Letters In The Press
British commercial aircraft industry
Times, 7 December 2002
Sir, Your correspondent (letter, 6 December) mourns the loss of the indigenous British commercial aircraft industry.
The reality is that from Brabazon to Concorde, via numerous 1950s government-sponsored aeroplane types with short production runs and captive state-owned airline customers, the British aircraft industry was a drag on the economy.
The British taxpayer funded the enormous cost of development even while rationing of basic necessities of life was still in place. In the mid-1950s state spending on R&D in the aircraft industry amounted to almost as much as the total spent on R&D by all nationalised and private industries: paradoxically more than the nation could afford, but far less than required to compete effectively against the vastly superior American aircraft industry that emerged from World War II.
Perhaps more pernicious was the diversion of scarce scientific and engineering resources and staff from emerging mass markets such as motor vehicles and consumer electronics. The result is apparent today walking through any shopping precinct, as British consumers choose (or have no choice but to choose) imported vehicles and entertainment equipment.
Smart Electricity Meters
Times, 22 May 2009
Sir, You report that American and Swiss manufacturers will benefit hugely from the proposed installation of smart meters in all UK homes. Why is no British manufacturer interested in this lucrative bonanza?
Spanner in the works for engineers
Financial Times, 13 May 2002
Sir, The Engineering and Technology Board laments the negative image of professional engineers in the UK ("Negative image blamed for dearth of engineers", May 13), which the public surprisingly continues to associate with grease monkeys and factory work.
In attempting to promote engineering as an attractive graduate career perhaps the industry could put its own house in order first. Reading the advertisement panels while travelling down an escalator on the London Underground recently, I was confronted with a sequence of words and pictures from London Underground explaining to commuters what their “engineers” did between 1:00 and 5:00 AM to keep the trains running, illustrated by photos of men in hard hats and overalls wielding big spanners.
Darlington DL3 9EG
Maglev finds a niche
Financial Times, 16 July 2002
Sir, You reported ("Maglev finds a niche", July 15) on the successful adoption of the linear motor, a British invention, by French, German and US machine tool manufacturers, and the subsequent sale of finished machines back to UK firms.
In the light of the perennial lament of the lack of indigenous support for inventors, might it be pertinent to ask why no British firms seem to have been interested in commercialising this technology?
Darlington DL3 9EG
Appalling level of training of graduate engineers
Financial Times, 17 September 2002
Sir, Mike Baunton, the new head of the Engineering Employers Federation suggests that Whitehall has a responsibility to improve the “appalling level of training of graduate engineers”, and laments that many need to be educated by companies as to what industry was about. ("Engineering enthusiast aims to kick industry centre stage", September 16).
Industry moans endlessly that higher education is an “ivory tower”, yet in the one area – sandwich courses – where in the 1960s education did attempt to marry the needs of the individual and the requirements of industry and society as a whole to produce a valid educational experience, industry ratted on its side of the bargain.
The main principle underlying sandwich courses was a belief in the value of courses containing a period of industrial training as part of an integrated educational experience. Such courses were supposed to increase the motivation of students and provide industry with graduates of a more mature outlook, who were also more immediately “useful” to employers.
The post-Robbins universities and polytechnics were built, the students recruited, yet by the early 1970s industries which had 10 years previously been strong advocates of the sandwich course system withdrew their support as they faced economic difficulties.
In 1971, a year which has its place in the folklore of recruiters and careers advisers, many firms, after years of seeking graduates in unrestrained abundance, suddenly stopped seeking them at all. The reasons were economic. The results were predictably disastrous.
Frankly I am tired of hearing employers’ perennial lament about graduate quality and skills shortage.
They have only themselves to blame. The depressing fact is that in the balancing of long term competitiveness against short term results the bean counter will always win. The Nation, of course, loses.
Darlington DL3 8RR
The heroes aren't taking my calls
Financial Times letters, 8 May 2003
Sir, I hate to take issue with Mr Graham Steel's self-congratulatory paean (Letters, May 1), but I would be more inclined to consider the Inland Revenue's "unsung heroes" heroic if their call centre answered the telephone - 50 attempts this morning so far, all engaged - as I chase a form they promised to post me a month ago.
Darlington DL3 8RR
Bring back training board for engineers
Financial Times letters, 18 December 2003
Sir, You report ("Concerns on IPPR industry forecast", December 11) the comment by Sir Nick Scheele, Ford chief executive, that "the country should train more engineers if it is to retain high technology jobs", echoing a litany of similar warnings from industrialists and politicians over many years.
The "country", vaguely defined, does not and cannot train engineers. At best the government can provide for their academic education at university and elsewhere but it is only employers that are in a position to provide training. There is a world of difference between the formal laboratory work that supplements classroom tuition and real world engineering experience gained in the working environment, which universities cannot hope to emulate.
Yet very many engineering employers that complain of skills shortages have closed their apprentice and graduate training facilities. The Engineering Industry Training Board was established in 1964 to stop engineering employers having a free ride by poaching trained staff from the minority that did take training seriously, through a carrot and stick system of payroll levy and training subsidies.
The board was scrapped by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s for purely dogmatic reasons, freeing employers to make their own decisions on training provision. Not surprisingly, the decision of many employers was to scrap all provision, since the return on investment is rarely demonstrable in the short term.
Since employers seem no more ready to accept their responsibility for training than they were 40 years ago, perhaps it is time to reinstate the EITB scheme.
British breakthroughs were followed by US market dominance
Financial Times letters, 20 July 2004
Sir, In seeking to justify the use of public funds to promote scientific advance and consequent wealth creation, Philip Greenish (Letters, July 16) uses examples in medicine and defence that contradict his thesis.
Sir Peter Mansfield may have made the initial discoveries that led to magnetic resonance imaging, but US companies developed commercial MRI body scanners. Its cousin, the Computed Axial Tomography (CAT) scanner, was developed in the UK in the late 1960s by Godfrey Hounsfield at EMI, and in 1971 the Department of Health and Social Security bought a prototype and underwrote the cost of constructing four more.
Like Mansfield, Hounsfield received a knighthood and a Nobel prize. However, the company was unable to invest in the research and development required to stay in the forefront of the technology, suffered large losses and sold its CAT interests to General Electric of the US which today dominates the market. Incidentally, in the 1950s Hounsfield was design leader for EMIDEC, the first large, all-transistor computer to be built in Britain - another market lost to the US.
It is no coincidence that government support for R&D should help defence contractors. In what other industry does the taxpayer assume all the cost and risk of product development, followed by historically risk-free cost-plus production contracts, a guaranteed home market, and exports assisted by a government agency with prime ministers ready to be co-opted to the sales force to close orders? Imagine the history of the British computer industry if Hounsfield's computer and its successors had benefited from similar support.
Terms of employment count for naught when an industry and its pension promises disappear
Financial Times letters, 1 November 2005
Sir, In the current debate over public sector pensions, your correspondent Alex Galea (Letters, October 26 and 28) demonstrates the blind spot that afflicts so many commentators.
In regard to private sector pensions, the basis on which these contracts were made has also fundamentally changed. Not only my past engineering employers, but the entire industry, has vanished, along with their pension promises, with a severe impact on my personal working life plans.
My contracted "terms of employment" count for naught, fairly expected or not: private pensions trustees cannot intercede with a defunct employer. I have to put up with it. Government workers assume a God-given right to continuous employment and a gold-plated pension, paid for by myself.
What all the apologists for the protection of public sector pension (and other working) arrangements simply fail to understand is that the counterparty to the agreements is not the government, which has no money of its own, but the private sector, which is expected to continue financing through taxation generous public sector pensions despite being unable to afford similar benefits itself.
What will government do with money raised from more long gilts?
Financial Times letters, 2 February 2006
Sir, The pensions industry is urging the government to issue more long gilts - ie, borrow more money than it needs to fund current spending - to help company pension schemes more accurately match investments and liabilities. What is the government to do with this money?
Simply spending it would be inflationary, it can hardly buy more gilts, and investing it in equities would provide a windfall boost to stock prices for the benefit of shareholders, only some of whom are pension funds. Indeed, issuing debt specifically for this purpose would amount to the nationalisation of part of the long-term liabilities of private pension schemes.
A gentle ribbing over beefy German words
Financial Times letters, 1 March 2006
Sir, Hans Günther Bollig (Letters, February 24) complains that the British use as many complicated words as they can to demonstrate their superior upbringing. Coming from a country that rejoices in words such as Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (beef labelling law), his own upbringing must have been superior. A case, perhaps, of the pot calling the kettle schwarz.
A useful merger of NI and income tax
Financial Times letters, 25 April 2006
Sir, Richard Baron, head of taxation at the Institute of Directors, would like to see payroll simplified by aligning the treatment of all items for income tax and National Insurance purposes ("Tax system complexities threaten to dull competitive edge", April 21).
If this were to happen, then NI would finally lose its much-diluted claim to be an insurance scheme - ie, defined benefits for defined premiums - and simply become another layer of income tax in all but name. The two could then usefully be merged, with considerable saving in administration for both government and employers.
Social model put Airfix in a sticky situation
Financial Times letters, 4 September 2006
Sir, The immediate cause of Airfix's cashflow problems appears to be the collapse of the French manufacturer to which it gave all its production moulds ("Airfix comes unstuck after sales plummet", September 1).
In the UK this company would go through a rapid receivership process, with the employees immediately laid off with minimal compensation and the company's assets promptly sold to the highest bidder. In France, employee protection is paramount and well ahead of creditor or shareholder interests. The company's assets can be frozen for an extended period while the courts plod through a lengthy process to secure for the ex-employees many months' salary-related redundancy payments, all at the shareholders' expense. In the meantime the production equipment that could be put back into use remains idle. A harsh warning on the important differences between Anglo-Saxon and French social models.
Perhaps we should redefine the term ‘non-core’
Financial Times letters, 25 September 2008
Sir, As a frequent flier I was both intrigued and alarmed to read that a major aircraft manufacturer considers a wing to be a “non-core component” (“Airbus sells UK wing plant to GKN”, September 16).
If the main wings are not core components of an aircraft then what is? Or has Airbus devised another way to keep me aloft?
The following article appeared on the front page of the Darlington & Stockton Times, 13 November 1998:
Silicone Valley on Tees
BARNARD Castle’s Harmire Enterprise Park is fast becoming Teesdale’s answer to Silicone Valley, thanks to new businesses with roots in the original.
Phocis, a team of eight graduate engineers, has moved to the dale, joining a cluster of other businesses at the cutting edge of technology.
Mr Steve Wilson, Phocis projects director, said the company came into existence after buying out part of the California-based software publisher Autodesk.
Phocis had been working from Guildford for two years but as Mr Wilson and some of his colleagues were from the Thirsk and York areas, they decided to move north.
Mr Andy Leitch, chief executive of Teesdale Enterprise Agency, said Phocis had opted for the “real” Teesdale rather than its namesake industrial park on Teesside.
“They’ve picked Barnard Castle because it’s a smashing place and they would rather work among the greenery here than on industrial Teesside.
“We arranged grant assistance and help with finding a suitable site and put them in touch with County Durham TEC.”
Mr Leitch said the Enterprise Park had a growing reputation as the place for hi-tech firms to set up.
Already in place and growing were MHT Technology which dealt with large oil companies; Telegros, a French documentation technology firm; Castle ID Solutions, a bar code technology and labelling concern, and Honeyman Associates, a water filtration technology business.
Mr Wilson said Phocis already has expansion plans in mind for its work which dealt with data from internet business transactions, specialising in their protection and control.
He added: “We hope the business is going to grow quickly as this is a big element of e-commerce.
“As protecting transactions becomes more of a problem the technology we offer is going to be in big demand.”
The paper printed my response in the letters page the following week:
This is an enhancement of the truth
Sir, The only way anyone is likely to see “Silicone” Valley in Barnard Castle is to invite Melinda Messinger to town (front page 13 November).
Sadly this is distinctly more probable than seeing Silicon Valley take roots in this area. Silicon Valley in California comprises 240 public technology companies with an aggregate market capitalisation of $534bn and total sales of $170bn (1997).
The valley is home for 378,000 technical employees, including 33 dollar billionaires, and a thriving venture capital industry willing to invest seed capital in high technology start-ups.
The bulk of innovations in the computer industry originate in the valley, and very many computer companies are headquartered there.
The nearest we can manage in the UK is the concentration of high technology companies in and around Cambridge. Yet these are tiny in comparison, whether measured in terms of employment, sales or innovation.
In reality the UK computer industry consists of a handful of screwdriver operations assembling imported components into finished PCs, and service organisations living off installation and maintenance. In addition the UK venture capital industry is minuscule, and averse to funding start-ups.
Good luck to them, but writing up a handful of micro businesses as the vanguard of Silicon Valley UK is parish pump reporting rather than serious journalism, even if you could spell it properly.
(Phocis Ltd. moved to Harrogate in 2000 and ceased trading not long after.)
The following leader appeared on the front page of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Journal, 27 December 2000:
Home truths for the Government
It seems extraordinary at times that anybody at all can actually afford to live in the South-East. House prices have a tendency to soar in an upwards vortex not unlike the tornado that engulfed Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz.
There now exists a ludicrous situation where a home that can be bought. for £50,000 in the North- East fetches £150,000 in the South.
This of course creates problems for the South-East. Despite “London weighting” of wages, young teachers and nurses simply cannot afford to move to the capital, creating a recruitment crisis.
Would that the North-East had a recruitment crisis. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people to fill the jobs here - just not enough jobs for them to fill. The ideal solution would be to move some of the jobs to the North, bringing the demand with them and driving down house prices in the South. Unfortunately, that is such a sensible policy that no Government would dream of trying it. In the meantime the imbalance becomes ever more deeply entrenched, with long-term damage to the prestige of the North. From practically every point of view, the widening divide in house prices is a bad thing. Which is why a forecast that it will ease this year, made by Britain’s largest mortgage lender, the Halifax, is welcome.
News that the North-East is expected to see a surge in house prices this year is not only good for those who intend to put up the For Sale boards in the New Year. It is a sign that demand is growing and that people feel they have a little bit of money in their pockets.
Of course, at this stage the Halifax’s analysis is only a prediction. Should it prove to be accurate and the house price divide really does start to close, then a step will have been taken that eases the long-running problems of the whole of our country.
The paper printed my response in the letters page the following week:
UK governments succumb to South pressure
Sir, Your leader of 27 December suggests that moving jobs from South to North is “such a sensible policy that no Government would dream of trying it”. In fact the reverse is true, on both counts. Governments have been attempting this since the 1930s, yet the results have hardly been sensible. A succession of development agencies and location of industry policies have transformed the North East into a branch plant economy, supporting relatively low skilled, low added value, low paid and insecure jobs.
Far too many regionally based businesses have folded, only to be replaced by a screwdriver plant or call centre. There are very few public companies headquartered in the region, offering high level employment in corporate management, finance, marketing or research, and it is these high-paying jobs that fuel property prices in the South.
Instead of providing unending subsidies to short-lived assembly plants, the Government could learn from the example of Sophia Antipolis, the stunningly successful technology park in the South of France, created by ministerial dictat in the 1970s when a number of public research laboratories were relocated to a sleepy olive-growing region. Today the park is host to 1,200 high-tech businesses, many spun off from the early occupants in true Silicon Valley fashion, employing 25,000 technology workers.
In contrast, UK Governments have always succumbed to pressure to locate publicly financed research close to existing facilities in the South. The recent decision to site a £550 million Synchrotron in Oxfordshire is only the latest in a long line - even the Coal Research Establishment went to Cheltenham rather than Peterlee, which the Coal Board stated “would be a desert island”.
Today, with the march of globalisation and Brussels regulation against state subsidies, Governments have largely lost the ability to direct the economy in the way that was attempted in the 1960s. Sadly, there now seems little likelihood of reversing the trend and establishing a critical mass of technology businesses in the North, and the divide shows every sign of surviving in perpetuity.