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1 august 2010, you’ve been quango’d

Like most oppositions, the current british government had great "bonfire of the quangos" intentions. Unusually though, it has followed through. Within days of taking office the order went out to line up bodies for rationalisation and abolition - and this has now taken wing as those much satirised quasi autonomous non-governmental organisations are being rapidly brought to the executioner's bloc. In health, the environment and education, alphabet soups are being poured down the drain. On the economic development side, the regional development agencies and government offices (all being totally abolished) have got the most headlines, but the end of the film council last week is typical of a flood of smaller agencies going the same way. Our friends in the north should perhaps not be too despondent: despite common presumptions that such bodies help levy funding, influence and attention from the richer south to the poorer north, a recentish report shows that quango boards come overwhelmingly from london and the south east. Just four of london's 33 local authorities have more board members than the entire north of england. This all comes hot on the heels of smaller scale european slimming, with the news of the closure of the western european union. Politics students of the 1970s might be forgiven for thinking this intergovernmental cold-war european defence outfit became rather redundant with the onset of nato and the eu's move into defence, but it actually took the lisbon treaty to finally wipe it out. Next perhaps the united nation's economic commission for europe, set up in 1947 but still going strong with 220 staff and a 50 million dollar budget, despite the fact that there are now one or two other bodies filling the "establishing economic norms and standards" space in europe...

23 July 2010, the £23 laptop

After the i-pad, the i-ndia, as the world's cheapest laptop went on sale today at just £23. In the wake of the world's cheapest car, the tata nano, selling at just £1,200, the laptop will bring computing to tens of millions and boost india's entire commercial space. Yet again, india shows itself as a master of frugal engineering, as the west seems intent to design only for its bloated market selling goods to the emerging economies only when they are able to indulge in wildly extravagant luxury, sometimes priced higher there than here. That's the future though, and those that realise it now, and design for it now, and invest in it now, will reap the benefits later. Western consumerism may yet see a dead cat bounce, but it is simply unsustainable - and far from being behind the curve, indian engineering is well ahead of it: what would kids in our poorest estates say to a tablet computer for £23 ? I-thank you.

20 july, 2010, hungary: miscreant or wronged ?

As predicted after the weekend's collapse of talks with the imf-eu, the hungarian forint has plummeted, leaving the country's tentative recovery very much in the balance. The break came over the new government's unwillingness to make the deep spending cuts hungary signed up to in return for a massive loan. Now, investors will now run a mile, which the negotiators probably hope will change magyar minds. Strangely though, hungary has done extremely well in taming its debt over the last year. Stranger still, a focus of the outsider's ire is a large bank tax, which the imf states is "likely to adversely affect lending and growth". This is an odd emphasis, as surely fiscal contraction can come in the form best suited to the country & its politics. Hungary may or may not be right about the consequences of such action, but as long as it is getting its debt down, isn't that its own choice ? This is exactly the kind of tactics that get the imf a bad name, and a bigger shame on this occasion that the eu is co-conspirator.

17 july 2010, library 2.0

I've wondered about public libraries for ever. On the one hand, precious sources of knowledge, most importantly for those without access to books, internet, dvds and such at home. Others too: as a child I used to go every week with my father, and I now take my son, where he goes through shelf after shelf with fascination and awe. It should be crucial, but I'm not sure it is. So much is available from home or school, and do children go without a parent that takes them ? Libraries are expensive and their use is declining. They are often in old buildings that cost a fortune to heat and light and are never going to be redevelopment priorities. Many in the uk and beyond are now closing. I've tried to think about what "library 2.0" looks like, and an inventive lady I met yesterday gave me part of the answer. Whilst many libraries in the uk are old, many schools are new: and these large bits of the public estate are generally only used in the daytime from monday to friday - with evenings and weekends being libraries' busiest times. So why not section off part of a schools as the local library, surely generating enough income from selling off lovely old victorian buildings to take care of all security issues and the buying of books and technology for years to come, at the same time guaranteeing a base of users (children and parents) and helping establish schools as centres of their wider communities. The library is dead, long live the library !

15 july 2010, four lions

Rare is the comedy film I see and appreciate, but four lions I certainly did; don't think I've cringed and laughed so much since borat. It is humour of the blackest type, very reminiscent of course of brass eye, the television high point of four lions' director chris morris, which really broke boundaries in the kind of fake interview technique that borat's earlier incarnation, ali g, made his name with on the long forgotten 11 o'clock show. All funny stuff, and I painfully laughed out loud at this one.

9 july 2010, moving the market

I wax and wane on the economist's coverage of europe: an admirable zealot on pushing forward the single market, but populist and naive in not seeming to understand the political implications of that. This week they highlighted mario monti's excellent report on how to broaden what is the largest economic area in the world. He talks about rejoining the lost battle on services, and creating a single market in digital, low-carbon, audio-visual and healthcare. As the current successful incarnation has, this would both make the cake of european growth bigger and redistribute it to more efficient and innovative firms. However, nothing can or should happen without political consensus, and monti perceptively notes both "integration fatigue", eroding the appetite for more europe and "market fatigue", reducing confidence in the mechanism itself. It is ironic that the single market is less popular than ever (see the paralysis of contentment, just when europe needs it more than ever.

4 july 2010, the third age

In the first few years, I simply couldn't get enough of my two boys (now 6 & nearly 9). There was so much time to play with and stimulate them, to read aloud, to lark around. I painted their walls with colourful characters, rocked them patiently to sleep, took them for long cycles on the back of my bike. There did come a time though, when, guiltily at the back of my mind, I longed for a little more "me" time, and space with my other half. Playing with the kids was no less pleasurable, but somehow the hours in the day were ever less, and the list of things I really wanted to do ever more. We began to yearn for them to happily play together, without waking us up of a sunday morning. That day has long since come, and they now play without me all the time, reading books, playing football in the garden and on wii, and with all manner of things I long ago gave up trying to be familiar with. My time though is as truncated as ever, and I'm more tired in the evenings than before. Now perhaps, a third age is starting, when I want to stay with them as intimately as ever, but they have their own plans, which will ultimately turn into their own lives. A long way down the tracks perhaps, but I think I see a dawn. If nothing ever changed though, there'd be no butterflies.

29 june 2010, getting more on target

Board meeting at the hospital today, with some pretty chunky items to discuss amidst the great changes the health service is experiencing. We spent most time though (and for the first time voted) on becoming the first english nhs hospital to introduce free car parking. We also had a lengthy presentation on health and safety, which, although vital, was a questionable use of the whole board's time. Annual risk management training though, is a legal requirement - part of a very broad raft of such requirements. Another, I learned, is the chief executive signing a statement of intent and sending it to all staff. This smacks of some good manager somewhere introducing something, and someone in government thinking that making this a universal requirement will improve safety. Actually, what you need is good managers, to allow them to manage and a robust system of local accountability. Having literally hundreds of central requirements has a big opportunity cost in time and brain power, keeping senior staff from thinking things through for themselves, and also taking away responsibility: "well, I followed the rules !". As they did in mid-staffordshire. I do generally welcome therefore a rolling back of centrally-fixed targets.

25 june 2010, loosening up

I have some experience of lobbying on the chinese currency (the remninbi, or yuan), having done a lot of the analysis underpinning a groundbreaking visit of the european "trio" to bejiing in 2007, although that was but a pale shadow of the hugely successful american version. Neither though succeeded in their primary goal, which was to loosen up china's holding down of its currency. That was finally announced this week - apparently. The reason for this is that china, sitting on vast foreign reserves and with huge investment flows risks inflation. Letting the currency rise is like releasing a pressure valve, which also encourages both growth in its own consumer market ("export to china !") and more shopping abroad, as their currency is stronger ("we want chinese investment !"). These effects though will come through only slowly, as the transformation is not all it seems. The yuan will not float, it is managed and, as with most things, the chinese central bank's hand is slow and steady. This will not fix the global imbalances at the heart of the financial crisis overnight, or at possibly at all - and anyway, is the west really comfortable with china becoming the engine of the world's economy and its firms' customers of choice. As the proverbial old chinese proverb says, the bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. As for thoughts on the uk budget...

Attached File: briefing.doc

18 june 2010, liquid lunch

I gave an after dinner speech today at what would once be called a gentlemen's club in manchester, the last one apparently. A week ago I was on the beach at the tail end of an outrageous gay pride event, and today I listened reverently to grace, toasts and a vote of thanks. Strange that both can be spiritual experiences. One sensation was a sort of "from the street to the boardroom" elation. Another was a desire to climb the ramparts and throw things, but I fought that, as on thinking about it, my problem was not so much with the club as an institution but rather its make up, which was almost entirely elderly, white, male and middle class. I'm not sure you can get away from the last criteria if you appeal to that section of society that habitually lunches in a wealthy city centre and wants the familiar around it. To survive though, you certainly need to change the first three. Because you need institutions to bring people together, I wish them well.

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