Ferry good indeed

I travel to Ireland quite a bit, and although I love the place it’s frankly a pain in the arse if you want to get to anywhere other than Dublin.

At the moment I mostly travel to a place about an hour south-east of Limerick. There are three airport options – Shannon, which isn’t well served; Dublin, which has dozens of flights per day but is a three-hour drive away or Cork, which isn’t well served, is 2 hours away but has a very nice hotel in the airport. So day-trips aren’t possible and there is always hassle with hire cars (Ireland seems to have mostly broken hire cars in my experience).

My normal route is an 90 minute drive to the airport (including parking time), 90 minutes wasted in check-in, an hour flying then 3 hours drive to the client. That means setting off at 4.30am and arriving, exhausted, at about noon. We then get half a day’s work done and stay in a hotel. Half a day’s work the following day then a dash back to Dublin to fly home, exhausted, arriving at about 11pm. In total we get about 9 hours with the client at the expense of 2 very long days.

I have accidentally found an alternative. Instead of the flying I am writing this from the Plus lounge of the Stena Adventurer. It takes a bit longer for sure – the drive to Holyhead is 3 hours and I still need to leave an hour for check-in. The crossing takes 2-3 hours depending on the exact ferry you catch. However, there are some serious upsides…

i) I haven’t had to lug my bags across a car park, onto a bus and through an airport. They are in the boot of my car.
ii) Check-in was a matter of reading out my reference number and hanging a card from the rear-view mirror
iii) At no point have I been frisked, had my shoes removed or had to place my laptop in a plastic tray
iv) There are three (yes, three) separate first-class lounges – one with leather-ish swivel chairs and plasma TV’s, one with meeting tables and one with just chairs. All have free drinks, snacks and waitress-service for full meals, reasonably priced.
v) The wi-fi is not just free, it also works. I don’t have to put my laptop away or fold up my table while we set off.
vi) the nearest person to me in the lounge at present is about 40 feet away. I can’t hear his conversation or smell his feet
vii) if the ferry is late (and it won’t be) it doesn’t matter. My car is downstairs, and when we arrive I’ll drive home.
viii) when I’m bored writing this blog I am going to go to my private cabin and have 3 hours sleep
ix) when I booked, I saw the price and that is what i paid. No ‘ferry terminal’ tax, extra charge for my golf clubs or a hidden fee for booking online / not booking online etc etc.

The price of the trip is £125 each way, plus £25 for the cabin (which I didn’t bother with on the day sailing out). It’s fully flexible – if you are late, just get the next one. If you are early, get the earlier one. Last time I flew it was about £150 plus the cost of the hire car.

So it’s half the price, 100% less hassle and Ryanair don’t get any of my money.

What’s not to like?

It must never happen again….

Last night I watched “The Miner’s Strike” on the telly. This morning I read a heartfelt and well-reasoned blog post on the subject, and felt compelled to add my tuppence-worth.

I was 13 at the time and the program simply reminded me of my perspective at the time. Born and bred in Wakefield, we too were pretty close to the reality of it, as were my wife’s family who all came from Grimethorpe.

Last night’s program astonished me in that the word ‘coal’ was hardly mentioned. It underlined the fact that the miner’s strike had very little to do with coal, even though it did start off as being ostensibly about the mining industry. It was a class-war, started by a power-crazed, dogmatic autocrat. And in the other corner was Margaret Thatcher.

Against the backdrop of a coal-industry that was oversupplying coal at loss-making prices after decades of massive public investment where clearly ‘something had to be done’ were two individuals who callously used their power to send good people into an appalling and distructive situation. I simply cannot understand how Arthur Scargill has escaped largely blame-free whilst the popular view is to rail against the police and just about everyone else. He started a strike without any vote and refused to consider anything short of total government and NCB capitulation.

The police did as they were told because that it was police forces always do. Individuals behaved very badly, as individuals do when forced to take sides. The pickets also did as they were told (or conditioned to do by years of “working class hero” culture) – they were equally manipulated by the NUM leadership who denied them a vote and rapidly became an embarrassment even to the Labour party they were affiliated with.

Orgreave was a dark day. It is widely portrayed as some kind of trade-union ‘Bloody Sunday’ and the misreporting of the events (for example the BBC showing events in the wrong order) certainly doesn’t help matters. There seems little doubt that the police initiated the violence, whether to protect themselves, property and the innocence or for some malevolent higher reason. However, that ignores the fact that somewhere in the order of six thousand pickets (including Scargill himself, complete with loud hailer) mobbed a relatively small place in Sheffield with the intention of forcibly preventing people exercising their freedom to simply go to work. 6000 people is not a picket line. It is an organised riot, and the police had to respond with similar numbers.

In the end, all parties lost. The miners lost their entire industry, partly because of the wider economic situation, partly because they got into a fight with the party that had seen their previous Prime Minister toppled by the NUM and partly because they refused to accept that change had to come.

The people, particularly in the coalfield areas of Yorkshire, South Wales and the North East, saw their society torn apart. Families went hungry and the ordinary “working class” people were divided and degraded. The UK in general squandered the opportunity to properly use a vast resource of energy, driven by a short-term economic view and lack of any real foresight.

Have we learnt any lessons? I don’t think so. Our current Labour government has misused the police and armed forces with a flair that would have taken Thatcher’s breath away. Angry protesters still flood the streets and have pitched battles with the police and achieve virtually nothing. Innocent people still die, whether they are walking home from work through London (see Saturday’s Guardian) or driving a taxi to a colliery. Young servicemen are still dying in numbers because of the political positioning, arrogance and fear of democracy of our government. Trade unions are still stacked full of people with political aspirations and an inability to see any bigger picture than ‘workers against management’.

But the most revealing part of the entire documentary last night was right at the end. The documentary had to wrap up with a quick 2 minute summary of what had happened post-strike and post-mining to the main subjects. Unsurprisingly, those pickets, who were fighting tooth and nail to “save their industry” because there was simply no other option have actually gone on to have happy, productive and fulfilling lives without the coal industry. Relaxed and smiling they told us how they had formed new careers and new skills. Things had turned out so well that they could look back on 1984/5 and say “wouldn’t have missed it for the world”.

That’s perhaps a lesson that large industries, governments and the trade unions could all learn. Change will come and fighting it is usually futile. If change is embraced and communities, businesses and governments work together then it can end well without all the pain, suffering and injustice of 1984.

Wanted : Politicians

As a kid I was quite interested in political debate and discussion. I’m no activist – I’ve never carried a placard and I only enjoy rallies if they have fast cars, but I did have fairly well-formed views on current affairs and would argue the toss until the cows came home. From being 18 right up to the General Election of 1997 I voted at every opportunity.

It was in 1997, when everyone around me was repeating the “time for change” mantra that I realised that I wasn’t going to vote. Not because I didn’t have strong views and beliefs, but because there wasn’t a single name on the ballot paper that came close to representing them. I remember driving to work and feeling quite odd that I wasn’t part of this great mood of expectation. I didn’t want New Labour in power and I equally wanted the Conservatives to lose.

Wind forward to 2009 and the European Elections. Living in Barnsley it really doesn’t make a fig of difference who you vote for so it’s quite hard to motivate yourself to bother, even if you do live 200 yards from the polling station. But although I hadn’t cast a vote in the last 15 years and I was more despairing of the political choices than ever, I was moved out of my armchair by the presence of the BNP.

The polling station is in the church next door to my daughter’s school and I took her with me to vote. As a bright and ever-so-slightly gobby six year old, she wanted to know who we wanted to win. I told her I wasn’t sure yet. We stood outside and studied the options. We went inside and studied the options. I picked up the pen and mentally ticked off all the people I couldn’t possibly vote for. In the end, I put a cross in a box. I didn’t vote BNP and so, above all else, I wasn’t the “one in six”. It was hardly a positive vote in favour of anything and I really struggled to explain it all to the wide-eyed kid who was asking me simple questions.

Since then I’ve thought a lot more about politics again. I now know a few things…

I cannot possibly vote for this Prime Minister. Brown cannot lead, cannot accept responsibility, cannot listen to the people he appoints, cannot listen to the people at all. He steadfastly refuses to be swayed by all opinion, right up to the moment where he does a total U-turn.

I cannot vote for the current Labour Party. They are steadily taking away our liberties and hiding behind the ‘war on terror’. They are spending a huge sum of money on an irrelevant nuclear deterrent, funding worthless quangos and giving jobs to GOATs, Mandelson and the rest of their ever expanding clique. New Labour has totally trashed the British political scene, undermining parliament and avoiding debate wherever possible.

I cannot vote Conservative. They have repeatedly leapt on the nearest bandwagon without any real policies or long-term vision. Their hunt for power is reminiscent of New Labour in the mid-nineties – desperately shedding any policies that look too “old Tory” whilst keeping just enough Thatcherism to keep the grass roots happy. They will win the next election because they will be effectively unopposed. I can’t say if that will be a bad thing; I don’t know what they plan to do.

I cannot vote Liberal Democrat. They have a refreshing honesty about their policies and are quite likeable. I like (wihout any deep analysis) the cut of their jib on environmental policy and I am, by nature, a ‘small L’ liberal. However, as an organisation they are hardly an inspiring machine and it’s hard to see Clegg, Cable and the other one whose name escapes me making a big impression on global politics.

So who can I vote for? The truth is, there is nobody out there for me to vote for. The centre-left has failed spectacularly when it could have achieved so much. Failure to engage in honest debates with people (and I mean real debate with real people, not courting the media and finely polishing presentations) has led New Labour into

  • a phoney war, with false objectives and no exit plan
  • economic meltdown which followed years of missed Treasury forecasts on growth and borrowing, not to mention endless independent comment that the economy was overblown which Gordon Brown steadfastly refused to listen to
  • an expenses crisis borne from fear of open debate on MP’s earnings falling educational achievement (despite rising GCSE grades) due to obsession with league tables and measurement
  • countless unresolved scandals – Ecclestone, cash for questions, the dodgy dossier

So now we have a pretty stark choice ahead. The far right obscenity that is the BNP or the opaque if not invisible Conservative manifesto. My personal politics are probably more ‘left wing’ than they have ever been before but the Labour party has made itself unelectable.

So, we need someone to turn the tide. Who is going to stand up and apologise for the mistakes of the past, present their ideas for the future and argue their case in the face of dissent? That’s the politics I want to see. I might disagree with you on a lot of things but you’ll probably still get my vote.

Google StreetView just saved me hours…

Much has been said about Google Streetview; it’s an invasion of privacy, it’s utterly pointless etc etc.  Well today we used it at work and it saved us a huge number of man hours.

We are currently working with a UK council to digitise their waste collection service, starting from entirely manual systems.  Before we can do the really clever bits we need to get a firm grip on the basic layout of the territory, who has what bins etc etc.  It sounds real easy, but you soon realise that whilst the great majority of premises are straightforward (house with 1 black bin and 1 green bin) there are lots of exceptions which don’t follow the norm

  • blocks of flats where dozens of ‘dwellings’ share a communal bin store
  • premises above shops
  • sub-divided houses
  • commercial premises

and the list goes on…

Asphaltic concrete road in Thailand

Today we were looking at these exceptions and trying to get a grip on exactly how many of these exceptions there are, and what the actual situation was.  It was a planning meeting to work out exactly what data was available and what needed to be done to get the computer systems to reflect reality.

This time last year, one or more of us would have spent half a day plotting some representative locations on a map then another day visiting each one and taking photographs.  Then a few hours documenting it all and presenting it back to the team.

Today, we gathered around the laptop and used Streetview to look around a few locations and survey how the bins were stored.  We found some in the middle of the road (!), some where several blocks of flats shared one or more different bin stores etc.  We did the whole thing in about 30 minutes and cut the ‘decision time’ from a week to an hour.  Pretty cool.

Is the Government having another try with ‘pay as you throw’?

The Daily Mail today carries a story about one of their favourite subjects – bin taxes. It reports that the Government is trying for push these through again after failing to attract any interest in its ‘pilot schemes’. Not surprisingly, the report is entirely negative and presents ‘pay as you throw’ as another Gordon Brown stealth tax.

Article here

I have several questions after reading this article.

  • what is this ‘huge public opposition’? The media regularly whip up a storm over this and tell us that we are totally opposed to ‘bin taxes’, but I don’t actually see any real feeling that rewarding recyclers with lower Council Tax is a bad thing. Although not reported, that would have been the outcome of the DEFRA pilot schemes.
  • what is the alternative? Landfill is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions whilst simultaneously wasting energy rich resources such as glass. How would the Daily Mail suggest that we divert waste from landfill now that those who are will to recycle are mostly doing so?
  • what other utility service do householders receive unmetered? Gas, water, electricity, window cleaning and everything else is paid for subject to the amount used. Why is waste so different and why do we cling so tightly to being able to produce and dump as much rubbish as we feel like? I’m not actually sure that the general public is that bothered about being asked to separate out resources from waste.

I believe we are missing the point.  Householders want to have a dependable and efficient waste collection service.  In recent times many of us have had our residual waste bin collected less frequently or reduced in size to force us to recycle more.  I have no doubt that this has been done for the right reasons (to reduce landfill) it hasn’t been popular and many councils are now faced with a hostile public, despite the fact that most residents have a considerably larger total bin volume than ever before.  In part this is due to natural resistance to change but also that many items still cannot be recycled (plastics in particular) and that availability of services differs greatly from one region to another.

Councils don’t necessarily have much control over any of this.  However, they must continue to improve services, reduce costs and drive up recycling.  It’s about time the lazy media stories were replaced with a serious explanation of what ‘pay as you throw’ really means – that it is a revenue-neutral means of forcing people to send less waste to contaminate our green and pleasant land.  The happy side-effect of this is that councils will pay less for disposal and earn more for reclaimed materials, which can be passed back to you and me as savings in Council Tax.

It can’t be that hard to sell, surely?

The Truth About Recycling

At last, a well written, balanced and accurate assessment of ‘how recycling works’.  This should be required reading for all politicians and special interest groups who think we can just keep on shoving waste in a black bin and tipping it into the ground.

The simple truth is that we have a constant supply of a valuable resource and regularly bury large quantities of it.  Everyone (central and local government, householders and businesses) should unite to put this material back into our economy.

The Truth About Recycling