seven years to be brought against the offenders.

What disturbed my Russian friends more was the reaction of most people.  It was reported in a poll that over seventy percent of Russians backed Patriarch Kirill’s call for harsh treatment.  Although now the BBC says the Church is willing to be more merciful towards two of the women who are mothers, initially the calls were made for the children to be taken into state care. 

It is reported that Patriarch Kirill is bitter about the calls for clemency made by some; believe me when I report that is as nothing to the sense of bitterness and betrayal felt now by those who risked persecution as they kept the Orthodox Church alive during the dark days of Soviet rule.  As one such person said to me “These bastards who are calling for the girls to go to jail, where were they before?” 

Members of the group Pussy Riot go on trial on April 24th and are remanded in custody until then

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Total's Disaster

Since the abandonment of Total’s Elgin / Franklin platform, it has been hard to get figures on the amount of hydrocarbons coming from the leaking well.  Now they are starting to emerge but differ wildly.  In the Telegraph a figure of 200,000 cubic metres (m3) per day is given for the gas while The Scotsman mentions a value of two kilograms a second (kg/s-1).  According to my basic grasp of sums, this works out to roughly double the first value: 409,000m3 per day.

What does this all mean?  To put it into human values, I checked my gas-supplier’s web site.   

According to Ovo’s figures, the normal winter consumption of gas for a 3-bedroom apartment in winter is 24.48m3 each day.  Even allowing for that on average 3.5% of Elgin’s natural gas is carbon dioxide, on the high figures what is leaking is enough to heat over 16,000 three bedroom flats daily.  Even the lower figure used in The Telegraph is enough to keep a good-sized village warm on a winter’s day.  Bear in mind also that methane is twenty-times a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  

What of the slick?  Better news here.  Owing to the fact that the hydrocarbon reservoir is gas rather than crude oil, the amounts are low: between two and twenty-three tonnes have been cited.  The fluid is gas-condensate rather than oil, so employing the readily available conversion factors for LPG of 11.6 this works out to 267 barrels total so far.   This compares with Deep Water Horizon pumping out 40,000 barrels of oil per day.  However, better no slick than any, no matter how small.

So for this disaster, focus on the gas rather than on how big the sheen on the sea-surface becomes.  Make no mistake, this is a major disaster in the North Sea and, despite the fact there has been no casualties (and I hope that remains the case in the ongoing situation) there ought to be a public enquiry as to what went wrong and whether the current regulation and inspection procedures are sufficient.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Farron vs. the ASA

Tim Farron, (Photo credit Telegraph Newpaper)
Yesterday there was a tweet-storm about Tim Farron, President of the Liberal Democrats, signing a cross-party letter of complaint to Lord Smith of Finsbury, the chairman of the Advertising Standard Authority after it was ruled that the advert  "NEED HEALING? GOD CAN HEAL TODAY!... We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness." fell foul of ASA guidelines.  The letter can be read here as first published on the Total Politics blog site.

Technicalities first.  It is the ASA's remit to ensure that adverts are legal, decent, honest and truthful.  The problem with "Need Healing?" is that it is a matter of subjective judgement whether the statement is truthful.  If somebody has been healed, good for them but it is impossible to prove beyond the affirmation of witnesses to the event.  Owing to the subjective nature of the claim, the ASA is therefore correct to call for the leaflet to be withdrawn. If they did not, any advert would be acceptable, no matter how outrageous the claim.  The letter's call for negative proof is simply wrong-headed because the same standard has to be applied across all advertising.

Tim Farron has been subsequently criticised, with some not-so-veiled calls to overthrow him as party president.  These calls I do not share.  Tim is doing a great job in hard times for all of us; his talent, energy, enthusiasm and conviction are top-draw.  The party is fortunate to have him.  There are also those who have criticised Tim for believing that faith can heal.  I don't recall ever seeing a document where Tim says something like "don't take your medication because God will see you well."  To jump from one to the other is a leap than some are unfairly accusing him of.

What are more disturbing are the undercurrents; the implied question "should such a committed Christian be this high-profile role while still affirming his faith?"  Now I know that some Liberal Democrats are unsympathetic towards religious belief.  If one demands objective proof in every aspect of their lives, well that is their call.  One can see and respect the logic.  Others of us have subjective experiences which are outside objective proof and it is in that realm of the subjective that faith can be found.  Does that make a religious person less reasonable or more misguided?  According to some, yes.  What I would say to those then is judge the individual upon their results, as you would judge any other individual.

I have a mate who farms a small-holding in Cumbria.  He told me that he had discussed Tim Farron with others in the local pub.  During the discussion Tim was described as a "God Botherer" and his veganism doesn't go down well with sheep farmers.  But the consensus was "Aye, we'll vote for him." People like and respect Tim Farron because not only is he different, he is brave enough not to hide it and he just get on with his job, which he does well, while still being his own man.  

And if that doesn't impress Liberal Democrats of all backgrounds, I don't know what will.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Female Representation and Quotas.

Kay Adams, BBC Radio Scotland
It was the Call Kaye show on Radio Scotland that got me thinking.  The episode on 8th March, International Woman’s Day (or as I like to call it to tease Mrs V., International Female Comrades’ Day) and the topic was quotas for the FTSE 100 companies when it came to female representation, should they have quotas in the boardroom?  Apparently in Norway they have introduced a forty percent quota for board-level female representation, with companies simply having to obey the law.  This compares with the current situation - fifteen percent of directors of FTSE100 companies are woman.

Hold on, I thought to myself.  We Liberal Democrats are not exactly shining when it comes to women representation in Westminster.  In the parliament prior to 2010, fifteen percent of our MPs were female but in 2010 this fell to twelve percent.  Part of this is undoubtedly an artefact of the rotten voting system: our percentage of the overall vote rose but the total number of our MPs actually fell from 63 down to 57.   Even allowing for this, the figures are not good.  The party is addressing the issue with a new Leadership scheme which is special training not only for women but for all minorities in the party.  As a middle-aged white guy I naturally do not qualify to take part so there is already positive discrimination taking place.  The key question though is “is it enough?”  I think the answer is “no”.

I forget who the guests were on the radio show but these learned ladies reckoned that at the current rates it would take seventy years for parity of representation to be reached.  I am certain that we all agree that is nowhere near good enough.  The Norwegian scheme was criticised for been too much too soon.  In order to conform to the law, it was alleged that some companies had to create previously non-existing posts, effectively as window dressing.  One problem that they identified that there currently is not enough women currently in middle-management.   It seems to me that both politics and business have a shared problem.

My suggestion therefore is this.  Instead of having a radical jump towards quotas, introduce them in stages.  For instance, if among publically-listed companies the average board representation is fifteen percent, the first step should be to twenty five percent.  After five years that increases to thirty five percent and at ten years up to the maximum of forty five percent – actually higher than the Norwegian total and it would give time to large companies to recruit and train the necessary numbers of females for the right posts.  Here’s the rub though – political parties but most especially the Liberal Democrats should be doing the same.  If legislation was introduced before the 2015 election, we would have effective parity of representation by 2025, both in the boardroom and in parliament.

Liberal Democrats will be seen to be practicing what we preach and, it could be said, this turkey is voting for Christmas.  Or as I prefer, trying to make life fairer for all.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Why Nick Clegg is Right about a Tycoon Tax

When I heard of Nick Clegg suggestion on Tycoon Tax I thought “at last!”  In a keynote speech at conference last weekend he made the point that many of the wealthiest people are not paid like you or me.  Rather they draw their emoluments in the form of capital gains or set up shell companies, incorporate their labour and draw wages from there; so instead of paying the individual it becomes a business-to-business transaction which, of course, are taxed at a lower rate.  Nick claimed that this means that some of the highest paid individuals are paying less than 20% tax upon what are really wages, no matter how they dress things up.

Now since the crash both Labour and the Coalition have taken steps to close loopholes but I think Nick’s suggestion is valuable for several reasons.  The first one being that it provides a minimum level of taxation, no matter how many smart lawyers and accountants an individual can afford to employ.  The richest will pay a fair share of their tax.  This is an innovation in UK tax policy because previously relief has always been targeted, hence the ability of many to exploit the loopholes.
Now it might startle a few of you but I am now going to advocate that the minimum rate of taxation should be 35%.  Why is this?  When I was living in Norway (which at the time had the highest standard of living in the world) individuals were heavily taxed with personal rates of up to 60%.  At the highest threshold however, at the time set at £300,000 or so, taxation reverted back down to 20% on all income after this with all loopholes being closed.  The explanation was that in Sweden in the 1970s there was no drop for the highest earners who were taxed at rates above 70% and this hurt business.  I too remember the “brain-drain” from the UK in the 1970s, with many of our nation’s most talented people seeking work abroad.  They joined many ex-pat tycoons who chose to hide from Labour’s top rate of income tax of 83%.  Statistic shows that on average people on super-earnings paid 35% tax.  It is a rate that is currently acceptable to many and sets a good benchmark for all.

There has to be a balance so I would suggest this:
  • ·        The fifty pence tax rate be retained for earnings over £150,000 and up to £500,000.  The usual tax relief on pensions etc are available.
  • ·        Above £500,000 there is a flat rate tax of 35%.  No loopholes or concessions are acceptable.
One more thing I would look at is non-domicile status.  At this time I understand that if one is a non-dom, if the HMRC receives £30,000 then that is that.  There may be a case for Vince Cable’s Mansion Tax for such people.  Otherwise I still think that the Liberal Democrat policy of local-income tax is ultimately the right way to go.

As a final thought, wouldn’t it be nice if the principle of minimum taxation would be introduced to some of our richest companies such as Vodafone and Sky?