The Times – Undercover at the DVLA

My old friend Bob Robinson brought my attention to this particular piece of undercover journalism:-

www.thetimes.co.uk/podcasts/stories-of-our-times *

Now those who know me well will recall that I was a trade union officer within PCS but not, I might add, in this particular government department. However, what struck me was that in the years prior to my retirement (4 years ago now) I was hearing about the strained industrial relations at DVLA. On that basis, my guess is that some of the underlying issues pre-date Covid 19 and in many ways, if industrial relations are poor things will only get worse until good relations are established.

Is PCS at least partly to blame for this unfortunate situation as I think the podcast is questioning? In my experience poor industrial relations nearly always come about because of poor management and a failure to reasonably consult with the elected union representatives of a workforce. I saw some ups and downs in the government department I worked within and ups were created by good senior managers and downs by bad senior managers. The tone is set at the top of the management tree and if it’s an inclusive tone based on wanting to consult a workforce and take them along a journey of change then the chances are things will go reasonably well. Set a dictatorial tone and the opposite will happen.

Many senior managers I worked/negotiated with consulted me about changes and potentially difficult matters at a very early stage and I encouraged them to do so. They did it because they knew I’d give them considered answers and issues that may create difficulties could then be headed off at the pass so to speak. Of course, if the difficulties came from a governmental edict then senior managers were sometimes as challenged as much the union would be.

* Scroll through the list of podcasts to find ‘Undercover at the DVLA’

Regional economic regeneration – It’s done the rounds so many times!

My good friend Bob Robinson recently pointed me towards the podcast linked below:-

open.spotify.com/episode/0BkowQ14PrKsFwsTQAregb

Bob’s take on it and indeed the whole issue of how governments keep on making the same mistakes over targeted regional investment are summed up here:-

‘This is a 50-minute podcast and is the most accurate description of the chequered history of UK regional development, I have ever heard. I carry the scars as I was involved in submitting business cases to: the North West Development Agency (Improving Construction Industry Safety), the South West Development Agency (Construction Skills development) and the Welsh Development Agency (Redeployment of Military facilities}. I watched their rise and fall. I also was seconded for a period to support the DTI’s “Rethinking Construction Programme” following on from the 1998 Egan Report into the root and branch need to reform the construction industry. Listening to this podcast suggests we are making the same mistakes over and over again. Regional policy has been a half-hearted inconsistent shambles for years and this fiasco, as evidenced by the ongoing rows about the Manchester Rail Network, is set to continue.’

I can’t but agree with Bob’s assessment having listened to the very interesting podcast and taken his concerns on board. UK policy in so many critical areas is subject to far too many twists and changes meaning nothing gets bedded in before an incoming government wants to shake it all up again. The NHS and Education are a couple of glaring examples but this blog piece is about regionalism and how we invest in areas most in need of investment – ‘Levelling Up’ being the latest incarnation of it.

I’ve blogged about such issues before so there’s a danger I could well repeat myself here; if so my apologies. My experience as a Sefton Borough Councillor from 1999 to 2015 and particularly my period as Council Leader from 2004 to 2011 inform my views.

There’s little doubt that the North West Development Agency was the big beast with regard to most if not all large scale projects whilst it was in being. It sat rather uncomfortably aside the North West Regional Assembly as Blair was going about his decentralisation of power and public money from Westminster. His was the first government to really embrace regionalism aside from the efforts of ‘Tarzan’, the ‘Minister for Merseyside’, Michael Heseltine during the previous Tory years under Thatcher and Major.

That we live in one of the most centralised countries in the developed world says a lot so Heseltine and Blair were kicking against a well-ordered position stoutly defended by virtually all Labour/Tory politicians and of course the Civil Service. Liberals had seriously woken up to regionalism and devolution many years before them I might add so in general, we welcomed such initiatives whilst usually being of the view they were too small in scale, done to people rather than them being consulted and not far-reaching enough. Of course, we were right!

Blair got stuck or got bored with regionalism and devolution and it kind of fizzled out well before the job was done particularly in England. Ignoring the Brown years where nothing much happened on this agenda it took the Coalition Government to have another go and I think it fair to say that they only succeeded in adding to the dog’s breakfast of English regionalism and devolution. City Mayors and City Region Mayors were their big idea and I opposed them from day one as I still do now. My many previous blog postings on this subject go before this one so I’ll link one that seems pertinent below:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2021/03/02/more-elected-mayors-will-not-address-north-south-divide/

So the podcast is very much to the point and sadly the majority of our English politicians still love that we are overwhelmingly ruled from Westminster. Apart from crumbs from their table, they will want it to stay that way too!

Until the UK fully embraces regionalism and very significant devolution of powers and spending from Westminster we’ll continue to be badly governed.

Port of Liverpool access road goes on back burner?

Rimrose Valley Country Park.

Place North West has the article on its website – see link below:-

www.placenorthwest.co.uk/news/delays-in-store-for-port-of-liverpool-link-road/

But of course there’s the paralel issue of government under pressure over its climate change busting £27b road building programme which is being seriously challenged in the courts by the likes of Transport Action Network:-

tan.creationtest.co.uk/campaign/legal-action/

So there’s a possibility here that the time being lost to delays could be used to further the environmental campaigns to save Rimrose Valley from having a road bulldozed through it. Having said that Highways England*, which is in my view not sufficiently regulated by a powerful independent regulator, could simply be told to keep the new road project going by the Secretary of State for Transport, its ultimate boss.

My thanks to Bob Robinson for the lead to this posting

* Highways England is a private company limited by shares, wholly owned by the Secretary of State for Transport. The Highways England Board is the primary governance arm of the company and is accountable to the Secretary of State for Transport.

Rimrose Valley Country Park in the foreground and the Port cranes in the background.

An open letter to Michael Gove from Bob Robinson

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE MICHAEL GOVE, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, MP

Dear Mr Gove,

“TRUCK QUEUES COULD BE 7,000 VEHICLES LONG WHEN TRANSITION ENDS” – MICHAEL GOVE – THE GUARDIAN.

Thank you for responding so quickly to my earlier open letters,(posted on the Facebook Lib Dem Chat Group) albeit not in person. You are to be congratulated for your candour – albeit somewhat late in the day. You do, I take it, clearly understand the implications of what you have said. As a retired bean counter, I spent my career eliminating the need for holding inventory by promoting the use of “just in time” manufacturing techniques – stock although an asset on the balance sheet is not as liquid as cash. Liquidity is going to be critical to our recovery. Turning inventory into finished goods adds value and turning finished good into sold goods is what generates business liquidity. Please do not feel that you can duck behind coronavirus as an excuse – the seeds for this were laid long ago when some balding chap with glasses appeared talking about reshaping British Industry – He was looking for the next generation of disruptive innovation. Perhaps at some point, you might like to tell me how that’s going? No Pain No Gain only works if the same people asked to bear the pain can be given cast iron guarantees that they, not rentiers, will enjoy the gain.

In the meantime, might I suggest, until you have a spiffing response, you might need to avoid the honourable members for Southport and South Ribble – (they are/were on your side of the House). Both constituencies sustain a substantial part of the United Kingdom’s horticultural sector – in particular, fresh salad vegetables to Supermarkets. In addition to top quality tomatoes and salads grown locally in the area – the growers put the Wonder into Golden Wonder crisps. In addition to growing, they have built specialist packing and preparation plants that employ many workers. Britain, however, has long passed accepting seasonality in fruit and vegetables and in the off season, imported produce is shipped from Spain and other warmer climes, minimising handling damages. These are brought in by truck and packed for major supermarkets. This ensures door to door delivery but it does have to run to a tight, just in time, timetable. I am sure that whilst, in your Botany class at school, somebody explained to you that once a lettuce is cut – it starts to die. Two days extra in transit will increase the amount of not fit for purpose lettuce, sitting either on shop shelves or customers fridges – imposing knock on costs to supermarkets and consumers alike. The shipping time is therefore critical. I am sure you will also appreciate that queues of lorries outside European ports will represent a tempting target for desperate people.

Katherine Fletcher, the newly minted MP for South Ribble and Damien Moore will no doubt be catching it hot and strong soon. Indeed, the local Tory Parties are traditionally supported by major growers. If your party’s cash flow takes a hit following recent revelations – you may need to look to your home-grown supporters for help. Damien Moore, by the way, was, in his former, life a Manager at Asda – he will understand just what this kind of (expletive deleted) could turn out to be for Supermarkets. He will also know the best way the sweep up Maltesers. Just ask yourself – if this what you want to happen to you?

Best regards Bob

www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/sep/23/truck-queues-could-be-7000-long-when-brexit-transition-ends-ministers-warn

www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/sep/04/uk–businesses-demand-urgent-talks-over-fears-brexit-border-chaos

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-54260470

P.S. Archie Norman, the Chief Executive of ASDA, used to begin his welcome to new staff, including myself, by recalling his early experiences on the shop’s shop floor. Sometimes Maltesers would escape and represent a “slip” risk. The easiest way to sweep them up was not to chase them with a broom and shovel – but to tread on them. Nudge-nudge-wink-wink stamp-stamp Mr Gove – Know what I mean.

And then before publication but after writing the above this happened – The lorry and logistics crisis just got worse. The Guardian has just published the latest round of revelations including a twitter copy of the letter by Michael Gove to the RHA.

You could not make it up

An end to rail franchising – but what next?

Rail franchising has been an expensive failure and I think most involved with the rail industry will acknowledge that due not least to the fragmentation it’s caused to what needs to be a national infrastructure.

Northern Rail Franchise Class 319 electric unit at Liverpool Lime Street Station

In effect rail has been re-nationalised as the 1980’s high profile privatisation project has hit the buffers, indeed it’s been bumping into those buffers for a long time now. Of course Railtrack was nationalised into Network Rail quite a while ago.

The Railway Gazette has an interesting article on its website – see link below:-

www.railwaygazette.com/uk/uk-government-announces-the-end-of-rail-franchising/57396.article

Being a railway enthusiast means that I’m probably not a reliable witness but I’ll have my say, biased though it may be, anyway. That British Railways was in many ways a bit of a mess is a given but the route the Conservatives took to address its shortcomings was to say the least drastic, although I also appreciate that they did it to big up their policy direction of the day and there will have been little thought for what they were setting in train (sorry) and how things would actually look further down the track (sorry again). Such is politics, short term voter approval is all that is required and beggar the consequences as the other lot will be in power when the train derails!

What we managed to lose during the 1960’s, 70’s & 80’s was anything approaching an integrated transport system (remember that the infamous Bus Deregulation Act plays into this too) and now we are paying the price. Yes of course there have been some positives with rail travel increasing year on year until Covid 19 came along. However, we now need to reinvent the wheel and build an integrated transport system which rail (both train and tram) will need to be at the heart of.

That many European countries and beyond have successfully done this means it can be done and should be. We’ve ended up in a kind of halfway house between many counties who have progressed integrated transport very well and the likes of the US and Canada who have all but tried to kill off public transportation completely.

A Virgin Trains Frabchise Pendolino train at Liverpool Lime Street Station.

The big question now is where will our Conservative government drive transport policy now. Certainly they are big on roads and cars and are planning huge infrastructure investment in new highways despite roads being the very opposite of what is required to tackle climate change. The old ten bob note they recently held up to pay for the reversal of Beeching cuts in our railways was of course all political froth as that tiny budget will pay for nothing much at all.

Of course Conservative voters don’t use buses and trains much, if at all, although all those right wing former Labour voters who backed Johnson at the last GE do.

Can’t say I’m optimistic about the future of public transport under the present occupier of 10 Dither Street, London.

My thanks to Bob Robinson for the lead to this posting

THE GRAVY TRAIN SET – Guest posting from Bob Robinson

Michael Lewis in his seminal 2018 book “The Fifth Risk” describes how with each change of administration, supporters of the American President are appointed to head various Government Agencies. The LSE blog, at the time, crisply summarises Mr Lewis’s account of what went on at the National Weather Service.

“The choice of Barry Myers, head of private weather firm AccuWeather, to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, a scientific agency within the Department of Commerce) is both striking and predictable. Acknowledging that Mills’ appointment represents an attempt to effectively ‘dismantle’ NOAA through privatisation, Lewis writes that ‘the private weather industry, unlike the (government-based) National Weather Service, has a financial interest in catastrophe’ (172). The ‘dystopic endgame’ Lewis senses with weather forecasting can be extended to a host of other issues and risks, from nuclear waste to food security”.

blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2018/11/18/book-review-the-fifth-risk-by-michael-lewis/

For those who think it could not happen here – you might be in for a shock

On the 16th September, The Guardian reports that Shanker Singham, one of the main proponents of the so-called “alternative arrangements” for the Irish border, is understood to have teamed up with the customs expert Robert Hardy and the technology company Fujitsu for the Trader Support Service (TSS) contract. It goes on to describe the contract, the as the first of the “BREXIT SPOILS” in Northern Ireland, that was put out to tender in the summer with the appointment announced in time for implementation in September.

www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/sep/16/alternative-to-irish-backstop-consultant-shanker-singham-in-line-for-200m-contract

How easy is it for Liberal Democrats to hold the government to account on what appears to be, in euphemistic terms, “Cosy relationships”? Are there other examples of this? Does it amount to crony patronage? Robert Townsend in his seminal pop business book “ Up the Organisation” described Management Consultants as “Someone who borrows your watch to tell you’re the time – and then walks off with your watch”. Plus ça change……………………………….

Are we witnessing “Déjà vu all over again”, bearing in mind the Conservative previous catastrophes inflicted in the name of Privatisation? This fiasco occurred in what seems like not too long ago not so good old days.

www.theguardian.com/society/2019/may/16/part-privatisation-probation-sevices-to-be-reversed-offender-management-nationalised-chris-grayling

That by the way is the same Chris Grayling as this Chris Grayling

www.politicshome.com/news/article/conservative-anger-as-boris-johnson-makes-chris-grayling-chair-of-intelligence-committee

As Lib Dems, we should keep in mind the adage “What gets measured gets managed?” – Should we start keeping and publishing the score?

* Bob Robinson is a member of Central Bedfordshire Liberal Democrats