Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: January, 2013

This government has placed too much importance on austerity and has left us all in this mess

You cannot open the Journal at the moment without reading another article about local authority cuts.  The furore shows that local politics are alive and kicking, but those who shout loudest may be obscuring the full picture.

Despite how it might appear in letters column, it is not just Newcastle that is being forced to make draconian cuts. Last week, Gateshead, North Tyneside and Northumberland more quietly announced their proposals as well. Linda Arkley in North Tyneside could not resist a dig at the Labour group in Newcastle by accusing them of ‘slash and burn’ but never mind.

It is not even just happening in the North East.  Liverpool is losing £252 per head in cuts, Manchester is losing £209, Birmingham is losing £166 and Newcastle is losing £162. It cannot be said too often that the cuts are unfairly distributed across the country and that North Dorset is only losing £2 per person.

Despite the claims and counter claims from Lee Hall and others, it is not just about the arts and libraries. As a trustee of Seven Stories, I am greatly heartened by the surge of popular support  for the independent arts organisations in the city which are threatened with 100% cut in funding from the City Council over the next three years,  To quote from one of the many letters of support for Seven Stories:

 “The cultural life of Newcastle is important to me and is the envy of much of the UK. It is one of the things that makes Newcastle a great place to live and it creates the jobs and investment that we badly need by encouraging tourists to visit and business to set up here.”

There is more at threat.  In Newcastle, the direct youth service will be wound up. Youth workers on the ground provide a safety valve for young people and divert them away from trouble. The play service will be withdrawn and  the parks service will be vastly reduced, just at the time that so many of our Victorian parks have been restored. Anti social behaviour and vandalism will increase.

Even though the Council is intent on protecting the most vulnerable, and maintaining its statutory commitments to the elderly and disabled, the withdrawal of respite care at centres like Cheviot View in Longbenton will cause great suffering. There is a tacit agreement when it comes to looking after people in the community that the council does enough to back up the volunteer carers and make their life bearable.

Cuts to the voluntary  sector including advice agencies like CAB will come at a time of distress and hardship that seems certain to follow from the reform of welfare benefits. The loss of jobs in town halls is  far greater than at Alcan also but sadly receives far less public sympathy.  

I admire Nick Forbes because he is prepared to give such strong leadership. In a comparatively short time, he has gone a long way to becoming a voice for the region. It is shameful that people accuse him of political ambition  and it is so sad that an important debate has degenerated into a slanging match.

But whilst the City Treasurer can show how the sums are calculated, I worry about brandishing  a headline figure of such magnitude. It makes sense to plan strategically for three years and but I would want to proceed incrementally and make each reduction in service as reluctantly as possible. Even in the last week the need  for such severe reductions in public expenditure has been questioned by unlikely bedfellows like Boris Johnson.  

Once commitments are withdrawn and services lost, they will never return in our lifetime.  The City Council will lose a place at the table in the cultural sector which it has done so much to cherish and support. Its role in civil society will be diminished and we will all be the poorer for that.  

There is talk of the gaps being covered by volunteers.  It is an  great opportunity for social enterprises and voluntary organisations and some may rise to the challenge. Jesmond  Swimming Pool is an outstanding example of what can be achieved by a community group  but it would be surprising if local facilities could be handed over to voluntary organisations to any great extent or that volunteers could runs libraries entirely on their own.

Neither will philanthropists fill the gap. I know that the late Alan Reece bought the post office in Wylam but such acts of great generosity are few and far between. ( I have fond memories of arguing with Alan about how he should spend his money and mourn his passing.) Philanthropy works at its best building new buildings and priming the pump. It does not have the means or the mind set to take on regular running costs of voluntary organisations. Some of the ideas currently being  floated for increasing philanthropy are fanciful.

The truth is that voluntary effort and voluntary funding need to be underpinned by a strong and outward looking local authority which can promote such partnerships. The Dean of Newcastle Cathedral  reminded the conference of local authorities and faith communities in Liverpool of the words of the prophet Jeremiah to  ““Seek the welfare of the City for in its welfare will you find your own”. Cities are too important to let decline.

When the coalition government announced the first package of austerity measures, the savings expected of local authorities, as then unspecified, were the most ominous element in the proposals. Now we know their full and unpalatable impact. Is a degree of ideology coming into play by rolling back the local state in the northern outposts of the land?

My contribution to this new world dawning will be to cut the grass on the green outside my house when the local authority lawnmowers have packed up for the last time.  But as I push the mower up and down I will be questioning to myself whether this was all really necessary. This government has placed too much importance on austerity and left Nick Forbes, Linda Arkley, you and me in this mess.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene –


Rail travel may be reserved for the champagne drinkers

As the commuters complain  about the annual  increase in ticket  prices  and Network Rail announces its five year  investment programme, I wonder what would my father have made of it all. 

My father was a railwayman all his life. He courted my mother from the steps of the signal box at Caledonian Road and spent most of his time working  in the goods yard at Kings Cross Station. It was a world of  wonder to a school boy occasionally allowed to accompany him.

 Charles William Evans  was also an active union member and  in the late fifties he was elected president of the Nation al Union of Railwaymen. Given the  way that the unions were later branded as  a bunch of militants responsible for the downfall of British industry, let me say that I remember the NUR  as a  moderate fraternal organisation  where everyone was referred to as ‘Brother’.  Union members had great pride in the performance of the railway as a public service.

Dad would be delighted  to know that more people are travelling by rail than ever before. Even with all the muddle and confusion in running the modern industry, something must be going right. He would approve of the transformation of Kings Cross station but  he might not have  rated the nouveau  St Pancras so highly because champagne bars have taken the place of steam trains. To paraphrase the French general’s comment on the Charge of the Light Brigade, “C’est magnifique,  mais c’est ne pas une gare”.

And hereby hangs the most worrying point about the modern railway. It is in danger of becoming the preserve of the champagne drinkers. For the last ten years, train fares have risen at above the rate of inflation making  the United Kingdom the most expensive place to board a train in Europe.  This is a political decision to shift the balance of cost from the tax payer to the rail traveller and to pave the permanent way for further investment in railways. But the effect is to put train fares beyond the reach of far too many people unless they have the wit to book a bargain ticket. 

The ludicrous pricing of rail tickets  rewards  those who can book ahead and spend time finding the best price. Did you know that, according to Alex Nelson, The Station Master at Chester le Street, the cheapest way to travel to Manchester is to buy a ticket to Barrow in Furness and get off on the way  in Manchester. The station at Barrow in Furness has been modernised  recently presumably because of increased ticket sales.

The total revenue from ticket sales does not apparently rise at above the rate of inflation because the income  from the annual price hike is cancelled out by the loss on the cut price tickets.  The commuters are left angrily complaining  about this pricing policy but no one jumps for joy  when they buy  a cheap ticket.  Talking to a couple of guests from Tunbridge Wells at Shepherds Dene this weekend, I was left in no doubt of the ardours of travelling three hours a day to and from work  and rejoiced that I live in the North East.

I would struggle to explain about rail franchises to my father.  It is  so complicated that no one can do their sums with any conviction. The cost of  the competing tenders must eventually be recouped in my rail ticket . I wish I had set up a small business painting railway carriages.  I could have made a tidy sum painting  the  new liveries on the East Coast main line where   two  companies in succession  have gone out of business by tendering too high. Following Richard Branson’s challenge to the decision to award the West Coast franchise, the system may yet implode.

According to my friend with connections in the industry, the decision making process for  railway investment is  just as  baffling . A fleet of trains specially designed with extra luggage space for the Gatwick Express at a cost of £60m has been decommissioned because they took up too much space on the platforms at Victoria and Gatwick.  They have been converted into ordinary commuter trains.

The railway professionals would much prefer to be left to run their business without civil servants pulling the strings. I suspect that government interference is greater than in my father’s time when the British Transport Commission was at arms length from Whitehall and initially had the  commendable task of developing an integrated transport service.

Railways have been deprived of investment since the first world war and were haemorrhaging money in my father’s day. He pored over the infamous Beeching report, which axed 5000 miles of railway in an attempt to stem the losses and which the Unions largely accepted as inevitable.  But the failure of the railways to modernise  freight handling at a time when motorways where opening up was a bad blow which I recall every time I am stuck behind  a heavy lorry on a trunk road.

The decision to invest in a high speed rail system is an important vote of confidence ands an attempt to bring back business from the airlines. The £37bn investment programme announced last week is based on  a projection of  continued rising income form ticket sales  and brings no comfort to the North East whose plans for development were not adopted.  Those sturdy but bumpy  rail cars will continue to chug down the Tyne Valley for the foreseeable future while new rolling will speed into London crammed full of City workers.  Another anomaly is that  rail investment is decided by government and not by the rail operators so that the profits are not reinvested locally.

After nearly 200 years of running railways in this country, you would have thought we would have found a better  way to do so. The current arrangements please no one. Different companies own the track, the station and  the rolling stock. Although the aim is to make the railways more commercial, the public subsidy is about four times higher than it was than under nationalisation because this division of the spoils makes the whole system more expensive to run.   One sensible suggestion is to simplify the railways and  give regional transport bodies like Nexus a  greater role in commissioning regional transport services.

 Railways  are a national good with great environment and social benefit. They have  the lowest rate of carbon emission of any motorised  form of transport.   British Railways  should be a national treasure but we fallen out of love with them.  My father would  be so disheartened that we have lost our belief in railways.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene




My book of the year teaches me about kindness : 31 Dec 12


My book of the year is a first novel  written  after the author  had seen her children’s shocked reaction to a girl with a  disfigured face whom they met when buying an ice cream. It was intended for young teenagers and my 12 year old great niece describes it as “different”.

I know what she means. When I went into the bookshop at Seven Stories and asked what the staff recommended, I turned down their immediate best buys  full of vampires and were wolves because there would undoubtedly be too scary for me. They are meat and drink, pardon the pun, for teenagers.

The  Seven Stories staff said the one book they all loved was ‘Wonder’ by R J Pallacio but they implied it was a girly read and might not suit me. They need not have worried. I started on Wonder over my lunch the same day and, with breaks for a trustee meeting and a supper date, finished it on the bus on the way home.

Wonder beats off a strong shortlist of books I have enjoyed this year. For grown up books, I increasingly rely on recommendations from Helen at Forum Books in Corbridge  who found me  ‘The Hundred Year Old Man’ long before it found its way into the best seller lists and displaced all those wretched Shades of Grey. That was a triumph for the human spirit if ever I saw one.

Then Helen selected Karin Alenberg’s haunting and heart rending story of the Church of Scotland minster and his wife on the remote Scottish island of St.Kilda, ‘Island of Wings’, which is based on a true story.  How many works of imagination these days have a real life hinge to them. Boxing Day will be remembered in our family for watching Hugo, Martin Scorese’s animated film  about a young boy trying to find out about his father, which turned out to be a homage to the early filmmaker Georges Melies. Hugo wins my  film of  the year award.

In the non fiction department, I enjoyed the beautifully crafted  ‘Places of Enchantment’ about the spiritual nature of  rivers, mountains and deserts, by Graham Usher, Rector of Hexham Abbey. Graham leads a walking retreat about finding God in remote Northumberland landscapes at Shepherds Dene next May.

Perhaps hooked on landscapes by Graham’s book, my Christmas reading has been the enchanting ‘Gossip from the Forest’, the new book by Sara Maitland about the links between woodlands and fairly tales. It bears all the benefit of Sara’s wide reading and research and is written in a way that allows even the most die hard townie  to understand more about woodlands. It  inspires me to visit at least two of the ancient woodlands she describes in a series of expeditions with her son, the photographer Adam Lee.

The book’s thesis is that fairy tales originate in forests which are special places that  conjure our imagination and inspire story telling.  Just think how many fairy tales you can recall that take place in a forest.   Sara admits that hard evidence for this view  is necessarily lacking  and  I like the  way she backs her beliefs and instincts. For example, all sorts of magical  things happen unexpectedly and without fuss in a forest  just as they do in fairy tales. The fairy tale characters who work in the forest, like the seven dwarfs, always turn out to be hard working and trust worthy  –   just like the free miners in the Forest of Dean or the community up at Kielder – both places that Sara’s visits.

One of the reasons why fairy tales continue to resonate with us is that  they have been  handed down through story telling and  constantly adapted to the needs of the day.  Sara includes her own selection of fairy tales which she has rewritten with a modern twist  to them.

But why does Wonder win the coveted prize of book of the year? It is an uplifting story of August Pullman, a ten year old boy  with a facial deformity   as he sets off on his  first year at school on New York.  It is told from the viewpoint of his friends, family  and classmates as they come to terms with how Auggie looks and how they  find a clever, witty and  perceptive  person beneath the face.  In  a year when the Paralympics have shifted our view of people with disabilities, it challenges the way we all react to physical disability. Do you stare, do you look  away or do you sit at another table in the school dining hall?

It is also the story of a loving family in which the parents are brave enough to let their son faces the dangers of the world and make it clear to Auggie that he cannot always be the centre of attention.  You cannot help noticing that as August makes friends, they all want to hang out at his house because it is such a welcoming place.

Some of the most important people in Auggie’s life let him down at times because they cannot  cope with his appearance. But they realise their mistakes and make it up to him. I won’t spoil the story and urge you and your children to read it with a large hankerchief at the ready.

The teachers in the story  are good guys by integrating a child with a disability against the wishes of some of the other parents. The final chapter describes the end of year graduation ceremony in which the headmaster makes his usual over long speech to the embarrassment of his pupils.  Americans are good at making  inspiring  speeches whereas we are  losing the power of public speaking.

No doubt with August in mind, the headmaster says that if all his pupils made it a rule to act a little kinder than necessary the world would really be a better place. He adds  that if “you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognise in you, in every single one of you, the face of God”.

Gandalf makes the same point in the film version of The Hobbit when he says that “simple acts of kindness keep evil away”. Fairy tales are also  full of such acts of kindness and you could do worse than adopt “being a little  kinder than necessary” as your new year resolution tonight.

George Hepburn in Warden of Shepherds Dene and a trustee of Seven Stories




Caps on welfare benefits takes me back to the market stall : 17 Dec 12

In my youth, I ran a market stall. I liked the banter with the passers by. I enjoyed those sharp winter mornings when I warmed my hands around a mug of tea. I  had the making of street trader.

Our stall stocked welfare leaflets and we helped people claim their benefits. As a group of students, we believed we should take our goods out to the market place  and we did a brisk trade.

The trouble was that the benefits system, even in those days, was fearfully complicated and I eventually gave up my place behind the stall to more zealous and learned colleagues who had studied the rule book.

I was reminded of the complexity of welfare benefits when I visited Gateshead Citizens Advice last week. ( The word bureaux has been dropped.) The acronyms  –  ESAs and DLAs – flew around. I could not keep up  but I did gaze around in amazement at the splendid purpose built centre built with recycled materials on the site of the Barley Mow pub just off Gateshead High Street. I had to take my hat off to the tenacious fundraisers.

You would think then that the government’s forthcoming simplification of the welfare system, to be rolled out next year, would be welcomed all round. Far from it. Fears about how clients will deal with online applications and lengthy forms abound.  The job seekers application form is reputed to be a challenge even  to MENSA members. The change to monthly payments would, I was told, have the lads at Wonga rubbing their hands with glee as many clients would not be able to manage a monthly budget.

A group of housing managers on an away day at Shepherds Dene told me the proposed changes to housing benefit would probably mean bringing back rent collectors and that so much remained undefined – what is a ‘vunerable’ person – that they failed to see how the new system would work next year.

A particular problem is the bedroom tax which involves a reduction in benefit to clients with a spare bedroom as a  inducement to seek smaller premises.  Nobody in government realises that one bedroom flats do not exist in sufficient numbers.

I suspect  that the reforms are really a way of reducing the welfare bill and of making benefits more difficult to obtain. My  suspicions have been fuelled by the proposal to limit benefit increases to 1%, well below the rate of inflation, announced in the Chancellor’s Autumn statement.

It doesn’t help when the Chancellor goes on the Andrew Marr show to say that he is “going to tackle welfare bills” because “the system is deeply unfair to working people”. Excuse me, but, according to Joseph Rowntree Foundation, one half of children and working age adults in poverty and receiving benefits  live in a working household.

The government seems intent to set the ‘strivers’ against the ‘scroungers’. It glorifies  the Daily Mail’s view of welfare claimants living in mansions and cocking a snoot at the system. The unemployed people I know struggle with the continued rejection of their job applications – often without even the decency of a ‘dear john’ letter – feel humiliated and  are penniless.

Sadly, the Tory line – lets at least credit the Liberals in the Coalition  for blocking  plans to abolish  housing benefits for under 25s – is a clever  political move.  The government did  not reduce the old age pension, which would be electorally disastrous, but knows there is popular  support for cutting the welfare bill. It is brave of Ed Miliband to declare his opposition to limiting welfare increases and he will earn my vote by doing so.

The last time that benefits were ‘decoupled’ from inflation  was under Mrs Thatcher which led to the most rapid growth of inequality ever seen in this country. The Institute of Fiscal Studies calculates that the poorest 10% of the population will see the biggest percentage drop in their income as a result of the Autumn statement. This is money spent on the basic necessities of life. It doesn’t even make sense in reviving the economy as the poor have to spend to stay alive.

Worse is to come, if the IFS predictions come true after the 2015 election. The proposed 30 % cuts will fall hard on those government departments that are not ring fenced and will inevitably reduce welfare budgets yet again.

It is difficult to see how we are all in this together. The increase in petrol duty, which would have hit the pockets of middle England, has been  scrapped and income tax remains unchanged. Trident, you may have noted, is never questioned. Instead, the cuts fall hardest on those who can least afford them.

It is also ironic that the budgets of Citizens Advice are being cut at a time when their services are most needed. Next year the Gatehead service forecasts a 40% increase in callers, many of whom will not have set foot in a welfare bureau before, but expect a 60% loss of funding. Staff have already been cut by 25% and all the skilled and experienced staff have now been issued with precautionary redundancy notices.

Perhaps Gateshead Advice has been  too successful? Last year the  bureau  recovered £11.35m in benefits for their clients  and overturned decisions in 85% of cases they took to welfare tribunals. Or perhaps the administration of the system leaves  much to be desired.

Not everyone  realizes that Citizens Advice is a charity.  As Sally Young from Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service pointed out in an excellent letter to the Journal last week, voluntary organisations supporting disadvantaged people all face losing  funding as part of local authority cuts.

We may be forced to go back 30 years to the days when  well  intentioned students ran  market stalls and I may have to mug up the facts and go out on the streets again. This cannot be a  fair way to run society.


George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene






3 Dec 12: So are you going to have a good Christmas: Its 50 -50….

Our family stopped giving Christmas presents in 2002.  My wife was well  known for the care and imagination she devoted to   choosing  presents.  She would start shopping for the following Christmas in the January sales and we used to joke that she could start  a new career as a professional Christmas shopper. So this decision had to be explained to our loved ones.

We had spent the previous Christmas  with some close friends one of whom was terminally ill. It will always be one of the most precious Christmas seasons of my life. Our friend Fiona died a few months later and we gave the money we budgeted for Christmas presents the following year  to the hospice that had cared for her so well.

Somehow, our enthusiasm for the whole Christmas industry had gone and it has never returned.  We all had lots of  ‘stuff’. I had so many  walking socks that I never needed to wear the same pair twice.  Other things now  seemed more important. In the intervening years, our Christmas gift money has, amongst other things, installed running water in an old peoples home in India, planted olive trees in the Lebanon and helped build a mental health unit in Uganda.

I was therefore  an eager participant in a workshop at Shepherds Dene a few weeks ago run  by CASC-aid ( )on alternative approaches to Christmas. I was shocked to discover that 29% of annual retail sales are made in the month running up to Christmas. The retail sector depends on a booming Christmas and does everything possible to encourage us to spend money.

In the United Kingdom, we spent £20bn on Christmas last year, including £1.6bn on food and drink alone. Every household spends on average £1000 on presents.

According to Ruth Grayson of CASC-aid, you do not  have to spend a lot of money to have a happy Christmas. Her  proposal is to halve Christmas present spending and give the other half to charity. The biblical foundation for ‘50 – 50’ giving is that John the Baptist told his followers that in order  to get ready for Christ, which is what Christmas is supposed to be about, every one  with two shirts should share them with the man who has none. We currently only  give 2.5% of total Christmas spending on charitable causes.

With a little imagination, presents do not need to cost a lot of money. You can give time instead. Ruth Grayson had some clever ideas. Why not give a child a day out or  plan to spend a day with a relative you never see. To which I could add, why not sponsor one of the 350 trees  just planted at Shepherds Dene and I will send the beneficiary a beautifully printed certificate to mark your gift. There are lots of imaginative ways to show you care that do not require a large cheque.

Christmas can also be a stressful time for families cooped up together. According to CAB, the post Christmas period sees a significant rise in personal debt, depression and divorce. It is also a difficult time for people living on their own who imagine that the family next door is living it up. There is no doubt that Christmas has got out of hand.

Yesterday was Advent Sunday,  which marks the start of the preparation for Christmas in the church calendar.  It is traditionally a quiet time of reflection   and anticipation of new life at the darkest time of the year. A couple of years ago I spent a week in Advent with the Iona Community  on the small Scottish island off the coast of Mull where it was literally dark for most of the day. Even the farmers cut down their hours and caught up on their sleep

Instead,  in the run up to Christmas we mostly in  a mad panic to get everything ready on time and try to  out do each other with the best Christmas puddings and most outlandish lights in the front garden.  Normal work is suspended from the middle of  December, which always frustrates me, and everyone is exhausted and short tempered.

Anthony Bash, theologian in Durham,  and Melanie Bash, clinical psychologist in Newcastle,  claim  in their newly published book of reflections for Christmas ( Inside the Christmas Story ) that we have come to cherish an unduly  sentimental  version of the Christmas story designed to appeal to children

They  point out that Christmas is really a story about adults told for adults in which a child is born. It would hardly get a U certificate at the cinema. It touches on some frightening  contemporary themes like unwanted teenage pregnancy, military rule and homelessness. Mary and Joseph become refugees fleeing for their lives. Children under two are massacred as they are to this day in some parts of Africa.

The story includes the agony of  a childless couple, Elizabeth and Zachariah, and the stoicism of two extremely old people, Simeon and  Anna, whose patience is rewarded, in addition to  the better known  Angel Gabriel,  wise men bearing gifts and shepherds wearing tea towels who will  all feature in every nativity play in the next few weeks.

It is a story about hope in unpropitious circumstances; the hope embodied in  a long awaited Messiah who arrives in the most unexpected way surrounded by danger. As Anthony and Melanie put it, “ God did not trump any of life’s brickbats to make sure Jesus would succeed”.

It would be good to play down the festivities of Christmas and reclaim the sense of hope for new life and opportunity   that Christians see symbolised  in the birth of Jesus. We need hope badly ;  for  the climate of the planet,  for peace in Palestine  and for the poor in austere times. The Church of England itself needs to hope that it can resolve its embarrassing  dispute over women bishops, in which my own sympathies are entirely with the women. Maybe  Justin  Welby, as Archbishop designate, has  the decisiveness and negotiating skills to do just that.

When the Old Testament  prophet  told us to make a straight path through the desert to prepare for the Lord, he was looking for the world to be transformed.  He was not heading for  the Metrocentre.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene