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Archives for September 2010

The Somerset cider apple that took 25 years to grow

Dave Harvey | 15:22 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Live Aid concert, 1985

 

What were you doing in 1985? Mrs T was still in charge, and in her prime.

Bob Geldof held the first Live Aid concert for Africa, raising £30m.

The USSR chose a new leader, one Mikhail Gorbachev.

And in Long Ashton, outside Bristol, a young research pomologist began work on some new cider apples.

Twenty five years on, Mrs T and Gorbachev are history. But Liz Copas has just picked her first brand new apples.

Liz Copas, Pomologist

 


"We've done it, yes!" she jokes, "It took no time at all!"

When I met Liz at her trial orchard near Sandford, North Somerst, I am overwhelmed with the sheer patience of the woman. How can you stick at something so long? Why does it matter so much? And with over 350 varieties of cider apple already, why do we need four more?

Listening to her, I learned about the craft of an ancient industry. About attention to detail, and most of all, what cider-makers mean when they tell ministers they need "long term stability".

The orchard might be backlit by some pleasant autumn sun, but there's nothing romantic about this work. Lizzie and Angela, two of the new varieties, produce a crop about a month ahead of traditional cider apples. Most cider makers are starting to harvest around now, the beginning of October, and their presses will run flat out until December (ish). So a crop that can be put through early is a moneyspinner.

And why does it take 25 years to develop a new hybrid? I'll let Liz explain that one.
"We had to make sure they hadn't got any pests, we were looking for something easy for the growers to handle, a tree that would crop every year with nice large fruit to it."

Modern cider orchards contain lots of smaller trees, planted closer together than traditional orchards. Instead of huge spreading trees, with apples on the sunny side ripening ahead of those in the lee of the tree, growers prefer plants about nine foot tall. Lizzie and Angela will be even closer together, allowing mechanical harvesting similar to techniques used in modern vineyards.


 



So behind the soft focus shots of rosy apples and the promise of cider, this story is really about technical innovation. It could be a new car coming out of Honda in Swindon, or a fancy new wing design from Airbus. It just happens to be an apple.

But there's politics in these apples too. Cider makers are still locked in a battle with the treasury, defending their duty which is around half that levied on beer. Why? Because unlike beer, cider is a long term business.

Tipping apples at Thatcher's Cider Farm, Somerset

 



Martin Thatcher, whose land carries the trial orchards, shows me round his huge commercial cider mill. A tractor tips seven tonnes of apples from a trailer into a huge fruit pit. From there, the apple's journey is automated all the way to the bottle. So how long until we see a bottle of "Lizzie"?

"After the tests, probably another five years before we get a commercial orchard ready to pick. It will be ten years before these apples start making me any money."


From 2004-9 cider tax was held level. During this time, there was huge investment and huge expansion. Thatchers grew around 30% each year, recession or no recession. Then Alastair Darling announced the infamous 10% Cider Tax, and everything wobbled.

The coalition, of course, has revoked this, but uncertainty remains. Should Mr Thatcher plant up acres of Lizzie and Angela? If the taxes are to remain low, of course he should. But he needs that stability for at least a decade.


Cider is not the only industry that needs stability from government. But when you see an apple that has taken 25 years to grow, and won't make any money for another decade, you understand what they mean by long tem investment.


Dave Harvey amongst the experimental cider trees at Thatchers, Sandford, North Somerset

Is that a lot of cash? The Maths of the Spending Review

Dave Harvey | 13:05 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010

The South West could lose 116,000 jobs, according to the region's top economist.
Is that a lot of people?

Nigel Jump, from the SW Regional Development Agency, also reckons the cuts will cost us £4.2bn in this part of the world.
Is that a lot of cash?

Interestingly, the same number was used by George Osborne, promising to save money on welfare. Squeezing people who, in The Chancellor's words, make a "lifestyle choice to just sit on out-of-work benefits," will reduce the welfare bill by £4bn.
Is that a big saving?


Job Centre Plus, Bristol

 

Now don't get me wrong. 116,000 job losses is terrible news for 116,000 people. Mums, dads, breadwinners, each will have their lives turned upside down. Families who lose benefits will face undeniably tough times. But how do we measure the impact on the whole of the west country? In short, how do we decide if they are big numbers?

Over the next few months, we are going to be bombarded with big numbers. Ministers will claim they have saved billions. Unions will warn of job losses in the thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Contractors will plead that cutting this plane or that dual carriageway will decimate their business.

So I've found myself asking this question a lot recently: Is that a big number?
If you want to make sense of these cuts and decide if you think they are worthwhile, follow me on a short maths trail.

First, those 116,000 jobs. I wondered how many of the South West's jobs that represents. Can you guess?
(For all these numbers, by the way, we have to use the government's official "South West", from Tewkesbury to Land's End. You'll find all the statistical sources at the bottom.)

In June 2010 there were 2,520,000 people employed in the South West. So that new dole queue of 116,000 people represents 4%, or 1 person in every 25.

Is that a lot?

Well, the same figures reveal total unemployment in the SW was 165,000. So 116,000 new claimants would lengthen the region's dole queue by 70%. That is, by any yardstick, a big number.

But then you realise these jobs will go over four years. So we are now talking about 29,000 people a year, which would increase the jobless total by 17%.

Ministers, of course, will assure us that many of these people will find work in private companies, reducing the number still further. But maths can't help with that, you need a crystal ball.

UK Banknotes

 

My second number is 4,000,000,000. It's usually written '4bn', but I think it's worth staring at all the zeros from time to time.

If Nigel Jump is right, would £4.2bn be a big loss to the South West economy? Will Mr Osborne's £4bn benefit cut be a huge saving in the national welfare bill? Naturally, as a good BBC correspondent, I won't offer you an opinion, only some more numbers.

In 2008, the latest available figures, the South West produced £97.84bn in goods and services. This is the total "Gross Value Added", broadly similar to GDP. So that £4.2bn loss is slightly under 4%. And, once again, this will be over four years, so the loss to the economy will be 1% a year.

Surely a £4bn cut in benefits is a big number? Well, once again, what's the total? In the June 2010 budget, the total welfare bill is £194bn. So that cut is a little over 2%. If departments are going to reduce their budgets by 25% or more, Mr Osborne will be talking about £50bn coming off the benefits bill, not £4bn.

The trouble is, billions are blinding. Be honest, when we see politicians talking in billions, we glaze over. What would it mean for me?

I decided to work out how much the government spends on my behalf, each year. And by how much the cuts will reduce that personal budget.

There are real government numbers for spending in the South West. The total is £42,386,793,000 for 2009-10. And there were 5,231,000 people living here that year. So per head, we are talking £8,103. Now there, at last, is a number I can imagine. And here's how it breaks down.

Government Spending in the SW, 2009, per head

 

There's a graph, or a video - you choose.

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The big headline for me was that welfare bill: £3,482. Mr Osborne's £4bn cut translates as £65 in my personal budget, cutting it to £3,417.

So, is that a big cut?

I'm told that in Whitehall there are now three letters against which there is no argument: DRP. The "Deficit Reduction Programme". To eradicate the national debt (the structural deficit, to be precise) Mr Osborne needs to cut spending by £66bn over 6 years.

Now, last year 6.58% of national spending came to the SW, so we could assume that our share of the cuts will be the same, namely £4.3bn. In my personal budget, then, The Chancellor is looking for £822.

He has said he won't touch the £1,817 spent on health. So, you would think, the other big spenders are surely going to take a big hit. Against the total target of £822, does £65 still look like a big number?

Here are some numbers to keep in your pocket.

  • £696bn : Total government spending, planned in the June 2010 budget
  • £66bn. Total cuts needed to eradicate the structural deficit over six years
  • 5m: The number of people, roughly, in the South West
  • 2.5m The number of people, roughly, in work here
  • 0.5m The number of people, roughly, who work in the public sector here
  • £97bn The total "GVA" earned by the SW in goods and services in 2008
  • £42bn The amount spent by the government in the SW in 2009

Show me the numbers: Sources and Stats

The Budget, June 2010
South West unemployment numbers, and other job figures
SW Economic Indicators. Click on the "Regional Indicators" and you'll find all the numbers you could ever want on our economy.

'Scrap public pensions,' says pensions guru

Dave Harvey | 09:50 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

It was the battle Mrs Thatcher ducked.

"Leave it for another government," the former PM was reported to murmur, when presented with a civil service dossier marked "Public Sector Pensions."

The Iron Lady, famed for relishing a fight with miners or Argentinians, flinched when it came to dinner ladies' nest eggs.

Mark Dampier, Head of Research at Hargreaves Lansdown in Bristol

Well, now a man has picked up the dossier she dared not open. A man respected throughout the City of London for his financial savvy. As it happens, a rather affable man who doesn't usually go looking for trouble.


"I'm afraid my unpopular measure is simply, we must stop public pensions now, and replace them with private pension plans."

Mark Dampier is Head of Research for Hargreaves Lansdown, the massively successful investment brokers based in Bristol. The firm recently reported an 18% rise in pre-tax profits, they've signed up 48,000 new clients and now look after £17.5bn of people's money. So these people understand money.

Much of their expertise is in pensions or other ways of saving for your retirement. And Mark Dampier has long banged on about the need for more people to save. Never stops cajoling journalists like me to encourage youngsters to think about the dark day the pay check stops coming and they still have bills to pay.

So Mr Dampier is not "anti-pension". Far from it. What's he got against special pensions for firefighters and French teachers then, bin men and brigadiers?

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You can watch his whole argument here, if you like, as he sets it out on a special Points West Debate on the Spending Review, to be broadcast on Thursday evening, 9 Sept, BBC One, at 10:35. It will also be on the iPlayer, here.

I was at the recording, and I can tell you Mr Dampier didn't go down well. A teacher accused him of "raiding the poor to rescue the country from the mistakes of rich bankers". Council union people asked him if he'd like to work for twelve grand a year, and then have a fat cat steal his pension. A policeman, of 50, said millions of public servants like him had worked unstintingly in the national interest, and didn't deserve to be treated like this.

It's a lively debate, ahead of its time, and well worth watching.

The Points West Debate on Spending Cuts, filmed in Filton College, north of Bristol

"I wasn't surprised at the reaction," Mark Dampier told me afterwards, "but if anything it makes me more convinced."

Now of course he's not arguing teachers and nurses should be left with nothing, nor that people in their 50s should have the promised pension ripped from them just as they reach retirement. Future staff, he says, should have the same pensions as everyone else in the private sector, no more and no less.

What struck me was that this is an argument where the two sides pass like ships in the night. The public sector reaction is fueled by understandable emotion. Betrayal, anger, envy are everywhere. But Mr Dampier's argument is simply cold financial logic.

In 2008-9 the Treasury paid out £13,387m to NHS Pensioners. It was over a tenth of the total NHS budget of £119bn. (You can see the figures for yourself here , halfway down page 6). Since one in four public sector workers are in the NHS, a rough total for the national pension bill for retired government staff would be in the order of £50bn.

The point is, it's a lot of money. And public sector pensions are much more generous than private ones. Here's how Mark Dampier explains that:

"Take for example a nurse earning £25,000 a year. Currently she pays 6.5% of her salary towards her pension - that's £1,600 a year. We taxpayers then promise her a further 14% on top. Overall, £3,500 goes towards her pension each year.

Then take someone working in the private sector, a shop worker perhaps, also on £25,000 a year. On average employees like this pay 6% of their salary towards a pension - equating to just £1,500 a year - less than half what the nurse receives. How can that be right?"

Will his radical plan ever happen? That depends on a political calculation. Teachers unions, council unions, police officers and nurses can all be relied on to oppose change, perfectly understandably. But for every public sector worker in the UK, four people work for private firms.

So for every person furious at Mr Dampier's proposal, there will be four people who pay the bill he's trying to cut.

He know's it is unpopular, possibly brutal. But is there an option?

The rest of this argument is for you. Have your say, then come back and read what others say. Mark Dampier himself will read this page, and respond. I know it's an emotive issue. In 20 years in journalism, I've never reported a proposal Mrs T considered too hot to touch. Over to you then...

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