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Archives for November 2010

North East economic reports - half empty or half full?

Richard Moss | 12:12 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010

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Half-filled beer glass

Half full, or half empty? Your view of this beer glass might also reflect your take on the region's economic prospects.

Two assessments of the state of the North East economy have been released this week.

On the face of it, they sound like they come to contradictory conclusions - one gloomy, one optimistic.

But in actual fact, it's more a case of whether you see your glass as half empty or half full.

The more scientifically-rigorous one was released by Durham University and regional development agency One North East.

It used the University's economic model of the region to assess the likely impact of the Spending Review.

It estimates that the cuts will cause around 50,000 job losses.

While most of those will be in the public sector, the study predicts that 20,000 will be private sector job losses connected to the retrenchment in government spending.

It says sectors like construction, manufacturing, retail and financial services could be badly hit.

And it estimates the cuts will wipe £1.8bn of potential growth from the North East economy over the next five years.

The other piece of research was released by Conservative Graham Robb's Darlington firm Recognition Marketing.

It's been tracking every positive announcement made by the region's private sector since the summer (It doesn't list the negative ones).

And it's found evidence of what it calls a "discernible" private sector recovery.

In all, it says more than 10,000 jobs have been created in the North East over the last few months.

It also found there'd been £2.2bn of new investment in business, and £767m worth of new orders placed.

James Wharton

Stockton South Conservative MP James Wharton believes a sustained private sector recovery is underway.

The Stockton South Conservative MP James Wharton says the research is a healthy counterpoint to what he sees as the doom and gloom spread by Labour and the trade unions.

He sees the emergency budget as a positive - keeping interest rates low and giving businesses tax breaks.

He says: "We all know the region's economy is in a state of transformation... as the public sector makes changes, however, the private sector is doing its bit and we can see that growth is taking place."

So who's right?

Actually both could be right.

The Durham University study also identifies a significant private sector recovery.

It also expects that to continue over the next five years.

But it suggests that recovery will be slower and more painful because of the public sector cuts.

In reality, it's probably too early to say where we are heading.

There are signs of recovery, but the heaviest impact of public sector cuts are yet to hit.

It may take another 12 months before we know whether the optimists or pessimists were right.

Who do you blame for the cuts?

Richard Moss | 13:36 UK time, Sunday, 28 November 2010

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Students protesting in Newcastle

Students protest against a planned hike in tuition fees, but who's to blame?

Almost every political discussion seems to lead back to the same question.

Whenever we debate cuts, Coalition representatives say they've been forced into it by the mess Labour made of the public finances.

Labour then say that's nonsense, and claim the cuts are unncessarily large and are being pursued for ideological reasons.

It's an argument that's becoming overfamiliar and perhaps even tedious.

But it is a crucial debate, because the future electoral prospects of all three main parties will depend on who the public believe.

Labour has struggled so far to shrug off the charge that any cuts are really its fault.

But at the same time, when anger erupts on individual measures such as tuition fees, or the cancellation of school building programmes, the Coalition feels the heat.

The Politics Show went out and about in Newcastle this week to gauge opinion.

But to be honest, I'm not sure we're any the wiser, as public opinion does seem to be split.

It wasn't hard to find shoppers who do think Labour's management of the public finances has played a significant part in the need for cuts.

But again when we visited an individual community project in Newcastle affected by cuts, the people using it blamed the Coalition.

Labour will hope to capitalise on those feelings.

But there is a challenge ahead though.

Although the party will clearly want to ride on the back of individual campaigns, Labour leader Ed Miliband will stand accused of having no coherent alternative.

He's now embarked on a two-year review of the party's polcies, but clearly he can't wait for those reviews to report to decide on his strategy.

He says there's growing anger against cuts, but how can he make sure that anger is directed at the Coalition, and not his own party.

Let me know who you think is the blame for the cuts.

Why William Armstrong still matters 200 years on

Richard Moss | 15:45 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

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William Armstrong

William Armstrong has been described as a genius, an inspiration and a warmonger.

He may have been born 200 years ago this week, but the legacy of Tyneside industrialist William Armstrong is still being debated today.

For many he's an inspiration, but for others he has a darker side.

I've been digging into the remarkable history of Armstrong for a film about whether he's purely an historical figure, or someone with something to say to people today.

A leaf through a fascinating new book about him demonstrates that he is just as relevant now as he was in Victorian times.

Henrietta Heald's William Armstrong - The Magician of the North catalogues the astonishing breadth of his interests.

He was an innovator; generating the world's first hydro-electric power, developing the science of hydraulics and even speculating on a future where we'd have to replace coal with solar and wind power.

But he also had a keen business mind, turning his inventions into a global business which employed 25,000 people in Newcastle.

He was a social climber. His grandfather was a cobbler, but by the end of his life as Lord Armstrong, he was hosting the Royal Family at his home.

Cragside

Armstrong created the beauty of the Cragside estate.

He also loved nature, collecting many of the exhibits in the collection at Newcastle's Hancock Museum.

And of course he created the amazing landscapes of Jesmond Dene in Newcastle, and Cragside in Northumberland.

But he also invented modern weaponry.

Before he began developing guns in the 1850s, the British army's artillery was crude and limited, and had barely been improved since the Napoleonic wars.

He replaced cannonballs with shells, rifled the barrels, and by the end of his life, his guns could hit targets eight miles away.

And so his legacy has been both claimed and condemned.

Conservative peer Lord Michael Bates quotes him as a modern-day example to those who say the North East can't generate its own jobs.

He points to Armstrong as a local man who created a global business and thousands of jobs on Tyneside without any government grants.

Indeed, he wants to see a trip to Cragside made compulsory for every primary school pupil to see what could be achieved by an entrepreneur.

Environmentalists also want to claim his legacy.

Even in the 19th Century, Armstrong was talking about the need to move away from burning coal to using renewables.

He harnessed the rivers around Cragside to power the new electric lights in his house.

Armstrong's Number One Gun

Armstrong hoped his guns would never be used in anger.

But he also raises the hackles of those who oppose the arms industry.

Valerie Anthony from the Newcastle Campaign Against Arms Trade, would love to have seen Armstrong spend more time helping humanity, and less developing lethal weapons.

She sees him as all too typical of too many great minds who get diverted into the arms industry.

And there is an irony that this creator of beautiful landscapes also developed guns that would destroy them.

He didn't see himself as a warmonger though.

Instead, he thought bigger and bigger guns would act as a deterrent. He believed "civilised" leaders would be too wise to use the guns against each other.

On that at least he was wrong. Within 15 years of his death in 1900, Armstrong's guns would be killing thousands of men in the First World War.

It's all a far cry from the tranquility and beauty of Cragside - perhaps the greatest monument to the uncontentious side of his genius.

And of course all of this means, Armstrong will be remembered for many more generations yet.

* Henrietta Heald's book, William Armstrong - The Magician of the North, is published by Northumbria Press.

Disappointment as new delay hits Durham train factory plans

Richard Moss | 13:45 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

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Philip Hammond

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond inspects investment in London's railways, but he still has to decide on plans that could create thousands of jobs in the North East.

On the face of it, the Government's announcement of an £8bn investment in Britain's railways sounded like the news the North East had been waiting for.

For months, the region has been on tenterhooks to see if the Government would invest in new trains and carriages.

Last week, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond told me, the decision would be made within weeks.

That would then allow Hitachi to being train-building to a site at Newton Aycliffe, in County Durham, creating 800 jobs directly, and thousands more in the supply chain. A "second Nissan" as some have described it.

But a quick dig into the details of Mr Hammond's announcement today, purely reveals more delay and uncertainty.

Yes, the Government is ordering 2,000 new rail carriages, but the crucial decision for the North East remains unresolved.

That's because the Government hasn't yet decided what kind of new Intercity trains it wants for routes like the East Coast Main Line.

It has decided not to refurbish the existing fleet, so new trains will need to be built by someone.

But that someone may not be Hitachi in County Durham.

A second bid for the contract is now also being considered alongside Hitachi's.

That's believed to have come from Bombardier in Derby.

The decision on which bid is successful will rest on what sort of trains the Government wants to order.

That's all because the trains may have to cope with both electrified and non-electrified lines.

Hitachi express train

Still waiting for the train: an artists impression of the express trains that Hitachi wants to build in County Durham.

So Hitachi are planning to build some all-electric-diesel hybrids which would allow new trains and carriages to move seamlessly between electrified and non-electrified lines.

But it seems the rival bidder will offer all-electric trains which could then be coupled to diesel locos if necessary.

Some of this will also link into another delayed decision. The Government has still to decide if it will electrify all of the Great Western line between London and Swansea.

If it does, it may influence whether Hitachi or its rival wins the bid, or perhaps a combination of the two.

Hitachi has expressed its disappointment at the delay.

The company says it is still committed to the UK market, but in a statement the firm added: "We are disappointed that there is yet no decision on our bid...and therefore on our plans to bring jobs to the UK.

"We will be continuing our talks with the Department for Transport and will consider our position in the light of these."

That last sentence will worry North East Labour MPs supporting the Hitachi bid.

They're incredibly frustrated by another delay to a decision that has been dragged out now for months.

Hope remains of a positive outcome in the New Year, but today there was no early Christmas present for the North East.

North East Conservative Martin Callanan elected to crucial Europe role

Richard Moss | 14:32 UK time, Tuesday, 23 November 2010

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Martin Callanan

Flying the flag in Europe: Martin Callanan becomes leader of Conservative MEPs at a crucial time.

He's the most senior elected North East Conservative since Harold Macmillan, according to the Tories' regional chair Ian Galletley.

Perhaps that may be pushing it a bit, but Martin Callanan does now have a significant role as the leader of the Conservative party's MEPs in Brussels.

He beat two rivals to take the post, winning more than half of the votes of his colleagues on the first ballot.

He'll now take over from Yorkshire's Timothy Kirkhope, who stood down.

And he assumes the leadership at fascinating and potentially critical moment.

After lying dormant for some time, the future of the European Union is rearing its head as an issue once more, both in the news and within the Conservative party.

This week's Irish bail-out has angered Eurosceptics in the party.

They object to billions of pounds of UK taxpayers' money being sunk into a rescue package designed to keep Ireland not only afloat, but in the Eurozone that they see as unworkable.

And Tory MPs like Douglas Carswell fear where Ireland leads, others like Portugal and Spain may follow, denuding Britain of vital resources at a time of austerity.

And all, in the Eurosceptics' view, to prop up a currency they are venomously opposed to.

But of course the Conservative leadership feel differently, not least perhaps because they are shackled in coalition with the Europhile Lib Dems.

It's an issue that has the potential to convulse Europe and the Coalition.

So enter Mr Callanan.

He was the most Eurosceptic of the three candidates who stood for the leadership, and that may have some significance.

Unlike some of his colleagues, Martin Callanan does believe the UK should remain in the EU.

But he also stood on a platform of never joining the Euro, and on a commitment to push for cuts in EU spending, not just a budget freeze.

And it's worth remembering that the Conservatives are not in coalition with the Lib Dems in Europe.

He is likely to keep a careful eye then to ensure the activities of the Coalition in Westminster don't cut across his grouping's views.

He's not a character who's likely to go out of his way to cause trouble for David Cameron, but at the same time I'm sure he will fight a Eurosceptic corner if necessary.

As someone who was almost a lone Conservative presence in a Labour-dominated Gateshead Council, he's not someone averse to standing up for himself.

He'll will though have to continue the tricky task of trying to stitch together a credible grouping for Conservative Euro-MPs in the Parliament.

David Cameron's decision to leave the centrist and mainstream European People's Party (EPP), has left the Tories searching for alternative friends in the Parliament.

One of their key allies in the new European Conservatives and Reformists group, is the Polish Law and Justice Party.

As it's own leader says his party is being taken over by the Far Right, it doesn't look like a a great bedfellow at the moment.

But rejoining the EPP would be anathema to the Eurosceptics.

Plenty for Mr Callanan to deal with then.

And watching on in the Parliament will be another North East MEP with a significant role.

Fiona Hall is the leader of the UK Lib Dem grouping. And while their parties are working together in Westminster, Hall and Callanan are unlikely to share much of an agenda in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Martin Callanan will be on the Politics Show at 12pm on BBC1 this Sunday.

Transport Secretary promises Hitachi train decision 'in weeks'

Richard Moss | 16:51 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010

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Philip Hammond

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond had little new to offer the North East on a visit to Tyneside.

He came, he saw, he offered precious little that was new.

That was the verdict of most of the North East delegates who listened to Transport Secretary Philip Hammond address the regional economic forum.

And they have a point.

There was much anticipation that Mr Hammond might use his visit to announce good news for Hitachi's plans to build new trains in County Durham.

The company is planning to create up to 800 direct jobs - and thousands more indirectly - by building a new generation of Inter City trains at a site in Newton Aycliffe.

But it needs the Government to confirm it will be investing in the new trains for the East Coast and Great Western Lines.

That decision seems to be taking an age though.

After it was delayed beyond the Spending Review, Vince Cable said it would be made within a matter of weeks.

So did Mr Hammond come bearing good news?

Errr...no. Instead we were told again that the decision would come within weeks.

The Transport Secretary said it was proving more complex than first thought, and that he was also now considering a revised proposal to see if it offered value for money for the taxpayer.

The Sedgefield MP, Phil Wilson, said the delay was frustrating when, in his view, the economic case was so strong.

But if there was no news on trains, perhaps Mr Hammond could deliver something on roads?

He tried. He announced that £2.8m would be spent improving the Silverlink roundabout on the A19 just north of the Tyne Tunnel.

But Labour say that was investment which had already been announced by the previous government before the election.

And it's a tiny fraction of the £200m that the region says is needed to reduce congestion north and south of the tunnel.

Traffic congestion in Tyneside

Millions will be spent improving the Silverlink roundabout in Tyneside, but it won't be enough to solve the congestion problem.

You'll remember those multi-million pound plans to improve the Silverlink and Testos roundabouts were put firmly at the back of the roads budget queue last month.

The Government says they won't happen for at least five years.

But the North East's great and good weren't going to let Philip Hammond get away with that today.

They fear any benefit that could be gained from the opening of the second Tyne Tunnel next year will be lost if congestion isn't also tackled on the A19 junctions either side.

Martyn Pellew, the President of the North East Chambers of Commerce, said the economic case for the improvements was unarguable as the investment would deliver a £1.3bn benefit to the region's economy.

He also pointed out that the North East gets a raw deal on roads generally.

The region only has 55 miles of motorway (the smallest for any region), and while the government spends an average of £363 per head on transport in the UK, it only spends £261 per head in the North East.

But Mr Hammond wouldn't be budged on the A19, the A1, or any road project.

He insisted the North East was getting its fair share of transport investment because of the £350m scheme to renew the Tyne and Wear Metro.

And he reiterated the potential benefits of high speed rail for the North.

He said the line - which won't go further than Leeds or Manchester, remember - could have more impact on the North-South divide than anything proposed in the last 50 years.

A bold claim, but one that won't be tested for quite some time.

Although Mr Hammond confirmed he'll begin consulting on the route for high speed rail next year, the northern sections of the route could be decades away.

Delegates at today's meeting though will not be easily fobbed off. They say improvements are needed now to help boost business in the region.

So although Mr Hammond has now made his way back to London, campaigners for transport improvements in the region say they won't let him forget the North East.

One year on - as Cumbria remembers, the floods continue

Richard Moss | 16:15 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010

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Flood-damaged bridge

Last year's West Cumbrian floods caused unprecedented devastation.

One year on, and the impact of Cumbria's "biblical" floods still shows.

I was in Cockermouth a few weeks ago. It's the town I grew up in and one I still visit, and have great affection for.

It's remarkable to reflect on the scale of its recovery in the last 12 months.

I broadcast from the devastated Main Street on the weekend after the floods that wreaked havoc throughout the county.

It was not an exaggeration to say it looked like a war zone.

Now, once more it is a street full of life. The resilience of the community is remarkable.

But 12 months on, some shops are yet to reopen, and householders still trying to put their lives back into place.

Now some of those events have been relived in the House of Commons.

Tony Cunningham

Workington MP Tony Cunningham paid tribute to his constituents.

In a debate called by Workington MP Tony Cunningham, fulsome tribute was paid to the people of Cumbria and the emergency services that played such a huge role in making the disaster as manageable as possible.

It was Tony Cunningham that first used that adjective "biblical" to describe last year's floods.

And most accept that no amount of preparation or defences could have prevented the flooding.

But the debate did raise concerns about what might happen in the future in terms of flood prevention, especially at a time when the budget in that area is being cut.

Tony Cunningham also said cuts to the police force which had played such a huge part in events last November were worrying Cumbrians.

He said he'd received a letter from a Police Community Support Officer whose job could now be under threat.

She told the MP that officers like her had been there for the community when needed, but wondered whether the State would now be there for the officers when they lose their jobs.

And cuts to funding for Cumbria Tourist Board were described as short-sighted in an area which needs to woo visitors back.

Flooding in Cockermouth

The devastating impact of floods on the people of Cockermouth 12 months ago.

But concern was also raised about the future of funding for flood defences.

The events in Cornwall this week add to the impression that flooding is going to become more common and more devastating.

How then can a Government short of funds afford to spend more on flood defences?

One solution that's been floated - if you forgive the pun - is the idea of an extra tax upon householders living in areas susceptible to flooding.

In return communities the would then get a say on where defences were placed.

But given that householders will have to pay the levy on top of often crippling insurance premiums, that might be scant compensation.

Tony Cunningham said that idea had gone down like a "lead balloon" with the constituents he had spoken to.

The Copeland MP Jamie Reed also rubbished the idea and said this was no time to be cutting the flood defence budget.

In reponse, flooding minister Richard Benyon appeared to downplay any idea of a flood tax.

But he did talk about finding ways for communities to fund flood defences without government money being spent.

How that will work was less clear though.

Of course, West Cumbria would be unbelievably unlucky to suffer the same scale of flooding again in the near future.

But the Commons debate - and events in Cornwall - show that many communities are still far from safe from similar levels of devastation.

Perhaps it's impossible to protect everywhere, every time, but communities in areas at risk will want to know that as much as possible is being done.

The Politics Show this Sunday will be looking at the future for flood prevention, including more from Tony Cunningham.

Anger at plans to sell Bishop of Durham's castle and treasures

Richard Moss | 15:34 UK time, Sunday, 14 November 2010

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Zurbaran paintings

Four of the 12 Zurbaran paintings displayed at Auckland Castle. Their sale could raise £20m.

It's been the seat of the bishops of Durham for 800 years, but Auckland Castle and some of its most precious contents could be put up for sale.

First came the news that the Castle's 12 famous Zurbaran paintings were going to be sold by the Church of England.

And this week it emerged that the Castle could also be on the market.

The Church Commissioners say they have to look at ways of raising funds in tough times.

They say the sale of the paintings alone (potentially £20m) will raise enough to employ ten clergy for their entire working lives.

Some commissioners also believe it's no longer appropriate or affordable to maintain Auckland Castle as a Bishop's residence in the 21st Century.

The sale of that, potentially as a hotel or flats, could raise many millions.

Sounds like sensible business, but some have accused the Church Commissioners of cultural vandalism, and of destroying County Durham's heritage.

Durham County Council has already acted to try and stop the sale of the paintings by claiming the Church would need planning permission to remove them from a Grade I listed building.

And the Bishop Auckland MP, Helen Goodman, was forthright on the Politics Show today about her opposition to the sale of both paintings and castle.

Many locals have been upset by what they see as an underhand approach by the Church.

Auckland Castle

The seat of the Bishops of Durham for 800 years, but Auckland Castle could become a hotel.

The Castle is currently unoccupied as a replacement Bishop of Durham has yet to be appointed following the retirement of the previous incumbent the Rt Rev Tom Wright.

The Church's critics accuse them of taking advantage of that to sell them before the public had a chance to protest.

The former Bishop is certainly not somebody who would have kept quiet about plans to sell the artworks had he still been in office.

I can remember him being particularly keen to be interviewed with a Zurbaran in the background because he was so proud of the pictures.

And he has said he's dismayed by the plans.

Of course, spectacular as the pictures are, are the Spanish artist's portraits of Jacob and his sons some will question whether they are really an integral part of the North East's heritage?

They've been hung in the Castle for 250 years, and can be seen by the public, but the Commissioners argue that it's not up to the Church to maintain them.

They could of course be bought for the nation, but they could also be snapped up by a private collector, or end up overseas, and disappear from view.

What of the sale of the Castle though?

It will be controversial if it goes ahead, and it will anger many in County Durham.

But it's not the first property to be put up for sale by the Church.

Rose Castle, the historic residence of the Bishops of Carlisle, is already on the market.

But it is an important part of County Durham's history. Would it feel quite so special as a hotel?

Nevertheless, it seems any building has to pay its way in the 21st Century, so some plan will have to be hatched to find a way of maintaining it.

That may be doubly difficult at a time when councils and public bodies like English Heritage are also short of money.

But at least now these plans have gone public, that debate can take place before anything is sold.

Has the North changed its mind on changing the clocks?

Richard Moss | 12:38 UK time, Friday, 12 November 2010

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Berwick-upon-Tweed

Berwick-upon-Tweed has been seen as a town that might not benefit from extra daylight in the winter, but has that changed?

I am not someone who has ever suffered from the winter blues.

But as soon as the clocks go back, it can seem a bit grim to see daylight extinguished at around 4pm.

Now though some MPs want to investigate whether that should change.

A Private Members' Bill is asking the Government to investigate whether we should alter the way time works in the UK.

In particular, its supporters want to see if we should consign Greenwich Mean Time to history.

So we would keep British Summer Time throughout the winter.

Indeed some would also like to see Double British Summer Time between March and October.

That would effectively make it lighter later, giving us an extra hour of daylight in the afternoons and evenings throughout the year.

Advocates say the arguments all stack up.

They estimate it would cut the number of road deaths by 100 per year and they believe it would stop the emission of 500,000 tonnes of CO2 annually because we wouldn't have to put lights on as early.

Of course, you can't actually create extra daylight, but just move it around.

So, according to the supporters, less of the daylight will be wasted while we're all in bed in the early morning.

This is not a new idea of course.

Clock

Changing the clocks would make winter afternoons lighter but mornings darker.

It's a debate which seems to crop up every autumn. This year though, the Government has made some encouraging noises about it.

Traditionally though it's been opposition from Scotland and from here in the North of England that has stopped any change.

Days are shorter here, and that means the sun rises later.

So while shifting daylight around wouldn't make much impact in the South of England, it would lead to much darker starts to the day fuirther north.

Northern farmers have often complained it would disrupt their early starts; and in North Northumberland, many children would have to travel to school in the dark.

But does that still hold true?

That's what the Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith is now investigating. He's started an online survey to test opinion.

And following his example, I headed up to the England-Scotland border this week for the Politics Show.

Dougie Watkin

Northumberland farmer Dougie Watkin says darker mornings would make his working day more difficult.

I certainly found some resistance in the shape of farmer Dougie Watkin.

We visited his farm as the day dawned and he began work.

He says he needs the light to check his stock of sheep and cattle, and it would massively disrupt his day if dawn came at a later time.

Others in Northumberland are more amenable to the idea though - particularly the tourist industry.

Howick Hall Gardens near Alnwick changes its opening hours with the clocks. In British Summer Time it stays open till 6pm, under GMT it shuts ar 4pm.

But Head Gardener Robert Jamieson believes they could attract extra visitors if they got an extra hour of winter afternoon sunlight and could shut later.

And the Northumberland Wildlife Trust has also signed up to the idea because they believe it would give us all extra time to get out into the countryside throughout the year.

And although Dougie's resistant, even the National Farmers' Union is no longer so hostile to the idea.

Many Scottish politicians though have not changed their minds, and that's where this plan may founder.

Some have suggested Scotland could stick with GMT while England has its own time zone.

But that could cause even more chaos in places like Northumberland.

Many people on the border may live one side, but work the other. Imagine having to take into account a one-hour time difference when planning their days and journeys - surely a non-starter.

And there's a warning from history too. Using British Summer Time and Double British Summer Time was tried as an experiment between 1968 and 1971, but was then abandoned.

Dougie Watkin remembers that vividly, and says what started as a novelty soon became deeply unpopular in the North.

Opinion may have shifted since then. That's what Sir Alan Beith is trying to discover. But it's quite possible that we might still not be able to agree on what time we would like it to be.

Court decides Eric Pickles acted 'unlawfully' on housing targets

Richard Moss | 13:23 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010

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Eric Pickles

Ready for action - but Eric Pickles has fallen foul of the High Court.

No-one could accuse Eric Pickles of inaction in his six months as Communities and Local Government Secretary.

He's been on a single-minded mission to tear down red tape and banish bureaucracy.

Regional development agencies are going, quangos are being dismantled.

But one of his early decisions has now been overturned.

Back in July, Mr Pickles scrapped Regional Spatial Strategies with immediate effect.

These are the planning blueprints drawn up by the now banished regional assemblies.

They covered everything from where wind farms should go, to where the best place was for new factories.

But their most controversial aspect were their housing targets, which decided how many homes would be built in which communities over the next decade.

Secretary of State Pickles called it Soviet-style planning, and said Stalinist top-down regional targets must go in favour of more local decision-making.

But the High Court has now decided that his decision to scrap the strategies and their targets was unlawful.

They were responding to an application by housing developer Cala Homes which was effectively representing much of the housebuilding industry.

The company argued he had no right to scrap them, and the court agreed.

Housebuilders didn't necessarily want to keep the plans in place forever.

But they were concerned that the decision left a vacuum, with many plans for new homes scrapped or in limbo.

They say the judgement will allow for a more orderly change of policy.

Housebuilding

The Government says housing targets are not the best way of ensuring new homes are built.

So those Regional Spatial Strategies come back into play, but not for long.

The Government has decided not to appeal against the judgement, but will be bringing forward legislation to scrap the strategies.

The new Localism Bill will get rid of them within two years if it passes through parliament.

Should we care about all this?

Labour says yes, because they believe the scrapping of the strategies is preventing the building of thousands of new homes.

They argue that the targets are essential to ensure housebuilders gain the planning permissions they need.

The Government says Labour's housebuilding record was lamentable though, and that there are better ways of ensuring new houses are built.

But in the long term it still remains unclear how the Government will meet its own ambitious target of building 130,000 new affordable homes at a time when housing subsidies have been cut.

It says it will pay councils money for every new house built, but in addition it's planning to allow communities to hold referendums on housing schemes.

Some fear that will lead to paralysis in many areas as existing residents block plans for any new homes.

But councils might have to deal with a glut of planning applications in the next few months though as housebuilders look to move quickly before the housing targets are scrapped again.

Living longer - how will it affect Northern communities?

Richard Moss | 12:18 UK time, Sunday, 7 November 2010

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Woman helping an older man

The North's population is ageing, but will our communities be able to cope.

New research for the BBC contains much good news. It shows we're living longer.

But the work carried out by the information services company Experian also throws up some challenges.

It suggests parts of the North East have large concentrations of some of the most vulnerable older people.

Experian looked at those older people who might be vulnerable to cuts - those on low incomes, and in poor health.

And three areas of Tyne and Wear were amongst the top 20 in the country in terms of vulnerability.

One in four older people in Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland were placed in the most vulnerable groups by Experian.

It doesn't mean they'll automatically suffer from any cuts imposed by government or councils, but it does suggest that our region does has more than average numbers of the most vulnerable older people.

Age UK has warned that government cuts could add to a funding crisis in the care system.

But if its urban areas that have the highest concentrations of the vulnerable, it's rural parts of the North which will see the biggest growth in the older population over the next 20 years.

One in two people will be over 50 in Cumbria, Northumberland and North Yorkshire by 2029, and many other parts of the region won't be far behind.

That will be a test of the communities affected.

Some may be in better shape than others. In the research Eden in Cumbria scored top in the country in terms of social cohesion.

Whereas only 6.4% of people in Eden identified a problem with social cohesion in their area, 16.5% of people in Newcastle thought it was an issue.

There may be challenges ahead though. The research identifies Berwick-upon-Tweed as one area whose population could well become much more unbalanced by 2029.

It suggests that while the older population grows, younger people will be moving away leaving an ageing population more and more dependent on a smaller working population.

Of course in the future one solution will be to ensure older people can work longer, but at the moment the research suggests that isn't happening.

More than 60% of adults over 50 are economically inactive across the region.

That varies from 59.6% in Cumbria to 67.6% in County Durham (the tenth highest in the UK). Something will have to change in that statistic if the older generation of the future are not to be consigned to poverty and dependence on the state.

All these facts were part of a debate on the BBC's Politics Show today.

If you missed it, it will be available on the BBC iPlayer, but we got an interesting perspective from Professor Jim Edwardson from the Institute of Ageing at Newcastle University.

He fears politicians are not doing enough to harness the benefits of us all living longer, and ensure that older people can have a good quality of life.

The BBC's local radio stations will also be picking over the details of this research throughout this week.

You can tune into BBC Tees, Newcastle and BBC Radio Cumbria at 8am every day for headlines, analysis and debate.

Campaign to remutualise Northern Rock begins as boss quits

Richard Moss | 12:05 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

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Queues outside Northern Rock

The queues that brought Northern Rock to the brink of collapse in 2007. Could its future be as a building society?

Northern Rock's present and future has hit the headlines once again.

The departure of its Chief Executive Garry Hoffman was announced this morning.

He's off to join NBNK Investments, a new group with ambitions to beome a High Street bank.

His new employer could become a potential bidder for Northern Rock when and if the Government sells the nationalised bank off.

But there's some sensitivity about that possibility, given the advantage NBNK could get from having their future employee working inside Northern Rock for the next few months.

So Gary Hoffman won't be working out his notice.

Northern Rock has put him on gardening leave between now and April 30 next year. He'll still get £350,000 in salary plus his pension contributions paid.

Not an issue of great note if this was a private sector bank, but of course it is actually owned by the taxpayer.

As part of this deal NBNK has also agreed not to table a bid for Northern Rock for the next year.

But at the same time as this is going on, others are hoping they can prevent the sale of the bank to any private institution.

A meeting will take place on Friday of groups who want to see the bank remutualised into a building society.

The campaigners, which includes the Northern TUC, believe that Northern Rock should return to its roots.

They believe that will be the best option for the bank, its employees and the North East.

Any sell-off, they say, could see Northern Rock swallowed up by a competitor, with the potential loss of thousands of local jobs.

Remutualisation was certainly on the Lib Dem agenda before the election.

The Coalition though seems to have ruled it out as an option with Vince Cable confirming as much in the summer.

A poll commissioned by the left-leaning think tank Compass though suggests a majority of the public would like to see Northern Rock turned back into a building society.

Of the 1,927 people questioned by YouGov, 47% favoured remutualisation, compared to 29% who thought it should be sold privately as a bank. (15% didn't know, and 5% favoured neither solution).

Compass' Chair Neal Lawson said: "British Banking is in a mess. It provides poor customer services and poor support for small businesses. It is clear that a private sale of Northern Rock now would just lead to more of the same bad practices without recouping the losses for the taxpayer.

"Re-mutualisation of Northern Rock would help provide greater choice and diversity for the consumer. It would also provide greater stability for the community.

"This poll shows that local people want to see Northern Rock become once more a rock of stability, ownership and pride for the people of the North East."

Campaigners may face an uphill struggle though. Selling off the bank is likely to prove more attractive to a cash-poor government than remutualisation.

The age-old political problem of old age

Richard Moss | 13:26 UK time, Wednesday, 3 November 2010

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Older people's exercise class

Older people seemed to get a good deal out of the Spending Review but there are challenges ahead

I've been thinking a lot about ageing this week.

Don't worry, I'm not having an existential crisis.

Instead, it's the politics of ageing that's occupying me, rather than my own inevitable biological decline (now I am depressing myself).

It's been prompted by new BBC-commissioned research which will be published next week.

The data from Experian focuses on our ageing population and the potential vulnerability of older people to cuts.

There'll be more of that on Sunday's Politics Show as we reveal some of the information.

On the face of it though, older people seemed to fare better than most in the Spending Review.

While Child Benefit's universal status was ended, bus passes, free TV licences and winter fuel payments escaped means testing.

Free eye tests and free prescriptions also stay.

The state pension is also being re-linked to earnings, and there's even talk of a guaranteed universal payment in the future.

And amid council cuts, the Government said it had found £2bn to put into adult social care.

So good news for older people, but also potentially good politics as pensioners are the most likely group of people to vote.

But beneath the headlines there are some potential problems ahead for the older generation.

Many are reliant on our social care system and the Local Government Association has warned of problems ahead.

The LGA says the £2bn will only go so far given the demands councils are likely to face in the future.

Indeed it says there's multi-billion pound shortfall in the care system.

And as the £2bn will not be ringfenced, many councils may be tempted to raid it to spend on other services.

The LGA says money isn't necessarily the answer though.

It says the whole culture of social care has to change from one where older people end up in care centres and nursing homes, to one where most can remain in their own homes.

In addition of course, the Government has yet to come up with a solution to the problem of funding long term care.

All the main political parties are agreed that older people shouldn't have to sell their homes to fund care, but as yet no solution is planned.

The Coalition Agreement set up yet another Commission on long term care which has to report on possible solutions within a year.

An insurance scheme is one option it'll consider but, in the current financial climate, the Government's generosity may be limited.

A plan for people to earn care credits by looking after the current generation of older people is another potentially cheaper possibility floated in the last week.

The outlook for the next generation of pensioners doesn't look that rosy though.

The collapse in value of many private pensions and the likely decline in the value of public sector schemes will leave many worse off than their parents.

Many will also have to wait longer for the state pension too as we move towards a retirement age of 66 for both men and women in 2020.

Of course, there are many opportunities offered by an ageing population too. It should be a cause of celebration that we're living longer.

Older people can be an excellent part of the workforce if allowed to contribute, and many now provide invaluable care for their grandchildren.

So are we ready for the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population? Let me know what you think.

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