May 2012 Archives
It's been a busy few days in Parliament with various goings on under the slogan of 'saving our town centres'. Unlike lobbying for an amendment to a clause in a Bill, or trying to get policy changed by arguing your case with Ministers and their civil servants, it was all about politicians showing leadership (something they are often criticised for being near enough incapable of) by keeping the profile of an issue as far up the political and news agenda as they can. Former Cabinet minister turned back bench agitator Jack Straw MP kicked off proceedings with a lively debate about the use of particular planning technique (namely the use of Lawful Development Certificates (LDCs) to establish whether implementing previously obtained minor permissions would create new planning units, and therefore a new planning chapter in the history of the unit covered... if you were interested) that would ultimately enable the sale of a wider range of goods than was originally proposed. His motive is to do what he can to support a vibrant Blackburn town centre, and raise the profile of an issue that is almost certainly national rather than local to this part of Lancashire.
On to Tuesday night and an event at the House of Commons (Jack in attendance, enthusiastically plotting the next move in his campaign to elevate the profile of the Lancashire Spring) where we were hosted by Marcus Jones MP and Ann Coffey MP in the Members Dining Room. Different parties, same commitment to a cause. Marcus is the extremely amiable and committed Chairman of a recently formed All Party Group of MPs and Peers who support town centres. He's also one of the 6 MPs asked by George Osborne to look at the issue of empty rates and report back, so worth engaging with. The Charter for Town and City Centres, which BCSC supported, was signed by nearly 30 MPs by the time we were evicted in favour of hungry Parliamentarians waiting for their supper. It was also great to see minor celebrity meet politics as one of the Apprentice stars, Adam Corbally, was there to lend his support for the role markets play in creating a positive town centre experience (I understand from my sources that he was also spotted later on in the Strangers Bar enjoying a couple of subsidised pints). With Grant Shapps, Minister for Enthusiasm, there to announce 3 more Portas Pilots will be added to phase 2, and that these will be announced before the summer recess, I'm ending the week believing that the power of political leaders is as much to keep issues at the forefront of individuals' minds as it is making or shaping policy, regulation and legislation.
A few weeks ago I stumbled across an article in The Economist which was discussing the next industrial revolution - 3D printing. With the first industrial revolution of the textile industry in the 18th century, followed by Henry Ford's mass assembly line production of the 20th century, people are now talking about 3D printing as the third industrial revolution which allows for digital manufacturing with a personal twist.
I initially struggled in understanding the concept and visualizing the technology but digressed to YouTube to find out more. I came across the following video which made everything crystal clear: 3D Printing a Bicycle
Watch at your own leisure.
The merits of the technology are as follows. As consumers become more sophisticated in what they purchase in terms of goods, colour, feel, etc., manufacturers are becoming increasingly aware that producing such bespoke goods for niche markets is cost ineffective, particularly in reference to accessing raw materials and subsequent production costs. The waste issue is a separate matter. With 3D printing you have the ability to digitally print products in smaller batches, allowing for more effective production and marketing.
Perhaps one day we could even end up producing goods within our homes! You may laugh as it seems a little out there but two decades ago, laser printers in the home were almost unheard of and partly construed as a luxury commodity. Fast forward to today and now the majority of us have personal printers. Keep that finger on that forward button and imagine the repercussions 3D printing would have on the retail and shopping centres if this technology became readily available to the average household? We may not necessarily need a shop or online retailing to purchase goods. What the consumer would require would be access to raw materials allowing him to produce / print goods in the comfort of the home.
It's not an imminent picture, but imagine 50 years from now how and what will we be shopping for? Would retailers have to adjust their lines so that they just sold raw materials and in effect become wholesalers? What would be the purpose of shopping centres and what would we use them for?
The 3D printing technology already allows for the production of chocolate. 3D Printing a Chocolate - Tis quite amazing.
All this future gazing stuff seems a bit wild and far fetched, but look what Apple has achieved and where it is heading. Not so funny now, is it?
The Prime Minister must now look back on the days of late 2011, with its associated pesky NPPF wrangling, and general Big Society malaise with misty eyes. Those were the days. The easy days when the Rt Hon Member for Tunbridge Wells could be dispatched with his affable charm and the frustrations of the electorate would fall away.
If only the political chaos of these torrentially rainy days of "spring" 2012 could be quite so simply mitigated. Now we don't just face the real risk of flooding, but we're reluctantly dipping ourselves back into the recessionary bath. It is cold and it makes us all rather grumpy. We're bored and tired of this "great recession." It seems to have lasted forever and we all long for the days when we can once again splash out on a treat and not feel consumer guilt.
News today from IPD that property values remain 35 per cent below 2007 levels add some empirical clout to the anecdotal sense that all is not well in our economy. The announcement late last month of the double dip came as a disappointment. Today's IPD report further compounds this.
Today's report shows that outside of central London, the property situation remains bleak. Property values continue to decline. When London is taken out of the dataset, values have now been declining for three consecutive quarters.
This news will add to the reluctance of investors to back new developments which, in turn, reduces demand for construction. The cranes stay on the ground, and we look set to remain in our economic slump. We are all in serious trouble.
The IPD's role is to release the data and hope that the decision makers respond to it by pulling the appropriate policy levers.
David Cameron and his team have already pulled the lever marked "planning reform". Unfortunately, it will be months (if not years) before we are able to know if this has made any difference.
We need more immediate measures. BCSC has long advocated the rapid introduction of TIF, first promised by the DPM is September 2010 yet still to materialise. We have championed a more pragmatic approach to business rate setting. This year's 5.6% increase demonstrating the true absurdity of basing the rate on only one month's figures. Going forward, we'll continue to call for these measures to be addressed with a greater sense of urgency than the Government has previously been willing to provide.
Now is the time for urgent action - the waters are rising, and the voters are rebelling.
My mother-in-law calls me an agitator (I think she's referring to my professional career), I prefer advocate but it's semantics. Another definition of the job is lobbying. Evil word that conjures images of dark forces at work, meddling in politics and policy where they're not wanted. But on the other hand those same people who bemoan lobbyists, the media's influence in politics and the Unions, also criticise our elected representatives for being career politicians, and therefore no more than inexperienced mouthpieces. And the civil service for being full of well meaning people who don't know what life is like in the real world of job insecurity and diminishing pension pots, although of course the narrative on this latter criticism has obviously had to change given recent current public sector cuts.
But in my mind the reality is individuals, businesses, employee groups, the press, charities, single issue pressure groups and others are all trying to affect an outcome that they think is best for them and their cause. Some groups have more formal mechanisms to do so, such as local and central government elections, others are subject to less transparent tactics. Businesses, after all, do not have a vote. Attempting to determine who is most worthy, charity or business, Union or media group, and who should therefore have preferential access is immediately subjective and a complete minefield that will continue to stimulate much debate. Ultimately though, it is the job of a politician to gather all the advice and evidence presented to him or her on a particular matter and make a judgement, fully aware of the motivations behind all representations, in a fair and transparent manner. Make the wrong call too many times and one's job is literally on the line, at the very least every 4 or 5 years. It is when issues of equity and transparency are called into question that politicians, and their advisors, find themselves tied in knots.
I am not making a judgement on whether or not Jeremy Hunt carried out his quasi judicial role in an appropriate way, we couldn't possibly know yet. However news that individuals with a vested interest were trying to influence the outcome should come as no surprise to anyone. We all do it. Only time will tell whether Hunt will find a way to wriggle free, but unquestionably political opportunists driven by public sentiment will make this a very difficult task indeed.