Tag Archives: United Kingdom

Lights-Out London

The foreign owners who have made London unaffordable for it’s citizens are leaving town

Racine had everything a west London restaurant could ask for: beaming reviews, great cooking and an enviable location opposite the V&A on the Brompton Road. For 12 years it served immaculate French standards to discerning diners and from the outside it looked like an institution to last a century.

But two weeks ago owner Henry Harris announced that Racine had moutarded its last lapin and would close. Qu’est-ce qui s’est passé?

“It was inevitable. The site had become unsustainable,” says Harris. “A rent renewal was the catalyst, but the main cause was the shrinking residential population in what should be a saturated area. My original clients, who were 50 or 60 when we opened, were that bit older. Some of them couldn’t afford to eat out as often after the recession, but others saw what their houses were worth and decided to realise that asset. They were replaced by non-doms who didn’t live there. In some apartment blocks 20% were unoccupied – one in five of my potential client base. It makes a big difference. In the block behind the restaurant it even became easier to park. You never expect to hear that in Knightsbridge.”

Racine is the latest victim of what some have called “lights-out London” where absentee owners push up property prices without contributing to the local economy. When Racine opened in 2002 the average price of a Knightsbridge home was £745,000; now it is £3.4m. There are an estimated 22,000 empty properties in London, partly a consequence of the city’s status as what the novelist William Gibson has called “the natural home of a sometimes slightly dodgy flight capital”. As Racine’s story shows, some businesses are feeling the effects.

Absenteeism as a problem is peculiar to the smudge of “super-prime” London around Harrods (although there are pockets elsewhere, such as Highgate). In a survey by the Empty Homes Agency last year, Kensington and Chelsea was found to have had a 40% annual increase in empty properties, the only area in southern England to show such an increase. Other boroughs on the list were mainly in poor parts of the north and north-west. The idea of the most expensive homes sitting empty is provocative in a city where any kind of property ownership is increasingly out of reach and politicians are moving to act.

Writing in the Independent, Tessa Jowell, who hopes to be Labour’s candidate in the capital’s mayoral contest next year, called empty homes a “scandal” and promised punitive taxes for their owners if she is elected. “Today in London hundreds of thousands of people are stuck in temporary accommodation, on social housing waiting lists, or years of saving short of buying their first home. At the same time the global super-rich buy London homes like they are gold bars, as assets to appreciate rather than homes in which to live … Absentee owners should live in the house they own or sell up – or face uncapped charges until they do. No dodges or clever schemes to get round that.”

The run on real estate has had indirect consequences, too. Some long-term residents, finding themselves in quiet areas, have themselves left in a kind of self-reinforcing loop. Businesses have been priced out of their offices, taking the lucrative expenses-lunch crowd with them.

“We had customers who worked in investment or banking firms nearby who would come in once a week for the old-school, ‘let’s enjoy the afternoon’ kind of lunch,” says Harris. “But they have moved – a short distance down the King’s Road you can get good offices for a fraction of the price per square foot. I know one architect who moved to Holborn – you wouldn’t have thought it would be cheaper near the City. The lunch trade was probably half what it was five years ago. A friend says it’s like a ghost town.”

ISIS has conquered an area the size of England

This is not a small insurgency, this is Osama Bin Laden’s dream when he attacked the World Trade Centre coming true

For America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of Isis and the Caliphate is the ultimate disaster. Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to get rid of Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden. The war on terror for which civil liberties have been curtailed and hundreds of billions of dollars spent has failed miserably. The belief that Isis is interested only in ‘Muslim against Muslim’ struggles is another instance of wishful thinking: Isis has shown it will fight anybody who doesn’t adhere to its bigoted, puritanical and violent variant of Islam. Where Isis differs from al-Qaida is that it’s a well-run military organisation that is very careful in choosing its targets and the optimum moment to attack them.

Many in Baghdad hope the excesses of Isis – for example, blowing up mosques it deems shrines, like that of Younis (Jonah) in Mosul – will alienate the Sunnis. In the long term they may do just that, but opposing Isis is very dangerous and, for all its brutality, it has brought victory to a defeated and persecuted Sunni community. Even those Sunnis in Mosul who don’t like it are fearful of the return of a vengeful Shia-dominated Iraqi government. So far Baghdad’s response to its defeat has been to bomb Mosul and Tikrit randomly, leaving local people in no doubt about its indifference to their welfare or survival. The fear will not change even if Maliki is replaced by a more conciliatory prime minister. A Sunni in Mosul, writing just after a missile fired by government forces had exploded in the city, told me: ‘Maliki’s forces have already demolished the University of Tikrit. It has become havoc and rubble like all the city. If Maliki reaches us in Mosul he will kill its people or turn them into refugees. Pray for us.’ Such views are common, and make it less likely that Sunnis will rise up in opposition to Isis and its Caliphate. A new and terrifying state has been born.

CIA intelligence reports were very clear that Osama Bin Laden’s intent when attacking the World Trade Centre was to have the United States respond disproportionally in invading part of the Middle East (umm, Iraq) and have the radical elements of Islam rise up against the west.  It may have taken longer than he envisioned but this looks a lot what the CIA feared happening.

The British do so much cocaine, it shows up in their drinking water

Oh those up tight Brits.

The Illuminati-sounding Drinking Water Inspectorate found traces of the drug’s metabolized form, benzoylecgonine, at four inspection sites, peed out by coked-up Brits and not completely removed during water plants’ “intensive purification treatments.” The scientists also found trace amounts of caffeine, epilepsy medication, and pain-killer ibuprofen.

Steve Rolles, from the drug policy think tank Transform, told The Sunday Times that the findings were an indication of the scale of the use of the drug in Britain today. “We have the near highest level of cocaine use in western Europe,” he said. “It has also been getting cheaper and cheaper at the same time as its use has been going up.”

According to the charity DrugScope, there are around 180,000 dependent users of crack cocaine in England, and nearly 700,000 people aged 16-59 are estimated to take cocaine every year in Britain.

Someone fetch a dustpan and broom

Sea of rubbish left behind by 90,000 music fans at Reading Festival

Sea of Garbage

A huge clear-up operation began within hours of the annual Bank Holiday event closing on Monday. Despite a ‘Love Your Tent’ campaign imploring people to pack up and remove their camping gear, thousands clearly didn’t.

Last year more than 20 tons of re-useable equipment was salvaged – and this year the figure is expected to be even higher. Some will be offered to local charities but damaged or unplaced equipment will be destined for landfill sites.

Will Heathrow become irrelevant

The coalition government and Labour withdraw their support for a new runway at Heathrow, an airport that is already running at 98% capacity.  As the Economist sees it.

The language both politicians used shows how keen they are to move the focus of British aviation policy away from Heathrow’s third runway. But I fear they are too optimistic, especially given the absence of viable, fundable alternatives. The reasons for not building a runway are valid, but for the time being a politician has to embrace them when discussing improvements at Heathrow.

The third runway remains the elephant in the aviation-policy room. So while in her speech Ms Greening also referred to other efforts her department would be making at Heathrow, these sounded like so much window-dressing. Talk of improving “resilience”—so that the next time bad weather comes, the airport responds more effectively—is unlikely to impress British business. The easiest way to improve resilience at an airport operating at 98% capacity would be to build some slack into the system. The creation of another runway would certainly help achieve this, as Ms Greening is no doubt fully aware, while also helping boost the British economy (according to a new report). The debate, therefore, remains very much alive.

The question is will more and more air travel start looking for a hub that is easier to get in and out of.

Prime Minister’s I Have Known

From the Guardian.  I love this story about Denis Thatcher.

One morning, he and his wife were flying to Scotland. The flight attendant asked what he would like to drink, and he said firmly: "A gin and tonic."

"Isn’t it a bit early for a gin and tonic?" Mrs Thatcher inquired.

"It is never too early for a gin and tonic," he said.

Discretion sometimes won. Jim Naughtie of the Today programme recalls chatting to Denis on the landing at Downing Street during a reception, standing next to a large potted plant. Denis was drinking gin and tonic. One of the prime minister’s detectives approached him and whispered: "The Boss is here, sir."

Denis deftly poured his drink into the plant pot, then reached out to embrace his wife.

There are stories ranging from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron in the piece. via

So much for the Chretien way in the United Kingdom

I know Canada had a slightly smaller deficit than the United Kingdom’s – It was 9.1% or 39bn Canadian dollars versus a U.K. deficit of 11.5% or £156bn but these cuts proposed by David Cameron are mind boggling.

Look at these numbers

During his address to MPs, it was clear that few government departments have been spared.

The national health service, pre-university education and international development budgets will be protected from the cuts — but the policing budget will fall by four per cent each year. The Justice Ministry must cut its budget by six per cent per year, but funding for fighting terrorism would be maintained.

The Foreign Office will see a 24 per cent budget cut and the British Broadcasting Corp. will be required to take on the full cost of running the world service.

Welfare funding will also be reduced and the minimum age for people seeking state pensions will be raised earlier than previously expected.

Osborne said that even the Queen would be affected, as the royal household budget will be cut by 14 per cent over four years.

In addition to these cuts, social housing is cut by 50% and the English military is being cut back to the point where even the United States is worried about it and it wasn’t exactly flush with cash before.

As a result, it will be virtually impossible for the UK to offer any meaningful military assistance to the U.S. in the future. The overstretched and under-equipped Ministry of Defense can barely function as it is. The major shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan is now well established, with a parliamentary committee reporting last year that the lack of helicopters was having “adverse consequences” for Britain. Up to two-thirds of the Apache attack helicopter fleet has been described by the Ministry of Defense as “unfit for purpose.” Last July, a plan to severely diminish the threat of Taliban improvised explosives devices (IEDs) – responsible for more NATO troop deaths than any other tactic – was scrapped due to insufficient troop numbers and helicopters. A month later, British soldiers were forced to protect the remains of a senior officer killed by a roadside bomb for three days before a helicopter was available to collect his body.

The shortages-problem is endemic. A lack of heavily armored vehicles meant two soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Army doctors lack basic equipment, such as surgical tools. A coroner at an inquest into the deaths of two soldiers in Afghanistan labeled the Ministry of Defense’s inability to provide basic equipment “unforgivable and inexcusable.” Four soldiers killed this year in Helmand did not have enough metal detectors available to trace bombs, and soldiers are even forced to dye their own uniforms due to a lack of camouflaged shirts.

As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette puts it…

As part of the plan, 20,000 British forces will withdraw from their post-World War II-era bases in Germany by 2020, and overall, British troops and civilian defense personnel will be slashed by 42,000.

The equipment cuts, including early decommissioning of the Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier, will force Britain to forfeit its ability to launch fighter jets from sea until at least 2019. The fleets of Harrier fighter jets are being eliminated. The planned Nimrod MRA4 Reconnaissance aircraft, previously billed by the Royal Air Force as a "significant contribution" to the fight against terrorism, is also being scrapped.

In total, over 500,000 public sector jobs could be lost.

It’s interesting to see that while the Chretien spending cuts hit all departments, they weren’t as deep.

Mr Chretien used the phrase "nothing off the table".

By contrast, Mr Cameron has already pledged to ring-fence the education, health and international aid budgets.

With extensive cuts to healthcare and education spending at the very centre of Canada’s deficit reduction work, many Canadian economists argue that it could not have been successful if they had been excluded.

The impact was, however, severe.

Dark days ahead for a lot of people in the United Kingdom.  The next couple of years won’t be a lot of fun.

9 Things I Learned in 2009: From Liquidity Crisis to Sovereign Debt Crisis

Dr. Leonard Sweet 30 days after 9/11, I was in Seattle listening to Leonard Sweet talk at Soularize.  He was saying before others that 9/11 would change everything and he was right in many ways but I think people will look back at the credit meltdown in 2008 and the response of world governments in 2009 as a big or bigger world changing event.  9/11 may have defined the Bush presidency but the meltdown of the American banking system will be felt for decades.  The world spent trillions of dollars it didn’t have to minimize the impact of the banks implosion and we are going to be struggling with the consequences for years to come.  According to the OECD, the world’s deficits are approaching 4% of the global GDP (meanwhile the U.S. deficit is around 11%).

Canada is already looking at five years of leaner government spending to help pay for the massive deficit we rang up in 2009.

“The government’s approach will be clear. We won’t be raising taxes, but we will be constraining growth, making sure that growth is very much contained in the future, and that the tax base of the country can gradually recover,” Mr. Harper said in a year-end interview for CTV’s A Conversation with the Prime Minister , taped for a Boxing Day broadcast.

“And within four to five years, if we follow that path, we should be back to a balanced budget.”

Mr. Harper’s view that his government will be able to chip away at deficits by squeezing the growth of public spending has been questioned by economists and by former officials with the Finance Department.

Former deputy ministers Scott Clark and David Dodge have already stepped forward to challenge the government’s plans for eliminating the deficit, which is projected to reach $56-billion this fiscal year. Mr. Clark has said that Ottawa will have to raise the GST, which Mr. Harper cut in 2006.

“I don’t think it’s very likely that they can balance the budget without some very severe spending restraint,” said Bank of Montreal deputy chief economist Douglas Porter.

2016 is to be the year that we are out of the woods but I won’t hold my breath.  I foresee a higher GST and higher interest rates before this is all said and done.  While Michael Ignatieff has a different approach to fighting the deficit, which he doesn’t want to share, but he seems more comfortable spending instead of cutting.

“If I’m prime minister, I’m going to be looking at the unemployment numbers first and deficit second,” Mr. Ignatieff said during the interview at Stornoway, the official Opposition leader’s residence. “We’re going to have a jobless recovery or we’re going to have a recovery where there’s still a lot of people looking for jobs.”

According to MSNBC, the impact of the United States deficit and stimulus package could be felt for decades.  It isn’t just a national issue, it’s trickled down to the states and provinces. The State of California is looking more and more like it is going to default on it’s loan.  It’s debt is already a kind of trend setter in that it has been the first state debt to be reduced to junk status.

In addition to debt problems in California and North America, Morgan Stanley fears that the U.K. is headed towards a sovereign debt crisis in 2010Actually Moody’s is predicting that more than the U.K. is going to have problems in the years ahead

Moody’s warned on Tuesday that sovereign debt could be sold off sharply next year, which could lead to a wider downturn in financial markets, if central banks don’t implement what they term ‘perfect exit strategies,’ from the support they’ve been giving financial markets.

“In an extreme situation a fiscal crisis could lead to some domestic capital flight, severe pound weakness and a sell-off in UK government bonds. The Bank of England may feel forced to hike rates to shore up confidence in monetary policy and stabilize the currency, threatening the fragile economic recovery,” they said.

Morgan Stanley said that such a chain of events could drive up yields on 10-year UK gilts by 150 basis points. This would raise borrowing costs to well over 5pc – the sort of level now confronting Greece, and far higher than costs for Italy, Mexico, or Brazil.

High-grade debt from companies such as BP, GSK, or Tesco might command a lower risk premium than UK sovereign debt, once an unthinkable state of affairs.

The Financial Times points out that the U.K., Dubai, Greece, and California is in good company.  Japan has some sovereign debt problems of their own.

Yet Japan’s fiscal problems are even more pressing. A debt trap appears when the rate of interest paid on government debt is higher than the economy’s growth rate and the public revenues are insufficient to cover its financing charges. When this happens the fiscal position becomes unstable and the debt spirals upwards. This has been the case in Japan for several years. A bad situation has been made even worse by the global financial crisis.

Japan’s national debt is fast approaching 200 per cent of GDP. The debt mountain is the result of prolonged economic weakness and successive fiscal deficits since the bubble economy collapsed in 1990. These problems are compounded by the fact that Japan’s population is now shrinking. The economy’s trend growth rate has fallen and tax receipts are shrinking, while welfare payments for pensioners are rising. Japan’s debt trap, it seems, is structural rather than cyclical.

If you believe the stories out of Copenhagen, it has even lead to a reshuffling of the world order.  As China owns more and more United States debt, it is increasingly calling the shots.

Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao There were 192 countries and 120 heads of government in the room at Copenhagen, but in the end there were only two at the table, the United States and China. Welcome to the new world order.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been one superpower, the U.S. Now there are two, as became abundantly clear in the chaotic closing day of the climate- change conference.

At that, Barack Obama was snubbed by the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. And then the U.S. was snookered by the Chinese.

As the New York Times reported Sunday in a riveting piece from the back corridor of the conference: "Twice during the day, Mr. Wen sent an underling to represent him at the meetings with Mr. Obama. To make things worse, each time it was a lower level official."

The first time, Wen sent his deputy foreign minister to a meeting of major heads of government, including most G8 countries (though not, apparently, Canada). Later on, the Times reported, "after a constructive one-on-one" between Obama and Wen, the Chinese premier sent his climate-change negotiator to another heads-of-government meeting that included the U.S. president.

There’s more. The White House set up an evening meeting with the presidents of South Africa and Brazil, as well as the Indian prime minister and the Chinese premier, and when senior staff arrived, as the Times recounted it, they "were startled to find the Chinese premier already meeting with the leaders of the other three countries" – without the president of the United States, the guy who called the meeting in the first place. According to the Times, Obama rushed to the meeting and called out from the doorway: "Mr. Premier are you ready to see me? Are you ready?"

You don’t see that in the newspaper every day, about the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth going cap in hand to his own meeting. It wouldn’t have happened on Ronald Reagan’s watch. His dignity, let alone his sense of the American president’s role on the world stage, wouldn’t have permitted it.

Welcome to the New New World Order.

‘Hello mum, this is going to be hard for you to read …’

Letters home from a 19 years old soldier from Afghanistan, including the one he wrote after he was killed in action on June 2, 2009.  The family gave the letters to the Independent to publish.

Cyrus Thatcher as a rifleman. He was killed on 2 June 2009

In the spring of this year, the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles deployed to Afghanistan. Halfway through the battalion’s tour, it has lost nine soldiers, with dozens injured.

Of those to have given their lives, four were teenagers. Here Rifleman Cyrus Thatcher, who was 19 when he was killed by an explosion near Gereshk seven weeks ago, tells his own story, through letters home and the last letter he left behind to bid farewell to his family – his mother Helena, father Robin and brothers Zac, 21, and Steely, 17.

Following are the words of a proud soldier described by his officers as possessing "a rucksack full of potential", and by his friends as a rascal always cracking jokes and helping to keep morale high. Most of all, they are the words of a young son to his mum, dad and brothers.

You can read all of his letters here.