Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Category: Uncategorized

Mick Cash and I agree about the East Coast bail out: it stinks

I agree with Mick Cash when he says it stinks. The rail union leader was referring to the government’s extraordinary bail out of Virgin Trains franchise for the east coast main line.
I am travelling south on a Virgin train as I write with a complimentary glass of wine waiting for my free lunch to arrive. If you can book well enough in advance, and take advantage of a senior railcard, the first class ticket is very good value. I am not defending the pricing policy. If you have to go to London unexpectedly, the cost of a walk on ticket is extortionate. Fares are much cheaper on the continent.
I have rearranged my journey to take account of the strike on Northern Trains called by the aforementioned Mr Cash, and the disruption to local services as the part of so called Great North Rail Project of major investments in rail infrastructure. There are grand schemes in the Leeds and Manchester areas but all we seem to get is 10 days of disruption to replace warn out points installed 30 years ago which failed 15 times last year.
I enjoy the train ride to London. The trains are usually on time and exciting new trains are promised. The staff are always helpful and smiling. Their uniform changes each time the franchise is passed like a baton in a relay race. I wish I had a business painting railway coaches in the latest livery.
The annual indignation over fare increases took place last week, with protests at Newcastle and a visiting shadow minister handing out leaflets. The Minister of Transport flew off to the sun to drum up trade and avoid answering the criticisms of a 3.4% fare increase on east coast and more elsewhere.
Virgin Trains East Coast is also in trouble for returning the worst punctuality of any train operator at 3.6m hours lost and for sexist behaviour in calling a customer honey, love and pet. It apologised straightaway. But all this pales into insignificance compared to their failure to finish the franchise. Virgin is the third private operator to come off the rails on the east coast route.
You could not make it up. The first franchise was awarded to GNER. The Hatfield crash, caused by Railtrack’s poor maintenance, happened on its watch. I liked GNER’s nod to tradition by adapting the names of the original founding companies and using a traditional livery. The line overbid for the franchise and when the parent company got into financial difficulties in 2006, GNER was stripped of the franchise.
National Express took over in 2007 but in 2009 also admitted defeat which lead the then Transport Secretary, Andrew Adonis, to put the line in public ownership as East Coast Main Line. It returned a £1bn to the Exchequer over the following 6 years and achieved 91% customer satisfaction though critics said it did not invest in new rolling stock.
Einstein said it was madness to repeat the same experiment and expect a different result but nevertheless David Cameron’s government put the line out to tender again and awarded the franchise to a partnership between Stagecoach and Virgin Trains in 2015. ( Stagecoach is the major player by the way not Virgin.)
Last November the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, agreed to terminate the franchise in 2020, three years early. The line had been losing money but payments are loaded heavily into the final supposedly profitable years so this let Virgin and Stagecoach off £2bn. Stagecoach shares leapt 12% on the news.
Personally, I am not convinced by Richard Branson’s protests at the weekend that this would never have happened if the infrastructure had been improved as promised and the economy had remained buoyant. There are always ‘leaves on the line’ when it comes to railways.
Tom Watson called on Chris Grayling to resign; Andrew Adonis resigned in protest from a committee most of us had never of whilst skiing in Austria and Mick Cash said that “the government was rigging the market again in favour of the private sector.”
What happens now to the lacklustre line? Chris Grayling calls for a partnership to run the east coast line that will somehow bring the train and rail operators together but the details are desperately vague. It may be a step forward, but Grayling has already made it clear that his friends at Stagecoach will be invited to bid again under the new arrangements.
Just consider the implications for other train franchise holders of the Stagecoach deal. Silly money can be offered to win rail franchises in the certain knowledge that the payments need never be made. There is virtually no risk to the private operator. What a way to run a railway.
Time for full disclosure. My father used to run Mick Cash’s union so I would dearly love to see railways restored to public ownership in my lifetime. But I despair at the way railways have become a political football between competing ideologies. Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to renationalise as the franchises expire is not thought through. The railway insiders call for a more pragmatic middle way.
In the meantime, Chris Grayling can expect a hard time when his plans are scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee. If you want to add your voice, sign the petition at for East Coast to be run for public good rather than for private profit.

published in Newcastle Journal on 9th January





Who walks away as Person of the Year? My survey of fellow walkers in 2017 reveals the results:

The great delight of a day out walking  is the ongoing chat and the chance to put the world to rights. So, once again, I have asked my walking friends to nominate their Person of the Year. Beware they are mainly elderly and leftie though this year the regular group has voted to admit women to keep in step with the changing times.

No sports stars have made the list this year. Our favourites Rafa Benitez and Joe Root have both struggled and  potential heroes like Ben Stokes, Mo Farah and Chris Froome have been under a cloud. Anya Shrubsole deserves a mention for making headlines for womens cricket.

In the entertainment field, Bruce Forsythe brought to an end the longest career on the stage of any male entertainer but Chips remembers Rodney Bewes, who died in November.  His finest hour was  when the North East was made glorious by newly built Leech housing estates, when Newcastle United fielded home grown players and  when, in select bars, you might even get a glass of wine.  Bewes was not a great actor and very much the foil for his partner James Bolam, but  together they  perfectly mirrored what is now called the Zeitgeist.  I saw him much later perform his one man show Three Men in A Boat at the Customs House and was enchanted. He toured with the boat strapped to the roof of his car.

John and Christine go  for David Attenborough who has been the BBC’s voice of natural history for over 60 years. In  his  magnificent new series, Blue Planet 2, Attenborough  has  described the desecration of our oceans in an authoritative and dignified manner. He has reached  millions of mainstream viewers who range far beyond environmental lobbyists and the green fringes. John and Christine  see their nominee as  the consummate broadcaster on matters of enormous significance and, at the age of 91, truly a man for all seasons.

Next a local hero, put forward by Wendy, who is Catrina McHugh, Artistic Director with  Open Clasp theatre company. Open Clasp creates  bold and innovative theatre for personal, social and political change and  performs in prisons, schools and community centres.  Wendy recalls coming away from the production of  Rattlesnake at Live Theatre exhausted by the power of the voices of women who were the victims of domestic violence.  The play was commissioned by Durham Police to help them understand about abuse in the home.   Catrina is the unassuming  founder and  driving force. She was awarded an MBE in June  for outstanding services to disadvantaged women through theatre.

In the community field, I also much admire Chris Milner, who once ran British Airways’s operation in Newcastle, before setting the charity Hextol to give work experiences to people with learning disabilities. This year, he has moved on again because he has ‘one more big project in him’ his wife told me.  Applaud too, my  former colleague Barbara Gubbins who retires this month from ten glorious years leading County Durham Community Foundation. Her sights are also set on pastures new.

I am most proud to have a group of friends who are passionate about the persecuted  and the marginalised. Jan follows Time Magazine’s example and nominates the #Me Too hashtag movement, which  has bravely broken the silence about sexual harassment. It was tweeted half a million times on the first day. There are famous names  featured on Time’s cover but the magazine stressed that this is a movement without a leader, of all classes and countries, which has set off the most fundamental shift in power and gender relations  the world has ever seen.

Ken picks 13 year old Amineh Abou Kerech, who is a refugee from Syria and winner of the Betjeman Prize for her poem ‘Lament for Syria’ . Amineh started writing poems in Egypt, after her family fled penniless from Syria  and has now mastered the English  language whilst living in Oxford. “Can anyone teach me how to make a homeland,” her poem, asks. Can any of us understand what she and millions like her have been through?

Robert and Caroline chose Richard Radcliffe for the way he has remained calm under extreme personal pressure to secure the release of his wife  Nazamin Zaghari-Radcliffe,  wrongfully imprisoned in Iran.  Even when Boris Johnson’s incompetence made the  situation considerably worse, Robert and Caroline say, Richard declined to criticise the Foreign Secretary, saying that such criticism wouldn’t help get Nazamin released.  Lets hope that Nazamin is home for new year.

I nominate the residents of Grenfell Tower, those who died and those who survived. It was the searing, defining event of the year which revealed the appalling conditions in which poor people live in one of the richest boroughs in the land. Their tragedy was confounded by the ham fisted rescue operation and the longwinded inquiry which is a shame to us all. Their bravery and resilience gets my vote.

In May, I was invited by Michael and Marion to join them on a walking holiday in Ireland and enjoyed five glorious days walking  the Sheeps Head Way. Michael nominates  Muhammad Yunus,  who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for  pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance which makes small loans to third world entrepreneurs who cannot get conventional banks loans. Michael says that Yunus  has changed, and continues to change, so many lives, not only in his native Bangladesh, but in the first, second and third worlds, especially for women who otherwise couldn’t break the cycle of disadvantage. His work confirms that it is the small, community based and largely unrecognized changes that have real impact for good.  From little things, big things grow.

Another international name in the frame is Emmanuel Macron  chosen by Fiona for creating a new political force, En Marche!, which within a year won him the presidency. He is the youngest President  in French history, and one who is still considered by the majority as respecting his campaign promises.  He inspired young people to engage in politics and broke the French establishment mould with his bi-partisan approach. His popularity has since blipped but how badly we need a European champion now that Merkel’s star is waning.

Merkel,  Markle, I get confused who’s who.? What about a late award for the soap star who is marrying her Prince Charming. Lets hope Meghan can be a protesting friend at court.

Finally, the big two. The men who have dominated the landscape this year; one good, one bad, depending on your politics, but both nominated by my even handed friends.

I was shocked when Chris nominated  Donald Trump. In almost every respect, Chris says, he  would regard Trump as appalling, but Trump stood out   because it was almost impossible to believe that such a person could be elected as US President until he actually was.  We wake up to a Trump tweet most mornings and live in fear and trembling of his next reckless move. For those of us who have always believed that democracy is a “good thing”, Chris says, Trump’s election, and the Brexit vote, shook comfortable assumptions to the core. The world became more  volatile and dangerous this year.

As championed  in my last column, I would rather go for Juli Briskman , the cyclist who made a rude gesture as Donald drove by. We must show dissent at every chance and stop him coming to the United Kingdom.

Runners up  in the world domination category must surely include Kim Jong-un and Prince Mohammed bin Salman who this year held  his corrupt  competitors to ransom in a luxury hotel, bought a Leonardo painting and let women drive. Vladimar Putin remains the dark horse.

The other big beast is the man who has changed the political landscape. He stopped  benefit claimants being described as ‘scroungers’,  questioned whether seven years austerity had been necessary  and  promoted public over private. Another fine mess requires the private train operator  to be bailed out on East Coast, by the way.   Jeremy Corbyn is  proposed as Person of the Year by both Mike and Edward.  Ed contributed a wonderful couple of days walking around  Vienna to my year.

Mike admits to having been being sceptical when Corbyn was elected two years ago but young Edward has been a staunch supporter all along. Other walkers are not so sure.  They worry about his policies, his hencemen and his management skills.  But who else emerges from the Palace of Westminster with a shred of credibility this year?

Against all the odds, Mike believes, Jezza  has given us  a vision for the future of our country which is different to what we have had served up for forty years and which has led us into the mess we’re now in. And he is taking a growing number of people with him.

So in this season of hope and goodwill, the man who lost the vanity election is crowned Person of the Year.  It was not a year to be proud of. But, funnily enough, out of adversity came some signs of profound change. May we walkers wish you all, that’s the many not the few,  a prosperous rather than a preposterous new year.

Published in Newcastle Journal on Boxing Day 2017

Donald is not welcome here….but Strictly evidently is!

I admire Juli Briskman .  When out for a bike ride, she gave a rude one finger salute  to Donald Trump as his motorcade drove past  on way back from Trump National Golf Club in Sterling Virginia. She caught up with the President’s car at the traffic lights and repeated the gesture, which she says was completely out of character.

Briskman  lost her job as a marketing executive  and was shunned by her the yoga club but kindred spirits raised $100,000 for her online.

I applaud ordinary people who make spontaneous gestures to stand up for their beliefs. Juli Briskman does not have a history of political activity.  It was a spur of the moment decision to show her dislike of the President of the United States. Such chance incidents can change lives. Briskman  now talks of finding a more worthwhile job where can work for political change.

I hope I would be as brave in a similar situation.  In every day life, we may have to choose in an instant whether to speak up, for example in challenging a misogynist or racist or remark.

Last week Time magazine announced their ‘Person of the Year’ to be  the silence breakers who had spoken out against sexual harassment. It is reported that Donald Trump was expecting to receive the accolade. Their bravery seem set to change attitudes and behaviour.

We must chip away at Donald Trump and his ilk; the wealthy, powerful men who think they can do what they like and get away with it. Trump’s behaviour licenses others to abuse women, retweet extremist texts and be audacious without regard to the consequences. One of them will drive down your street one day soon.

Small acts of protest add up and they also make us feel better. I bet Juli Briskman doesn’t regret it. There is the smallest of opportunities to protest  in relation to Donald Trump’s forthcoming state visit to the United Kingdom. It takes 30 seconds to sign the online petition at 38 Degrees calling for his visit to be cancelled.

I know we should listen to people with contrary views and treat them in a civil manner. But Donald Trump is a horrible man in his personal behaviour who professes racist, white supremacist views and feathers the nests of the very rich. He has pulled out of the climate accord and has now disgusted me by irresponsibly destroying any chance of peace in the Middle East. He is not a man we should deal with.

So say it loud and say it clear, Donald Trump’s not welcome here.

But Strictly is…..

Now let me admit to the limit of my political activism.  I have my seat booked on the sofa next Saturday for the final of Strictly Come Dancing. I am a man with two left feet who hardly know how to work the television remote control, so why am I hooked on Strictly?

I am not alone. 11 million people tune in and have been doing so  for the past  fifteen seasons of the show.  When the cultural history of the present time comes to be written, there will be some explaining to do. Here’s my view of Strictly’s success  in, as they say, no particular order:

It is brilliantly produced television with stunning sets and dazzling costumes. The band is an unsung hero. Tess and Claudia may be paid a fortune, if less than a male compere, but they never miss a beat.  The show harks back to the days of live entertainment like  Sunday Night at the London Palladium, which Brucie also compered, and which all the family can enjoy.

We must believe  that with enough application we could all fulfil that ambition to star on stage even if we are not in the first flush of youth – like Debbie – or do not have a  dancer’s build – like Susan.  The aspiration is commendable and transfers to other parts of life.

We love competitions and we strangely identify with losers. The couple who have “got to leave us this week” get all our sympathy and tears in the closing moments of the show … and then they pop up on Take Two the following night.

It is slightly saucy and raunchy and keeps the red tops in copy all week. Did Emma and A.J. find love and did Daisy lead Louise into becoming the latest victim of the Strictly curse? Don’t you  love the salacious gossip, darling.

We also like the predictability. Just like Cilla’s Blind Date, the programme is formulaic and works off a limited template.

But don’t be taken in. The best dancer does not always win, as Greg Rutherford complained last year. In the long jump, the athlete who jumps furthest wins as there is no public vote to distort the matter. Charm, character and colour of skin all matter. Sadly, the public has not warmed to Alexandra this year even though she tops the leader board.

The viewers are somehow drawn into the all embracing and glamourous  Strictly bubble.   The departing celebrity always says it has been the best time of his or life and the irritating Strictly jingle goes round in our head all week.

So, keep dancing. Strictly is good escapist fun that gets us away from the nightmare of  President Trump. Cast your vote on Saturday night but don’t forget to sign the petition about his state visit too.

Published in Newcastle Journal on Tuesday 12th December





So long Remembrance Day, lets move on.

We will observe the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war on Remembrance Day next year. Whilst this year’s ceremony is still ringing in my ears, I want to plea for the whole event to be rethought and scaled down thereafter.  I do not understand why Remembrance Day grows in attendance and importance every year, as opposed to diminishing in stature. I suspect we hold on to it for the wrong reasons.

A caveat: I know that soldiers have died in combat in recent years and agree their memory  should be honoured. There are memorials in my church  to Kevin Leech  who died on active service in Iraq, aged 20 and to Derek Armstrong who died in the Falklands War, aged 22. They come from a long tradition of young men from Prudhoe  serving Queen and Country.

Another caveat: I always find the two minutes silence extremely moving. In Prudhoe, a long parade of military personnel, ex service men, cadets, scouts, guides and brownies led by a  pipe band marches along Front St and assembles outside the lychgate to church, which is the town war memorial. They are joined by several hundred members of the public for two minutes silence. I have no doubt that we should gather together in silence more often.  It speaks louder than words.

The Church was full to overflowing for the Remembrance Day service.  We did not sing the now controversial ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and made a shared commitment to strive for peace, heal the wounds of war and work for justice for all humanity.  It is a valuable statement of reconciliation and aspiration, but it can be lost amidst the marching boots and the military banners. It may also be a missed opportunity for the Church to attract back young people, who are frozen stiff  in their uniforms by the time they enter church, and facing a cumbersome liturgy.

The loss of an individual life in a close knit community is always tragic but it does not scale up in my view. I am bemused by the hold of  Remembrance Day  on the nation. It may not have become commercialised like Mothers Day, though the British Legion is a force to be reckoned with in fundraising.  But the event competes with  Children in Need in capturing the public imagination.

I scrambled to find my poppy on the way to church realising that these days it is politically correct to wear the poopy for a good two weeks beforehand – preferably a handmade designer poppy. Even the dancers on Strictly had poppies embroidered into their costumes and Moeen Ali was harshly criticised when his apparently fell off in a team photograph. Jon Snow calls it “poppy fascism.”

I think that grief and homage should be more personal and less of a public requirement. I prefer the quiet observance of All Souls Day at the end of October when families who have lost a loved one  gather quietly in church in candlelight to remember them and pray for strength to go on. And grief has a natural and healing passage. It should not go on forever. There is time to forgive and forget.

Although no one does ceremonial as well, we are not as a nation given to parades and commemoration. The national identity gets expressed  through just  the one collective act in November. Perhaps we should wave flags and express feelings more often. Commonwealth Day has disappeared but what about St Georges Day, which would be popular with Brexiteers, Thanksgiving Day, if we don’t mind adopting another American custom, or, my own favourite, World Peace Day.

Remembrance Day primarily recalls the good old days when Britain ruled the waves and  the ‘few’ triumphed. Their stories continue to fill endless books and films. It may not be a coincidence that these were wars that our history books tell us we won. We still evoke ‘the Dunkirk spirit’ in every public emergency and appeal for everyone to “keep calm and carry on”. We delude ourselves that these mottos can still sustain us in more nuanced days we live in now.

The first world war was the war to end all wars. There was a resolve in 1918 that the  sacrifice of 1 million lives and 2 million wounded should not have  been in  vain. But the commitment to end wars has been lost in what can be seen as an affirmation of our military prowess. Hence the white poppy movement to acknowledge the continuing loss of life in armed conflicts like Mosul and Raqqa this year, where now 90% of causalities are innocent civilians, and to campaign for swords to be turned into ploughshares.

By chance, two different voices helped me make sense of the event this year. Firstly, Rev Sam Wells on Thought for the Day who suggested that we should be grateful for all sorts of people who had made sacrifices to save our lives; our parents, our teachers and even the back seat driver who screams out that we have driven though a red light. November 11th should be called Gratitude Day.

Secondly, Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, who argued that whilst we are meant to remember lest we forget, it is much more difficult and much more important to eventually forget and to move on. When we have marked the 100th anniversary of the First World War armistice in 2018, lets try ‘Forgetting Day’.



Doughnuts could save the planet

My Book Of The Year is all about doughnuts. It could be mistaken as the history of Greggs The Bakers but  is actually about a doughnut that  is really good for you.

Doughnut Economics  wins the Award for stimulating, provoking and encouraging me to feel that  economics has turned a corner and there may be a future for the planet. Unlike other similar tomes, I enjoyed and mostly understood it.

The author is Kate Raworth who describes herself as a renegade economist. She has worked for the United Nations and for Oxfam and  is now an academic  at Oxford and Cambridge but still talks about  the real world in a forthright and punchy way.  Get a taste from her TED talk.

For too long economics has been dominated  by the thinking of the two giants of the last century, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek , whose ideas are still the bedrock of mainstream political thinking,  but  their time has passed. It is the day of the doughnut.

Kate copied  another great economist of the last century, Paul Samuelson, who when challenged to write a textbook that engineers could follow, used diagrams rather than words. It became a best seller  and sat on my desk in the sixth form.

Raworth  drew a doughnut to sum up the kind of economy needed to tackle the world’s problems. It  is an American doughnut with a hole in the middle. The aim of the economy is quite simply to keep everyone in the ring of dough which is the Holocene era where crops will grow,  ice will not melt and everyone can thrive.

One in three people on the planet still do not have access to a toilet, Raworth tells us. Economists should stop people falling into the hole in the middle of the doughnut  by ensuring a basic level of subsistence and they should equally prevent anyone living in the lap of luxury beyond the outer ring of the doughnut where the planet is put at risk..

In describing  seven ways to think like a 21st century economist, Raworth shows how homo economicus is not as self seeking as is traditionally assumed. She lists the cast needed for her modern day economic play  which includes a few newcomers like’ the household’ , ‘the commons’ and   ‘the powerful’  – who must be constrained. She drops in facts that make you stop and think. For example, the resources of five planets would be required if everyone lived like an Australian or a Kuwaiti. She uses metaphors  like airplanes that may never land. It is a romp of a read.

The heart of her argument is that economic growth has been the cuckoo in the economists nest  ever since the Great Depression.  John F Kennedy pledged to grow the U S economy by 5% a year back in 1960.  Growth is a proxy for progress. No one has ever been brave enough to forecast whether growth can go on forever  and now growth rates in advanced economies are flattening out.

In  popular parlance, ‘upwards’ is good. ‘Feeling down’ is bad. Growth is a political necessity, conventional  economists  tell us. Just imagine an election pledge to restrict growth and prosperity. But the same economists are no longer sure it can be achieved.

Growth also means that the rich inevitably get richer. The three richest man in the United States  own as much wealth as the 160 million people in the bottom half of the country’s population and Donald Trump’s proposed tax reforms will make them even richer.  It is an inevitable spin off from the capitalist system , Raworth argues, even though we now know, thanks to Richard Wilkinson, that no one, not even the rich, benefit from inequality.

Growth means  that the environment gets ever more polluted and precarious. It is not good enough for developing economies like India to go for growth and clear up the mess they make later. We are, Rowarth says, “the first generation to properly understand the damage we have been doing to our planetary household and probably the last with the chance to do something transformative about it.”

“ We have an economy that needs to grow whether or not it makes us thrive”” Raworth tells us but “ we need an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows”.  The economy of the future  must  be redistributive and regenerative by design.  This is a tall order as “no country has ever ended human deprivation without a growing economy “ or “ended ecological degradation with one”.

In the final chapters,  Raworth proposes a whole host of good ideas that together might just work. She commends  the butterfly model of regenerative manufacturing and  the generous city movement of  climate positive cities like Oberlin, Ohio.  She sees great potential for the internet to freely exchange innovation, for the state to invest in renewables and tax finite resources and for texting digital cash direct  to the world’s bottom billion –  to name but a few.

Kate Raworth  has an infectious optimism about economic change  even when faced with formidable  challenges which inspires me  to put a copy of Doughnut Economics into everyone’s Christmas stocking and to encourage you to give broad  hints to Santa too. Here are the details: Kate Raworth, ‘Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist , (Random House) £20 with the paperback due in the Spring.

Published in Newcastle Journal 14th November 17





Would anyone in the present government match up to J. H . Thomas in the bicycle test?? ?

The politician, barrister and wit, F. E. Smith, first Earl of  Birkenhead, said  that there was not a single man in the first Labour government , with the possible exception of J. H. Thomas,  the railwayman’s leader, to whom he would entrust the letting out of bicycles.

I know exactly how he felt. I would not trust this government to negotiate its way out of a paper bag. Boris Johnson has actually been in charge of hiring out bicycles  but I cannot see anyone with the redeeming features of J. H. Thomas. I live in daily expectation of one further faux pas and the government falling  as did that first minority Labour government. They lost the subsequent election after the Daily Mail alleged interference from the Russians. It all sounds familiar.

I do not have much more faith in the Labour Party to handle Brexit either even though  Keir Starmer speaks well at the dispatch box. I regret that the Opposition front bench does not include a greater number of moderate and experienced voices.

I despair at the current state of national politics at a time when the challenges have never been greater. This time last year, I asked you to pray for Theresa May as she had the best chance of finding a solution. The Almighty must be working in even more mysterious ways than usual. Members of the Cabinet contradict each other and the reports of the Prime Minister begging for help at the dinner table are humiliating.

The regular posturing of Tweedledum and Tweedledee  at their twin podiums  is embarrassing. Perhaps there are more detailed discussions going on behind the scenes that have of necessity to be kept secret?  I have no idea, for example, of the government’s proposals for the Irish border, which is a precondition of trade talks, or have any sense that progress is being made.

Each day brings more gloomy prognostications. The much respected OECD predicts the British economy will never recover. A German  professor says Brexit is more  complicated than landing a man on the moon. 5000 more civil servants must be recruited. The North East economy will lose £8bn if there is no deal. The Cornish pasty is threatened. Even discounting for hype, there is an unrelenting bad news story every time I switch on the radio.

According to Peter Kellner, support for leaving Europe  is slowly seeping away.  U Gov polls show that leave support has shrunk from 47% to 42%. I am heartened by hints of cross party plotting for a soft Brexit and the apparent willingness of some Tories to desert the party line.

Michael Bloomberg called Brexit “the stupidest thing any country has done” at least “ until America Trumped it”.  But I am not here seeking to challenge the referendum vote as much as despairing  at the inability of the government to implement the so called will of the people.

The melodrama will dominate political life for years to come and I will live with the implications for the rest of my life. In the meantime, the things that really matter are side lined when the simmering crises about welfare, housing and social care need undivided  attention.

We delude ourselves that it will come right by Spring 2019 when smiling politicians will sign the leaving documents on camera.  If Jezza is in charge by then, they will hug. In the meantime, we  persevere with stiff upper lip  because anything challenges the due process of government and admits defeat.

We live in ever more surreal times. This newspaper is even accused by a correspondent of becoming increasingly left wing, apeing the Guardian as he put it, which some might say is a compliment. I am sure the Editor calls it as he sees it and events make it difficult to avoid the conclusion  that the government is living on borrowed time.

I have no bright ideas but believe something must be done to enable us to start all over again with a clean sheet of paper and a fresh team at the table who might be prepared to admit they face an impossible task.

Should the current generation of leaders give way to their younger counterparts like Ruth Davidson, Jacob Rees Mogg,  Clive Lewis or Seema Malhotra, who made mincemeat of the Brexit ministers last week.  Should elder statesman be drafted in to give more gravitas like Lord Kinnock, Ken Clarke or Nick Clegg? . Can the moderates in the centre win the ball back from the ideological wingers? Should there be a national Brexit cabinet of all talents?

We need exceptional leadership for the most demanding of times. Somehow or other, the Westminster roadshow needs to win back my support and belief. The stakes are so high and the current performance is so dismal. There is no point keeping up appearances and pretending otherwise. Step forward J. H. Thomas.

Footnote which spoils a good story: F.E. Smith said of his great friend Winston Churchill that Churchill  had “spent the best years of his life preparing impromptu remarks”. Smith drank too much  and never achieved his potential. Jimmy Thomas was born in poverty but once at Westminster loved parading in a dress suit which may have been why Smith liked him. When he joined the National Government, the comrades expelled him for selling out to capitalism and he resigned after leaking budget secrets.

Publish in the Newcastle Journal on 31st October



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