Grexit must happen today

EU flag

EU flag

What an EU shambles!  Last Sunday, Greece voted against austerity.  This weekend, the Greek left-wing government has put up a deal that accepts an austerity package but at a huge financial cost to EU members.  There are rumours that the meeting of all 28 country leaders has been cancelled but the Eurozone members are still to meet.  With Germany and France at loggerheads and Finland threatening to veto any deal, it is not just a major shambles but the antithesis of what European integration was always supposed to mean.

Greek flag
Greek flag

 The simple truth is that Greece should never have been allowed to join the EU to start with.  Neither should quite a few other member countries. It is utterly obvious that you cannot shackle together countries with hugely different economies unless you also shackle together their political and fiscal decision making.  It would be pointless to allow bicycles and minis to join in a F1 race; you would not allow an eight-stone teenager to go into the boxing ring with a professional heavyweight; you would not expect a railway train to be made up of carriages with different track widths.  It was madness to harness into a single currency countries with vastly different economic profiles, from first world to third world.  It was never going to work without joining up political and fiscal decision making.

So, hard as the decision may be, Greece has to exit the euro zone and, probably the EU.  It will be better off once it has come through the immediate trauma with a devalued drachma providing some relief once it has been implemented.  There will be pain for many creditors but there will be considerable pain for Greek residents who are not to blame directly for their predicament although many of them have quietly enjoyed the lack of financial discipline that has characterised the Greek economy. This means the EU and I suppose that includes the UK will have to provide immediate humanitarian aid to get the Greeks through the immediate drama.  What the EU should not do is to approve a fudge that will allow Greece to limp along within the Eurozone and with a burden of debt it cannot hope to repay and inevitably bring the country back to crisis point within a short time.

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Croquet’s demise – a solution?

croquet_1As a regular reader of the Daily Telegraph on my I-Pad, I have been intrigued to see references in two successive days to the predicted demise of the game of croquet.  In Thursday’s Telegraph, an unidentified reporter predicted the demise of the sport by  2037 unless younger people pick up the croquet mallet.  He or she typically depicted it as a sport of the upper classes, remote from Joe Soap.  As a symbol of hope, he described the creation of a crazy croquet course at Heathrow Terminal 2 and I suspect the piece was stimulated by a press release from the British Airports Authority.

However, Friday’s Telegraph contains a piece in the Comment section by Jemima Lewis.  She pans the Croquet Association for its incomprehensible rules and seems to end her piece more applauding the demise of croquet than hoping for its continuance.

Prescott playing croquet at Dorneywood

Prescott playing croquet at Dorneywood

However, I have a simple solution.  The sport needs an ambassador.  Someone who can cross the class divide and express support for a sport that has a long tradition and can be great fun for all.  Of course, it is Lord Prescott and here he is, playing croquet at his stately home, enjoyed at the time as Deputy Prime Minister, at Dorneywood.  Although he no longer enjoys the trappings of ministerial office, I have no doubt John Prescott has kept the thrill of this sport and would make a wonderful ambassador for croquet as he toured the stately homes of England that have the lawns to make the sport a success.

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National living wage – not good for all

George Osborne

George Osborne

Congratulations George, on a clever budget that wrong-footed an already weak Labour Party and cheered up our normally fractious and disputatious Conservative MPs.  However, I am afraid it is not all good news for potential supporters.  A national living wage may send an important political message to many who need to hear it but it will present serious problems to some organisations that deserve it and a good few that certainly do not.  Who are they?

Obviously and, I think, fair game are the big retailers.  Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury, Tesco, Waitrose and whoever I have forgotten rely on employing large numbers of relatively low-paid staff.  They train them and they rely on their need to Tescofit in their work with other duties.  I suspect there will be very little sympathy for the plight of large retailers having to up their hourly rate of pay but watch out for the impact flowing through into supermarket prices!

Two others organisations face a much more challenging situation.

social care_1First is the social care industry, managed and funded by local government that is already struggling with some of the highest levels of funding reductions imposed by central government.  In two-tier areas like Oxfordshire, it is the county council that has responsibility for social care, needing to work closely with the hospital and primary health care sector.  In unitary areas, it will be the unitary council that similarly finds social care funding to be a huge pressure on resources.  Most social care is provided by independent contractors whether profit-making businesses or charitable or voluntary organisations.  They rely on paying their workers the present level of minimum wage and have had to squeeze their margins for years, given the ongoing pressure on local government budgets.  Increasing the minimum wage (now George Osborne’s “national living wage”) is likely to put the final and irrevocable screw on local government finance unless the Treasury understands that neither local government nor their charitable contractors pay corporation tax and will therefore need additional financial support to continue to meet their constituents’ social care needs.  I don’t think that  message has got through the doors of Number 11 yet!

Banbury MillThere is a second and more worrying sector that could face financial armageddon from Osborne’s national living wage.  It is the community sector.  I write as Chairman of the Mill Arts Centre, Banbury and I know we face serious financial pressure if we will have to increase the hourly rate of our casual bar and box office staff from £6.50 now to £7.20 from April 2016 and to £9.00 from April 2020.  The Mill is losing its county council funding and moving to become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) as soon as possible.  We are making good progress in this direction and moving from years of loss making to one of modest profitability.  We already face a new financial burden in the obligation to enrol all staff members in a workplace pension scheme (auto enrolment), probably adding £10k pa to our pay bill. I doubt anyone in Whitehall thought of the impact on small, community businesses like The Mill.

Then, we are hit with a national living wage that will add to our payroll costs hugely.  We rely on using temporary staff to man our bars and box office whenever we expect peaks in demand.  In addition to the minimum wage rate per hour for casual staff, we have to pay them a holiday allowance which already increases the actual cost per hour.  A lot of the casual staff at The Mill are there because they have a commitment to the arts and an ambition to be part of the industry.  I don’t know how many of them are drawing Gordon Brown’s working tax credit but the stark reality is that, if The Mill has to pay substantially more per hour for its casual staff, it will seek to employ people for fewer hours.  Bad news for people who want to work in the arts industry.  Again, I wonder if any of the spotty-faced young advisers in the Treasury have any idea of the impact of their policies in the real world?

 

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Referendum lessons

Saltire

Saltire

I was in Scotland during the week in which the Scottish independence referendum was held, driving up from Oxfordshire early in the week and driving back again after the referendum had closed.  As we crossed the border from England to Scotland, there were a lot of NO posters in farmers’ fields and in the larger houses in the more rural part of south Scotland.   We saw hardly any YES posters until we drove through Galashiels where what were obviously council houses were all plastered with them.  It may be easy to draw conclusions from visiting a tiny part of Scotland but I sensed we were seeing a dividing line between richer and poorer; between self-supporting and dependency.  I believe in the Union so was greatly relieved to learn that the NOs had it by a substantial majority.

Greek flag

Greek flag

Listening to news broadcasts on the Greek referendum and reading newspaper reports, I sense a similar divide between the NOs – younger people on low incomes or unemployed and those who have enjoyed Greece’s liberal tax and retirement practices – versus the YESs – the middle and wealthier classes and businesses – who can understand the financial disciplines of the market.

Well, I suppose it is no surprise that the Greek NOs had it by 60 to 40.  Watch the Scottish woman try to build her client dependency base to ensure a Greek answer when there is another Scottish referendum.

But, returning to Greece, the home of democracy, the country is clearly in a pickle and so is the Eurozone.  The Greeks have voted against austerity and against paying back a debt they cannot afford to repay but to which their political masters eagerly agreed.  Should the people of Greece pay a dreadful price for the profligate borrowing and spending and also the many Spanish practices of their country?  Tax appears to be a voluntary exercise for many and retirement seems to be normal at 50 years of age.

However, the European Union cannot escape blame.  Greece should never have been made a member of the Eurozone and was only allowed in by a complete fudge of the financial rules.  The Eurocrats bear a burden of guilt here and it may not stay with Greece alone.  The admission of much of eastern Europe is likely to increase the financial pressure that is inevitable between wealthy first world countries and struggling second or third world ones.  Creating a monetary union without an equivalent political union was never going to work as experts made clear at the time but it has taken the rogue state of Greece to make it clear.   Thanks goodness we stayed out despite the Kenneth Clarks and Michael Heseltines of our world who were so wrong.

So who has to blink first?  Well, it is clear that Greece is determined to deny austerity and expects other European countries to support their lifestyle.  That makes it clear that Greece should never have been in the Eurozone and needs to exit as soon as can be arranged.  Others with the same dependency culture need to do the same.

However, to ditch Greece without the Euro and absolutely broke would not reflect the degree of guilt the Eurocrats should share for letting Greece into the EU club to start with.  I think this means the Eurozone nations needs to support Greece financially into its new drachma world where they will hopefully learn the financial facts of life,  including there is no such thing as a free lunch, a tax system that is mainly voluntary or a retirement age of 50.

 

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The Black Boy has a new claim to fame

Black Boy Milton

Black Boy
Milton

The Black Boy in Milton has a new claim to fame to add to its considerable history.  This delightful village pub in the tiny hamlet of Milton (the one in North Oxfordshire and not the Milton near Abingdon) has a wonderfully politically incorrect name and long may it thrive which seems likely now that Marco Pierre-White has gone and it is being well looked after by the new owners, Pete and Catriona.

Their latest claim to fame is a visit on Saturday June 20th from Cam and Sam; yes, the Prime Minister and his wife who popped in for some lunch and, by all accounts, enjoyed

Cam & Sam

Cam & Sam

themselves.  Pete is clearly very chuffed and telling his customers about his surprise guests.  Catriona is a little more circumspect, fearing her Scottish accent might have led the PM to suspect she is a closet SNP voter!  Anyway, it has to be good news for my local and who knows how many other members of the Chipping Norton set might appear.  Could we be seeing Jeremy Clarkson, Rebekah Brooks, Steve Hilton and Elisabeth Murdoch?  Would we want to?  Probably not if we saw a return to the style of Marco but I think this is unlikely with Pete and Catriona who are turning the Black Boy back into a great village pub with good drinks and good food.

Previous claims to fame are many and varied:

  • One landlord mortgaged the pub up to the hilt to pay for improvements shortly before Black Wednesday when interest rates rocketed and he found himself wholly unable to meet the loan repayments.  He walked away from the pub leaving a selection of sharp knives for the bankers on his bar!
  • A Black Boy landlady had a boyfriend who walked off with our MP’s wife, leaving her to run the Black Boy on her own and leaving our MP, Tony Baldry, bereft.
  • Another landlord tried for planning permission to sell the pub car park for housing,  When the villagers of Milton found out, he was lucky not to be strung up from the pub sign but hastily returned to the east end of London whence he came.
  • And lately, we had Marco Pierre-White who tried very hard to wreck this delightful pub and who comprehensively upset residents of Milton and many of the villagers around.  Thankfully, Pete and Catriona  are undoing the harm he did.
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Time to become a Labour supporter?

Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

I am very tempted to register as a Labour supporter and to pay

Karl Marx likened to Jeremy

Karl Marx
likened
to Jeremy

my £3.00.  This would enable me to vote in the forthcoming election for a Labour Party leader.  I would then have no hesitation in putting my cross next to Jeremy Corbyn’s name.  If enough Conservatives did this, we would have a good chance of getting Jeremy Corbyn elected and then we could simply go home and enjoy a long time of Conservative rule!

There is a danger because I might be kicked out of the Conservative Party as a result of supporting Labour.  However, I would only be supporting the Labour principle of holding an open election and allowing me to join in. I also think I would be doing the Party a favour and would hope many other Conservatives would follow suit, put Jeremy Corbyn in place and leave the Labour Party to stew.

If 100,000 good Conservatives were willing to invest £3.00 each and hold their breath when they signed the Labour support declaration, we might well have a good result.

What do you think out there?

 

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Little boxes, little boxes

I wonder if Britain is unique with a planning system that is delivering ever smaller new houses while people have more personal belongings and are increasingly tending to work at home for at least a part of their working week and need space in which to do this successfully.

Two recent local examples have highlighted the absurdity of this situation to me:

I am told – and it is hearsay – that prospective purchasers of the housing at Longford Park in Bodicote have asked the agents about living space.  They thought the main bedroom would accommodate a double bed but that there would be no room for wardrobes or a dressing table.  The answer from the agent was apparently to point to the smallest bedroom and to say that “many purchasers plan to use this for storing items like wardrobes”.

Longford Park estate, Bodicote
Longford Park estate, Bodicote

 

Recently, a newly-arrived resident of Longford Park has submitted a planning application to Cherwell District Council to convert his garage into living accommodation.  This is within a few months of buying his new home!  It may be that this household does not drive and will be walking and cycling everywhere but I doubt it.  Even if they are a car-less household, the next purchasers of the house may not be and the absence of a garage will lead to another car parked on a road that is not designed as a parking lot.   In any case, the garages are tiny and there is a growing practice for families to convert their tiny garage to a storage area and to leave their car permanently on the adjacent road.

I would hope that the truth might dawn upon Cherwell planners.  This application shows that we are permitting houses to be built that are wholly inadequate to meet decent living standards and people’s growing needs for proper living space.  Whether Cherwell will permit the conversion or refuse it remains to be seen but I doubt it will cause them to reconsider the suitability of the housing they are promoting through their planning policies.  The Parish Council has objected to this application and good for them because their reason – pushing another car onto an inadequate road – is exactly right.

However, what will be the consequence of the Cherwell planners’ decision?  If the application is approved, I suspect there will be a flood of others with more and more cars being pushed onto inadequate road space.  If the application is refused, I suspect other residents will be less honest.  They will simply close their garage door; reinforce the inside of it;  punch a hole through from the house and use the garage as living space without permission and, if they are lucky, without anyone knowing.

We need to find a way of incorporating quality space standards into planning policy as a matter of urgency and as a national policy. Until we do, we will be squeezing families into four walls that deny them enough space to eat a meal together; get on with different activities at the same time; have space for home working; have space for all the growing collection of personal properties that families accumulate and enable them to live comfortable and happy lives.

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