Re-nationalise the water industry? No thanks.

On 1st July 1974 I moved to West Yorkshire to take up a new job with the recently created Yorkshire Water Authority as Pollution Prevention Officer on the River Aire. The Water Authorities had been created just three months earlier. That was the beginning of an interesting and challenging career, which continues to this day. The recent discussion, by the Labour Party, of taking the industry back into public hands bothers me, hence this (rather long, but it’s a complex tale) blog.

First a bit of history

The water industry was highly fragmented in the period up to and after the Second World War. The industry had largely developed in response to a growing population and increasing demand for water driven by the industrial revolution and accompanying economic growth. Each area organised its own water and sewerage services, often by an individual Act of Parliament or Royal Charter. This left different areas of the country with varying levels of water and sewerage services.

In 1945 there were more than 1,000 bodies involved in the supply of water and around 1,400 bodies responsible for sewerage and sewage disposal. Most of these were local authorities, but there were also several statutory private water companies. Planning for water resources was a highly localised activity, with little co-ordination at either a regional or national level.

Post-war legislation aimed primarily to consolidate water authorities so that they could benefit from economies of scale, and to provide funds for investment in rural areas.

The Water Resources Act 1963 led to further changes, which were in response to a severe drought in 1959 and flooding events in 1960. The Act recognised the importance of a co-ordinated approach to water resource planning and introduced an administration system for the right to remove water (‘abstraction permits’). This was intended to make sure that existing and future water resources were adequately conserved.

Restructuring of the water industry (1965-1989)

Although there was a general consolidation of water and sewerage services after the Second World War, and greater investment in the form of grants from central government, water supply and sewerage services were still provided on a local basis.

Responsibility in any one area lay with one of a number of different types of organisation.

Water supply:

  • individual local authorities (for example Wrexham Rural District Council)
  • joint organisations covering the areas of two or more local authorities (for example Doncaster and District Joint Water Board)
  • statutory private water companies which were set up by Act of Parliament (for example Cholderton and District Water Company)

Sewerage services:

  • individual local authorities
  • joint organisations covering the areas of two or more local authorities
  • In the late 1960s and early 1970s ongoing problems with water resource planning and future demands forecasts prompted further restructuring of the industry.

By now there had been chronic under-investment in maintenance of existing and construction of new assets to meet the demands of a growing population. Many rivers were grossly polluted, the River Aire was effectively dead below Keighley down past Bradford through Leeds and Castleford and down to the Humber. Water quality was a secondary consideration by engineers whose operating philosophy was once expressed to me (by one of those engineers!) as “If it’s wet it will do”.

Establishing regional water authorities

The Water Act 1973 established 10 new regional water authorities. These authorities were responsible for managing water resources and supplying water and sewerage services on a fully integrated basis. These authorities took over control of the services that local authorities had previously (not!) been supplying.

The area that each water authority covered was broadly based on river catchment areas. Existing statutory private water companies were unaffected by the changes.

The Water Act 1973 required the regional water authorities to operate on a cost recovery basis. Capital to meet the necessary investment was raised by borrowing from central government and from revenue for the services provided.

Central government set financial constraints and performance aims for each authority.

Trying to meet investment needs

Although the restructuring had some improvements, it was difficult for water authorities to invest significantly in their assets. Additionally, the structure of the authorities meant that they were responsible for both discharging treated water into the environment and also monitoring discharges into the environment – both their own, and that of others. At the same time during this period increased environmental demands were made on the water industry, both with the public in favour of higher standards, and from more stringent European legislation.

In response, in the Water Act 1983 the government:

  • made some constitutional changes
  • reduced (frankly, almost eliminated) the role of local government in decision making
  • gave the authorities scope to access the private capital markets.

These changes did not result in a significant decrease in the number of pollution incidents but there was little desire to provide any additional public finance to meet the demand for capital investment. With the privatisation of other public services already underway, the decision was taken to privatise the water authorities. This was enacted by the Water Act of 1989, which:

  • separated the functions of providing water and sewerage services, and monitoring discharge into the water system
  • allowed the privatised water authorities to borrow money to invest in water and sewerage services

Privatisation (1989 onwards)

The ten publicly owned water and sewerage authorities were privatised in 1989 (after initial plans for privatisation were put on hold in 1986).

Privatisation was achieved by transferring the water supply and sewerage assets, and the relevant staff, of the ten existing regional water authorities into limited companies (the water and sewerage companies). This was accompanied by:

the raising of capital by floating parent companies on the London Stock Exchange

  • a one-off injection of public capital
  • the write off of significant government debt
  • the provision of capital tax allowances.

Over the years most of the companies have been bought out by private investment funds and taken off the stock exchange. At the time of writing only three (Pennon  aka South West Water, Severn Trent and United Utilities   aka North West Water) are quoted companies.

Regulating the privatised companies

To protect the interests of customers and the environment, at privatisation there was further restructuring of the industry. This entailed separating the roles of regulation and the provision of water and sewerage services.

Three separate, independent bodies were established to regulate the activities of the water and sewerage companies. These were:

  • the National Rivers Authority (from 1996 this became the Environment Agency) – which took over the remaining functions, assets and staff of the water authorities as the environmental regulator
  • the Drinking Water Inspectorate – as the regulator of drinking water quality
  • the Director General of Water Services supported by the Office of Water Services (Ofwat) – as the economic regulator

These bodies now also regulate the statutory private water companies (the water only companies).

There is no doubt in my mind that there were two primary reasons for privatising the industry. The first was the reluctance of governments of all persuasions to fund the ever growing demands of regulation.  The second was a philosophical/political one to reduce the size of the state. These came together in a perfect storm under a Tory government led by Margaret Thatcher.

The second of these reasons is a matter of personal philosophy and whilst I personally feel that industries upon which the welfare of the nation depends, such as water and the NHS, should be in public hands others will disagree. It’s a matter of politics.

I do have to observe that the companies have become much more efficient than the public sector organisations with whom I work and much more agile on their feet and able to innovate and use new technologies. The public sector is generally much slower to make decisions and fearful of truly empowering staff because of fears of ‘upsetting the voters’ ‘setting precedents’ and ‘lack of control’. I genuinely believe that one massively beneficial side-effect (or was it an unspoken intent, who knows?) of the changes has been efficiency.

Before privatisation in 1989 – Britain was known as the “dirty man” of Europe, low environmental standards and poor drought resilience eg resulting in standpipes being used in 1976 drought As a regulator, in the early years Ofwat drove investment and greater efficiency through the five-year price reviews. And it worked. Customers and citizens  now enjoy better services and a cleaner environment. Compared to the early 1990s, customers today are:

  • about eight times less likely to suffer sewer flooding
  • and five times less likely to experience unplanned water supply interruptions.
  • A 99% reduction (338,000) in customers at risk of low water pressure, since 1990
  • Leakage is lower – it has fallen by 40% from a peak in 1995
  • Asset health is in a much better state – most companies reporting stable asset serviceability measures.
  • Water and environmental quality has improved – more than 100 Blue Flag beaches and fish in the Thames again
  • Capital expenditure has doubled since privatisation

It is simply not true that, as one commentator has claimed, the water industry has failed customers.

Financing Challenges

Ever more stringent standards required ever more financial and operational efficiencies and despite the investment of over £130billion and massive reductions in staffing (when I started Yorkshire Water had ca 10,000 employees, when I left in 2000 it has ca 4000) more needs to be done to meet society’s aspirations for clean rivers and safe reliable drinking water. The standards are not just bureaucratic wish-lists, they are almost all driven by sound science, the democratic decisions of the EU and incorporated into UK law. Us practical experts occasionally question the relevance of some but by and large they have driven the improvement of our rivers from open sewers in 1974 to a state where salmon are occasionally caught below Leeds on the River Aire (and are shortly to be returned to the spawning grounds, see DNAire) and our drinking water to a quality such that nobody need have any concerns about drinking it.

Further investment is necessary to meet the standards and the current negotiation with Ofwat about prices and investment for 2020-2025. Money does not come free. Whether it is provided from the capital markets or by government there is a cost – in the first case payment of interest to the lender and in the second by government borrowing on bonds. Both routes have to be paid for, and who would pay for them if not the population who use these services? Whether water and sewerage services are paid for publicy or privately is simply a matter of either rises in taxes or increased bills.

There are those who claim that “we did not have to pay for it when the local authorities ran it”. Well that is patently untrue. It was paid for out of your rate bill, which was highly subsidised by central government. The cost was hidden.

Let us just reflect on what else happened when the industry was last in public hands – investment was almost non-existent. The fact that the Victorians, who built nearly all of the infrastructure in place at privatisation, substantially overdesigned most of what they built could be said to have ‘saved’ us from an even worse fate that rivers that were open sewers and water contaminated with cryptosporidium, giardia and all sorts of other life threatening nasties.

Quality and regulatory issues

How often have I heard something along the lines of “Those water companies can do what they like, they get away with murder”. As someone who used to have strategic responsibility for ensuring that Yorkshire Water met its regulatory commitments for drinking water quality, sewage discharges to the environment and health and safety, let me tell you that there might have been times when we wished the regulator did not exist – but only in the same way as I occasionally wish the 70mph speed limit does not exist.

Every routine discharge to the environment must have formal consent from the Environment Agency, who have a duty to impose conditions appropriate to protecting and improving the environment. It is changes in these conditions which drive further investment, so every 5 years there is a delicate and challenging negotiation between the companies (who have to implement the results of the negotiation), EA (who want more improvement faster) and Ofwat (who regulate the finances). There is always more to be done than can be afforded and so Defra also have a role in agreeing what it is appropriate for the EA to ask for in the current economic and regulatory environment. Having spent the last 2 years of my time with YWS leading such negotiations, I know just how challenging it can be – we started out with ‘demands’ from the EA/DWI that would have cost £2.5billion over 5 years and ended up with a programme valued at £1.4billion and even that was only possible by increasing bills a little.

Water companies around the country are regularly prosecuted by both the Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Thames Water has the ‘privilege’ of holding the record for the largest environmental fine, a staggering £20.3million for repeated pollution of the Thames. Whilst it is right that the full weight of the law is brought to bear when serious incidents occur, the tragedy is that fines such as the £20.3million go straight to the chancellor and do not get spent on improving the environment. Recent provisions for civil penalties called Enforcement Undertakings offer the possibility that instead of a prosecution and equivalent penalty be paid to an environmental charity who must then spend the money improving the environment.

Accountability

Yes, a private company is lacking a democratic deficit and that is one reason that Ofwat, the statutory regulator, is keen on encouraging the companies to fill that gap. For the current price negotiation a series of ‘Customer Challenge Groups’ has been created with the express intent of challenging the companies’ plans.

An excellent paper https://www.ofwat.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Putting-customers-at-the-centre-of-a-regulated-monopoly-sector-DB-20-July-2017.pdf is available which traces the history of customer involvement in the industry.

The industry has long understood that only by satisfying customers will its reputation improve (and it did indeed have a poor reputation in the early years). Of course not all customers are satisfiable

Wasteful water companies!

The first wind turbine I ever saw was erected to power a remote pump delivering water to Bradford.

Water companies have long use anaerobic digestion to recycle sewage sludge and produce methane in the process.

Sewage sludge has been returned to the land as a fertiliser for hundreds of years. Following treatment, sewage sludge is either landfilled, incinerated, applied on agricultural land or, in some cases, retailed or given away for free to the general public.

One company has committed to planting 1million trees as part of its contribution to tackling global warming.

One company has committed to energy neutrality, generating all the power it uses and potentially exporting the excess to the grid.

It is claimed that Paris has leakage rates of ca. 10%, compared to 25-30% in the UK. A useful summary of the re-nationalisation of Paris water is available at http://research.ncl.ac.uk/media/sites/researchwebsites/gobacit/Anne%20Le%20Strat.pdf . This actually claims 5%, a figure which is hard to accept for us industry stalwarts. Leakage in the UK is too high for many and the public perception is one that needs changing. Part of the problem is the value of water. At ca £1 per tonne the economics of leakage control are a challenge!

Wasteful?

Overall…

Both history and experience has suggested that the environment is better protected and our taps better supplied when water is in the private sector. That challenges my own predilections for public ownership of such a vital asset, but experience in other fields shows how inadequate are public sector processes, how hard it is to get financing in the pubic sector and  how out of control pubic sector tendering and construction processes become.

At the time of privatisation, I held principled objections to the process. I still do, yet as a pragmatist I have to admit that we are much better off than we would have been had water remained in the public sector. Do I support renationalisation? No.

Silent Soldier

Silent SOldier at Tatton Park Flower SHow 2018I recently spent a day helping kids make dragonflies out of pipe cleaners. Well, actually I was engaging their attention while my colleagues chatted up their parents abut a big project we are developing in The Aire Rivers Trust.

One little girl approached the table quietly and announced “I am no good at making things”. “Let’s see, you can soon learn” I said and we set to slowly crafting a pink and purple beast with green eyes and white legs, the smile slowly forming on her face as she started to recognise where this bit of twisting and turning was leading to. We finished in a few minutes and the smile on her face could have it up Myrtle Park as she ran off shouting to her mum “Look what I have made!”. As I re-live the story, I feel the tears in the corner of my eyes as I recognise that this could have been a truly transitional moment for that little girl.

In recent months I have recognised that I tend to ‘tear up’ much more readily that I have done so in the past. The little girl, someone’s personal loss, recognition of some especially beautiful scene or experience…. I wondered what might be behind this – a suddenly discovered empathy, the older me no longer feeling a need to ‘hold it in’, or what? Was this a long-buried tendency or some newly-acquired trait?

Then a couple of days ago I was at Tatton Park Flower Show and came across a garden dedicated to the memory of the millions killed in World War 1. The garden was centred around a steel cutout representing a soldier, gun in hand, head in repose – they are available from There But Not There. The little garden stopped me in my steps – and those tears happened.

Flags list major conflicts since WW1 (The War to End all Wars) finished.

Flags list major conflicts since WW1 (The War to End all Wars) finished.

I was reminded of our trip to Northern France and Belgium a couple of years ago when we visited a series of key sites from WW1 and we did our best to vicariously experience the horrors of those millions who did so without choice. I said at the time that the only way I could deal with the emotion, as at Auschwitz, was to bury it.

It was that trip, that devastating experience that cracked the floodgates. The gates that ‘us men’ have been taught for years to keep closed – “Big boys don’t cry”.

YES THEY SHOULD AND DO.

 

Make the main thing the Main Thing

After a week on the ocean waves, the Ionian to be precise, I was ready for a couple of days resting my bones in a hotel on solid land. My friends Jon & Jenni offered me a lift and so I plugged the address of my hotel into the satnav and off we went. Not very far, only about 12 minutes according to the wonder machine without which our travel in Cephalonia, or indeed anywhere strange to us, would be much more difficult. But even so, as I was trasmitting the instructions I missed a turn and as the re-routing added 16 minutes to the original 12 minute journey we had to do a 180 and retrace our steps. But where to turn? The road was essentially single track and too windy to risk a turn in the road. So on we went for a minute or so until we found a property that had thoughtfully provided a turning area. Round we went and back on the right track…

No more than 150 yards back down the road Jenni suddenly asked “Was that your hotel?”. I hadn’t noticed but thought there was a possibility that the satnav had been taking me to the back door whilst we had just seen another entrance. So we back up and indeed we had just turned round the the entrance to the very hotel I was looking for and had not noticed! How could we do that, after all there was a huge great sign announcing “Hotel Galaxy” in lit up blue letters!

A few hours later that old phrase from Steven Covey  “Make the main thing the main thing” popped into my mind and I realised what had happened. I had been so focussed on the process – following the satnav instructions – that I lost sight of the outcome – arriving at the hotel.

Do you ever make that mistake – letting the process become more important than the outcome? Never forget what the journey is about. If you are on jollidays then the journey may well be as important, or even more so, than the destination. But in business, it’s the product, the outcome, the deliverable, that is the only reason you are following a process.

Nothing wrong with MY pituitary, thank you

Just over one year on and I have an appointment with the neurosurgeon to review my latest MRI scan. The last time we looked at what was left after surgery there was too much debris in the void to make meaningful conclusions, although the surgeon was confident that nearly all of the tumour had been removed. This time the MRI was quite clear and we were able to see that only a tiny fraction remained, as was suggested immediately after surgery. The propensity for regrowth is low and it seems very likely that I will never need any further interventions (no Gamma Knife Surgery, for example).

I have spent the last year quite confident that the issue had been dealt with, at least so far as the actual adenoma was concerned, and was slightly surprised to find that a small residue of tension was released at this review. I walked out of the consulting room as if on air suspension, not just knowing intellectually (because my surgeon had told me so, and why should I doubt him) that the lump had gone but having seen the absence with my own eyes.

A further review in 12 months was set up alongside a further check of my visual fields (Goldman Test) and it seems that all we have to do now is keep an eye on hormone levels. Less than a month ago I had an review with the endocrine registrar and subject to a further blood tests and review 2 months from now all seems well.

So, to all intents and purposes, it’s all over. On 28th May 2015 I found out that I had a large pituitary adenoma and started this diary the day after. Today I am declaring it closed. It has been an ‘interesting’ journey, from the despair of those first few days when I thought I was living my last, through the totally avoidable administrative shambles, two postponements while I was at the hospital waiting for surgery, relief at waking up with family around me, delight at the lack of pain following surgery  and then the subsequent recovery and settling down back to life as normal. I know that others have had a much more challenging time than I with this particular problem and am relieved that it was caught before doing any serious irreparable damage to my eyesight or hormone balance. To the people at Biobank who discovered the adenoma incidentally, those of you who have ridden along with me, to those (Suzanne especially) who have held my hand and hugged me when I needed it (not very often, toughie that I am!), who have written notes of support and who have had me in your thoughts and not least to the hugely skilled surgeons I say “Thank You”.

And finally to anyone out there who has found out that they too have such a pituitary adenoma, good luck and remember to ask all those niggling questions you have in your mind for the doctors and nurses will be able to answer them and reassure you.

Retire – to what?

I want to start this piece by thanking Yorkshire Water’s pension scheme and HM Government for creating the conditions that allow me to write the post. Read on…

For many years I have spoken with people looking forward to retiring and for many years I have wondered what the word meant and whether or not I should succumb to thealleged temptations thereof

The first question I have tended to ask those looking forward to retiring is “retiring to what?”. They tend to know what they are retiring from, but the “to what” question is often more challenging. After all, there do seem to be a lot of people in jobs they don’t actively enjoy and I can hardly blame them for wanting to escape – but to what? The question often stumps my clients.

And now it may be stumping me.

Well, for some time friends and colleagues have been asking me if I am retired yet or when I am going to do so – and I have always replied along the lines of “It depends on what you mean by retirement”. After all, I am 66 and drawing both company and state pensions!

One definition of ‘retirement’ that I have used, and the one that seems to make the most sense to me, is the cessation of paid work – the ‘paid’ being important, because digging the garden is work, cooking is work, blogging is work… – and that’s the challenge that I face now. For the first time since I left my employment with Yorkshire Water 17 years ago I have no paid work in my diary. Moreover, I am not very motivated to do much about that. I’m happy to consider anything that comes my way, especially if it is short-term (coaching, training interventions – end of advert), but as we can get by (OK, a bit more than just get by) on my pensions there is not a huge financial incentive.

But the word ‘retirement’ brings baggage with it, as indeed does any word.

There is a folk myth that ‘back in the day’, when ‘men were men’ and physically wore themselves out doing manual labour for 50 years, the average life expectancy after retirement at 65 was around 2 years. (Actually I can’t find much evidence for this, back in the days when the state pension was first introduced  – the first pensions were  paid on 1 January 1909 to around 500,000 people aged 70 or more at the time only one in four people reached the age of 70 and life expectancy at that age was about 9 years.) Current life expectancy at age 65 is ca. 19 years. Now whether this myth is true or not, I can understand that as a piece of baggage it might inhibit some people from making that  jump to retired status – irrational yes but we are not rational beings.

So what other baggage might the word bring with it?

  • Feet up in front of the fire, slippers on, pipe lit, glass of whisky in hand, telly blaring out Eastenders…
  • or perhaps endless days on the golf course, watching cricket (neither a lot of cop in the winter unless you can afford to migrate to sunnier climes for 10 months of the year)…
  • or merrily frittering the day away babysitting those grandchildren who are the offspring of the children you spent so long encouraging to leave home…
  • or (over?) involving yourself in the Parish Council and getting frustrated with its inability to actually make any changes…
  • or ????

My point is that you are going to be ‘doing’ this retirement thing for, typically, 20 years so it might be worth giving the subject of how you spend those 20 years a bit of forethought. No employer is going to drive your day for you with this project and that, it’s up to you and me to find our own way to enjoy ourselves – for what is the point if we are not enjoying ourselves. I have a sign on our fridge that seems relevant here

“I do not intend to creep quietly through life only to arrive safely at death”

So my question to you, and to myself, is “What are you going to do that fills your soul, that you enjoy, that you will get out of bed for, that you will happily spout on about to your friends, that is your passion?”

Well?

Inspirational ripples

 I was wandering around my old files today when I came across this little piece that I wrote yet didn’t publish back in Autumn 2009.

I was thinking about how the little fountain I rested against offered a metaphor for change…

Market day in Tonneins – busy busy, hot hot, dusty dusty; lots of French (and a few English) locals, the usual North Africans, tourists, migrant workers for the plum/corn/sunflower harvests. The ‘ethnics’ all at one end with their brightly patterned and coloured clothing, their spices; the locals sifting through market stalls filling with fleeces and other autumn and winter clothing, picking the sweetest and juiciest tomatoes, melons, the first of the season’s prunes and the last of the haricots verts, jaunes et noirs.

It was an unprepossessing little fountain near the riverside ; no more than a piece of local rock about 6ft wide with a hole drilled through it and six 12” jets of water spurting from the top, splashing on the rock and into the pool around the rock. Still it offered a coolish resting place and the gentle tinkle of water on water. I sat on the surround for a brief rest, the fountain to my back. Drifting into some heat induced trance, I noticed the occasional wet spot appearing and disappearing in front of me, several metres away from the fountain. It’s not raining, no local child with a water pistol, they can’t be travelling so far from the little fountain – what’s going on?

Sherlock Holmes kicked into action – yes they were coming from the fountain after all, very occasional little splashes hitting the rock at just the right angle to reflect them out across the pool so far away as to seem improbable. The pool, and the ripples of the water splashes, had my attention…

As I watched, entranced by the ripples, I noticed that sometimes the surface was relatively calm, at others turbulent with the interactions of several ripples; sometimes small splashes, at others large blobs of water would disturb a great part of the pool – ever changing and always something happening, my attention gripped by the circles of light and dark as the ripples shed their shadows on the pool bottom. Always light after dark, the shadows fading as the ripple spread out across the pool, intersecting ripples throwing up sun-bright spots and night-dark shades.

I am sat focussing on the ripples and their shadows before my eyes, only just now noticing the contents of the pool – what was in the pool, on the bottom, floating on the surface, coming into eyeshot. Bunches of grapes, last night’s coke can, single leaves and leaves formed into mats solid enough to resist the charms of the water splashes, tiny tiny fish, gnarled rocks and smooth pebbles.

Suddenly a tsunami! Now the local boys had started playing in my pool, all the time they had been creeping up and now they struck coming from outside my viewpoint to change the whole pattern of my little ripples.

 

 

Well, I could sit here and philosophise or I could actually go get my pen and paper and record these thoughts – so I do so.

 

Coming back to the fountain I can see nothing, the glare of the sun on the ripples totally bleaches out everything. But as I walk around the pool to my starting place, the glare reduces as the angle of the sun changes until I can finally see all the original detail. It was worth coming back. I sit, I think, I write, I remember that 30 metres away from this mesmeric little pool, perhaps 3 metres across, flows the mighty Garonne River as wide as a bus and as deep as a house; strong enough to sweep away this little piece of rock without even blinking an eye. I notice again the hundreds of people going about their daily business all around whilst I muse on ripples and their metaphorical relationship to organisational change. I move on – if I stay I get damp or sunburned and neither of those is in your writer’s plan…

 

 

 

Inspiration from the most everyday objects – just let your attention flow…

 

 

 

Pay attention to the tiniest detail of your environment…

…to the unexpected…

“…there is something interesting going on here…”

…stick with it, investigate.

 

 

 

 

Never the same yet patterns of similarity

Some actions have little effects, some are more traumatic

 

 

Calm after the storm…just wait…

 

Sometimes you get the occasional really  difficult challenge

 

Don’t get mesmerised by surface noise – look below/through to see the deeper structure and/or what is not changing. Keep your eyes open for what is just out of and coming into view – it may be more important than your current focus; or it may temporarily make your current efforts pointless. Is what you are observing part of the underlying issue or is it an artefact – perhaps of someone else’s fiddling?

 

Take action – thinking never changed a thing, only actions change the world

Observation — Insight

Action — Change

 

Review the challenge from different angles – what may seem impossible with one set of eyes may not be through another.

 

Be aware of the wider world – you might be deeply embedded in your problem, others might not care less!

 

…and when it’s time to go. It’s time to go.

 

 

 

N****rs in the woodpile

Racist or ignorant?A Tory MP was recently recorded using the phrase “Nigger in the woodpile” when speaking about Brexit. She was castigated for use of the term, with the inevitable suggestions of racism. Whilst not condoning the phrase in any way, I want to offer (for the purposes of discussion) another hypothesis – that she is simply ignorant.

Looking at her, she seems to be from a similar generation to mine, brought up in the 50/60s when this phrase, along with “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo…” was in common use and well before ‘we’ started to recognise the implicit (if not occasionally explicit) racism in the use of the ‘N word’. As a child, I happily used the two phrases already mentioned as well as many others we would nowadays regard as ‘beyond the pale’. I was ignorant, not in the colloquially sense it is often used to insult people, but in the literal sense of ‘not knowing’.

Now perhaps by now this woman should have learned about the offensive nature of her words, and perhaps she hasn’t. Maybe she is so isolated from society in general that she isn’t exposed to the issues of racism, or indeed other ‘isms’, that she genuinely does not realise how offensive she has been.

I guess that this plays in to one of the long-argued views about intent. Can one really be guilty in the absence of intent? This principle even is established in UK) law with the phrase “actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea, i.e. “the act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty”. So whilst ignorance of the law is no excuse and will not stop you getting pursued through the courts, the absence of intent will work in your favour.

So was this woman racist or ignorant? What do you think? Do let me know.

Infantile representatives

A few days ago MPs were heard to cheer when a Labour amendment to terminate the 1% cap on public sector pay was defeated. This post is not about the politics of that decision, but the behaviour itself. Behaviour that would and should be challenged in many ‘lesser’ institutions than the Houses of Parliament and which, in my opinion, devalues the House itself.

Politics is currently, like it or not, an adversarial process. I might wish otherwise. Perhaps a more collaborative, consensual, partnership…approach might be desirable (especially in a house with no inbuilt absolute majority) but that seems far away given the current predispositions of most of our politicians. Too many seem to have too much to win/lose, both personally and politically, to want to work with others to seek the best for the  country rather than the best for themselves or their party (which of course has the only correct answers tot he many challenges we face).

I think that thoughts on the adversarial system itself had better wait for another day, with the exception of the unfortunate behaviour that seems to be associated with ‘winning’ – namely this tendency to boorish (my judgement) behaviour towards the losers.

Not only do we have the Commons (OK, just over half of them) cheering when civil servants’ pay is restrained, but listen to almost any Parliamentary Questions (especially PMQs) and  the ‘yah boo’ brigade are out in force on both sides.

Behaviour that would not be acceptable in a school debating society has become the norm in arguably the most important debating chamber in the land.

The House of Commons has got so raucous in recent months that Speaker John Bercow was moved to warn MPs in November that he was receiving “bucketloads” of complaints from the public about their “low-grade, down-market and unnecessary” misbehaviour.

This quotation is from 2013 and despite the best(?) efforts of at least two party leaders little seems to have changed. If Speaker Bercow can unilaterally decide that ties are no longer required to be worn, then what’s stopping him making a rather more significant decision to clamp down on boorish behaviour? Parliament should not be a raucous side-show and a few well-timed remonstrations accompanied by threats of expulsion and/or refusing to accept questions from the relevant MP and/or closing the session would surely make a difference? If the party whips really want to ‘enforce’ the views of their leaders and create a more ordered Parliament then how about them enforcing better behaviour – they are quite happy to reward loyalty or toadying and to punish disloyalty, so perhaps punishing simple bad behaviour might also work.

But of cause, all of this requires MPs as a whole to actually want to improve!

The blame game – and why we should avoid it.

Grenfell TowerMy brother in law is a recently retired airline pilot who has not only been flying planes since he left school 40 years ago but has been training the pilots of tomorrow for some years now. Yesterday we ended up talking about Grenfell, the Challenger disaster, the floods of 2015, drinking water pollution and airline safety. Apparently unrelated subjects one might think; but think again about how those things are investigated and the link becomes clear.

Let me start with a short personal story about drinking water pollution – people ill, huge costs and disruption and a serious possibility of prosecution of the company. My job was to conduct an investigation into the causes of the incident and suggest remedies. I completed my investigations and made my recommendations and presented them to the relevant Directors, leading to a ‘discussion’ with my Managing Director when I refused to put any names into the report or to assign blame to anyone. He wanted somebody to point a finger at, to sack. But would the people who so willingly helped me investigate a very tricky incident have been so helpful had they feared for their jobs? I suspect not.

What about the Xmas 2015 flooding? Well, as Chairman of The Aire Rivers Trust, I have been heavily involved in the aftermath of those floods looking at the causes, effects and future remedies. What has been especially ‘disappointing’ has been the amount of overt and covert politicking (with both lower and upper-case ‘p’) surrounding the whole process. This politicking, much (maybe most) of which as come from elected councillors does little to further the cause and only serves to demoralise the committed officers working on the schemes. Moreover it sows doubt about the accuracy and veracity of the various reports and recommendations, in turn feeding rather than calming the understandable public concern about what happens next time it rains.

Finally the Challenger disaster, which was rigorously investigated and which was ultimately held to be essentially ’caused’ not by the technical failure of a o-ring that had been identified and for which a ‘No launch’ recommendation had been made by the technical experts, but by the managers who decided to over-ride the engineers’ advice in order to protect their company’s position.

The similarity in all of these seems to be a desire by some parties to investigate rigorously, butting up against a wish by others to point the finger, to blame. I will come to Grenfell in a minute, but by now my point may already be coming clear.

For many years, the airline industry has had a ‘no jeopardy’ form of investigation. One which has led to continuous increases in the safety of an already very safe form of transport. The purpose of an investigation should be to establish all of the facts and the inter-relationships between them in order to prevent repetition. For any investigation to be able to establish the true facts of an incident it is necessary that the participants can ‘have their say’ and report their understandings and for the investigators to be able to dig into every detail and nook and cranny without ANY of them prejudicing their career or the possibility of legal action against them.

Will, even can, this happen for the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower? We have Politicians of one ‘colour’ blaming the other, and the other blaming the one; we have debate raging about the Fire Safety Assessments, about the Building Regulations (and who is responsible for enforcing them in the light of them being ‘privatised’); we have some pointing the finger at illegal sub-letting (as if illegal sub-letting justified the occupants to be burned to death), the companies responsible for supplying and then fitting the cladding are covering their legal arses, the officers who commissioned the work will be feeling very uneasy (especially those who encouraged the cost-saving measures that may have resulted in less safe cladding being fitted), we have a local authority absolving itself of responsibility because it was social housing run by a housing association not themselves…add your own complicating elements to the list.

Amidst all this we have at least 76 dead, grieving relatives, annoyed survivors and thousands more in similar accommodations who are not only seeking answers but looking to find fault. We seem to have a natural tendency to want to find someone to blame when accidents occur and that is playing out big-time here. But will that help in the long-term? Even if blame could be allocated, would it bring back the dead, would it sooth the anguish and the fears? And would the prospect of blame being allocated inhibit individuals and corporations from being completely open in their collection and giving of evidence?

When you run into the back of the car in front, it is usually ‘he braked suddenly’ rather than ‘I was going too fast, too close, not looking ahead of the car in front for possible emerging hazards’. When my house floods it is not because I failed to take the many resilience measures that I could have done but ‘because they didn’t build proper flood defences’ or ‘the farmers are causing increased runoff’ or even ‘climate change’ (as if we were not all contributing to the latter). It’s psychologically ‘safer’ to find someone to blame than to accept my own failings.

So back to Grenfell. Will the public inquiry set up a ‘no jeopardy’ process – no, because much of its’ evidence will be held in pubic and so anonymity (an essential part of a no-jeopardy process) cannot be guaranteed. How can this be set up? Sorry but I do not know, what I do however believe is that such a no-blame process is necessary if we are to truly identify and learn the lessons from this tragic event. Maybe just highlighting the issue and asking the question might help someone else to pick up the baton and see what can be learned from the air transport industry’s processes.

Shattering memories – updated

Lefkada deserted village 2One day, while wandering around Lekfada Island (In the Ionian, in case you didn’t know), we came across this deserted village. Houses broken down and looking as if they might have been left in a hurry. We mused about earthquakes, displaced ethnicities, economic disaster etc and it was only  later that we found that the village had been hastily abandoned after a traumatic earthquake some years previously.

Now earthquakes are nothing new in this region and they are caused by three Lefkada deserted village 3tectonic plates which meet in the area of Kefalonia, Ithika and Zakynthos (Zanti). Apparently the plates, which are in constant motion are causing Greece to sink slowly into the Aegean. A major quake centred on nearby Kefalonia in 1953 was felt in Lefkada, but the real damage was likely done by one in Lefkada on August 14, 2003 – 50 years to the week after the 1953 quake.

I find it hard, if not impossible, to imagine such trauma. We regularly hear of earthquakes and other equivalent tragedies on the TV and radio, yet we are inevitably somewhat dissociated and insulated from them. Here I am so many years after the poor people watched and heard and felt as their word tumbled around them, not realising in the instant that they were witnessing the end of their village. The sadness was almost overwhelming, even so may years later.

As we wandered, we found NO evidence of the people who had probably lived here for centuries. Nothing, zip, zilch. Perhaps the odd bit of plastic suggesting that someone was trying, or had been trying, to keep the walls dry (essential if they are not to deteriorate beyond repair). A herd of goats could be heard tingling awaDeserted village in Lefkada following Earthquakes 1y at the far end of the village when we noticed the odd sign of regeneration starting. Was this one old owner returning? Was it the beginning of a complete rebuilding? Who knows? Whatever was happening, it was a sign of hope, a sign that perhaps this centuries-old village was not dead for all time.
Plagia starts to regenerate

UPDATE

Thanks to the wonder of Tripadvisor Forums I have found out more about this village. Firstly, that it is not on Lefkada but actually on the mainland just across the water and is called Palia Plagia. It is sometimes known as Old Plagia because the village has apparently been moved nearer to the coast after the earthquake that caused the devastation in the photos above. Here is a Google map of the location.