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2012 Comment reviews:



BL (formerly Austin) 1100/1300 - discontinued in 1973.

Did Red Robbo build them at Longbridge where he was so resistant to change that he caused 623 walk outs in 1978-79?

British Leyland had effectively been nationalised. The government's injection of capital had given it 97% of the shares and so he thought he had the Callaghan government over a barrel using a kind of 'won-nation' strategy. The nation had been won over to the idea of saving the motor manufacturer (as it had been a decade earlier, after 20 years of teething problems, to the idea that the free at point of use NHS could actually look after the nation's healthcare needs).

What Derek Robinson had not quite factored in was that it had not been won over to the rest of the hassle simply because it accepted the principle. BL eventually fired him with scarcely a murmur of protest so that it could build the Metro at Longbridge, and later elsewhere the Triumph Acclaim, a rebadged Honda Accord that though not as pretty as the original Issigonis designed Austin 1100 proved to be the most reliable British Leyland car ever and much easier to build.

(An industrial model for the NHS is not what we need, however).




December 2012

27 December 2012

It is about time we simply got hold of the technology we might need even if we did not invent it. The Google driverless car or some other iteration of it would be a good bet. Countless benefits would derive.

Teenagers without a driver's license or unable to afford insurance could use them and parents would be happier if they did.

The principal handicap of old age is reduced mobility. With driverless cars so many people could remain economically productive for so much longer. Childcare could be made so much easier if grandparents could reach the grandchildren in a driverless car and take them out for a ride.

Getting to airports would be far easier as the car could return home of its own accord.

A compact country like Britain would be ideal for the driverless car. There is plenty of street furniture and mobile telephone masts to house the sensors and communications equipment not onboard. As network connectivity would be the key to mobility these cars could come with a network contract much as mobile telephones do. This would mean that little public finance would be needed as private capital could finance everything on similar models to telephony.

The early rollout would probably have to be within limited zones e.g. the London congestion charge zone (where vehicles rarely move at more than 20mph anyway), or within the M25, or in a small town but this was the case with mobile telephony rollout.

The onboard sensors would have to cope with every type of conceivable hazard from bulldozers reversing out of building sites to cats with nine lives but a small amount of driver input might be permissible along the lines of the fairground bumper car. In principle, though, robotics should take over. There is no risk that real drivers will have to evacuate the roadspace entirely. Delivery vans, emergency vehicles and articulated lorries need drivers for the forseeable future.

There will be teething troubles. When the Docklands Light Railway was being built a driverless train with no passengers onboard hit the end bumpers at Tower Hill with the result that the front carriage ended up dangling over the edge of the elevated railway but the incident was not repeated and driverless trains have operated safely on the DLR ever since.

[28 January 2013 Forbes' link to a Google driverless car video].


14 December 2012

Last night Wandsworth council approved the first phase of the Battersea Power Station development. The Chief Executive of Network Rail was also reported in the Evening Standard as saying:

"We have got to have the next capacity growth. We can't just stand around and breathe a sigh of relief on something like Crossrail, which should have happened 20 years ago.

Besides the Channel Tunnel link, we haven't built a new major mainline railway for 100 years."


12 December 2012

The most striking thing about the proposed Battersea Power Station development is that the residential blocks look a bit tall. Architectural research in the past has shown that you can get as many people on a site by keeping the height down to a maximum of five or six storeys as you can by building tower blocks. This helped influence councils in Britain to move away from building tower blocks. The Battersea scheme is not one of point blocks and there are views to the river but one would have some reservations about tall schemes becoming the norm for residential accommodation in London.

This is an area where generalisations do not apply to all people but tall buildings are not greatly loved in the main as family accommodation. Some students and old people can be much more tolerant of them because of the sense of community that can build up on the individual floors and the possibility of more spontaneous encounters with friends in the foyers and lifts, especially if the buildings are safe enough communities to do without caretakers, whose presence can put a brake on spontaneity. Good design can do much to ensure a building is pleasant and sociable within whilst secure.

In popular places with natural restrictions on the land available - Manhattan, Monaco, Hong Kong - or others where there is acceptance of restriction - London with its encircling Green Belt - there will be cycles of land price inflation. It is possible to have a policy of mainly using 'waste land' but after a certain point when you use up half you risk doubling the price of the remaining half and so on, or something similar. This drives up the cost of accommodation, both owned and rental, of everyone else as land costs rise. This is not an unalloyed good for owners. They get less space for their money than they would otherwise get. If the family grows they need to work for more years to pay the cost of another bedroom or two. Rental costs follow the upward trend. High land acquisition costs are faced by those building municipal housing, too. The pressure to build higher or at greater density also diminishes the quality of life of many. There is also some doubt that many families are living in the high rise blocks that have gone up recently in places like Stratford, near the Olympic Park in London.

If you want to live in a place like Hong Kong or Monaco because you do not want to live in a neighbouring jurisdiction then you may be stuck with the problems of high density but for other places rapid transport routes out to new settlements is an obvious solution. In theory, another new town could be built on the HS1 link from London to the Channel Tunnel with transport for commuters perhaps charged at near the marginal cost. It is a smooth riding railway line with few of the bumps of other lines but it may be that the capacity of this line and the ones it relieves is close to being used up.

One of the stronger arguments for new towns is simply that the land values within places like London are so high that new dwellings can never be low cost. Where land can be acquired at much lower cost, low cost housing remains a possibility. If enough homes are built in new settlements, residential land prices in existing settlements will moderate. (If pushed too far, as in Ireland and Spain, they can collapse but that is unlikely in southern England if development is paced).


8 December 2012

After writing today's review (not intending it at all to be about new towns) and then noticing public debate had stepped up today about garden cities and new towns, it occurs to me that Deauville was a pretty successful example of a new town or garden city because its founding rationale - it was close to a very large centre of population, it made a conscious effort to be elegant (luxurious was wishful thinking in most decades) and it centered itself around a particular activity that could be enduring - has validity 150 years later. It shows that conceptions of new settlements do not have to be irredeemably dull, that open space intruding everwhere into the town makes it what it is and that development, far from being a blot on the countryside, can sustain it and be a credit to it. Monetary land value issues get in the way in Britain but new town corporations could at least acquire land at a cost somewhere between agricultural value and full blown urban prices.


5 December 2012

From today's pre-budget statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer: I today confirm a billion pound loan and a guarantee to extend the Northern Line to Battersea Power Station and support a new development on a similar scale to the Olympic Park.

For a moment I thought this meant new Underground stations at both Battersea and the Olympic Park. That, in fact, would be a very good idea. Only a short loop would be needed from Stratford and the principle of building new villages (not quite garden cities, it's true) could be established within London itself - one at Battersea and another by expanding the Olympic village.


5 December 2012

Mrs Ann Clwyd has also raised the “normalisation of cruelty” issue in more than one media over the past two days and in a parliamentary question immediately before today's pre-budget statement. It will take determination over the remainder of the Parliament for bureaucratic and professional obfuscation to be overcome if the serious questions raised over the past two months by the deficiencies in the NHS are to be addressed properly and remedied with public disclosure of what has changed before the next election. More ethical disciplines may have to be placed on practitioners with these having precedence over budgetary considerations. Ethical soundness and elimination of sloppiness and obfuscation should make it possible for patients themselves to hold the NHS to account as they encounter it. A spinoff is likely to be a better running organisation with less waste.

Also, as the BBC Panorama programme of 3 December 2012 has pointed out, its culture needs to change in the direction of being more open. This, in fact, is a minimum requirement, as this failure to be open, in comparison with other European healthcare systems, has been apparent for 30 years. It is perhaps time we got a Scandinavian management team in to run a couple of NHS hospitals by their cultural lights, a bit like BMW now running the old Cowley plant, and applying what is learnt.

The NHS is a bit like British Leyland; it cannot see why it could be better. It even has its Red Robbos, resistant to all change. It need to 'build a Honda car' to start to understand.


November 2012


28 November 2012


Though I've only read a report and not the full text, today's “a kind of normalisation of cruelty” speech about the NHS by Jeremy Hunt sounds like one of the best speeches of the Parliament.


22 November 2012

After 23 years or more since it was suggested, is a new fleet of garden cities on its way? (The Deputy Prime Minister expressed an enthusiasm for them yesterday).

Or will a demonstrator new town, a kind of proof of concept, set the ball rolling first?


7 November 2012

In congratulating President Barack Obama on his re-election on the BBC, Prime Minister David Cameron said he wanted to see a EU - U.S. trade deal.


4 November 2012

A man finding a watch or any other machine in a desert island, would conclude that there had once been men in that island. All our reasonings concerning fact are of the same nature. And here it is constantly supposed that there is a connexion between the present fact and that which is inferred from it. Were there nothing to bind them together, the inference would be entirely precarious. The hearing of an articulate voice and rational discourse in the dark assures us of the presence of some person: Why? because these are the effects of the human make and fabric, and closely connected with it. If we anatomize all the other reasonings of this nature, we shall find that they are founded on the relation of cause and effect, and that this relation is either near or remote, direct or collateral. Heat and light are collateral effects of fire, and the one effect may justly be inferred from the other.

If we would satisfy ourselves, therefore, concerning the nature of that evidence, which assures us of matters of fact, we must enquire how we arrive at the knowledge of cause and effect. I shall venture to affirm, as a general proposition, which admits of no exception, that the knowledge of this relation is not, in any instance, attained by reasonings a priori; but arises entirely from experience, when we find that any particular objects are constantly conjoined with each other. Let an object be presented to a man of ever so strong natural reason and abilities; if that object be entirely new to him, he will not be able, by the most accurate examination of its sensible qualities, to discover any of its causes or effects.

(David Hume An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

Hume is challenging inductive reasoning.

The curious thing is that in the examples he is giving here we have our own, newer perspective (which supports his case).

We now know that a machine can find its way to an island by sea, air or from space without mankind having been there.

We now know we can hear an articulate voice and rational discourse in the dark without the presence of a person.

The man in the street still infers heat and light as collateral effects of fire and does not usually infer fire from the presence of heat but if an isolated aboriginal did both you could not blame him or her.

That things have been conjoined does not prove one causes the other.

In the eighties we used to discuss the fact that Britain had not yet paid off its war debts, including some to America. Yet we were not particularly worried about it (though through no wish to escape obligation). We knew that Harold Wilson had devalued the currency and that James Callaghan had tried vainly to keep inflationary wage claims in check and that what remained to be paid off would not cost us much in real terms relative to wages.

European countries, including Britain, should concentrate a bit more on keeping the percentage of GDP pre-empted by the state down and less on the level of debt.

If a state over-consumes in one year it tends to be at the expense of current creditors and not of future generations. At a macro level, extensive unwise lending is rarely paid off in full.

If any generation pays the price by belt tightening it is the one (or ones) alive in the decade following the overspending. Germans in the decade after Versailles. Britons through rationing in the decade after World War II.

Yesterday, Angela Merkel implicitly admitted as much, as AFP reports:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Saturday it will take "five years or more" to overcome the euro debt crisis, local media reported.

"We have to hold our breath for five years or more," Merkel told the regional party congress of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at Sternberg in east Germany, the DPA news agency reported.

Those deliberately stoking inter-generational conflict should pipe down a little. That the money has been borrowed does not mean that future generations will pay it. That type of inductive reasoning is partially false. Creditors will eventually have to take the hit as Greece will soon demonstrate. In Britain, inflation has been quite high, and compound inflation imposes a far from negligible hit of its own, and even before Labour quit office there was a near 25% currency devaluation post-boom. Some debt and probably some new debt will most likely be kicked down the road by future generations, too.

The future can be extraordinarily good for all generations if innovation in products, services and technology can be accompanied by innovation in the economic structures related to these.

There is not much wrong in the way South Korea, for example, has recently leveraged itself into a very positive present and inter-generational relations are said to be excellent. Product, services and technology innovation is outstripping Europe. (Monopoly is a problem for small enterprises, though).

[2 December 2012 AFP reports: German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she has not ruled out a so-called "haircut", or write-down, on Greek debt in the next few years.

14 December 2012 In practice, a large write-down has been achieved by Greece this week at the European summit concluded today.]


October 2012


28 October 2012

The AFP report yesterday of a call by the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, for a Europe and North America free trade area is certainly interesting.

"I insist that Europe and North America begin talks on a transatlantic free trade zone as soon as possible... Free trade is a growth engine that has proven to work time and time again," he is reported as saying in the Neue Osnabrucker Zeitung.

This would certainly help exporters of manufactures like Germany and the U.K. although the latter is less of a player. Also, North America is not a low cost producer of manufactures or services which Europe could not compete with on price. It is a more efficient producer of agricultural goods, though.

No tariff free trade has to be looked at in the round. Retention of small tariff barriers can protect local economies. Pork produced to higher animal welfare standards in the U.K. needs a modicum of protection from pork coming from east of the EU, for instance. High wage economic blocs actually probably need modest tariff barriers against low wage producers. Free trade within areas of roughly similar wage levels probably is a good idea.

Some political parties in Britain praise the structures in Germany that allow medium sized family businesses to exist and compete vigorously in all markets whilst having done nothing to facilitate the emergence of something similar in Britain in the past. These companies have emerged partly because families have been able to retain capital as families and not as global corporations in which they would eventually be pushed out. In all events the pass has been sold in Britain. There are very few medium sized family businesses of this kind and one might as well move on but the equivalent in Britain that could be encouraged are the multiplicity of genuinely small businesses.

It is no accident that when the Conservative Party at one point proposed raising the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million per person it jumped ten percentage points in the opinion polls.

It is not just about business, though. If you do not have a sufficiently high threshold families raised to economic self-sufficiency in one generation fall out of it in the next one, contradicting the goal of ever wider self-sufficiency. Unless innovation is generated in one's own country (or possibly trading bloc) that can be used there first, there is no point in pretending that sufficient jobs will be generated to fill the gap in self-sufficiency. With capital, usually modest, people can try something of their own. This is partly what happened in post-war Germany. Without it, they have little choice but to chase what jobs there are.

There are over £750 billion of corporate cash balances in Britain. The financial system which takes the deposits of this cash has a tendency to use it to own financial instruments or securities or to channel it to profitable productive investments in places like China. A mansion tax might raise £2 billion a year. It might well take surplus income from some but it will also bleed capital from the personal sector.

Government is inefficient at corporate investment but reasonably good at backing government research establishments to do work that others are not fully taking on. What is certain is that a strategy of tax the individual to finance government corporate investment is not going to work.


27 October 2012

Concentrate too much on getting people's money to put into the 'productive economy' and it ends up being productive in East Asia.

Put a bit of effort into building up a nation's capital assets and they can stay where you want them to be.

On Wednesday evening Georg Boomgarden, the German ambassador, gave a flawless talk about Germany's position. Included was an interesting anecdote about 30 tonnes of German gold safe as it could possibly be with the Federal Reserve.

One should not extract too much but one gets the impression that the euro will be saved but Germany's gold is staying well away from the ECB.


July 2012


Isaiah Berlin in Political Ideas of the 20th Century quotes Talleyrand as saying 'Surtout, Messieurs, point de zele' and though it is well documented that he was against zeal whilst conducting business at the foreign ministry, did he actually use those words?

Before accurate reporting (as is found in, say, law reports) and the advent of broadcasting the main records of what people said were oral anecdotes, jottings down, diaries, biographies and histories.

Berlin wrote much and left broadcast recordings so we know quite accurately what he thought. We can supplement this with anecdotes passed on by those who knew him.

As a student I heard quite a few anecdotes about Wittgenstein but had read nothing by him until finding a copy of Philosophical Investigations recently. (As those anecdotes had also suggested, he is heavy going).

So though both were prominent figures at their respective universities and although Wittgenstein is acknowledged to be the greater philosopher, Berlin had the advantage for posterity of a more easily understood record and a more copious one in more than one medium.

The oral histories and diaries of the past were a kind of citizen journalism, before accurate reporting, and to some extent we are returning to times when we cannot be certain what people said because press reporting is on the decline and citizen journalism is frequently too inaccurate or of too low quality to be relied on.

The problem is compounded by publicists and agents putting out statements without reference to their principals.

Inaccuracy abounds so much that if before, say, 2005 a British politician were found to have contradicted something he or she had been reported as saying in Hansard it could be a problem, now a contradiction is likely to incite some momentary amusement and not much more.

There is something of a growing trend to go and listen to people speak in person - it does avoid the issue of tendentious editing - but it is hardly universal. The attendance at hustings of vast crowds to hear political orators like Lloyd George is certainly no longer the case in Britain though it may happen elsewhere. Showbiz, sport and religion can draw even larger crowds but if a record emerges it may have been overly edited for promotional purposes.

So it looks like, in the current period, if an accurate archive record is desirable then keeping an audio or video recording is one of the quickest routes to obtaining one.

Public lectures are notably going down this route as they gain in popularity.

Video, streaming video and webcam do, though, raise some issues about the privacy of audiences which are still inadequately addressed.

Audio is a safer option and, indeed, if we had an audio library of Wittgenstein's lectures, rather than a rapidly diminshing stock of folk memory anecdotes, chances are he would be much more accessible than he is and perhaps not heavy going at all.


May 2012


8 May 2012

Authentic views of Andre Beaumont in a nutshell:

Lords Reform

Generally in favour but not of 15 year terms. The point is to get a different type of person into (or retained in) the chamber from those in the Commons - those not distracted too much by the day-to-day and interested in high quality legislation - rather than being virtually unsackable by the electorate.

Green Belt

Never advocated building in green belts, always beyond them. (See elsewhere on site).

Student Fees

Opposed tuition fees and top up fees. (See elsewhere on site). Willing to wait and see if new bursary systems work properly.


Comment 2013