Friday, 14 March 2014

Tony Benn 1925-2014: Flame of Anger, Flame of Hope

Tony Benn, interviewed, at Occupy protest camp
outside St Paul's Cathedral, London, in November 2011
(Photo: © Paul Coleman, London Intelligence)

Tony Benn

Flame of Anger, Flame of Hope

“Inside him burned the flame of anger against injustice  
- and the flame of hope that we could build a better world.

That was what moved him.
For that reason he was trusted.

He was a lovely man.

And I hope that his family will gain something
from the knowledge that their grief is shared.” 

(Tony Benn, born in London, 3 April 1925 - died 14 March 2014)

Explanatory note

The above quotation pays tribute to Tony Benn. 

But the quotation itself is extracted from Tony Benn's own generous tribute to John Smith, the former Labour Party leader. 

On 12 May 1994 the Labour Party leader John Smith dies at his Barbican home in London.

Later that day, Tony Benn, speaking in the House of Commons as the elected Member of Parliament for Chesterfield, says ofJohn Smith:

“I thank the Prime Minister (John Major) and the other Members who have spoken for what they have said about John Smith.
“I had the privilege of knowing him (Smith) and of working with him closely over 25 years in Parliament and in government, and he had two qualities that I would like to mention.
“Inside him burned the flame of anger against injustice, and the flame of hope that we could build a better world. That was what moved him.

“Secondly, he was a man who always said the same, wherever he was. Whether one heard him in public at a meeting or in private, whether one heard him in the Cabinet or in the House of Commons, he always said the same thing.
For that reason, he was trusted.

“He was a lovely man, and I hope that his family will gain something from the knowledge that their grief is shared by us.”

Source: Hansard

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, March 2014 

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Mayor Boris Johnson, London Real Estate Forum 2013, MIPIM Cannes 2014, Developers 'concordat'

Last summer, London’s Mayor warmly embraced foreign cash investment gushing into London property. In March 2014, the Mayor finally acknowledges a “downside” to such vast capital inflow, writes Paul Coleman.

London Mayor Boris Johnson waves papers signifying his 'concordat'
with property developers at MIPIM 2014

Give 'appease' a chance

Rewind to June 2013.
Inside a big white tent in Berkeley Square.
Delegates perch on show stands at the London Real Estate Forum.
London Mayor Boris Johnson strides to a podium.
Mayoral sermon time, dashed with caper tales and jolly japes.

Johnson flatters an international cluster of property investors, developers and agents. 
He praises them for firing up London’s property boom
Heralds them as “galacticos, real superstars, doing more than any other to drive jobs, growth and recovery in our great city”.

“I was in Abu Dhabi recently and was thrilled to be told by the Sheikhs they recognise me as the de facto ruler of the eighth Emirate,” jokes Johnson.

He welcomes Malaysian investors pouring £1.6 billion into a massive new luxury homes development around Battersea Power Station – “that moldering old hulk most of us only remember from a Pink Floyd album cover”.

Let free market global property investment cash gush into London.
Bring it on, chimes Johnson.

MIPIM Canes 2014
Fast forward to March 2014.
Inside a MIPIM conference hall at Cannes on the French Riviera.
Delegates digest a handsome lunch.
Mayor Johnson shuffles to a podium.

Since LREF 2013, foreign investment inflows in London land and property aggressively intensify the number of Londoners on average and low incomes who simply cannot afford to buy a home in London.

Property prices spike.
Council estates undergo demolition.
Replaced with luxury high-priced housing developments carrying a low quotient of so-called ‘affordable’, part-buy, part-rent homes.
Developers market new homes in marketing suites in Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai to cash-rich buyers.
Londoners who can scrape together a deposit – and secure a mortgage from a reluctant market of lenders - often don’t even know these new homes are on offer.
Many more Londoners are simply squeezed out of London – ‘displaced’ from their own city where their families have lived for generations.

On Johnson’s Mayoral watch, Londoners suffer the multiple impacts of London becoming an asset class for speculative investment, where London property mutates from a place to call home into an international reserve currency for global elites.

For Mayor Johnson, this means serious political fallout.
Critics carp Johnson as he ‘faffs around’ to find a practical response to London’s growing housing crisis.
And if Johnson doesn’t meaningfully respond, he faces historical consignment as the ‘Mayor who sold London’ to international property speculators.
And caricature, as a cad bounder with mad hair, who aggravated a housing crisis facing many Londoners. 

Hence, nine months on from LREF and Berkeley Square, ‘Sheikh Boris’ splutters a far less avuncular and platitudinous tune to MIPIM delegates at Cannes, the international real estate show (11-14 March 2014).

Johnson coats the title of his presentation with an academic gloss: ‘Housing in London: Population & the Economy – meeting the challenges of 21st century growth’.
Verbally, Johnson jests about confusion over the true meaning of MIPIM (Le Marché international des Professionnels de L'Immobilier).
He japes: “It’s not ‘May I Push you Into the Mediterranean’ but ‘Making Important Property Investments for Millions of Londoners on Modest Incomes’.

At last, Boris blurts his crux.
His meaningful response.
The Mayor acknowledges the “stupefying torrent” of international capital inflow into London land and property contains “a downside”.

Seriousness replaces the Mayoral smirk.
“London is a finite asset that is in global demand," says Johnson.
“It puts terrific pressure on people living in London and on the domestic property market.
“There is no doubt for millions of people growing up in the city, searching for work, there has never been a more difficult or challenging time to get on the property ladder. Homes people thought they could get six months ago are now moving further out of their reach.

“And many people feel a particular sense of anger about one thing in particular that we can easily tackle – the overseas marketing of new homes in London in swish marketing suites before Londoners even get a chance to know these new homes even exist.
“That can’t be right.
“We want people in great Asian capitals to come to London and invest but we don’t see why they should be able to look at new images of new London properties and take cash out for them ‘off plan’ before Londoners even know about the opportunity.

Paper moon
And, very possibly, due to his fondness for history, Johnson seems highly conscious of the perils of even mildly imitating Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who waved a white paper at Heston Aerodrome – signed by Hitler and Chamberlain himself - that signified a policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany in 1938.
Comparing an inflow into London of speculating property investors and corporate property developers to a planned invasion by a hostile neo-fascist state might seem extreme.
But Johnson himself seems to stumble into such a comparison and says: “So I have in my hand a piece of paper…”
And even waves several pieces in his right hand.
Johnson continues: “This signifies the concordat we have agreed with sixty of London’s leading property developers who have agreed that they will stop any practice of marketing London homes exclusively overseas in advance and they will insist that all such homes are marketed first, or at least, simultaneously, to the London and UK market.
“You can’t say fairer than that, can you?”

Johnson describes this as “a small but important gesture from the property industry”.
But is it canny appeasement or a genuine concession?
How will it be guaranteed?
Will developers and agents create marketing suites in London for new homes?
How anyway can Londoners compete with foreign cash-rich buyers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Shanghai?

Johnson says: “I do hope that, given the buoyancy of the London property market, developers will accept that a high quotient of affordable homes on new London developments is only reasonable.”

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, March 2014

Carlo Sant'Albano, Cushman and Wakefield, MIPIM international real estate show, Cannes: Global $1.3 trillion property market

Global property transactions are predicted to spike in volume and value during 2014. Property players promise to more aggressively chase London development opportunities, writes Paul Coleman.

Local politicians at MIPIM seek to cut 'regeneration' deals on public land with corporate developers

Transaction satisfaction

The predicted magic number for total 2014 global real estate transactions is $1.3 trillion (£800 billion).   

That's up from the estimated $1.2tn for 2013. 

It's just a number, albeit huge and possibly mythical.
But it's the pot of gold at the end of the real estate rainbow - and it's galvanising upbeat delegates at MIPIM, the 'international real estate show' in Cannes. 

People like Carlo Barel di Sant’Albano plan to make sure their clients get big handfuls from the pot of gold.
And they'll be grabbing as much as they can of London.

Sant'Albano, executive chairman of property services provider Cushman & Wakefield, quietly heralds the end of real estates' ‘dark years’ that followed in the wake of the banking and finance ‘meltdown’ of 2008.

Sant’Albano tells his fellow 'MIPIMites': “The lull in transaction volumes is over. Relative to the past six or seven years, it’s a totally different feeling. Investors are now willing to take decisions.

Appropriately and aggressively
“London continues to be a very exciting part of the world,” continues London-based Sant’Albano. “We have to find opportunities for our clients, to help them accomplish their strategic plans, as appropriately and as aggressively as possible.”

The United States and Western European cities, like London, will be crucial.

London’s ‘prime central’ property market therefore seems set to continue to drive up house prices, rents and land values across the city. 
In turn, Londoners on average and lower incomes will struggle further to find genuinely affordable homes.

Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, March 2014.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

MIPIM, Cannes, Monopoly, Sale of Public Land, Green Belt, Tax Breaks, High Speed 2, Camden Town

Politicians tell property developers and investors at MIPIM that publicly-owned land in London and the rest of the UK is up for sale, writes Paul Coleman.

Set-piece 'debates' conceal the public land deals conceived at MIPIM

Land grab

MIPIM, the ‘international real estate show’, hosted in Cannes in the south of France, shapes up like a global ‘Monopoly’ board game.
Players fling dice in the shape of millions of dollars at property in cities across the world.

London and other British cities offer specific potential profits to property developers and speculative investors – in the shape of publicly owned land, recently made available for private sale by locally elected politicians.

Richard Claxton, chairman of construction consultancy Pellings hosts a debate by asking: “Is the Green Belt the answer to London’s Housing Crisis?”  
The Green Belt, swathes of protected land around London, now no longer seems sacred.

Will London's green and pleasant Green Belt mutate into a greedy and unpleasant construction belt?

At Cannes, you find UK delegations totally support High Speed 2, the multi-billion rail link between London, Birmingham and other northern cities. “Sheffield, Nottingham and Leicester will have opportunities through HS2 opening up London to the rest of the country,” says Steve Norris of the Temple Group planning consultancy.

At Cannes you won’t find local folks from Camden Town protesting how HS2 might demolish their homes, businesses and destroy long-established family and social networks.

Tax breaks
Elsewhere, inside MIPIM, announcements fly. The Selly Oak hospital site in Birmingham – a former NHS hospital - is up for sale, reports Lisa Pilkington of property mag, Estates Gazette.
People under a ‘Sheffield City Region Enterprise Zone’ announce ‘expansion plans’ where investors will enjoy ‘tax breaks across a range of prime sites’.

Chunks of London attract global MIPIM property players, including areas deemed by politicians and the property industry as ‘rundown’, ‘underused’ and in need of ‘regeneration’.

Take just one of the many excited Tweets from property media outfit, Estates Gazette. ‘Greater portion of stock we’re buying now is beyond Central London. Pop growth means demand for resi so we see good value there.

‘London’s rising population means increased demand for genuinely affordable homes is pushing up prices in areas beyond central London.

‘More profits for us.’

Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, March 2014.

MIPIM, Cannes, London Mayor, London local councils, New York penthouse, Green Belt

MIPIM – the ‘international real estate show for property professionals’ – bathes itself in Cannes sunshine this week, writes Paul Coleman.

A taste of a Casino Royale lifestyle for MIPIM 2014 delegates at Cannes

Beware the Ides of MIPIM

It’s early March – and London’s Mayor Boris Johnson and several local authority officials sacrifice their precious time and flagging energy to suffer the climes of Cannes in the south of France.
Once again, Cannes hosts MIPIM – a kind of global real estate ‘tournament’ for property developers and investors - set against a James Bond Casino Royale lifestyle backdrop.

But, temporarily, heads swivel across the Atlantic to New York.
Specifically, eyes bulge upon 200, 11th Avenue, The One Penthouse, New York 10011.
A ‘Penthouse in the Sky’, for sale, at $23,000 million (£13,839, 583).

For your $23m, you’ll get three bedrooms, 3.5 bathrooms (!), inside 3,598 square feet of a re-designed, 1930s-built ‘slice’ of the 'Big Apple'.

New York property company Zillow predicts New York home values will rise almost 5 per cent over the next two years.

New reserve
We're not quite sure why all these dollar signs spin so furiously in MIPIM-dweller eyeballs. After all, isn't this where central London land and property prices seem destined anyway?

Lay aside gold, Bitcoin, and other crypto-currencies. 
London land and property now reigns as a new reserve currency.

Green Belt
Even outer London's supposedly sacred and protected ‘Green Belt’ open land seems up for grabs - as London becomes an offshore locus for global players seeking a ‘safe haven’ to stash their wealth.

All this begs several questions.
Notably, where in their own city will Londoners on average and lower incomes be able to afford to live?
Will this price boom bust?

Will parts of central London become a ‘void within a vacuum surrounded by a vast inanition’?

Blame London's Mayor. 
If the meaning of 'inanition’ escapes you. 
It's his verbal shebang.
One of his most cherished phrases.

Just like, 'London, a world class global city'.
You're welcome to a slice.
If you can afford the price.

Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, March 2014

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

RMT leader Bob Crow: final statement - condemns private train operators for dumping raw sewage on Britain's railways tracks, workers and passengers

Rail leader Bob Crow's final statement reviles the 'excremental' state of Britain's privatised rail network. 

Paul Coleman reports

Bob Crow (born 1961, died 2014)  leads rail union members
on anti-cuts march in central London in March 2011.
London Intelligence)

Last words matter

At 9.25am today, a press release from the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) lands in my Inbox (Tuesday, 11 March).
In the press release, RMT general secretary Bob Crow issues a statement calling on the government to stop the UK's private rail companies dumping raw human sewage from train toilets onto the tracks.
Track workers face pools of human waste.
Depot staff must scrape human excrement off train undersides.
There is no law requiring train operators and rolling stock leasing companies to retrofit controlled emission toilets to trains.

Last statement
Poignantly, Bob Crow's public statement is also his last. 
The RMT announces Bob Crow has died this same morning in an east London hospital.
Apparently, after suffering a heart attack.

Bob Crow's final statement today describes a literal situation.
But his words can also be taken as a metaphor.
Many passengers and public regard the state of Britain's privatised railways as excremental  - over-inflated fares, overcrowding, compromised maintenance and safety, lax regulation, and a lack of investment as private companies extract profits.

In the statement, Bob Crow says: "It is a shocking indictment on the state of our railways twenty years after privatisation, and with hundreds of millions of pounds a year being creamed off in private profits, that unknown amounts of raw sewage are being dumped and sprayed across the tracks up and down the UK, creating a disgusting public health risk  for staff and the public alike."

Pay the price
Crow concludes: "Not only is this a filthy way of disposing of human waste, but it also poses real health risks and dangers for RMT members out there working on the tracks and in the depots.
 "There is no point the government politely requesting that the private train companies desist. 
  "This rotten practice should be stopped once and for all and the train companies should be forced by the government to pay the price for upgrading the trains and employing staff to empty the tanks."

Rail companies and the Department for Transport were not available for comment.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, March 2014.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Network Rail, Level Crossing Safety, Apology, Reg Thompson, Transport Select Committee Report

Network Rail says sorry to bereaved families of people killed in railway level crossing accidents. But only after politicians say the company 'must apologise'.
Paul Coleman reports.

Floral tributes at Elsenham station where a train killed two teenage friends
at a footpath level crossing more than eight years ago (© London Intelligence)

A 'sorry apology'

Network Rail's new chief executive Mark Carne offers a "full and unreserved apology" to families bereaved by level crossing accidents (7 March).
However, Reg Thompson, father of 13-year-old Charlotte Thompson, describes Network Rail's apology as "utterly meaningless".
  Carne apologises for "failings" in managing public safety risks at level crossings and for "failing to deal sensitively sensitively" with bereaved families. 

But Carne's apology comes only as a reaction to scathing criticisms of Network Rail's handling of past tragedies - contained in a damning report published today (7 March) by a cross-party group of MPs on the House of Commons Transport Select Committee.
  In their report, MPs say Network Rail must provide information about why it failed to disclose key documents about a tragedy at Elsenham to investigators and to a coroner. 
  The documents, revealed only by a whistleblower, led to Network Rail being found guilty of health and safety breaches and a £1 million fine over the deaths of two teenage friends - Charlotte Thompson and Olivia Bazlinton - at Elsenham level crossing in December 2005.

Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne

Reg Thompson, father of 13-year-old Charlotte Thompson, describes Network Rail's apology as "utterly meaningless".
"We didn't hear anything at all from Network Rail for five and a half months after the accident," recalls Thompson. 
"Whereas we received support and messages of real compassion from the train companies, Central Trains and 'one' Railway.

"Network Rail did nothing, said nothing," adds Thompson. "Eventually we received a kind of standard letter from the then chief executive John Armitt, who said 'we're sorry for your loss', and that was that.
  "The company then went on to protest its complete innocence for a number of years, saying it played no part in the deaths of my daughter Charlie and her friend Liv. 
  "Only after the well-publicised court case in March 2012 when Network Rail was found guilty of breach of health and safety and negligence and incompetence in the deaths of our daughters- and was fined one million pounds - did the then chief executive Sir David Higgins personally say he was sorry.

"But the company has never apologised."

As for the apology on 7 March from the new chief executive Mark Carne, Thompson says: "I  very much hope that Mark Carne is a decent and serious human being - and I appreciate what he is trying to do.
  "But to have an apology eight years and three months after the accident - that had only come forth because a Transport Select Committee report has been utterly damning of Network Rail's behaviour and forced them to do so - is not a real apology.

"An apology is important. 
"To have said 'sorry' after the accident would have meant something. 
"But now, and within this context, it's utterly meaningless."

Note: In 2012-13, nine people - including four pedestrians - died in accidents at level crossings.

Letting children skate on thin ice (Photo: © Simon Weir)

More about level crossing safety after Elsenham, see the London Intelligence report: 

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, March 2014

Level Crossing Safety, Network Rail apology, Mark Carne, Transport Select Committee MPs report, Louise Ellman MP, Beccles

Network Rail's new chief executive Mark Carne says the company will continue to improve safety at level crossings after MPs say it has badly treated bereaved families in past accidents.
Paul Coleman reports.

Keeper closes the level crossing gates at Elsenham to open the railway to trains
London Intelligence)

Network Rail - "a full and unreserved apology"

Saying ‘sorry’.

A rapidly growing fad.

Look at Network Rail.
A new man takes over as chief executive of the company that owns and manages Britain’s railways.

First task?
Issue an apology over the way the publicly-funded company – under his predecessors – has treated bereaved families of people killed at level crossings.

Today. 7 March 2014.
Daffodils bloom.
Mark Carne has only just taken over as Network Rail chief executive from Sir David Higgins.
He issues the company’s latest apology – just as Higgins did when he first took up the job in 2011.*

Carne apologises
Carne says: “Today, I wish to extend a full and unreserved apology on behalf of Network Rail to all those whose lives have been touched by a failing, however large or small, made by this company in managing public safety at level crossings and in failing to deal sensitively with the families affected.
  “Nothing we can say or do will lessen the pain felt by the families of those killed or injured at a level crossing. Today Network Rail is a very different company to the one which existed at the time of these tragic accidents.

“As we made clear when we pleaded guilty during the Elsenham court proceedings, it was a watershed in the way we thought about our approach to the risk at level crossings, and how we treat victims and their families.
  “As a result of this transformation, level crossings in Britain are amongst the safest in Europe, but there is still much that we can, and will, do and the committee’s recommendations will help us in that endeavour.”

Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne

‘Must apologise’
But Carne’s apology only comes after Members of Parliament on the cross-party House of Commons Transport Select Committee launch a hard-hitting report on level crossing safety (7 March). 
  The MPs say ‘Network Rail must apologise for the way the company has handled past level crossing tragedies’. (Apologise – and cut deaths to zero by 2020).
  Carne continues: “The way Network Rail now manages level crossings has fundamentally improved, with investment totalling £130m over the last five years helping us to close almost 800 crossings and reducing the level of risk across the network by more than a quarter.
  “This progress is welcome, but we will never be complacent when it comes to public safety. As I start my term as chief executive I have made improving public, passenger and workforce safety absolutely integral to everything Network Rail does.

“There is much more we can do to make the level crossings that remain safer and we will continue to introduce new technology, upgrade crossings to include lights or barriers where appropriate and work with schools, communities and other organisations to spread awareness of our safety message.
  “We have agreed funding of more than £100m with the regulator to continue this work over the coming five years as we work tirelessly across the network to make our railways safer.
  “Restoring public trust relies on openness and with that in mind we made risk assessment information relating to almost all our 6,300 crossings available on our website. I will continue to explore ways to make our processes even more transparent so we can demonstrate clearly that we treat our responsibility for ensuring public safety with the utmost professionalism.”
  The MPs’ report makes 25 recommendations, ten of which specifically call on Network Rail to act.

On Network Rail executive bonuses, committee chairman Louise Ellman MP says: “Given that Network Rail has recently been held responsible for the serious accident at Beccles in July 2010, we do not believe executive directors should get any bonuses this year.”
  A ten-year-old boy suffered life-changing injuries in a collision between a train and a car at level crossing near Beccles in Suffolk in July 2010. An investigation by the Office of Rail Regulation found that Network Rail had failed over ten years to act on information about poor visibility of approaching trains.
  In March 2013, Network Rail pleaded guilty to breaches of health and safety law and was later fined £500,000.

Richard Parry-Jones, chairman of Network Rail, says on 7 March 2014, Network Rail’s Board, via its “independent remuneration committee” formed entirely of non-executive directors, will consider the MPs’ recommendations on bonuses.
  The company says annual bonuses for executive directors have either been scaled down or foregone completely in some years between 2010 and 2014, often reflecting level crossing safety concerns.
Level crossing accident fatalities have decreased in recent years. But nine people died in 2012-13.

* Sir David Higgins had only just taken over as Network Rail chief executive in 2011 when two undisclosed documents, revealed only by a whistleblower, showed the company knew as early as 2001 that a level crossing at Elsenham in Essex was highly dangerous but did nothing to make it safe.
Olivia Bazlinton, aged 14, and Charlotte Thompson, 13, were killed by a train at Elsenham station’s footpath level crossing on 3 December, 2005.

Letting children skate on thin ice (Photo: © Simon Weir)

More about level crossing safety after Elsenham, see the London Intelligence report: 

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, March 2014