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.
The ‘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.
The 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.The ‘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.
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 http://www.craptownsreturns.co.uk. 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.
So can you park your van close to your stall – and as importantly can your Customers park near the Market? Sorting out a sensible car parking policy is high on the list of ‘things to fix’ for the Councils who won £100,000 each in the DCLG/Portas competition. Parking policies which attract shoppers back from ‘free’ supermarket carparks are high on the list of must-do’s if High Streets are to be revitalised. But car park charging even affects residents who don’t drive so the Councillor lucky enough to be in charge of parking policy is guaranteed a full mailbox.
The basic problem is there are just too many cars concentrated into too few spaces. St. Ives in Cornwall is delightful apart from the lack of parking space at any time, let alone the summer. Three parking spaces sold last year for £160,000 which is a bit steep but not as rich as the single 11ft by 12ft space in London’s Hyde Park Gardens which is up for sale at £300,000. That’s about twice the price of the average house in England and Wales and you don’t even get a roof over it. But I suppose you could live in your car.
Meanwhile Eric Pickles, Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has stuck the knife into the efforts of Labour-controlled Nottingham City Council to reduce car congestion caused by Commuters. Their initiative was to levy a ‘workplace parking tax’ on Employers who provide parking for staff. This has proved unpopular with local residents as the £334/space charge is usually passed straight onto workers who not surprisingly park along residential streets instead.
Rather than helping tackle congestion” Eric said, “ it is clear that the Labour Council…is doing more harm than good, by clogging up the roads and causing parking problems to spread.’
At the same time he launched into those Councils who charge residents for allowing them to rent-out their driveways for Commuter parking. This is a growing business in London but because it involves a so-called Change of Use from residential to commercial it requires approval under town planning legislation. You might think adding extra parking spaces would reduce congestion, but experience suggests otherwise. The Department of Transport recently admitted that building new motorways doesn’t reduce traffic congestion but simply encourages more motorists to use the new ‘uncongested’ roads. Providing extra carspaces simply encourages more people to drive into town and does nothing to reduce congestion.
So Nottingham City is now considering on-street parking charges (residents can park for free) with all the associated cost of machines, enforcement staff, Traffic Regulation Orders, signage and roadmarking etc. They could have opted for the CCTV-controlled roadcharging as used in London but it’s far too expensive to implement and the ‘workplace levy’ was seen as an affordable alternative.
The congestion on Nottingham’s residential streets has been worsened by works for their new Tramway system, part-funded by the levy. Theory says this is the right long-term solution i.e. make public transport cheap and plentiful whilst removing parking spaces – but in the meantime the Council needs to pay for parking enforcement and the capital cost of public transport. The wages of Parking Pataweyo and his enforcement mates can be replaced with the questionable practice of using CCTV cameras but then you get into all the arguments about “I didn’t know I’d committed an offence until the letter arrived in the post” etc . The Traffic Penalty Tribunal (they handle appeals against parking tickets) thinks likewise and recently voiced their concern to the Parliamentary Transport Select Committee. Apparently only 1% of issued penalty notices are ever contested because motorists think it’s a waste of time so just can’t be arsed.
Eric had something to say about that as well. He accused many Councils of “bending the law to fill their coffers with taxpayers’ cash” - an accusation levelled against CCTV enforcement as well as many NHS Trusts. The latter have come in for a lot of criticism for charging all users of their carparks, not just visitors. Given that the NHS relies on day treatment centres to reduce costs it seems logical that patients should, at least get free parking. Macmillan Cancer Support runs a campaign with that objective. To support them go to http://www.macmillan.org.uk
One way or another we’re all affected by parking policy, even if you don’t drive. Having recently paid through the nose for hospital parking, a £30 CCTV parking fine and a £130 London Congestion Charge fine (don’t lend you car to your daughter) I’m not feeling sympathetic to anyone who complains about being charged £10/day to park their van next to the Market. My suggestion is: Blame the Commuters and tell customers that’s why your prices have gone up.
The recent heatwave has got everyone hot under the collar – none more so than MP’s keen to reject a pay RISE. Whilst the country was sweltering the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) proposed a cool 11% hike in MP’s salaries from their basic £66,396 to £75,000 per annum ‘after years of pay restraint’.
This triggered the Party Leaders to outdo each other in rejecting any increase. PM David Cameron kicked-off by saying the Conservatives considered it “entirely inappropriate” that Government should cost more in times of austerity. His deputy Nick Clegg responded for the LibDems who consider it “totally incomprehensible” given the restraint imposed on other public sector workers. Finally, Ed Milliband topped them both by announcing Labour rejected any increase outright and if it was imposed then personally he won’t accept it.
Westminster watchers are waiting to see if this goes nuclear. Will IPSA be disbanded as part of the public sector cuts and party leaders impose a pay CUT on all MP’s? That’s one way to show solidarity with the country and win the next election.
This news was less than welcome to well-meaning Environment Secretary Owen Paterson who was already having a bad month. Only three weeks after launching his PR campaign to convince the EU genetically-modified food is the solution to food price hikes the world’s leading GM seed producer, Monsanto, announced it was pulling out of Europe.
The Company confirmed it was withdrawing all it’s applications for new crops in frustration at EU delays in approvals. “As the EU today is effectively a conventional seed market…we will focus on enabling imports of biotech crops” it said. In other words: ‘We won’t grow GM in the EU but we will continue to sell GM produce’. Hmmmmmm… Maybe Greenpeace and the Prince of Wales should postpone any celebration.
Meanwhile other campaigners were also having a poke at Owens department, Defra. They launched fresh calls for a ‘plastic bag levy’ in England after it was revealed a record-breaking 7 billion single-use plastic bags were handed out to shoppers last year. The figures from WRAP – the Waste and Resources Action Programme – confirmed that ‘Bags for Life’ sales fell whilst suggesting that top-up shopping at convenience stores was causing the rise, together with online groceries delivered in plastic bags.
England is the only part of the UK which does not have a levy on plastic bags and saw a 4.4% increase in bag usage last year. In Wales, where a 5p levy was introduced in 2011 usage has plunged by 76 per cent so Samantha Harding, spokesperson for the ‘Break the Bag Habit’ Coalition, said there was “no credible excuse” left for not imposing a levy.
But Owen Paterson’s department, Defra prevaricated and said: “We’re considering all the relevant factors, including the pressure on household budgets” and “We intend to work with the industry to encourage the development of a viable biodegradable carrier bag”.
What is not clear is why Defra needs to get involved at all. The Welsh Assembly just introduced a ban and waited for retailers to find solutions, which they were commendably quick to do.
Finally, do you remember the episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ where Delboy rebottled tap water to sell it as ‘Peckham Spring’? Hilarious – and like all good ideas quickly copied by the competition. Tesco and Asda have admitted their ‘Everyday Value’ and ‘Smartprice’ Still Water is actually tap water bought at one third of a penny per litre before being bottled and sold on for 17p for two litres. Apart from the massive profit margin this makes sense because tap water has already been filtered with chlorine to polish off any nasties. Tesco though were then accused of taking the proverbial in the heatwave by hiking the price for two litres from 17p to 24p.
This not-entirely-earthshaking news was revealed in Cardiff when NHS nurse Ross Evans, 33, went shopping at the Culverhouse Cross Tesco to buy water for his patients. Quite why an NHS nurse was buying water for his patients is unclear but strange things happen in Cardiff. You may remember how Tesco Cardiff barred the Jedi Knight brotherhood from shopping whilst wearing their hooded robes. And banned Elaine Carmody and her friends for shopping in their pyjamas and bare feet.
Anyway, the 33-year old father-of-two said: “I didn’t expect Tesco to be so immoral as to put up the price of water in the middle of heatwave and cash in on people’s misery. This is shameless profiteering. When I realised the price of the bottles had gone up from 17p to 24p I put them down again and walked out.”
Beer may well be a better choice.
The Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson comes across as pretty credible when making speeches, but he can be let down by his friends. Last month he made a major speech in Parliament to overcome public scepticism and persuade the EU to allow cultivation of Genetically-Modified crops. His speech was straightforward enough but a lot less entertaining than John “Mad Cow Disease” Gummer who, you’ll remember, made his point by force-feeding his daughter with a beefburger on TV. But Owen still has to persuade the Prince of Wales, Prime Minister and House of Commons Catering Committee to put “Frankenstein food” on their menu.
Paterson wants the EU to approve a long list of new GM crops, including herbicide-tolerant maize and sugar beet on the basis they offer increased yields which keep food prices down. Critics say the technology is unproven, threatens human health and the ecosystem and is driven by the corporate greed of food producers, not the needs of consumers. The precursor to Paterson’s speech was a report by the Parliamentary International Development Committee two weeks earlier to the G8 “International Summit on Nutrition” held in London. It is generally acknowledged that a meat-based diet is amazingly inefficient in terms of resource-use compared to a plant-based one, so it was hardly surprising when the Chairman Sir Malcolm Bruce announced:
“There is no room for complacency about food security if UK consumers are to enjoy reasonable food prices. With the UK never more than a few days away from a significant food shortage, UK consumers should be encouraged over time to reduce how often they eat meat.”
The “Springwatch” presenter and president of the RSPB, Kate Humble was pretty supportive of both. She suggested the Sir Paul McCartney approach to meat consumption was one solution.
“Don’t be too quick to knock the science” she said. “One solution is meat has to become a luxury – a treat. We need to stop having bacon sandwiches for breakfast, chicken sandwiches for lunch and steak for dinner.”
Whilst the well-rehearsed arguments for and against GM are kicked back and forth across Europe now could be a good time to read the report. It recommends the UK Dept. for International Development continues to help smallholders in the developing world increase food production and reduce reliance on imports. It emphasizes the damage which rising commodity prices do to the UK food industry and consumers and is particularly critical of the EU requirement that 10% of transport energy must be provided from renewable sources by 2020.
Diverting production from food into bio-fuel solves one problem but creates another as seen when the USA shifted production of maize for export into maize for bio-fuel. The resulting price hike in this staple food sparked riots South of the border.
But the report does leave several elephants wandering through the room e.g. whether GM or better farming practices is the solution and whether DFID’s budget should be hacked in the government spending cuts. It does not shy away from the contentious issue of population control in the developing world and points out that when world population grows from 7.1 billion today to 9.3 billion by 2050 as predicted then food prices (let alone energy prices) will go through the roof. The Committee praises DFID’s efforts to meet the need for contraception in many developing nations and urges HMG to maintain a keen focus on women’s reproductive rights.
The Committee also took some shots at emerging problems e.g. investors who buy up areas of land farmed by smallholders in developing countries. They recommended UK-domiciled corporations are required to be transparent about such land deals.
Of course one way to keep prices down for the UK’s (relatively-static) population is to increase domestic production, hence Owen Paterson’s speech. Another is to reduce food wastage. According to the committee there is “considerable scope for the Government to reduce domestic food waste and set national targets to curb food waste within the UK food production and retail sectors…with clear sanctions for Companies which fail to meet these targets”. It sounds like portions may be about to get smaller at the Market Cafe – which is one way to curb obesity and save money for the NHS.
Meanwhile, a Good Food news story: The miserable weather this spring may have caused the unexpected surge seen in the number of elvers migrating up the river Severn. Cool weather may have shifted ocean currents and helped the baby eels return to the Severn estuary from their birthplace in the Sargasso Sea. Elvers are a local delicacy in Gloucester but when exported to the Far East sell at a price, pound for pound, higher than caviare. I was introduced to catching elvers many years ago by a friend who fries them with smoky bacon and serves them with scrambled egg on toast. Very nice, but too expensive nowadays for anything but an occasional treat.
Sadly, elver numbers have fallen by 90% over the last 20 years (no-one really knows why) so the European Eel is now on the EU list of endangered species. Netting is strictly controlled by the UK Environment Agency to between February and May and because of the decline the EU has imposed a ban on exports to outside Europe. The French have, predictably, refused to sign-up to the ban and continue to employ their preferred fishing method of trawling by boat. This is of course far less fun than risking your life with a hand net on a muddy Gloucestershire riverbank through a freezing night.
Hopefully the eels now know all about the French and will continue to return to the UK instead.
Last year the Council commissioned Market consultants Quarterbridge to research and produce recommendations for their Market operation following their decision to demolish the 1970’s Market Hall and Car Park after structural investigations confirmed rising costs made it impractical to maintain the crumbling concrete building. A packed meeting of Traders from both the Market Hall and adjacent Covered Market heard Councillor Rankin confirm the Council was committed to the Market but now had to consider the options. He said:
“Despite limited resources, the Council remains committed to providing a modern, fit for purpose Market delivering a low cost, fresh, healthy food offer in the City centre.”
Traders welcomed his statement which came after several years of uncertainty about the future. Some 60 businesses trade indoors and on the Covered Market, but following the withdrawal of developers Grosvenor and LendLease from the proposed Tithebarn central area regeneration project it was unclear whether a replacement would ever be constructed. The Tithebarn project involved converting the Victorian open-sided Covered Market into a new Market Hall but this was abandoned in November 2011 when the anchor tenant, John Lewis opted for Hammersons’ Eastgate development in Leeds instead. Since then Preston Council has been exploring ways to replace the Market Hall and re-start the central area regeneration, with most options involving relocating of the Market Hall and releasing it’s site for a mixed-use retail and leisure development.
The report was presented by Quarterbridge Director Jonathan Owen who confirmed the current Indoor, Covered and Carboot operation trades under capacity but still has a sustainable future within a catchment of 250,000.
Traders heard how most of the relocation options are under Council control and not subject to the type of lease which forced the recent closure of Lancaster Market Hall. The report was supported by a retail catchment analysis which confirmed how the mixture of Indoor, Covered and Carboot operations remains a big attraction to shoppers, with the potential to develop it further.
The Quarterbridge recommendations include:
- Replacing the Market Hall with a smaller modernised version – sized to maintain the fresh food offer but ensure 100% occupancy. The size to be dependent on a detailed study of Traders space requirements and the relocation options.
- Maintaining continuity of trade by building the new Market Hall before closing the existing building.
- Incorporating an Anchor footfall attraction and maintaining the winning combination of Indoor, Covered and Carboot.
- Including a Shoppers’ carpark in the redeveloped Market Hall site.
- Intensifying use of the Market asset by staging events like Farmers Marts whilst introducing business support through the Federation of Small Businesses.
Jonathan Owen said: “Our research clearly confirms a varied Market operation is sustainable. Our report represents shows the options the Council need to consider to take things forward”.
Responding, Councillor Rankin said: “We welcome the Quarterbridge findings and will now consider all the recommendations in detail before taking any further decisions. We regard the Markets Quarter as the means to kick-start City centre regeneration and are determined to make the best possible use of the Covered Market canopies which are a huge asset for the City”.
The full report can be viewed at www.preston.gov.uk/marketsreport