January 2009 Archives
Another day, another report. Sometimes, I do wonder why we get so excited.
However, today is a day to be excited, but only if we, as a city are prepared to take ourselves seriously. Only if we are serious about being a Global City and an European Capital.
What is it that has excited me so? Yes, the recent report from the Campaign for Better Transport suggesting that Birmingham may have to abandon its plans for a runway extension.
I enthusiastically welcome their report as an important part of this ongoing debate, even though I disagree with their conclusion.
This report however is a very useful tool for Birmingham to ensure that our runway extension does happen, a useful lightning rod to mobilise vocal support.
Already the front page of The Birmingham Post has sent a shockwave of excitement across the city's business community. Everyone was talking about it today, and everyone was in favour of the runway. So we know what we think. That is the easy part.
Now let's get busy.
Firstly, we must speak, immediately and with conviction. Decisionmakers in London must be in no doubt that Birmingham is united in its demand for this runway.
Paul Kehoe has already taken the first step, the business community must unite with him and the Airport. We have previously worked in a compromising and consultative capacity on issues such as the Transport Innovation Fund/Road Pricing. Now is the time to be firm and definite.
We will have a runway, no compromise.
Secondly, the business community must immediately call upon the Secretary of State to travel to Bimingham to reinforce the government's commitment and support.
We have been given an ideal opportunity to cement the support of the government and the city, let us not waste it.
Earlier today the government finally unveiled its eagerly awaited auto industry support package worth ÃÂ£2.3bn. Lord Mandelson stated that the government would provide loan guarantees to auto manufacturers and larger suppliers to try to overcome the collapse in car sales which the industry is facing (December sales were down by nearly 50%, year on year).
As readers of the Birmingham Post will know, thousands of jobs have already been cut across the sector, with extended shut downs and part-time working the norm as the industry faces an unprecedented downturn. Jaguar Land Rover has laid off nearly 2000 workers, Nissan some 1200, and Aston Martin a third of its staff.
Factor in supply chain losses and my back-of-a-beermat calculation suggests that we've already seen around 10,000 job losses already.
What was welcome today was the recogniation by the government that the sector was strategically important, that it was not a 'lame duck' (unlike some US firms) and that this was not 'a bail out'. Whilst Mandelson argued that today's package provided a 'significant boost' to the sector, he stressed again that there was no 'blank cheque'.
Well, this is all a good start but the money on offer is limited and the measures incomplete, and one wonders whether this too little, too late...
First, apologies if you clicked on this in the vague hope that it might be about Ghostbusters, that classic of 1980s cinema with the annoyingly catchy theme tune by Ray Parker Jr. It's actually about something altogether more real and (perhaps) more worrying than ghosts - our political leaders and what many of you may consider to be a rather scary trait that a lot of them seem to have in common.
The scary gang includes half the current leaders of the G8 group of countries - Presidents Obama and Sarkozy and Prime Ministers Berlusconi and Medvedev - as well as 2 of the last 5 British prime ministers (Thatcher and Blair) and 3 of the 7 American presidents before Mr Obama (Nixon, Ford and Clinton). And if you're from north of the 49th parallel, you deserve a special mention because Prime Minister Harper is the first Canadian leader not to be part of the club for nearly 40 years.
The connection? They're all lawyers. That's right; not economists (Prime Minister Harper again) or physicists (Germany's Chancellor Merkel) or businessmen (Japan's Prime Minister Aso) or academics-turned-journalists (our own Prime Minister) - but lawyers (or lawyer-turned-media-mogul-and-football-club-owner in Mr Berlusconi's case). This is the profession that's the butt of all of those "How do you tell when a lawyer's lying? They're moving their lips" jokes and which appears to engender the same sense of public warmth and affection (I accept I may be using these phrases out of context) as tax inspectors, estate agents and, in current times at least, bankers.
And yet the leading economic powers in the world, and many others, have a lengthy track record of electing lawyers as their leaders - with the 44th president of the United States being the latest example of that trend. All of which begs the question: why?
Apart from some flippant attempt at suggesting that there may be a link between the general unpopularity of both, I must admit that I'm not sure that I have an answer. I don't think that being a lawyer makes you any more or less qualified to run a country than doing something else; and I don't think lawyers are any more or less likely to be interested in politics than anyone else. But I do find the question intriguing. I also feel a bit sorry for the Canadians - 40 years of being run by lawyers seems a longer punishment than most judicial systems dish out for murder.
Until 5th April 2006 individuals had, at age 75, to use their pension monies to purchase an annuity from a life office. Government were finally forced to change this rule by the Plymouth Bretheren, a religious sect who maintained that annuities were effectively gambling on life expectancy which their religion does not permit.
What I could not understand until recently was why Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, defended the government position by insisting that pension annuities were good value for money.
At the time it was relatively easy to get 5% per annum interest from a building society, especially on long term money and yet we were being quoted annuity rates for 65 year olds of only 6% of the available pension pot. Given that annuity rates are meant to exhaust both the income earned on the capital amount paid for the annuity and the capital sum itself you did not need to be Einstein to work out that if 5% interest could be earned only 1% of the annuity had to be funded from capital. How could this represent good value for money?
When the Chancellor announced in the Pre Budget Report that a special service was being set up to help businesses hit by the Credit Crunch there was no mention that the service would in reality be limited to very small businesses and small debts. This however is what in practice it has proved to be.
Taxpayers who ring the BPSS can only expect to get an immediate decision for debts under ÃÂ£10k. For debts between ÃÂ£10k - ÃÂ£100k the BPSS will be able to deal with them but they will be looked at in much more detail.
Amounts in excess of ÃÂ£100k will not be dealt with by the BPSS but will be referred to the local HMRC office.
(Blogged by David Bailey and John Clancy)
Apparently we are all now to own a portfolio of shares in small businesses...has the Government been reading the Post Blog?
The package of measures announced by Lord Mandelson earlier this week to get credit and investment into small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) included an initial ÃÂ£75million which will involve the taxpayer (you and I) owning a new portfolio of shares through a debt for equity swap. Not in the banks or some big strategic industry, but perhaps in some businesses not very far from your front door. As you pass to your local business park or high street in your car or bus, you might in future keep an eye on your latest local investments.
Well, it may be hard to believe, but we will soon all own equity shares in viable small businesses who apply to the government to invest in them long term. This will enable a new culture of investment rather than lending; and it's an investment which the taxpayer can potentially make money on long term, too.
Both Government and Opposition at the moment seem determined to outdo each other with ideas to help the British electorate through the Credit Crunch! The question must be, do they really think the measures they are bandying about will really help those being hit by the credit crunch - or is it all just SPIN?
At various stages in my working life I have been regarded by non-tax colleagues as one of those "sad" people who actually enjoys tax. People, who level this accusation at me, are absolutely right. Why else would I have chosen it as a career? However, even my enthusiasm for taxation, does not extend me filing my tax return online on Christmas Day!
We are however, reliably informed that no less than 640 people interrupted their Christmas festivities to complete their online filing.
HMRC must be delighted that Moira Stuart's plea to us all to file our tax returns on time online has had such an impact on some taxpayers.
Blogged by David Bailey, John Clancy and Mike Olley
Paul Dale's piece last week in the Birmingham Post raised the fascinating possibility that Britain's big cities - including Birmingham - could be given the power to raise funds for regeneration by issuing bonds via the money markets if the Tories get back into power after the next General Election.
Whilst we're delighted to see Council Leader Mike Whitby backing these ideas, the politicised nature of the announcement (i.e. the Tories will do this if elected) glossed over what was actually a recent clear history of cross party, non-politicised support for the idea and should certainly not be regarded as copyrighted by the current council leadership.
In Birmingham, the idea of the city issuing 'Brummie Bonds' to fund infrastructure, housing and other investment was first floated in 2003 by (then) Labour Birmingham City Cllr John Clancy and if anyone was most associated with the concept, it was him. But Clancy developed the idea with the intention of making it a Birmingham citizens' issue without the party politics getting in the way.
We suggest that this needs to be de-politicised so that we can make progress on the idea ASAP.
Amid all of the news stories regarding the significant problems which face the planet as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a recent landmark anniversary of what many consider to be a major achievement of the previous century seems to have passed by relatively unnoticed.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was 60 years young on December 10th last year (in fact, Human Rights Day is 'celebrated' on the same day every year) but, given the general lack of press coverage, I think all but the most ardent of news junkies can be excused for missing the big event.
The idealist in me can't help but be saddened by this. The Declaration is an incredible document - in the words of the United Nation's third Secretary-General, U Thant, which I have borrowed for the title of this blog, a "great and inspiring instrument". It is well written, remarkably free of the pomposity that is all too common in legal documents and, most importantly of all, encapsulates some incredibly important rights. It also remains hugely relevant to life today. After all, it's not as if we live in a world that is free from human rights abuse. Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth. If the daily news isn't depressing enough, I would suggest Human Rights Watch's website for a comprehensive but sombre summary of mankind's current inhumanity to itself.
But the Declaration is far from perfect. Perhaps its biggest weakness is that, of itself, it doesn't have any significant legal effect. It isn't a convention or treaty which creates, or obliges its signatories to pass laws creating, legal rights and obligations. It's more of a statement of the signatories' intent; an intention that critics say has been followed up more by breach than observance in many cases.
In the UK, the Declaration was the original precursor to the European Convention on Human Rights and the relatively recent Human Rights Act. This act, which finally made express provision for human rights in UK law, has been particularly controversial, with various sensational stories about the law respecting the supposed rights of wrongdoers and criminals over and above innocent victims.
And these concerns do raise an important point about human rights. If they are to be protected, then the rights must apply equally to everyone, irrespective of whether or not that person would respect your rights in return. One of the many criticisms (and the Christmas Day blog from the Post's own Tom Scotney on this issue certainly packs a punch) which can be levelled at Channel 4 for its decision to allow Iran's President Ahmadinejad to deliver the alternative Christmas message was that this was allowing the president a platform which was in marked contrast to Iran's own record on human rights; in particular, its recent treatment of 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr Shirin Ebadi.
The question for us as a society is whether this sort of tension is worth the freedoms which underpin it. I firmly believe that it is. I hope you agree.