Thursday, 30 November 2006

Surveillance, Gas Guzzlers and the Government

I have a theory; in fact I’ve had this theory for some considerable time and it all relates to the “Big Brother” attitude of the Government and how they are trying to limit our movements. There is nothing they would love more than to price the motorist off the roads but then have no stealth taxes coming in to invest in alternative public transport. In short we’d have no alternative but to stay within walking distance of our homes. Add the much hated ID cards into the equation and while they are about it, compulsory tagging, and the Labour party righteous would have us exactly where they wanted us.

More surveillance than Russia
It is a fact that we now have more closed circuit surveillance cameras watching us than in any other country in the world. Blair and his merry men try to tell us that they are security cameras; perhaps they are but who are they providing security for? They probably allow Government ministers to feel more secure but hardly the British people. This is proven by the fact that the police never seem to be able to apprehend the criminals that operate in spite of the fact that they know they are being filmed. Put the offenders on Crime Watch and the quality is so poor that nobody can recognise them, which only poses the question of why are they there in the first place? We are watched constantly, everywhere we go and a part of my theory relates to a belief that Big Brother wants to know where we are every minute of the day. The Labour party are paranoid. If they believe that security cameras help us and protect us in our fight against terrorism, then why didn’t this surveillance prevent the London bombings?

Surveillance cameras are a feature on every motorway but they aren’t being used to prevent the country reaching total gridlock. Shouldn’t the purpose be used as a means to re-distribute congestion? If the Ministry of Transport really wanted to help ease traffic congestion then shouldn’t they be providing early warnings of impending gloom on the roads many miles before we ever get to the snarl ups? With the technology we have at our disposal why is traffic not re-routed say ten, fifteen or even twenty miles before a major incident? I don’t know the answer to that but somebody in the Ministry does. To the contrary it seems that the Government actually wants to delay our journeys and perhaps the underlying reason could be because they are trying to force us to rid ourselves of our cars by creating organised pandemonium on our roads so that it is becoming almost impossible to complete a simple journey on time. Could there be some underlying plot to force us all to stay where they know where to find us? If we all remained at home and did our work on the internet then no doubt a Government agency would be planting spiders or some other gadgets into our hard drives that tell them exactly what key strokes we are making,. This is assuming of course that they haven’t done so already!

Motorway madness
The whole system in this country seems to be arse-about-face. They are widening the M1 south of Luton as everybody knows but this is going to take at least a further two years to be completed. Is this because the Government are trying not to spend any money on the project because whenever I drive through this eternal balls up I am yet to witness more than two or three people actually doing any work. It seems nobody does anything at weekends or between the hours of 5.00pm and 9.00am.on weekdays so that doesn’t allow much time for my 2-3 three workers to complete a major road project between tea breaks. At one time, when a major highway required repairs, there would be teams of men working shifts twenty-four-seven to get the project finished in the shortest possible time. Even with this kind of input the projects were generally running behind schedule. On this basis if we start to believe that the M1 widening scheme below Luton will really be completed by December 2008 then we must be in cloud cuckoo land. Apart from some bridge supports and a load of mud what else has been achieved? I really pity those poor souls that have to drive through this crazy chaos everyday because it is enough to put you into a straight jacket and send you screaming to the psychiatric ward. At first I thought the aim was to raise the revenue to pay for the scheme from the specs speed cameras (oops … don’t I mean safety cameras?) that watch over us like hawks These were installed “to protect the work force” (sic) by ensuring that nobody drives at over a 50 mph average speed. My theory however can be shattered by the fact that hardly anybody ever gets out of second gear to get anywhere near this speed so the Government coffers must be pretty empty on that score. Hence, no money to pay for the construction work. I can just see Brown trying to balance his books and wondering where his next billion is going to come from.

What is to follow is an extra M1 junction being planned between 13 and 14 in our neck of the woods. How many years is this going to take and how will this affect the dreadful problems that befall those trying to cross the motorway at Junction 13? You might recall that it took them around 12 weeks simply to repair the supports and structure of the bridge that carries the Willen Road from Tongwell that caused diabolical chaos for anyone travelling into Milton Keynes from Newport Pagnell, Bedford or Olney everyday. God forbid, building an entire new junction doesn’t bear thinking about!

Somebody in the Ministry of Transport came up with the bright idea of allowing peak time traffic to use the hard shoulders of the motorway. A section of m-way was tested in the West Midlands and the civil servants were jumping about congratulating themselves. As usual the scheme doesn’t seem to have been thoroughly thought through. First of all the hard shoulders on motorways were built to allow broken down vehicles to be parked clear of fast moving traffic. If the lane is to be used as an additional carriageway then what happens when the inevitable does happen and somebody does breaks down? My guess is that the following traffic will simply plough into the back of the stationery vehicle causing death and destruction because drivers won’t be able to stop in time. The result will be mayhem. Another point relates to the construction of the hard shoulders. As they were never built to carry a volume of traffic, how long will the surfaces stand up before they too need replacing?

Let’s price the motorist off the road
It seems that Blair’s boys are really trying extremely hard to stop us using our cars. The theory I have this time is that they are really hell-bent on pricing us off the roads. In so doing this will leave empty roads to allow only official ministry vehicles and the stinking rich to move about the country unimpeded as they once did in Soviet Russia and Communist China. If motorists think we’ve had it tough already with the highest fuel taxes in Europe, road tax charges based on engine capacity and income tax penalties for driving company cars, beware because this is only the beginning. The Borough of Richmond already looks set to impose huge parking charges on Chelsea tractors; Red Ken promises to follow suit with a thumping £25 congestion charge that will be forced on anyone driving a car bigger than his and there is talk of charging us for every mile travelled on our roads. At least the 4-wheel boys will still have the option of running amok by cutting across the fields. How long will it take for other sheepish councils to follow these charges by making their own once they realise how much they can raise to fund their jollies through yet even more stealth taxes? As I don’t think the Mayor of London owns a car (he prefers a thing called The Tube) then this will eventually mean everyone will be expected to pay the increased charge.

The vanishing taxes
An issue that these goody-goodies seem to forget is the amount of VAT the Government already collects every time a car dealer sells any new car let alone a fuel hungry 3-litre or Chelsea tractor that raises loads more. The road tax charges are also higher and, because big engines guzzle more fuel, there is also much more revenue for the Treasury to collect from the big-car owners in fuel tax than from someone driving a Smart car. Get rid of thirsty cars and where is the Government going to turn to replace this revenue? Of course, silly me, it will have to come from those the cigarettes smokers and enjoy a few drinks! Imagine the next budget … fags £20 a pack; a pint of beer £15. You think I’m joking but who would have believed five years ago that 20 cigarettes would cost about five quid? Perhaps they might also raise the VAT level to say 20 or 25% thus crippling businesses even more. We’re led to believe that this is all being done to help us save the planet by cutting done on exhaust emissions. Who are they trying to kid more especially as punchy Two Jags Prescott now has a third to carry his croquet set? Of course it would be a wonderful vote winner for the Blairites if we all scrapped our cars and bought electrically powered hybrids that chugged along at 5 mph while we searched for a mains outlet to recharge the damn things. The Government (read police) would also lose their revenue from speed (sorry … safety) cameras. The Greens would simply have a field day. But, as a reporter on the BBC pointed out, wouldn’t the amount of emissions being blown into the atmosphere during the actual construction of these hybrid cars totally outweigh the cause? Of course they would. But wait, the best bit relating to the demands to save the planet is still to come. Somebody has already produced figures to suggest that even if we all did everything we’re being told to do in this country to protect the environment, it would all be completely fruitless because it would take the Chinese just 64 days of normal, everyday fossil fuel burning in their great polluted cities to undo everything we had achieved! Bloody marvellous isn’t it? So why are we burning so much energy even thinking about ways that we can save the planet?

I am afraid with this Government it is all about doing what they tell us to do … but don’t criticise Labour for not setting a good example. Maybe I’m the one who is paranoid.

This article was previously published on

Sunday, 26 November 2006

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Buying Property Abroad

The media thrives on the horror stories of people that have adopted a casual go-it-alone approach to buying property abroad. Too often what has been intended to be a retirement home or an investment has ended in complete disaster because the unsuspecting buyer has lost money or worse still, has had their home seized by the authorities over a serious breach of a local law.

If you are contemplating investing your money in overseas property in makes sense to do your homework thoroughly before making any kind of commitment. Then, once you have found out the kind of things that can go wrong, it is essential to hire the services of an expert in the overseas property market who will guide you painlessly through the procedures.

It is of course an attractive proposition to escape our damp winters to a place in the sun. If you intend to buy a property the first thing to remember is that foreign laws are different to ours and that they don’t always offer you protection. It never pays to take short cuts and the simple motto will always be buyer beware!

It is worth considering involving friends or family members in your project who could commit resources in order to jointly buy a bigger, better property. By involving other people who you trust could make all the difference between buying a small apartment or a villa with a swimming pool.

If you find a property that interests you it can be a foolish move to commit to buying too early. If you require any kind of finance for the purchase you will need to ensure that this is in place, or at least you’ll need a legal written guarantee that your funding will be available by the time you intend to complete the deal. This should be organised before you commit to signing contracts, even before you put down a deposit. There are many pitfalls that could be hidden from immediate view with re-sale properties. From the outset you should consider hiring a reliable local lawyer in the country where you intend to buy who will advise and protect your interests. This should be somebody who specialises in property law rather than a general solicitor. You will need to know, for example, whether there is any outstanding debt attached to the property that could pass on to an unsuspecting new owner. This can arise if the vendor has raised money to have the property built then allocated this as additional security to the developer’s bank. Similarly there may be an ongoing dispute over land boundaries or planning applications that you could become party to if you fail to have such things checked. It s no good relying on second hand information or on what a developer tells you; always have your lawyer check things. Never commit without having a full independent valuation carried out because this could reveal serious hidden problems such as damp, subsidence or wiring defects. Only when you are completely satisfied that everything is sound about your intended property should you consider becoming involved in a contract. Once you feel confident that everything is in order, your overseas lawyer can be instructed to proceed. Insists on a opt out clause without penalties should your finance not materialise or if something unexpected should be found with the contract or the property to your detriment.

Remember that contracts and other documentation will be written in a foreign language and will comply with the specific country’s laws. It is no good trying to understand what has been written unless you are fluent in the mother tongue of the country; even then it will pay you to ensure that any specialists such as surveyors, lawyers and architects employed locally are fluent in English so to minimise the risk of a breakdown in communication. Never, ever sign what you don’t understand. Believe it or not, many people either think that they understand a contract or make a guess about what they think has been written. This can only lead to costly problems later on.

You will also need to set up a bank account at a recognised bank in the country where you intend to buy your property. Financial details should be arranged in the local currency and you will need to have a thorough understanding of the exchange rates that are prevalent throughout your negotiations. If you are exporting funds into a foreign land you will need to obtain a Certificate of Importation and need to check the current legal implications about moving money to your chosen country. Taxes will need to be paid as well as utility and other bills once you have purchased the property so you will need to organise standing orders locally in order to pay any charges on time. In some countries, France, Spain and Portugal in particular, if taxes aren’t paid you can be fined or even have your property seized by the authorities. It makes sense what Government taxes will apply to you in advance of committing yourself to a move overseas. Don’t forget to set sufficient funds aside to pay insurance, lawyers and the fees of other professionals that you may hire.

The pitfalls of home ownership overseas may sound horrendous and they can be for those that are unprepared to do things properly. In the long run it is always cost efficient to employ a reputable firm that specialises in overseas sales because they will be fully conversant with the various issues involved. They can also put you in touch with accredited experts such as banks, financial advisors, lawyers, architects and surveyors. If you do your homework thoroughly and comply with the expert advice you are given, then there is no reason to suspect that buying your dream home overseas will be anything less than pleasurable.

Who is the English Education System Failing?

At the age of ten I left primary school and proudly waited at the school gates of my new school having turned eleven during the summer holidays. My new school was a grammar school, the type of educational establishment that has, albeit mostly disappeared yet as those independent of government interference have proved, they remain successful pillars of learning. I was a little fortunate because I lived within the boundaries of Middlesex and the year before changing schools they abandoned the Eleven Plus examinations in favour of a grading system based on the student’s overall school work. It had seemed a fair and logical system to separate those that were markedly more academic from those better suited to an eventual manual trade. Even the abolishment of the Eleven Plus might be seen as the embryo of the crass changes that followed.

For the first two years at grammar school I scored highly in written examinations. The school was good, the teaching levels appropriately high and the mix of subjects taught were applicable. As I had (during those first two years) a more academic leaning I was probably ideally suited for a grammar school education while most of my former primary colleagues that I’d been through from infant school showed signs of being less academic, yet more practical. It is easy to determine, even for a laymen, why the two systems suited particular people. The bulk of my class mates moved to what we knew then as a secondary modern school where the emphasis was more geared towards practical subjects such as metal work, woodwork and technical drawing. My lessons involved longer periods spent learning maths, English and the sciences. The academic selection process roughly divided the numbers so that 20% went to grammar schools while the remainder went to secondary modern. The system followed a well trodden path that went back many years but it seemed to work. Few from secondary modern schools ever got to university; it wasn’t a consideration and even at grammar school there was still a tendency for many to leave at the minimum age of fifteen. At the end of the second year my education was thrown into total upheaval as state-funded local authorities removed the selection process and introduced the single system comprehensive school. This really was the beginning of the end that forced students of all levels to follow the same newly conceived teaching programme that proved to be totally unsuitable to many, especially those that were more academic. The rot had set in. At my new comprehensive the establishment became almost twice the size of my former grammar school; there were too few teaching staff and many of these were incapable of doing the jobs that they were employed for. Academically I became a failure. My examination marks that were once high fell dramatically as I went to near bottom of the class. I was forced to take subjects I had no inclination to study and, as a result I walked out of school at 15, several weeks prior to my official leaving date at the end of the school year. More recently I have discussed our schooling with former class mates that I have met through Friends Reunited and the general consensus is that we should have sued the local authorities for failing to provide a suitable education.

Unlike today I went straight to a London employment agency and walked into the first job I was interviewed for; a messenger in a major advertising agency. I had the desire to progress and within a fortnight I had been promoted to an office job involving cost accounting. At that time, like most young people who were starting on the work ladder, I made many friends but I never came across any youngsters that were so poorly educated that they lacked all hope in life. This certainly isn’t the case today whereby even Blair expresses concern that one in four eleven year olds are illiterate and a quarter of all school leavers have little understanding of maths or English.

Life then was more competitive and if, during our school years, we played any sports the purpose was to win. Then, if we did win, we were rightfully rewarded with a trophy as a token of victory. I was only mediocre at sports so won nothing, nevertheless everybody appreciated that it was necessary to be competitive. Many of us subscribed to the School of Hard Knocks that made us resilient and we knew that if we wanted something we would have to work hard to get it. When it came to dating girls even those who considered themselves to be “Jack the Lads” had respect it would have been an outrage to have got a girl pregnant. Today the UK has the highest number of schoolgirl pregnancies in Europe and the number of youngsters with sexually transmitted diseases is spiralling out of control. This is nothing to be proud of and much of it has been caused by a failure in our education system.

Things have changed of course but it can hardly be called progress. Successive governments can each take a part of the blame for ruining a once good education system that worked. From the introduction of comprehensive schools the whole issue has been a disaster. The current government believe everybody should have the chance to be university educated, yet they are unwilling or unable to fund those that should go. Is the government so lacking in educational skills themselves that they fail to see that many of those who they steer towards university are totally unsuited? Is Tony Blair too short-sighted to appreciate that the former polytechnics were the catalyst that provided further education for those with lower academic capabilities, similar in a way to the trade schools such as the dressmaking school my mother attended as a young woman during the 1930s?. It is folly to alter the status of lesser establishments in an attempt to convince the public that they should rank in the same category as Oxbridge. Employers know the difference. What major employer would take on a graduate trainee from Luton when they expect to hire someone with a degree from Nottingham, St Andrews or one of the other long established appropriate seats of learning? I am not being flippant when I say that there is a difference in standards yet Tony Blair and his cronies firmly believe they can hoodwink potential employers as well as students by advocating that all universities are on a parr. Both sides are being badly and irretrievably let down.

When I started my business I would regularly try to help students by offering to take a few each year on work experience schemes. Over the years the standard of students that I have received has been growing worse and it has reached a situation whereby they have become a total liability. None has shown any interest at all in the type of work that I do and the majority have been totally unable to communicate either with myself, my staff or my customers. Over the last two years I have had to dismiss two back to their schools because they have been rude, refused to undertake simple tasks assigned to them and were unable to arrive on time. A third faked illness so that she could meet her friend at the Milton Keynes shopping centre who, it later transpired, had acted similarly at another company. I cannot be alone in this experience. But, having discussed the issues with some of the teachers involved it leaves me wondering who is letting who down? Some of the teachers more lately seem to palm students off to work experience places at companies merely to get them off their hands and who can really blame them? Students leave school unprepared for the working environment and few seem to know how to approach an employer for a job. I receive letters from students of all levels who are writing on-spec to seek work. Few of their letters are compiled neatly; they are badly positioned on the page; most contain poor grammar, appalling spelling and the writer often forgets to sign their name to the correspondence nor have the courtesy of enclosing a stamped addressed envelope for a reply. It appears that no guidance has been given on how to present their CVs to potential employers. There are exceptions of course and it is these students that are likely to gain suitable employment while the others sadly become assigned to the unemployment queues. Doesn’t our government owe it to the young people to offer an education system that work well for those of us that were fortunate enough to have received at least some of their schooling before the dreadful days of the one-tier system?

Saturday, 18 November 2006

IMPERIAL ...The airline not the mints

For over six years now I have been working on my mega work that has a working title of "Imperial Airways and the Birth of British Airlines". The whole thing has really been a labour of love. Much of the time has been spent researching any and every conceivable book about the early aviation pioneers and the airlines they flew with. This is followed by a brief period of hyper activity at the computer knocking each section into shape. At times it has been laborious, mostly however I have enjoyed the experience. 'Why am I doing it' many friends have asked? Well, first and foremost I enjoy writing and I also love the whole airline industry.I find it fascinating how an obscure man can sometimes realise his dream by starting an enterprise that transports people to the most distant corners of the earth in machines that now cost vast amounts of money. The entire Imperial story I find intriguing because it took place between the two World Wars at a time when equipment was incredibly basic and often downright unsafe. As I become deeper involved, there are times when I have tended to feel personally connected to some of the colourful characters that were involved with the company and I can feel their pains when they fail and suffer their excitement when things go to plan.

Certainly I am not writing the book to become rich; far from it. Most writers become engrossed in their projects because they want to see them reach fruition; a bit like watching your young child grow. Firstly the project has to be completed and then you hope and pray that a decent publisher will become as enthused about the subject to want to publish it.

At the moment the book is about two thirds finished and the manuscript is with a specialist publisher in the north of England who has initially expressed an interest. I am terribly fussy about my expectations and I want the book to be exceptionally well produced with an inspired layout and plenty of illustrations; the type of book Dorling Kindersley are famous for. I have approached DK, twice in fact, about my project but they have not been gracious enough to bother me with a reply. Sad really, but then this is often indicative of the publishing industry.

As the manuscript grows in length I shall, from time-to-time, report on the progress but, for the moment at any rate, I've not written a word for several weeks. This is because this Blog and other writing projects that actually pay me money have taken precedence.

The First Blog Is the Deepest

I guess I should start by apologising to Mr Rod Stewart and I think it was Miss P P Arnold for 'borrowing' the title of the song they both recorded extremely well called The First Cut is the Deepest. Knowing where to start my first blog is the hardest part ... more realistically it is knowing when to finish because I'm not known for keeping things short and simple.

Okay, what it all about? Well for a kick off it is always good to express your feelings and there will be good as well as plenty of bad times that I am sure will reflect on the content of this page. So, with this in mind I can tell you that I will be writing from the heart about things that are near to my heart. Depending on my mood the subject matter might take many forms but I suspect there will be bits about football (soccer to you American folk) food, wine (the sort that can give you a headache) whine (the sort that resembles verbal diarrhoea) a sprinkling of controversy and a lot of opinionated crap.

Having outlined where I think this diatribe will be heading I hope there will be a few readers out there who may like to contest with me over bits I have said, or bits that I haven't. Feel free to express your views because this is the only way that we can keep this thing lively.