Hooray! Triple-A.

Photo courtesy of H. M. Treasury

Standard & Poor’s continued rating of the British economy as AAA is quite possibly the last piece of economic good news we will receive this side of the new financial year. The importance of this assessment cannot be underestimated and signals that the other major credit rating agencies will rate our economy similarly. This does not mean that we can rest on our laurels; we have a very difficult time ahead and too many external factors dragging on our economy, to give us any certainty that our actions alone will be enough to avoid further recession.

The infantry in Britain’s battle for economic revival is the small business community and ultimately the government is relying on them to ignite national economic growth. But in the light of continued failure by the banks to revitalise credit lines to small businesses, Flatline George has announced “plans” for government “credit easing”. This is all very well, except for the fact that there is no plan – it is simply the announcement of the intention to develop a plan. So as businesses face the bleakest Christmas in more than a generation, the implementation of measures to support them will not happen until comfortably into the New Year. What is also worrying about this is that the credit easing system, once developed, may also be used to support large businesses in the event of a further credit crunch. Let there be no mistake, big business is surviving not thriving and it is they that the government will ultimately prioritise when times become harder. So where will small businesses stand?

Nevertheless, there has been cautious support for the Chancellor’s announcement and rightly so. On the one hand, almost any measure that will support our small businesses in the current economic climate needs to be considered favourably. On the other hand, look carefully for smoke and mirrors because ill conceived spin often has a nasty sting in its
tail. And there is scope for a sting from this proposal – the government would have to borrow to fund it; the debt would not be classed as a debt but as liquid assets; and, whilst in the short term credit easing measures could even improve public finances a little, in the longer term we will liable for any losses incurred through the scheme.

So whilst we enjoy our continued triple-A rating, both keeping it and enjoying the benefits of it are far from guaranteed and our frontline is still woefully ill-equipped. And in the meantime, we must consider carefully the details of the Chancellor’s credit easing plans as they become available.

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The IMF’s sixth-sense

Photo courtesy of http://www.imf.org

The IMF is seeing things – dead economies. On the one hand I was reassured that it is joining me in raising concern that a double-dip recession is becoming more not less likely but on the other, I wish that they had seen signs that I was wrong. Look, I’m not a qualified economist (although 30 years in one of the country’s key economic ministries may have given me a little more insight than the average man on the street) but does it really take a degree in economics to understand the key issues affecting the global economic landscape over the last year? I don’t think so.

It is clear that debt reduction and cost-cutting must continue but it really does look like the current levels of both are stifling what little economic growth we might have expected. The simple fact is that if businesses cannot sell and people are not buying, growth will remain elusive. However, Flatline George is not for turning and there will be no ‘plan B’. Well maybe not but ‘plan A’ seems to have a new annex – bringing forward hundreds of millions of pounds of infrastructure spending.

New roads to half-full trading estates or bankrupt and empty construction sites do not fulfil their potential. Building new higher-speed railways along the western side of the country whilst the eastern side retains miles of quaint pre-Beeching infrastructure is just foolhardy. The point here is that unless infrastructure projects bring real long term benefits to the communities they serve, they are simply short-term job creation schemes – mere sticking plasters on a gaping economic wound.

America is about to sneeze and the Euro Zone already has flu. The months and years ahead will be incredibly difficult, without doubt. But stubbornly refusing to revisit ‘plan A’ and careless use of infrastructure funds will only leave us more vulnerable and prolong the misery of economic stagnation or recession.

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Enterprise Trends: Time to ask the big questions

Last year the government used Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) to launch its challenge of making this “the most entrepreneurial decade ever” and acknowledged that the need to develop a strong enterprise culture has never been more important. Successive governments and (to a broad extent) business have recognised that the UK provides a strong environment in which enterprise can thrive. But business start-up rates have stubbornly refused to reflect that environment, with the British public believing that starting a business is both more difficult and more risky than in fact it is.

Our fragile economy and jobs market is clearly not going to rise spectacularly and phoenix like any time soon. Our existing businesses are already questioning just how far private sector job creation will go towards filling the employment gap. This should encourage us to redouble our efforts to promote entrepreneurship. It should also encourage us to consider carefully what the key enterprise trends are and how they should influence the way we promote and support entrepreneurship at home and abroad. Get this wrong and we could seriously damage our recovery and longer term economic success.

There are two major events on the horizon providing high-profile opportunities to ask the big policy questions surrounding enterprise promotion – European SME Week (3 – 9 October) and Global Entrepreneurship Week (14 – 20 November). By asking these questions, we can help to ensure that the UK has the right enterprise strategy at home and abroad to realise this decade as the most entrepreneurial ever.

See my full article on Enterprise Trends as first published in RSA Comment
or on Bdaily Business Network.

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Looking forward from 9/11

The horror felt by us all, as the events in the US of ten years ago were beamed around the world on TV, will never leave us.  That day, evil triumphed and the terrorists had their moment. The following military response, whilst controversial, has achieved much of what it set out to achieve – Bin Laden is gone and the abilities of his Al-Qaeda have been severely impeded. Whether or not the West has learned from the underlying foreign policy mistakes of two generations remains to be seen. But today is not the day to focus on such things.

Today, we should remember those lost in the attacks on September 11th 2001 and celebrate what the citizens of the US have achieved in the time since. The very spirit that made the US the formidable nation it is today is alive and well. The determination of those involved in rebuilding the World Trade Centre, that the US will remain “the  land of the free,” is enviable and should be applauded. This is the attitude that will carry the US forward through the 21st century and ensure that its people continue to live the dream.

Watching “The Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero” has been truly uplifting – from the stories of those rebuilding their lives, to the entrepreneurial determination of people like Larry Silverstein, to the symbolic sentimentality of the replanting of the survivor tree. And the sheer beauty of the new World Trade Centre will ensure that it becomes one of those places that we will all want to go to at least once before we die. The only grey cloud on the horizon today is the “credible threat” of terrorist activity, attempting to undermine the celebration of triumph over adversity – the threat must not be allowed to be realised; today belongs to New York, to the survivors and to the innocent.

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Your Big Year 2012

One of the last initiatives I was introduced to in my time working on the government’s enterprise agenda was “Your Big Year”. I had met many champions of impressive enterprise initiatives and seen many of the proposed activities evolve successfully into staples of the UK’s enterprise culture change agenda. I met Chris Arnold shortly before taking redundancy from government service and his enthusiasm for the ambitious but fledgling “Your Big Year” ensured that I kept an eye on its progress after setting out on a new stage in my working life.

I am sure that in Chris’ wildest dreams, he never expected the idea to attract 44,489 individuals from 168 countries in its first year but that is exactly what happened. A truly global competition encouraging and promoting the importance of global citizenship, “Your Big Year” has a spectacular prize for the winners. A ten month, journey across five continents, working in some of the most challenging environments on some incredible volunteer led international projects. The first winners are setting out to work in an
orphanage and with child monks in Nepal; in Peru, they will help with building a clean water piping system; moving on to Kenya they will work in an HIV/Aids outreach centre. But those are just three of the activities that will challenge and inspire them as part of their big year.

“Your Big Year” is a Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) featured event. As we move closer to GEW 2011, I will feature more initiatives that support the focal point of the global enterprise promotion agenda. “Your Big Year 2012” kicks off in just a few days time on 8 September. So please follow it on the Your Big Year Facebook page, find out more about it at http://www.yourbigyear.com or at http://www.smallerearth.co.uk/your_big_year/and
spread the word. Who knows, somebody you introduced to the competition could be
setting off next year for their very own big year.

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The dangers of playing the economic blame game.

With turbulent equity markets, gloomy news on jobs and more than 10% of town and city centre shops vacant, it is still difficult to see how we can avoid the dreaded “double-dip”. Against this backdrop Flatline George (Osborne) has sagely observed that politics, rather than economics, represents the biggest barrier to economic recovery. Hardly surprising that I would agree with that statement, as I have said elsewhere in this blog that our political class is made up of (at best) well meaning amateurs. Of course, Osborne meant all those other politicians – especially those in mainland Europe who are dragging us down with their weak Eurozone economies.

There is no denying the seriousness of indecisive economic leadership in the Eurozone and in the US. The farcical behaviour of US politicians over raising the debt ceiling and ostrich like behaviour in Europe towards making more fundamental changes to the structure of the Eurozone (to strengthen and stabilise the currency and its prospects) has been little more than terrifying. Whilst some of the right decisions have been made and for the moment at least, things are a little quieter, the underlying economy remains essentially unchanged. Equity markets will continue on their roller-coaster ride and further drastic interventions in individual economies will be essential in the coming months.

Playing the blame game rarely helps and there is an element of that game-play in the finger pointing towards Europe. The problems and impact of our neighbours’ economies cannot be undervalued but should not be used as a smoke screen for the realities of our
own plight. Our living standards in the UK are destined to fall by as much as 25% over the next quarter-century. This is inevitable with the shift in economic power from West to East. Our expectations must not be “don’t worry, in five years time this will all be a distant memory”. Further support for enterprise and developing a more globally aware enterprise culture are still key for the UK recovery, if we are to meet even these muted expectations for our living standards. Increasingly, the balance between the Government’s debt reduction programme and continued weak economic growth is looking erroneous; if “plan A” is restricting the prospects for growth, “plan B” must be revealed and have at its core
enterprise start-up and growth.

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London’s youth, grounded.

Sony distribution centre continues to burn.

It’s mid-summer, in the middle of the school holidays. The playing fields are empty, apart from a few people walking their dogs. There has been no trouble here but in the distance, thick acrid smoke rises from the site of the Sony distribution centre on the outer reaches of Greater London. Today, at least, children cannot be children and the area’s youth appear to have been grounded.

There is no doubt that tonight will be a turning point. If trouble flares and the police fail to put it down quickly, the volume at which stronger action will be demanded from the public will not be able to be ignored by our hapless politicians. The scale of criminal activity seen last night in London must never be allowed to be seen again. If we lose control now, we risk London turning into New York as it was in the 1970s and early 80s. I don’t want to  live in a city where you would rather run a red traffic signal because it is safer to do so than to stop. I don’t want to live in a city where if you walk 100 yards in the wrong direction, your life is seriously at risk. As bad as parts of London are, they are not that bad yet.

We must not be sucked in by left-wing bleeding-hearts like Gavin Knight in today’s Guardian. His contradictory head in the sand article plays down gang involvement in last night’s trouble. Be sure, the gangs were there. Orchestrating the riots? Probably not. Capitalising on them and testing the police response? Certainly. Knight should listen to his own “source close to the gang community”. Some of last night’s criminals were taking out cash dispensers, safes and tills. They were breaking into the bookies. Just as his source said that “senior gang members” would do.

I am not conservative with a large or small ‘c’ but sympathetically blaming “squeezed youth services”, “government cuts” and “deprivation” for what we saw last night, introduces the worst risk of all – a disaffected public turning towards right wing parties like UKIP or even worse, BNP. Law and order must be restored quickly and without apology. Then we must look again at where we went wrong with community engagement.

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Tuesday 9th August 2011 00:14 BST. I am sitting in my living  room watching my city burn. Five minutes ago explosions and flame leapt through another building in the north of Enfield. The gangs are in charge of London tonight.

Trevor Reeve, co-owner of House of Reeves in Croydon, has watched his 140 year old business razed to the ground and is understandably devastated. Clapham is in the hands of the gangs, as is Ealing, Woolwich, Camden, Hackney, Lewisham and many other parts of the capital. The police and emergency services cannot cope.

Ken Livingstone is deluded and has probably destroyed any chance he has of being re-elected Mayor of London. He is still trying to justify tonight’s anarchy as being simply a result of government economic policy and “disenfranchised” youth. It is not. It is pure, bloody minded, anarchy.

Rebuilding our city will take time. Dialogue within communities will be essential. Our young people need all the support and trust we can give them. But first we must crush the gangs and take our city back. Does this Government have the balls to do it? Do Londoners have the strength to support the severe action that is needed to put things right again? Words are cheap; only action now will do and if this does not stop tonight, the army should be called in.

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The Government fiddles whilst London burns

Hoards of feral youths have spent their weekend running riot on the streets of London. Despite goading and assaulting our police forces and crippling our local economies, we are still bombarded with words like “disenfranchised”, “disaffected” and “criminalised”. These are the words of two generations of British citizens in denial of the fact that they have raised an anarchistic underclass that has no respect of anyone or for anything. This has little to do with poverty and disenfranchisement. I have worked with young people from some of the poorest communities in the country, where iPhones, Nike trainers and
three square meals a day are things of aspiration – these young people bore little resemblance to the ignorant yobs on the streets of London this weekend, most of whom already had all those things and more.

Instead of hiding our heads in the sand, we need to tackle the problem head on. As a nation, we have embraced a liberal agenda that has taken away respect. Parents, schoolteachers, police and even our military have become nothing more than minor anachronistic inconveniences to a youth element that has no respect, aspiration or morality. They can take on the police because their parents and grandparents have effectively neutered the force. We deployed them to stand behind riot shields and be pelted with bricks and petrol bombs, able to do little more than protect themselves from the onslaught. They (and the citizens they serve) were the only people “disenfranchised” during these riots. The police need to be able to bring to bear the necessary force in these
situations, without fear of reprimand when one or two of the thugs they are facing end up with a minor fracture or bloodied nose. If you disrespect our society, don’t expect society to sympathise when you suffer.

And what of our erstwhile politicians? Nothing more than an insipid statement from a junior Home Office minister, whilst the three most senior members of our Government sun themselves abroad. Ignore, for a moment, the lunacy of having our Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Chancellor on holiday at the same time as the World financial markets are again at breaking point. It has taken three days before any one of them has broken cover and made a statement on the matter. It does appear that the only people running this country, at the moment, are the yobs.

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For the sake of a drink.

Photo courtesy of FreeFoto.com

Last night’s Panorama (Dying for a drink – BBC1 20:30 BST) was a shocking expose on the state of alcoholism in the UK –
and in particular, amongst our young people. It was, perhaps, a little unsurprising to those of us who live in the nation’s cities but the statistics should shock the country into action. Alcohol related A&E admissions hit one million last year – think of that as adding the entire populations of Bristol, Cardiff and Coventry together and you will be able to visualise that
figure. 7,000 patients aged 20-39 were admitted to hospital with alcohol-related liver disease. And people in their 20s are dying as a result of alcohol related conditions.

There will always be those who drink to excess but Sir Ian Gilmore rightly points out that the big drivers for the amount people drink are “price, marketing and availability”. In real terms, alcoholic drinks are now 75 per cent cheaper in the shops than they were in 1980 – and easily available from any supermarket, corner-shop or even some newsagents. Whilst cigarette smoking has been vilified almost to the point of obsession, consumption of alcohol (a far more dangerous legal drug) is simply accepted as “part of our culture” and continues to be marketed as something “trendy”, “sexy” or “exotic”.

Successive Governments have played their part in creating an environment where alcohol abuse can thrive. Laws banning the consumption of alcohol in “public places not intended for the consumption of alcohol” have been so diluted as to become unenforceable, unless those doing the drinking are perceived by the police as committing “anti-social behaviour
crime”. The relaxation of licensing laws that allow our pubs to open all day may have exacerbated the situation as well – although this is debateable as the large numbers of pubs and clubs that have closed since the smoking ban and economic downturn seems to be having little impact on excessive alcohol consumption. But politicians are amongst the drinks industry’s best clients and with beer sales contributing more than £5bn in duty and VAT and alcohol contributing nearly £15bn in total to UK tax revenues, there is little appetite in the Palace of Westminster for reducing consumption.

If we are serious about tackling people “dying for a drink”, we must at least press for cigarette style graphic images and warnings to be included on the packaging for alcoholic drinks, together with the banning of advertising that glorifies drinking. These steps are believed to have had a huge impact on cigarette consumption and there is no reason to
expect that it would not have a similar impact when applied to alcoholic drinks. But taking no action to tackle such a serious problem is simply not an option.

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