February 2009 Archives
I have written several times on my blog to warn people about the dangers of not paying their tax on time; but today really is the "last chance saloon".
If you should have paid tax on 31 January 2009 and the taxman does not get your cheque by the 28 February, he will impose a 5% surcharge on your tax bill, even if your payment is only a matter of days late.
If your payment is two days late, this amounts to nearly 1000% interest, a truly staggering rate by anyone's standards!
So, whoever you don't pay at the end of the month, in these credit crunch times, make sure it is not the tax man!
Even credit card interest rates at 26.5% seem extremely modest in comparison to HMRC's swingeing levy.
I have a new hobby. It's not one that is going to get me out of the house much, it probably won't help me make new friends and it's certainly not very relaxing. But it is strangely compelling.
My new pastime is tracking down initiatives used by overseas governments to stimulate a hi-tech low-carbon economy, which Gordon Brown has trumpeted as our saviour from the current grinding fiscal gloom.
Once identified, I then start my mental stopwatch to measure the time that elapses before our government finally catches up and takes similar steps.
And if I were blessed with a mathematical brain I would work out a complex algorithm to show how far behind the low-carbon curve the UK will be when we eventually emerge from recession.
Last week another of these measures was brought to my attention.
In an interview with Modec, the Coventry-based makers of electric commercial vehicles, the company's chairman Lord Borwick spoke of Modec's bulging order book - virtually all of which is destined for export or for overseas firms present in the UK.
Why, when we have such a great example of Midland innovation and engineering right here on our doorstep, is all of it going abroad?
Of course exporting our knowhow is a great thing and should be applauded in its own right and granted, the scale of Modec's production is tiny compared to other big-name vehicle makers in the region.
But it would surely be best if Modec could sell to both the UK and overseas markets and as well as helping our balance of trade, Modec's products could push us some way towards meeting the UK's ambitious target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent on 1990 levels by 2050.
The reason most of Modec's production goes abroad is that other countries have introduced tax breaks for companies investing in electric vehicles.
For example in Ireland businesses which purchase electric vehicles are able to write off 100 per cent of the cost against tax. France, Germany and the US all have similar schemes. Even in Republican Texas, the spiritual home of fossil fuel, a $5,000 subsidy is being considered for people investing in electric hybrid cars.
As Lord Borwick put it: "If you look at America there is an urgency about doing something that was never there before.
"But in Britain we always had the idea about green things but others are surpassing us by actually doing something."
Last week on this blog, I compared the government's slowness to act on vehicle scrappage schemes to its decade-long reluctance to introduce another demand-stimulating green measure - feed-in tariffs.
I am now officially adding tax breaks for electric commercial vehicles to that list of things that let the grass grow under our feet while engineering jobs are slowly disappearing into the ether.
Ssshh - can you hear that stopwatch? Tick tick tick.
This week has not been a good week for the creative industries in Birmingham. It is the last week for the retail side of Jibbering Records, a record shop and music promotions company based in Moseley.
The downturn on the high street has played a major part in Jibbering deciding to shut up shop, and the closure of its record store on Alcester Road will mean Moseley will lose another independent shop, and with it part of the community identity and vibrancy that gives the area its distinctive character.
Digbeth, like Moseley, is also a "creative" hub for the city with hundreds of innovative businesses occupying places like the Custard Factory, the newly-opened Fazeley Studios and The Bond.
A smattering of bars and clubs serve the area with a non-mainstream option for nights out.
The Rainbow is one of these.
But this week Kent Davis, landlord of the pub, said that if it were to receive a noise abatement order, the pub would be forced to close as it could not afford to pay for the structural work needed to prevent noise escaping from the venue.
Mr Davis said the council's Environmental Health department had been called out on several occasions based on the complaints of just one resident living in newly-built flats in Digbeth.
This is despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of local residents do not have any problem with noise - indeed being close to venues like The Rainbow has been a draw in encouraging people to move to the area. The chairman of the local residents association described the threat to The Rainbow as "flabbergasting".
Both Moseley and Digbeth are seen as hotbeds of "creativity" - that elusive element that Birmingham City Council has in said it is trying to promote.
I interviewed Clive Dutton, Birmingham City Council director of planning and regeneration, when Mary Portas, aka BBC 2's Mary Queen of Shops, was in town last year. She was invited by the council to advise on how Birmingham can better foster independent shops in the city.
At the time Mr Dutton said: "We have to think about the sort of place you want to emulate, the places all of us visit in our spare time."
"You tend to go to places that are different and what makes them different is the different kinds of leisure and shopping experience.
The Rainbow definitely falls into the category of a venue that is a bit "different" - sadly something that is getting rarer in Birmingham.
The approach of two council departments - environmental health and planning - just doesn't square.
I appreciate that environmental health are there to do a job, and any noise complaint triggers them down a trajectory that is laid down for them.
But this is an issue which needs to be addressed higher up at the council, which seriously needs to ask itself how it is actually fostering an independent and creative spirit in Birmingham.
The case of Jibbering Records goes to show that small independents are already battling the headwinds of a deep recession, which is surely also affecting the bottom line at The Rainbow.
In an economic environment like this, Digbeth could do without being crushed the myopic approach of a local authority. If not, we will be left with a Digbeth that is full of empty flats, empty pubs and empty council spin about "creativity".
Yesterday saw the loss of 600 jobs in the West Midlands as GKN, present in the region for over 100 years, announced the closure of two of its factories in the region, the latest in a string of automotive companies to send skilled Midland engineers to the dole office.
Contrasting sharply with the fortunes of the industrial sector, the fast food industry has had a bumper week - with Domino's Pizza announcing full-year profits up almost a quarter and outlining its "aggressive expansion plan" to open a further 50 stores, creating 1,500 jobs.
Earlier this week Kentucky Fried Chicken announced it was creating 9,000 new jobs as part of plans to open between 200 and 300 restaurants in the next three to five years as people lose the ability, or will, to cook for themselves.
The other big job creation stories of recent weeks have been the supermarkets, with Sainsburys, Aldi, Tesco et al combining to add around 30,000 jobs this year.
Obviously any story of job creation is welcome in these depressing times and I have no doubt if you have been made redundant and have a mortgage to pay, a job behind the counter at KFC is better than nothing.
But one glaring fact stands out about the kind of jobs we are losing and the kind of jobs we are creating which does not bode well for our future recovery when we come out of this downturn.
Every job that goes in manufacturing is effectively deskilling the whole country, while every job created in a fast food chain does not exactly enhance the skills base of UK plc.
If we are gradually losing the skills needed to make our own dinners - how are we going to make anything of any value to the rest of the world?
I must come clean at the start: I appear to have got out of bed on the wrong side this morning. In any event, I'm cross. A bit peeved even. Indeed, sufficiently put out to abuse the online hospitality of the Birmingham Post and have a moan. Don't say you weren't warned.
So, who has upset my otherwise even equilibrium? The perhaps-a-bit worryingly-for-my-sanity-but-nonetheless-true answer is three posters to our own business blog and a food reviewer from the Times. First up we have Andrew, Graham and Alister, all of whom responded to Muhammad M-Hasan's recent blog encouraging Birmingham's business community to stand up and be counted when it comes to Birmingham Airport's plans for a new runway. Next we have Alex Renton, who was sent to Brum on behalf of the national paper following the announcement that Simpson's, Turners (given the recent brouhaha over Brum and its possessives, I should stress that the lack of apostrophe is the restaurant's decision and not mine) and Purnell's had all been awarded a Michelin star.
What's got me cross? It was probably the collective effect of reading them one after the other that got me narked, but all do seem to make unjustified criticisms of our fair city. Andrew suggests that the many (and rival) business organisations in the city are too busy feathering their own nests to respond as one. Graham (who has unfortunately been made redundant) laments the lack of any business community, suggesting that the only people left in Brum are lawyers and accountants who simply don't care. Alister, a lawyer from Manchester who has also unfortunately lost his job, believes that Manchester (both in terms of its business community's ability to compete with London and the quality of its airport) leaves Brum trailing in its wake.
Which brings me onto Alex Renton. In what is on the whole a positive piece on Brum's foodie revolution, he still manages a somewhat stereotyped comparison of the "neither posh nor charming...poem in concrete" that is our city with the supposed food nirvana that is Scotland's capital. He also produces the truly bizarre comment that "coming from Edinburgh like me, you feel pretty alien in the Bull Ring" and suggests that locally-sourced food is an anathema to Birmingham diets.
So let's knock these criticisms on the head, starting with Andrew. Since graduating, I have lived and worked in three cities: London, Cambridge and Brum and, whilst I accept Andrew's point that Brum appears to have a number of lobbying agencies, they strike me as far more vocal, persuasive and successful than anything my two previous homes had to offer. I would give a special mention to both Birmingham Future and Birmingham Forward as impressive voices for our city. As for Graham, the suggestion that lawyers and accountants don't care about the city is bonkers. We live and work here too; as do our clients. And as Alister's own experience testifies, professionals in the city aren't exactly immune from the economic downturn.
Which brings me onto the negative comparison with Manchester. I've never flown from Manchester Airport, so can't comment (save to say that since moving to Birmingham I've never needed to). However, the suggestion that Manchester or London are somehow protected from the recession in a way that Brum isn't seems at odds with the daily news reports. And if you are just looking at legal jobs, then one trade magazine reckons that over 2,100 jobs have been lost, with job cuts happening in Manchester and the Big Smoke as well as in Brum and elsewhere.
Finally to Edinburgh, which remains one of my favourite cities in the world and whose centre is undoubtedly an architectural joy. But it's not all perfect - Irvine Welsh wasn't making things up when he set Trainspotting there and Ian Rankin didn't get all of those gloomy ideas for Inspector Rebus novels because life in Edinburgh is uniformly beer and skittles. Edinburgh also has its fair share of ugly concrete. As for the comment that people from Edinburgh can't cope with the Bull Ring...this invites a number of responses from the (admittedly catty) suggestion that people from small provincial cities (which is what Scotland's capital is compared to Brum) shouldn't throw stones (no doubt, locally-sourced stones in Mr Renton's case) when they come to a proper conurbation to the more prosaic observation that had he looked about a bit he would have discovered the market and all of its local produce.
So come on folks. Brum's not perfect (where, apart from the front row of a Bruce Springsteen concert, is?); but if you're going to have a go at our city, at least have an accurate one.
My husband Bob is 65 on 2nd June 2009 and I had been vaguely wondering recently about what we should be doing to about his state pension.
Imagine my delight therefore when, last week a letter arrived from the Pensions Service, which is part of the Dept of Work and Pensions (DWP). The letter was all about how to claim your state pension.
Deal done, you might have thought. The letter gave a list of information that would be needed in order to claim the pension by telephone, indeed they recommended this was the best way to deal with the issue. Easy!
Full of enthusiasm and armed with the necessary information, we telephoned the number given. The immediate pre-recorded response to our call, was to tell us that due to improved efficiencies in the DWP, it was not necessary any longer for an individual to claim their state pension until 2 months before their 65th birthday in the case of a man or 60th birthday in the case of a woman.
The pre-recorded message continued very pointedly to say that if the caller was already within 2 months of their pension date they should press any key to continue and that other people should ring at the later date.
It is a great pity that all these improved efficiencies in the DWP did not extend to stating in the letter that individuals should not make the claim by telephone or indeed any other method until they were 2 months away from their pension date.
Clearly efficient or not, the right hand does not seem to know what the left hand is doing!
I am doing a lot of development at the moment with senior leadership groups and am finding something rather insidious that only seems accessible through the kind of immersive development that braver companies are willing to go after.
The fact that the business leader of today is being pulled and stretched like never before is not a new thing, this has been running directly in tandem with the lives that we are all living, I know my life has got quicker and increasingly full of economic, social and personal pressures in the last 5 years (which may well have something to do with reaching 40 years young).
The hot topic in the newspapers over the past few days has been Jacqui Smith claiming 'second home' expenses for the house she shares with her husband and children. Ms Smith maintains that she is permitted to claim second home expenses on the family home in Redditch on the basis that her main residence is in London with her sister.
The rules for MPs expenses apparently state that "the main residence is where the MP spends more nights than any other". Isn't all this rather missing the point!?
The rules that permit MPs to claim expenses incurred in relation to a second home where it is necessary for them to have both a home in London and a home in their constituency appear entirely reasonable and something we should all support in principle.
Why should MPs have to suffer the costs of running two homes for the electorates benefit?
The point is surely, however, that they should only be able to claim these expenses where they are actually incurring additional costs on behalf of all of us over and above the normal household expenses that every family has to incur.
The government has hinted it is looking at vehicle scrappage schemes to support the ailing automotive sector, following in the footsteps of other European governments who have been quick to introduce similar drives.
Vehicle scrappage schemes offer a cash incentive for drivers of old, polluting bangers to trade them in for new fuel-efficient vehicles and are a solution backed by green groups like Friends of the Earth as well as manufacturers.
We have some of the best engineering resources in the world in the West Midlands who, with a bit of a shake-up, could make the region a world leader in green technology. But instead, small engineering firms are going bust on a daily basis and any demand stimulus is likely to be "too little too late" for many of them.
The scenario around vehicle scrappage schemes, and the government's dithering over embracing them, sounds depressingly familiar to the feed-in tariffs (FIT) legislation that has left the UK on the back foot over green technology.
Many European countries introduced a law getting on to a decade ago which would give small scale producers of renewable energy a viable price for the electricity they sell to the national grid. It kickstarted a renewables technology revolution in places like Germany, which has now become a world leader in the sector.
But as other countries were growing and nurturing their renewables technology sectors the UK government dismissed the measures as too "interventionist" as it forced the electricity companies to buy renewable electricity at a fixed price.
But then last year somebody in government suddenly realised it was ok to become "interventionist" as the failures of the free market had become woefully apparent, combined with the realisation that if UK manufacturing was to survive, it needs to be environmentally-focused.
So we now have a feed-in tariff law nearly ten years after the Germans introduced theirs. But, as always, the UK has done it half-heartedly with no clear timetable for the introduction of a FIT and too low a cap on the amount of energy the projects could produce, meaning the law is at present as good as useless.
Gordon Brown recently had another of his famous parliamentary slips of the tongue - telling us we found ourselves in a depression. I don't want to be accused of adding to the downward spiral that will drag us down from a recession into a depression, but a look at the history of the Great Depression is certainly helpful.
Despite massive public works projects like the Hoover Dam, it was really the advent of the Second World War that jolted the world out of the depression when governments commandeered factories to turn them over to war technology.
The UK government needs to take more of a warlike approach to climate change - and the job saving/creation capacity it brings with it - and address the problem with the scale and urgency of a war effort.
Many green groups and economists have come together to propose something like this - for example the Green New Deal
The UK government needs to engage some clear, bold and fast thinking on stimulating demand for green technology instead of constantly playing catch-up with the rest of Europe, before it is "too little too late" for Midland manufacturing.
Blogged by David Bailey and John Clancy
You may have missed it, but while you and I stump up the cash for a taxpayers' bail out of the banks (and whilst their greedy execs still have their snouts in the trough for yet more fat-cat bonuses), the issue that first undermined public trust in the banks has continued to rumble on - namely unlawful, unfair Bank Charges.
Did you know, however, that even as the government places the first priority in getting the nation through the recession as being the test of 'fairness', the banks are using your money and mine (as taxpayers) to try to prove that, actually, they have a right to be unfair? Hmmm, yes it came as surprise to me as well.
The Bankers were rather hoping that the government and the rest of us had forgotten about that one, thank you, what with all the other awful stuff they've had to deal with in the last 6 months in particular (must be tough at the top for a banker, eh?)
As we write, the Banks we have bailed out are collectively spending millions of pounds on a court case fighting the Office of Fair Trading (the OFT) on the other side (also, of course, funded by you and me) to get the courts (also funded by you and me) to say that the bank charges they have been levying for the last 7 years are not subject to the test of 'fairness'.
More specifically they are spending our money to get the courts to rule that they can continue to charge what they like and that fairness need not enter, and need never to have entered, into it. "I'm alright Jack" seems the line as they collectively stick two fingers up at the taxpayer and the government.