Sunday, 5 July 2015

Another coastal walker

It has been some time since I last updated my page on coastal walkers, so here are the latest additions:

Adam Short set off from Southampton in 2014, and is doing what must be a first: not only is he camping wild whilst walking the coast, but he is also using a pack raft to cross rivers. He has a website at http://uk-coastal-trek.com/aboutadam.asp, with regular updates taking place on his Facebook page

On the 1st May 2015 Steve Cook set off from East Grinstead, walking down to the coast at Brighton to start his anti-clockwise walk around the coast. So far he has reached Dunbar in Scotland. He has a blog at http://www.walkthekingdom.co.uk/the-walk-in-detail/, and is walking in aid of the Drug Free Kids program.

A lady named Melita is currently walking the coast in sections. She set off from London Bridge in January 2013 and has walked the south coast as far as Plymouth in Devon, and the east coast as far as Hedon. She has a blog at http://mgctblog.com/ .

Jimmy Hudson is currently walking the coastline of Scotland in sections; he started from Brewick-on-Tweed on the 3rd August 2011, and he is currently in Drimnin. He has a blog at http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog/jimmyhudson/1/tpod.html.

Rosemary Fretwell and another person are walking the coast in sections. They set off from Bognor in 1998 and are currently on the west coast of England. Their blog is at http://leftatbognor.blogspot.co.uk/.

A group of men are walking Scotland's coast in sections: details of their endeavour can be seen at http://www.walkingscotlandscoast.com. They have currently reached Armadale.

If you know of anyone else who has done, or is doing, the walk, please let me know.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Railway planning chaos

So the much-vaunted plans to upgrade many of Britain's railway lines have hit the buffers hard. What has happened?

Background:

Network Rail (NR) divides its agreed work into five-year control periods. The current period is known as CP5, which runs from April 2014 to March 2019. NR has been told it can spend £38.5 billion on its work during that period, a figure which includes: (1)

  • capital expenditure (£13 billion); this covers improvements to lines and stations, and new lines such as Crossrail or Thameslink.
  • replacing and renewing older parts of the network (£12 billion)
  • day-to-day maintenance and operating costs (£13 billion). 
It should be noted that three-fifths of this money comes from the government's Network Grant, whilst most of the rest comes from the passengers and freight operators who use the railways. (2)


Much of the work to keep the existing network running is self-financed by NR itself, using money it receives from the train operators in the form of Track Access Charges; last year NR actually made a profit. However new projects - such as electrification - costs more than NR can afford, and the government loans them the money as part of a Network Grant. As such, this work needs to be agreed with the government. In 2013-14, the Network Grant was £3.7 billion (1).

The program to electrify these lines came not from the government, but from Network Rail and the train operating companies, who persuaded the Department for Transport and the Treasury that it was the right thing to do.

The decision:

Yesterday it was announced that some of the capital expenditure on the Midland Main Line (MML) and Trans-Pennine Express (TPE) electrifications were to be postponed. This does not necessarily mean NR is spending less; they will still be spending £38.5 billion during CP5, just on fewer projects. In the autumn a review will state what should happen to these other projects.

What went wrong:

The first stage of the work on the Great Western Main Line (GWML) has turned out to be much more expensive than planned, and is behind schedule. Rather than progress work on the other schemes, the pause may allow NR to work out what went wrong and apply lessons learned to the other schemes. Alternatively, such recalculations might push the cost-benefit ratio to such a level that the schemes are not worth continuing.

Worse is the fact that NR is also failing on their bread-and-butter work: the track renewals and resignalling schemes that are done all the time as systems age. According to Rail magazine, in the first year of CP5, they have overspent by £230 million and are 77% behind schedule on overhead line renewals (that is replacing exiting lines, not creating new ones), 63% behind in signalling renewals, and 7% in track renewals. These are no-brainer schemes that they have wide experience of and should be getting correct.

It is clear that there is little chance of getting the other new work done within NR's £38.5 billion budget over the five years, and therefore a pause, whilst unfortunate, is probably wise.

Whose fault is it?

Network Rail's. They decide on the work that needs to be done, and produce a budget for that work that gets approval from the government. They have singularly failed to meet the monetary or temporal budgets they set, even if those were somewhat woolly in the first place (as mentioned by the Transport Select Committee in January (2) ).

Network Rail have some valid excuses. The sustained, vast increase in traffic (67.3 million more journey over the past year alone) has put pressure on the network and reduced the time available for maintenance works. But this cannot fully explain the delays.

The problem is that it is very difficult to work on lines that are in operation. An example of this was the vastly expensive WCML upgrade; planned at about £1 billion, it came out at £10 billion, over time and did not deliver everything planned. Often they only have lines between one in the morning and six the next morning; in those five hours they need to make the worksite safe, move equipment in and out, and do the work. Often this means that only two or three hours is work done a night, whilst the staff are paid time-and-a-half or double-time for the full shift. It is a very uneconomical way of working, and is getting more expensive as manpower and equipment costs increase, and the netwrok gets busier.

There is also a little fault on the part of the government, who from experience should not have trusted Network Rail's costings and should perhaps have slowed some of the work into CP6 (2019 to 2024) or later

The politics:

This is a major embarrassment for the government. Since they went into the election less than two months ago proclaiming these projects, they should answer when they knew this decision was a possibility, especially as there have been signs that the GWML upgrade has not been going well. However the ORR's report into the first year of CP5 which highlighted these failures was only released on June 12th, so alternatively the government might be congratulated for reacting quickly and trying to get things back in order.

There is another issue: rolling stock orders have been placed for new trains to run on the upgraded lines, and some of these may have nowhere to run. Whilst orders can be cancelled or postponed, perhaps at a cost, there is also a problem in that many of the trains that were due to be replaced were going to be cascaded down to other lines. This entire process will have to be rethought, and will leave people in old, out-dated trains for longer.

It has left a great number of unhappy MPs, mostly Conservatives, who were looking forward to upgrades to existing lines as much as other Conservative MPs opposed HS2. This may well have long-term knock-on effects for the government.

What about HS2? Politically, it makes the project harder; already anti-HS2 groups are using it as a sign that the project's costs will not be kept under control. But as detailed above, building a new line is in many ways simpler than updating an existing one that carries trains. As the disastrous £10 billion WCML upgrade shows, it is very hard to get a handle on the costs of such upgrades. So if you believe that more capacity is needed, this news strengthens the case for HS2, even if politically it is weakened.

Notes:

As a side issue, the TPE is being paused for another reason: some of the work might be replicated by HS3, which is part of George Osborne's plans for a 'Northern Powerhouse'. Whilst it makes sense to ensure that work is not wasted, passengers in the north deserve help now.

For another view, see Paul Bigland's excellent blog.

(1): http://orr.gov.uk/publications/reports/gb-rail-industry-financial-information/gb-rail-industry-financial-information-2013-14
(2): http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmtran/257/257.pdf

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Some thoughts after the election aftermath: final thoughts

So that is my view of the current situation. The impetus lies with the Conservatives and the SNP, and politics over the next five years may well be defined by the relationship between those two parties.

I expected the result of this election to be a mess, and even considered another election in November as being likely. I was wrong, and I take little condolence from the fact that nearly everyone else was wrong as well.

This is how I rate the position of the political parties:

  • Conservatives are undoubtedly in the best position.
  • SNP have done a stellar job, and are in a prime position for the negotiation about the future of the UK.
  • UKIP have built a very firm base, but must be slightly disappointed they did not get more MPs.
  • Greens have made solid progress, but again they deserved more MPs.
  • Labour have lost an election they should have won, and also lost much of their intellectual heart.
  • Liberal Democrats are suffering. There is a way back for them, but it will be a long process.

One last note of warning about the leadership elections that face Labour, the Liberal Democrats and possibly UKIP. An orderly changeover to a competent person can play wonders for a party. A disorderly, argumentative changeover to a competent person can irrecoverably harm the new leader. As an example, Ed Miliband never fully recovered from his somewhat disruptive election as leader. The candidates would be wise to remember that as they fight amongst themselves.

Another last note: it is odd to think that the leaders of the main UK parties - Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and perhaps UKIP - might well all be different at the 2020 general election when compared to this one. I've a good feeling that that is (yes, you've guessed) unprecedented.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Some thoughts after the election aftermath: the Conservatives

Finally there are the Conservatives. What happened last week was unprecedented (yes, that word again), and it will be hard to repeat it in 2020, especially in the face of further unpopular austerity. But the are lucky in their enemies: Labour and the Lib Dems are in chaos, both in terms of leadership and strategic direction. UKIP are a threat, but they are currently riven by infighting and may not be able to keep facing both left and right for much longer.

A key issue for the Conservatives is that Cameron has admitted that he will not contest a third general election. This means that some time in the next five years there will be a new Conservative leader. I'm guessing that this changeover will occur after the 2017 EU referendum, whether he wins or loses. Therefore their success in the 2020 general election will depend on who is appointed as Cameron's successor. Boris Johnson is the media's favourite, and someone like Michael Gove is also likely to throw his hat into the ring. However my favourite is currently Rory Stewart, the MP for Penrith and the Border since 2010. He has a true boy's own backstory, including helping to run two Iraqi provinces. Even better, he is young and his constituency is in the north, a factor I will address below.

The party's positioning will be vital. Some of the elements that led them to be labelled 'the nasty party' have moved over to UKIP. Despite this, the Conservative vote share remained more or less static: those voters who moved to UKIP were offset by new Conservative voters from the Lib Dems and elsewhere. As such, Cameron's centrist approach has been vindicated. If the new Labour leader lurches to the left, as is entirely possible, then  the political centre ground may be left to the Conservatives. If Labour tries to be centrist, they will find the Conservatives already there.

There can be little doubt that the thin Conservative majority will decrease over this term through natural wastage: by-elections are always difficult for sitting governments to win. For this reason the Conservatives need to take an aggressive approach to 2020 and try to take more marginal seats. Experts were expecting them to take a defensive approach this year but they did the opposite, and actually attacked Labour marginals, of which they won enough to more than compensate for those they lost to Labour.

A key factor for the Conservatives will be the boundary changes they tried to pass in the last parliament, and which were somewhat controversially blocked by the Liberal Democrats. The changes were of two types: the equalisation of seat sizes in terms of populations, and the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Combined, these moves would reduce Labour's built-in electoral advantage which means the Conservatives need to get a significantly greater vote to win the same number of seats as Labour. This is true if they keep the seat equalisation measures and remove the more controversial reduction in the number of seats. Expect this measure to be back in parliament this term.

If you look at the electoral map, it is clear the Conservatives powerbase is in the south and rural areas. Where they lack seats is in London, the urban north, and Scotland. London will prove a hard nut for them to crack, especially in the face of demographic changes and the mayoral elections which are almost certain to go to Labour. Scotland would also be difficult, but it would be sensible for them to target the seven second-places they achieved in Scotland this time. They might even gain one or two.

The real opportunity for the Conservatives lie in the urban north. It is telling that the third tweet George Osborne sent out after the election victory was about the 'northern powerhouse'. There can be little doubt that successive governments have treated the urban north poorly; the powerhouse of London has attracted more than its fair share of both government attention and finance.

There are many northern constituencies that might turn blue if the Conservatives gave them a little love; there can be little doubt that such attention would also be to the advantage of the country's finances as well: north versus south does not have to be a zero-sum gain. It would be easy to give the northern towns (and the north in general) some love whilst not spurning the south. The key to a third Conservative term in power may just lie in Osborne's 'northern powerhouse'. And he knows it.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Some thoughts after the election aftermath: the SNP

The SNP had a great election, but the result was not quite what they would have wanted. They are now a large minority party, whilst they would have been hoping to gain more power in Westminster by supporting (whether by coalition or confidence and supply) the Labour party.

The next big test facing the SNP is the 2016 Scottish elections, where they would be hoping to maintain the impetus gained in this general election. For various reasons, not least the electoral system in Scotland, this will prove more difficult than it did at this general election. After this there will be the 2017 EU referendum, and then the 2020 general election where they will be defending many seats that Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives will be coveting.

There may also be an issue with the quality of their new MPs. Many would never have expected to be elected when they were selected to stand in what were safe seats for other parties, and many are very politically inexperienced. The SNP will have to carefully manage their new MPs to ensure that they do not do anything too naive.

They will also need to be careful not to be too strident in their opposition to the government. Support for independence has not particularly shifted since the independence referendum, which means that a proportion of the SNP's support comes from people who are against independence. This may seem odd, but given Scottish Labour's longstanding contempt for the Scottish electorate - as best seen by the Falkirk shenanigans of a couple of years ago - I can understand why even a unionist might vote for them. They will need to maintain this broad support if they want to keep many of their Scottish seats, some of which have small majorities. On the other hand, the Conservatives suffered a prolonged decline in Scotland over the decades and are left with one MP; they have not managed to recover. It is perfectly plausible that Scottish Labour will not recover either.

Even the SNP voters who are in favour of independence may not have that aim as their foremost objective: for many the NHS, education, jobs or wages may be the most important factor. If the SNP threaten those, people vaguely in favour of independence might swap their vote. No party should ever forget the bread-and-butter issues.

One thing I do not see as an issue is Salmond versus Sturgeon. Salmond stood down as party leader after he failed to win the independence referendum; since then Sturgeon has taken the party to a new level. Salmond won a seat in Westminster at this election, and some foresee problems between the two of them. I do not; both are brilliant political operators who have different approaches: Salmond will be in Westminster issues whilst Sturgeon leads the party in Scotland. It may be an unbeatable combination.

But the SNP's main aim is independence. They can choose to oppose the government and exploit the fractures in the union in the hope that more of the Scottish population will become pro-independence, or work with the government to move to a halfway house within the union: for instance Full Fiscal Autonomy (FFA), with English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) in return. There are hazards for them in either option.

The SNP are on a high. Whether they remain there depends on how they use their power over the next couple of years.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Some thoughts after the election aftermath: UKIP

UKIP had an excellent general election, although the aftermath has been distinctly interesting. Whilst they only got one MP and their leader failed to gain a seat (for the seventh time of asking, which must be some form of record), their vote increased manyfold, with some candidates very close to winning. They also gained many more councillors and now control their first council. But they have turned victory into defeat very rapidly.

Their first big issue is Farage: he immediately stood down as leader after the election, as he said he would if he failed to be elected. However he did not rule out standing again. Only a few days later came the controversial meeting of the party's leadership, where his resignation was declined. Reports vary about what went on in that meeting, but whatever the truth it led to open warfare within the party. The main combatants are Farage himself and the party's only MP, Douglas Carswell.

The perceived wisdom was that UKIP would hurt the Conservatives; however at the election they took more votes from Labour. But UKIP cannot maintain this position for long, and the new leader will need to work out whether they are going to face to the left or right in the future.

UKIP seem to have gained the Liberal Democrats' 'None of the above' position as a protest party. Whilst many UKIP supporters are very supportive (as web forums show), they undoubtedly gained many votes from people who disliked the other main parties. This was exactly the same position that the Liberal Democrats formerly held, albeit the individual voters would mostly be different. Such voters could easily shift back again. Therefore UKIP will have to continue to position themselves in voters' minds as being 'different' to the other parties. That position may be hard to maintain if they become more successful, or the if the infighting continues for too long.

A 2017 referendum on EU membership may shoot one of UKIP's most precious foxes. However it may also play straight into their hands. It would be good if the party could decide on how a UK outside the EU would work, but that currently seems beyond them. Will they support or oppose the referendum? The hatred and distrust that many members show for David Cameron shows that they may well oppose anything he proposes.

I am unsure what UKIP should do with their immigration calls. On one hand mass immigration has caused social problems; on the other, UKIP have problems with racists within their ranks. Farage (or whoever leads the party) will have to try to clear out the more extreme elements and work out a position ready for the 2017 EU referendum.

They are largely a protest party, and there has been plenty to protest about. In particular the sexual abuse of children by gangs of men in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and elsewhere has understandably got many people angry. These scandals have been widely ignored, especially by Labour. But they need to be careful not to concentrate on cases where the abusers are ethnic minorities and the victims white, as opposed to the many cases where the abusers are white and/or the victims ethnic. Sexual abuse should not be made solely into a racial issue.

In addition, UKIP have rallied against what they term as 'LibLabCon' and 'the establishment' - the latter of which Farage mentioned in his non-concession speech. Leaving aside the fact that Dulwich-educated ex-city trader and MEP Farage is as 'establishment' as it gets, the more power they have, the less effective that call will become.

However great opportunities for UKIP stand in the large swathes of constituencies where they came second. It is easy to see the party throwing resources into these areas. However there is the caveat that what people on the east coast want may be anathema to their urban supporters.

The wild card is Douglas Carswell. The Essex MP had a reputation as a deep thinker before he moved from the Conservatives to UKIP last year, and the fact that his move was not criticised more says a great deal for the way he is regarded (this contrasts with the other Conservative MP who made the same move, Mark Reckless, who was roundly pilloried and lost his seat last week). Carswell is an unashamed right-winger who must be concerned by any move of UKIP to the left, and as UKIP's sole MP he will have a great deal of power and influence over the party's direction.

I see it as unlikely that Carswell would stand for leader; instead I think he will be content as acting as the power behind the throne, particularly if his wisdom will affect the views of his many friends that remain within the Conservative party. But the events of the last week makes it possible that Farage will not remain in UKIP for ling: the party seems to small for both him and Farage.

UKIP need to be careful that they do not turn their victory at the Euro and General elections into a massive defeat. But that might mean they need someone other than Farage at the helm.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Some thoughts after the election aftermath: the Greens

The Greens had a mixed election. They stood in many more seats than ever before, but did not manage to increase their number of MPs, with Caroline Lucas remaining their sole representative at Westminster. The Green party leader, Natalie Bennett, failed to get elected in her seat of Holborn and St Pancras.

But they did well in the popular vote, getting over 1.1 million votes and 3.8% of the total, an increase of 2.8% over 2010. Like UKIP, the fact they only got one seat is down to the vagaries of the FPTP electoral system.

The council elections were less positive. The Greens ran Brighton and Hove council as a minority administration, but this year they lost seats and control over the council. In England they gained a paltry 9 councillors (compared to the Conservatives 497).

The question is what proportion of their new support comes from people who are now genuine Green supporters, and what proportion supported them because they found they could not vote for Labour or the Liberal Democrats. The former are more likely to stick with the party than the latter.

The EU referendum in 2015 has to be an opportunity for the Greens. Much depends on Cameron's renegotiation with the EU; but there is a place for an unashamedly pro-EU party. Ordinarily that would be filled by the Liberal Democrats, but they are currently a party in decline. It would be easy for the Greens to accept that torch and run with it.