Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Should we only eat meat on high days and holidays?

In rural Herefordshire, I was sent out to buy the meat for a family celebration. The locals pointed me to Weobley, known as a ‘black and white’ village, for its architecture rather than its football team. King Charles spent the night there after the Battle of Naseby and the parade of shops and restaurants suggested that this small village cum market town was still well to do.

At Mark Hurds Butchers, where the staff wore straw boaters, I bought a rib of beef and two free range chickens. The chickens were supplied by Springfield Farm, Herefordshire which described itself as an old fashioned family business set up in 1956.They were eye wateringly expensive but the butcher said, with a twinkle in his eye, that “if only people knew the conditions in which mass produced poultry were raised, Sir, they would never eat cheap chicken again.”

Now we do know a  little more about how chickens are raised, following  a Guardian / ITV undercover operation at 2 Sisters Food Group where 6 million chicken are processed a week. Staff at Site D in West Bromwich were shown changing the kill by dates on the poultry to prolong their lives on supermarket shelves and picking up chicken off the floor and returning them to the production line. Aldi, Lidl, Sainsbury and Tesco stopped supplies from Site D but subsequent inspections from Food Standards Agency and Tesco’s own experts found nothing wrong. Site D has been temporarily closed for staff retraining.

Back in 2009, Jack Dromney, now the local M P, took up the issue of changing dates with 2 Sisters, who claimed that poor working practices were being cleaned up. So, who do you believe?

I had never heard of 2 Sisters Food Group but it turns out to be the largest food company in the country  producing one third of all poultry products eaten in Britain. It even owns Bernard Matthews – the most famous chicken breeder of all time. The company was set up by a Brummie called Ranjit Singh Boparan, who started life as a butchers assistant and is now a shy multi millionaire known in the West Midlands as ‘Chicken King’.

Mr Boparan will be hauled before a select committee which ought to look into the regulation of the food industry. The number of environmental health officers has fallen by 25% since 2010. They have been told to concentrate on the smaller producers as the large firms are above suspicion and are overseen by supermarket inspectors. As with building inspection, food inspection is contracted out to save money.

The story sheds light on the cut throat supply of food products which have small profit margins and just in time delivery dates enforced by the supermarkets in order to outdo the competition. Tesco, by the way, brands its chickens from 2 Sisters as an exclusive Willow Farm range  reared to Red Tractor quality standard.  As the chickens have never set foot in a farm, that must defy the Trade Descriptions Act.

But, at the end of the day, we have only ourselves to blame. We want our food as cheaply as possible and we are not prepared to pay a penny more.

I can remember as a boy that roast beef was served without fail for Sunday lunch and chicken only appeared on the table for Easter and Christmas. It was a cherished rarity. We now eat over 2 million chickens a day in the United Kingdom.

Since the 1950s, cheap energy, synthetic fertiliser and antibiotics have allowed vast numbers of chickens to be force fed in sheds in cramped conditions.  The chickens live in their own dirt and are so obese that they can hardly stand up. A chicken has a space the size of an A4 sheet of paper for its 6 week life. It will have more space in the oven when dead, according to Felicity Lawrence, who wrote ‘The Foods That Make Billions’.

“Keeping chickens in cruel conditions produces a poorer product,” says Compassion in World Farming. “Why do we think it acceptable to expect people on lower incomes to have to feed their children poorer factory-farmed food?”

The environmental campaigner George Monbiot goes even further. He believes that farming animals will come to be seen as one the great cruelties of the modern age and that the production of meat and poultry is wasteful of land and resources.  Converting to soya reduces the land area required per kilo of protein by 70% for poultry and 97% for beef.  We could cut greenhouse emissions and restore the natural habitat if we used land for growing crops instead . It is the only sustainable way to feed the world.

The Chinese have just signed a deal for artificial meat and it may not be long before we all  live off synthetic food.  Old habits die hard though, especially something as primitive as gnawing on a bone. But why not keep meat and poultry for high days and holidays?

For the record, last weekend was a special occasion and the chicken from Mr Hurd was every bit as good as I remember as a child. The left over beef supplied sandwiches for long walks high in the hills. I looked down on fields full of sheep and cattle wondering if the days of animal farming were numbered and if I should be buying Quorn and pulses instead.

Published in Newcastle Journal 17th October 2017





If you go down to Prudhoe today…

If you go down to Prudhoe today, explore Arthur McGee’s new hardware and household store which has moved across the road into much larger premises. The family run business must now rank second only to Thorpes of Gosforth as the region’s favourite ironmonger.
Then pop into the Emporium whose collections of local arts and crafts will help you find that elusive present. Order a wood burning stove from David at Northumbria Pipes, buy a painting in Paul Stangroom’s gallery, some more wool from Ready Steady Knit and then rest up at Ginevra’s with a cup of their locally roasted coffee. You are bound to find me there mid morning putting the world to rights.
But I am sorry to report that, as from today, you can no longer call into Spetchells Centre if you are waiting for a benefit payment, worried about managing debts, having a problem with your employer or being harassed by your landlord. The twice weekly drop in run by Citizens Advice Northumberland has been shut down.
From now on, residents of Prudhoe will have to take the half hour bus journey into Hexham to get face to face advice. The fare is £6.20 return. Prudhoe (pop 11675) now has to defer to the bright lights of Hexham (pop 11829) which does not go down well with Prudhoe folk.
Citizens Advice says it can no longer afford to support drop ins at sub offices like Prudhoe or Haltwhistle. It is reducing staff and advice sessions all across the county as part of a major reorganisation and cost cutting exercise. The number of telephone advisors will increase following a 40% rise in telephone enquiries.
The number of clients calling at Citizens Advice offices remains as high as ever and I can tell you that whenever I call into Spetchells Centre, there is always a long queue outside the CAB door.
My head suspects Citizens Advice is boldly doing the right thing for the long term. It is funded by grants and must live within its means. It is adapting to a world where we want information at any time of the day or night, on line, by web chat or mobile phone. We do not willingly wait a few days and then sit in a queue to see an advisor.
But my heart says this is a mistake. Citizens Advice is a national treasure. ( B for Bureau has been dropped but everyone still refers to CAB). Its information is impeccable and its advisors well trained – as I know from personal experience. But it needs to keep its place on every high street. I would like to have seen Citizens Advice fighting harder to raise more funds even if this meant a constant anxiety for the trustees to balance the books. Most other voluntary organisations – and most small businesses – are in the same straights.
It is tempting to build a business model that relies on the phone and the computer but not everyone can summon up information with a flick of the fingers and few of us think clearly under pressure when problems are mounting up. Citizens Advice has always provided a shoulder to lean on as well.
It is also a pity for Prudhoe which is an expanding town proudly wanting to meet the needs of all. ( Prudhoe Town Council makes a generous grant for CAB’s overheads).The people turning up this morning expecting to see a CAB advisor will doubtless get some help other staff working in Spetchells Centre – which is also a food bank distribution point – but nothing will replace the expertise from Citizens Advice unless we set up a local advice service of our own.
All this unfortunately takes place at just the time when the much vaunted Universal Credit is, to use their odd phrase, rolled out across Northumberland. Appeals from Laura Pidcock and others to delay implementation until after Christmas have fallen on deaf ears and the ministers concerned defiantly defend the flagship project as a success in driving claimants back into work.
Research by Citizens Advice earlier in the year showed that 39% of claimants did not get their payments within the 6 week waiting period. 57% had to borrow money to get by. Claimants experienced problems with the on line application form and could not get through to the telephone help line, which anyway costs 50p a minute. In Newcastle, according to Our Homes, rent arrears have shot up since Universal Credit was introduced. Bringing welfare benefits together into one payment maybe be a good idea, but it ain’t working. And Citizens Advice is the first port of call for anyone in difficulties.
In his last budget, George Osborne reduced benefit payments by £14bn leaving some families an estimated £2,800 a year worse off. Now Tory back benchers are writing to the Prime Minister telling her to ease off.
For the first time in living memory, Prudhoe elected two conservatives to Northumberland County Council in May. It would be amazing if Theresa May refers to this part of her new heartland when she addresses the party conference tomorrow. It would be pleasantly surprising if she mentions Universal Credit at all. Never mind lauding the virtues of the free market, Prime Minister. This is one small cameo of austerity Britain – benefits reduced, claimants left on the breadline, help withdrawn and communities diminished – that any caring government would address.

published in Newcastle Journal 3rd October


We should listen to the Archbishop and learn from Kynren’s archers

The Archbishop

I am surprised that no one takes any notice when Justin Welby says that our economic model is broken.  I was taught at school that the Archbishop of Canterbury is the second most important person in the land. Do we do longer grant people in authority due deference and respect?  Should the Church of England and the House of Windsor worry for their future?

Or are we so accustomed to senior clerics sounding off, in the manner of Robert Runcie and David Jenkins, that we turn a deaf ear. Welby’s article in the Financial Times was dumped  in the looney lefty prelate bin by the popular press . What a pity, as he knows about finance and economics and had something important to say.

But then experts are the last people we listen to. When the Head of NATO says the world is a more dangerous place today than it has been for a generation, nobody bats an eyelid.  When the United Nation’s rapporteur on human rights say the government is “flouting” its duties on air pollution, no one expects any action. When endless experts, most recently the Chairman of John Lewis, tell us that Brexit will be a disaster, it only strengthens the resolve of those proclaiming the opposite course.

We are so overwhelmed by finding a way out of Europe that we have locked down our systems that relate to the state of the world, the health of the nation or the injustices in our society.  We are not accepting new information, discordant views or uncomfortable facts. We are hunkered down and scared.

“Britain stands at a moment of significant economic uncertainty” Justin Welby writes in prophetic mode  “ a watershed moment, where we need to make fundamental choices about the sort of economy we  need for the way we want to live”

He believes “we are failing those who will grow up into a world where the gap between the richest and poorest parts of the country is significant and destabilising”.  He points to the growing gap between  executive pay and average wages; the lack of pay  rises  for more than a decade and the fall in living standards  in his past postings in Liverpool and Durham.  He suspects that the resulting discontent fed into the referendum and general election results.

The Archbishop’s article announced the interim report of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice, on which he sits alongside academics, business people and Sara Bryson, a community organiser from Newcastle.  “The British economy today is not generating rising prosperity for a majority of the population” the report concludes. It notes that young people are poorer than the previous generations at the same age and that UK remains among the most unequal countries in western Europe.

The Commission believes that the 2008 global financial crisis has precipitated a  breakdown like the Great Depression of the 1930s and the oil crisis of the 1970s. It requires the kind of radical change that we last saw under the Attlee government and the Thatcher government  to “define a new settlement for the 21st century”.

IPPR calls for reforms of our institutions that will include devolution. It wants to see the economy become more competitive and innovative and be rewired for social  justice. In the next stage of its work, the Commission  will consider how to promote better paid and more secure jobs, reform the tax system and  adopt new approaches to housing.  We must wait until the final report appears next year to know how this wish list will come about. But this is a promising start.

It is just possible that someone was listening to Justin Welby and his fellow commissioners as the cap on public sector pay has been lifted.  It has been handled in a ham fisted way that has not satisfied the police and prison officers, who have been offered small increases, or the nurses and teachers who have not.  A winter of discontent could be ahead.

It is just this kind of muddle that IPPR is worried about. Comprehensive change is needed  to produce a new alignment for the next thirty years that reduces inequality. But who will listen until Brexit has run its weary way ?

The Archers

The second season of Kynren, the spectacular outdoor pageant of English history within sight of Justin Welby’s former home at Bishop Auckland, came to end this weekend.  I am intrigued by the economic model of Eleven Arches, the production company responsible for the event, which would fall apart without 1500 volunteers who give up their weekends all through the summer.

The self styled  ‘Archers’ are gaining skills, growing in confidence and taking ownership according to Eleven Arches They are motivated by wanting to revive the fortunes of their town and, on both my visits, have been foot perfect on stage and remorselessly cheerful as stewards off stage. They could not have been more helpful well into the night to a member of our party taken ill last week.

The investment comes from the new owner of Auckland Castle, the wealthy Jonathan Ruffer. Who else would have had the courage to back a business plan which depends on engaging, training and retaining such a massive volunteer force who could walk away at any point?  It is an astonishing testament to community spirit and it shows that radical new approaches are possible.

Published in Newcastle Journal 19th Sept 2017







The Judge gets down to work but will he tells us what we need to know

Moore bick

The children set off back to school , the politicians return to  Westminster and  Sir Martin Moore-Bick  steps into a palatial banqueting hall in Covent Garden to chair the first day of the Grenfell Tower inquiry.

I make no apology for returning to a subject that has haunted me all summer. The Notting Hill festival observes a minutes silence in memory of the victims . Alan Shearer manages a team in a charity football game for the survivors. Theresa May meets the tenants and makes an arbitrary announcement that the management company will be replaced. Sadiq Khan calls for a social housing czar who can put residents at the heart of decision making . The Metropolitan Police open a criminal enquiry. The cladding on a further 82  tower blocks fails fire safety tests. The story refuses to go away and Sir Martin Moore-Bick has not even taken his seat.

More people died as a result of fridge setting light than in all the terrorist outrages that have rocked this summer.  Britain’s worst fire in a century is a tragedy of our own making. There is no external power or extremist ideology to blame. It is impossible to ignore and shames us all.

My barrister friend tells me that judges are best trained to establish the facts. If  so,  why does Sir Martin needs six months to produce an interim report when some  questions seem easy to answer. Did the cladding comply with the fire regulations? Were the fire regulations too lax? Were the safety inspections carried out properly? Did the management company cut corners to save money?  We have a right to know the answers quickly.

In an age when information flies round the world in seconds, a public inquiry is an antiquated and long winded way of establishing facts. A retired judge steeped in the establishment who made a controversial ruling against council house tenants three years ago may not give everyone confidence . There was a strong case for a representative panel of many voices but, for now, let Sir Martin get on with the job as quickly as he can.

Even Sir Martin accepts that a wider inquiry of a different nature is needed into the sad state of social housing in the country. This need not wait. In the days after the fire, Theresa May promised that “no stone will be left unturned” but has left her housing minister, Alok Sharma, to conduct an, as yet undefined, internal inquiry. This will not disturb a single pebble on the shore.

Something akin to the Hillsborough Independent Panel is needed to give a chance for experts, tenants and the aggrieved to be heard. Newcastle’s Sheila Spencer is just the sort of expert who is needed.  There is no reason why this cannot be held on line or broadcast live and debated the length of the country. Step forward Joseph  Rowntree Foundation  to fund it.  Anything else is obfuscation.

Grenfell Tower haunts me because it lifts the lid on the lives on people living  in  tower blocks and how we have failed them. Many will be unable to pay the rent because their benefits have been capped  and some will live in fear of being tracked down by Border Force. It reminds me of the shock that greeted William Booth’s  revelatory study of life in London slums in Victorian times. The well to do just did not know what life was like a stone’s throw away.

The botched handling of the days after the fire led to a collapse of trust between local people and those charged with looking after them; the Chief Executive who stayed in his office and the Prime Minister who did not speak to survivors. No wonder there is so much anger and bitterness.

One of those who died in  Grenfell Tower  was a 12 year old Muslim girl called Firdaws Hashim. She lived with her father on the 22nd floor. They were both identified using DNA. In his McTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, the journalist Jon Snow  spoke of Firdow’s potential after awarding her a prize in a debating competition a few weeks previously. He went on to berate the media for insulating themselves from the harsh reality of life for people like Firdaws Hashim and for overlooking information about the hazards posted by residents months before the fire.

Journalists, Snow says, are losing touch with the disadvantaged and the excluded. The editor of The Journal entertains the widest range of political views in these columns but none of us can claim to be the voice of Cruddas Park or Meadowell.

I have not been too interested in the widespread  floods in Texas because I expect the richest country in the world to put things right even though they failed to do so in New Orleans. I am dismayed at the comparative lack of coverage of the floods in India where far more people have been killed and displaced. We become immune to natural disaster and loss of life in places that do not look like home.

The week following the Twin Towers disaster, the Hexham Courant ran a headline that read ”Hexham man in twin towers the previous day”. I bet no one in Hexham has ever been in Grenfell Tower. We need to know what it is like but doubt whether Sir Martin will tell us.

Published in Newcastle Journal 5th September 2017

Bringing Virginia Woolf back to life

I have enjoyed two weeks holiday on a grand tour down south. I have visited chocolate box places like Saffron Walden, Rye, Chichester and Lyme Regis. I have remembered old times with longstanding friends, told long winded tales and listened to theirs in return.  I am increasingly convinced that visiting friends is the only good reason to travel.

I have walked along cliff tops, listened to chamber music and watched village cricket. I have paid a ridiculous sum in a fashionable restaurant for a turbot plucked out of the sea that very day and I have met Marie Bartholomew.

To explain why a chance encounter  with Miss Bartholomew was the stand out moment of my holiday, I must try to unravel my lifelong fascination with Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest novelists of the last century, and her husband Leonard, author, journalist, politician and sage.

The late Jimmy Morris, my English master, as teachers were more appropriately called in those days, maintained that E. M. Forster was the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. Morgan Forster was a confidante of the Woolfs. On another day, I would make the case for Graham Greene but Virginia Woolf is right up there too and, to my mind, no one writes more beautifully.

A good cameo of  Virginia’s writing can be found in one of her first short stories which has just been reissued in Two Stories, to mark the centenary of The Hogarth Press. The Press started life in 1917 on the Woolf’s dining room table with a second hand printing machine  as Leonard’s idea to give Virginia some occupational therapy.

Virginia’s story, ‘The Mark on the Wall’,  is one of her first free flowing attempts to break away from the traditional novel form that was to find its apogee in The Waves 14 years later. Woolf is not an easy read but is well worth the effort.  The lyricism of her writing and her sensitivity to human feeling is incomparable especially when accompanied with a glass of chilled white wine.

I trawl bookshops in the vain hope of finding an early edition from the Hogarth Press, perhaps one of those printed by the Woolfs themselves. Virginia’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, designed the covers so they treasured by affectionados, but produced in modest numbers and long since ferreted away in libraries and collections.

Hogarth’s  jaw dropping  list included The Wasteland, perhaps the greatest long poem of the twentieth century, T S Eliot being another friend, and the complete works of Sigmund Freud.  Leonard’s unorthodox but successful  business model astonished the publishing trade and is worthy of a Harvard case study.

My fascination with the Woolfs extends to their role as members of the Bloomsbury Group who kicked over the traces of the Victorian age in their lifestyles, their culture and their thought. They were always up for what Virginia described as a ‘lark’ such as the occasion when they disguised themselves as members of the Abyssinian royal family and were entertained by the Royal Nay and inspected the fleet.

In his autobiography, Leonard describes returning to Bloomsbury in 1911 after seven years as a civil servant in what was then Ceylon, to be amazed by the outpouring of art at the controversial post  impressionist exhibition, the  performances of Russian ballet at Covent Garden  and falling in love with Virginia, who was one of the great beauties of her day.  He adds, honestly, that anyone meeting Virginia in the street would regard her as odd.

Civilisation, he believes, was destroyed by the first world war and then  battered by the barbarism of Hitler. The Woolfs  carried cyanide pills in case Hitler invaded. Writing in the swinging sixties, by then it his late eighties, Leonard Woolf is one of the most poignant witnesses of the century.

The Bloomsberries wrote extensively, kept diairies and left ephemera like holiday snapshots that have been endlessly mulled over for deep meaning. Their influence may be exaggerated. Virginia was well regarded in her life time but no one expected that so many books and thesis would follow in her wake including, for example, a study of her relations with her servants and an imagined novel of her time in the United States, where she never set foot. Enough!

I have read the books, visited the exhibitions and seen the movie ( the moody Hours) but never expected to meet someone who actually knew the Woolfs. Then came the unexpected  highlight of the holiday, on a visit to their home in Sussex, now a National Trust property. I arrived in the nick of time to hear a talk by Marie Bartholomew, aged 87.

Her father was the Woolf’s gardener and she recounted watching from her bedroom  window as the visitors in their party frocks arrived  at the Woolf’s house across the road;   how  her father argued with Leonard  over horticulture and how Mrs Woolf lived in a world of her own. It was as if it had happened yesterday.

I dared not ask Marie Batholomew about that day in March 1941 but without prompting she told how Leonard how banged on their door in desperation  whilst they were eating their lunch and asked her father  to help him look for Virginia who had waited until Leonard was out of the way, left a letter for him on the mantelpiece and set off to the river.


Published in Newcastle Journal on 22nd August 2017

If we wait for Michael Gove to deal with air pollution we may well be dead

I have never been too concerned about longevity. But I now want to hang around until 2040 and live longer than the internal combustion engine. My life has evolved around the car. I can still recite my number plates on 16 cars in 46 years and so the demise of the motor car will be a poignant moment.

Michael Gove announced that petrol and diesel cars will be banned in 23 years time when I will be ninety. It seems a long time away and Norway, which is such a sensible place, will ban gas guzzlers in 2025. I am curious to know how it will play out.

There are signs that the changeover will happen more quickly. Volvo has announced it will stop building conventional cars in 2019.  Tesla has half a million orders for its new economy model. The value of traditional cars will fall and we will shortly stop buying them. Petrol stations are already closing at the rate of 100 a year and will be consigned to Beamish.

The car of the future will probably also be driverless and configured in a completely different way. I imagine getting in my car in the evening and sleeping all the way to London. We are more likely to rent cars than own them and the most imaginative futurists envisage cars arriving at our door when we need them and going where we want to go without anyone giving the orders.

The problems  of electric technology  can be overcome  if  the engineers put their mind to it.  The price of electric cars will come down and no one doubts they are quieter, cheaper to run and last longer.  At present only 1 in 700 cars on the road are electric but expect that  to change rapidly soon.

There is a colossal  threat to the car industry but there is an opportunity too, if the government gets behind battery technology and skews transport policy. The German government, as ever much smarter, knows diesel is dead. They held a summit with car manufacturers last week to plan the transition.

There is a danger that we will run out of electricity. Electric cars will consume more power by 2030 than will be generated by Hinckley Point but solar panels and overnight charging may be the answer. Street lights can be adapted as charging points.

Government revenue for petrol duty will plummet as 67% of every litre from the pump goes straight to the Exchequer.  Fuel and excise duty could be replaced  with an annual charge for the number of miles driven weighted by the toxicity of the vehicle as proposed by Gergely Raccuja, a young post graduate student who won the Wolfson Prize for his scheme  in July. Like all good ideas, it is deceptively simple.

But hang on a moment, before I get carried away. Michael Gove grabbed the headlines with an announcement about electric cars when he was supposed to be outlining the government’s plan for tackling air pollution. This is the government’s third attempt to bring forward measures to satisfy European regulation. Client Earth calls it a “shabby rewrite of previous draft plans.. lacking in urgency” to  tackle  a public health emergency  that is killing 40,000  people a year. Air pollution is a bigger killer than alcohol or obesity according to Friends of the Earth. They call for a brand new Clean Air Act.

Electric cars do not get a clean bill of health either as they still emit particulates that are every bit as damaging as the damned diesel. The government plans to retro fit buses and taxis to control their emissions but it fights shy of charging motorists with diesel cars to enter city centres or introducing a scrappage scheme for the dirtiest cars. Instead, it has got itself in a tangle over a minor proposal  to remove sleeping policeman  and reduce air pollution  which has infuriated the road safety lobby. It should not come down to bumps in the road.

The trouble is that cowardly politicians do not want to antagonise motorists or offend the powerful automobile industry by bringing in measures with any bite. Neither will they make any attempt to control the growing number of cars on the road or put money into more efficient and healthy alternatives.

My friends in London rarely get their car out for urban journeys because the roads are so congested. It is quicker and healthier to cycle, take a bus or walk down the road to the train station.  According to London’s traffic expert David Kelly, the only real answer is fewer cars in cities.

We all travel more. It is tempting to load up the car and get away for the weekend even if the journey down the A1 is slower and more frustrating than ever.  We all expect white vans to deliver our consumer goods overnight even when we don’t need them in a hurry.  We are obsessed with getting there quickly and neglect the beauty of staying at home.

Yes, bring on electric vehicles and driverless cars as soon as possible but don’t be deluded into believing that the car of the future is the answer to a more healthy and fulfilling lifestyle and do not let Michael Gove kid you that we can wait until 2040 to control air pollution as by that time a good many of us will be dead.

published in Newcastle Journal 8th August 2017






Parliament must change its ways and could start by moving to Tyneside

My latest hero is Laura Pidcock. Within a few days of arriving at Westminster as the new member for North West Durham, she was on her feet declaring that “this building is intimidating. It reeks of the establishment and of power. Its systems are confusing, some may say archaic” designed for the needs of the privileged men who ran an empire.
The editor of this newspaper promptly told her to get real. You are in the establishment now so get used to its trappings. But I say, right on sister. You see things most clearly on the first day in the job. Parliament must change its ways to accommodate your generation, your class and your gender.
The Scottish MP, Mhairi Black said much the same towards the end of the last parliament. Another one to watch, Mhairi said she hated the place and was minded not to stand for re election.” It is so old and defunct in terms of its systems and procedures” she said, “ it is just a waste of time.”
Thankfully Mhairi changed her mind. We need outspoken young women to tell us to mend our ways. If we want to have any chance of engaging a new generation in the art of politics, then we must listen to them.
An unlikely ally has emerged in John Bercow. The Speaker has taken the revolutionary step of allowing members to speak without a tie. This may be a sign of things to come but much more must follow without delay.
Fortunately, there is a golden opportunity to get up to date. The Palace of Westminster is falling apart. Fires, floods and rats on a scale inflicted on the Pharaohs are expected any day. Deloittes has estimated that it will cost between £3.5bn and £6bn to repair and take between five and ten years. Just imagine asking a plumber for an estimate and getting that kind of a back of a fag packet reply?
By contrast, it will only cost £350m to redecorate Buckingham Palace which makes monarchy a much more cost effective method of government.
It may sound blindingly obvious but Deloittes found that it will be cheaper and quicker to repair the building if everyone, a cast of 10,000 by the way, moves out and so here is the opportunity. Parliament should take to the road.
Anyone concerned for the future of the Union should jump at the chance of relocating to Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh for three years each. It would give the strongest possible symbol of the intrgrity of the islands.
Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, has suggested a competition between English cities to host the Parliament rather like bidding for the Commonwealth Games. If the arts can change the face of Hull and maybe Sunderland, just think of the effect of becoming the roving seat of power as in days of old when kings imposed themselves and their retinue on far flung followers for months at a time. It would rebalance London with the rest of the country and show there is life in the north.
Jenkins says that Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds of Sheffield are the obvious candidates. I have been thrilled to see how the second city had been transformed into a vibrant, attractive metropolis by building a new John Lewis store and hiring a woman about the same age as Laura Pidcock to conduct the symphony orchestra.
Why stop at the big four cities? Quite by chance, Newcastle Gateshead has an opportunity to play at Westminster too. There may be time to reconfigure the new convention centre at Gateshead Quays into a temporary debating chamber or to knock up a prefab on the site of the current O2 Arena which has brown fields around and is in walking distance of the revamped Newcastle Station. New hotels are springing up with abandon and some of those colourful blocks of student accommodation could be requisitioned for minor factotums. We may all need to make sacrifices to win the prize.
As we all know, Newcastle Gateshead has excellent communications by rail and air but I am perverse enough to think that the journey matters and a certain inaccessibility improves decision making. Look what standing on a train did for Jeremy Corbyn.
The point about any decamped digs is that they should be as different from the current place as possible. The lines of leather benches must go. Debates in the round would transform the juvenile adversarial nature of political point making. I favour plastic chairs myself that prevent anyone from falling asleep.
There will be problems of course but they can be overcome with good IT and virtual debates. The reward of engaging with real people and getting away from City sharks and media moguls makes the upheaval worthwhile. Parliament could operate conventional working days and streamline its business. There should be time to enjoy the theatre and restaurants in the evening.

Of course, they need never go back. The Palace of Westminster could be given to Beamish so that people could parade about in ridiculous robes or sold to Travelodge to boost the tourist trade. Downing Street would be ideal for social housing.
At any rate, there must be a fundamental review of the way parliament is run. It is not a job for a retired judge and I can think of no one better to chair the inquiry than my new hero Laura Pidcock.

Published in Newcastle Journal 25th July

Would Lord Beveridge turn in his hilltop grave?

It took us a few minutes to find William Beveridge’s grave as it lies behind the more flamboyant memorials  to the local grandees. The pioneer women aviator  Constance Leathart  is also buried here and the novelist Tom Sharpe’s ashes were scattered one night  without so much as a by-your-leave  so Lord and Lady Beveridge are in good company.

The left leaning aged walking group had arrived at Throckington church for lunch. The oldest member admitted he was born in the year that Lord Beveridge  laid the foundations of the welfare state  in 1942. Two others actually had copies of The Beveridge Report,  which recommended  a safety net of national insurance handed down by their fathers.

What a place to be buried. St Aidan’s church is perched on top of the Great Whin Sill  with panoramic views all round. According to legend, a returning sailor brought home  typhoid that killed everyone in the  village which has long since disappeared  so the church is splendidly isolated  but regularly used and well  looked after. As we arrived, we passed a couple who had been married in the church forty years ago.

Beveridge was briefly the Liberal M P for Berwick but his connection with Throckington is tenuous.  His daughter married into a local family  and Lady Beveridge died when visiting her. The two simple and now pockmarked  gravestones are side by side.

It was thanks to Beveridge’s wife that the great report was written at all. He didn’t think the invitation to chair a committee on social insurance was sufficiently important to take him away from his Oxford college but  Beveridge extended his brief and produced  a report that sought to vanquish  the  “five giant evils ” of  Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness   by establishing a system of contributory insurance that would provide benefits for the sick, unemployed, retired and widowed. All this in the middle of a world war, yet to be won. Beveridge became a public hero who was stopped in the street for his autograph.

Would Beveridge turn in his grave today we asked over our sandwiches?  Standards of living, of education and of health care  have improved beyond recognition. Housing conditions are immeasurably superior for most people and unemployment does not blight large regions of the country as before the war.

Beveridge might be surprised by our longevity. In 1942 life expectancy was 68 year as opposed to 82 in the South and 80 in the North  today.  He might be bemused at the greater calls on the National Health Service when he imagined that improved health would reduce demands on hospitals.  He would never have envisaged the extent that inequality has become a modern evil and the way that the United Kingdom has become the seventh most  inegalitarian country in the advanced world.  Beveridge would be a kindred spirit of  Richard Wilkinson.  Whilst he might have predicted a man on the moon, would he  have dreamed of mobile phones?

In the last 40 years we have witnessed the dismantling of the Welfare State which was originally meant to be free for all at the point of entry. Beveridge was an economic liberal  but would still be shocked at how individualism has triumphed over any sense of community and at how we have allowed the excessive hoarding of wealth by a few.

Beveridge would be dismayed by the way people living on benefits are treated and stigmatised and would surely be supporting  Citizens Advice’s call for a delay in  mass implementation of Universal Credit over Christmas and New Year.  He would not have expected  that foodbanks would be needed to stop people from starving.

Beveridge was an indominatable researcher and campaigner rising early, taking  a cold bath and working a 14 hour day. His last words sitting up in bed aged 84  were “ I have a thousand things to do”.  What, we asked each other over a pint of beer after a long hot day walking in the North Tyne Valley, would he be reporting about today?

The most obvious cause is social care for the elderly which is an unintended consequence of longevity. He would undoubtedly build on the sensible ideas put forward by the Dilnot Report. He might make the case for universal basic income, championed by Rutger Bregman, which would transform the standing of benefit claimants and revitalise his cherished system of basic insurance.

Beveridge would be bound to tackle to the major issue of the day and look for ways to curb our obsession with economic growth as the be-all and end-all. He would want to see a society in which we cared more about well being. He might draw on Richard Layard’s work on happiness and find a way in which we could live with ourselves within the resources of the planet. Someone would have to explain  about climate change.

Beveridge always retained his idealism, stating in the House of Lords at the age of eighty that “I am still radical and still young enough to believe mountains can be moved”. Time for us yet then, fellow walkers, even if the mountains themselves are ever more difficult to climb.

Thanks to comprehensive information about William Beveridge at St Aidans’s Church, quoted here, and to thoughtful contributions from Tom Adams, John North and Mike Worthington.

Published in Newcastle Journal on 11th July 2017





Grenfell Tower: The mighty may fall

Words are loaded with portent. How best to describe the terrible events at Grenfell Tower? The fire that killed at least 79 people  has  been variously described as a tragedy, a disaster, a scandal and a crime.  In the heat of a Sunday afternoon at Glastonbury, John McDonnell spoke controversially  of the victims “being murdered by political decisions”.

When the evidence has been examined, we may eventually know how to attribute responsibility  between the contractors, the building inspectors, the housing management company,  the local authority and the government  but  we may never know the extent that sweeping public spending cuts led safety to be compromised in one particular fire.

The social significance of Grenfell Tower is another matter altogether. The fire and its extensive aftermath, in which every cladding tile tested so far has failed a fire safety test,  is likely to be a transformational  event. Anything less would be utterly shameful.

The current problems of a minority government have been compared to the similar situation in the 1970s but the events of Grenfell Tower remind me of the Profumo Scandal in 1961, when a government minister lied to the House of Commons about a fleeting affair that allegedly compromised national security. There was a judicial inquiry; the Prime Minister eventually resigned and within a few years the Conservative government fell. The implications were far wider than the sordid event . The establishment never recovered and gentlemen were never held in the same regard again.

There are equally widespread implications now. Firstly, social housing has been shown to be a public disgrace. Two days after the fire, I visited the housing estate where I had lived and worked 40 years ago and was dismayed to see how the early brave ambitions  of  local authority architects to design and build a futurist town in a coherent style, with open space and  community facilities , had given way to a hotchpotch of  new  private houses  crammed into every possible space.

Council housing after the second world war was intended, in Nye Bevan’s words, to be the place “where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived on the same street” and this aspiration remained, in my recollection, into the eighties, until council housing was removed from local authority control, arms length management was set up and Margaret Thatcher introduced the ‘right to buy’.  Council housing is now the preserve of the poor and the events at Grenfell Tower has brought the lamentable conditions  into the open.


Homeowners, like myself these days, turn a blind eye when the housing crisis is mentioned.  Shelter predicts a million homeless people by 2020 as lack of social housing drives the poorest into private accommodation that they cannot afford due to rising rents and frozen benefits.

Secondly, the economic zeitgeist of the times has been challenged. In order to grow the economy and create prosperity, regulations have been abandoned so that free enterprise may thrive. David Cameron pledged to “kill off the safety culture for good” with “a bonfire of red tape”. Boris Johnson claimed “health and safety fears are making Britain a safe place for extremely stupid people”. One of the lamentable omissions in the Grenfell Tower saga will surely be the failure of the coalition government to consider the recommendations after the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell in 2009 which warned against using inflammable cladding and argued for sprinklers to be installed. It was not a high priority for successive government ministers.

Funding for Health and Safety Executive has been cut by half but elf’n’safety is making the most unlikely of comebacks. At a  seminar last week  on the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation, which the presenter said would send most of the audience to sleep, my spirits rose at the thought that what would have been dismissed as unnecessary red tape only two weeks ago may now be taken seriously.  Devised in Brussels and backed  in Whitehall, the Regulation will place far more stringent conditions on obtaining  personal data  and impose fines of up to E10 million  on those  who flout it. The events at Grenfell Tower may just stop the rampant profiteering of neo liberalism and bring back sensible regulation to create a more civilised society.

Finally, Grenfell Tower is part of a community where some of the poorest in London live alongside the most wealthy including Roman Abramovich, Prince William and  David Beckham and where houses are left empty on purpose.  It is fitting that some of the families from Grenfell Tower will be rehoused in luxury apartments just along the road which come complete with concierge security, underground garage and a swimming pool.

UK income inequality is among the highest in the developed world and evidence shows that this is bad for almost everyone. Ever since Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published ‘The Spirit Level’ in 2009, we know that societies with higher rates of inequality come off worse for jobs, health, education and crime and that even the wealthy live better and longer when inequality is tackled.

The Grenfell Tower story may soon slip out of the headlines. The promised  inquiry may take forever. But dramatic events can sometimes change history. Will neo liberalism be cast aside, will a government fall and social attitudes change because a fridge freezer failed in the middle of the night?

Published in Newcastle Journal 27th June 2017





Signs of hope and despair in a baffling election

Do not come here looking for incisive political analysis. I have been as bemused as everyone else since Big Ben struck ten on election night and the exit poll announced  that the Tories might not get a majority. Here are the moments that have stood out for me, and the first is  from retired school teachers in Canada.

 Christine Archibald was a 30 year old  social worker from British Columbia  who worked with homeless people. She was visiting her fiancé in London when she had the ultimate misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when she was killed in the terrorist outrage on London Bridge.

Within 24 hours, the Archibald  family issued an extraordinary statement. Their daughter and sister, they said, had room in her heart for everyone and believed strongly that every person was to be valued and respected. She would have had no understanding of the callous cruelty that caused her death.   Please honour her, they asked us, by making your community a better place. Volunteer your time and labour or donate  to a homeless shelter. “Tell them Chrissy sent you.”

A week after the horrifying events at London Bridge, I am still moved to tears  by  the compassion of a grieving family on the other side of the world who told us so clearly how to start putting this terrible world to rights. If we want to do something to stop people becoming marginalised, dehumanised and radicalised, we need to get out there and build stronger communities.

Tearing up the human rights laws is not the answer. They were designed to protect our way of life. Putting more police on the streets may help redress  austerity has cut too deep  in every  part of our public life ( but can you remember a brave  Home Secretary  taking on overmanning in the police in 2010? ). The real answer is to reach out and welcome strangers even if will take years of effort and may not stop other acts of terrorism in the meantime .

My other stark memory from  the final week of electioneering was during the hustings in my church in  Prudhoe. We were asked whether we wanted another vote on the terms of leaving the European Union.  The audience was not selected for political balance – though bear in mind that Prudhoe had for the first time in living memory elected two Conservative  County Councillors. ( Sorry Conservative and Unionist as they are now known).  I knew most of the people in the room. On a show of hands, they were split down the middle. I realised that Brexit still deeply divides us.

Despite a referendum and now a general election called to seek our views on leaving Europe, nothing is resolved. I doubt that many of us would claim to fully understand the issues or the nuances of negotiation that lie ahead of us.  In less than a year, the reputations of two Prime Ministers have been trashed. There is an overwhelming case for pausing  for a summer holiday, perhaps walking in Wales again, accepting Ruth Davidson’s plea to “ look again”  and considering Yvette Cooper’s suggestion of a cross party negotiating team, before more damage is done.

I was then intrigued by late developments in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. You may have switched off the television set before the last election result was declared there on Friday evening. After two recounts, Emma Dent Coad was elected by 20 votes making her the first Labour MP ever elected in  a constituency which boasts  the richest street in the country, just along from Kensington Palace, where the average house price  is around £20m.

Kensington is home to the trans global elite, moving in from the Middle Est Asia and Eastern Europe, and also to international investors who buy fabulous  properties and then leave them empty on purpose. Since the constituency was redrawn in 2010, it also includes the tower blocks  in Ladbroke Grove  and the multi racial communities in Notting Hill.

The economics of neo liberalism may have benefitted the few oligarchs and hedge fund managers  but it has failed the many watchers on. In this cameo of political life in Kensington, the poor edged it by 20 votes , thanks  to the resurgence of a Labour party promising to end austerity through increased taxation on the very wealthy. I admit to a moment of excitement.

Finally, spare a thought for apparatchiks, of whatever political persuasion, who are sacrificed to save their leaders heads. By all accounts, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill rode rough shod over their colleagues but it is despicable that the servants fall on their swords whilst the mistress stays in post, for now at least.

It is as if nothing has changed. The same top team are around the Cabinet table. The same gang head off to Brussels next Monday, shaken but still in charge. How long can this last? The lessons I draw from a tumultuous  time are that we need to get out more, be friendly in Europe  and deal urgently with excesses of  inequality. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly as the Prophet Micah once said.

published in Newcastle Journal 13th June 2017