Tag Archives: George Osborne

This week’s media picks: infrastructure, Bangladesh safety, fracking, climate change, bioscience

FT (23/4/14): Leading article: Time to invest in Britain’s future

As the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Chancellor, George Osborne, welcomed £36 billion investment in infrastructure projects, the Financial Times, remained to be impressed. In a leader, it said that one of the biggest and most persistent questions facing the UK economy is the worryingly low level of investment in infrastructure. Despite fine words, the government’s record is decidedly mixed, and the new set of initiatives may not match the scale needed to raise infrastructure spending to the level required. The FT outlines three areas of weakness in policy: 1) Spending is not high enough, and is persistently less than many of our competitors; 2) Given low interest rates, the government should borrow more to finance big projects; and 3) the government needs to establish a more stable and clearer framework for private sector investment.

Fibre2Fashion (24/4/14) Bangladesh Safety Accord on course, says UNI official

A year after the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh, a demonstration of corporate social responsibility in action, rather than just words, is making progress towards improving the safety, prospects and lives of the country’s garment workers. Despite the many barriers to progress imposed by the political, social and commercial cultures of Bangladesh, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh can be proud of its progress when it marks its own one year anniversary next month.

An official from, UNI Global, one of the two global union bodies that negotiated the Bangladesh Accord, Alke Boessiger, said: “The inspection program is in full operation. There is a strong team of more than more than 100 technical experts and engineers in Bangladesh who are conducting 45 inspections per week, with the aim to inspect 1500 factories by October.  More than 280 factories have been inspected for fire and electrical issues and 240 for structural safety.  Every inspection has revealed critical issues which must be repaired as a condition of doing business with signatory brands in the future. These issues include, for example, the absence of fire doors to separate the work area from the fire exit.  Brands are responsible to ensure that sufficient financial resources are available for the renovations and improvements.”

FT (24/4/14): Shale gas a multi-billion-pound opportunity for UK business

A report by EY, commissioned by the UKOOG, the shale-gas trade body, said that fracking shale gas could potentially generate 64,000 jobs in the oil and gas supply chain. It said that over the next 15 years, the UK would need to invest £17 billion on specialised fracking equipment and skills. This won’t mollify fracking’s opponents, but does at least show that the industry is seeking to make a positive, factually-based case for its development.

The Guardian (25/4/14): Kingfisher CEO warns on underestimating impact of climate change on business

In an opinion piece, Kingfisher plc CEO, Ian Cheshire urged business to sign a communiqué aimed at policymakers gathering in Paris next year for the UN Climate Change Conference. He warned that resource scarcity, energy price increases and extreme weather are real and growing threats to the long-term viability of business. That’s why hesigned the Trillion Tonne Communique, drawn up by the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group, and is encouraging other business leaders to do so too. Adverse climate events are increasing costs for business, Kingfisher’s alone, were tens of millions of pounds, and as business doesn’t have a seat at the table, it needs more of them to sign the Trillion Tonne Communique to ensure that its voice is heard. 103 businesses world wide have signed so far, but it will require quite a few more to overcome the political resistance that clearly exists in some quarters.

FT (25/4/14): UK medical science drive shaken by US takeover fears

News that AstraZeneca was approached by Pfizer about a £60 billion takeover, has called into question the UK’s ambition to remain a leading global player in life sciences. AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline are the only large companies with research and development operations in the UK. Oxford University’s Professor John Bell said: “If we were to lose one of them it would be a real blow to our capabilities. It’s a sector that is crucial to our future economic success. The news prompted Andrew Miller MP, Chairman of the House of Commons science committee to call for tougher standards to protect strategic UK assets, such as considering the national interest when looking at takeovers. Steve Bates, chief executive of the UK Bioindustry Association, pointed to successful smaller biotech companies, but said: “It is important to have whales in the ecosystems around which minnows can flourish.”

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This week’s media selection: London advances on digital, retreats on financial; Budget politics; “clicktivism”

Evening Standard: Tech City boss: Britain can now follow London’s success

The new CEO of London’s Tech City, Gerard Grech, said that Britain can now cement its place as a global player in digital technology and entrepreneurial industries. Tech City has grown from 200 digital companies at launch in 2010, to 1,300 today. Grech will work on the “four Ps”; policy, partnerships, promotion and programmes, and will relay entrepreneurs’ concerns to government.

The Independent: New York replaces London as financial capital of the world

New York has over taken London as the world’s leading financial centre as the City’s reputation has been hurt by banking and market scandals, uncertainty over EU membership and the referendum on Scottish independence.

The Times: Osborne’s Budget gives the Tories new hope

Former Conservative Home editor, Tim Montgomerie, argues that while George Osborne may not have conquered Britain’s economic challenges he offers the best policies.

FT: Tories should not expect an election dividend

In contrast to Tim Montgomerie, University of Essex professor of government, Anthony King, argues that voters are more impressed by the squeeze on their real incomes than by Osborne’s triumphalist rhetoric. What makes matters worse, is the electoral system, which requires the Tories to be at least 11 points ahead in order to win a majority.

FT: Web activists tear down corporate walls

Large corporations are being forced into climbdowns by partly by social media and “clicktivism”. Twitter and Facebook are turbocharging critical messages as never before, making it harder than ever for companies to control the terms of public discourse. Companies are being dragged into a new world of “private politics”, which is led by activists, not government. This is forcing them into positions on issues that are only tangentially related to their businesses.

Chancellor confirms nothing new under The Sun

On Wednesday, the Chancellor of the ExchequerGeorge Osborne, fulfilled his constitutional duty by confirming the past few weeks’ media speculation on what changes there should be to tax rates and allowances and how they would be funded. This is known as The Budget.

Each year beginning in early March, we avidly read the papers to see what lies in store for us and on Budget day, the Chancellor confirms that he has read them too.

Of course, Chancellors always mange to pull some rabbits out of the hat and catch us by surprise with a gleeful “tah-dah!” Although pensioners might be thinking that the freezing of their tax allowance looks more like a poisonous snake than a fluffy white rabbit. If this group of voters were less steadfast in their voting allegiances, it might have more of ta-ta effect. The self-same well-briefed papers seem to think so and have branded it straight away as “Granny Tax”.

Pre-briefing (or spinning, if you prefer) of the Budget is not new. We can speculate how hard Charlie WhelanEd Balls and Alastair Campbell worked in advance of Budgets to secure the headlines they wanted. And this year’s process has been amplified by the dynamics of coalition politics. The well-informed press speculation has partly been a reflection of the internal negotiation between Conservative and Lib Dem ministers on what should be in the Budget and each party’s determination to show that they managed to put their stamp on the final package.

Speculation on the content of Budgets is not new and has always been driven by a combination of journalistic competition, political gossip and in recent decades, by politicians’ determined efforts to “manage” the media’s coverage.

It doesn’t always work, of course, and according to the Chancellor, the reason he is getting such bad headlines on the “Granny Tax” is because it was “the bit of news people didn’t have”. Shadow Treasury minister, Chris Leslie has said that the leaks were a “serious breach” and an “insult” to Parliament.

Chris Leslie’s criticism won’t hurt George Osborne, but as a mark of how far the conduct of politics has changed, just look at what happened to Labour’s first post-war Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, as described in meticulous detail in the late Ben Pimlott’s masterful biography of him.

As Dalton passed through central lobby on his way to deliver his 1947 Budget, he whispered a few of the budget details to a journalist on the Star, a London evening paper. The grateful recipient was able to phone through to his news desk just in time to catch the old Stop Press or “fudge” section of the paper before the presses started rolling. A few thousand copies ran with the line on gambling: “There will also be a tax on dogs and football pools, but not on horse racing.” Minutes later, the sub-editors removed the “will” and toned it down to “Also likely to be…”

The offending tip off appeared on the streets just 20 minutes before Dalton actually spoke in no more than 260 copies that were sold on Fleet Street, Middle Temple Lane and at a bus stop near Aldwych. Competing newspapers noticed it, brought it to the attention of suitably outraged opposition MPs, and an urgent Commons question was tabled the next day. Dalton defended himself as best he could but tendered his resignation that evening, as he believed that “one must always own up”.

Prime Minister Clement Attlee, possibly for a variety of reasons, accepted Dalton’s resignation, but stressed that “the principle of the inviolability of the Budget is of the highest importance and the discretion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer […] must be beyond question”.

The days of the inviolability of the Budget are long gone, but that can also mean that Chancellors’ “tah-dah!” moments are not always of their own planning.

Government for sale

Watch out: the Government is on the scrounge. Ministers are looking for about £500 billion to invest in the UK’s infrastructure over the next ten years in areas like energy, water, transport and communications.

Given the constraints on public finances, the Government is looking to the private sector to fund this investment. The increased capital requirements on banks largely rule them out. This means that pension funds and insurance companies are seen as the more likely candidates to be approached with the ministerial begging bowl.

In his Pre-Budget Report last year, the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, established Infrastructure UK to identify and attract new sources of private sector investment in infrastructure. It will develop a strategy and list of investment priorities for the next five to 50 years to be announced in Budget 2010.  And now that various ministers have “gaffed” by stating the obvious that the general election will be on 6 May, this will definitely be Alistair Darling’s Budget and not George Osborne’s.

Infrastructure UK will be a heavyweight body. It will be chaired by former Rio Tinto chairman, Paul Skinner. But crucially it will be the focal point for the Government’s infrastructure strategy and advice. It will swallow up the Treasury’s PPP policy team and Infrastructure Finance Unit and those functions of Partnerships UK that support the delivery of major projects and programmes.

Ministers have already approached the pensions industry. But rather than expect to have their tummies tickled as they are asked to stump up for the Government, funds and insurance companies need to be clear about what they need in return. For instance, how will risk be shared, particularly during early construction phases? What can Ministers do to raise credit ratings that are often graded at BBB? And will insurers enter into negotiations only to find themselves hammered by new Solvency II rules from the European Commission that restrict their freedom to invest in large-scale infrastructure projects?

Ministers are also looking to sell £16 billion of Government assets by 2013-14, possibly by establishing new companies in which the public as well as pension funds would be offered shares. These disposals will be handled by the Shareholder Executive, which was set up by the Government in 2003 to carry out its role as shareholder. The Executive manages a portfolio of 29 businesses with a collective turnover of about £21 billion. These include esoteric parts of the public sector such as the QEII Conference Centre (currently staging the Iraq war inquiry), the Covent Garden Market Authority and the UK Hydrographic Office.

Early candidates for disposal include the Tote (again), the high-speed rail line to the Channel Tunnel, student loans and the Dartford crossing.

Any investor thinking about taking these off the Government’s hands will need to consider more than just the financial aspects. There are some potentially tricky stakeholder and industrial relations issues which new owners will need to address, particularly if the Government tries again to sell a stake in the Post Office or when it comes round to disposing of Northern Rock.

Investors will need to think through their messages and what they offer for customers/users, politicians, public sector unions and regulators. Failure to do so could lead to costly reputational damage. They may end up paying a lot more than they bargained for.