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Time’s Up – After much horse trading and secret deals the top eurocrats have agreed – probably – on who will become the next EU presidents. The changes are – at the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker is to be replaced by Ursula von der Leyen; at the European Council Donald Tusk is to be replaced by Charles Yves Jean Ghislaine Michel; at the European Parliament Antonio Tajani is now replaced by David Sassoli; at the Eurogroup Mario Centeno has been in post since 2018 and at the European Central Bank Mario Draghi is to be replaced by Christine Madeleine Odette Lagarde.

Surely all those Grandads who believe in continued EU membership will know all about the excellent qualities of these fine presidents – but for the rest of us it’s more like … Who? or How did they get that job? Interestingly there was no news about the future role of Michel Barnier even though he was lined-up for a top job only a few weeks ago.

BBC Sinks Even Further – Despite clearly expecting plenty of negative feedback on the plan to means test TV licences the BBC has continued to fire more and more bullets at its own feet (snowflake warning; metaphorical language – no BBC staff or members of the public were physically or mentally harmed). The announcements of the salaries of both on-screen talent and senior BBC staff triggered plenty of reaction. And not much of it was in support.

Then the sheer pointless waste of sending the main evening news presenter to Lyon to interview the BBC sport presenter also in Lyon seemed to go over the heads of the executives responsible. Apart from the benefit of providing Clive Myrie with free tickets to the football match and a stay in Lyon on expenses the whole segment was just one more source of ammunition (another metaphorical). Given the situation the BBC might also have reconsidered the need to relocate morning weather forecasts to Wimbledon during the tennis – but it is likely that Carol is a tennis fan so would have resisted missing her days at courtside; with pay.

And as this posting was being prepared came the news that the BBC is facing a legal challenge over its impartiality and biased coverage. It’s hard to see how this can succeed – given the resources that the BBC can throw against it. But having threatened millions of pensioners with a loss of benefit every unjustified expense and biased report is going to be jumped on – by lots of critics.

BBC Sinks Even Further

This afternoon’s announcement that from 2020 UK residents over 75 will have to loose £154 from their pensions to pay for BBC excesses will not be greeted with much joy or support. Especially when the BBC clearly makes little attempt to produce quality content in the most cost-effective way.

Man1902

Even live sporting events have excessive numbers of pundits and reporters before, during and after every event. Some of these pundits taking away millions for just asking other pundits what they thought of the game. A game that the viewers had most likely just seen for themselves.

Meanwhile the BBC’s lead TV channel – BBC1 – is full of tired shows like Escape to the Country – which today has reached Season 17 Episode 37 for the second time – or daily quiz shows like Pointless; where today we have a repeat of Season 19 Episode 33!

To quote the BBC’s own blurb – The BBC is the world’s leading public service broadcaster. We’re impartial and independent, and every day we create distinctive, world-class programmes and content which inform, educate and entertain millions of people in the UK and around the world. And that means that UK tax payers – including pensioners – are funding television, radio and online on [in] more than 40 languages.

Coming so soon after that disastrous last place in the Eurovision Song Contest – where the BBC paid more that any other broadcaster to take part – the Beeb’s claim of world-class content has again been put into perspective. Australia’s public service broadcaster – SBS – has consistently produced better for less; much less. But then it does have to try harder – with no licence fee income to pay for programmes that are unappealing or expensive.

Now the BBC may not be any better if the channels presently paid for by the TV tax were switched to commercial funding. But the Corporation is, in effect, operating a business model that looses over £3,500 million per year – the amount it gets from taxation to make the books balance. Much of that loss is down to corporate obesity. Time for a corporate slimming plan …

History Repeats

Recently the UK Transport Secretary and West Midlands mayor came together in central Birmingham to witness the official start of work on the new Curzon Street Station. It was billed as the start of the construction of the HS2 high speed rail line to London – and a major commercial property development alongside.

CurzonStBirm-240But the actual work at the Curzon Street site will only involve land preparation, archaeological works, some elements of the new station and a visitor centre. As far as Grandad can tell no actual track will be laid in this phase. Indeed it seems that no track has yet been laid anywhere along the route – with work on essential prerequisites like bridges and tunnels not due to start until 2019.

But even if everything goes to plan trains will not be gracing Curzon Street Station again for another eight years since opening is not expected until 2026. Then history will have come full circle since Curzon Street was once Birmingham’s central station. It opened in 1838 and was used by scheduled passenger trains until 1854 – just sixteen years. However it remained in use for freight right up to 1966. At which point everything but the original central building was cleared. It now stands as the world’s oldest surviving piece of monumental railway architecture.

Meantime close by in Birmingham, delegates at the Conservative Party have been arguing over calls for the entire HS2 project to be put on hold. And certainly later phases are already being held back for review. In practice these reviews could lead to the one or more later phases simply being allowed to wither on the vine – as happened with the Eurostar plans for north of London and the long-delayed electrification of the Midland Mainline to Sheffield. In the end it may all come down to the strength of the British economy from 2019 onwards – and, of course, Brexit!

Special Deals

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday sandwiching the weekend the consumers in society have been at peak consumption. And the chief motivation has been getting a one-off retail bargain. But for some of the big corporation structures behind the UK retailers involved seem to have been getting massive bargains every week – through complex schemes that minimise their tax bills.

Man2Now this is nothing new. Years ago it was claimed Ford had not paid any UK corporation tax since it was first established. But recently the large-scale corporate tax reduction issue took a new twist. It hit the news when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists made public their analysis of leaked documents related to over 500 favourable tax rulings made by Luxembourg. All made while the new EU president – Jean-Claude Juncker – was its prime minister.

They published a well researched case showing that many companies were using offices in Luxembourg simply as mailbox addresses. And discovered that just three buildings in Luxembourg held the registered national offices of more than 4,000 corporations whose businesses were carried out elsewhere. The revelations of how Luxembourg’s corporate tax avoidance factory actually worked have made Juncker’s repeated claims that his country was not and still is not a tax haven sound a very long way from the truth. But then JCJ is famous for his statement  “When it becomes serious, you have to lie” – and it certainly looks serious now. Time for the EU to get out a big brush and find a big carpet?

Whats_VATBut enough of the international big issues. What about us at the grass roots? Well for at least one festive purchase it must be good news. Look at this order summary received from a major online retailer earlier this week.

Does that VAT amount seem odd to you? It’s unlikely to be a computer error – so perhaps the Chancellor has cut the VAT on music to just 6% without telling us. Or perhaps there are some cross-border manipulations at work. Who knows? But it’s certainly cheaper than the £2.26 charge that VAT at 20% would have incurred.

Rebuilding the East End?

Eastender1w200Next Wednesday will mark the 29th birthday of the BBC’s favourite soap opera – EastEnders. It started out in 1985 as 2×30 mins episodes each week but today airs as 4×30 mins (plus each episode is repeated twice). Throughout its run it has stayed one of the BBC’s most watched shows. Its current UK TV audience share is around 30%. And it is widely available overseas – mainly through the BBC’s commercial channels – where, for example, BBC Entertainment will be showing episode 4788 this coming Wednesday (along with three transmissions of episode 4787!).

Despite the show’s popularity yesterday’s news that a new EastEnders set is to be built at the BBC Elstree Studios – for an estimated £15 million – caused headlines in the anti-BBC media. But this seems a bit harsh. Considering the low-lying nature of London’s East End and the unstoppable effects of climate change on both rainfall and sea levels the relocation and expansion of the show’s set seems both reasonable and unavoidable. And since the new set could have built-in variable water levels the script writers could include dramatic new story lines that are presently restricted to the real life residents of the Somerset Levels.

However the programme’s glowing audience stats do not seem to equate with few Grandads being fans. Everyone asked did not rate the show much better than terrible. Its distinctive theme tune being the signal to either change channels or move to something more interesting online. At first this seemed that the Grandads were out of line with the average audience. But more thought showed that having 30% audience share for EastEnders means that the other 70% of the audience must be watching something else.

And it is no surprise that the time and numbers spent watching live TV has declined tremendously since the show started back in 1985. With viewing stats being collected from just 5,000 households (or about 0.02% of the population) this 30% audience figure hides the fact that the total viewer numbers have collapsed. After all, if those 5,000 stats-collecting households were the only people in the country still watching TV then the 30% figure would still hold true.

That’s the problem with statistics; they can be true and misleading at the same time.

Hasn’t This Been On Before?

The BBC TV’s UK repeats of shows have reached farcical levels … for example five broadcasts of the Chronicles of Narnia in a month. Last night was the 18th overall showing for the first and Saturday night prime time viewing will be the 10th showing of the second of these movies.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion,
the Witch and the Wardrobe
BBC One Fri 26 Dec 2008 17:50
BBC HD Fri 26 Dec 2008 17:50
BBC One Thu 24 Dec 2009 14:15
BBC Three Tue 5 Jan 2010 19:50
BBC Three Sat 9 Jan 2010 20:00
BBC One Thu 23 Dec 2010 15:50
BBC HD Sat 25 Dec 2010 20:00
BBC Three Sat 25 Dec 2010 20:00
BBC HD Wed 29 Dec 2010 20:00
BBC Three Wed 29 Dec 2010 20:00
BBC One Sat 24 Dec 2011 17:50
BBC Three Fri 30 Dec 2011 19:55
BBC Three Mon 2 Jan 2012 19:55
BBC Three Wed 12 Dec 2012 20:00
BBC Three Sun 16 Dec 2012 19:50
BBC One Tue 24 Dec 2013 13:30
BBC Three Sat 18 Jan 2014 20:20
BBC Three Wed 22 Jan 2014 19:50
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
BBC One Fri 24 Dec 2010 17:15
BBC HD Sun 16 Jan 2011 20:00
BBC Three Sun 16 Jan 2011 20:00
BBC Three Sat 22 Jan 2011 20:00
BBC One Sun 1 Jan 2012 14:50
BBC Three Tue 3 Jan 2012 19:00
BBC Three Sun 8 Jan 2012 19:00
BBC One Mon 24 Dec 2012 14:00
BBC One Tue 31 Dec 2013 13:20
BBC Three Sat 25 Jan 2014 20:15

If enough complain then the Corporation may act – but probably by removing the previous showing dates from the BBC TV web site. It’s not as if these movies are not available elsewhere – or viewers have lost the ability to record and time-shift programmes of interest.

Now the BBC may not be any better if the channels presently paid for by the TV tax were switched to commercial funding. But the Corporation is, in effect, operating a business model that looses over £3,500 million per year – the amount it gets from taxation to make the books balance. Much of that loss is down to corporate obesity. Time for a slimming plan …

Smoked in China

Shanghai1This week the British Prime Minister has been in China on a trade mission. And has even raised Grandad’s idea of getting the Chinese involved in building the HS2 rail links. But all was not so useful. First it was the makeup of the British delegation. Few seemed likely to be involved in clinching trade deals that could put a dent in the China-UK trade imbalance. In fact the only one I saw interviewed was a man trying to sell his Kentish pork sausages. Hardly a multi-million pound trade deal.

Beijing and then Shanghai were on the delegation’s route but unfortunately the weather stepped in to make its own point. Clouds of stagnant pollution formed a heavy smog. Dense sheets blocked out the sun; exceeding world safety levels by over 20 times. Children were kept indoors and construction work was ordered to stop. It caused flights to be canceled as visibility fell to just a few metres. Even business vehicle use had to be cut. It was like an old-time London or Edinburgh except then the sources were mainly homes burning coal – rather than modern industry and power stations. Despite the obvious surrounding Victorian gloom no mention was made of the pointlessness of British Green Taxes when compared to the pollution generated by China. But perhaps the trip may have indirectly helped by bringing a touch of realpolitik to the UK Government’s green taxation schemes. Smoked sausages anyone?

Trick or Treat?

It is becoming more and more difficult to work out exactly how the proposed high speed railway lines for England are going to be a good investment. The extensively reported HS2 project involves first a London-Birmingham railway line by 2026 and then two additions. One route going to Leeds and the East Coast mainline south of York. The other going to Manchester with connections to the West Coast mainline north of Lichfield, at Crewe and south of Wigan. These two extensions are currently planned be to ready just six years later in 2032.

Gomez1The past few days have seen yet another version of the case for the project put to Parliament – with slightly less optimistic figures – leading huge amounts of political hot air rising from not just Westminster but around the country. Those local authorities with stations on the route wanting to press ahead – not having to pay for it. While those regions away from the route – or the stations – are wanting compensation for not being included. So both sides are, in effect, asking for taxpayers’ money – either to build it or to be compensated for not having it; if it goes ahead.

But the typical Grandad does not live in either London or Birmingham and is more likely to be searching for off-peak discounts than premium rates on any train travel. While being 13 years in the future many will consider this someone else’s problem. However, by then, it will be their grand children that are paying the price for today’s poor decisions.

So is HS2 a trick or a treat? Will it be another case of politicians thinking that they know best when spending our money – while taking no financial risk themselves? Or will HS2 provide the promised financial benefits – ones that really will exceed the substantial costs by more than 2 to 1? Who knows?

But when children knock on your door tonight the most horrific response could well be just to show them the £42,600 million bill that they could be paying off for the rest of their lives …

The Future Was Digital

Today volunteers were busy preparing to reopen a South Yorkshire leisure centre that had been closed by council cutbacks. The same council also plans to demolish the Don Valley Stadium – the venue where athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill trained – Heckerslyke_160as soon as next month unless a rescue bid succeeds. Supporters hope to get the venue listed as an asset of community value and so block the demolition. However the listing outcome will not be known until the same week as the proposed closure. And the decision will be made by … the same Sheffield Council that is making the cuts.

The closing of both facilities was put down to a shortage of money. So it seems like the government are to really blame through cuts to council funding. However things are rarely so simplistic.

Four years ago the South Yorkshire Councils agreed to build a communications network that would be owned and managed within the region and make the county “a UK leader in digital communications”.  A press release, on 20 July 2009, stated “South Yorkshire’s journey to be the first truly digital region has begun with the official launch of the Digital Region project by Rosie Winterton, Minister for Yorkshire and The Humber, at an event in Sheffield on 17 July. The network is being built for the region by Digital Region Ltd in partnership with technology company Thales UK.”

The project was backed by a “staggering £90m of funding” [to quote the official web site] – the majority  coming from the EU via European Regional Development Funding (ERDF).

DigitalRegion2This week (on 15-Aug-2013) the project operator, Digital Region, put out a statement – “The closure of Digital Region now offers best deal for public purse. Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield councils – along with major shareholder, the Government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – have agreed [to] a managed close down of the network … The estimated cost of continuing with the project would be an estimated £95.8 million. Closure of the network would save the taxpayer an estimated £12.5 million …”

So that makes a loss of £83.3 million look like a “saving” of £12.5 million I guess. But it actually means that over £80 million has been spent for little return – hardly a “best deal” for anyone. Yet it was clear from the outset that the Digital Region team were spending big before signing any firm customer contracts. In short the whole scheme was based upon over-optimistic revenue estimates that had no commercial basis.

So the lack of funds that lead to the council making closures at the leisure centre and sports stadium may well be seen as a self-inflicted problem. After the failure of the earlier South Yorkshire projects – such as the Earth Centre and the National Centre for Popular Music – you would have hoped that lessons had been learned.

But at least it’s not quite as wasteful as some publicly-funded EU projects – the ghost airports in Spain for example …

Bright Sparks

StreetLightCouncils are complaining about their street lighting electricity bills  – with one claiming an increase from around £1m in 2004/05 to an estimated £6m in 2015/16. Meantime the UK government has a mandatory “Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme” [great title!] that forces large-scale energy users to purchase CO2 allowances [who said you can’t tax the air that we breathe?].

For councils this is, of course, a charge by one taxpayer-funded body on another taxpayer-funded body. In this example it means that the council expects to buy around £400,000 of allowances from the Treasury; probably the source of the council money originally. Perhaps politicians can now create an even more complicated scheme to rebate these charges for any needy councils? It all helps keep the paper pushers – and politicians – employed after all.

However some councils seem less concerned about doing anything practical. For example, turning off the daytime street lighting in Grandad’s local area.

Now it could be that the lights are expensive to re-programme – but if the council are happy to consume this electricity 24 hours per day then perhaps they should let our local electrician divert it into some senior’s homes instead.