New car post

That trip to Dundee I referred to below was to pick up a new car.

For one reason or another, it was decision time on the Nissan Leaf in which we have been running around for the past two years – chief among them being that it was the end of the two year period of the personal contract payment scheme under which we bought the car and which seems to prompt the majority of finance-based car purchases [registration] these days. After some research we – well, this means my partner, really, given my continuing non-driver status – opted for a Kia Niro plug-in hybrid as opposed the fully electric Leaf:

newcar

This is not the e-Niro currently causing a bit of a stir in electric car circles but one whose electric battery is supported by a petrol engine.

With an electric car, battery capacity in terms of mileage is the key and the advances in the capacity of the Leaf since 2016 are fair enough, but insufficient to compensate for the lack of advances in the charging infrastructure. It was interesting – though not at all surprising, based on experience – to read in the Pink ‘Un recently that the rapid, but still very low, take-up of electric cars is being held back by the infrastructure (hat-tip: tweet by Prospect Research & Economics). A journey of any distance is fraught with the fear that still-infrequent charging stations will be occupied or otherwise not operating, and driving on routes off the islands, and through remote rural areas, this is a fear that is ever-present.

If you’re not sure of your geography of Scotland, you’ll need to bear with me for the next bit (or otherwise have a suitable online map at hand!). From Mallaig, where we dock on the most convenient ferry route, we can (with a full battery on setting off from the house) reach Fort William (otherwise, it means a charge on disembarking in Mallaig) and then, on a journey to Perth or Dundee: 140 miles from Mallaig) that means a further stop, usually in Tyndrum or Crianlarich. If the Fort William charger isn’t working, a stop at Glencoe Mountain Resort is required and if that’s not working, Tyndrum is only reachable from our house with extremely careful driving, a favourable wind and fingers firmly crossed. Which did happen on one memorable journey.

Stopping is not the problem – it’s good to take a break – and nor is the time to charge which represents an inconvenience but a small one in respect of the carbon emissions saved by not using a car with a combustion engine. The difficulty is the strategic one of planning charging stops around having a fall-back plan, since the infrequency with which stations exist on our route to Perth (which has several options, once we get there) – Mallaig (one rapid charger), Fort William (ditto), Glencoe (ditto), Tyndrum (two!)/Crianlarich (one), Crieff (one) – implies the potential for difficulties in the not infrequent case of chargers not being in use or in case of them being already occupied (and increasingly so with higher numbers of electric cars on the roads). Worst of all, however, is that this situation has not improved in the last two years: these stops were our options back in 2017 when we first went electric and it’s this failure to invest in the infrastructure which prompted our decision to go for a plug-in hybrid.

The Kia Niro’s battery can be charged via a plug-in lead (as in the pic above) and this will deliver a journey of up to about 34 miles with the battery as automatic preference to petrol. This means my partner’s journey to work (c. 26 miles) is battery driven – or largely so: the car will mix and match and it won’t simply exhaust the electric battery before kicking in the petrol engine; it all depends on speed, wind and road conditions and level of battery charge. Consequently, and on initial experience, she gets to work rarely on the battery alone but consuming no more than two miles of petrol. Furthermore, we have the flexibility of not having to worry about charging stations on longer journeys.

This seems to me to indicate the likely direction that electric cars will take: great for those with short journeys with the potential to charge at home (and/or at work); not quite hopeless, but certainly stressful, on long journeys which, without a reformation in the charging infrastructure, most people simply won’t attempt in an electric. Most car journeys may well be short ones – nearly 70 per cent are shorter than five miles (p. 176), according to research which is admittedly fifteen years old but which is probably unlikely to be substantially different now. Such a direction is fair enough, up to a point, but if we continue to leave the charging infrastructure to the market, there will be no change and this will, as a result, heavily jeopardise carbon emission targets whatever the warm words at the G20 and those dates by which the petrol engine should be phased out (currently 2040 in the UK; 2032 in Scotland). [UPDATE 1/7/19: The UK government’s plan, crucially, excludes hybrids; while the status of hybrids under the C40 fossil-fuel-free streets initiative, under which (parts of) London (amidst a number of other cities around the world) will be zero emission by 2030, is unclear although it seems that hybrids are also excluded.]

To meet such targets we need hugely improved public transport infrastructure: electric cars (certainly on current trajectory) won’t be enough by themselves (and with a reminder that the rare materials used in electric cars have their own environmental and social impacts). But, in the context, and given the long road there is to row back given the lack of investment in public transport over the last thirty years, plus the popularity of driving around the highlands and islands (NC 500, anyone?), we do need our governments both at UK level and at the level of the nations of the UK to work closer with industry to invest in a charging infrastructure which provides the opportunity for longer journeys to be made by electric cars, too – and not only on the motorways but across all major transport routes, and with a frequency which delivers suitable and easily reachable options for charging. With most electric cars these days being Type 2 (one of the problems of allowing the market to ‘decide’ is that charging types are several), there is the potential to build a charging infrastructure which works at least for the majority.

But we do need policy-makers actually to get down to making a decision and then taking some action on it. Which, in our current sclerotic terms and given the pathetic response to the Extinction Rebellion so far, will take policy leadership of the kind we absolutely lack.

Outer Hebrides and Shetland: a tale of two archipelagos

Just back from a short trip to the mainland, firstly to Dundee (more about which in a later post) and then up to Shetland. My partner lived on Shetland for a while and still has friends and family there. It’s thus a place I know quite well, having visited and toured it quite frequently, although I haven’t been there since September 2015, a year before I moved to Uist.

A couple of postcard snaps will follow (eventually), but I was struck by a couple of things during the visit. Firstly, and flippantly, it was several degrees cooler than on Uist. Arriving at Sumburgh Airport in the early afternoon, the wind delivered a proper and sustained blast of chilled air during the short walk from the plane to the (expanded) terminal building; and, surrounded by guard rails, towards one end of the terminal on the floor sat one massive heater, glowing red and fully on. On 31 May. We do indeed get bad weather on Uist, and perhaps a generally warm and dry spring has made me quickly forget how bad it can be, but it seemed right there and then and for much of the following, largely damp and cool, week that the northern isles do have it worse. Perhaps, being so far north – it is level with Bergen, after all, and half-way to the Faeroes – it’s just that it’s naturally colder as a result of being at 60° latitude.

Secondly, and with greater significance for my post, I was struck – and not for the first time – by the contrasting levels of economic development between the Hebrides and Shetland. Extended Sumburgh terminal building apart, there is an absolutely stunning new campus for Anderson High, the secondary school, whose 900 students enjoy a four-storey, two-winged education block as well as gracefully angled halls to accommodate students from outside the mainland. Despite being next to the Lerwick sports centre, Anderson High has its own sports grounds including all-weather track, grass pitches, nets for throwing events and swimming pool, located at the very front of the campus and sending a clear message for students walking past them to get to their classes about the importance of sporting endeavour. The Island Games were taking place there that Saturday, and raucous cheers spoke of the message being loudly received. There are at least four new food and drink places which have opened up in Lerwick, offering a range of interesting and well-crafted food and each offering extensive craft beer menus (in bottles and cans and on tap) and taking a pride in local produce: Fjarå; The Dowry; and The String as well as an excellent French cafe in C’est la Vie. All were busy, even outside the weekend. It’s not just in the capital: the cafe up at Braewick has also been significantly and beautifully extended. Furthermore, a second brewery (beer being something of a bellwether of development, in my view) – Lerwick Brewery – has added to its range and styles of beer in addition to the continued presence of the longer established Valhalla. And the houses are bigger, more opulent, while Lerwick supports both a Tesco and a Co-Op, in large supermarket form.

The facts confirm the impressions. GDP in Shetland is significantly larger than in the Hebrides and the gap is growing. While the economy of Eilean Siar has struggled to a growth of 12 per cent over the last ten years, the economy of Shetland has bounded ahead, with nary a pause even during the great recession, by over 40 per cent.

GDP Shetland and Eilean Siar

(Figures from Eurostat; unit of measure – million units of national currency. See also the Eurostat press release on the release of its 2017 NUTS 3 figures in February this year.)

And, to rub it in further, Shetland has fewer people: 23,080 (only Orkney is smaller in Scotland) compared to 26,950 living on Eilean Siar, so the gap in per capita GDP (£38,160 plays £22,190) is a canyon of 72%.

The major source of the difference is likely to be North Sea Oil which is driving Shetland’s economy via Sullom Voe much more than the agrarian one is driving our own (of course both Shetland and the Hebrides share an agrarian history and, while sheep are still very evident on Shetland, smallholdings and crofting are much less the case there these days). Oil has been a source not only of jobs in Shetland and, therefore, opportunities for people to remain, or return, there but also the high-tech skills with which come high wages and which, in turn, lead to money being spent in the shops (and the bars and cafes). Here, without an oil boom (and despite the rumours), it is not apparent that there has been significant skills transfer from the MoD presence, now in slow and steady withdrawal phase, while we are also faced with the further erosion of the skills base should HIAL proceed with its plans for the remote control of airport towers which my old union, Prospect, is fighting hard.

Both oil and small-scale sheep farming of course have their issues, the first from the highly-effective Extinction Rebellion protests which have led the government to plan to legislate for a zero carbon future by 2050 (though this is indeed less impressive than it looks), and which raises serious questions about whether those prospective oil finds should actually be left under the sea anyway; the second from Michael Gove and Brexit and the extent to which the Scottish (and Welsh and Northern Ireland) government, farm policy being a devolved matter, will be both able and willing to replace CAP payments lost after Brexit.

A green view would be that GDP growth is an inefficient way of measuring economic vitality since it omits much of the voluntary and not-for-profit work that keeps things ticking over; while it is certainly true that it ignores quality of life and greater well-being – the reason many people move to the northern and western isles (though we should also not ignore that several serious health problems associated with isolation are not uncommon) – as well as community life and culture (though it is also possible to find both these things in London, too). And it is absolutely not that there is nothing going on here – the new and very welcome Islands Revival blog recently detailed many of the initiatives now being undertaken on Uist.

What is required is, as Islands Revival commented, not only an end to managed decline – the council response to austerity and driven by the rut of population decline – but continued and further public and private investment. With significant scale private investment likely to follow, or be inhibited by, the dynamics of economic growth, public sources and projects occupy the central position in generating the new opportunities required to stem the decline and inspire regeneration. The energetic and enthusiastic Scottish Islands Team, responsible for a lengthy consultation tour discussing the National Islands Plan, and recently also in Shetland too, needs to take away that message from its trip to Uist and Benbecula on Monday and Tuesday next week. In the meantime, that spaceport up on North Uist (coincidentally one of its rivals is Unst, the most northerly part of the Shetland archipelago) is sorely needed.

I did promise you photographs. Here is a sunny view of the tombolo connecting St. Ninian’s Isle with the Shetland mainland (complete with coo and young ‘uns):

IMG_3382 (Custom)

And here, on a rather more dreich day in Lerwick, are boats of neighbours, occupying peacefully adjacent spaces:

IMG_3426 (Custom)

Book Review: The Wall

John Lanchester’s The Wall is frequently, and indeed best, described as ‘dystopian’ – relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.

Lanchester’s vision is of a future somewhat shrunken UK surrounded by a 10,000km wall built, primarily, in response to the impact of ‘the Change’ – climate change resulting in dramatically raised sea levels which have destroyed every beach, led to the destruction of food chains and food security, and made fUK a place of cold weather much more closely associated with our latitude than is currently the case; and patrolled by Defenders on a two-year stint of compulsory national service whose job it is to keep out – with extreme prejudice – all those who seek to get over it. This is not because the fUK within resembles anything like a promised land – inter-generational conflict, a society based on the racist exploitation of others, population collapse and a vast level of its limited resource sucked into security see to it that fUK is a place of cold, hatred, totalitarian control, guilt, bitterness and barely-disguised fear – and in which ‘Sweet moderation/Heart of this nation‘ has, finally, deserted us – but it does highlight the desperation motivating those seeking nevertheless to enter.

fUK society is divided into a globalised Elite still able to fly; the elderly, blamed for the disaster since it was on their watch that the Change happened; Defenders, some of whom, like Kavanagh, the central character, dream futilely of joining the Elite but whose more realistic future is to become a Breeder whose key role in staving off further population decline is rewarded with time away from the Wall; and Others – those managing to get over The Wall and who are, once caught up with, given the choice of enslavement or euthanasia. Those who are judged responsible for influxes of Others over the Wall are de-chipped – essentially, they are ‘enemies within’ – and put out to sea on a one-in-and-one-out basis. The prospects of any sort of redemption for Kavanagh and his colleagues appear bleak.

The novel is opaque as regards just how far into the future this vision takes place. Some will see Lanchester’s fUK as a continuation of several trends already present in society (all dystopian novels, including The Road, 1984 and Brave New World are essentially versions of the present). With this in mind, calls for non-intervention in the case of the tiny numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats, on the grounds that such action might encourage others, are being made; while the dehumanising nature of our political discourse and the normalisation of hate speech facilitated by social media platforms and given full voice by Brexit, with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s Facebook page taken down only yesterday and with Shamima Begum’s image used in ‘light-hearted fun’ at a type of shooting range aimed at young children, give Lanchester’s fiction a very real footing. Unmistakeably, this is also a ‘post’-Brexit novel – its language is the language of Brexit – to add to a burgeoning list. What he is outlining in The Wall is not the future – but it does indeed feel a lot like a version of the future towards which we are currently headed.

Lanchester does not seek to describe the state of fUK. (Incidentally, this is not a term that he uses, but the UK seems still to exist in some way given that Scotland appears to continue to be a part of it, although how much of Scotland is actually left is a moot point given that it is also referred to as ‘the north’.) Indeed, this is not a grim tale of what we have become but to take this, in a quite matter-of-fact way, as a given. This provides a solid starting point for the novel’s exploration of human reactions to their state and to question how on earth it is we have got there. Whereas the history of the present up to September 2001 had been the tearing down of walls, as Lanchester himself has commented, the post-World Trade Center history of the present has represented a dehumanising of the ‘other’ coupled in the last ten years with a post-crash austerity politics which has sought to use the ‘other’ as a target for blame; and on which the present-day version of inter-generational inequality – our children’s generation being the first to transfer resources back to their parents (a reversal of the accepted inter-generational inequality of the past) – has much to comment.

A slightly more ambitious novel than this one might have sought to establish The Wall as a character in its own right but, here, its role is simply a physical barrier while yet underscoring a clear point about our obliviousness to our environment – our inability to learn and to act in its defence. Given the known CO2 emissions involved in the manufacture of concrete, the construction of 10,000km of concrete wall, five metres high on the seaward side and involving ‘millions of tons’ of the stuff, erected in response to the destruction wrought by climate change, provides an acutely ironic comment on our own lack of understanding of what we are doing when it comes to green issues. As indeed, given the environmental impact of air travel, does Kavanagh’s appreciation of the elite as being those that are still able to fly.

As other reviews have indicated, the style of Lanchester’s writing is ‘affectless’ (see here and here – both ££) and its dispassionate nature makes the characters’ role in their own misery somewhat hard to work through until we reach the final section. fUK is an individualised, post-collective society – a reminder that this is a state which those driving Brexit seek further to entrench – and the implications of that for the UK’s current direction is clear. There is no collective organisation in response to the conditions in which people find themselves and neither, does it seem, is there any attempt at riots and revolution.

Such attempts may of course have already been defeated and, as I say, it is not Lanchester’s aim to describe what we have become but to use this is a platform to contemplate why. One of my earlier thoughts while reading the first two of the book’s thirds, aided not least by the almost complete lack of typos on the pages, was that this was a novel written by artificial intelligence; or that the characters we meet within it are actually cyborgs. Neither is true (at least, I don’t think either is true) but key to understanding how the characters interact with their society, and therefore to how Lanchester contemplates our current state, is our increasing lack of empathy. The Wall is, here, not without hope. Re-learning, in the first place, and then re-establishing empathy – the key also to addressing a lack of collective awareness and solidarity – may yet give Kavanagh and his colleagues the key to overcoming their state. It is a long way back from there – but if we are to avoid that state, re-establishing empathy before we have to re-learn it, and while we still have time to appreciate precisely what it means, may yet help us avoid such a state’s worst excesses.

Wood briquettes – a new supplier

I spent a part of my day today working up an appetite for lunch by shifting one tonne of briquettes for our wood-burning stove from their usual landing place off the D.R. McLeod lorry and into the shed. For those that like to note these things, this was (again) 96 boxes on the pallet, implying 48 return trips, in somewhat autumnal conditions featuring 30+mph average wind speeds coming from the south and a somewhat unwelcome splash or two of rain at the start. Oh – and one butting of the top of my head on the low shed entrance, two-thirds of the way through and about three trips after I had mentally noted that I had not yet banged my head. I never learn.

Following problems at Verdo, which used to supply our briquettes – they sold their Grangemouth manufacturing plant last August while a flood earlier this year wrecked production to the point that it seems it has still not fully recovered – I went looking for a new supplier. Aided by some excellent meta-tagging, I came across Wood Fuel, based in the Queen of the South (where – little-known fact about me – I once (long ago) played bowls while working for a famously no-longer-existing building society.)

Wood Fuel ticked a lot of boxes for me since it’s a co-operative, which means that it not only offered me great customer service, it also does good things for its local community, including for the Dumfriesshire food bank, as well as guaranteeing that its products – and it offers a sizable range of these things – have done as few miles as possible (they’re made in the UK in Herts and by a small family company) and come from sustainably-sourced timber. They also offer briquettes quite a bit cheaper than Verdo, where per-briquette prices (including delivery to these islands) had gone up by over a quarter in two years (yes – I keep a detailed eye on these things).

Proof of the quality comes with burning and it’s a bit early to report on that just yet. However, I note that the briquettes are hardwood; they come packed in cardboard boxes rather than plastic sleeves; and they look, for a number of technical reasons, a little easier to use than the Verdo ones (which could be slow-burning). Wood Fuel also supply a very helpful A4 leaflet on using the briquettes and getting the best from the stove; and, after being also out of stock when I first contacted them, managed to get them to me within the week and two/three days earlier than expected.

I was particularly pleased to note the use of cardboard boxes to house the briquettes rather than plastic sleeves; we always used to re-use these as bin-liners so they did get one (but only one) extra use: cardboard means not only eliminating that but it also provides us with an additional source of fire-starting material. The drawback is that, despite its strengths, cardboard presents a number of issues when unloading the pallet and storing the boxes, especially since the briquettes are a little different and, consequently, the boxes need to be stacked higher in the shed (they’re up to the roof to ensure I take up no more scarce floor space); while rain is clearly an enemy both to safe storage in this respect as well as to the briquettes themselves (they are made essentially from sawdust and so are, quite evidently, useless when wet.

Today was, briefly, showery – but the pallet comes double shrink-wrapped as well as with a plastic sheet to protect against damp in transit – more of the environment-killing stuff but this is unavoidable in the Uist context and, at least, all that squashed down to an old log bag. Fingers crossed that the boxes’ journey from pallet to shed didn’t compromise them too much. Else my not-so-much leaning wall of briquettes at the back of the shed may yet come tumbling down.

I do like the look of these things not least in that their brittle nature – you can easily break them apart by hand – should mean that they catch quicker once the fire is underway and, quite probably, they could also facilitate some economising on kindling, the need for which remains present with the Verdo ones. We’ll see in the next few weeks but, as long as these go well, I’ll definitely be using Wood Fuel again.

Good news from HIE youth survey

Welcome news this morning from Enabling Our Next Generation, Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s survey of people aged 15-30, that a higher proportion of young people are committed to staying on the islands than when the survey was done three years ago; and indeed also to see their futures here. Migration of young people away from the area is indeed a problem – here on Uist and Benecula, we are an ageing society and the loss of young people represents a major concern as regards both the sustainability and the vitality of these islands.

This is a clear tribute to the hard work being done by many organisations – HIE among them – to provide greater opportunities for young people such that they are able to see a future for themselves in the region. And that means a future not just in 30-40 years time when they are considering retiring ‘home’ again but an immediate future of opportunities while – to put it frankly – people are at their most economically productive.

At 90 pages, I haven’t yet read the full report, which is detailed, in-depth and closely-argued and self-evidently a serious contribution to our thinking on economic development. It is also accompanied by sub-area reports focusing on the findings for each of HIE’s eight offices although these do not yet appear to be publicly-available. I hope that HIE and the report authors choose to put these into the public domain in due course as these will contain important research material.

I do note, however, that the survey is much older than it was three years ago – the proportion of young people aged 15-18 was 29% in this new survey, but 51% three years ago. The 2018 survey might well be more representative in this sense as a result, but consequently, any headline that focuses on a greater willingness to stay compared to 2015 needs to take this changing demographic into account – those aged 25-30 (34% of this year’s survey compared to 21% three years ago) are likely already to have made their plans and their choices based on the opportunities available to them. The key group remains those who are 15-18 and who may or may not see such opportunities as being open to them; and it would be interesting to see the views of how this specific group have changed.

It’s also interesting to note that the proportion of people from the Western Isles has also risen from 2015, to 8% (and actually three points higher than the percentage of people in the HIE area who are in the age group and living here). On this basis, the wider survey might be a fraction less representative, therefore – but the needs of people living in the islands are different to those elsewhere in the HIE area (which is huge, encompassing a vast swathe of land from the Western Isles down to Argyll and then up through Lochaber, Ross and Moray, Caithness and Sutherland to the Orkneys and Shetland). Frequently, those needs are quite specific based on the culture and geography of the islands on which they live. A close look at the response of specifically islands young people would also cast an interesting perspective on the extent to which the initiatives being undertaken are successful in making the decision to stay a meaningful one. And, in turn, what else needs to be done to make that decision one that subsequently rewards those making it.

Here on the islands – as anywhere else, really – the keys remain education opportunities, housing, and good quality and skilled jobs. And clearly, the key target group is not as broad as 15-30, it’s really 15-18 because, at 18, life choices are being made and, if not yet set in stone, will become much more so once young people have left full-time schooling. It remains the case that a decision at 18 to stay on the islands is both courageous and challenging (and one that is frequently subject to negative assessments from peers who regard it as unambitious, which is a different challenge for policy-makers entirely).

Greater opportunities for further and higher education courses via UHI – based up in Stornoway but with satellite centres on Barra, Benbecula and North Uist – and indeed for musicians via Ceòlas’ Cnoc Soilleir project, will help in making a desire to stay and study a more realistic one.

The new housing being constructed in Balivanich will add to the quality of the housing stock, as will – more importantly – the regular housing land audits identifying potential house-building sites which is encompassed as part of the Council’s five-year housing strategy. There remains, nevertheless, a substantial part of the housing stock right across the islands which is left empty and slowly rotting, creating eysores rather than opportunities. Action needs to be taken here as a means of improving the situation for people looking for housing locally.

Nevertheless, with regularly-revived concerns over the long-term future of the MoD range and the in-principle decision to proceed with centralising air traffic control services at Inverness, and operating Benbecula remotely, the threat to substantial parts of these islands’ employment and skills base is significant. Some people do take the decision to return to the islands when they have children – support from grandparents remains an important component of such decisions – but they need good quality jobs and, without those, opportunities for return become objectively much more difficult to make.

The business park based on small-scale units being built up at the airport will help with those looking to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities (as, indeed, would a site for homeworkers to be able to come together). Welcome as these are, however, they will replace neither the skills base lost through the departure of high-tech employers nor the spending power of those employed by them. And neither, despite the same broad welcome, will jobs working in retail, tourism and hospitality, and the care industry. We might well, even within the same set of islands, take the view that centralising services leads, and on the same basis, to a loss of opportunities for people living more remotely.

Such concerns are clearly broader than the remit of today’s survey report but, in adding to the policy debate around the hard-edged economic decisions influencing island peoples’ choices to stay, it provides welcome evidence giving impetus to the policy tools that we have and to those on which we still need to work.

Pay, productivity and high performance: time to get a MAC?

I’ve resisted blogging about Brexit for quite some time, largely because the amount of lunacy out there is simply astonishing. Brexit remains, in my view, a policy outcome intended in the first place to settle internecine war within the Tory Party but which it is clearly failing to do – and, indeed, which it is turning out to be completely ill-equipped to do.

In such circumstances, while there remains an awful lot of stuff going on that policy needs to settle, there’s little for policy-makers to do but watch on in horror as this the Brexit sh*t show meanders to a conclusion. I’ve watched on in horror as public positions have solidified around the hardest of Brexits in the attempt to appease the Tory Party’s Brexiteers and as the policy debate has shifted further rightwards to the point where Brexit has not become a far-right project – it was always this, from the days before the referendum was called – but an excuse for the public outbursts (and worse) of illiberal, angry boors.

The UK leaving the EU is still the most likely conclusion – though you never know, and that’s no reason not to try – but making sense of what things will be like afterwards is an essential task facing policy-makers. (Were our public debate to mend itself more meaningfully to actual debate rather than false slogans on buses, this is of course the sort of thing that would have happened prior to the referendum. Nevertheless.)

One of the policy organisations trying to get on with life after likely Brexit is the Migration Advisory Committee, the government’s advisory body on issues – largely but not exclusively to do with the labour market – concerning the impact of migration. The MAC has been charged recently with coming up with a report on what effects migration has had on the UK’s economy and society, which it did last month in the background of a focus on its (almost certainly false) equation of wages with skill levels, and its recommendation to impose a £30,000 minimum salary requirement on labour immigration visas.

Last week, Professor Alan Manning, Chair of the MAC, appeared before the House of Lords Home Affairs sub-committee to discuss the findings. One of the issues raised was the (very) lukewarm recommendation to engage with a seasonal workers’ scheme for agriculture – though not for care – on the grounds that the sector was absolutely dependent on EU workers and there were no prospects of what we might call ‘domestic re-supply’ taking their place (I’m deliberately avoiding repeating the nauseating terminology of ‘settled workers’). You can watch the appearance here (relevant bit at c. 11:15.50) or else read the BBC’s report which contains a full quote of the statement behind this post.

The reason for the lukewarm nature of the recommendation is the low levels of productivity (stemming from low wages) in the agriculture sector, against the background of the government’s desire (in its ‘Plan for Britain’) to turn the UK (I think this is what it means) into a high productivity, high wage economy; and the view expressed by Professor Manning in his appearance, but which isn’t at all a conclusion of the report, that low-skilled migration has been ‘fiscally negative’. (Indeed, the report specifically says that there is no evidence that low-skilled migration has any negative impact on productivity, innovation or training – though it does say that high-skilled migration is (entirely unsurprisingly) ‘better’ in all these areas.)

Now, I’m very much in favour of the principle of a high wage, high productivity economy – except in that, like a lot of things this government does, having a plan is all very well but what is also required is that someone must actually do something to achieve it (it’s not going to be happen by wishing on a unicorn). Furthermore, an essential part of any plan must be the proper taking care of the local economic, employment and social impacts none of which can be left to the market, and this is somewhat missing from recent government pronouncements. (Had we taken greater care over the last forty years of those things that cannot be left to the market, we might well not be in this mess.)

Startlingly, Professor Manning said in his appearance that the loss of seasonal produce markets ‘wouldn’t be the end of the earth for the country as a whole’ and that giving agriculture ‘privileged access to labour’ wasn’t a way to achieve a high-productivity economy. I think this is both arrant and shockingly complacent:

1. agriculture is a market that is rigged by the big retailers. The demand for lower prices by the big supermarkets, the natural effect of the cut-throat competition facing them, is what will continue to keep wages in the sector down. At the same time, falling prices won’t provide the conditions for farmers to invest in automation to raise productivity, even if the incentive might be there to do so. The same rigged market is, by the way, also present in the care sector: it’s called austerity and the resultant cash strapping of the local authorities who fund care. The government can end austerity – but, in the context of agriculture, it also needs to do something to tackle the power of big retailers to force farm prices downwards

2. it is ridiculous to suggest that the appropriate policy response to the loss of soft fruits and asparagus is to import them instead. There is the issue of quality, with large areas of Scotland, e.g. The Carse stretching along the side of Tay from Perth to Dundee, having natural advantages for the growing of premium quality soft fruits. More than that, however, one of the focuses of the environmental debate is, quite rightly, reducing the food miles involved in the transport of our food from source to plate. It makes no environmental sense to import soft fruits that can be grown, and successfully, in the UK – and there is the issue of the use of preservatives to extend lifetimes, too. Yet, green issues and concerns are apparently absent from considerations in this debate

3. agriculture constitutes less than 1% of UK GDP. It is extremely facile to think that low productivity in agriculture is somehow holding the UK back from becoming a high productivity economy. Even more so when we are specifically speaking about low productivity in one tiny (see Table 2.2 under previous link) sector within the agriculture industry

4. Brexit is already likely to lead to up to 25% of farms in England going to the wall – and probably more in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if there is knock-on effect on budget subsidies to the devolved administrations. If this was an EU country, there would be consultation, a social plan and a desire to provide re-training programmes to provide a degree of support and re-orientation for those involved. But, this is the UK, and a country which is heading out of the EU

5. MAC suggests a (higher) minimum wage in agriculture will be required to provide upwards pressure on wages in the event that a seasonal workers’ scheme is introduced so as to raise productivity and in view of this ‘privileged access to labour’. I’m in favour of a higher living wage across the UK but I’m not sure that a minimum wage in the already distorted agriculture market, in isolation from a higher living wage particularly elsewhere in the food supply chain, will act in the way it thinks

6. to gain a high productivity economy, we would need, firstly, a more advanced manufacturing industry as a launchpad for a high skills, high technology revolution. However, Professor Minford, the economist that Brexiteers most like to listen to, was already prior to the referendum predicting (and indeed welcoming) the elimination of what little manufacturing industry we have left; although his post-referendum analysis is somewhat less apocalyptic predicting UK manufacturing profits ‘possibly higher than pre-Brexit levels’. (He’ll probably be right about something one day, at least on an infinite monkey basis.) Secondly, all workplaces, regardless of industry sector, need to be adopting much more of the sorts of high performance practices that create productivity and to which trade union general secretaries, for example, have pointed, and repeatedly. But, as EEF’s budget submission this week highlighted, there is precious little evidence of that. (The EEF submission also highlights that foreign-owned workplaces are more productive than ‘domestic’ ones. Funny that.)

Ultimately, if we’re to have a high productivity economy, we need our policy-makers to pay less attention to what is happening in agriculture and more to proselytising about high performance workplaces and putting clear incentives in place to encourage the adoption of high performance practices. Meanwhile, we know that a lot of people in primary industry areas such as agriculture voted for Brexit. But, funnily enough, I never saw ‘Vote Brexit: lose primary sector jobs and pay higher food prices’ on the side of a bus, either.

A tale of two birds

My favourite armchair is located adjacent to our east-facing lounge window, from where I can look out over the bay at Kilaulay just about thirty metres to my right and observe the coming and going of the tides, the constantly changing colours of the water and the sky, the view across the Eabhal on North Uist, up to the mountains of Harris (on a good day) and across to McLeod’s Tables and the Cuillins on Skye. As well as the ups and downs of the lives of the bird population – a variety of shore birds, largely, as well as a variety of farmland birds and our ever-present, and thriving, gang of starlings.

Treating myself to a morning on Twitter, as a result of an attack of the lurgy (a touch of Australian Flu, undoubtedly) getting on top of my other plans, I became aware at the edge of my vision of a large bird making steady, slightly laboured, progress southerly down the bay, level with my eyeline sitting down. Glancing up, and taking in the gull which was tracking it at a somewhat respectful distance, my first thought was ‘Oh, grey heron’, before I became aware of its reddish-brown colour… and then, as the chills ran down my spine and my eyes opened wider (probably my mouth also fell open, too, although I couldn’t comment), I became aware of the mightily powerful hooked beak at the front end, and then the white tail feathers at the back as it disappeared from my view, me looking backwards over my shoulder. Not a heron, then. We do get regular sightings both of buzzards and also hen harriers but this was clearly much, much bigger. White-tailed eagle, surely. Almost dropping the laptop as I leapt out of my seat, I dashed through the house to the bedroom, flinging open the window (and paying suitably scant attention to Aussie Flu) to get a better view… but nothing. It had gone. The rest of the local bird life continued without a great deal of bother – itself something of a marker since white-tails are largely, though not exclusively, birds of carrion rather than hunters of live prey. My look at it had probably totalled little more than a second, of which the first 0.25 was spent thinking it was a heron (and thus no time for photos, though my camera is usually on the ledge beside my binoculars, and my RSPB Handbook, specifically to help with bird ID).

Amateur birder that I am, I tried to recall exactly what I’d seen as well as the scene itself – recognising that sometimes my assessments and judgments are formed by what I have seen, and sometimes the reverse. But I’m fairly sure of what I saw: and, luckily for me, the Outer Hebrides birds website records an adult white-tail this morning at Baleshare, a little to the north of here as the eagle flies. So I’m taking that as confirmation.

It’s the first white-tail I’ve seen here in Ardivachar – though I know that there are white-tails and golden eagles further south on South Uist, with the hills and terrain being territorially more suited to both, although white-tails are also happy around farmland and, of course, the coast since fish is a major part of their diet. I’ve seen a white-tail before – both at a bird of prey demonstration (though static that day) and also from the little boat heading out of Portree harbour on Skye (though it was the ‘Lady B’ back in 2008), where the birds nest on the cliffs just to the south of the town. But that time – when a gull was also paying close attention – there was a very high chance of seeing one (and there was a bonus sighting not only of Sammy the Seal but harbour dolphins that day, too); this time, my sighting of this most majestic of birds – the UK’s largest bird of prey, with a massive 2m wing span – was in the absolute wild. Just for a second, or so.

A couple of hours later, I’m watching from the same spot (still hoping my white-tail would return) some oystercatchers and a few black-headed gulls, as well as starlings and redwings, poking about for worms on the grassy strip between the end of our garden and the shoreline, the tide being in retreat. It’s unusual to see shore birds do this except at this time of year and I don’t know whether it’s because food supplies are scarce at this time or whether they are looking for extra nutrients ahead of the breeding season. Probably the former. Noticing that one of our little population of redwings – a thrush-like migratory bird and winter visitor from northern Europe which is unusual in that it tends to move around rather than migrate to and from a particular spot – was scattering around the top of the picnic table, I popped out with a little extra help (some berry-flavoured suet) when I noticed one of its brothers lying on the thin strip of concrete path that runs around the house; quite dead, and recently so. Given its location, it must have fallen dead from a perch on the roof or chimney, perhaps succumbing to the winter cold (although it looked in good condition); or, alternatively, it might have been driven, sparked by fear and panic, into the window, a fate of many birds which break their necks on contact with the glass (although there was no tell-tale mark on the glass itself).

What to do? It had no BTO ring, so there was nothing formal to report, leaving the two choices of scooping it up and putting it in the dustbin; or returning it to the ground, perhaps a little softer than the unforgiving concrete on which I had found it. Of course, I chose the latter, placing it on the croft land outside the house where the energies that had given it such vitality in life could, in death, give nourishment to something else in the complex food chain. Nature is self-sustaining (when not interfered with by humans, that is) and a noble death for any animal is perhaps that it may then subsequently play it role and take its place in nourishing what comes after it. Including humans too, I might venture.

Things I’ll miss about Perth…

The sun having not quite yet set sees me still in Perth, continuing to pack boxes with useful stuff and filling PKC’s recycling dumpsters with my rather less useful stuff. Following my previous post about missing bits of Perth, here’s a slightly indulgent post listing a small selection of things in this same direction (and avoiding the rather more obvious touristy stuff you can get up to in Perth’s fair city):

1. The Kirkside. Perth’s not blessed with really great pubs but this is a gem. Now with beers from Perth’s Inveralmond Brewery, including occasionally Thrappledouser, which featured in a BBC quiz on ‘delicious but faintly ridiculous beer names‘, there’s good beer and good company – and Tina and the current owners, and Geoff and Michael before them, alongside the staff and the regulars, have always offered friendship as well as being really good neighbours.

2. Marek and Magda and staff at Cafe Tabou for top quality food and drink and customer service, and for delightful anticipation every time I step in. And for Innis and Gunn on draught.

3. Terrific curries – especially the Murgh Handi – and top traditional service (including lemon towels – much appreciated!) from Ifty and Imran, the extremely friendly front of house people, of Nawaab (a fine family restaurant located in a beautiful building, too). Food served with a flourish and a sense of occasion. Good luck, guys.

4. Pizzas from Duo‘s wood-fired oven (and Old Engine Oil, too, with an ITK recommendation from The Bluffer’s Guide to Beer).

(Perth, being a member of the Cittaslow / slow food movement, does have really good restaurants!)

5. Perth’s wonderful floral displays, especially at the top of the wonderfully-named Needless Road just outside the city, and all around the city centre. Even in late summer, the old, and loved, City Hall is still beautifully adorned:

IMG_6671 (Custom)

6. The view as the evening sun shines on the red sandstone of the building which now houses Katy’s Company bridal shop (and formerly Kippen Campbell, solicitors) and which is properly known as the Kirk Session House of St. Johns, built in 1910 (the Session House would be the place where the church elders gathered to govern the affairs of the Church and, perhaps, to collect funds for the poor. The reference in this link to the Session House being used to keep a watch over the graveyard is also interesting although, in Perth’s history, the graveyard had long gone by 1910. It may of course have been part of the function of any previous Session House located on the same spot, or otherwise nearby.)

7. The rather lovely tune that the Carillon at the historic St. John’s Kirk plays every day at 3pm (I’ll be missing the 8am alarm call followed by a bottom-heavy and somewhat ponderous Greensleeves rather less, though).

Speaking of which, here are just a couple of other things I’ll not miss:

1. Trudging across town, overloaded plastic carrier bags in hands struggling to contain various items of glass, plastic and paper, past some no doubt bemused shoppers and tourists, to do my recycling. It’s not a long walk – probably about half a mile distance from my flat – but PKC really do need to get recycling initiatives properly sorted out for us town centre residents, in the absence of which it’s certainly not easy being green.

2. The sights and sounds of plastic rubbish bags, guts spilling out after well-targeted attacks by assorted gulls and crows, when walking through the city streets early on residual rubbish collection days (Tuesdays and Fridays). PKC absolutely need to get that sorted, too.

Perth’s been good to me. I’ll be back – not least for one more trip in the middle of next month – but, after that, more likely only as a visitor rather than a resident. Exit (pursued by a double-headed eagle).

Toradh / Harvest

My inbox brings me news of An Toradh / The Harvest – a weekend festival of food (and drink!) and writing in Uist taking place towards the end of August. Seeing as this brings together several of my favourite things, I was keenly awaiting the full programme; I knew of some parts of it, but this is the first time I have seen the full shebang.

And what a programme it is! I was knocked out by the breadth of issues being covered during the event – which seeks to celebrate the food we make, eat and sell on the Uists – and by the range of speakers engaged for the festival. Launched under the auspices of Ceolas Uibhist, the Gaidhlig language culture, heritage and arts organistion, the festival might be only in its first year but it offers some forty or so events and already offers the look and feel of an established event (which indeed I hope it becomes). Among the events many will pick different highlights but I’m particularly looking forward to the Uist Noir writers’ workshop on the Friday evening, featuring three local women writers and including the terrific Libby Patterson, as well as a couple of foraging workshops on both land and sea. Oh, and the Westford is also offering a beer festival.

The establishment of the festival identifies two things for me: the range of very highly-talented folk who live on the Uists, with many of the speakers and the events being led by people from the islands; as well as the dynamism of the existing arts and culture organisations on the Uists without whose efforts and drive the festival would not exist. Together, both of these highlight the Uists as a thriving, dynamic place in which to live and work, and, in helping to provide the southern islands with a voice, will also contribute greatly to the level of presence required to keep the islands on the map as a continuing force. On top of a highly successful second year of Eilean Dorcha, the Uists really are establishing themselves as a place to be at the minute.

EDIT: 2 September. I was still in Perth last weekend packing up, and so am truly sorry to have missed this event. But I should point out for the record that Toradh was organised by a range of Uist community organisations and businesses in partnership.

Knowing which way the wind is blowing

There was some interesting news on electric cars this week with Volvo announcing that all its new cars will be at least partially battery-powered from 2019; and France announcing, one day later, that it will ban the sale of cars with an internal combustion engine by 2040. There’s a plethora of links in these two articles – on a side note, blogs seem to have become media articles these days while media articles seem to have become blogs – which are well worth exploring, too.

On top of this, the Queen’s Speech promised legislation to ‘ensure the United Kingdom remains a world leader in new industries, including electric cars‘, with the accompanying notes referring to an Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill whose purpose would be – among others – to improve the national charging infrastructure. With the government being supported by the DUP, whose own green credentials leave something to be desired and whose programme features a strong element of climate change scepticism, this is an interesting inclusion in a Queen’s Speech which doesn’t otherwise feature a lot else of substance, Brexit apart.

Volvo will, of course, still be producing existing models with internal combustion engines after 2019; and it will continue to produce a range of hybrids (cars with some level of electric/battery input alongside an internal combustion engine, which can be as minimal as simply managing fuel efficiency); while a policy announcement that takes full effect in 23 years time is, perhaps, little more than virtue signalling given shortening policy timescales. We were all, after all, an awful lot younger in 1994.

Nevertheless, the direction that the wind is taking is clear and it is, on the whole, a good one in terms of reducing carbon emissions. It is worth pointing out that international agreements on carbon reduction have provided an important impetus to the development of the electric vehicles market, not least in the light of the role in total carbon emissions played by aircraft travel and the more readily available technology that battery-powered cars provide in terms of achieving the necessary reductions targets.

Much remains to be done, however: globally, sales of electric cars total no more than 2m, about 30% in China and Japan and a further 25% in the US. Within Europe, the Netherlands and Norway look to me be leading the way. In the light of this, it it no wonder that progress is slow, and incremental. It does need a bit of a kick and the toes being dipped in the water by Volvo and the French government simply aren’t sufficient. Better instead, to do more in the way of encouraging manufacturers to bring end prices down.

Drivers of electric cars are likely to continue to be worried about the availability of charging stations – especially, for longer journeys, the availability of rapid chargers which allow the current generation of electric cars to be fully charged in about 45 mins (30 mins to about 80%). The focus of the UK government’s initiative on electric vehicles – that petrol re-fuelling stations would be compelled to offer electric charging points – is thus an interesting one. The Bill will indeed require the installation of charge points for electric vehicles at motorway service areas and large fuel retailers, and on the basis of a common set of technical and operational standards.

Precisely what will be required, and where, and the cost regime that is envisaged along with any subsidies on offer, remains to be seen. If electric cars do take off, then petrol stations would need to change their business model anyway and, while it is easy to see a conversion of some facilities to coffee shops (and hopefully something more welcoming than just the coffee areas to the side of existing facilities that is currently substantially the provision), it is a lot harder to see the profit in selling two or three cups of coffee and possibly a cake or two while people wait for their cars to charge against a £30 fuel sale (by the end, a full tank on our BMW was costing £70). We might see this as the government providing a bit of a nudge to service station providers ahead of the deluge that will otherwise befall them, but the better option, if the government wants to get involved, would be to facilitate the provision of charging points away from petrol stations but put them in car parks, park and ride facilities. The smart move, if we’re talking about town centre regeneration, would be to put a mass of charging points in, or very close to, town centres, too. There’s absolutely a role there for councils and it would be good to see the government working closely with local councils instead rather than nudging petrol stations to do what the market will force them to do anyway.

The other major issue of course here is, as with anything else, Brexit. Renault-Nissan has a 20%+ market share of 2m electric car market (and hence the Macron government’s lead on this); and the UK claims to be the largest market for electric vehicles in the EU (though the Netherlands looks larger), while one in five electric cars sold in the EU in 2016 were made in the UK. Nissan does, of course, have a plant in Sunderland – our new Leaf was made there, and on the basis of an internal competition within Nissan to be a site featuring production lines for the higher-output models. The leading role of Nissan-Renault in the global electric car market – on the back of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement announced this week – will clearly be a major feature in the Brexit negotiations. Precisely what Carlos Ghosn (who has now moved on from Nissan) got out of Theresa May when they met last October – a discussion that we know encompassed electric cars (Q112-Q115) – continues to be a highly-relevant point for discussion. It is to be hoped that the new Chair of the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, when elected this coming week, will see it as a priority not only to pick up the threads of its inquiry into the electric car market but also to recall its earlier desire to get to the bottom of that infamous letter.

[18 July edit: a letter has also been sent in highly similar circumstances to Toyota. The Committee – with Labour MP Rachel Reeves in the chair – has an urgent task in keeping the activities of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy under review as Brexit talks get underway.]

[18 July update 2: it’s actually the Treasury Committee which is taking charge here and, by the look of it, it is on the case.]