Apr 22 2012

On Screen

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 1:34 am

Northern towns and cities often have old cinemas in some form of repair (or not). The Glenroyale in Horsforth is now part convenience store and part kids’ play area. One in Kirkstall is now offices for a mental health charity. Another one on Kirkstall Road next to the old bus depot is currently a paint and decorating store. There’s a very prominent one that sits on the edge of a city square. It changed hands a few times, had quite a few of its original features removed, gained a bit of a dodgy reputation and then finally stood empty for several years while people dithered about what to do with it. That is the Majestic Cinema on the edge of City Square in Leeds. It was bought by a developer a couple of years who immediately started a programme of restoring it, digging out features such as the old statues that used to sit on its roof, and turning it into a music venue with bars, restaurants and a roof terrace. The scaffolding on the outside is due to come down this week so we’ll be able to see how it’s going. Sounds like it could be quite an exciting project.
Compare this to the rather sad sight of the Odeon next door to the Alhambra theatre in Bradford. After I moved from Leeds in 1984 this became my closest “big city” cinema, especially because my mum was studying for a degree in Bradford at the time. I don’t remember much about what we actually went to see but it was always a lot more exciting than going to the Hebden Bridge Picture House which mostly showed 2nd run stuff.  Like the Majestic the Odeon has been standing empty for ages while people squabble about what to do with it. Because of my personal memories of the place I’ve been keeping half an eye on what’s been happening. It was transferred to Yorkshire Forward who decided the best thing to do would be to knock it down and replace it with the kind of bland office building that Milton Keynes might reject on the grounds of being too boring. Before that could happen YF were supposed to sign a section 106 agreement under the Town and Country Planning act 1990. However for some reason or other they did not.
Yorkshire Forward was abolished on the 31st March 2012 and the Odeon was transferred to the Homes and Communities Agency. Various people have been doing some digging into what’s been happening and it all sounds very murky to me. The original contract between Yorkshire Forward and the developers included a clause that allowed either side to pull out if an agreement was not reached within 3 years. The HCA have admitted that they could withdraw but they can’t say how much it would cost on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. The developers were a company called Artisan H Ltd but they went into administration and administrators were appointed on the 20th December 2011. The director of Yorkshire Forward, Terence Hodgkinson, and 2 of the team responsible for Bradford city centre regeneration to Bradford Council are now directors of a company called Morphe Ltd which was incorporated on the 2ndMarch 2011. Hodgkinson joined Morphe in August 2011 and was appointed as director on the 12th October 2011, a bit more than 2 months before Artisan H called in the administrators. Morphe now advises Langtree Plc, who took over Artisan H’s side of the Odeon contract.
Some very interesting dates. Was Hodgkinson working for Morphe (advising developers) at the same time as being director of Yorkshire Forward? The Committee on Standards in Public Life (aka the Nolan Committee) has a number of principles about public sector work including integrity, openness and objectivity. As a council tax payer (in Leeds) whose council tax went some way towards funding Yorkshire Forward I’d like to be sure the organisation operated within the spirit as well as the letter of these principles.
People have also been trying to get useful information out of Bradford Council about all this, but they’ve decided that the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply to them and that correspondence is closed. I’m not entirely sure what they’re on because this is the same body that decided to install a ditch outside the town hall, and arranged for a load of buildings on Cheapside to be knocked down without making sure there was anything to go in its place apart from a vague suggestion.
So why is it important to make sure the Odeon doesn’t fall prey to an “accident” involving a bulldozer and one of the main structural supports, or a fire where the only thing to survive is the insurance documents? Bradford doesn’t have a lot of money. If you want people to go there and spend money rather than an out of town shopping centre you’ve got to give them a reason to do so. Central Bradford already has the National Media Museum with the Imax and Pictureville cinemas so I’m not sure there would be the demand for another one, but there are still lots of things you can do with the structure. Manchester has the Printworks and the Triangle (old Corn Exchange). Leeds has the Light, the old post office building and hopefully what the Majestic will be. What doesn’t last particularly well or draw in people to spend money are bland buildings that look like generic models from a CAD package. Part of City Square in Leeds used to have a particularly ugly building owned by Norwich Union (now demolished and replaced with something much more attractive), and British Rail/City House on the station approach road actually managed to be insulted by John Betjeman.
The square in Bradford already had a boring-looking office building which was demolished when the Abbey National moved out and built a new place on part of the site of the bus station, so I’m not sure why it was decided another one was needed. The original proposal document from Yorkshire Forward didn’t include the option of keeping the building shell and redeveloping the insides so it’s not surprising no-one offered it. It’s more complicated than just clearing a site but it does look a lot better. With the Alhambra, town hall, National Media Museum and the other developments there a refurbished Odeon would fit in quite nicely and a lot better than something that was just a square box of glass.

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Apr 16 2012

Hold the press

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 9:24 pm

Safe to say all is not well with the regional press. The Yorkshire Evening Post and Yorkshire Post are to share an editor, and a number of dailies such as the Halifax Evening Courier and the ones in Kettering and Northampton will change to weeklies. Once you cut through the nonsense about things like “digital inclusion” and such like, there are two main reasons. One, regional press doesn’t make a lot of money. Two, the quality of reporting is dreadful. For a long time it’s covered the type of stories that no one would really want to pay for: I remember one year when the main headline in the Christmas edition of the Hebden Bridge Times was “New Toilets to Open Soon”. That was in the 1990s and I’m afraid to say it’s gone downhill since.

Budgets for regional reporting have been seriously cut over the years and the quality has suffered as a result. Reducing the number of reporters means that a lot of regional stories are slightly rehashed press releases from the local council or the police. There’s usually a press release from the Tax Dodgers’ Alliance there as well. When they do have original reporting, it’s often easy human interest stuff. Cutting down the number of subeditors means typos and howlers pass through unnoticed. Moving printing presses and merging editors’ roles mean that local knowledge is lost.

Where does the money come from? Nowhere really. Property tends to go on places like rightmove.co.uk with just a small selection in the papers. A lot of small ads have moved to places like eBay or Freecycle. Job adverts also tend to get posted online.Surprisingly the only really guaranteed source of income are those official notices of things like planning applications and roadworks which have to appear in a published newspaper

Apr 13 2012

Mayors and Night Mayors

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 11:16 pm

Apparently Greg Clark, Minister for Cities, reckons elected mayors will have more powers than some cabinet ministers. Er, which cabinet ministers?

Meanwhile, here in Leeds we have a referendum on the 3rd of May on whether we should have an elected mayor. I can hardly wait either. The question will be:

How would you like Leeds City council to be run?

  • By a leader who is an elected councillor chosen by a vote of the other elected councillors. This is how the council is run now
  • By a mayor who is elected by voters. This would be a change from how the council is run now.

Leeds council helpfully provides a list of questions and answers at http://www.leeds.gov.uk/Council_and_democracy/Councillors_democracy_and_elections/Referenda__information_and_advice.aspx. One question they don’t include is quite a biggy:

What powers will an elected mayor have that a nominated mayor does not? 

Unfortunately the answer is “none”. That leads on to the second question:

So what’s the point of having an elected mayor?

Answers on a postcard because I think no-one knows. It seems to be a resurrection of a gimmick from the Tony Blair years. These days local government doesn’t actually have a lot of direct power so reforms tend to be daft things like this. It’s tricky to say whether or not it’s good or bad

Mar 17 2012

On abortion and burning bushes

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 1:53 am

The joys of starting a new job and being busy. Anyway, lots going on, including the Doonesbury strip covering the ludicrous Texan law that says women wanting an abortion must have an transvaginal ultrasound scan. Not for any sound medical reason but to intimidate vulnerable women to try to persuade them not to go through with it. Why? Cherry-picking the big book of tribal stories again as far as I can tell.

As I’ve said before, either you accept the Bible in its entirety including all the anomalies and bits you disagree with, or you accept that it is largely irrelevant as a “how to live your life” guide, particularly because English language versions have only been around since the 1500s and there was a lot of editorializing to get people to accept the change from the Latin versions. The 1535 Coverdale Bible was translated by Miles Coverdale who used Martin Luther’s German Bible and a couple of others because he didn’t understand Hebrew or Latin. Luther’s influences on the Reformation and other aspects of Christianity could easily fill an entire academic career, let alone a blog like this one. Let’s just say that a collection of stories that have gone through thousands of years of history, politics and argument, quite apart from errata and the Medieval and Renaissance equivalents of Google Translate, probably don’t have quite the same meaning that they did when they were first written down. For example there’s some debate about whether Moses’ burning bush was actually a bush and if it was on fire at all. It might even be a typo.

I think a lot of the “you must do X because the Bible says so” brigade would try to control people even if the Bible didn’t exist. Interesting how a lot of the “pro-life” campaigners become a lot less “pro-life” when it comes to the death penalty. Women will still have abortions regardless of the law, but some of the back street techniques can be quite horrific. Without going into too much detail, one technique uses a wire coat hanger, and that would be a burning bush. If abortion is legal, it can be done using safer techniques and the woman can receive counselling and medical care. There may be medical reasons why an abortion is necessary or the woman may have been raped. Even some “pro-lifers” accept these as exceptions.

People don’t just have sex for procreation and sometimes accidents happen. Maybe the woman is in no situation to take on the responsibilities of motherhood, either for the time being or permanently. Up to a point an undeveloped foetus is just a collection of cells rather than a partly-grown human baby and there’s a massive difference between a medical procedure and giving up a baby for adoption. It is a horrendously complex issue and not one that it helped by a bunch of busybodies deciding what they think is best based on a misinterpretation of a very old text. Is it murder? Not under English common law, which says that life begins once the baby has been born and starts breathing on its own. Whether the Bible defines it as murder is irrelevant because there’s no way of saying what the original intention of the “thou shalt not kill” bit actually was, for reasons discussed above.

TL;DR: it’s going to happen anyway whether it’s right or wrong, so you may as well reduce the unpleasantness of the situation as much as possible.

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Mar 06 2012

Cardinal Behaviour

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 12:47 am

Someone who’s been in the news over the last few days is Cardinal Keith O’Brien with his comments about gay marriage, claiming that it’s an “aberration” and playing the “what about the children?” card. I suppose I don’t need to mention that if a gay couple decide to have children then they have to make a conscious decision and plan it carefully. By contrast a straight couple can become parents by accident, no matter how careful they are.

Anyway, whatever the arguments for and against gay marriage, I don’t think saying “the Bible forbids homosexuality” is really a valid reason for saying it (or indeed anything else) shouldn’t be allowed. It’s worth remembering what the Bible is and where it came from. It is a collection of religious texts from the early days of Judaism and Christianity. There are arguments about which books are canon and which order they should appear in. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the Gospels in the New Testament include different versions of the same events.

Without going into lots of detail, it’s safe to say that the Bible as it’s known now was thrashed out over hundreds of years and went through many different versions. Even for an atheist like myself the story of how tribal stories from thousands of years ago formed the basis of society as it is now is a fascinating one. It’s probably also safe to say that mistakes and interpretations were made over time, and the people involved in writing it down probably couldn’t resist for urge for editorializing and adding their own spin on things. Some of the stories in it were clearly of their time: Leviticus and Deuteronomy form the main basis of a lot of Christian “laws”, but Leviticus includes a handy “what not to eat” guide, and Deuteronomy includes various tips on public hygiene.

If Exodus is a story about how a tribe went searching for a country of their own, Deuteronomy and Leviticus are the rules that were laid down to ensure the tribe didn’t lose its identity or got killed off. Nothing like the threat of a death sentence and shame on generations to come to make sure people don’t question authority. Not all of these rules are relevant today: I don’t think ritual sacrifices (Lev 19:5-9) or wearing clothes made from different fabrics (Lev 19:19) are on most people’s “not to do” lists.

The point of this is that if you’re going to use the Bible as a moral guide then I think you should either go the whole hog and accept everything in it, even the anomalies and contradictions, or understand that some bits are irrelevant for today’s society. Have opinions by all means, but make it clear that they are your own opinions. The rules laid down for a tribe travelling from Egypt to Israel thousands of years ago are certainly interesting but I don’t entirely follow why picking and choosing certain bits to support personal prejudices is particularly helpful.

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Mar 03 2012

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 12:30 am

The Channel 4 News had an interesting interview with Chris Grayling a couple of days ago where he insisted that the Work Experience scheme was optional despite being presented with a letter suggesting the contrary. There’s a copy of a similar letter with a bit of analysis here. Let’s take a charitable view and assume that Chris Grayling is telling the truth when he claims that the scheme is voluntary, despite C4 News sending a copy of the letter to his press officer. How come there’s a disconnect between what he says and how the scheme works in practice? Simple. It’s a mixture of Chinese whispers, internal politics, and “interpretation”. Senior managers (or ministers) usually exist in a bubble of yes-men. The yes-men act as something of a 2-way firewall to make sure the boss only hears a carefully filtered version, and “suggestions” from the boss become “guidelines” and later rules as they go down the food-chain

Also, the letter is very carefully written to provide plausible deniability. It refers to Section 19(5)(b) of the Jobseekers Act 1995. Section 19 covers “Circumstances in which a jobseeker’s allowance is not payable.” and subsection 5 says this:
(5)The circumstances referred to in subsections (1) and (2) are that the claimant—

(a)has, without good cause, refused or failed to carry out any jobseeker’s direction which was reasonable, having regard to his circumstances;
(b)has, without good cause

(i)neglected to avail himself of a reasonable opportunity of a place on a training scheme or employment programme;
(ii)after a place on such a scheme or programme has been notified to him by an employment officer as vacant or about to become vacant, refused or failed to apply for it or to accept it when offered to him;
(iii)given up a place on such a scheme or programme; or
(iv)failed to attend such a scheme or programme on which he has been given a place; or

(c)has lost his place on such a scheme or programme through misconduct.

[my emphasis]

Feb 28 2012

Academic Questions

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 12:42 am

A while back the Other Taxpayers’ Alliance put in a Freedom of Information Act request to ask about Michael Gove’s involvement with an organisation called the New Schools Network . It took a very long time for them to get any information at all, and when they did bother to reply they didn’t provide a lot of information. Michael Gove also got into a bit of trouble when it was found he was using Google Mail and Hotmail accounts for official Dept of Education use. As well as the Data Protection Act and Freedom of Information Act there could be implications under the Official Secrets Acts if Gove is using them to send classified information. Then Gove made a very toadying speech about how wonderful Rupert Murdoch is in the face of the Leveson Inquiry, which was indirectly but very heavily criticized by Lord Leveson today. Now, according to the Guardian, it seems Gove is very close to Murdoch and there are some very unusual financial arrangements going on. Rupert Murdoch has been trying to get into education systems in the US for a while, and now he wants to be involved with the UK as well. All this could be coincidence, but there are a few questions I’d like answering:

  • Did Rupert Murdoch donate anything to the New Schools Network?
  • Did Murdoch come to any agreements with Gove before the 2010 general election regarding free schools or anything else?
  • Has Gove provided any support or advice to Murdoch in his application to run a free school, particularly over and above the advice the DfE gives to other free schools or academies?
  • Did Gove and Murdoch communicate using the Gmail or Hotmail accounts, and if they did, was this an attempt to bypass the Freedom of Information Act?
  • Who gave the go-ahead for Gove’s speech praising Rupert Murdoch last week, and who wrote it?

From here it all looks very dodgy. I don’t think Gove’s free schools/academies programme was set up specifically to benefit Rupert Murdoch, because the Conservatives have been trying to remove schools from local education authority control since at least 1988 when grant maintained schools were introduced as part of the Education Reform Act, but it does seem a rather convenient way to provide favours for friends.

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Feb 26 2012

Organ Grinding

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 1:12 am

Friday’s Today programme featured an interview where Chris Grayling lost it while he was talking to Evan Davies about the Work Experience programme. Leaving aside arguments about the programme itself, wouldn’t it make more sense for Iain Duncan Smith to do the interview? He is the Secretary of State for work & pensions and Chris Grayling is a more junior employment minister

I think I know what’s going on. David Cameron has a tendency to take a backseat role and allow other people to fail while taking credit for their success. You just have to look at how the Lib Dems are being treated to see what I mean. Andrew Lansley is already tainted because of the NHS bill, but IDS isn’t (yet). Grayling’s rants about the SWP hacking his email by someone CCing him in an email sent to Tesco are a classic way of diverting people’s attention. I think whoever put Grayling up to do this interview knew that he was probably likely to react like that. People are less likely to argue with an irrational person, which works quite nicely when you’ve got something controversial to push through.

By making Lansley and Grayling the personification of these schemes Cameron is diverting attention away from himself, so he can reshuffle them out of the way and continue with them when the fuss has died down a bit. It may well be that they believe in these halfwitted ideas, but prime ministers have ways of making sure people tread the party line and no one in cabinet is indispensable. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Chris Grayling’s next ministerial post involves overseeing fishing quotas, or working in the Northern Ireland office.

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Feb 24 2012

Well Unfare Part II

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 9:40 pm

The latest company to pull out of the “voluntary” Work Experience programme is Burger King UK. I suppose it’s tempting to say that when a fast food company decides a scheme is a mistake then it must be really bad. However, although burger bars tend to have a reputation for quite a high staff turnover, I know all the big chains would like (at least) to keep hold of people for longer if possible. They are very image conscious and someone who’s been there for a long time is more likely to be loyal to the company than someone who’s just there for a month or so. Someone more experienced can look after new staff, deal with awkward customers, and advise the supervisors and managers when something goes amiss like stock running low. If they’re trustworthy enough you could even get them to do things like locking up the store at the end of the day or dealing with the money. Food service is a very heavily regulated public-facing jobs around, where a slight mistake can mean the place gets shut down and prosecuted by environmental health or the HSE.

Anyway, it’s easy to criticise the Work Experience programme, but not as easy to suggest how you might get people off unemployment benefits and into proper jobs. Make-work schemes like the original US New Deal are expensive and there’s no chance of them being reintroduced these days. What would I do then? First of all, to make sure people at least try to get qualifications, I’d make payment of benefits to under 18s conditional on taking GCSEs unless they have a good reason for not doing so. Whether they pass with 9 A*s or fail with just one G grade is unimportant as long as they’ve been in the exam room and had a go at taking the paper. At least the introduction of modular GCSEs and continuous assessment mean it’s harder to disappear a couple of weeks before the final exams and leave with no qualifications at all.

After 6 months

Feb 24 2012

Branching Out

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 11:29 am

Good to see the “Taxpayers” Alliance on the ball as ever. There seemed something a bit familiar about their “ZOMG WE’RE RENTING TREES!!!!!!!” story, and indeed there was. This story was reported by the BBC way back in 2000 when Portcullis House first opened. Still, I suppose 12 years to put in a Freedom of Information Act request and find out something that’s already public knowledge is reasonable going for them. It cost £30,000 to rent these trees in 2010-11, which is exactly the same as it cost 12 years ago when the place first opened, so I’d say that’s pretty good going for what it is. Of course much better value for money would be to buy some artificial trees and just give them a wipe down with a damp cloth when needed. A quick Google reckons you can buy silk fig trees for about £1000 a go.

Incidentally, has anyone calculated how much all these endless FoIA requests cost the tax payer? Far be it for the TPA to be wasting public money with pointless fishing expeditions.

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