Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: October, 2015

If the engineers ran the world we would get things done

I wish I had grown up to be an engineer. They are the problem solvers. They build bridges, dig tunnels and walk under the ocean. They can point to breath taking accomplishments for their efforts.

At university, the engineering students donned their anoraks at the crack of dawn and set off for their lectures. The arts students favoured a later start to fulfil their grandiose ambitions to change the world. Arguably the engineers have achieved far more benefit for human good than the social workers.

This region can be proud of outstanding local firms clearing mine fields, constructing oil rigs and  building trains. So I was attracted to the idea put forward by  Liz Mayes of the Engineering Employers Federation in a new report that engineers should be represented on whatever form of devolved administration is agreed for the north east. There would be at least one practically minded, hard hatted person at the table.

Liz Mayes may not go far enough. Perhaps  the engineers should be put in charge of the north east today and take over the world tomorrow. They would be good at infrastructure, transport and skills. I know they can get up early to make decisions and obtain results. If a token politician was needed, then Chi Onurwah could be recruited as she, unusually for a member of parliament, has a degree in electrical engineering.

Of course, there would be complaints from other sections of the business community. What about a place for the all important car manufacturers?  The managing director of Volkswagen UK lamented that he was not an engineer when he appeared before the parliamentary select committee. Only an engineer can tell you what goes on under the bonnet, he said, playing the card that ignorance is bliss. If he is to be believed, engineers have a dark side.

Speaker after speaker at the powerhouse breakfast last Friday proclaimed that business must be at the table. As Ross Forbes from  North East Chamber put it “The big question that needs to be addressed is what will be the role of business in governance”. There might be a scramble between the Chamber, the CBI, the Federation of Small Business and the Entrepreneurs Forum as to who can shout loudest but business must be there.

Business creates wealth and brings thousands of jobs to the area. That’s the mantra. Business knows best and deserves a large say in how government money is deployed. Just don’t mention it in Redcar for the next few weeks.

It is a long time since my A level Economics course  ( Grade C) and  I may not have got the hang of the subject. In those days, the purpose of business was to pay dividends to shareholders and make a profit for the owners. That is presumably why Barclays has appointed an investment banker to perk up its profits again. Humdrum retail banking helps the world go round but it does not make enough money for the bankers.

Don’t be fooled. Business leaders may be bright people with strong opinions but they are a vested interest to be sat alongside the trade unionists, the educationalists, the health services and, for that matter, the esteemed columnists on the Journal, several of whom are itching to be appointed to a devolved assembly.

There can be an arrogance in the business world that assumes that anyone who can manufacture a widget can chair a committee or run a government. Entrepreneurs are head strong people used to getting their own way. They do not necessarily have the skills to deal with Whitehall mandarins or negotiate a compromise.

The only names not mentioned in the hustings to sit on a devolved assembly are leading politicians like, in alphabetical order, Nick Forbes, Simon Henig and Mick Henry behind whom sit some excellent chief executives. The implication in the Engineering Employers Federation report and elsewhere is that they cannot be trusted to do the job and that is an insult to them.

Of course, in this part of the world, the elected members do no hold the same political views as either the business community or the government of the day so it is tempting to appoint a business meritocracy to dilute their influence.  When even I can ask a question of the Prime Minister, there must be scope for widespread consultation with all sides. You may call me old fashioned, but I think the elected politicians should be left to actually run the show.

The devolution programme to the English regions cherry picks the cities but leaves big gaps in between. It could have benefited from the rigorous thought generated by a ponderous  commission or by an efficient early morning gathering of engineers.

Thank goodness that the devolution package will be signed this week with a flourish and probably a stunt. If we must have an elected mayor, there is no need to resort to a man in a monkey suit. The package could have been bigger in size and scope but we need to rejoice that it has come to pass and get on with the job of running the region in the manner of an engineer.

published in Newcastle Journal 19th October

My VW: Lands on Mars but kills on Earth – heads must roll!

Let me admit it straightaway. I do not take the business of buying a car seriously enough.  My car is a way of getting about but not an object of pride and joy.

I have always been bemused that, in a prix fixe economy, the two most substantial purchases that most of us make are a matter of barter. I walk out of the car showroom  or the estate agents office feeling thwarted and down at heart. Someone has got the better of me once again.

My best experience of buying a car was one Saturday morning when time was at a premium and the garage at the top of our road only had two cars on the forecourt that suited our purposes. One was described by the proprietor as the most popular car he ever sold and the other, he admitted with a grin, was “the dogs bollocks”.  By lunchtime we were the proud owners of a car forever nicknamed after an item of canine anatomy.

This year the permutations were more complicated. The number of bells and whistles garnishing a new car have increased dramatically and the person in our household who really makes the decision declared that she wanted a car with a rear reversing camera.

A long investigation into different makes and specifications  was organised into a matrix of what fits into the garage and what fits our purse. An environmentally friendly  car was important too. In the end we reverted to type.  We trust brands and so in the middle of June took delivery of a bright orange Volkswagen Golf.  Orange is the new black and  within a few weeks every other car on the road was orange too.

There are so many flashing lights, warning sirens and detailed displays that I could have landed the car safely on the surface of Mars. It might well be the last car I ever buy, I wistfully reflected. That should have been the end of the story.

Hidden away among the many gadgets, is there some software now known to us all as a ‘defeat device’. The nice man at the garage denies it and the Volkswagen website confirms that my car is not affected.  But never was the old adage that a car loses thousands of pounds as you drive off the forecourt more true. The renown high resale price of a Volkswagen is history.

Let me also admit a certain affection for the Arthur Daleys of this world who make a few bob at our expense but have a heart of gold.  What has happened at Volkswagen is of an all together  different order.

For the best part of ten years, one of the most reputable car manufacturers in the world has hidden an illegal device in 11 million cars that disguises the nitrous oxide omissions when the car is tested in the laboratory. It then sells the cars on the basis of false information about its clean credentials. No one knew about it? Pull the other one.

The cover up is almost as shocking as the crime. The Chief Executive apologises profusely and is pushed out  protesting his ignorance  and pocketing a E3million pay off to follow his E15million bonus. He is replaced by his first lieutenant. The Chairman steps down and a long serving colleague takes over. As far as I can see, no other heads have rolled.

Where are the demands  from shareholders or the pressure from government to sack the lot of them? The Augean garage should be cleaned out in a day and new people from outside the company put in charge.

The pundits from the motoring press play down the scandal. But in the last week it has been revealed that other major car manufacturers are under suspicion as well. The emissions form their cars on the road are ten times the emissions on the test rack.

The testing of car emissions is a farce. The regulators turn a blind eye to all sorts of shady practices and exclude lorries form emission tests at all. The Vehicle Certification Agency turns out to be mainly funded by the car manufacturers.

Air pollution kills more people than smoking and the nitrous oxide emitted from diesel engines is the most pernicious of all. A government report published on the Saturday morning of the Labour leadership election reveals 23,500 premature deaths a year from diesel emissions and makes only the vaguest of commitments to curtail them.

Since the mid nineties, clean diesel  has been the darling of the motoring world. Diesel helps us meet our carbon reduction targets and just happens to be cheaper at the pumps as well. Half of us now drive a diesel. But nine out of ten diesel cars break E U pollution limits. The introduction of stricter limits is delayed at the behest of the manufacturers with the connivance of governments.

Do we really care? As long as our cars vroom vroom, are we oblivious to the crimes of the car makers or the deaths caused by emissions.  I really should take buying a new car more seriously.