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Monday, 22 February 2010

Corus, Teeside Steel, and Why Safety Nets Are Cheaper Than Benefit Cheques..

The banners fluttered in the icy Teeside breeze, the workers gathered at the gates of the massive Corus steel plant, the journalists mingled with union leaders and activists, and the whole scene transported me back to the newsreel coverage of the 70’s and 80s, where time and again workers of just about every industrial persuasion downed tools and walked out in protest, alot of the time for quite justifiable reasons, and sometimes for reasons that were not so.

This week we have seen the workers at Corus steel in Teeside walk out in protest at the decision to mothball the huge complex that not only dominates the local countryside, but also the local economy. In many ways, the steel industry in Teeside is, if not the actual heart of the local jobs market, it is certainly one of the great arteries of it, and the prospect of the plant closing, leaving such a massive hole in the local economy is a frightening one, not just for the residents and businesses of Teeside, but also for everybody who lives in a similar area.

Coming from Hull, I recognise just how devastating it can be to see the industrial heart of a place ripped out. Ever since the fishing industry essentially died out in Hull, the city has lurched from crisis to decline. The recent economic downturn has resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs in Hull, the caravan industry being essentially closed down in the city, despite 3 of Europe’s largest caravan companies being based there. In the last 12 months there have been in excess of 5000 more people claiming job seekers allowance in Hull, with yet another generation sinking into the despair and hopelessness that comes with a future blighted by poor health, limited prospects, high unemployment, weakening social cohesion, and an overriding sensation of being disenfranchised from the mainstream political process, and of being somehow regarded by the establishment as second class in comparison to other, more prosperous regions of the UK.

The really frustrating thing about the situation in Teeside concerning Corus, is that this is just another example of multi-national companies capitalising on the British outlook that seems to actively encourage failure.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Corus on Teeside is unprofitable. According to the trade unions that represent the workers, it is quite the opposite.

What we have though is a situation whereby a multi-national company, Tata who are the parent company of Corus, has chosen to mothball a perfectly profitable site (chosen seemingly being the operative word in this instance) despite the fact that it’s other operations around the world require the use of the very product that they claim there is no demand for!

In essence, Tata are making a selective decision to close this plant, and end over a century of steel making, to punch a massive hole in the local economy, to sound the death knell for suppliers, customers, and indeed many other businesses that survive on the wages spent by Corus employees.

Why is it that this company is so willing to slit the throat of one of its own companies?

The only reason that I can come up with is that they have identified other locations and companies where the steel production is completed without due regard to a viable living wage, robust and accountable Health & Safety, and environmental laws which are enforced.

Obviously, cutting oneself free of such limiting restraints must give a healthy boost to the dividend paid to the shareholders, despite the fact that steel making on Teeside has a reputation of being amongst the highest grade in the world.

So it seems that Tata are essentially ignoring their own demand for steel, and are allowing one of their subsidiaries to wilt and die so that they can purchase steel at a much lower price, in all probability manufactured to a much lower standard, in order to feather the nests of the shareholders.

“But surely that is the cut and thrust of business?” I hear you ask.
Of course, businesses will take decisions that will benefit them industrially and financially, and I agree with those who claim that in many ways, this situation is no different. I have made my observations concerning the possible reasons behind Tata’s decision to justify the mothballing of the Teeside plant, and any suggestion of disingenuous actions on the part of Tata aside, this incidence does stand apart from the examples of many others, simply because of the scale of impact that will be suffered by everyone living in the local area.

As I briefly mentioned above, the Teeside plant is at the very heart of the regional economy. The loss of these jobs will cripple Teeside, and indeed parts of Cleveland and North Yorkshire. In the same way that I have described the effects of economic gloom on Hull, the same will happen in Middlesbrough and the wider region. Another generation of working age men and women reliant on state benefits, stripped of hope, ambition and self worth. Another generation of children who will never experience what it is like to have a parent to look up to who is holding down a job, paying taxes, contributing to society, thereby repeating the circle of hopelessness.

I cannot help but think that the government have abandoned the people of Teeside in their hour of need. I truly believe that it would be just as expensive to the public purse to subsidise or nationalise Corus, as it would to prop up the legions of workers, and their future generations with all of the associated benefits required, to provide a basic standard of living.

The government however will recoil in horror at the prospect of such a suggestion I am sure. They are far too busy propping up the greedy banks that plunged us into the situation that we are in to worry about some hard up provincial workers who will, in their political thinking, return a Labour candidate anyway.

But this abject abandonment of the Teeside workers and their communities acts as an indicator of two main themes that seemingly underpin our whole political system; A cynical and calculating approach to the very regions which have historically provided Labour with their core support, and a culture, whereby the stock answer to any major problem is to find reasons s to why it is that we cannot do something, rather than looking for ways in which our politicians can make things better
for the people they supposedly serve.

The simple fact of the matter is that Labour are now too occupied with playing to the ‘Daily Mail’ gallery in the run up to the imminent General Election to worry about the regions and heartlands of what was Britain’s industrial base. They have focussed their efforts on bailing out the banking and financial sectors, which I believe was the right thing to do, however, the strategy of the government seems to be to support the white collar industries that have crippled the country’s finances at the expense of almost every other sector, the net result being that once again, the south east and London, are the main beneficiaries of government investment, whilst the regions are left to rot in hopelessness.

This policy has been adopted by the incumbent government because of the failings of the current first past the post system of elections, whereby political parties know only too well that there is no real prospect of them being held to account for their failing of voters out in the regions, and away from the London chattering classes, which is where New Labour is fixated in its ideology and policy.

The situation as it stands is made worse by the fact that we in Britain are cursed with the affliction of our political leaders taking refuge from decisive governance by hiding behind excuses instead of taking the action that is needed in order to make our lives better, and our infrastructure work better.

What the government should be doing is taking a pragmatic view with regard to Corus, and recognising that the time has come for them to take serious and decisive action. I have stated above, that it would in all probability be just as expensive for the government to step in with regard to steelmaking in Teeside, than it would be to simply allow the industry to die, and then spend countless millions on benefits, extra costs to the NHS, all of the associated problems that accompany the abandonment of a generation.

We are entering an age whereby we should be looking towards ambition, innovation, and creativity to guide us out of the difficulties that we currently face. We should be forging ahead with the expansion of high speed rail, and the electrification of the railway network. All of this work requires steel. Steel that can be made at Teeside, and that can keep the aspirations of a region alive, and provide otherwise desolate and aimless workers with hopes and dreams for the future.

There are so many projects and initiatives that can and should be lifting this great
nation from the pits of recession. Our government should be presenting a unified and co-ordinated policy whereby the demand created from these essential projects should be matched with the characteristics of our regional manufacturing centres in order to ensure that the policies of the national government do not again ignore the needs of, not only the manufacturing ability of our nation, but also the need of
the workers within these regions to be given the chance to safeguard, and build upon the basic standard of living that they, and their families have the right to enjoy in a civilised nation.

The cost of turning our backs on the people of Teeside, and indeed workers in other areas is going to be huge. We have no other true option than to stretch out the safety net beneath the workers of Teeside, as it will save money, heartache, and another generation from the scrapheap in the long term.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Super League - The Battle & Bravado Is Back, and Why The RFL Will Never Widen The Appeal Of Rugby League Without Massive Reform

It was with a fastening of a button, and a half mesmerised observance of my breath against the cold East Yorkshire air that we Hull Kingston Rovers fans hailed the return of Super League to Craven Park.

The assembled faithful, just over 9000 of us in total, stood huddled together in the east stand of Hull KR's stadium in East Hull, bracing ourselves against the piercing winds that were blowing in from the open expanses of the River Humber, being funnelled from the North Sea and fired down the river's estuary, Craven Park seemingly the intended target for the full majesterial force of mother nature's off shore exploits.

The burger bars did a healthy and brisk trade, throngs of fans, usually queuing for bottled beers or plastic beakers of bitter hopping subconsciously from foot to foot as they waited in line for coffees, burgers and hot dogs, desperate for any insulation against the shrill winds as they stood discussing the close season activity, and debating healthily the merits of the strategies selected by the Hull KR coach, Justin Morgan, and the improvements made to the ground since last we assembled here at the business end of the previous season.

I watched this from a vantage point high in the east stand. Not only did it offer a great view of the action to come, it also offered up views of alot of Hull's most disadvantaged areas, both industrially and socially.

In many ways, Rugby League, and the battle and bravado that accompanies it have long since acted as a rallying point for the citizens of Hull, through recession, abandonment, poverty, tragedy and back again, and the circle looks set to continue well into the problems that my home city has to face in the years to come if it is to ever haul itself up by the bootstraps, and drag itself clear of the precipice upon which it teeters.

As the hooter sounded, signifying the start of the game, and indeed season for Hull KR, we settled into watching the contest as Rovers slowly started taking control of the game over their opponents, the Salford City Reds. Within ten minutes, Peter Fox had crossed the Salford line twice, and with the tries converted this gave Rovers a ten point cushion from which to build...

Rovers went on to win the game by 30-6, but in watching the game, and observing the chanting, the wit, the humour, and the collective spirit that was conjured up by this all encompassing spectacle that is Rugby League I got to pondering the future direction of the game, and the problems that have been endemic within it for far too long now that have, and will continue to undermine any attempts by the Rugby Football League to expand the game, and build its popularity beyond the 'M62 corridor'

I think that I can honestly say that in three quarters at least of the games that I have paid to attend, the whole experience has been marred by the lack of consistent refereeing that can be exposed successfully to any form of scrutiny.

We had the pleasure of Richard Silverwood at Sunday's match, and yet again, despite the fact that Rovers ran out winners by a sizeable margin, the game was to an extent spoiled by the inconsistent performance of the main match official.

At previous matches, I have been able to say exactly the same thing about Ashley Klein, Steve Ganson, Ben Thaler and others.

Don't get me wrong, I believe that being a Rugby League referee must be an exceptionally demanding and difficult role to fill. However, these people are meant to be doing so to an elite level, and if I am perfectly honest, I cannot see how anyone could claim that their levels of performance could indeed be termed as 'elite'

In almost every match we see poor policing of offsides, poor refereee positioning, inconsistent monitoring of knock on and play the ball, almost non existent policing of forward passes, and some quite frankly bizarre interpretation of incidents that do from time to time, simply astound and amaze...

In addition to this, we have the Rugby Football League's disciplinary committee that fail in just about all attempts to measure themselves up to the requirements of consistent actions.

Time and again we have a player from one club being disciplined for an offence, and the next week a player from a different club being handed a completely different punishment, whether in terms of severity or nature, despite the incident, charge and circumstances being at times almost identical.

The Rugby Football League talks tough and big on wanting to spread the appeal of Rugby League, yet it still acts as if it is the centre point of an old boys network, where you can expect leniency if you are employed by a club who are 'on the inside' yet you should expect to be thrown to the wolves if your club is not one of the chosen few..

We have a ridiculously small pool of top level referees. The RFL constantly talk of the shortage of match officials, yet they do nothing to attract new referees to the sport.

They talk of wanting to build the game steadily, yet they choose to ignore the many healthy developing clubs in the south of England, in the north east, and indeed in Scotland, and instead super impose a club on the communities of south Wales, and they propel a second rate french team into the elite of the sport without having given the logistics involved even the merest of a second glance..

Cheap and easy headlines are great in the short term, but they do nothing for the long term future and the viability and solidity of our great game.

What the RFL should be doing is breaking the influence of the usual suspects within the game (Leeds, Bradford, Wigan, St Helens) in terms of the way in which the game is run and its rules implemented, and making the game more democratic to all clubs within the RFL family, with fairness and developmental assistance being made more readily available to all in order to ensure that these up and coming amateur and low level league clubs have targets to aim for.

The league should also be widening the pool of elite level referees. They could learn many lessons from our friends at the RFU in this respect. Their refereeing programmes leave the RFL languishing in the dark ages, and their level of organisation is simply light years ahead.

They should be identifying the promising clubs in terms of untouched territory and local talent, and building them up SLOWLY and STEADILY, allowing them to build up a local following that is loyal, and that will make it worthwhile staging games by providing respectable attendance figures (Harlequins RL for example rarely manage attendances that exceed 3000, despite being in London!!)

It will also build local dynasties of Rugby League players and families. The game can only truly establish itself within new communities when it is allowed to put down deep and sturdy roots. No disrespect to the players and staff of Celtic Crusaders and Catalan Dragons, but this has not happened in Wales and France.

Rugby League is a working man and woman's sport. That is a fact. It will not expand in a viable way without the RFL playing the long game, and facilitating the dedicated amateur clubs to take small, steady, regular steps forwards, in terms of recruitment, training, development, strategy and infrastructure.

Most of all, Rugby League would be allowed to flourish and grow properly if the RFL simply started thinking along the lines of what is best for the game at all levels, both now and in the future, instead of trying to vainly keep up with the activities of the much more affluent and better organised Rugby Football Union, as well as keeping in favour with the writers of Boots 'n' All et al....

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Mallard, Innovation & How RBS Can Bankroll A New Dawn..

Isn't it amazing how a machine, a simple manifestation of man's hunger for progress, and to some, a simple and overrated collection of pistons, gaskets, nuts and bolts, can represent so many sentiments aspirations, and indeed so much about the state of a nation's psyche, outlook, and fabric?

I spent this afternoon at the National Railway Museum in York, negotiating the throngs of over excited school children, harrassed parents and open mouthed tourists as we walked between Mallard, the Intercity prototype, and many other examples of railway engineering that literally changed the face of travel.

As I stood looking at the streamlined surfaces and gracious curves of Gresley's A4 Pacific locomotive it occurred to me that the power that this nation once wielded was based upon our manufacturing prowess, our innovation, our eye for the way of the future...

During the time of Gresley, and that of Britain's earlier Locomotive designers and engineers, the imagination of the whole country was powered just like a locomotive, speeding forth toward a collective goal of brilliance, of perfection, of engineering and technological superiority, the only difference being that the fuel that powered the minds of our great engineers and visionaries was confidence, competence, and a keen eye for the new way forward, whilst the fuel that powered their great machines was coal, steam and electricity.

Contrast this with where we stand now as a nation; unsure of who we are or what we are meant to be doing, our manufacturing bases smashed and sold out to foreign asset strippers, our foundries and factories colonised by multi nationals.

We have gone from leading the world in technology, innovation, design and research, to a situation where even the most staunchly British company or institution is owned and administered by foreign money, and our hapless government think that it is cause for a tea party when they announce that seasonal anomalies, and governmental fiscal schemes have distorted the economy into the production of false indicators of an exit from recession.

Don't get me wrong. I am not going to spend the rest of this blog bemoaning the fallen stature of the United Kingdom.

Sure, it is a source of great disappointment to me that we have allowed our country to slip into this situation, but i prefer to focus my energies and thoughts upon the matter of examining how we can reverse and change the sorry place that we currently occupy.

We in Britain, or at least our political leaders, lack the drive, confidence and vision to afford ourselves the opportunity to make Britain great once more.

Where once our collective minds were filled with thoughts of greatness, achievement and rigour, it is now filled with meekness, under performance and turmoil.

The world is now standing at a massive crossroads in terms of the future.

The emerging industrial nations have all but cornered the markets of mass production, manufacturing and the like. We are unable to compete on the basis that the minimum standards that we quite rightly employ in the developed world in terms of health & safety and employee welfare etc make our products too expensive at source to really have a chance of posing any opposition to the dominance of these emerging nations.

The traditional manufacturing economies of the developed world are failing; Germany is struggling with rising joblessness, and Japan's economy has been flatlining for almost a generation.

So we must look elsewhere to gain a foothold for the future. The ethos that will dominate industry for generations to come will be the development of 'green' methods of energy production, manufacturing, and the construction of all the infrastructure that comes with it.

The British Government should seize the chance to steal a march on our industrial competitors by actively supporting the development and innovations that the British pioneers in these areas are developing. We should be actively promoting, assisting, and investing in the development for mass use of alternative fuel sources, energy saving municipal technologies, major capital projects such as the expansion of high speed rail, enfircement of energy efficiency measures in all new buildings and the like. Sure, it wouldn't be cheap, but we do have a way in which we could raise the funds to finance much of these plans;

Its called RBS Lloyds.

We own over 80% of RBS, and a sizeable chunk of Lloyds too.

I have already spoken in a previous blog of how i believe that the bankers have gone far too long in their irresponsible ways whilst enjoying impunity.

Well, the piper plays the tune I am afraid, and it is about time that our government shook off its media obsessed approach to running the country, looked deep inside itself for any last remnants of its guiding ideology, and harnessed the so far dormant power within these organisations that it holds, and finally start taking measures that will kick start our ailing traditions of manufacture, production, and excellence in innovation.

Over the coming years and decades, the world will be clamouring for green technologies and infrastructure in scales of demand that have never been seen before.

Britain can be at the forefront of catering to that ever growing demand, of shaping the industrial and environmental landscape of the world's commerce and industry in a way not seen for a century.

What we need are a new wave of grants and loans for research and development, manufacturing facilities, and export assistance for the companies that are devloping new technologies that will help the world to do business without sounding the death knell for our environmental future.

The government should be building a system that will release the might of the leviathanic financies that have been pumped into these banks in order to maike Britain a better place; to create jobs, smash the vacuum of hopelessness that is being exploited by the BNP and other extremists, to foster a new national confidence in our ability to build, innovate and lead, and our ability to be a true positive example to the rest of the world.

Put simply, to allow us Great British people to feel Great about Britain once more!!

Obviously, there are people that would claim that this would undermine the whole philosophy of the system that generated the wealth that made the country so propserous, but they are wrong.

Eventually, the government is going to put RBS, and its shares in Lloyds back up for private sale. The banks will, once mroe be entirely commercial concerns.

In the new industrial landscape that awaits us, we need not only banks that are experts, and that have experience in trading, investing, and participating in the development of these new technologies, we need strong, major banking organisations that are weaned away from their over dependence on the excesses of the City of London.

If the government were to direct RBS and Lloyds towards a green development agenda, these two organisations would be ready placed to be world leaders, and fiscal pioneers in these fields, once again putting Britain at the top of the tree, and opening up another inestment, devlopment, and innovative opportunity where once there was only hopelessness incompetence, avarice and failure.

I believe that it is true that we need a solution from way out in left field to provide us with an exit from the mess in which we currently lie as a nation.

There are many aspects to the problem, and the solution comes in many parts also. We are talking about joblessness, crime, poverty, aspit=ration, education, training, the list goes on, and the effects of one aspect exacerbates the influence of others.

We need a radical, almost revolutionary raft of measures to change the direction of the UK, and instill in the nation once more, the feeling of being brave and fearless pioneers.

More importantly, we need to usher in an age of financial recovery and propserity that is not based on over inflated house prices and irresponsible corporate trading, in order to finance the measures that we all wish to see living in a Liberal democratic society; true tax reform, free higher education, free personal care, improvements in the pay and conditions of our armed forces, nurses and emergency staff, expansion and reform of our borders to name a few...

Our steam engines once ruled the world, belching their thick smoke as they pulled the borders of the empire with them as they powered across the globe.

I want a Britain whose empire is based on innovation, development, excellence, and confidence, rather than the religious and cultural dogma of its victorian counterpart.

How ironic that it was whilst standing amongst the symbols of this counterpartm that the two extremes were joined together as a vision for a brighter, cleaner, more prosperous future...