Latest from Birmingham Post news...
As you can imagine, things are pretty busy at Birmingham Post Towers as we all gear up for the launch of the brand new Birmingham Post on Monday.
There has, unstandably, been much talk of changes to our print editon, but there also going to be a few tweaks and upgrades on the digital side too.
We hope the website will get a new coat of paint and there is also the new mobile site to look out for in the coming week.
However, whilst others are doing a fantastic job communicating the changes to our newspaper to our online community, my focus is telling our print readers about all the exciting things we are building up online.
So, over the past 24 hours (as those who follow my Twitter account might know), I've been putting together a list of things people might not know about the Post online.
It is supposed to target print readers who may have little or no knowledge of social media sites like Facebook, but may be curious enough to get involved.
It's not going to be an exhaustive "step-by-step" guide, just an introduction to what these online tools might do.
I've tried to make this as clear as possible, but things can always be improved. I'd be interested to know what you think!
Have you ever been stopped in the street and asked to take part in a public opinion survey?
You know the sort of thing. What are your views on the Government? Would David Cameron make a better prime minister than Gordon Brown?
No, I thought not. Neither have I.
Tories are keen to play down predictions that they will scrap Regional Development Agencies such as Advantage West Midlands, the giant quango which spends ÃÂ£300 million of our money each year.
As the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail reported, the Shadow Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles appeared to sound the death knoll for RDAs at the Tory conference in Birmingham, telling a fringe meeting on regional administration: "In terms of our plans for quangos, you could only possibly say we were looking towards restructuring them if you felt that Anne Boleyn received a restructuring from the guillotine. So in that sense there is going to be a sort of divvying up of the corpse."
He also summed up the performance of RDAs thus: "On balance, they probably haven't done any damage."
And he said that economic development would be organised around "economic areas" rather than the official government regions covered by RDAs, except where local people argued that these were the same thing (which I took to be a reference to the north east).
I'm told by Alan Duncan, the Shadow Business Secretary, that I was wrong to take this to mean that RDAs faced the axe. The "guillotine" remark was a reference to them losing responsibility for planning, he says.
Well, okay, It seems to me that if we are looking forward to bodies which don't cover the region and have fewer powers than existing RDAs, then they are not RDAs.
But I suspect the key point the Tories want to make is that a Conservative government would continue to provide support for economic development and businesses through some kind of body, rather than just abolishing everything and putting nothing in their place.
The Government is to seize money left in "dormant" bank accounts to donate to good causes through the Big Lottery Fund.
An account is said to be dormant if it hasn't been touched for 15 years. There's been a bit of a row over what should happen to the cash.
Birmingham MP Steve McCabe (Lab Hall Green) is backing the scheme (and encouraging constituents to claim any money in dormant accounts before the day of reckoning comes).
John Maples (Con Stratford) has his doubts about removing money from banks during the current financial crisis, and argues that if it happens at all, banks should be allowed to use the cash to prop themselves up.
It seems to me that the money should just be left where it is. Is it really that unusual for someone to stick ÃÂ£500 they inherited from granny in a dedicated bank account and leave it there for a rainy day - even for 15 years?
Even if the money is seized, you'll still be able to get it back, in theory at least, if you turn up with your bank book. But I dread to think how much paperwork and expletive-generating hassle will be involved in trying to get cash out of an account which has been closed.
After 50 years, you could probably assume the original owner has forgotten all about the account or is six feet under, but 15 years seems too short a time to me. The idea that the Government is closing bank accounts and taking the money away is hardly going to reassure people in the current climate.
We're promised an iconic design for the New Street Station make-over. Good news, if what is built matches that much over-used word. My wish list includes no more concrete facades - our weather doesn't like concrete. We need lots of glass, steel and brick, as in the great railway stations of the 19th century and the best that's being built today.
Talk of concrete and architects (and they discourse on little else in The Dog & Duck....) makes me lift half a glass to John Madin. Veteran City designer of the hotly debated Central Library, Mr Madin is still battling to reprieve his creation from its final death sentence. It was very much his vision and 35 years on he sees no reason to call in the demolition squad. But if you can admire his tenacity, his sense of the art of the possible is less striking.
Yes, he's right to say that the politicians and business wallahs mucked up the original design, which saw the upside down ziggurat as part of a grander civic ensemble. Yes, he's right when he points out that the landscaping, marble cladding and other fine finishes were junked. But this means his original concept is dead. Why then keep bits of the corpse on life support?
Growing up nearby in the 60s and 70s, I remember the library when new as a reasonable place to study in; but the windswept concrete tunnel of a courtyard was about as far from the southern European spaces we all celebrate as a Big Mac from a rump steak. The cafes, bars and shops now there have rescued the wind tunnel from its previous role as a muggers' paradise. Unfortunately Paradise Row just off it - better known Desolation Alley - might still qualify.
Mr Madin's sentimental attachment to his baby blinds him to the fact that his dream was never realised. Maybe the topsy-turvy ziggurat idea was interesting, but the overall scheme was flawed, its brutal boxiness sitting badly with what's left of 19th/early 20thc Chamberlain Square.
But before we get to restore Chamberlain Square to something like former glory, let's make sure we learn a lesson or two with New Street Station. If the station make-over works, it will complement the new Bull Ring in transforming the city centre. The stakes are high. Let's get it right this time....
In the depression of the 1930s, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the relatively new medium of radio to reassure the nation that he was doing all he could to help, in what became known as the fireside chats.
When he began, in 1929, it was just nine years since the first radio news broadcast had taken place.
Today, Gordon Brown is doing something similar - but using the newish technology of the Internet.
You can hear his podcast, in which he sets out what the Government is doing to deal with the credit crunch, and why, here: http://podcast.ulcc.ac.uk/accounts/Number10/DowningStreetPodcast/PMfinance.mp3
I'm fascinated by some of the comment doing the rounds about the credit crunch. Commentator Peter Oborne, writing in various media, is particularly dramatic, speculating that our economic system has changed permanently with the Government taking part-ownership of some of the major banks. Our lives may never be the same again, he says.
Birmingham MP Lynne Jones (Lab Selly Oak) told me today that the banking crisis had proved that the social democratic model, of a strong state regulating the free market, was more resilient than the untrammelled capitalism associated with Anglo-Saxon economies such as the United Kingdom and the USA.
And we now live in a world where the Conservative leader can get up in the House of Commons and demand that the Prime Minister prevent banks paying huge bonuses to managers who didn't deserve them.
The idea that we can leave the market to ensure people get paid what they deserve now sounds naive.
But when I attended the Business and Enterprise Select Committee earlier this week, representatives of the CBI, Chambers of Commerce and Engineering Employers' Federation said that trading wasn't too bad for their members, or at least, not half as bad as one might expect
The reality is that we don't yet know quite what the effect on the "real economy" outside the money markets will be. We're not yet in a period of enormous change, just a period of enormous uncertainty.
Even world-weary and cynical journalists could have been forgiven for gasping with disbelief when the West Midlands' most senior planner described proposals to build 445,600 new homes across the region as neither a strategy nor a plan, nor indeed anything much other than a piece of evidence.
Dave Marr, head of housing and planning at the Government Office for the West Midlands, had the delicate task of chairing a press briefing on the Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners study - an "independent" report into the scope for new housing growth over the next 18 years.
I was surprised to learn today that the West Midlands has not only a new regional minister, in the form of Ian Austin, MP for Dudley North, but a deputy regional minister as well.
Stourbridge MP Lynda Waltho has the role, and issued a statement saying how pleased she was. We carry some of what she said in an article I have written for Tuesday's Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail.
I think creating a deputy minister for the region is a mistake. For a start, Ms Waltho is not, strictly speaking, a minister at all. Rather than being a Government appointment, her role is an internal Labour Party appointment (just like the deputy ministers appointed today for the other English regions).
A press release issued by Labour today announced "a new appointment of MPs who will help coordinate the Labour Party's campaigns in regions and nations, with a special emphasis on economic issues."
It adds: "They will liaise with and support the work of regional ministers and national ministers."
Over the years, I've often sat in on focus groups when a newspaper I'm associated with carries out some market research, usually because it's being relaunched, redesigned or otherwise pepped-up.
I bumped into veteran Sky TV political commentator Adam Boulton at the Tory party conference at the ICC and asked him what he thought of birmingham as a conference venue.
Seems he love the city and the fringe 'vibe', but is less than enthusiastic about the auditorium. Too small, in his view, and stifling the mood of the event.
Here's what he said in full:
Read that heading above - and then email me to reassure me that it is an obvious mistake. Maybe it is supposed to say 32 days to go...or 28...23?
It is certainly true that time has flown by since my last blog about the redesign of the Birmingham Post, so i thought I should do the decent thing and produce an update.
The ICC is vastly superior to any of the other conference venues used by the major parties.
I've been here before many times, but only to cover specific events - listening to a speech and heading straight back to the office to file copy.
It's the first time I've spent a whole day at a conference at the ICC, having done the same many times at Bournemouth, Blackpool, Brighton and Manchester for previous party conferences.
The ICC looks modern. It is light and airy, with high ceilings. The facilities for the media are as good as you'd find in any open plan office in a modern business.
Although the conference is packed (when you look like you're winning, more people want to come to your event), the ICC doesn't feel crowded. At the same time, everything you want is within easy reach of a large central foyer. There's no need to wander around getting lost.
And it has some decent bars and restaurants right on site, without forcing people to leave and go through security to get back in.
Leaving Brummie partisanship aside, as someone who attends these conferences for a living, I hope Birmingham becomes a regular choice of venue for all the parties.
This sort of email will be familiar to anyone with an email account. But the latest one that's doing the rounds has a slightly different take on things.
I need to ask you to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude.
I am Ministry of the Treasury of the Republic of America. My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 800 billion dollars US. If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you.
A funny thing happened the other day at the press launch of designs for the ÃÂ£600 million New Street Gateway scheme.
A journalist from a railway magazine decided to ask city council leader Mike Whitby where the Midland Metro tram extension fitted into the glittering new station with its "cathedral-like" atriums and reflective steel cladding.
Whitby didn't answer the question. No surprise there, then. He had been given two or three sound bites to repeat and the Metro wasn't on the list.
Even so, the total absence of the Metro from what is supposed to be the next major stage in an integrated transport policy for Birmingham and the West Midlands spoke volumes.
I'm hoping you will indulge me in a quick "Look Mum, see what I made," moment:
This is a little device that can use our content but can be embedded on any website, blog, Facebook or iGoogle homepage.
It's commonly known as a widget and this one was produced using a natty free website called Sprout Builder.
Just noticed that a Parliamentary candidate is in the Guinness Book of Records for making it to the north pole on foot - with his mother.
Dan Byles and his mum have also rowed across the Atlantic Ocean in a wooden boat together.
He's the Tory candidate for North Warwickshire and Bedworth, where he'll try to unseat Labour MP Mike O'Brien, the Pensions Minister.
Labour has a majority of 7,553, putting the seat well within reach of the Tories, so perhaps Mr O'Brien should be worried - particularly if Mrs Byles plans to join her son on the campaign trail.
Coming towards the end of an 11-hour day working through the 1001 things I need to do before The Post relaunches as a compact on Monday October 20. Sometimes the days pass quickly and much is achieved and sometimes I seem to work flat out and still only clip a few things off the list.
Today has been quite productive
Having just started blogging yesterday, I had committed myself to keeping a regular dialogue about how I am involved in redesigning the Birmingham Post. But I am just about to break that rule on day two. And it is all Andris Nelson's fault.
You may not realise it, but this is an important moment.
Not only is this my first blog, it is also the start of a guided tour - hopefully lasting a few weeks and led by me - through the redesign of the Birmingham Post.
Led by my editor, Marc Reeves, designer Terry Watson and me - the Executive Editor of the paper - have now produced a 24-page dummy of how the Post looks in its historic change from broadsheet to compact (I don't like the word 'tabloid').
In one of the most important exercises for years, the city council is asking people how many new houses and flats should be built in Birmingham over a 20-year period and whether the additional dwellings should impinge on green field and green belt land.
But councillors of all political colours know deep down that the consultation, if not exactly a sham, is somewhat superfluous.
Ask the people of Birmingham whether they want development on the green belt and the answer will be a resounding no.
But that is exactly what will happen if the Government, in the shape of Housing Minister Baroness Andrews, forces the council to identify sufficient land to accommodate 65,000 new dwellings between 2006 and 2026.
As we report, Labour Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart has written a scathing review of Gordon Brown's performance over the past 12 months. It will be published in a special edition of The House Magazine, to be distributed to delegates at Labour's annual conference.
This is what she said:
Twelve months ago Labour MPs humming "Things can only get better" was a sign of confidence and optimism with just a touch of nostalgia - invoking the spirit of 1997.
Today it's more likely to mean "surely it can't get much worse".
Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Party Leader and Prime Minister. Not only was there no election, the mere suggestion of mounting a challenge was interpreted as a sign of disloyalty. So the deputy leadership campaign became the proxy playing ground for thrashing out ideas.
For the first few months it seemed as if we had succeeded to renew ourselves in government. We won the Ealing South by-election, beating the Conservatives into third place. The Prime Minister was firm in the face of adversity of foot and mouth, terrorist attacks and floods. David Cameron trailed in the polls and the word on the street was that he would have to deliver the speech of a life time to survive as Party leader. Plus ca change!
Our troubles didn't start with the election that wasn't. It started when it became clear that not only had we failed to renew ourselves with fresh ideas - we also seemed to have lost the knack to tell a good story.
Gordon Brown's first Queens Speech was an opportunity to put down his own priorities but he also had to deal with what some saw as some of Tony Blair's "unfinished business"; mainly the legislation about detention without trial and the Lisbon Treaty.
The way Parliament dealt with the Lisbon Treaty will come back to bite us. All three political parties had gone into the 2005 general election promising a referendum on what was then called the Constitution. All three parties in 2008 reneged on that promise in their different ways - and for selfish party political reasons.
This is a mock-up of what the Post's new M-site may look like - if we manage to get the dev work, programming and processes set up in time to coincide with the launch of the new compact paper on October 20.
There's a lot to update you on since my last detailed post, so I'll try to be brief. Here goes:
"It's a bit like throwing your kid to the wolves" is how one of my colleagues described sending their child to secondary school.
And he's right. Parents across the land currently deciding which secondary to send their precious ones to will understand what he means.
I may well promote the benefits of proactive health care, regular check-ups are as vital to us humans as regular servicing is to our cars.
But after a routine visit to my dentist today I am beginning to wonder if ignorance really is bliss, after an x-ray revealed my only wisdom tooth - which has been growing at a glacial speed for nearly a year - needs to be removed.
Now as The Post's health correspondent I have found myself in operating theatres watching everything from kidney transplants to key hole surgery, and every time have marvelled at the miracles performed there.
However I also know I am not "at one" with pain, on any level.
So the various tales I've heard so far about dentists using pliers while kneeling on patients' chests and people ending up looking like they've gone ten rounds with Tyson are not helping!
But I am fully aware that as a specialist I should have been at the business end of a surgery at some point in my life, but so far I guess I've just been very lucky.
Plaster casts are fine, scans are cool... but pointy, sharp implements and being sedated are totally new concepts to me. And perhaps I'm a little bit nervous, possibly even a bit scared.
So does anyone out there have any friendly tips or advice before I get into the dentist's chair next week?
This was not the return from a relaxing holiday that I was hoping for.
Fancy a cut-price trip to The Rocket Club, an exclusive "gentleman's club" in Broad Street?
I've got a voucher here offering ÃÂ£10 off the entrance fee, for use during the Conservative Party conference beginning later this month.
It's included in a booklet sent to me along with my pass for the event, taking place at the ICC.
The booklet, distributed by the Conservative Party but produced specially for the conference by the city council, includes an introduction by Mike Whitby, the council leader.
As well as cheap entry to the lap-dancing club, there are vouchers giving discounts in a range of bars and restaurants.
But including an up-market strip joint seems to me to be a pretty poor advert for Birmingham.
I guess, however, that some delegates might be interested. I'm not, so if anyone wants my voucher, it's up for grabs.
There will be plenty around, as the booklet has gone out to everyone attending the conference - MPs, business leaders, charity and pressure group officials, and journalists from across the country.
Whatever anyone else says about Gordon Brown's visit to Birmingham, Liam Byrne - the Minister for the West Midlands and Home Office Minister - insists it was a success.
He issued a statement claiming that the Cabinet heard the hopes and concerns of local people when they came to the city. The statement reads: "The Cabinet got a chance to hear what I hear in my day job every week."
To which some bright spark has added: "Does he hear these issues in his HO (Home Office) job?"
Presumably, this was a note added to a draft copy of the statement by someone in the press office, who remembered that Liam's main "day job" involves dealing with immigration at the Home Office, not representing the West Midlands.
But the Central Office of Information, the Government's PR factory, has simply gone ahead and published the question as part of the statement, along with Mr Byrne's words. It's currently up on their website (I suspect it will be taken down or fixed soon after I post this, however).
Anyone can make a mistake, not least journalists, so I don't want to go too far in mocking whoever was responsible for this one.
But it does add to the general impression that the Government is giving up the ghost. The spin machine has stopped working.
Update (On September 12): The press release I refer to has been removed and replaced by a new version without the error. We also ran a version of the corrected statement from Mr Byrne in today's Birmingham Post.
Why all the fuss over Obama, McCain, Palin and Biden?
This whole country seems to have taken leave of its senses and become obsessed with a political soap story that's got nothing to do with us.
Gordon Brown will set out his plans to help people pay their fuel bills in his Downing Street press conference tomorrow.
But it won't include what many of his MPs want - a windfall tax on fuel companies, so that they subsidise our bills out of their profits (about ÃÂ£30 billion last year).
Birmingham's Roger Godsiff (Sparkbrook & Small Heath), Khalid Mahmood (Perry Barr) and Richard Burden (Northfield) are among Labour MPs calling for energy firms to pay out.
Mr Brown has rejected this (although I suspect he'll give the impression it hasn't been ruled out entirely), and will instead talk about plans spend a modest sum helping people get new boilers and insulation.
I had a hand in the Post's leader for tomorrow's paper, in which we'll say the Government can't just slap an extra tax on firms for making too much money.
But it should look at why energy companies are continuing to increase charges - even when the price of oil actually falls.
We're supposed to have a competitive market, in which energy companies battle for our custom.
That should mean trying to offer households a better deal than their rivals, surely?
But it doesn't seem to happen.
The market isn't working. Given that re-nationalising the energy suppliers is not a realistic option, the best the Government can do to control prices is to examine this is, and how the problem can be fixed.