12 november, tale of two cities

Sunday in london and monday in paris; always a pleasure. I am here to present and work a paper through one of the oecd committees, that uses 12 leading "middleweight" cities, of which manchester is of course one, to try and divine just what it is that generates economic growth and broader societal success. A well-evidenced and consistent strategy, implementation capacity and leadership are important elements, as are the disruptive je ne said quoi of the mobile and talented creative class that every city under the sun is trying to attract, but so very few really do. An interesting session, well launched by greg clark and debra mountford, and they even asked lots of questions. A slightly oversold cocktail reception afterwards (wine being neither shaken nor stirred) but compensated by the company that went on into dinner. Meanwhile, with thanks to my other half and endre ady, autumn slipped into paris yesterday, came silently down boulevard st michel, in sultry heat, past boughs sullen and still, and met me on its way.

2 november 2012, swan song

I like clever, opinionated and out-of-step politicians (see 18 june 2011), and michael heseltine, about to turn 80 and finally walk into the sunset, falls into that category, as this remarkable broadcast shows. This week came his swan song, a massive report that leaves "no stone unturned" in its search for economic growth, the defining political question of the day. Though not unqualified, one of the report's more interesting elements is localism, which after many months of speaking to many people (including me !), he seems to have become a champion of. He talks about "reversing a century of centralisation" and bemoans how the UK has "disempowered local government by centralising power and funding". These are familiar themes to those of us that deal with the most centralised government in the western world (see 8 december 2011; 22 january 2011, with photo), but all the more powerful for coming from someone who has managed that machine for decades, and who is writing about economic growth. Local government in england these last years has been scythed down, by some 20% and counting, and as the spotlight turns to similarly scything down the whitehall centre, there is a renewed possibility for good schemes that move functions away from the centre to get real airtime and traction in the middle of what is already shaping up as a westminster-whitehall battle. Those skirmishes between politicians and their civil servants are already breaking out in the response to heseltine, and so it will be interesting to see who gets the upper hand in terms of the overall tone of the government response. I for one am certainly to arms with a renewed spring in the step because in an era when the totality of things that can be done systematically lessens, the prospect of pushing things down from the centre because we can pick them up elsewhere steadily rises.

23 october 2012, the next small thing

Once upon a time, every high street had a travel agent; no longer. Tobacconists are similar memories. The last recession was particularly hard on estate agents, and the next is likely to do the same for banks. Even much-loved post offices will dwindle, and as newspapers disappear, so will newsagents, or at least they'll stop devoting ever less space to the times and more to the tins. There is a mountain of evidence showing how non-food retail will continue to need ever less floor space, and even food is ever more in massive out of town boxes people drive to, usually accompanied by more of that dwindling stock of non-food stuff. Town centres up and down the country are in a long-term pickle (see from bricks to clicks). My local, heald green, is on the cusp between down-at-heel and well-to-do areas (see 18 december 2011) and seems to be holding its own. The forces of modernity are ranged against high streets though and it is hard to see sustainable futures for most of them unless they go in for serious downsizing and consolidation and rapidly build up a "footfall client base" that needs to be based on something that is very distinctive and draws people in from a very wide area.

Attached File: TCs.pdf

13 october 2012, right versus right

Some may find this connection odious, but I do see an echo of the awful case of 14-year old schoolgirl malala yousafzai being shot in pakistan, and barry thew, sentenced last week to 4 months in jail for wearing a t-shirt revelling in the deaths of 2 manchester police. Where the taliban justice system summarily shoots a minor, the british puts an adult in jail after due process of law, so there's much to distinguish there. However, the basic alleged crime is the same: one person causing gross offence to another by expressing their views. There have been many cases of this acutely difficult issue of my right to free speech against yours not to be grossly offended, including azhar ahmed, who got 12 weeks community service for a facebook post saying all soldiers should die, liam stacy, 8 weeks in jail for a drunken racist tweet making fun of fabric muamba ("I have no choice but to impose an immediate custodial sentence... you must learn how to handle your alcohol better"), matthew woods (19), 3 months jail for a drunken explicit tweet about missing toddler april jones and paul chamber prosecuted and threatened with jail (though eventually let off) for a frustrated tweet after hours of delay in nottingham airport, in which he menacingly threatened "Crap! Robin hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high !". This recent history is littered with social media incidents, which clearly our justice systems have not quite worked through yet, but goes back via the jyllands-posten cartoons lampooning the phrophet muhammed and their many successors, through david irving and the holocaust deniers, to the grandpa of them all, the fatwa against salman rushdie for his satanic verses. Uncertain, I have been listening carefully to the discussions over the years. On the one hand, totalitarian regimes through the ages have forcibly stopped people expressing views now considered entirely mainstream, and still do today. Yet, in our open and permissive democracy, we have an equal problem with views the mainstream finds offensive; there are alternative views we also silence and punish. If someone lost a daughter though, a more cogent commentator recently posited, and someone phoned them up and abused and made fun of their dead 4 year old over the phone, that is an actual and surely a moral crime. Modern media means that the heartbroken mother might wake up today faced with a public message that does just that, albeit by an entirely unconnected teenager through a drunken tweet to friends last night. There is law to be brought to bear, including against inciting violence and racist abuse, and I guess my view is that the justice system must deal, as it does, with each individual case on its own merits. Consensus and consistency, as with most things, are probably a little too much to ask for.

7 october 2012, are we there yet ?

Sitting here in the uk, the euro (or "euro crisis" as it is now known) seems further away every day, rather remote, talked out and embarrassing; a bit like the troubles in northern ireland used to be, or the intifada when I lived in tel aviv. We seem past the period when sane and senior people were assuring me it would all be over in weeks, and they're now watching the neighbour's dodgy extension still going up, despite those suspect foundations and the council supposedly coming round and telling them to knock it down and start again. Despite the odds though, the summer has passed largely without incident. If anything, it was good news, with tentative progress on the banking union, a startling election result in holland, and critical concrete of the new shoring-up order flowing when the german constitutional court finally enabled the european stability mechanism treaty - yes, it's a treaty (see 1 june 2012) - to be ratified by all (repeat, all). As opposed to the efsf, which is limited in time and capacity, the esm is a permanent institution, and a real pillar of the putative euro area ministry of finance that critics so bemoan is lacking. A reverse domino effect then kicked in, as with esm in place, and a treaty laying down the law on how it can be accessed, the ecb was then able to put real funding behind a lender of last resort role, addressing the weakest link of stressed member state bonds, provided that robust framework was utilised (i.e. a member state applied for a "bail out"). Super mario really is doing "whatever it takes", and if spain, and indeed any future others, want the benefit of that, they now know they just have to ask. This is not to say things are sailing serenely on, but the repeated refusal to sink, and the putting of the ecb's infinite balance sheet behind the currency, within a robust and agreed fiscal framework, gives a fair wind for the next choppy period, as no doubt spain (which really shouldn't) and greece (with it's still intractable problems not solved) will again be in the headlines; but have confidence (faith even) that calm blue waters will, one day, reappear.

1 october 2012, ryding the wave

After a long break: the words "european" and "inspirational " in the same sentence, as europe monumentally come from way behind to win golf's premier event, the ryder cup. Uniquely, ryder pits those two old world titans, the us of a and europe, against each other, and I have always been warmed by this very rare non-political instance in which europe is enthusiastically embraced across the patch as a national identity. I am not one of golf's bigger fans, but yesterday as I went about my business, entertaining and feeding my sister and family for lunch, ferrying the kids to and fro, looking after my mother, doing chores and then crystallising an analysis of stockport town centre's future, I dipped intermittently into what became a great drama unfolding during the latter part of the day. Maybe it was a bad night's sleep because I drank too much coffee, but I was almost in tears with the emotion of it when I listened to the triumph on the radio in the morning, with seve looking down and all that. Wonderful.

22 september 2012, hebron and on

One of the reasons a two-state solution to israel-palestine gets further away every day is hebron. When peace is finally won, the 1967 "green line" will loosely be the border, with in-roads made by permanent settlements compensated by land elsewhere. Kiryat arba though (7000 jews) lies deep in the west bank, and borders hebron, home of some 250,000 palestinians and around 400 jews. Dozens were massacred there in the 1930s; and dozens of muslims in the 1994 by baruch goldstein. Over time a slice of hebron, linking it to kiryat arba, has been carved out and emptied of palestinians. I saw it myself when I went for a walk down that road with a friend shortly after the massacre. The 160 bus from jerusalem had thick bars on the windows (against stones), even as we crossed beautiful countryside for the best part of an hour before reaching the breeze blocks of the entrance to the settlement. At its centre is meir kahane park, at the centre of which was goldstein's tomb, resplendent in beige marble with gardens, arches and a cupboard of prayer books. It is one of the most sickening and disgusting sights I have ever seen, the more so as kids on a school trip arrived as we left. I almost cried when the new government of ehud barak finally bulldozed it in 1999. The bus from there to hebron proper is a short one, looking much like any other arab town - until you reach the machpela, surrounded by roadblocks and the army. In the courtyard we dived to the ground as two soldiers assumed the position to fire on a group of arabs. There is no jewish quarter as such in hebron, just 3 isolated sites, with the army surrounding them and creating protecting routes between them which they travel in screaming jeeps. There are more soldiers on the rooftops. Foolishly shielded with our british identies and cameras, we declined the invitation to climb aboard and walked between them, though the streets were pretty deserted apart from smiling kids following us around as we bought chicken in pitta bread. Two jewish kids also passed us, with a heavily armed escort. The third jewish outpost has just one house, surrounded on all sides by sentries, who we chatted to. Quite how nutty the people they are guarding are is just incomprehensible, and decades on, they're still there, barriers to peace. It is my sincere new year wish that without any bloodshed, by 5774 they are gone.

17 september 2012, growing old

I have, this new year, been rather forced to consider the utility of the old; and indeed the fact that very slowly, but most surely, that adjective will one day be mine. Will I then be only a burden to my children and tax-paying society, guilty about everything I spend ? As a larger number of pensioners vote than any other demographic (youth are the worst; 2 pensioners use as many votes as 7 under-25s), they have disproportionate influence, and over time have redefined what was invented as a safety net against starvation, but is now more like a goodie bag that also, if not mainly, supports the better off. British pensioners, for example, regardless of income, get free tv licences, free bus passes and cold winter payments - even if they live in australia. Meanwhile a poor and freezing household without a pensioner gets nothing. Less than 2 workers to support every pensioner, down from 7, means, according to the european commission, eventual tax rises of 2% in italy, 4% in the uk and no less than 8% in spain. Already today, pensioners in the uk get a majority of all welfare payments, the country's largest single expenditure. It is not hard to argue that the system today is too removed from life expectancy and from benefits paid in. And someone pays for all this - silently but inevitably our children, taxed (albeit in the future) but not represented. Intergenerational equality has been the coming politics for a generation; it is time it arrived.

11 september 2012, I love to speak to leonard

For my birthday - ten to midnight, 9 9 69, though officially the tenth - I got a surprise trip to see leonard cohen, a wonderful old trooper who's a cross between a blues brother and al pacino, who he strongly resembles. It was an absolutely magical evening, four hours from start to finish, with no support and endless songs that I somehow knew smoothly going from one to the next even as you thought there couldn't possibly be more. It was simple and elegant, melodic and poignant and the most mysterious lyrics of anyone, stroked out ever deeper, in every sense. They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom, for trying to change the system from within. I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them. First we take manhattan, then we take berlin.

3 september 2012, and the other one

With the elder getting so much attention, on saturday I took out the younger (8). We started at the local pool, as he was always a big fan (not coincidentally, unlike his brother - see 29 august 2010) and the olympics have inspired both him to swim and us to convince him to go to lessons. He loved it, going up two classes in one session. Then subway, his current favourite, cashing in two of the seven promised on hols so we could walk past one in barcelona and have more of that fancy food we horrible parents force them to try. We then marched up and down heald green high street, buying bread from the bakery and odds and sods we needed in the greengrocers, chemists and charity shop. It doesn't sound a lark, but we had a whale of a time, as we pretty much always do when it's just two. The sting in the tail though was my weakness at the very end, as we passed the bookies, which he recognised from our annual grand national pilgrimage, which avid readers will recall he actually won (see 14 april 2012). I generally encourage him to read what's in the windows, and this time of course he did, discovering the 25-1 shot of manchester united beating southampton 3-2 and then of course we did maths too with many questions about just what led to that enticing bright red £250. In the blazing sunshine of all that cheer it was too hard not to pop in and put five pounds on, diligently explaining how highly unlikely this outcome was. The next day, after dropping my deteriorating mother home, I switched on the radio, exactly as robin van persie scored, making it 3-2 to the reds. We haven't told him yet; the dilemma again writ very large (see 10 april 2011). Feeling a bit like the rabbi who sneaked onto the closed golf course on saturday afternoons, and one day shot an incredible 18 holes in one. An angel questioned g-d how he could make that happen. Well, was the reply, who can he tell ?

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