The Life of a Road

Every time we leave our homes we travel along them, be it by foot or by public or private transport. We use them for going to work, for travelling home, going shopping or for leisure. Sometimes we pause to admire the architecture of the buildings that line them but all to frequently, we overlook the road itself. Questions of why the road is there in the first place, how it developed or why a given road follows the line that it does? Like arteries, roads provide the vital lifeblood to every country and every community.

Most of our ancient roads started their life as foot tracks, wending their way normally by the easiest geographic route avoiding where possible hills, streams and rivers. With the progression of time and usage these tracks naturally widened into paths and primitive roads. Characteristically settlements began to appear along the lines of roads particularly where two or more roads intersected.

Map 1777 Chapman & Andre-2

1777 map of Essex by Chapman and Andre

The Roman Invasion of Britain brought the first proper road building programme to  Britain. With strategically placed strongholds throughout the country, good connecting roads became essential, being able to bear the weight of chariots, carts and marching legions. With a road network ensuring the rapid movement of troops, it was possible for the Romans to ensure their military governance of Britain.  Roman roads where built in the most direct line possible and the line of these ancient roads still exist in todays road network.

After the Romans left Britain little was done to the road system for hundreds of years but the routes the Romans established between locations continued to exist. Many areas of the country languished in something of a forgotten backwater, well-off the main road system and apart from a few small settlements considered of little worthy use.

One such area stretching north from the banks of the River Thames eventually became the boroughs of West Ham and East Ham before combining into the London Borough of Newham in 1965.

Much of this area to the south was marshland. The northern part of this area was more firmer land but contained little except the main eastern section of the Roman road from London which divided at Stratford. One branch leading into Essex and the Roman settlement at Colchester and the other towards Norfolk and further north, the settlement at Peterborough.

Until the 18th century, London remained a relatively small place consisting of the two separate cities of London and Westminster. This all changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution when major British cities began to rapidly expand. As they grew so did the need for commerce which in turn meant the demand for more shipping and docks increased. The original London Docks were centred around the River Thames near the Tower of London. As London grew eastwards more docks appeared in the area of Millwall known as the Isle of Dogs. Ships at this time were still under sail and it was said that sailing by tacking to and fro into the wind around the congested river by Greenwich added another day to reach the Port of London.

The eastern growth of London along the River Thames was held in check at the then boundaries of the counties of Middlesex and Essex by the River Lea where no bridge existed. In 1709 an Act of Parliament was passed authorising the building of a bridge across the River Lea and the construction of a new road from the bridge to Barking were there was an ancient abbey.

As can be seen from the 1777 map of Essex by Chapman and Andre, Point A was the location of the new bridge and the roadway to Barking was constructed avoiding as much marshland as possible. The new road, (The Barking Road), connected with what is now Balaam Street, (point B), leading from the village of Plaistow, to Greengate Street, (Point C)), also leading from Plaistow, to Green Street, (Point D), and then on to the settlement at East Ham, later became High St North, (Point E), and the North Circular Road around London, before going direct to Barking across the River Roding at Point F.

As London continued to grow, the great potential of using the new bridge and road to construct newer and larger docks on the empty land on the north bank of the River Thames quickly became apparent. There were also profits to be made from this venture by shortening by at least a day the time it took ships to sail into the heart of London to unload their goods. Industry was quick to see the potential of the new route too and shipbuilding and industrial works quickly spread and lined the north bank of the Thames which became known as Silvertown.

The first of the new docks, (The Victoria), opened in 1855. This coupled with the burgeoning riverside industries created an insatiable demand for labour and in the area north of the new dock, cheap and often shoddy housing was rapidly built to accommodate the new workforce. This is how the areas of Canning Town and Custom House came into existence.

A new population also creates the need for shops, markets and leisure facilities. It was not long before the Barking Road originally constructed as a linking road, became a major shopping centre along most of its length and the hitherto vacant land between the old Roman Road, (Stratford High Street and Romford Road), and also south of the new Barking Road quickly became a dense housing infill.

To many residents the Barking Road and surrounding areas feel as if they have always been there although in historical terms they are relatively young. The Barking Road I know particularly well as I was based for many years at a local fire station which covered most of it’s length.

As for the future, the well known adage goes, “Nothing is forever”, and that is now starting to prove true for the Barking Road and its environs. Already the effects of gentrification are now being felt in the area of Canning Town with the building of high rise and high price residential apartments.Canning Town once seen as something of a deprived and run down area is now starting to be seen as a desirable living area by the Yuppie generation. Unfortunately as the process of gentrification brings new people and new money to an area, it usually has the effect of displacing existing communities through financial pressures.

It feels as if an existing community with all its social history is but like a grain of sand, soon to be swamped and washed away by the incoming tide of time.

Geoff Martin a long time local resident to the area has created a historical video photo montage of the Barking Road stretching back over one hundred years. It is perhaps one of the few ways of preserving the memories and history of this vibrant area.

It can be seen from the modern Google street map below how even the Barking Road has been by-passed by a newer road from Canning Town Bridge leading to quicker access of the  long vanished wilds of Essex.

I wonder if those Parliamentarians in 1809 could have envisioned what they started when the passed the act for a new Canning Town Bridge?

Map Barking Road -02

Modern map of Newham and the Barking Road Complements of Google Street Maps

Is a European Referendum really a Myth?

Broken European FlagWith the May European Elections fast approaching, all the main traditional political parties have finally been forced to nail their colours to the mast and declare where they stand on the question of the UK’s future in Europe. Most would have preferred to remain silent on the issue but an up-swell in public feeling and a new kid on the block in the form of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have made continued indifference and silence impossible.

The choices on offer can be analysed as falling into three groups.

An outright NO referendum;

A maybe but only if referendum

A straight forward Yes/No or In/Out Referendum.

The Labour Leader has now clearly associated himself with the No referendum choice irrelevant what his own party members may think. He did attempt moderate this stark non-choice, some might say mask by adding there would only be a referendum if there was a transfer of more powers from London to Brussels but believed this was unlikely.

The “maybe” choice is either based on the outcome of a renegotiated terms of EU membership which is unlikely to happen in any depth if at all, by the Conservative Party or a “significant” transfer of power from London to Brussels stance by the Lib/Dem Party.

An immediate In/Out referendum following the next general election with the decision to remain in the EU being decided by the People rather than politicians.

The No referendum stance is quite clear. It is the same as assuming the majority of the people had voted Yes to stay in the EU had there been one. As there has never been a public decision on whether the UK should be part of anything other that an economic trading group in Europe in 1975, it cannot be seen as anything else other than enforced European Union by political diktat alone. This is essentially what happened in 1992 when significant UK powers were devolved to Europe under the Maastricht Treaty. Politicians fearful of a public backlash from a referendum which a treaty made more likely bent over backwards in an attempt to find ways at preventing a damaging referendum and finally found a loop-hole in calling the treaty more of an accord than anything else. A No referendum is the same as politicians alone deciding that the public cannot be trusted to vote the right way.

The maybe choice is really something of a political lawyers paradise in deciding what is a significant transfer of powers or whether a few possible concessions are enough to determine a referendum should or should not be held. Under these conditions the likelihood of a referendum when coloured by political smoke and mirrors arguments is dubious.

The In/Out referendum offered by UKIP is the only clear-cut choice being offered to the public by politicians for the first time.

All of the choices have even then to be tempered by which political party or coalition forms the next Government and at the moment there is no real discernable groundswell one way or the other in favour of one particular party or another.

Considering the EU has now grown to the size of an empire, not created by civil unrest or military conquest or even public decision but by political manipulation, one cannot help but wonder what the future holds. We have already seen direct involvement by the EU on sovereign countries in terms of laws and even budgets to a degree. Although not mentioned on anyone’s agenda at the moment, I can eventually fear the creation of an EU army, a EU Health Service and education system and so on. On a day to day basis real power is wielded by a system of unelected commissioners and a unelected president.

Monolithic empires created from so many countries with a multitude of diversity amongst their peoples with their own internal customs and beliefs inevitably become susceptible to growing internal discontent as one rule fits all policies are imposed on them. The spectacularly rapid breakup of the U.S.S.R. is the most recent historical evidence of that. It is not difficult to foresee  that happening to a future EU.

March 2014

Burrowbridge 01

Burrowbridge 1960′s

With daffodils and snowdrops erupting into a carpet of flower everywhere, It is as if a distant  trumpet call is arousing nature from its winter slumber in preparation for the forthcoming Spring. It’s a trumpet call with refrains of joy and promise of the great outdoors beginning to stir once more like a giant shrugging off the effects of a deep sleep. This distant clarion call has but one verse repeated over and over again like a mantra, “March has arrived, Spring is coming”.

March the month that is fabled in the UK for coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb. March the transitional month that day by day leaves behind the clinging tendrils of winter and beckons the ever warming embraces of the forthcoming Spring with its lengthening evenings.

As winters go in the UK, apart from a few nights of frost the winter has been exceptionally mild. Unfortunately it has also been the wettest winter on record accompanied by a continuous barrage of storms from the Atlantic causing serious damage and flooding issues across the country. The first of the real heavy rain started on Christmas Eve and many residents, particularly in Somerset, forced to leave their homes are only just starting to regain access to their property as flood levels slowly recede . Alas regaining access to property does not mean being able to live there due to extensive damage caused by floodwaters. Floors have to scrapped and replaced as well as furnishings. Walls have to be dried and stripped back to bare brick for treatment. It is estimate that the repair process to individual homes will take an average 7-9 months.

Burrowbridge 02

Burrowbridge 2013

The big question is could this damage been avoided? The Somerset Levels flooding in winter is not in itself news, it frequently happens usually without significant damage to property or farmers crops. But the depth and duration of the flood not only during the last winter but also the one before has given vent to the anger of residents who have been saying for years this was going to happen unless preventative measures were taken. Alas there are no ears more deaf at times that the ones sheltered behind the impermeable walls of Whitehall. More concerned about saving derisory amounts of money on internal budgets than having the foresight to see the vast costs incurred by flood damage, repairs and loss of business.

It is only after the proverbial floodgates have opened are politicians to be prised from their cosseted surroundings into action. Give his due, but then it is his job, the Prime Minister did visit the Somerset Levels. This was however only after what were perceived as disastrous PR visits by the Environment Secretary Owen (I have forgotten my wellies) Patterson and a separate visit by the Chairman of the Environment Agency Chris Smith upon whom vexed residents unleashed their wrath.

Whether driven by a politicians sense of self-preservation or not, the Prime Minister made it clear that money was not an object in resolving the crisis. A battery of huge pumps from Holland have since been brought in to help lower the water levels and a 20 year plan has been devised to help alleviate the problem of a more permanent basis. Part of the relief plan is to start dredging the rivers this month as soon as the river banks become firm enough to allow heavy equipment to be safely used. Some estimates have placed to cost of the 20 year plan as high as £100 million and it will remain to be seen if the enthusiasm for money not being an object statement, drains away with time like the floodwaters itself.

In the days following the Prime Minister’s visit, leaders of other political parties not wanting to be left out, or seen to be left out of the picture descended on the area like a flood of their own. Each one making most of the sudden photo-opportunity. Many families at the time struggling like King Canute to hold back the ever rising flood waters from their own homes found this procession of opportunistic politicians somewhat nauseating.Perhaps for some this might also be their first and last visit.

Burrowbridge 03

Burrowbridge during 2014 floods

Although not entirely the cause of the problem, the lack of dredging over the years due to what some would say were penny-pinching savings, were clearly a major contributory factor in the levels of flood water rising as high as they did. As regular dredging stopped, so the rivers became narrower and shallower as silt built upon silt.

A series of startling photographs have emerged in the public domain which clearly show the effect of the lack of dredging. The first picture taken in the 1960’s at Burrowbridge in Somerset show the River Parrett to be wide and deep flowing. The second picture taken at the same spot last year shows by stark contrast the river has become narrow and shallow. In final picture showing the effects of the flooding, it is hardly surprising the arches of the bridge have completely disappeared under flood water as the now significantly reduced capacity of the river struggles to contain the watery deluge placed upon it.

Politics being what it is, primarily the art of survival, it is unlikely that any proverbial heads will roll. More likely a blame game will ensue with each political party blaming their rivals of neglect during their terms of office. The best that can be expected would be the appropriate Minister standing up in Parliament and simply saying “Sorry” on behalf of the Government before sitting down again.

Town or Country living? You decide

Country VillageThere can be few people who at one time or another have not entertained the thought of what country living would be like. The yearning for a rural idyll like a hidden Shangri-La.   For some who are committed urban dwellers the notion will probably not stay in their minds long. Others will hold the thought a bit longer before it fades into the obscurity of practicability. A much smaller minority will continue to nurture the thought weighing the pro’s and cons in their minds until some are suddenly motivated by thoughts of “Why not? Let’s do it”.

After a lifetime of urban living, that is the decision my wife and I made well over twenty years ago when we moved from East London to rural Somerset. It was a move I have never regretted but it did take an initial short period of adjustment. In our case it was the pro’s that far outweighed the cons and I suspect many others may have some lingering doubts about what are the realities of country life. The vistas from our new home were one change we could readily accept. We exchanged a view of houses on the opposite side of the street coupled with the view of backs of house in the adjoining street for one of open rolling countryside. Cadbury Castle, Glastonbury Tor and the Mendip Hills can all be easily seen from our new location. Apart from the new vista, opportunities to explore an area of the country steeped in myth and legend also abound.

Certainly to myself, living in a village was a case of moving back to a meaningful community life. A sense of community which once abounded in East London but sadly started to fade into a form of isolationism as the nature of the populace changed, be it new people with different outlooks moving into the area or younger generations growing-up but possibly not with the same degree of neighbourliness that their parents may have once fostered. Whatever the causes the saying about the loneliest place in London is the middle of Piccadilly Circus certainly began to arouse feelings of truthfulness in our particular quarter.

For young parents and their families, country living is something of a bonus. Not only because of the fresh air and lack of urban pollution but because similar families in the same village always seem to gravitate towards forming their own interest groups and blossoming friendships. Gardens tend to be much bigger as well.

That is one positive aspect on one side of a many faceted coin, the opposite side of the coin while not being negative does present differences that require some adjustment. My own village has neither a public house or shops so transport is an essential requirement. In most villages a school bus service obviates the need for the dreaded “school-run”, but travel to shops and stores usually in a not too distant market towns usually requires personal transport. In urban areas despite complaints, public transport is usually available even if sometimes delayed. In rural areas it can sometimes be either scarce or even non-existent. In my own village for example, a few buses run in the mornings on two days of the week only. No street lighting exists in my village either but it does make for magnificent star gazing of a nigh time due to zero light pollution. Silence is something else we have in abundant quantity of a night time, a point which guests always remark on when they awake fully refreshed the next morning. Because the mind tends to filter out noise pollution, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate just how insidious and constant it is.

The bonus is how far and quickly it is possible to travel in a car from ones home. Traffic is usually very light when compared with urban areas and most country roads still have a 60 mph speed limit which is safely achievable. Using the one mile-per-minute rule of thumb, it does mean it is possible travel anywhere within a 40 miles circle from my home in about 20-30 minutes. A 40 mile circle roughly equates to the size of Greater London. Apart from a variety of easily reachable and good shopping venues, it also means we have a greater choice of entertainment and sporting venues of all descriptions than we did within my London locality and at a fraction of the time. Numerous public houses with good restaurants usually modestly priced also abound within an area like this.

Country Village 02Rural rail services tend to be something of a spiders web, At the centre of the web, rail lines and services tend to become concentrated while the further out from the web one travels, the lines become further apart. Before I retired I used to commute to London by rail which meant an early start and a twenty five mile drive to the station to board a reasonably rapid train for the next 95 miles. While the journey to the station could normally be safely and legally completed in 30 minutes or less, (an impossibility in London), account had to be taken of weather conditions. Heavy fog or mist in the Autumn and ice during the Winter. Heavy rain with surface water can create additional problems. I always found it somewhat galling having struggled to work through appalling weather conditions to sometimes find others where I worked  in London and living only a few miles away, not reporting for work due to adverse weather conditions.

Service utilities like gas taken so much for granted in most urban areas are frequently non-existent in rural areas with the likelihood they will never be supplied. Heating is normally by oil-fired boilers and is very effective. Unlike gas available at the turn of a tap, oil has to by purchased i advance and in bulk which can be expensive. It is also subject to day by day price change dependent on the vagaries on the international oil market.  Onsite oil storage is another requirement. One of the adjustments to life is ensuring oil tanks are full before the onset of winter and maintaining an adequate reserve as it is consumed. If you run out of oil there is no gas tap to turn on, you simply go cold and delivery of new supplies may take several weeks.

Extra-fast broadband may be a factor individuals need to consider, especially if they intend working from home. Somerset was an area scheduled by the Government several years ago to have extra-fast broadband in rural areas. However from my own lay-persons point of view, information on what is happening appears to be almost non-existent and once again I suspect that except for villages on the peripheries of urban areas, it simply will not be installed no matter what the Government promises. I did check on anticipated broadband speeds should a guardian angel ever decide to bestow it on us and it appears the so called speed rapidly drops away with the distance of the home from the street telephone junction box. As our telephone junction box is situated about a mile outside the village, anticipated speeds will be little different to what we already have. It does make one wonder how vast countries like India already have broadband speeds everywhere that are much faster that what this country is hoping to achieve in the future?

Most market towns have a full range of shops and supermarkets found in their larger urban counterparts with most of the supermarkets providing ample free parking due to their reliance on customers needing to use their own transport. Car parking charges where they exist tend to be modest in comparison with larger cities.

All important employment opportunities do tend to be lower but clearly do exist. Many rural dwellers know they have to be prepared to commute longer distances to work often using their own transport. As a form of compensation, the urban traffic jam does not tend to exist.

Market towns frequently provide a pleasant medium between city and rural life with the added bonus that the countryside is literally on the doorstep. One striking aspect I have noticed in both urban and countryside housing developments is the newer larger housing schemes tend to feature deserted streets while areas which have developed more naturally positively abound with street life.

I suppose in the end it really is a matter of personal choice governed by individual circumstances that dictate which lifestyle we wish to lead. But as they say, where there is a will, there is also a way and anyone wishing for a more rural lifestyle should not feel they are forever trapped by the clutches of urban shackles. Provided there is a willingness to adapt, then anything is possible.

The one common feature I have noticed amongst of people like myself who made the move from town to country is the overwhelming desire never to go back.

The Great Storm of 1703

Storm CloudsLiving in Somerset makes one acutely aware of not only how extensive the flooding in the county is, particularly around the Somerset Levels, but also of the extraordinary duration of the flooding. It was on Christmas Eve 2013 that the area experienced exceptionally heavy rainfall when the flooding commenced and now, six weeks later little has changed in this aquatic landscape, leaving one with a literal sinking feeling the Somerset Levels are becoming tiny semi-permanent atolls of habitation. It is little wonder that Alfred the Great chose this area as a safe and impenetrable retreat to initial flee from and then fight the Viking invaders.

At long last following tremendous pressure  from the triple verbal onslaught of local Members of Parliament, farmers and residents, the Government has agreed that finally local rivers will be dredged to alleviate future flooding, the very point that locals have been campaigning to achieve for years. The problem is that dredging operations cannot take place until the riverbanks are dry and firm enough to safely support the weight of dredging equipment. With a seemingly constant bombardment of storms rolling off the Atlantic Ocean, one cannot help but wonder if that may be some time away and will the Levels remain under water for months to come?

The prolonged flooding and storms triggered a distant historical memory of a natural disaster now known as the Great Storm of 1703 which befell the UK. The storm produced a exceptionally low atmospheric centre with observers noting readings of only 973 millibars but it is thought that atmospheric pressure may have fallen as low as 950 millibars over the centre of the country.

Thanks the inspiration of the author Daniel Defoe, he advertised nationally for people to write to him with their personal accounts of the storm. It was the first time such a national reckoning of a disaster event and it’s aftermath had been accurately recorded. The thousands of letters he received led Defoe to write his renown book “The Storm”. It was calculated that between 8,000 and 15,000 lives were lost overall. The West Country of England was badly effected particularly around Bristol. Hundreds of people died on the Somerset Levels, the very area which is flooded today, along with thousands of sheep and cattle. The ferocity of the storm was so great that one ship was found 15 miles inland. Across the country storm damage was extensive with over 2,000 massive chimney stacks blown down and over 400 windmills destroyed. Many vessels were lost at sea.

Clearly natural disasters are nothing new, some like volcanic eruptions or earthquakes are difficult to take advance preventative measures against, but effective advance planning can help reduce the loss of life, damage to property, livelihoods and transport.. One hopes that the preventative measures promised for the Somerset Levels are not a one-off operation but part of a sustained effort for the future. Perhaps Somerset’s global mini-disaster will prove to be something of a wake-up call that maintenance in all its forms is something that cannot be neglected in the future.

Somerset Floods

Somerset FloodsNormally a New Year starts with something of a bang, however continuous wet weather since before Christmas has turned that into something of a damp squib.

Like much of the country, Somerset has been badly effected by flooding particularly the area now as the Somerset Levels. The Levels as they are known locally are a 650 Km2  area of land with the Eastern edge running north/south between Yeovil, Glastonbury and Wells and nestled between the Blackmore Hills to the Mendip Hills.and then westwards to the sea. The area is mainly drained marshland that historically flooded each winter restricting use to the Summer. It is thought the the name Somerset may have been derived from the “Summer Lands” which was a good description of this area. It is one reason Glastonbury became known as the Isle of Avalon towering aloft it’s winter watery surroundings

Over the years the Levels were drained for farming and grazing by improvement to water courses and the construction of artificial drainage channels with probably the best known of these being the King Sedgemoor Drain. Although the Levels continued to be subjected to flooding, the maintenance of most drainage channels ensured that floods were short-lived. Last winter and the winter so far this year has seen something of a change. Local farmers claim that budget cuts has led to less dredging of the rivers and channels by the local drainage boards while the drainage boards in turn claim the amount of dredging locals claim is needed is neither required and is unnecessarily expensive.

It’s a debacle that has been going on for some time but no one can deny whoever is right or wrong, homes, farms and roads not only continue to be more severely flooded, cut-off and isolated than ever before. While some authorities are worrying over their budgets, no mention is made of the great cost of all this in terms of flooded homes and lost production to the insurance industry and to farmers let alone additional transport costs of wide detours to circumnavigate the flooded areas. It is hard to believe that we now live in the 21st century with all its modern technology and still not agree as to the cause or even more importantly, the solution to what is rapidly becoming an annual problem. A ridgeway road (A39) that runs between Glastonbury and Bridgewater currently gives the impression to drivers of driving along a causeway surrounded by views of flooded terrain on either side.

I cannot help but notice in the extensive television news coverage of flooded areas of the country, new build housing seems to predominantly figure in the background. I would have thought that with all new housing schemes, flooding would be one of the more important aspects to be taken into account. I have no doubt there will be claims that potential flooding is taken into account in such schemes but the eyes do not belie what they see on television screens almost every evening.

Happy New Year 2014

2014

Happy New Year Folks!

Well the New Year has arrived perhaps for some, bright expectations for the future and the start of a new life while for others, the new year may just be a mundane continuation of the previous 12 months. Certainly life is what the individual makes of it but even the most optimistic outlooks can be severely tempered by economic crisis.

It’s likely the main items to dominate the headlines in the forthcoming year will be;

Immigration

• Scotland’s Independence Referendum

European Election

Anniversary of the start of World War One

Pay and Pensions

Immigration

This time last year I wrote that immigration was likely to develop into something of a furore mainly due to the ending of temporary right to free movement controls imposed on a number of newer EU member states. How right that forecast proved to be. The original slow awareness of a potential problem rapidly gathered pace like ever-growing snowball rolling downhill until it resulted in the Government taking 11th hour measures in desperation to avoid any potential surge in benefit and health tourism. The qualifying time for claiming benefits has now been raised to three months UK residence and a requirement for non-UK residents to pay for health treatment.

Whether or not these measures have any effect or whether the UK will see a huge immigration influx only the forthcoming months will tell. Clearly some will always use these fears to play the racism card, something I personally will have no truck with. There are however those who have in the past sought to unjustly label anyone who raised serious questions about the effects of mass immigration as having racist tendencies. No government or local authority can ignore the effects  a sudden influx of people would have on housing supply, education, health services and social infrastructure. People coming from countries with traditionally low rates of pay cannot be blamed for wanting to enhance their families status. It does seem however that some employers have also used this new pool of lower wage expectation manpower to keep earnings artificially depressed. I cannot help but think that is something of a short-sighted view and something of economic madness. In the longer term, companies can only prosper if people buy their goods or services something which a low wage base population struggling to make ends meet are unlikely to do. Even the head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has recognised this by stating that some employers are keeping far too many people stuck in minimum-wage jobs.

Scotland’s Independence Referendum

On the 18th September the people of Scotland will hold a referendum to vote on whether Scotland should become an independent country, breaking it’s ties with the United Kingdom. I have a feeling in the months running up to the referendum this is likely to turn into a most acrimonious debate with claim and counter-claim as to the benefits or lack of them that Scotland will face if it does become independent.At the moment I like many others am unclear as to who will be entitled to vote. While I accept the principle it is for the Scottish people to decide their future the question still remains at the moment who these people will be. Will it be all residents in Scotland or just those of Scottish descent. If it is the latter it begs the question of degrees of Scottishness as many people claim to have an element of Scottish blood running through their veins. Would one have to be both born in Scotland and be of Scottish decent to vote or would people of Scottish descent around the world be equally entitled? There are many people whose Scottish ancestors moved to England where they were born but who have subsequently moved back to Scotland. How does one prove they are Scottish? It’s not as daft a question as it may at first appear. The age for eligibility to vote has been lowered to 16, something that many adults in any election worldwide might question the wisdom of.

I personally am not in favour of Scottish independence not because I am English and might be considered biased but because I believe breaking the union apart will not serve any good purpose for either side. There are those who will say Scotland’s economy is booming and will continue to flourish. I take a more dispassionate look can only effectively see tourism and dwindling returns from North Sea oil. If future economic circumstances should dictate that oil companies suspend oil production, then Scotland would be plunged into an immediate economic crisis. It’s no use people saying such things can not happen as in a global economy with multi-national companies anything is possible.

Scotland like England certainly has the remnants of a once thriving shipbuilding industry. However like England the Scottish shipbuilding industry is in serious decline faced with almost unmatchable competition from foreign shipyards that can build ships in a faster turnaround time with the consequent cost savings.Again some would debatably argue that the faster built ships are not of the same quality as Scottish built ships. It is an argument that cuts no ice with the shipping companies as they look not only at potential cargoes but financial ledgers as well. The period during which a ship is built is also a dead-money time for shipping companies. It’s only when a ship is on the sea carrying cargo that it earns money and certainly not during the extended period while a ship of perhaps better quality is built. Unless a new Scottish Government were prepared or had the finances to pour money into shipyard modernisation along with the changes in working conditions then I can see no future shipbuilding industry, (and any consequent economic benefit it would bring), at all.

There are those in the current Scottish Assembly that say if they win independence they would remain part of the EU and they would not institute border controls. I do find that all rather fanciful and wishful thinking. The Spanish Prime Minister for one disagrees with that point of view and I dare say there are others that think the same. It is also unlikely that the English Parliament could tolerate a position where Scotland become an open gateway for migrants who who simply pass-through Scotland on their way to England. Although no one in Government has yet had the nerve to say so, it’s patently obvious that England would have to institute border controls at the Scottish border from day one. This immediately raises the prospect of Scottish people in England or vice-versa becoming aliens in a foreign country overnight, a real prospect anyone should shudder at.

I tend to think the Scottish people are far more wiser and canny to see through anyone essentially raising very little other than a patriotic flag waving argument.

European Elections

Elections for the European Parliament are due to take place in April and they are likely to throw all the mainstream political parties into something of a turmoil. There is a very strong anti-European feeling running through the UK at the moment and only the proposed European Referendum in 2015, if it ever happens, will be able to determine whether pro or anti-Europeans are in the majority. Although a European referendum is now contained within an Act of Parliament that does not mean it is written in tablets of stone and will take place. A lot will depend on the outcome of a General Election and which party or the strengths of any future coalition government eventually takes control. The Liberal Party would scrap any such referendum immediately in the very unlikely event they won the election. Labour are somewhat silent on the issue and one can guess why. Saying they will also scrap the referendum is a guaranteed vote loser.

That only leaves the forthcoming European Election where the electorate can have their say. What is different in this election is the hitherto comparatively unknown United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have suddenly started making major inroads in local elections leaving the main political parties fearful they may do the same in the European Elections. The would leave the Government with it’s European input seriously weakened at the Council of Ministers with possibly diametrically opposed views to it’s representatives in the European Parliament..If this were to happen then the path run up to the General Election is likely to be littered with all sorts of disingenuous future promises.

The only vote the British people have had on Europe was a referendum in 1975 to join the then EEC (European Economic Community), a trading community and nothing else. No mention was ever made of political union or the loss of sovereignty and all that entails.Everything that has developed since then has been without the consensus of the British people by smoke and mirrors arguments from those fearful of loosing a vote on the subject. Future historians will probably look back on this period and ridicule the politicians involved.

Anniversary of the start of World War One

The 28th July will see the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War One. It was on this date in 1914 that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo during a visit to what was then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Archduke was the heir to the throne of Austria and Hungary.

The assassination led to a chain of events where Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and other nations subsequently mobilised to either support or defend one another. The rest as they say is history. Four years of bloody battle and a estimated 14 million deaths ensued. Ways of life and social structures also fell victim to the carnage and the world was never the same again in the aftermath.

One hundred years may seem like a long time to many, very few of us were alive then but the impact ran deep like a scythe cutting through society and for some, the wounds are still felt today.

For the average soldier, irrelevant of what nation they fought for, they simply did as they were ordered, orders that originated from their generals which in turn led back to a handful of politicians. For many it originally was a form of escapism from their humdrum lives with a chance of foreign travel they were unlikely to achieve otherwise. Everyone though the whole thing would be a short bloody skirmish after which everyone would go home again. Tragically these thoughts were quickly dispelled as reality set in and many were destined never to return home again. Entire towns and villages lost their menfolk as well as ladies losing their sweethearts, wives loosing their husbands and children loosing their fathers.

It is important to remember the ultimate sacrifice so many made and also to learn the lessons from it. Failure to learn those lessons of World War One sowed the seeds of the even greater greater holocaust of World War Two.

Pay and Pensions

Pay I have already covered under immigration as both tend to be inter-linked. Problems with pensions however have been quietly lurking beneath the surface for some time and I think are likely to erupt at some time during the year.

To many pensions have always been and probably will remain something of a taboo subject. Something that is not readily understood and brushed aside with a “Best left to others” to sort out attitude. Younger generations however are becoming more aware and astute that their forefathers as to how pensions work and will no longer accept their parents something to be brushed under the carpet outlook. People are now living longer and young people of today must now worked until they are 70 to get a state pension. It is likely the goal posts of age will be moved even further before they achieve that. At the same time traditional company pension schemes are closing with the forecast they will completely disappear within the next decade.

The money so diligently saved over the years for a pension goes into what in known as an individuals pension pot. When they eventually retire this sum of money is used to buy an annuity which is a fixed contract guaranteeing the individual a set income for the rest of their life. This may seem all well and good but it has emerged the companies that deal in annuities charge differing administration fees and also offer differing rates for the lifetime return they give in return for the money in an individuals pension pot. This could mean that twin brothers working in the same occupation and retiring on the same day could receive a pension differing by several thousand pounds a year if their pension pots are invested with different annuity companies. Administration fees are akin to someone putting their hands in your pocket to take some of your money to look after it. This is fine to a degree but it a company takes more money out of your pocket than another company for doing the same thing, then less money is going into your pension pot. Some companies also charge high transfer fees when you retire should you decide that company A offers a better annuity rate than company B.

This may all be perfectly legal but I think it can only be a matter of time before governments are forced by increasingly aware pension savers to pass legislation ending this disparity.

The other pension and to which many are solely reliant is the State Pension Scheme. Again it will not be too long before people increasing start asking if I now have to work until I am 70 plus years old, what happens to my contributions if I die before then? It does seem they lose them and the state pension will in part be financed by those who never live long enough to collect them.

A recent survey of pensions internationally claimed that UK pensioners received the worst pensions in Europe and the possibility does exist of the UK becoming a nation of pauper pensioners, something that will do both them and the UK economy no good.. One thing is clear, as more people become pension literate, fewer of them will be prepared to accept the poor state of affairs with either private or state pensions and with pensioners surviving longer, all political parties are starting to fear the power of the grey vote.


I have but touched on five subjects likely to arouse controversy in the forthcoming year. There are likely to be many others but I think these will have higher prominence.

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