Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

A Victim must be found

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In just over a month’s time, I shall turn sixty. I know that they say that sixty is the new forty; and I have to admit that on seeing various friends take on new challenges, such as ballet or sea kayaking, I have to agree. Even in my own case, taking on a new job with new challenges, and what is more enjoying it, is equally satisfying. When my parents were this age, they were beginning to “wind down to retirement”, as the phrase went. Not now. I know that the moving of the retirement age goalpost means that I shall have to work an extra year to get my retirement pension; and there are times when the knees creak and various bits of me hurt for no good reason that I do feel my age (and more). But on the whole, the plusses outweigh the minuses, at least for the time being. How much that will continue over the next six years remains to be seen, of course. And it is sobering to look at various obituaries and take note of the ages of the subjects.

But one thing does irritate me a lot. That is the fairly constant drip of complaints from various people that my generation, the ‘baby boomers’, have “taken it all”; got the big fat final salary pensions, paid off the mortgage and possibly even raised equity on the house, got their education without having to be saddled with a massive loan, and are living the life of Riley on more money than they can comfortably spend in a lifetime (though they may try their best).

Well, that’s not me, and it’s not a lot of people I know.

My parents were of the wartime generation. But they were also the generation caught up in the major recession of the late 1970s. My father was made redundant in 1979 and faced having to rebuild his career in his 50s. It involved relocation and taking on a newer, bigger mortgage. It suited us for me to move in with them in the new location because I was able to access a better job (in terms of job quality, certainly not money) and I was able to pitch in with things like the mortgage endowment policy, which was all the rage in those days and what all the building societies were pushing.

Endowment policies became one of the first financial mis-selling scandals, on the basis that people weren’t told that the value of investments could go down as well as up. I recollect that I checked at the time this became an issue, and the words were there in the small print; but in the middle 1980s, the Government of the day wanted people to believe that the City was their friend and deregulation would lead the way to prosperity. Five years later, the story was that the endowment policies had “under-performed”. Well, one of my jobs at the time when I worked for the water regulator, Ofwat, was checking the share holdings in the privatised water companies, and I saw who owned what (for holdings in excess of 3%) and how those shares were performing. On that basis, my mortgage endowment was performing very well indeed, if the 0-60mph figures of the Porsche 911s that were so popular amongst the fund managers of the day were anything to go by. I take the view that endowment policies didn’t under-perform, they were mis-managed.

Of course, I was working in the public sector. Contrary to a lot of perceived wisdom at the time, the public sector was not paid well, at least not at rank-and-file level. My earnings never reached the national average wage in thirty years. Performance-related pay schemes kept increasing the pressure to perform better and better, and paid high-flyers out of the same pay pot that everyone else had to share; so those who merely performed ‘satisfactorily’ were passed over for the big increases. And certain support jobs were in an invidious position; when your work is to a set routine, no matter how important that job is or how much impact getting it wrong would have, how can you perform it ‘excellently’? (Referring to a colleague with even more of a support role than I had, I once asked, perhaps rhetorically, “How can you deliver post excellently?”)

As for bonuses, they were usually the preserve of the blue-eyed boys and girls; only when there was a major exercise were there any bonuses on offer to anyone else, and that was perhaps once every five years. Again, some of the publicly-quoted figures for public sector bonuses quoted big numbers; but again, many public sector pay schemes capped pay increases and when you reached the top of your pay scale, any increase you were due was given to you as a lump sum bonus, instead of a cost of living increase.

And all this was before the financial crisis of 2008. Public sector pay went into the freezer (in fact, it had been in the freezer for a couple of years before that; below-inflation pay rises through the Noughties became a “cost-neutral” increase in 2008-09, and a 0% increase in 2009-10, before the Coalition came to power, though Gordon Brown’s government flatly denied that).

It was fairly common for people to talk about public sector “gold-plated pensions”. Well, gold-plating is a thin veneer of something shiny over something essentially worthless. For a final salary pension to be any good, you have to be on a good final salary. After thirty years in the Civil Service, I was still on less than the national average salary. In 2010, self-employment looked the least worst option, and that was what I opted for. In the years since then, I’ve been pretty close to the breadline, and now no longer have a property to my name. I have no pension pot to invest, as Civil Service pensions are met from current taxation; I have no property to have equity in.

I realise that I’m in a better position than some; I now have a private sector job which was able to pay me a salary increase this year, the first for two years and the biggest for more than twenty. And I’m not asking for more, or whinging about how unfair everything is. I’m complaining about those members of the commentariat who try to blame me and my generation for everything and try to make me look like some sort of fat cat.

These are senior politicians, academics, journalists and financial experts who have profited from the advantages they see in my generation, and who are trying to spread the blame for the hardships to come across my entire age cohort. Often, they belong to the very sectors who have become personally enriched in the past thirty years – the fund managers, the City men, the rising politicians and generally the members of the Establishment. They benefitted from deregulation, they benefitted from liberalisation of markets, they benefitted from privatisation, and they diverted criticism onto anyone as long as it didn’t fall to them.

I am now reaching the stage where I treat all pronouncements by senior politicians, journalists and other ‘opinion formers’ as nothing more than a pack of self-serving lies. I ask myself, “What is your interest in this? Where does your money come from?”, and those answers usually make me dismiss what they say. There are also a range of pressure groups who demand their place in the public eye; but their offer is nearly always just empty sloganising. Many of them are based on ignorance, stupidity and prejudice, making any sort of intelligent discussion impossible. The New Zealand writer Matt Suddain has summed it up perfectly: “…the greatest possible horror is not that humanity might end, but that our Empire of Stupidity might last forever.”

My last job came to an end because a company of venture capitalists decided that the difficulties in building something new from scratch were too expensive and impacted shareholders; the purpose of their company was to maximise shareholder value, not to make a better product or find better ways of delivering a service. They took a highly profitable company and in two years turned it into a barely profitable one, and then blamed the people who were trying to deliver innovation on the ground.

The Establishment tried to blame all this on the little people. But that didn’t work out as expected. And there are signs that the Establishment has been found out and people are fighting back. The next few years may well see serious change, and there are some who only have themselves to blame if that change does not work out in their favour.

I have no solutions. But I know who is speaking against me and my interests. I’m only an ordinary person, with little or no direct influence on affairs. All I can do is act in my everyday life in ways that maximise the opportunities open to me to improve my position, and to work in whatever ways I can against those who threaten me, whether that’s down to how I cast my vote, or how and with whom I spend my money when I make free market choices, based on what information and knowledge I can glean about those trying to sell me stuff. It’s the only power I have, and it’s not much for me, as an individual, to wield. But I do what I can. And I write my blog, so that from time to time other might read my thoughts and make their own minds up. And that’s all I ask: think for yourself and don’t believe everything you’re told. Knowledge is power, goes the old saying. Never lose the chance to extend your knowledge, because one day you may come across something that adds to something else you already know, and another piece of the jigsaw falls into place.

And when that jigsaw is complete, act on what it says to you.

Written by robertday154

June 26, 2017 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

On Water

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In a break from my usual policy, I’m going to comment on current UK politics in some level of detail. I’m not going to offer a firm opinion on the particular issue; instead, I’m going to set down what I know about the issue from first hand, so that anyone who is interested and wants to can have access to what I know and decide accordingly.

The topic is water re-nationalisation, as set out in the Labour Party’s manifesto. I will not get into arguments about how electable or not the Labour Party currently is, or about the merits or lack of merits of Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader. Any comments that I receive that ignore the rest of what I’m going to write here and go on about Corbyn this or Corbyn that or are specifically and blindly partisan will be moderated away. I’m trying to do my bit to restore some sort of rationality to political debate. I realise that’s probably a doomed enterprise from the start, but it’s where I come from.

I worked for the water regulator, Ofwat, from just after privatisation in 1989 to the end of the first year of the Coalition Government in December 2010. I was never very high up in the chain of command, but as Ofwat was and is a small organisation and I was working close to the top in a support role for the first five years, and then with key regulatory data for the following fifteen, I can claim to have been a fly on the wall at certain points.

The problem with the pledge to re-nationalise water in the Labour manifesto is that this is just one paragraph, with little in the way of detail. Water hasn’t been high on the political radar for some time, and up to the publication of the manifesto, little had been said by any political party on the subject. Opinions that have been expressed (on either side) have not generally been made from a position of knowledge. Wider utility issues have been a hot topic, though, with the Tory pledge to impose price cap regulation on the energy industry. On that topic, I would merely point out that there was price cap regulation on the energy industry in the years immediately following privatisation, only for it to be dropped because of the judgement that the competitive energy market was sufficiently mature to regulate prices. This has been challenged by the number of customers actually switching supplier. Meanwhile, water has continually been subject to price cap regulation and efforts to introduce competition have been slow, in part because of the sheer artificiality of any competitive water market in the absence of common carriage and a national water grid.

I make no apologies for the length of this post. Our modern life is complex; the recent trend amongst politicians for simple answers and mistrust of experts (because they tell you difficult stuff) is, in my view, at best misguided and at worst delusional, because in the real world, there are complex reasons for stuff happening, and if you ignore complex stuff happening, the end result is that it can blow up in your face.

Before privatisation

Before privatisation, there were ten water authorities for England and Wales (Scotland has always been separate) which covered water supply and sewage treatment. These were formed in 1973 from the nationalisation of a range of local water undertakings, either individual water companies or municipal undertakings.

By some clever lobbying and political manoeuvring, some nineteen water companies avoided nationalisation. These were established as “statutory water companies”; their shares, though tradable, were listed on the alternative securities market and their rates of return were capped.

Overall direction of the industry was limited. Water authority investment decisions were driven by the political agenda and budgets with water having to take its place amongst other priorities for public money, and so by the 1980s, the industry was seeing the effects of under-investment and falling standards. Meanwhile, overseas investors – especially French water companies – were making investments in the statutory companies.

Privatisation

The Thatcher government’s solution to these problems, as with so many others, was privatisation. The private sector would be able to raise money better than the public sector, investors would be guaranteed a rate of return because the consumer market was about as captive as it could be, water and sewage expenditure would come out of the public sector and investment decisions would be taken out of direct political control. A new regulatory regime would be put in place, applicable to the whole industry. The ten water authorities were therefore floated on the Stock Exchange from 1st August 1989 and the new regulator, the Office of Water Services (Ofwat) opened its doors for business on the same day.

Based wholly in Birmingham, Ofwat was headed by Ian (later Sir Ian) Byatt, a Treasury economist who earlier in his career had specialised in the economics of utility industries, and who, together with Steven Littlechild, the first electricity regulator, actually had written the book on the subject.

The ten privatised companies became known as “water and sewerage companies” (WaSCs) and the nineteen companies that had remained in the private sector became known as “water-only companies” (WoCs). The WoCs were given the freedom to list their shares on the open market and the rate of return cap was removed.

There was a requirement on companies to produce long-term costed investment plans (although at an early stage, Ian Byatt declared that Ofwat “was not GOSPLAN”, a reference to the Soviet Union’s office for planning of the centralised economy). These plans were reviewed and reported on. Early on, Ian Byatt visited all the companies to establish their opening position and to start making contacts, and something interesting emerged from this. It soon became clear that some of the smaller WoCs were in a shaky condition and did not have a good handle on their costs and expenditure. There were some which, it was estimated, were probably only 18 months or so from severe financial difficulties.

Meanwhile, the WaSCs were also getting to grips with the economic realities of the new regime. Many found that they did not have a good handle on their asset base, and in particular didn’t know the full extent of their networks.

These WaSCs were set up with a particular structure. The privatised companies that punters bought shares in were set up as parent group companies, which could diversify into any business area they saw fit. Water and sewerage services were in the hands of wholly-owned subsidiaries. This meant that if a WaSC made some really bad investment decisions and went bankrupt (I always used to say “Suppose Huge Water plc spent all its money on a boiled sweet factory and that gobbled up all their money…”), the water services company which actually ran the water and sewerage services could stand on its own and could be put in the hands of a special administrator until a buyer could be found for it.

Although the publicly-expressed aim of privatisation was to encourage small investors and turn Britain into a share-holding democracy, in practice large quantities of shares were bought by institutional investors, including private pension providers. One of my early jobs in Ofwat was to track publicly-disclosed share ownership (once a shareholding reaches 3%, it has to be so declared), and that told me a lot about the pensions and insurance industry, such as the underlying truth behind the supposedly poor performance of endowment policies. I saw what sort of return the big institutional investors were getting, and in the early years there was no under-performance. My endowment policy wasn’t under-performing, I surmised; rather, it performed rather well, in the form of some investment manager’s Porsche…

Regulation and company performance

Ofwat practised price cap control. We gathered information from water companies, reviewed their investment plans, looked at their costs and their outgoings, and set price limits beyond which companies could not charge. We also had the task of acting as a substitute for competition; so, if company A proposed spending £X on, say, mains renewals, we would use our oversight of the industry to say “But company B next door to you has similar issues and a similar programme of mains renewals, but their estimated cost for that work is half what you’re suggesting.” And so come price review time, we’d look at what company A proposed spending on mains renewals and if they’d not shown any improvement on their costs towards what company B was spending, we’d only allow company A roughly what company B’s comparative spend was.

A lot of water company spending was based on EU standards, especially on discharges to the environment. Another of my early jobs was to go down to Parliament and report back on the Committee stages of the adoption of the EU’s Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD) into UK law. One of the aims of our involvement in this was to understand what was being demanded of companies so that we could spot any attempts by the companies to gold-plate their solutions to the UWWTD, because (the economists’ opinion was) “that’s what engineers do”.

All this ended up in customer prices that (for the most part) rose rapidly in the first ten years, for very little visible improvement in water and sewerage services. After all, these things are fairly invisible; we only notice them when they go wrong. Meanwhile, companies were free to invest in any business that took their eye. Some, like the Homecare insurance business, were linked with the core water business; others, like my fictional boiled sweet factory, were not. The idea was that the privatised business could use external investment to generate profit for shareholders above and beyond a reasonable rate of return from the water and sewerage business and wholly independent of it.

This misfired in the case of Welsh Water (Dwr Cymru), whose parent company, Hyder, invested heavily in the leisure industry. This was all fine until the Blair government imposed a windfall tax on utility profits which hit them hard. The company went up for sale, various assets and businesses (including electricity generation) were sold off, and the water and sewerage business was sold for £1 to a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, which ploughs its profits back into the business and has no shareholders. (Hence the reason why Labour’s manifesto only refers to water in England; Dwr Cymru has no profits, as well as falling to the Welsh Assembly to make governmental judgements on.) Dwr Cymru’s experience served to put nearly all other companies off the idea of large-scale diversification.

One of the big issues that exercises everyone is leakage. Ofwat looked at this dispassionately, as you might expect. The thing is that it costs pretty much the same to fix a leak whether it’s a pinhole or a major mains burst; so we evolved a measure called the “economic level of leakage” (ELL). This was the level of leakage where it was actually cheaper to bring a new water source into supply to compensate for leakage losses than it is to actually go out and track down and repair every leak. We commissioned some research into public perceptions on this matter, and it taught me something important about public opinions. We (well, the consultants we got to do this for us) put together a focus group and asked them “Should all leaks be fixed, irrespective of cost or size of leak?” and then looked at how many people agreed with that. They were then briefed about the ELL measure, with worked examples to explain the concept in terms that anyone could understand. The focus groups were even asked if they understood what they’d been told, and nearly everyone said “Yes”. And then they were asked the original question again – should all leaks be fixed regardless? And despite everything that had been done to explain it, almost exactly the same number of people as before said “Yes”. People prefer their firmly-held beliefs to clear and incontrovertible facts. (I’ve thought about this a lot since 2016.)

One of the other features of the industry since 1989 has been consolidation. Of the 19 WoCs, some of them were very small. Indeed, the smallest, Cholderton & District Water, still survives today. It serves two villages and seven farms on the edge of Salisbury Plain and was created in 1904 by a philanthropic landowner and MP (back in the days when MPs actually displayed integrity from time to time) who wanted to bring piped water to his tenants. This is a truly local water company; it has a staff of three, you are quite likely to find the MD going out on a tractor with a bag of tools to fix a pump, and it’s not that long since it stopped accepting produce in exchange for water bills.

But there were also a number of small companies, such as Hartlepool, York Waterworks, or East Worcestershire Water. These and others became targets for acquisition by larger companies and disappeared in the first ten years or so. There were also instances where companies were in common ownership, and over the years Ofwat pursued a policy of encouraging companies in common ownership to become single undertakings to achieve economies of scale. So by 2015 the number of companies of both types was down to eighteen (though since then there have been some new entrants). In cases of merger, in setting the prices for the new company Ofwat insisted on there being a direct dividend to customers in the form of lowered prices.

The flow of steady if unspectacular profits (in corporate terms) once the regulatory regime settled down into maturity meant that companies became targets for takeovers. This led to Wessex Water becoming part of the Enron empire; when Enron imploded, the company was bailed out by Malaysian investors. Thames became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Australian bank Macquarie; and we saw the beginning of what the government of the day called “the Lilley Doctrine” (named for Peter Lilley MP, one-time Secretary of State for Social Security in the Major government), summed up as “we didn’t privatise these companies only to have them taken over by foreign nationalised industries”. The counter-argument is that under EU competition and open market rules, nationalised entities in Europe are structured as private companies anyway (even if the state, sometimes through a number of different players, remains the majority or even sole shareholder) and so through the Single Market are fully entitled to buy other companies in other lands. (How the Lilley Doctrine will fare during Brexit negotiations remains to be seen but could well be very interesting.) Meanwhile, companies have maintained their profitability but often through cutting jobs, outsourcing and offshoring, and adopting new technology, just like so many others.

Ian Byatt’s term as Director General of Water Services ended in 2000. The Labour Government had determined to review Ofwat because when in Opposition, they had criticised regulation for being too personality-driven. As a result, they introduced legislation that restructured Ofwat in a more corporate style. By 2004, Ofwat had a CEO and a Board; and attention turned back to attempts to bring in competition. The latest model for water industry competition is based around third-party water retailers, who compete to supply water in the most economic way. The same companies will put water into supply from the same sources and send it through the same pipes; but retail companies will buy it in bulk and compete amongst themselves to sell it on to end users (you and me). This is planned to be slowly rolled out, first to smaller business customers and eventually to domestic customers. But in trying to put a greater emphasis on competition, the role of Ofwat setting prices, analysing performance and acting as a substitute for competition has been downgraded. There is also evidence to suggest a level of company capture. One of my bosses once said that any proper private sector company would give its corporate right arm for a guaranteed income stream for the next five years in exchange for some form-filling; instead, although we kept regular oversight of how much and what information we collected, and strove to ensure that we only asked for the level of information that any prudent company would collect for its own uses, the companies were continually pushing back over the “burden of regulation” (despite the fact that many of them used Ofwat information internally for its own purposes, such as performance management).

And “light touch regulation” was the flavour of the month, though when the company headed by the doyen of deregulation, David Arculus (who also headed the Better Regulation Task Force), was found to have falsified its data returns to Ofwat, we were fully justified in fining them £35 million, and the Serious Fraud Office took very great interest in them. (By the way, fines cannot be passed on to customers. They have to come out of profits. And any company who tried hiding fines under other headings in the accounts in order to offload them onto the customer base would find its directors at risk of jail sentences and disqualification.)

One of Ofwat’s other duties, when setting prices, is to decide what a “reasonable” rate of return is. How much profit is “reasonable” from a regulated monopoly? The answer, of course, depends on your political viewpoint. In the case of Dwr Cymru, the answer is “zero” and all profits are ploughed back into more investment. For others, there are a number of viewpoints depending on how far up the list delivering shareholder value is. Whether you think regulation is a substitute for direct political control is going to determine how far you’re prepared to go along with privatisation.

Re-nationalisation?

A lot of different people have made good money out of privatisation. I suppose it’s possible to say that the privatisation process shifts the beneficiaries of the undertaking from employees and a wide proportion of the taxpaying public who use the service to a more focussed group of investors (who make a return on their investment) and contractors (who get paid for, and make a profit from, providing services to the undertaking that they might have handled internally in the past, or might not have done at all). The taxpaying public’s benefit becomes solely that of the recipient of the service that they pay directly for.

It is a feature of a nationalised undertaking that everyone pays for a service through taxation that not everyone will use. So, the argument runs, rail passengers should pay more for their tickets to finance the service that they use, whilst road users shouldn’t pay taxes for rail subsidies because they aren’t using rail. This argument ignores the additional impact on roads that rail passengers would represent if there were no trains for them to travel on, or the impact that increased heavy goods vehicles would inflict on the road network if there were no freight trains. And it’s not just a question of who pays for what; actual provision of capacity becomes an issue. Or to take another example; I have no children – why should I pay a share of the cost of educating the children of others? The answer is that I live in a society where old and young mix, in work, and commerce, and leisure. The education that I help pay for benefits me in the actions and knowledge and expertise that those younger than me use in their everyday lives when we interact.

(And it cuts both ways. The late Tony Benn had this to say about why the young should contribute towards the pensions of the retired:

What do the young get out of taking responsibility for the old? The answer is simple, for it is the sense of identity between the generations and the security that that sense of identity provides. I find it very comforting. But if older people are to be interesting to the young they have to be interested in the young and treat them with respect.

It seems to me that this is the very basis of any successful society.)

So it is with water. For example, take South West Water, who had a massive increase in bills, at the very limit of the ability of local inhabitants to cope with, to pay for a huge coastal clean-up along the longest section of coast of any water company to improve the aquatic environment, and compare them with Thames Water, who have possibly a similar outlay in putting in place systems to cope with the sewage output of their massive population, but equally have a far larger customer base to spread those costs across; and this resulted in South West having the biggest bills in the country and Thames having a far more reasonable rate of increase. In a nationalised scenario where the costs of necessary investment are met from centralised taxation and all contribute the same proportion of the tax take to water and sewerage services nationally, customers in the South West would be subsidised by customers in London and the south east.

(One of the arguments  put to the residents of the south west was that as a lot of the impact on the environment is caused by a seasonal influx of visitors, those in the hospitality industry could do their bit by raising prices to those visitors to reflect their impact on the environment and the pressure on water and sewerage bills. It could be argued, though, that placing the burden on centralised taxation would achieve the same ends.)

It is possible for the state to run a business as a business (as long as the managerial expertise is in place). Nils Pratley, writing in The Guardian shortly after the Labour Manifesto was published, commented that as the Government can borrow money at preferential rates, borrowing at 1.5% to purchase an industry with a current rate of return of 3.4% is actually quite sensible. But, he points out, that isn’t the point of the policy. The Labour argument isn’t that the Government could make a better deal; instead, it’s a democratic argument. It’s about governance, and whether there are certain services which should be provided by the state to ensure equality of access  and equality of standards, and that the undertaking itself serves broader national objectives as opposed to narrow, self-interested ones. Many who voted for British exit from the EU were motivated by the democratic imperative; “taking back control”. It’s possible to see the argument for re-nationalisation in the same light. And just as there are those who say that Brexit is worth any price, there are those who say that money is not the primary consideration in re-nationalisation.

It is true to say that average bills (and please try to understand what average means; so many seemingly intelligent people don’t seem to understand this) are 40% higher than they were at the time of privatisation. However, recent price cap settlements have begun rolling those increases back as the initial investment programmes have been fulfilled (Thames Tideway notwithstanding). Some are currently saying that bills would (again on average) be some £150/year higher were it not for privatisation, but we’re talking pure speculation on hypothetical cases here. Had regulation been more light touch in the earlier years and companies allowed to pass all enhanced costs through to the customer, we might have been looking at far higher bills. The first reset of price limits that Ofwat did in 1994 was estimated to have taken some £60/year off future bills in the following five years compared with what the companies initially asked for. And there have been another three price reviews since then.

Previous Labour governments and manifestoes proposed increasing state oversight of the water industry through strengthening Ofwat’s powers or changing their remit; and certainly, Ofwat would still have a function even in a future nationalised scenario. When the Thatcher administration was thinking about extending water privatisation to Scotland (as they tried roughly once per Parliament), a lady wrote to the newspaper The Scotsman with the often heard argument against privatisation, “Why should we pay for water? God sends the rain to fall on our land for free.” The next day, a response appeared in the form of another letter which said “God may send the rain to fall for free, but he disnae pay the wages of my mate Hamish who lays the pipes.”

Mad and costly political decisions can impact an industry whether it is in the public or the private sector; I recollect this story from the time when Chris Patten was Secretary of State for the Environment. He went to a conference on the environmental state of the North Sea and shocked his officials by standing up and without warning declaring that the UK would cease discharging raw sewage to the North Sea within the next five years, to which his officials, in best Sir Humphrey Appleby style, said “You said what, Secretary of State?” as of course, this sudden bright idea of his had not been discussed with anyone before that day and hadn’t figured in any legal obligations placed on companies up to then and included in forward investment plans. (They stopped short of calling it “courageous”, though.)

At only a single paragraph in the manifesto, Labour is not strong on the detail of renationalisation. Does it include the WoCs as well? I hope that the issues I’ve explored from the history of privatised water show that the sector has a range of issues which do not allow simple answers (quite apart from the ones I’ve not covered, such as metering or ability to pay). I’m not saying that it’s either a bad idea or a good one; I’m sure that a nationalised water industry could be made to work, just as when East Coast Trains were taken back into public ownership when the franchise holder walked away from the contract, the railway was actually run better and more profitably than when it was in private hands.

But I am saying that the sector has a lot of expertise to hand; and it has that expertise because it needs it. There are no simple answers. And any politician who looks for simple answers and ignores experts is storing up trouble for themselves.

 

 

Written by robertday154

May 18, 2017 at 3:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Who do you think you’re kidding?

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I was looking through a friend’s blog today, and I came across a comment I’d posted. The comment told a story from my father’s history, and I thought it worth repeating. The comment was sparked by the release of a remake of the film of Dad’s Army, which started out as a BBC TV sitcom in 1968 telling the story of the wartime Home Guard. The original tv cast had a feature film outing in the 1970s, and that film got remade in 2016.

-oOo-

On Dad’s Army: I haven’t seen the remake, and frankly I’ve no intentions of deliberately doing so; it struck me as a particularly egregious example of ‘remake by numbers’ and no remake could possibly have the relevance of the original. My father enjoyed the original because he’d been in the Home Guard and many of the situations in the show had relevance to him; his platoon commander was also the local bank manager, and there were Boer War veterans in it as well. There most resemblance ended. Dad lived in what was then rural Essex, though now it’s the very edge of Greater London, and in 1940-41 the Home Guard were actually getting all the latest weapons and training from some of the best front-line regiments because they were expected to have to repel invasion at any time.

He always told this story: some of the Boer War vets were getting on in years, and once, on an exercise, one of the younger blokes had a little go at them for not being able to run so fast. “Run?” one old-timer said, “We didn’t join this outfit to run, we joined to fight!”

“Well, then, what’ll you do if Jerry comes?”

“I’ll take my rifle and a box of ammo and I’ll go up that tree at the crossroads, and I’ll just pot away at them until they roll over me.”

That sort of sobering comment sometimes – not often, but sometimes – came out in the original series, and it was the skill of the writers that they could inject that sort of thing into the comedy and bring the audience up sharp from time to time, just to remind them that life ain’t all fun and games.

Of course, there were actors in the original cast who had been in combat. The most interesting example was Arnold Ridley*, who had combat decorations and had been wounded in WW1. There is a wonderful episode where his character, Godfrey, is ‘outed’ as having been a conscientious objector in WW1, and the rest of the platoon, of course, ostracise him, Then, one day on exercise, Godfrey rescues Captain Mainwaring from a dangerous situation and is injured himself. When they go to see him afterwards when he is recuperating at home, they see that he has the Military Medal on display in his room. He’d actually ended up as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front and been decorated for bravery in rescuing men from No Man’s Land under fire. Oh how everyone’s opinion suddenly changed. That episode should be required viewing for anyone, and it shows how great comedy can teach life lessons. I doubt whether the remake gets or could get anywhere near that.

-oOo-

*Arnold Ridley was also a playwright, best known for his play The Ghost Train. His great-niece, Daisy Ridley, played the lead role in the seventh Star Wars film, The Force Awakens.

Written by robertday154

May 3, 2017 at 12:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

We also have Sound-houses

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I’ve written before about my involvement with the UK science fiction community and the organised anarchy that is the Easter (and World) Science Fiction conventions. (As I said once before, the best comment about the UK Eastercon came from a hotel: “They drink like a rugby club, but they’re as much trouble as a chess club.”)

Last weekend, I attended the 68th Eastercon, at the Hilton Metropole hotel on the NEC site outside Birmingham. And just to confound anyone who thinks they know what a science fiction convention must be like, the rest of this post consists of a link to a review of the highlight of the convention; a recital for harp, glass harmonica, Ondes Martenot and Cristal Baschet of music with genre connections. This was, in the opinion of many, worth the cost of attending the entire weekend.

The review is by James Bacon and the link will take you to Mike Glyer’s File770 site.

http://file770.com/?p=34472&cpage=1

Written by robertday154

April 20, 2017 at 12:00 am

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The Sacred Workplace

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A few days ago, I drove past my former workplace on the outskirts of Leicester, only to find that it had finally been demolished. This was the end of a particular story that illustrates the changing nature of work in the UK over the past twenty or more years.

The company I worked for was – and still is – called Bellrock; but this was the result of a corporate re-brand to reflect a change in ownership and in corporate structure. Previously, it had been known as SGP and had provided facilities management services to the finance and retail sector. In 2005, SGP had been acquired by Johnsons, the workwear provider, part of a sprawling group operating in the textiles sector for something like 200 years. Best known nowadays for their dry-cleaning business, Johnsons had seen their peak years in the provision of workwear hire, which meant that they had ended up with a massive factory on their Leicester site and a huge headquarters building. As a workwear hire company, Johnsons had had to provide laundry services – hence the dry cleaning business – and having a national chain of laundries and depots meant that they had to have a fairly extensive secondary workforce to maintain those premises. Hence the excursion into facilities management. The development of accountancy theory in the post-war years saw companies embrace the idea of the “profit centre” and the “cost centre”, and how to make the latter turn into the former. If you are spending money on doing a thing, you either start doing that thing as a business and offer your services to third parties (making a cost centre into a profit centre), or you stop doing that thing and buy the service in from others (streamlining your costs so as to maximise shareholder value). Of course, all this is predicated on the economic theory that the purpose of a company is to maximise shareholder value, rather than make a better product or offer a better service.

Separating SGP from Johnsons involved a management buyout, which in turn meant that venture capitalists got involved. And venture capitalists are based around the maximisation of shareholder value. Meanwhile, it also meant that SGP was suddenly a tenant on Johnsons’ Leicester site instead of being part of the owners’ business; and in any case, a site consisting of a huge office building, designed in the 1960s to house a clerical workforce supporting a national-scale business and a factory that covered nearly half a square mile, located on a late 1940s trading estate was no longer appropriate to a modern business and a computer-literate workforce. Indeed, the factory had already been re-purposed as a distribution hub, given that the trading estate was convenient to the motorway and also the shift away from companies having huge workforces engaged in manufacturing who required overalls. So Bellrock and the other tenants were under notice to quit, and the factory, with one of the biggest asbestos roofs in Europe, was marked for demolition – just as soon as the site owners could raise the necessary funds to remove that roof safely. (Had the factory ever caught fire, the Leicester Emergency Plan called for mass evacuation of residents in up to a one-mile radius, such was the risk.)

Once I knew that the site was going to be cleared, I determined to take the camera in to record something of the site. After all, at one time this site had housed a huge working community; and the office block, though outwardly an unremarkable 1960s corporate HQ, had been designed by architects and represented a major outlay of working time and effort on the part of probably hundreds of people that was all going to be swept away. A large number of buildings from the 1950s and 1960s have been demolished in recent years; although many of them were undistinguished and probably quite unloved, they nonetheless played a part in people’s lives and ought to be recorded in some way.

Photographers like a bit of urban decay; and there is a community of “urban explorers” who find experiencing this sort of thing interesting. So perhaps there is more appreciation now than ever before of unloved buildings; stuff that will never be the subject of preservation orders or get into coffee table books of the best modern buildings. Architectural fashions change; in the post-war years, Victorian buildings were unloved until the demolition of the Euston Arch focussed attention on the quality of Victorian buildings and their contribution to the built environment. But the tower blocks and offices of the 1950s and 1960s were quickly opened to criticism even when they were new; their status as indicators of the “white heat of technology” culture rapidly waned as evidence of shoddy construction quality and the consequent shortcomings in the standard of accommodation mounted. One of the most notorious examples was Alexander Fleming House, the DHSS headquarters building at the Elephant & Castle in London. Designed by the architect Erno Goldfinger, it became better known for poor construction quality and sick building syndrome (SBS), to the extent that the DHSS moved out in the early 1990s. Alexander Fleming House narrowly avoided demolition but required a major refurbishment and re-purposing before it became fit for purpose; had it not had a noted architect’s name attached to it, it might have become another re-developed site.

In  the middle 1980s, I worked in the DHSS complex at Five Ways, in Birmingham. This consisted of two buildings – Five Ways House, built in the year of my birth, 1957, and housing the Department of the Environment, the DHSS, and a number of other smaller organisations; and Five Ways Tower, a 23-story block clad in red brick dating from 1979. The site became notorious; firstly for poor construction standards (bricks started detaching themselves from the cladding in high winds, and when the brickwork was examined it was found that whole panels of brickwork were at risk of coming away and falling up to 180 feet onto public circulation areas), and then for sick building syndrome, especially after Drs. Sherwood and Burge from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital used the site for their key study of the condition as the two buildings had different forms of ventilation and heating and could therefore provide populations for proper epidemiological study, especially if staff were transferred from one building to the other. The proof of the existence of SBS had quite an impact; given that the sufferers included a number of senior managers, DHSS management took the matter very seriously indeed, and in due course Five Ways Tower was cleared and indeed stood empty for many years. Oddly, though, when the BBC’s long-running  science programme Horizon wanted to make a documentary on SBS, the Department of the Environment would not grant permission for them to film inside the building. Which was odd, as permission had been granted earlier for another BBC production unit to transform part of the basement of Five Ways House into a South African prison cell block for a drama-documentary on the life and death of the activist Steve Biko. I always wondered how they knew Five Ways House would make such a good and appropriate setting…

About this time, the TV critic, journalist and writer Clive James began hosting a show called Clive James on Television. It featured James doing acerbic voiceovers to tv clips from around the world, especially ones from Japan or Brazil, and usually including things that to a UK audience looked strange or bizarre. Amongst footage of appalling South American singers (Marguerita Pracatan springs to mind) and extreme game shows, he also showed some clips from a Japanese series about the British. Having once been photographed by Japanese tourists whilst buying an Underground ticket, I could relate to this. In one clip, the presenters marvelled at a Royal Mail motorcycle courier: “Look! This is the Royal mail!”. And in another, they visited the London Underground depot at Neasden, where one of the workers was retiring. In those less enlightened times, this bloke’s colleagues had arranged a strippogram to deliver his leaving card. This boggled the Japanese camera crew somewhat. At one point, the highly excitable frontman for the show made an exclamation that appeared in the subtitles as: “Oh! Oh! Those wonderful boobies are coming out in the sacred workplace again!” I don’t know how accurate the subtitling was – I have the sneaking suspicion that Clive James may have had a hand in embellishing them somewhat – but “the Sacred Workplace” immediately became a term I applied to my own place of work, especially if my tongue ever found its way into my cheek. Which it did quite often over the following twenty years in a succession of roles, usually in response to some instance or other of managerial or organisational foolishness.

And thinking about it, a significant number of those Sacred Workplaces have fallen to the wrecker’s ball. And all of them, I think, were office blocks. Perhaps there is something about big, rectangular buildings that encourages corporate daftness, which may account for the architectural trend in recent years to build offices in a variety of shapes that verge on the non-Euclidian. And it could well be one of the advantages of now working for a smaller company whose offices are on a more human scale.

Written by robertday154

March 26, 2017 at 12:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Dancing with the Tax Man

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I’ve had a week of ups and downs. The downer is a pretty big one, at least in terms of price tag. Well, perhaps in the great scheme of things it’s not that bad – about £780 – but it’s rather a lot of money to suddenly have to find in a hurry.

When I completed my tax return for 2015-16, the online system for HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) declared that I owed them £782. Quite why was a mystery to me; during that tax year, I’d been in full-time salaried employment and all my sources of income were taxed at source. How had I become liable to pay more tax?

I took a day off to ring the Revenue, though in the end I was able to conclude the process in half a morning. Who knew it could be so easy? It turns out that the underpayment has arisen because when I was self-employed, I put an amount into my tax return for business expenses that could be offset against tax. When I had a lean year, and earnt nothing from my business, obviously I didn’t have any expenses either. But the Revenue simply brought forward my business expenses from the previous year; as I hadn’t said that I’d closed my business down, they assumed that i still had the outgoings even if I didn’t have any income.

Those expenses were then reflected in my tax code. So once I went back onto Pay As You Earn (tax deducted from earnings at source, for overseas readers), my tax code, the basis of that calculation, was too low. That didn’t matter until I actually advised HMRC that I had closed my business. Whereupon the expenses element ended up being reflected in my tax code in the form of an allowance that I’m no longer entitled to. Whilever I didn’t close the business down, that was OK, because I might get lucky and have some business come my way. Indeed, I commented a year or so back in this very blog that I’d contemplated closing the business, only to get some approaches for possible speaking engagements and a new book deal. But once the business is no more, the expenses drop out of the tax calculation. And so they want it back.

I rather suspect that there’s a bit of a glitch in the algorithm that doesn’t reset the expenses number if the following year records nothing, partly because that would be a policy decision that the Revenue would have to take and partly because it’s a nice little earner for them. I’ve used the magic legal phrase “without prejudice” wherever possible, just in case I decide to look into this further and challenge the repayment request. But I suspect it will take more time and money than the tax underpayment is worth.

Still, (grumble grumble). They don’t tell you this when they go on about the joys of self-employment.

To happier matters. My other half has been doing some work with the Birmingham Royal Ballet recently, and she came into possession of some tickets to see the final dress rehearsal of their current production, Prokoviev’s Cinderella.  So last Tuesday, I had a night at the ballet.

I’m not much of a balletomane, but this was too good a chance to miss. We got good seats in the stalls, only a few rows from the orchestra pit, and about on eye level with the stage. And I have to say I was very deeply impressed. Ballet is a very tough discipline; even the most petite ballerina is going to be a good nine stones (57 kilos or 126 Imperial pounds), and the male dancers will spend a good part of their performance lifting those ballerinas. Repeatedly. And that was the case here.

Ballet consists of a number of set positions and movements, so it’s no surprise that dancers start young, not only to build strength and stamina, but also to train their muscles so that they have the correct “muscle memory” to make the moves correctly. And that’s before they tackle the actual choreography of the production, the dance moves that tell the story. Nothing in this is ever going to be easy. Sitting where we did, I could see how that worked in practice; towards the end, the lead male dancer was showing signs of fatigue if you looked very closely – a tremor in the arm as he hoisted the lead ballerina once more. And as a rehearsal, there was the occasional fluffed entry and places where some of the corps de ballet were in the wrong place. But that’s what a dress rehearsal is for.

The other thing, of course, is the depiction of character through dance. In the case of Cinderella – a pantomime story, after all – this tended to be in the persons of the Ugly Sisters. This production made  one into a tall, willowy manhunter (think the Irma Prunesquallor character from the BBC production of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast a few years ago), whilst the other was a made up with prosthetics to look just a bit roly-poly (“The ballerina Tumbleova”, I commented, channeling Beachcomber) and clumsy – which means that she had to be a really good dancer to be able to dance that badly on purpose. These two dancers managed to inject the right amount of comedy into their parts.

The utter marvel of the production, for me, was the scene setting. The action of the first act and the first half of the last act was set in Cinderella’s kitchen; traditionally, in the British versions of the pantomime, Cinderella’s father is called Baron Hardup, and the decor of the kitchen bore that out. The entrance of the Fairy Godmother was very well concealed with a breakaway panel partly concealed by an on-stage cupboard, and partly by a complex dance movement of about half the cast. But my highlight was the minutes before midnight, where the dancers imitated clock hands whilst a huge stylized clock mechanism counted down the seconds. The whole thing, with the aid of Prokoviev’s music, to me seemed to owe a lot to the Moloch Machine scene in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Prokofiev’s score is sufficiently modernist to sound rather edgy, matching the efforts to darken the story a little, without becoming completely divorced from the physical action on stage.

I would recommend this to anyone if they can get to Birmingham to see it. A link to the Birmingham Royal Ballet here: http://www.brb.org.uk/whats-on/event/cinderella

(Photos courtesy of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.)brb_73806brb_73858brb_73875brb_76743-1

-oOo-

I commented a while back on a job where I’d been interviewed at high level by the company’s owner and MD, and after a week they decided that I “…wasn’t a team player”, much to my surprise and puzzlement. Well, I’ve had a flash of inspiration as to what they meant.

The company I was interviewing with was in the facilities management business, just like my former employer. I was basically made redundant because my employers’ venture capitalist owners decided that rather than do IT development work in-house, they could buy that service in; and then they went one better and decided to buy the company that they might have bought the service in from. So in the course of my interview, that company came up as a topic of conversation, with them being named as “our biggest competitor”. “Ah,” I said, “and they’re the reason I’m here today – because they have replaced almost all of my former employer’s IT development and testing team.”

It suddenly struck me – did my prospective employer think I was dissing my last employer? If so, then it shows that they didn’t understand the nature of venture capital and company ownership. I will always show loyalty to my employer; but would anyone expect me to show loyalty to my employer’s owners, especially if they have a big portfolio of firms that means that even a multi-million pound turnover company is just one entry on a longer list? And loyalty is a two-way street – the venture capitalists, with whom I had no contact and no personal involvement with – showed me no loyalty; why should I reciprocate? To me, the venture capitalists were remote; uncaring, unthinking minds; why should I speak up for them, as opposed to my direct managers and colleagues who had faith in me and who I was pleased to repay in kind?

In other words, the prospective employer might well have thought that I wasn’t a “team player” because I was voicing criticism of “the owners”  – but I didn’t see them as any part of “the team” in my workplace. We may have been talking at cross purposes all along.

-oOo-

I had a really strange dream last night. I dreamt that I was back working for the Department of Health and Social Security, though in the present day  (as opposed to the 1980s) and at the one-time Regional Office on Chalfont Drive, Nottingham (again, somewhere that I haven’t visited since 1980).

In the dream, I received a package from the DHSS Central Pensions Unit in Newcastle upon Tyne about my forthcoming retirement. (Well, in six years’ time, but that’s still forthcoming. And the Central Pensions unit is a real place.) The odd thing was that delivered with this package was a misdirected letter, addressed to a Mr. P. Day in Arley, the next village over from where I used to live in North Warwickshire. Arley is a former mining village, though its pit closed back in the 1960s. The misdirected letter dated from 1974, and was about compensation payments to a number of retired miners. It included a list of names and addresses, and a wad of banknotes!

The envelope was plain manilla and typewritten, with a stamp on it; the letter inside with the list was handwritten on flimsy yellow paper. It gave Mr. Day’s address, on Spring Hill in Arley – which is, again, a real place – and I could remember seeing the address in vivid detail. The dream was so real that I could pick up the texture of the paper and envelope, and the colour of the stamp. Mr. Day appeared to have been an NUM local official, and I was thinking “I should take this round to him, if he’s still alive, to see how we can get this money to his members, even after more than forty years” and I was actively thinking about this when I woke up. It was so vivid that, for a few minutes after I woke up, I was still making a mental note to look in my work papers for this letter, even though I haven’t worked for the DHSS since 1989. It was one of those occasions where the reality of the dream persisted into wakefulness for a short time.

Written by robertday154

February 18, 2017 at 5:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Fiesta Time

with one comment

I’ve been really quite silent for a couple of months, after getting my new job. This is mainly down to the job being rather more taxing than I expected, though for a number of reasons I count this as a Good Thing.

All my other blogging friends have been putting out regular posts on the burning issues of the day, something I’ve really left them to. With a handful of exceptions, I find that my views are considered by many people to be very much a minority position, being based as they are on knowledge and experience. I realise that this is very unfashionable nowadays. I also know – and knew before recent political upheavals – that you can give people all the facts you can muster, and they will still at the end of the day prefer their prejudices. When I worked at Ofwat, we did some research into public opinions on leakage. Ofwat had a policy called the “economic level of leakage”; the costs of sending a crew out to repair a leaky pipe is pretty much the same whether it’s a pin-hole leak losing next to nothing or a major strategic main burst losing megalitres. So we asked members of the public “should all leaks be fixed, irrespective of how much is actually being lost?” And they said “Yes.” Then we explained that there comes a point with some leaks where it costs more to fix than it does to just compensate for the loss by putting more water into supply. We explained this in layman’s terms and made sure that everyone understood the concept (to the point of actually asking the question “Do you understand what has been explained to you?”). Then we asked again, “should all leaks be fixed, irrespective of how much is being lost?” And the majority still said “Yes”.

That research was done in – possibly – about 2005, and for me it was an eye-opener on public opinion. This is what some politicians seem to mean when they say that “we have had enough of experts”, obviously because they tell you inconvenient facts that don’t fit your world-view. And now this seems to be a major driver in government headline policies in a number of countries.

Debate is impossible under those circumstances – so I’ve given up trying. I know some of my former union friends and colleagues will say that the fight is worth the candle, that it is always best to campaign and struggle for what is right. That’s fine; but I’ve only got so much time and energy left to me, and I’ve got a new job and I’m learning new stuff. I haven’t room in my life right now for trying to butt my head against a brick wall as well. I wish those who want to try the best of luck on that. (Another part of this is my realisation that time is passing by; my next birthday has a zero on the end of it, and as the joke has it, when Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for twenty-five years…)

My new employers, Celcat, are a software house that produces a rather specialist product – timetabling software for universities and colleges of higher education. They were started some thirty-odd years ago by a lecturer in electrical engineering at Warwick University who was struggling with his timetables. Hearing his lamentations, his son said “Dad, I  can do that on the computer.” Thirty years later, they are still doing it (and both father and son are engaged with the company. The son is in the office at least three times a week, still doing coding.). The application has had numerous add-ons and enhancements over the years, but is essence it’s the same product. The company only does this product and they do it well. Celcat has grown over the years to a strength of about thirty; that growth has been organic, and only supported by sales. There have been no departures into exotic and unrelated products, and no ambitious plans for global growth (despite the company actually selling the product all over the world) requiring cash injections from sleeping partners, venture capitalists or shareholders. What money the company makes is wholly its own. Premises are modest; the company prefers to spend on kit and training to keep everyone on the leading edge – partly because the company sees this as a boon, and partly because the customer base is blessed with all the latest kit because of the generous discounts given by the IT industry to the education sector. The clients are at the leading edge in terms of kit and applications deployed; we have to be as well.

This means that I am now in an environment which to me feels more like a university than an office. And what’s more, I’m learning new stuff. I now know more than I ever did about SQL database management, and I run two virtual machines as do all my colleagues – at my last place, the entire IT department had one VM that was used by everyone as necessary. Celcat believe in giving you the tools for the job. And once my probation is over (in about a month’s time), there is training on the horizon, especially as the next big project we’ll be involved with is going to require automation, where what skills I have are a good ten years out of date. And it’s quite likely that in 2018, I’ll get to go with the rest of the team on a trip to a major testing conference.

(To the non-techies amongst you: a ‘virtual machine’ is an emulation of one computer run on another. Processing power and hard disk sizes mean that this is possible nowadays. It means that I can have independent machines to do testing on without having to clutter up my desk with lots of physical boxes.)

My colleagues are an interesting group, though I’m afraid my arrival rather rained on one guy’s parade when he said he was “the oldest tester in the company”. “Not any more you aren’t..” I thought. But this is all to the good. As I race inexorably onward into futurity and my burgeoning 60th birthday, the one thing I can’t afford to do is start thinking of myself as old. I get enough physical reminders of that daily; working with younger colleagues keeps me on my mental toes.

(And in any case, didn’t Tony Benn once say that if the young are going to continue to support the old with their taxes, the least the older people can do is listen to the young and take an interest in them, support them, encourage them, teach them but also learn from them?)

Something really quite odd happened in my second week. The test manager I was working for suddenly announced that he was leaving. When a colleague asked who he was going to work for, he said “A software house in Market Harborough” and he then proceeded to name them. It was the same place that interviewed me in the summer and then took a week to come up with a vaguely implausible reason for not appointing me. When he named them, he saw my face change and I told him my story. It turned out that they’d re-advertised the post and managed to fill it – probably with someone who worked for Celcat, but the evidence for that is only circumstantial – but that person had only lasted for a month before leaving because they were unhappy with the commuting. I knew that there had been some issues with their later recruitment exercises, because I’d been contacted by agencies on each occasion. In this case, however, my test manager actually had relatives in Market Harborough and was happy to relocate there, so the role was ideal for him. I’ve not had the chance to speak with him since, but he seems to be getting on all right. Perhaps things do work out for the best, even though it doesn’t seem like it at the time.

The one issue I have with the job is nothing to do with the employer;  it’s the travelling. No, let’s be even more precise. It’s the last three miles of the travelling. Celcat is based on a business estate next to Warwick University. But when that was built, city planners had no idea about the sort of traffic flows that they might expect. So for the last three miles, traffic heading for the business park has to pass through a residential area and tangle with other commuter traffic heading for other destinations. And of course, Coventry’s public transport system is devoted to buses, with no dedicated bus lanes in our part of the city. Don’t even think about trams, such as those that Nottingham has so successfully introduced and which made that city an attractive proposition for commuting into.

And yet; IT companies rely on being able to draw in personnel form a wide range; I’ve heard people comment in the past that fifty miles is a completely acceptable commute for the right job, and IT companies tend to locate themselves out of town to take advantage of the motorway links to achieve this. Companies tend to look for very specific skill sets, and as qualified IT people are a minority of the population as a whole, it follows that the likelihood of happening across a job handy to you that matches your skills set is fairly remote. It happens – I interviewed for one job only a mile and a half from where I live – but it’s just as likely that you’ll have to travel. The person who gave up on the Market Harborough job seems as though they had unrealistic expectations of job availability.

When last I wrote, I was facing the prospect of having to replace my Mercedes C-Class as it was about to become “street illegal” and could not be made roadworthy without more money than I could possibly lay my hands on. Having gotten into work at the end of November, I was left with a car with about three weeks’ validity left on its MoT certificate – but no pay packet until just before Christmas, some five weeks away. However, an advance on wages from the employer gave me enough money to go shopping with; so it was onto a well-known car dealing website to see what I could find, cheaply and locally.

I toyed with the idea of an older Mercedes, as that would give me some prospect of solidity in a cheap car. But there was nothing all that attractive locally. Oh, there was an E-Class for about £450, and it looked in lovely condition. The trouble was that it was 19 years old, so it didn’t quite qualify for being exempt from Road Tax as a classic. In turn, that meant that the Road Tax, being based on a sliding scale of environmental acceptability, would probably be more than the value of the car, as it was a huge thing roughly the size – and probably maneuverability – of the battleship Bismarck, with fuel consumption to match.

Then some friends suggested that perhaps I should swallow my pride in individuality and settle for something a little more ordinary. And the logic of this came home to me. After all, it was the researcher into the uncanny, Charles Fort, who said ” A tree cannot find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine time.”. The Mercedes was the right car at the right time. More than once when I was self-employed and doing consultancy work, I turned up to a gig all suited and booted in a flashy silver Mercedes and found myself being listened to attentively. And even getting paid on time. But those days are past. So for me, it became Fiesta Time.

Hence, on the second Saturday in December, I took myself ten miles up the road to Coalville, to look for a dealer who had advertised a cheap Ford Fiesta. I went early, in case someone else had seen the same advert and decided that this would make a nice Christmas present for some teenager who had just passed their driving test. I drove up and down the road looking for the dealer, but the only car dealer I could find didn’t seem to be in the right place and in any case had a forecourt full of cars well out of my price bracket. Eventually, I gave up and went to ask there if they had heard of this bloke.

“Oh yes,” they said, pointing through the window into the landscape. “See those cars in that field over there? That’s him, behind the tyre depot.” I thanked them and left with sinking heart. Some cars in the corner of a field? This did not bode well.

I found my way around the back of the tyre depot – not an easy job as there were a lot of vehicles on their forecourt blocking the narrow entrance to the back yard. But having squeezed the Mercedes down the track, I found myself faced with a new and well-built paling fence, a plot of land, yes, in the corner of a field, but cleared and properly gravelled, and a selection of some twenty cars neatly parked up, in herringbone formation, and all looking reasonably well presented, cleaned and valeted. The office was a portakabin, but with proper steps and an a proper piece of hardstanding.

I asked about the car I had seen advertised, and was shown a blue, four-door Fiesta. It was old – a ‘W’ plate, dating from 2001 – but exceptionally low mileage (74,000) with a windscreen price of £450. With a new battery put on the car, it started at first touch and idled smoothly and without any unwanted noise or rattles from the engine. A test drive followed, where I found that it rattled a bit, but no more than seemed reasonable; accelerated well; and handled no worse than I’d expect. We talked money, and how much to take the Mercedes off my hands. A national commercial online buyer had quoted me £475, but I thought that to be ambitious, given the state of the vehicle; and if I’d taken up that offer, I would have had to have gone to somewhere on the south side of Leicester, then gotten myself a taxi back., and perhaps a taxi out to Coalville to pick my new purchase up. So taking a hit – or perhaps not – on the Mercedes seemed sensible. We shook hands on £200, leaving me £275 to pay. And the Fiesta was mine!

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Of course there are things wrong with it. It’s so old, it still has a cassette player. The paintwork is a little tatty, if you look closely. There are some rust patches on the bodywork. The interior lights don’t come on when you open the doors. And it catches crosswinds quite badly, being essentially a box on wheels, and it handles even worse when cornering at any sort of speed – which you sometimes have to do on roundabouts when mixing it with the rest of the commuter traffic. Oh, and as I’m doing 60 miles a day round trip, the petrol tank is so small that I have to fill it up every three days. It’s costing me less in fuel than the Mercedes did, but it’s a case of ‘little and often’.

On the other hand, it has a remarkably powerful heater, the air conditioning  – yes, air conditioning! – works, and instead of the low-profile tyres that the Mercedes had which meant that you felt every bump and minor hole in the road (let alone a particularly vicious speed bump just down the road from me), the Fiesta has (by comparison) balloon tyres that soak up a lot of irregularities in the road. And it is easy to drive and accelerates remarkably well for a 1200cc engine (even if it does strain a bit a motorway speeds – 65-70 mph is definitely its comfort zone, and until I can get it serviced I’ll be a bit twitchy about pushing it too hard for too long). Though it’s interesting to see how many other older Fiestas I see bombing up and down the M69…

I’d had the car for about eight weeks when something went wrong. The windscreen wipers failed one evening on my way home from work. Of course, it wasn’t in a light shower but in a tremendous deluge, made worse by all the spray thrown up by passing traffic and with night falling just to add to the experience. The RAC came out in about 45 minutes – not too bad for rush-hour on a Friday – and made a temporary repair with what looked like a giant paperclip.

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I took it to my regular garage, who enthused over how cheap and easy they were to repair, and proved it by replacing both wiper actuating links in 30 minutes flat for £58.

A mystery remains. According to the registration documents, the car was a grey import from Jersey in 2001, where it had been a “H for Horror” car. (Major manufacturers often register cars in the Channel Islands as hire cars, where they acquire a number plate prefixed with ‘H’; after six months, during which time some of them never turn a wheel as the manufacturers import far more cars than there can possibly be hirers, they are re-exported to the UK where they are sold as ‘pre-owned’). It had then gone to Preston in Lancashire, and it had spent all its time there, with three lady owners putting those 74,000 miles on it in 15 years. So how did it end up in Leicestershire? The last owner identified herself as “Miss”, and to me that suggested one of two things, Either she was a young miss who had married and moved to live with her new spouse, and the car had become surplus to requirements in the new household. Or – and this seems to me more likely – the previous owner had been an older Miss who had passed away, and her nearest next of kin were in Leicestershire. The fact that the car had had a new clutch in March 2016 suggested that as a possibility – the service history showed that fair amounts had been spent on the car over the years, and a new clutch isn’t something that you put in a car that you’re about to get rid of voluntarily.

A nice, new(er) car is out of the question right now; I’m still feeling the financial effects of six months out of work, and that can take a while to get over. Add to that the fact that I now owe the council some money as the rules for Housing Benefit have changed since I dealt with it as an administrator back in the 1980s, so that salaries are now taken into account for the period that they are paid, not on the basis of when you get it. So whilst I was claiming housing benefit, I should have stopped claiming as soon as I got a job, instead of waiting until I got my first pay packet. After all, my rent and rates are paid in advance, but I don’t get paid in advance. And that was the way I understood the treatment of earnings in the benefit system – wages are taken into account when you get them, because they have to last you to next pay day. But apparently, the Government thinks that now you can draw on wages before you get them. Logical, captain.

Worse still, the tax man has come up with a gem. They seem to think that I paid insufficient tax last year to the tune of £792, despite the fact that all my income was (and still is) taxed at source. I’m waiting for some sort of explanation of this; and I suppose I shall have to endure some sort of telephone conversation with the Revenue. I’d better book the day off now. At leas they have decided that I can now stop doing individual tax assessments each year as I have no money coming in from self-employment any more. (Not that there was ever much of that anyway. I never made enough from self-employment to get taxed on it; so how come I owe them money now? Confused? I am.)

Still, things are looking up nonetheless. I’m booked in for the Eastercon for the first time in a few years (albeit in an overflow hotel). Three days at the NEC isn’t much of a holiday, but it’s the best I’ve managed for quite a while!

Written by robertday154

February 4, 2017 at 11:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized