George Peabody; Victorian Munificent Banker

On February 29th in 1864 the first Peabody Trust homes were opened in Commercial Street, Spitalfields, London intended for the “artisan and labouring poor”.  The Peabody Trust was set up in 1862 with a significant donation of £150,000 (raised to a massive £500,000 in 1869) by American-born banker and philanthropist George Peabody who by that time was based in London.  Considering various options for the alleviation of poverty, Peabody elected for a Model Dwellings Company, one of a group of private companies whose aim was to improve the housing conditions of the poor while still operating as a commercial entity with a competitive rate of investment return. In all, George Peabody is estimated to have donated over $8 million  in benefactions. Cited as a possible future US president, such was his reputation in London that upon his death in 1869 he was briefly laid to rest in Westminster Abbey before his body was returned to America in accordance with his will.

Over 150 years later The Peabody Trust (today a charity simply called Peabody) is still going strong and together with the provision of homes, is active as a regeneration agency. It stated aims include the provision of a good home, a real sense of purpose and a strong sense of community. Peabody now has 27,000 homes with 80,000 residents and a mix of tenures including social housing, leasehold, shared ownership, supported housing, key-worker accommodation and commercial units. It also sells homes to support the provision of private affordable housing and has a range of training and community involvement activities. Significantly, two of the eleven person Peabody board are residents thus allowing a significant input by its tenants, although this is far from perfect as a look at the unofficial residents forum will confirm.

At the time of George Peabody, Victorian Britain had no welfare state and partly as a consequence, taxes were much lower than today. But with present government intention to force down taxes while pushing ahead with further austerity these times are returning. Unfortunately large multinationals and banks are behaving in the opposite manner to Peabody, dodging taxes without a consequent major investment in communities. Instead we have hugely wealthy individuals hiding their money in tax havens, a lost productive investment which impoverishes all of us.

Jeremy Hunt: Clear Contempt for Democracy

If the case of Jeremy Hunt was unique then we could deal with it. But dissembling and evasion appears to be the default approach of Government, one which is not just limited to the Conservatives. I spoke with two people yesterday, one 20 year old and one of 50 who simply view all politicians as devious, narcissistic money grabbers. They considered these vices to be endemic, a basic fact of life which meant there was little point in trying improve the situation. Now, like many other people I fully accept that Government has to keep certain information and discussions confidential. National security is the obvious example. But the UK Government assumes secrecy as a default.

Back to Jeremy Hunt for an illustration. On 8th February The Independent newspaper reported in this article that both the NHS Employers and Hunt’s own Department of Health were prepared to accept a proposal from the British Medical Association (BMA) thus averting the impending Junior Doctors strike. Here it gets a little murky as the paper reports it was ‘sources’ close to the BMA which claimed that Hunt personally intervened to block the deal and crashed the negotiations. ‘Sources’ means that the claim was unattributed and thus not subject to public verification. The following day, however, Hunt was asked directly about the assertion in the House of Commons by Shadow Health Minister Justin Madders. You can view the interaction here.

Instead of answering the question put to him, Hunt takes the usual path of answering his own question. If he did veto the deal then we need to know the reasons. The Department of Health is not his personal fiefdom to do with as he likes. It is not as if Jeremy Hunt hasn’t had other opportunities to set the record straight. For example he could have dealt with it in this article a few days later on 12th February for Conservative Home.

Continue reading “Jeremy Hunt: Clear Contempt for Democracy”

The Floods: Government Apathy as Businesses Go Under

A few weeks ago I travelled to the Lake District for a couple of days on a working visit. Whilst there I heard some hearbreaking stories of the devastating effects of the flooding on businesses in the area which may well have an impact more profound and long lasting than the awful flooding of homes. According to a recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) business population estimate over 400,000 micro businesses are based in the North West of England. But larger businesses are also affected. A biscuit factory in Carlisle and an interior furnishings business in Lancaster were flooded. Some of the businesses have gone forever leaving their owners penniless. In 2007, when a similar pattern of flooding hit, total insured claims were £3.2bn. As this Guardian newspaper article points out, in 2009 it was estimated that infrastructure repair alone following the flooding that year would cost £376 million. Towns like Cockermouth took literally years to fully rebuild. It is worse this time with accountants KPMG predicting that the total cost of the floods in December 2015 would exceed £5bn, with about £1bn falling to families and businesses with no or inadequate insurance. Although my direct experience is of the Lake District, the same problems occur in other flooded areas such as Yorkshire.

So what about business insurance? Many policies will not provide cover beyond a 12 month notional business interruption period. But some premises are seriously damaged and will take months to dry out and repair before the owners can even think about moving equipment and production in again. By the time custom is rebuilt to levels of profitability this can take them well beyond the 12 month limit. There is another group of businesses which are physically unaffected by flooding but are still being forced into bankruptcy. This is because the vast majority of business insurance policies do not cover ‘loss of attraction’ or ‘market value’, affecting businesses hit by the destruction of infrastructure. The A591 road, for example, suffered severe damage along some sections and is taking months to rebuild. With road bridges also suffering damage, traffic flows have been completely disrupted meaning for some businesses passing traffic has ceased altogether. It is estimated that one way or another about 20% of businesses have been affected by the extreme weather.

Continue reading “The Floods: Government Apathy as Businesses Go Under”

Teacher Recruitment: More Government Spin and Platitudes

It is bad enough the Government using spin and blame culture to deflect criticism. Even worse is the fact that they are incompetent at it and contemptuous enough of the public not to care. The report by the National Audit Office (NAO) on the state of teacher recruitment (available here) has delivered a damning indictment of Government policy. The Government claims that the overall pupil/teacher ratio has not changed. But as the NAO point out, it is in the fine detail where the Government is failing badly. For example over half (54%) of head teachers in schools with large proportions of disadvantaged pupils report recruiting good quality teachers to be “a major problem”, compared with a third of those in other schools. So it is the education of already disadvantaged children which suffers. This is further evidence of what is apparent with this Government, that social mobility is a phrase to be banded about rather than a serious issue to be addressed. But that is hardly a surprise; why should privilege career politicians be concerned with helping the disadvantaged?

Continue reading “Teacher Recruitment: More Government Spin and Platitudes”

Bagehot: Living in a ‘Disguised Republic’

On February 3rd 1826 the businessman and journalist Walter Bagehot was born. He was author of a number of important works (including one on banking), but possibly most influential for us in the UK was The English Constitution, published in 1867. You can obtain a copy from this site. It is still frequently referenced today with the most oft quoted section regarding the British monarch who, according to Bagehot, has three rights:

…the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.

The work provided a kind of manual to the British constitutional settlement of the mid-19th century which is still largely relevant today. But it is not purely descriptive and Bagehot makes it clear that largely supports the status quo. The work itself is very much a product of its time and reflects the wealthy mercantile background of Bagehot. What stands out in the work is its suffusion with a sense of contempt for and distrust of those at the bottom layers of society. Here is one example:

The lower orders, the middle orders, are still, when tried by what is the standard of the educated “ten thousand,” narrow-minded, unintelligent, incurious.

Bagehot makes it clear that he considers monarchy is vital to provide a point of reference and national identity of ‘the lower orders’ who are otherwise incapable of understanding politics and government. Ignoring the cheerleading for a constitutional monarchy you can learn a lot from The English Constitution and there are actually some points on which I am  in agreement. For example in comparing monarchism with republicanism:

Continue reading “Bagehot: Living in a ‘Disguised Republic’”