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Poor Marius: “Market Matters” April 2014

March 10, 2014

Bianca and Aleks

Markets are back in the news: Bianca has had a go at new, roughty-toughty Market Inspector Aleks Shirov about closing the Albert Square gaff. Rumour has it the Council are planning to close it down to encourage Cityboy bankers to move in, but there’ll be no Borough Market in Walford. Great stuff – Pete Beale would have been proud of her.

Meanwhile the Danish government has stirred up another hornets nest by banning so-called ‘ritual slaughter’ i.e. cutting an animal’s throat to bleed it dry without stunning it beforehand. Slaughter without stunning beforehand is banned under EU animal welfare legislation but Countries are allowed to apply exemptions for religious purposes e.g. for shechita (‘Kosher’) and dhabihah (‘Halal’) meat.

Dan Jorgensen

The UK applies those exemptions so long as they don’t cause ‘unnecessary suffering’ but Danish minister for agriculture Dan Jørgensen followed the lead of Sweden and Norway by announcing “Animal rights come before religion”. This has outraged Jewish and Muslim religious groups unable to obtain meat slaughtered in accordance with their dietary rules. Al Jazeera quoted monitoring group Danish Halal which is fighting the ban as saying it is “a clear interference in religious freedom which limits the rights of Muslims and Jews to practice their religion in Denmark”. That’s not quite the message that countries want to put across to ethnic minorities.


Someone has suggested the Danish Government should have been equally concerned about the welfare of poor Marius – a perfectly healthy but unwanted 18-month old giraffe – who was shot dead in Copenhagen zoo a week earlier despite worldwide outrage. He was then fed to the lions.

HM Government has confirmed it will continue to enforce EU animal welfare legislation whilst continuing to allow religious exemptions. In reality many of the approved slaughtermen do follow ‘best practice’ guidelines issued by the religious authorities, some of which even involve stunning, but the government continues to fight off pressure from the British Veterinary Association. Even the RSPCA recognises the need for compromise and it and the English Beef and Sheep Association are asking instead for specific Kosher and Halal labelling – one for ‘pre-stunned’ and one for ‘non-stunned’ – so the consumer can choose. John Blackwell, the president elect of the British Veterinary Association supports that, saying: “The proposals are all about choice – if people want to consume kosher or halal and they don’t have a strong opinion about stunning then they would have freedom of choice”. That sounds very sensible.

Party for the Animals

HM Government should consider itself lucky. In the Netherlands the government has to argue legislation through a 12-Party(!) parliament which includes the ‘Party for the Animals’ This is not a stag weekend in Amsterdam but a serious political organisation with clout – especially at local government level when it tends to gang up with the GreenLeft party to force through animal welfare issues.

JBS Butchers

Another person who has stirred up controversy is Richard Nicholson of JBS Butchers, Sudbury who hangs an impressive display of rabbit, duck, pheasant, goose and pigs heads in his shop window. So much so that some locals consider “it looks like a scene from a horror movie” whilst others say “if you live in a farming community what do you expect?”

Some pics and a Daily Mail storyline might not all be good publicity. I spend a lot of time poking around butchers stalls and coldrooms and I can’t help thinking this might backfire on him. Is that a pork joint I see on the counter, lying uncovered beneath the hanging rabbits? People might like a bit of game ‘in the fur’ but they’re not too keen on buying joints that have been lying underneath it. Remember CIEH Food Hygiene, Level 2? – I’m sure the EHO does.

CIEH logo

Whether you like it or not most shoppers are conditioned by what they see in supermarket cabinets and don’t buy rabbits, ducks and geese ‘in the feather’ before taking them home to dress them – they expect the butcher to do the dirty work. We all know where it comes from and a lot of people just don’t like having their noses rubbed in it. My butcher hangs the furry bits behind a glass screen but keeps a plastic pheasant on the counter with a label round its neck. That gets the sales message across.
Tamworth Pigs

Of course if you feel really strongly about animal welfare then you can be a vegetarian. Not that it helped poor Marius.

Skipdiving in Mudford: “Market Matters” March 2014

February 9, 2014

Street Party

It’s time to celebrate - the recession is over!

Official government figures confirm the UK economy grew faster than expected in 2013 and at the fastest rate since the 2007 financial crisis. Economic growth for 2013 was 1.9% - a vast improvement over 0.3% seen in 2012. At this rate UK plc may be able to claw itself back up to the size it was before the crisis – just in time for the May 2015 general election. So is this all good news? Well maybe for London and the UK as a whole but maybe not so for small businesses and provincial towns.

Bank of England

Firstly, the Bank of England has kept it’s base interest rate down to 0.5% for the last 5 years but might not do so for much longer. Business loans and mortgage rates may become expensive which is bad news for small businesses and consumers.

Secondly, the vast majority of economic growth has been in London and the South East. Given that Markets are a good indicator of a local economy what is still glaringly apparent is the contrast between London (‘Recession- what recession?’) and the economy in the rest of the country. Anyone staring at empty stalls and boarded-up shops along the High Street in Mudford-on-Sea is bound to consider throwing in the towel and heading for the bright lights. Some economists have even suggested the economy is now so ‘Metrocentric’ that anything outside the South East is almost ignored by a Parliament which sits in London.

Internal migrationOK – Birmingham, Manchester Liverpool and Leeds may show ‘green shoots of recovery’ but what about the medium to small towns outside the metropolitan areas? A recent report: ‘Cities Outlook 2014’ prepared by research organisation ‘Centre for Cities’ suggests London is sucking in provincial talent and ideas faster than ever. You can download a copy from As a result the London residential property market is rocketing and has become unaffordable for first-time buyers whilst perfectly good £70k terraced homes in the provinces stand empty. The  decision by Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney to withdraw mortgage support for first-time buyers may stop the London housing market from overheating but does nothing for Mudford.

Mark Carney

This is not good news for (A) Londoners faced with a sky-high cost of living and accommodation and (B) the rest of the country emptied of talent and investment. The report contains some startling figures about so-called internal immigration into London, let alone external immigration into London from the rest of the EU. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee also pointed out the experience of Spain that HS2-type high speed rail accelerates the problem.   

King John

A lady stallholder in Mudford has suggested a solution. She proposes a return to ‘government by itineration’ i.e. Parliament travels the country and sits in the provinces for six months of the year, rather like the Monarch did in the Middle Ages. A couple of weeks in Mudford would be welcomed by her and other local businesses – even more so if the £80 billion HS2 budget was diverted to improving infrastructure within the town, not leading out of it.

Despite the vitality of London one of the saddest sights you’ll still see are the ‘skipdivers’ who appear at closing time, scavenging for unsold stock.  Unfortunately it’s still a common sight so it was interesting to see the CPS do a U-turn on an intended prosecution last month.

CPS Logo

 North London squat-dwellers Paul May, Jason Chan and William James were arrested after rummaging through the bins at the back of an Iceland foodstore in Kentish Town, North London. The Crown Prosecution Service intended to prosecute them under the 1824 Vagrancy Act but the Iceland Chief Executive swiftly stepped-in and asked for the case to be dropped because ‘the Company had not sought a prosecution’.


This quick-thinking avoided awkward publicity about why so much food was being skipped and a potential PR train crash for Iceland. But it also left unanswered some interesting legal issues, e.g. are you ‘stealing’ something when it ‘s already been dumped as waste? A successful prosecution would have been bad news for Private Investigators who specialise in juicy scandals scavenged from household bin bags. 

The case also highlighted how UK food retailers and consumers remain amazingly wasteful. Some foodstores do donate unsellable short shelf-life products to food banks and homeless charities but a staggering six million tonnes (£10 billion!) of food is still binned by consumers every year because it is ‘out of date’. Shoppers don’t understand the difference between the statutory ‘Use-by’ date and the retailers ‘Sell-by’ or ‘Best-until’ dates. Unsellable short-dated stock gets skipped by retailers so into the Iceland bins went £33-worth of mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese and Mr Kipling cakes, only to be snaffled by Paul, Jason and Bill.

Given that it was intended for landfill you can’t help sympathising with them, but it wasn’t terribly bright to scale a wall near a Police station at midnight and trespass on private property. That’s a bit different to skipdiving through the bins on Mudford Market.   

Paul May

Paul May said he was anything but ashamed at sharing discarded food with his housemates. “It’s more morally questionable they throw away usable food than how people recover it” he said. “In some ways I’m proud of what we do.” Recovering food from skips allows him and his ‘Freegan’ chums to eat more healthily than buying food on a low income and they regularly recover large quantities of frozen chicken breasts and the like. The previous week they’d even enjoyed a luxurious quail supper.

Scales of Justice

A spokesperson for the CPS said “We have paid particular regard to the seriousness of the alleged offence and the level of harm done. Both of these factors weigh against a prosecution. Additionally, further representations received today from Iceland Foods have affected our assessment of the public interest in prosecuting.” 

Not so Sweet: “Market Matters” February 2014

January 18, 2014


Everyone knows the Netherlands is a pleasant place to visit and the Dutch have a pretty laid-back attitude to some errr… ‘vices’ such as Cannabis – but maybe not so to Sugar. Paul van der Velpen is head of the Amsterdam Public Health Services and wants to see it regulated. Obesity in the Netherlands has doubled in the last 20 years or so and he blames much of that on sugar, not the deep-fried croquettes, cannabis or certain other things on offer in De Wallen.Paul van der Velpen“Just like alcohol and tobacco, sugar is actually a drug. It is the most dangerous drug of the times and can be easily acquired everywhere” he says on the official public health website. He has cited research suggesting that sugar – unlike fat or other foods – as well as making you fat is actually addictive, creating an insatiable desire to continue eating. He has accused the food industry of cynically exploiting the effect by adding extra sugar to processed food to increase sales. Now he wants to set limits set on how much can be added, plus a ban on sugar-laden sweets and soft drinks sold in schools and cigarette packet-style warnings about the health risk.

His suggestions come in the wake of new guidelines on sugar intake proposed by the World Health Organisation. The WHO is likely to recommend adults halve their average daily sugar intake from the current ten teaspoons a day to five in order to reduce diabetes, heart disease, obesity and tooth decay. If the UK Department of Health adopts the guidelines (as seems likely) then food companies will be forced to reduce sugary ingredients. That would be hugely expensive for the industry and might prove highly unpopular with it’s sugar-addicted customers.


The work for WHO has been led by the snappily-named ‘International Association for the Study on Obesity’ which has described the guidelines as ‘political dynamite’ given the size of investment in the food industry. A spokesperson suggested ”The food industry will do everything in their power to undermine the guidelines” which was a sentiment echoed in the UK by ‘Action on Sugar’, a pressure group urging the DoH to adopt the recommendations without delay.

ActionOnSugarLogo‘Action on Sugar’ has been set up by the same people who gave us ‘Consensus Action on Salt and Health’ (CASH) to reduce consumers’ salt intake and their blood pressure. CASH was highly successful at raising awareness, partly because it’s Chairman, Graham MacGregor is professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine. He is now pressing the Dept. of Health to set sugar content standards for the food industry although he concedes this can be done bit by bit. The target is a 30% reduction over 5 years with enforceable standards which don’t leave manufacturers too much room for ‘interpretation’ of labelling rules. The group has kicked-off it’s campaign by ‘naming and shaming’ several products, including:

Starbucks Caramel Frappucino with whipped cream (tall) – 11 teaspoons of sugar.
Coca Cola Original (330ml) – 9 teaspoons of sugar
Mars bar – (standard size) – 5 teaspoons of sugar
Heinz tomato soup (300ml) – 4 teaspoons of sugar

Reducing sugar content could be good news for Fruiterers (a quick fructose fix for office workers?) but equally bad news for Starbucks – not that they care too much after years of dodging UK tax.

This is the start of a long and potentially very boring debate whilst scientists argue about how you define sugar content – added sugar versus naturally-occurring sugar etc – but will have a fundamental impact on food ingredients. A ‘Mars a day’ could definitely be your limit unless manufacturers opt to change ingredients.


Whilst the food industry lines up for the battle the tobacco industry continues to receive a battering. The not-so-good news for Irish smokers is an announcement by Irish Health Minister James Reilly of plans for a ‘tobacco-free Ireland’ by 2025. “Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in Ireland” he stated, whilst acknowledging it poses an ‘extraordinary challenge’ to reduce smoking from 22% to under 5% of the population. But maybe he’ll be successful; No-one expected the Irish government to be successful with it’s 2004 ban on smoking in public buildings. It now proposes to extend this to parks and beaches to ‘de-normalise’ smoking for children.


Meanwhile the recession and sky-high duty rates have fuelled a surge in cigarette smuggling into the UK and Ireland. The worldwide price differences make it amazingly profitable – until you get caught that is. The smugglers’ benchmark is the ‘Marlboro index’ which currently stands at well over £8.00 for 20 fags in the UK and Ireland, versus £1.10 in Russia and the Far East. Not surprisingly HM Revenue and Customs and the Irish Gardai are hammering anyone who tries to import or sell smuggled fags. Don’t be tempted by anyone offering them as a profitable sideline for your stall.

On a lighter note, if you want to see how much you’re paying for your fun and filthy habits take a look at the ‘Vice-ometer’ calculator at It tells you how much of your booze, fags and lottery money goes back to the government in tax. Sadly it doesn’t include the cost of a lads’ weekend in Amsterdam or what you have to do to earn an ounce of snout in Wormwood Scrubs. I’m told one of them isn’t very nice.


Cold Feet: “Market Matters” January 2014

December 17, 2013


So how are the January sales for you? Lots of Shoppers seem to be voting with their feet and deserting the High Street in favour of online sales. ‘Why suffer cold and wet feet traipsing in search of bargains when you can stay at home and do it online?’ was the thinking behind another Government-supported attempt to revive our emptying High Streets. First there was the DCLG-sponsored ‘Portas review’, then the ‘Town Team’ competition and the private ‘Grimsey Review’ and now it’s the turn of the ‘Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce’ sponsored by the HM Treasury. You can download it from


It covers the usual big issues – lack of funding, online sales, fragmented land ownership and parking policy etc and outlines interesting initiatives such as the ‘retail business incubators’ in Wolverhampton and Tamworth. Also how Rotherham provides revenue and capital support for fledgling businesses. Some Councils like Birkenhead and Rochdale are promoting their High Street Markets as ‘retail differentiators’ and there’s a good argument to be had about why this hasn’t happened before. But like the reviews before it this one offers little else but local policy support for SME’s (‘Small and Medium-sized Enterprises’). There’s a nice piccy of Stockport Market Hall and some welcome discussion of ‘provision of mentoring and…social media for independent retailers and small businesses’ but I can’t help thinking the review is still missing the blindingly obvious.


SME’s are less deterred by the cost of rent and rates than the administrative burden of paperwork they encounter as they expand. If HM Treasury is serious about encouraging SME’s as ‘the engine room of the economy’ then it needs to take a long-term approach to relaxing Vat rules, tax thresholds, NI and employment legislation which apply to small businesses. Those costs are outside the control of any independent retailer and a very real disincentive to growth. You can always negotiate your rent downwards with a landlord but just you wait and see what happens when you miss your Vat return. Didn’t David Osborne promise a ‘bonfire of paperwork’ in one of his budget speeches? That’s the way to cure SME’s cold feet.


Someone else has definitely got cold feet – MP’s. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority created to set MP’s pay and expenses in the aftermath of the expenses scandal proposes to increase MP’s salaries by 11% to £74,000 2015, despite objections by all parliamentary leaders. The best bit is that MP’s have no way of stopping the increase unless they change the law they introduced a couple of years ago. Labour has said ‘any rise in MPs’ pay must be considered in the light of…the cost-of-living crisis facing people across the country’ and the Prime Minister has threatened to abolish IPSA if it force-feeds MP’s with another eight thou. per annum. He didn’t mention anything about HS2 though. Great stuff. I wonder how many will vote in the abolition debate.


And finally, some not-so-cold cold feet: German Scientists have discovered how Penguins manage to keep their feet (and the baby Penguins which sit upon them) nice and cosy during a blizzard. A similar problem is shared by many Traders on Open Markets. Apparently the Penguins bunch together and shuffle around in a sort of Mexican wave whilst squawking about the weather and how few fish there are, or whatever. This keeps the ones in the middle toasty warm whilst they struggle not to get shuffled out to the edge. With cold Teutonic logic the scientists conclude the ‘regulars’ who turn up first always secure the best pitches in the middle whilst the ‘casuals’ who can’t be arsed are left with the coldest pitches at the edge. This sounds very familiar and I can’t work out why scientists needed to go to Antarctica to confirm it.

So leave your moonboots at home and train a pair of Penguins to sit on your feet. Or if the Toby objects, then seize the business opportunity and start manufacturing Penguin-lookalike boots.

Keep shuffling. Spring is not that far away.


A Resolution for the Kipper Season: “Market Matters” December 2013

November 15, 2013


BeachHolidayEveryone looks forward to Christmas (e.g. Payment Card Processors) but maybe not the New Year (e.g. Market Stallholders). This year a fair few are dreading the first quarter of 2014, so maybe now’s the time to make an early resolution to see off the gloom of the ‘Kipper Season’.

Two possibilities are (a) take a tax-deductible buying-trip-cum-holiday somewhere warm and get an edge over your competition, or (b) improve your plastic payment margins. If cash is tight then option (b) might be the only choice.


According to a report by SagePay – the World’s third largest Payment Provider – the remorseless rise of a cashless society continues, like it or not. Payment Providers such as SagePay, WorldPay and PayPal are the middlemen who process in-store and online EFT debit and credit card transactions for a percentage charge on each. Banks and Credit card issuers like Amex do the same and the fee is variable dependent on the volume of your turnover and the value of the transactions. Some of the charges to SME’s (‘Small and Medium-sized Enterprises’) are outrageously high – anything up to 10% – so (according to SagePay) because Shoppers now carry only £20 cash some £33m of turnover walks away each day when they are told: “Sorry mate – I only take cash”.

Such SME’s are (also according to SagePay) short-sighted as once they take cards they see sales turnover increase by 30%. That more than justifies the transaction charges.


OK the increased turnover is true enough but that’s not the entire picture. HM Government is concerned that once the cash economy has disappeared altogether then retailers will continue to be overcharged if rates are not opened-up to competition. Oh yes, and the Providers may be offshore and dodge paying UK tax. As SME’s are often portrayed as ‘the engine house of the economy’ the Government is proposing a new FCA regulator to supervise retail payment systems – but don’t hold your breath waiting for it to appear and charges to fall.


In the meantime why not spend the Kipper Season fishing around for a good deal? Some rates are coming down as new Providers emerge and the Federation of Small Businesses – – offers very competitive rates to set up a new Merchant account and process your transactions. In return for a modest membership fee they also offer assistance with Vat, tax inspections and insurances tailored to small businesses. Alternatively try Cardswitcher – – who claim to reduce the cost of card transactions for SME’s by up to 40% by comparing a range of providers. Their online service provides multiple quotes and shows how to switch between Providers. And finally, if you’re on a Open Market stall and reliant on a Mobile phone for card transactions rather than a hardwired data line go to to see if they can help. All their websites are worth a good long look and don’t forget to tell your bankers what you’re doing – and why – and ask them if they can assist. It helps the healthcheck rating they apply to your account.

TotnesOf course if you want to stay cash-only then so be it, but you might want to consider moving to Totnes in Devon where they have a thriving independent retail sector supported by their own currency.

The High Street is Totnes is doing rather well thanks to a strong core of independent retailers and few shop voids. This is largely due to the efforts of a grassroots community network, ‘Transition Town Totnes’ – – founded in 2006 by Rob Hopkins and Ben Brangwyn. Their intention was to encourage economic and social resilience in the local economy in response to dwindling oil reserves and climate change. The timing was spot-on. “What we are modelling here is not just about the survival of the High Street, it is about strengthening the local economy in the widest sense” they say.  That included a vigorous campaign to see off a proposed Costa Coffee “…as we already have plenty of independent alternatives and we simply don’t need it”.

TotnesPoundTo strengthen the local economy they established a community energy company and community brewery and encourage local people to buy local produce with the ‘Totnes pound’. The notes can be purchased locally, 1: 1 for sterling and accepted in local shops and to purchase local services. Because they are only accepted locally the ‘money’ stays within the local economy and supports local employment rather than being sent off to distant suppliers and shareholders in London. Add some changes to Shoppers parking tariffs and it seems to be working for their High Street. Mary Portas please note.PlasticBanknote

The Bank of England doesn’t view the Totnes Pound as a threat yet but is moving towards plastic in a different way. It now seems likely the Bank will print banknotes on plastic, not paper as they last longer and are more difficult to fake and don’t fall apart in the washing machine. Canada and Australia already use these funky, transparent and difficult-to-counterfeit designs. The Bank seems intent on avoiding the 1940-45 crisis when expert German forgers flooded Europe with fake £5 notes to undermine overseas confidence in sterling. A repeat would make it far more difficult to sell British goods to countries in the EU.

It’s good to see the Bank outwitting the Euro and the evil empire of Frankfurt.   

Frankfurt at sunset

Frankenfish & Chips: “Market Matters” November 2013

October 21, 2013


Back in the 1960’s Colonel Sanders of fried chicken fame allegedly tried to breed chickens with three legs for his restaurants. This was thankfully unsuccessful, well before the potential for genetic modification became apparent. It now seems likely the first ever genetically-modified meat will be a fish, not a chicken and could be hitting the shelves next year if the US Food and Drug Administration gives approval. GM-modified plants have of course been around for some time (although banned by the EU) but this GM salmon is likely to be the first meat to be approved for human consumption. Not surprisingly it’s been called the ‘Frankenfish’ by Friends of the Earth who are mounting a campaign against it.


Sooner or later this was bound to happen and open up a whole raft of ethical and scientific arguments about changing the natural world. Scientists have already proved they can grow meat tissue under laboratory conditions for a disgusting-looking beefburger, but that’s entirely different to creating a new sentient life form before killing and eating it. Just you wait until world religious leaders start debating the ethics let alone the EU bureaucrats.

AquaAdvantageSalmonThe ‘AquaAdvantage’ salmon has been created by inserting genes from other fish species into the DNA of an Atlantic salmon. The resulting hybrid fish is far more suitable for farming as it grows twice as fast as it’s ‘real’ cousin in the ocean, promising higher yields and lower costs for salmon farmers. This is of considerable interest to protein-hungry populations like China where plans are afoot for an inland salmon farm on the edge of the Mongolian desert, no less. Just like farmed prawns, you don’t want to know what they’ll be fed on.

FDALogoThe FDA have concluded the GM salmon is ‘as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon’ and does not threaten the environment. Owners of Scottish rivers which have been decimated by sealice infestation from salmon farms would doubtless disagree. Meanwhile the UK salmon farming industry is wondering whether consumers would be prepared to eat GM-modified, farmed salmon.

An FDA approval could persuade UK producers to apply for a production licence, encouraged by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson’s recent support for GM foods. Government scientists have already endorsed GM plants to increase food crop production but they’ve not yet been brave enough to endorse GM-modified animals.


Some GM plantstuff is already included in livestock feeds but taking the logical next step and running the risk of introducing a nasty like Mad Cow disease directly into the human food chain is a bit too rich. There is also little backing for the move from the public. A ‘YouGov’ poll in June found just 21 per cent of people said they supported the production of GM food, while 35 per cent opposed it. And that was without their being asked if they would make a distinction between GM-modified plants and animals.AquaBountyLogoThe ‘AquaAdvantage’ salmon has been developed by a Canadian Company called AquaBounty. Whilst the Company insists it will only produce sterile, female fish several campaigners who’ve watched ‘Jurassic Park’ point out escapes are inevitable and will place wild stocks under threat. Salmon can – believe it or not – change sex when put under stress e.g. raised in a cage. Campaigners are suggesting it would be better to properly-manage the stocks of wild salmon but developing countries who need cheap protein and don’t have wild salmon don’t give a stuff.

FoE have pointed out that approval will “set a precedent for other genetically-engineered animals, including cows, chickens and pigs, to enter our food system” and are urging supermarkets to pledge for only GM-free seafood. Kroger, owner of several US supermarket chains, have not committed so are being targeted by FoE supporters tweeting about their products.


FoE have some unlikely supporters in Alaska as well. Apart from exporting lots of lovely oil and natural gas their Alaskan neighbours have an important commercial and recreational salmon fishing industry. Alaskan US Senators have been listening to sceptical scientists who maintain escapees will interbreed with wild stocks and then scoff all the young wild salmon in the ecosystem. Senator Mark Begich has said ‘Well-managed, wild salmon are one of our nation’s richest resources and these fish pose a real risk to ocean ecosystems’. He must have been talking to the same Scottish Ghillie who gave me an hour-long lecture on the evils of salmon farming.

The fun of salmon fishing is trying to outwit a wary natural predator, not simply haul in an overdeveloped hybrid so I’m sympathetic. This years’ Company fishing competition was the usual catalogue of ones that got away, apart from Peter Naylor who smugly landed a 38lb’er.


When I was about six years old the first supermarket opened in my home town. I can still remember my parents curiosity and our first visit to this self-service heaven. Also how a salesgirl in the Macfisheries shop (remember them?) told me fish had fingers just like mine, so cutting them off was cruel. I played right into her hands and insisted my parents continued to buy whole fresh fish from Macfisheries and not frozen fish fingers from the supermarket. Not that it helped Macfisheries, who went belly-up in the 1970’s.


Hitting the Buffers: “Market Matters” October 2013

September 19, 2013


The best piece of entertainment last month was the televised Commons Public Accounts Committee tearing into the revenue, cost and programme estimates of the new HS2 high speed rail link. The Committee suggested the Dept. of Transport had lost control of the HS2 programme and the spiralling costs – £30 billion, then £40 billion and now £50+ billion are ‘based on fragile numbers, out-of-date data and assumptions which do not reflect real life’. The assumptions include a 10-year old belief that technology does not exist which allows businessmen to work on trains. The DoT consider the vast capital cost of shaving a few minutes time off the London-Birmingham journey is thus justified. Their spokesperson seemed blissfully unaware of broadband, video conferencing, smart phones and tablets. The best part was the admittance that cost estimates were ‘industry-generated’ (Civil Service-speak for: “We asked a builder”.)

One commentator has likened HS2 to the scandal of the new Scottish Parliament building – on wheels. The Holyrood building’budget grew from £40m to over £300m and the end result looks like a 1970’s car park designed by someone on acid.


Chairperson of the PAC, Margaret Hodge questioned the DoT’s assertion a faster train link would spread wealth into the provinces. The experience of the Spanish HS network seems quite the reverse and Mrs Hodge pointed out: “The evidence suggests when you improve the link between a capital and provincial cities…you draw economic activity down to the capital and don’t stimulate activity in the cities.”

The former Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson later admitted the last government proposed HS2 before the 2010 general election ‘to paint an upbeat view of the future’  after the 2008 financial crash. He admitted it was politically-driven and costings were ‘almost entirely speculative’  which has left many puzzled at the PM’s continued support for the project.


This saga would be great knockabout entertainment if it didn’t have the potential for another financial disaster. More enlightening was the publication of the so-called ‘Grimsey Review’ by the eponymous Bill Grimsey, formerly Director of Wickes, Iceland and now-defunct Focus. This privately-sponsored report is worth a read.

It is intended as an antidote to the Government-promoted Portas Report into ‘The future of our High Streets’ . Unlike that it is based on some serious research by the Local Data Company and opinions of a diverse group of retailers. It re-covers old ground like the impact of new technologies on retailing (on-line sales c.20% of sales turnover and growing at 10% p.a.) and the Business Rates regime which has not evolved to keep pace.


Grimsey concludes there are simply too many shops in the UK and there is a clear disparity between the North and South. He doesn’t suggest this can be solved by HS2. He also points out that online shopping for food (only currently 3% of sales) will increase once Amazon, Morrisons and PayPal get into top gear, so ‘physical shopping’ will continue to shrink. And that Ebay is quickly catching up with Amazon as a low cost E-commerce platform for independent retailers.

If the UK’s High Streets are over-provided with shops Grimsey suggests support is needed for existing retailers and to encourage non-retail uses. Some of his suggestions are deliverable but many will run into the buffers (sorry about the pun) once the Local Government Association and British Retail Consortium have their say. But there again I thought the same about smoking in pubs. Here are a few:

• The Government ‘Funding for Lending’ scheme designed to support Bank lending to small businesses is not working. It should be replaced by direct lending support from Council reserves and  their pension funds to businesses in their catchment.

• Every Local Authority should establish a Town Centre Commission with a 20-year business plan, presented with an annual progress report. Landlords of empty shop units should be compelled to apply for a Change of Use to make the building  ‘productive in the community’ with an alternative use.

• ‘MegaMall’ developments should be obliged to create affordable space for local traders and Market stall pitches.

• National retailers should be obliged to invest .25% of one years sales as a one-off levy into a local Economic Development Fund to support start-up businesses.

Radical ideas, but I suspect the report’s real value is in the debate it stimulates.


Much more fun was the outcome of the 2013 “Ugliest Town in Britain” poll run by I can’t believe Hemel Hempstead was voted No. 1 in the UK – it can’t be worse than Cumbernauld at No.10 – but ‘Emel (as the locals call it) may be a victim of its own footfall. Lots of people visit and voted as a result.

It might not be stuffed full of architectural gems but it does have a nice Market which deserves your support. Forget your trip to the Chateaux of the Loire and visit ‘Emel instead.


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