Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Hammer the Landlord

Amber Rudd's got the answer to our immigration challenges.

The Home Secretary proposes to make it a criminal offence for a landlord to house a tenant who cannot prove they can sing the National Anthem and recite the names of the last ten Prime Ministers.  Actually, from February this year, and even earlier in Birmingham, it's already been an offence they can fine you £3000 for, although that seems to have been forgotten in the press coverage.

The majority of landlords are not horrible bullies who abuse tenants. 78% of them have only one property. They're often accidental landlords, inheriting a house or failing to sell one, or moving round the country owing to work. Or they have put their savings in a property because, rightly, they have no faith in banks or pensions. They probably try to keep the property decent and the tenants happy so they can have decent stretches of tenancy without the risk of emptiness.

Suddenly, we accidental landlords are the devil, more so with every announcement. We're now no longer to be allowed tax benefit from the mortgage repayments. No, we are taxed on profit we have not made. We take on all the risk of a property, with little benefit. Indeed, sometimes no benefit, when you get a tenant who destroys your property and won't get out.

But we are the devil.

What's this latest proposal? That we lay-landlords perform due checks to make sure we are not housing an illegal immigrant. If we fail, we can go to prison. So, we are landed with doing the job that her Majesty's Border Force fails to do. Will those uniformed folk go to prison too if they let someone through they shouldn't?

What next?  Let's make Sainsbury's do immigration checks before they deliver your kippers, kiwis and Kit Kats. After all, if illegals can't eat, that's got to be good news, surely. 

This vicarious legislation is ill-judged, headline-grabbing and reactionary. Another attack on people trying to run their lives efficiently so that they can afford to stay in a nursing home which serves proper tea when they're old.  

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Britain's Comprehensive School Mistake

Britain had just gone decimal, T. Rex were riding high and I donned the over-long trousers of my shiny black uniform for the first time to attend my battered seventies Comprehensive school.

An old boys’ flat-pack technical Grammar building had been welded to a former Girls’ Technical Grammar school; a tiled annex was erected hurriedly up a muddy bank nearby; and an old brick Victorian infants school was commandeered as an annex. Home to over a thousand spotty random adolescents overall, this sprawling ‘complex’ was the start of the great comprehensive experiment.

It failed.

Throw everyone together, it was thought, and they’d all be gifted the same opportunity. Most classes, in this pure stage of the experiment were accordingly a motley mixture of pupils, from the truly gifted to those who would much rather be somewhere else and took every opportunity to express that view.

The DNA of the teachers was also comprehensively different. Candidates of various flavours had been sucked in from neighbouring secondary or grammar schools, distinguished by whether they preferred to glide round clad in dark cape or a threadbare corduroy jacket. The rebels were seemingly tolerated too, despite straggly beards, baggy jumpers and tight jeans.

Entrance to the school was governed by one of those yet-to-be-invented postcode lotteries. Offspring from one side of a village would be despatched in blue blazers to a much-sought after shiny converted Grammar school a mile away, whilst the unfortunates from the other side had to hop on an aged lop-sided bus to join me in our tatty complex.

I’d hoped for more. At my intimate primary school, I had been billed for greatness. Whilst others sat cross-legged in the hall being read to in whiney fashion, I was allowed into the library to read for myself. When others were weaned on the ITA, the puzzling Inishal Teeching Alferbet, I was allowed to devour proper books with proper words. I was given the purple maths text book, when everyone else appeared to have a red one. Whilst others were given the smelly class hamster to look after during the holidays, I was loaned a box of colourful Cuisenaire blocks to hone my mathematical instincts.

Milk monitorship was entrusted to me. The privilege of that leadership meant I could avoid having to drink the foul lukewarm milk from its silly little bottle.

That early promise was not to be fulfilled. My quiet reputation faded to anonymity as I became just another name in an over-lengthy register, surrounded by a majority of noisy pupils with a lesser appetite for success.

English lessons had become progressive and creative. Spelling was not taught; and poor spelling in essays went uncorrected. When my mother queried why, she was told that youngsters needed encouragement not the pain of the red pen.

Grammar was not taught by nor, I fear, understood by, some teachers. I recall one of those delicious-smelling purple-inked Banda work sheets, being handed out by a curly-haired Chemistry teacher, replete with spelling errors. Fuelled by a blend of genuine annoyance and typical teenage awkwardness, I challenged his efforts. Before storming off to the fume cupboard, his haughty rebuke was that he was a chemistry teacher, not an English teacher, for goodness sake.

Our petite French teacher hailed from that great country, and was familiar with its more traditional approach to education. She was accordingly puzzled when her mentions of verbs, objects and nouns were met with blank stares from her bright pupils who had been introduced to no such concepts in their native language.

CSEs and O Levels were the order of the day. Hard-working teachers were thus obliged in a single lesson, to attend to both syllabi and keep order amongst those who sought neither qualification.

As a fifteen year old, staring at the clock willing each lesson to end, I failed to understand why anyone could imagine the pure Comprehensive system would reap rewards.

As an English assignment one week, I chose to write angrily on the topic. Worried about my honesty, however, I struck out the most assertive critical comments in black felt tip prior to handing in the essay. The work was returned to me the following week with a smile, an A+ and a huge red, tacitly supportive, exclamation mark.

At a parents’ evening some months later, I gather this discerning teacher remarked on my essay and suggested it had attracted wide support in the staff room. It transpired that a magnifying glass had been taken to the redacted comments to try to ascertain what lay under my paranoid black smudges.

Whilst my views on many things have softened through the last forty years, I suspect I would stand by that teenage appraisal were I able to find it in the loft. I gather my old school is now, thankfully and wisely, very different and enjoying success.

Treating everyone the same does not give equal opportunity. Each of us thrives in a different environment. It was wrong to think the ‘one size fits all’ Comprehensive philosophy would work, just as it is wrong to think that getting as many people as possible through the doors of universities is a worthy pursuit. As the percentage of debt-laden students armed with irrelevant degrees grows, it further diminishes the esteem in which the remainder of non-academic individuals are held. Yet here is a country crying out for those with practical and technical skills, hungry to get on with the job.

Each person has unique interests, abilities and gifts. Great secondary and tertiary education should identify those - and provide the specific environment where they can be nurtured. Some academic, others more practical. Whist I have done relatively well in life through my own toil and initiative, my education added little, and I remain angered by that.

As this first Valerie Singleton comprehensive generation filters through to senior government posts, let us hope that it reflects sufficiently to avoid repeating the mistakes of those concrete and Caramac days.

This is my personal views blog.  Radio matters are covered at

Monday, 6 April 2015

My Monochrome Nottingham

Photography is not my thing. There are many better-skilled.  But I love my City - and here's my tribute.

Back of Council House, officially opened May 22nd 1929

Inside the Exchange Arcade, Nottingham's first shopping mall

Jesse Boot's first shop on Goose Gate
Inside the Council House Dome

The Council House Dome

Nottingham's second generation trams
The Flying Horse, former pub
Smith's Bank - the UK's first provincial bank, established 1658
Nottingham's Old Market Square 'Slab Square', refur

Smith's Bank
Debenhams - formerly Griffin & Spalding, launched by Dickinsons in 1846

Former Nottingham General Hospital
Robin Hood statue, unveiled 24th July 1952
Severn's House - medieval oak-framed house originally on Middle Pavement, moved to current location in 1969
Nottingham's 60s shopping mall! West End Arcade - containing the City's first escalator
Theatre Royal
Corner House
Co-Op Parliament Street
St Barnabas

Former women's hospital and Radio Trent building on Castle Gate

Saturday, 14 September 2013

A Bag for Life?

As you seize your toothpaste, bag of sugar, toilet rolls, packet of tea bags and pint of milk from the conveyor belt, the assistant with the DYMO badge and Crimplene costume asks whether you want a bag.  "No", you say, biting your tongue. You'd prefer to embrace all said goods between your arms like a long lost lover and hope you don't drop any.  It's manageable - just - if you clutch the top of the bag of sugar by your teeth. 

There are some pretty awful things happening in the World.  In the UK, front page news appears to be that we are insistent on charging 5 pence for a carrier bag. I had rather hoped this thing had been wisely and quietly forgotten about.

At a checkout until now, oh how we've relished the excitement of the choice between a proper fit-for-purpose carrier bag; or a free one.  The free one being too small to hold anything more than a single yoghurt with ease.  So thin it's unsafe for any journey further than the escalator.  Helpfully, sympathetic assistants, with Valerie Singleton skill,  insert two or three inside each other. And, lo, they make, well, a thick carrier bag. Like the ones we used to have.

They do smile, these tolerant shop assistants, and suggest that all my five pence goes to charity. Reading the small print, actually it does not; it's usually just the profit which goes to charity.  So, the retailer has saved the cost of what he used to spend on bags. If there were a moral cause, they'd donate all such monies to a swan sanctuary or something.

Like many, I re-use my carrier bags. They are deposited temporarily  in the internationally-agreed hoarding place under the sink, before being turned into liners for my pedal bin.  If I didn't use one of those, I'd deploy an industrial-sized black bag, which are readily on sale, despite their criminality. I rather suspect the small Sainsbury bag would have been less destructive to the environment.

I was delighted when a segmented refuse-disposal system was introduced in my neck of the woods. We were asked to segregate all recyclable paper and put it in, well, a plastic carrier bag.  They helpfully supplied lots of these special orange plastic carrier bags for me. Carrier bags I would not otherwise have used.

The new law suggests that bags issued by large companies are worse for the environment than those from small companies; or if you sack a few staff you can live without the charges.  It means that companies no longer have to pay for their own bags.  The customer now does.  And if you manage to sort a bio-degradable bag, well, there's still a charge. 

If the company was giving the profit (not proceeds) to charity, it now no longer has to. It can merrily charge because 'it has to'. Government will 'report' on what companies do with the cash, presumably hoping that the press will pick on offenders and govern vicariously.

There was a report on this stuff. I guess there've been many. The Environment Agency-commissioned report "Life Cycle Assessment ofSupermarket Carrier Bags" set out to find out which of seven types of bags have the lowest environmental impact by assessing pollution caused by extraction of raw materials, production, transportation and disposal.  Important too to trace the whole life cycle to make fair comparisons; given that things need to be created in the first place.  It concluded: “The HDPE (plastic carrier) bag had the lowest environmental impacts of the single use options in nine of the 10 impact categories. The bag performed well because it was the lightest single use bag considered"

I'm not saying 'let's just use things for the sake of it'.  I'm saying why are we obsessed with the carrier bag?  If they really are so bad - and we really seek a powerful policy - let's enforce a £1 charge.  At just 5p, I question the motives.

If we are concerned about the environment, let's have councils not distributing weighty tomes of printed propaganda house-to-house, using the thickest paper.  Let's not bother with all those printed pointless Census forms. Let's not fly to fact-finding missions across Europe every ten minutes.  Let's not have traffic systems which mean you travel a mile to get ten yards.  Let's make public transport cheaper. Let's not package items in thick impenetrable packaging which takes a carving knife to enter. And - as pointed on in Radio 4's wonderful 'More or Less' programme, the eco-damage of your drive to the supermarket in the first place is many times worse than any carrier bag.

I smile as I am charged 5p at Boots for a carrier bag, when they demand I grab a bottle of Coke so my lunch might become a 'meal deal' and magically come down in price. So, they charge me less for taking home some more plastic. Clearly a miraculously different plastic the civil servants care less about. It can be re-cycled, I gather, but most ends up in landfill.

As for 'bag for life'. Tosh. When I am 93, I'm going to take one back to the shop with a hole in it.  There'll be a whole host of similar court cases. It'll be like mis-sold PPI  all over again.

Bags for life are riddled with germs. I'll sue.

This has been a simple, populist cause which is taking far more of our time and energies than it warrants.  It has attracted public attention, regardless of the facts.  

Yes, there is a case for us to watch all our consumption and waste in how we live our lives, but that is a far larger issue with more generalist conclusions and measures warranted. A 5p carrier bag charge is a ridiculous start, making little real difference to the key issue and earning the supermarkets more money. The law is ill-framed; and will seem as pointless, in time, as all the tax benefits offered as recently as 2001 to encourage diesel cars as they were supposedly 'better for the environment'.  

Let's govern on science and facts and make change which  genuinely helps our planet. Let's give our civil servants something more productive to work on that this drivel, causing yet another futile administrative burden for industry.

The matter of carrier bags should be left to retailers and public conscience; and we should educate more generally about all the things which genuinely make a long term difference to our environment. The Government's legislative timetable should be reserved for matters of education, the economy, health, life & death.

Written Sept 2013. Updated Oct 2015

Related, but unrelated. Steve Allen in fighting form about bags on LBC.
This is not my main blog. That is all about radio - at

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A Vision for Nottingham

As midnight approached on New Year’s Eve, crowds gathered near the imposing gates of Nottingham Castle.  Excited families chose their spot. Generations of good Nottingham folk, from pensioners to pushchairs, excited by the unusual magic of their City at midnight.

For the last few years, a rather impressive firework display had been staged there. It had enjoyed modest advance publicity over the years. Indeed, I once attempted to sponsor it and was told that the Council did not seek to draw attention to it lest crowds arrived. I wonder if Edinburgh Council ever considered the same policy: ‘ssshhh, don’t tell people about the comedy’. Or Lincoln: ‘Let’s have the Christmas Market in June, so no-one finds it’.

Anyway, last New Year’s Eve, as the peaceful crowd in good spirits blossomed, a little concern arose, given no-one could see any evidence of the display being installed by men in fluorescent jackets. As midnight came and went, it was clear that there was to be no display.  Without any advance publicity, the Council had chosen to cancel it.

The sight of maybe a thousand disappointed folk wandering down Friar Lane summed up 21st Century Nottingham. A disappointment.  A poorly-managed disappointment.

Whilst born and bred in Nottingham, my work has taken me across the country, but this City has always been my home.  I have experience of working with ambitious and forward-looking authorities across the country.  Watching the pace of Manchester from my seat on its City Centre Management Committee around ten years ago , I drew comparisons with my pedestrian home town.

West Bridgford was where I came into this world.  Born in the big front bedroom of a rambling four-bedroomed semi.  Back then, Nottingham just assumed it was ‘something’. ‘Town’ was proud. The sight of the stone frontage of the Council House and the guardian Iions suggested this truly was some City.  A City with not one, but two shopping centres enveloping a great colourful pedestrian-friendly hub of shops. Little wonder it emerged from several surveys, well into the 90s, as one of the UK’s top  cities for shopping.
A City with a business heart: Raleigh, Players, Boots; and now Experian. Highly regarded Universities including Nottingham Uni, described as ‘the embodiment of the modern international university’ (Sunday Times); and Trent Uni, its fashionable partner.  A City with a beautiful circumference: Wollaton Park; Goose Fair; and the National Water Sports Centre.

For tourists too, a City of history.  The birth of lace, Paul Smith and of course, the legend of Robin Hood.  With this equity alone, Nottingham could have been a leading UK City. Forever. 

But just imagine now a tourist venturing to our great City.  They’d arrive at an unfinished railway station; cross a chewing gum-stained pavement; before jumping into a cab piloted by a driver who did not know the way. Or one who fails to put on the meter and tells you he does not have to because it’s a ‘City Centre job’. Yes, mine did that. I did complain, but that is another story altogether.  They then arrive at ‘the Tales of Robin Hood’. Actually they don’t now. They must have an old map, it is now Tesco.  Ah well, maybe the Costume Museum is worth a visit. No, that is closed now and an unsightly ‘For Sale' sign adorns the building. It’s been empty for years. Had it been my property, I think I may have thought about selling it rather sooner.  So, where next?  Aha!  The 15th Century timber-framed Severns building, home of the Lace Centre. One of Nottingham’s oldest building, painstakingly moved from its old home in 1969 to one adjacent to the Castle walls.  Don’t bother. It is now empty:  you can just see the squinting tourists reading the dirty plaque on the wall.  Anyway.  At least one has the 17th Century Nottingham Castle to look forward to. Not so fast, brigadier. It’s Monday. It’s closed.  I recall, last Spring, even seeing the Tourist Information Office closed. On a Bank Holiday Monday

How can any City treat its tourists this way? Maybe they’d be more impressed a little later on in the evening; watching the City’s youths urinating on the streets. Or seeing the broken bottles outside the pubs.  They can write and complain on the impenetrable Council website but, if my experience is anything to go by, they won’t get an answer.  Shopping to look forward to?  No.  Other cities have now overtaken us. The Broad Marsh Centre, particularly, no longer offers much for the discerning shopper.   So, might our typical tourist just seek to escape by car? Not down the A453 they don’t. Oh no. The major artery to the South is still single carriageway. How can a City the size of Nottingham hold its head high when travelling to or from it is a day-long job?

Sadly, my own experiences of any dealings with the Council have also left me rather unimpressed. That sedate pace suggests those in the front line know what times they have to be at work, but not really why they are really there.  If I ran my business like that, I would not be around too long. There are gifted, hard-working individuals there too, of course, but even they appear frustrated by the Council machine.  I remember seeing the might of the Council in action in a planning enquiry. It left me more than a little unimpressed. 

Away from Nottingham, I mention the name of my City.  The response used to be a smile and  the words ‘Nottingham Forest’ or ‘Brian Clough‘; now the retort is ’gun crime’.  It is almost criminal that our reputation has been so, so polluted.  Do they have any public relations?  I see a 75k post last year for the director of communications; and one imagines that is just the start.

I could much write a much longer piece than this about what is right about the City which I love so much. I am a huge fan.  But one can be honest with one’s family. So let’s be honest amongst us Nottingham folk: there is too much wrong here.

I was once no supporter of the office of elected Mayor.  In London, I saw it as yet another tier of needless bureaucracy.  I have changed my mind.  Whether Livingstone or Boris, the Capital has been better for a leader.  Thankfully, party politics seem to have become rather a side issue. London has renewed vigour and evidence of direction and of decisions. 

If any city needs a Mayor it is Nottingham. It needs a vision; a visionary; and the energy of a great practitioner to make sure it happens. And it needs it now.  This great City’s neglect in the last generation makes me angry.