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Chase Bank Limits Cash Withdrawals, Bans International... Before you read this report, remember to sign up to for 100% free stock alerts Chase Bank has moved to limit cash withdrawals while banning business customers from sending...

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Richemont chairman Johann Rupert to take 'grey gap... Billionaire 62-year-old to take 12 months off from Cartier and Montblanc luxury goods groupRichemont's chairman and founder Johann Rupert is to take a year off from September, leaving management of the...

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Cambodia: aftermath of fatal shoe factory collapse... Workers clear rubble following the collapse of a shoe factory in Kampong Speu, Cambodia, on Thursday

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Spate of recent shock departures by 50-something CEOs While the rising financial rewards of running a modern multinational have been well publicised, executive recruiters say the pressures of the job have also been ratcheted upOn approaching his 60th birthday...

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UK Uncut loses legal challenge over Goldman Sachs tax... While judge agreed the deal was 'not a glorious episode in the history of the Revenue', he ruled it was not unlawfulCampaign group UK Uncut Legal Action has lost its high court challenge over the legality...

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Wintry weather expected to cause further disruptions in UK

Category : Business

Snowfall and freezing temperatures forecast this week, making further transport delays and cancellations likely

Snow is expected to blanket the UK for the next week, with freezing temperatures causing hazardous conditions and further delays and cancellations after three days of transport disruption.

Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports, said it would cancel about 130 flights on Monday after cancelling twice that number on Sunday.

After a £36m investment in cold weather equipment since 2010, when snow almost shut it down just before Christmas, Heathrow said it was coping with the wintry conditions. The reduction in capacity on Sunday was mainly owing to low visibility rather than snow on the runways, it said.

Passengers complained of long delays waiting on board aircraft for planes to be deiced. Airlines, which are responsible for deicing, said they were doing all they could to get planes off the ground.

British Airways said it had called up more than 100 volunteer personnel to help with deicing, which was taking more than 30 minutes per plane because of the freezing conditions and persistent snowfall.

Heathrow said it would normally have aircraft arriving or departing every 45 seconds. But low visibility meant that “at the moment that spacing is doubled and that’s why we are running at a reduced capacity,” a spokeswoman said.

On Sunday the airport said its snow-clearing operations were running according to plan. A spokeswoman said it was “a myth” that other airports had not experienced disruption because of the snow, pointing to problems at Munich, Geneva and Frankfurt, as well as 40% of flights being cancelled out of Paris.

The airport said that because it operates at almost capacity, there was “simply

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Letters: Let’s put an end to utilities milking the consumer

Category : Business

Downing Street is promising “swingeing fines” on energy companies if allegations of manipulating the market in wholesale gas prices are proven – a nice little earner for the Treasury (Davey warns energy firms, 14 November). Fining utility and transport companies hurts only one group: their customers, for whom prices will rise further in order to meet the cost of paying fines.

What is appropriate in such cases is penalties that will really hurt those responsible – jail terms for fraud, disqualification and personal fines against directors, and orders from the court to suspend all dividend payments for a period of, say, three years and for any resulting cash balances, protected from accounting trickery, to be repaid to consumers in the form of rebates. However, the endemic consumer-milking culture of the privatised energy, utility and transport companies – reports over the weekend highlighted the scandal that is our water industry – could be ended through renationalisation by a bold enough government. Does any political party have the bottle?
Nigel Beatty
Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex

• Your report correctly described how price opacity in gas-trading markets sets a context in which price manipulation can occur (FSA examines whistleblower’s claims, 13 November). Moreover, the government is about to introduce an energy bill implementing electricity market reform which will make the precise amount of subsidies paid to nuclear and renewable energy sources very difficult to calculate, and hand over more control of the renewables market to the major electricity players. In the process this reform will effectively prevent independent developers from setting up renewable energy projects.

Independent analysts have already warned that the complex and highly opaque system of “contracts for differences feed-in tariffs”, that is proposed by the government, will create favourable conditions for major electricity companies to make money out of the complexity. Currently we have a relatively transparent method of calculating how much extra is paid for renewable energy, but this will disappear as the funding for “low carbon” energy sources is pooled together. What a coincidence it is that we will find it difficult to calculate exactly how much extra (on top of market rates) is paid for nuclear power. Proposals for a much simpler and cheaper “fixed feed-in tariff” (used in Germany) have been sidelined.
Dr David Toke
University of Birmingham

• The decision to defeat Labour in its bid to delay an increase in fuel duty of 3p a litre planned for January is yet another kick in the teeth for businesses who rely on the roads to function and operate (Report, 13 November). Can we please recognise the negative effect this is going to have on the haulage industry and the potential loss of jobs. Given the amount of fuel consumed on a daily basis, even a small hike in price means our costs increase significantly. We can’t always pass on these costs to customers, so we take the hit in an industry which has seen 50% of its market wiped out since 2008. The continued squeeze on costs will ultimately affect job creation and the expansion of businesses at a time when the country should be encouraging growth.
Al Bingle
Managing director, Bishop’s Move

Letters: Railway users v financial engineers

Category : Business

Subsidies to the railways since privatisation have increased by about 450% to around £5bn a year (Editorial, 21 August). Fare rises of up to 11% will doubtless contribute to the recently announced £12m-a-year bonus scheme for the top six executives at Network Rail. The coalition is in an ideological trap because any infrastructure problem, such as railways, has to be based on the private sector.

Railway privatisation was a triumph of ideology over common sense to produce the most expensive, fragmented, under-invested railway system in western Europe. Integration or cooperation within the system is bedevilled by at least 20 different franchisees, all operating to different timescales, plus the requirements of various regulators and the Department of Transport.

Franchise holders have no incentive to invest when three years later they could lose the franchise – as Richard Branson discovered last week after spending an estimated £60m preparing Virgin’s bid. Meanwhile, several European state railway systems, able to plan coherently for the future – good railways with reasonable fares being seen as a good thing – are now running UK franchises and exporting the (guaranteed) profits to keep fares lower and improve the quality of services in their home countries.
Peter North
Melton Constable, Norfolk

• What possible rational case can be made for “reforming” the Highways Agency to make it “more independent … so it can borrow large amounts without increasing the public deficit” (Report, 22 August)? The new body has to look “more independent” – so its borrowing costs will be higher than government’s, but met almost entirely from tax revenue (tolling of existing roads having been ruled out as politically difficult). So the taxpayer will be paying more for the roads, simply to save ministers’ faces, and possibly in the hope of

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Ken Livingstone vows to halt rollout of new Routemaster buses

Category : Business

London mayoral candidate says he will not increase new Routemaster fleet, but will instead invest in electric buses

Ken Livingstone has vowed to block the rollout of Boris Johnson’s flagship 21st century Routemaster bus if he ousts London’s Conservative mayor in May, in favour of a fleet of electric buses to help reduce pollution.

The Labour mayoral candidate, whose “bendy buses” were scrapped by Johnson when he was elected mayor in 2008, has made clear that has no intention of increasing the fleet of new hybrid hop-on-hop-off buses.

Johnson has billed the buses as a modern day green replacement for the iconic Routemaster, which was taken out of regular service on all but a handful of routes in 2005.

But Livingstone says the new bus model is too expensive.

Johnson spent £11.4m on the combined cost of developing the new prototype and a contract for just eight production models, prompting critics to accuse him of indulging in a vanity project.

Just three buses are on London’s streets, with the additional five expected to be in place by the end of May. Johnson has pledged that if re-elected he will put 600 more on the road over four years. But Livingstone said if voters picked him as the next mayor of London, there would be no more coming off the production line, although he had no intention of scrapping those already in place.

“I’m quite happy to have them running around London,” Livingstone told the Guardian. “We’ll put a thing on the side saying: ‘The most expensive bus, thanks to Boris.’”

Transport for London (TfL) says the new Routemaster has the best hybrid technology and each new bus will cost £315,000 – the same as the hybrid buses already on London’s roads.

The cost per bus of employing a second crew member – or conductor – will be £62,000 a year.

A spokesman for Johnson said: “Ken Livingstone said that only some ghastly dehumanised moron would want to get rid of the Routemaster, then he scrapped it.

“Now he wants to cancel an order for one of the greenest buses, which costs, and he knows costs, no more than a hybrid bus. Such a decision put hundreds of British jobs at risk and would once again deprive Londoners of the much-loved hop-on, hop-off service. Mr Livingstone simply can’t be trusted.”

But Livingstone insists the city needs to convert the entire bus fleet to wirelessly charging electric buses within four years as part of measures needed to tackle the “huge scandal” of poor air quality in the capital, which ranks among the worst affected cities in Europe.

He said he wanted to sit down and negotiate with companies ready to manufacture electric buses in “real numbers”.

“I’m quite prepared to sign a five-year contract to replace our fleet 20% per annum with an electric bus fleet. A firm that does that will then sell that technology over the rest of the world. There are a lot of other things we need to do as well. You need to get the most polluting vehicles off the road, you’ve got to stop people idling their cars.”

He added: “For a long time the government suppressed the scale of the death rate. We now know at least 4,000 people, and perhaps as many 6,000 people, die prematurely because of poor air quality.”

TfL says electric buses do not have sufficient range to drive around the capital for 18 hours a day, but it was looking at the developing technology that is available.

Livingstone said induction charging – essentially the same technology as that used in electric toothbrushes – would allow vehicles to be charged at bus stops without having to plug them in to sockets.

“The electric bus technology is interesting because you can’t charge up a double-decker to get across from one side of London to another, so it’s like your electric toothbrush technology. Under the bus stop, there’s a small charge.”

The Labour mayoral candidate, who first became involved in elected politics more than four decades ago, has faced criticism over his decision to stand again for the mayoralty after losing in 2008.

Livingstone was selected to fight the 2012 mayoral election by Labour party members against his rival Oona King in 2010 but, by his own admission at the time, few candidates were going to throw their hat into the ring against someone who could boast such a high-profile track record in running London, both at City Hall and as leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s.

Now aged 66, Livingstone said that if re-elected, he would “try and bring forward another generation of people that will go on to be in city government”, conceding that many of the key people who have worked with him have either retired or died.

Declining to name prospective future stars, he said: “It’s trying to bring forward a whole lot of young people you don’t know about yet, some of whom will be sitting here in 15 years’ time.”

He insisted that his deputy running mate, Val Shawcross, who has served on the London assembly, would have a “real role” at City Hall, focusing on transport, while he would focus on policing.

Livingstone was dismissive of polls showing him trailing Johnson by six percentage points, insisting that the final result will be decided by the number of people who bother to turn out to vote.

“I don’t believe the polls,” he said.

Describing his experience of campaigning on the streets, Livingstone said: “The mood is amazing out there. They’re so supportive.”

He appears to have no regrets about channelling his media earnings through a company, Silveta Ltd, despite prompting repeated allegations of hypocrisy for benefiting from corporation tax, which is lower than income tax, while criticising those engaged in tax avoidance.

He said this was the only option for handling earnings from different sources while, at the same time, paying others such as his wife and two members of staff, in a way that was “above board and legal”.

Livingstone said he handed everything over to his accountant because “I am completely and utterly uninterested in managing my finances. It’s not what I came in public life to do”.

Despite the controversy, he said he wanted top income tax rates to rise “to the most you can squeeze it up without them [the rich] buggering off and leaving you with less revenue” – although he refused to specify what that rate would be.

Livingstone took the opportunity to clarify his reasons for crying at the preview of the party election broadcast despite knowing the supporters who took part were scripted and recruited by an advertising agency.

Livingstone explained that the agency sought out Londoners who were planning to vote for him and were willing to read a script. “That I knew all about, but what I didn’t know and came as a surprise was that the ad agency was asking them ‘what message would you like to send Ken Livingstone’, and that was quite moving.”

Livingstone also revealed what happened in thefamous lift incident two weeks ago, when Johnson went nose to nose with him after an on-air exchange about their respective tax arrangements, and called the Labour mayoral candidate “a fucking liar”.

Once in the lift after the radio show was over, Livingstone said he joked to Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate and former senior officer who was among the five people present: “Why don’t you make a citizen’s arrest?”

Livingstone said of Johnson: “You know when people go red in the face … he was completely pale faced. All the blood had drained away. I knew he was absolutely furious so I didn’t do anything to provoke him any further.”

Megabus launches £1 coach tickets to Europe – if you can get them

Category : Business

Cheap Megabus tickets to Paris and three other European destinations snapped up, leaving many travellers disappointed

The cheapest £1 tickets from London to Paris and other European cities appear to have been snapped up by consumers well ahead of the launch of continental services by bus operator Megabus, leaving many prospective travellers disappointed.

Tickets have been on sale for the past month for seats on the first services in the expanded European network. But the cheapest available ticket Guardian Money could find from London to Paris on was £4 – for travel on Sunday 19 May.

Transport group Stagecoach, which owns Megabus, has pledged to “shake up” the European coach market in the new move, which offers cross-channel customers a link between London and Boulogne, Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels. It announced fares starting from just £1 or €1 and up to £50 (plus 50p booking fee) on a fleet of new coaches equipped with free Wi-Fi and toilets. In comparison, its main competitor, Eurolines – owned by National Express – recently offered promotional fares for around £10.

Day and night services will operate on the new network, providing a welcome low-cost link to the Continent through London. Fares will include the cost of ferry crossings across the Channel. The journey by bus from London to Paris will take approximately nine hours.

But internet talkboards are full of complaints that the tickets sold out quickly and questions about how many there were to begin with.

A spokeswoman for Megabus said: “We won’t be giving a detailed breakdown of seat costs but there are £1 seats available on every service. As tickets have been on sale for the past month, many of the cheapest fares have already been snapped up. We have already sold out more than 80 trips but there are still plenty of good value seats on sale.”

The Advertising Standards Authority’s code on sales promotions does not specify how many seats must be available before a company can advertise a fare. Instead it states that: “Promoters must be able to demonstrate that they have made a reasonable estimate of the likely response to a sales promotion and that they were capable of meeting that response. Phrases such as ‘subject to availability’ do not relieve promoters of their obligation to do everything reasonable to avoid disappointing participants.”

However, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) says in a help note that “if marketing communications include a ‘from’ fare, a minimum of 10% of reservable seats must be available at that fare”.

Disappointed bargain-hunters should note that bookings for the next wave of travel dates – from Monday 21 May – will be released shortly. The service is expected to be very popular with students, who get a further 10% discount if they hold a NUS card.

The company launched nationally in 2004 as a budget alternative to National Express and last October launched a nightly “sleeper” – with berths – between London and Glasgow. To support the new European service it will soon be launching French and Dutch language websites, trading in euros.

But not everyone is interested in Megabus’s new operation. On Twitter, @JohnnyGasson confessed: “I’d rather die than travel with them if I’m honest” while @sanoobar admitted: “Eight hours on a bus really aren’t my cup of tea!”.

Fuel tanker drivers to resume strike talks in shadow of cost squeeze

Category : Business

Talks resume to avoid petrol strike, while analysis shows pressure on employers’ profits

Fuel distributors and the Unite trade union resume talks to head off a petrol delivery strike on Tuesday as analysis by the Guardian shows the financial pressures facing the industry.

Six of the seven distributors involved in the dispute will meet tanker drivers’ representatives in an attempt to resolve a row over standards for safety and training and contractual conditions. Unite is seeking a floor on pay, as well as common standards on issues such as training. The businesses are adamant they will not allow national pay bargaining.

The latest accounts for five of the companies involved suggest continuing pressure on costs. The figures indicate a competitive market that is squeezing margins, which has exacerbated drivers’ concerns that their employment conditions and standards are being whittled away to compensate for falling profits.

Unite believes the cost pressures can be alleviated with the support of the leading oil groups and supermarkets that outsource petrol deliveries to contractors. Otherwise the next round of competitions for contracts will encourage a downward cost spiral, Unite argues.

In its half-yearly results published in November last year, Wincanton told investors its greatest growth challenge lies in the contract logistics business and describes the fuel tanker sector as being more mature.

The latest accounts for Norbert Dentressangle Tankers show, despite turnover approaching £12m, the company slumping to a £51,000 loss in the year to 31 December 2010, down from a profit of £193,000 a year earlier.

A similar picture emerges from Turners (Soham). Its tanker business is the biggest of three divisions which in 2010 posted a 23% increase in turnover to £98m. However, while the group as a whole increased turnover by £30m to £210m, pre-tax profits fell to £21.6m. It says the haulage business is increasingly competitive and emphasises a need to control costs and increase efficiency.

Only Hoyer, which employs more than a quarter of the 2,000 drivers affiliated with Unite, could claim an improved performance. Its UK petroleum distribution business delivered better than expected results in the year to December 2010. It is the biggest contributor to the Hoyer UK portfolio of businesses which generated a combined turnover of £138m in 2010 but delivered pre-tax profits of just £3.8m. It too says the market remains turbulent.

There is scant data on BP’s transport business but BP Oil UK reported operating profits of £42m on a turnover of £5.3bn.

Drivers at DHL and Suckling voted against a strike and it is understood Suckling is not attending the talks, which are being held under Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service auspices.

According to UK strike laws, Unite must take industrial action by 23 April to maintain the validity of its mandate for walkouts. It must also give seven days’ notice of any action, which imposes a deadline of 16 April to announce industrial action. Unite drivers supply fuel to 90% of UK forecourts – about 7,900 petrol stations.

Petrol tanker drivers attack squeeze on safety and training by oil firms

Category : Business

Unite drivers claim government warnings jumped the gun on possible strike over outsourcing and ‘dangerous cost-cutting’

Motorists planning their holiday getaway were not the only group expressing relief after the threat of an Easter petrol strike was lifted.

“I am glad that the public will not be inconvenienced over Easter,” said Alan Taylor, a 51 year-old fuel tanker driver. Sitting at a cafe in Portishead outside Bristol, Taylor is about to embark on a three-day stint of driving a truck, weighing up to 44 tonnes when fully loaded, to petrol stations around the UK. He is one of 2,000 drivers who were balloted for strike action in a dispute over the safety and training standards that underpin that task.

The events of the past week have surprised Taylor and, in the case of burns victim Diane Hill, left him aghast. “I am genuinely upset that someone has got hurt over this.” An hour-long conversation with Taylor and two fellow drivers indicates that the government thought strike plans at the Unite trade union were much more developed than was the case. Anticipating imminent walkouts, ministers advised motorists to fill up jerry cans and cars, resulting in queues at petrol stations around the UK and, in one case, tragedy. It appears that the government jumped the gun. “I told my family not to fill up because there is no need. We had not even decided when the action would take place,” says Taylor.

However, while Taylor stresses that he does not want to disrupt the public, he and his companions are adamant that a strike vote was necessary. Alan Jones, 53, in his 12th year as a tanker driver, describes an industry that is straining under cost pressures brought about by oil groups and retailers outsourcing petrol deliveries.

Squeezed by the tight margins on those contracts, the contractors put a financial straitjacket on drivers with knock-on effects for health & safety, training and pensions, says Jones. “We cannot let it degenerate any further. The tendering process has dictated that a company, let’s say supermarket A, will put out a tender for a contract and inevitably they will inevitably look at the cheapest one. The winner of the contract then has to make their profits. So the situation revolves around who they can squeeze and they inevitably squeeze the drivers.”

Emphasising that the dispute is not about pay, a common refrain in the conversation is safety and training. “This week I saw a tanker driver loading a vehicle in a [fuel] terminal with hand-written instructions. When he was asked, he said he had been given only one day’s training,” says Jones. Taylor adds: “To say that is dangerous is an understatement.”

Dean Williams, 44, says peace talks at Acas need the backing of the oil groups and retailers that he says are at the heart of the “contract culture” gripping the industry. “We want the paymasters there. We believe that the contractors are the wrong people to have at the table.”

Otherwise, say the drivers, a new generation of ultra low-cost operators will emerge as the next contract merry-go-round starts. They want a new industry forum to oversee common standards in safety and training, as well as insuring that pensions are transferred effectively every time a contract changes hands. According to Jones, ballot was needed to ensure that serious talks over these issues took place.

Jones adds: “I am very pleased and relieved that it has been announced we are in discussions with Acas [the conciliation service]. We have striven for the past 12 months not to be in this situation and it is a relief amongst the vast majority of petrol tanker drivers that common sense seems to have prevailed.

“This is about nothing more than a degeneration of safety standards in the industry. If you are driving along the motorway and you are in a car with your family and you see a petrol tanker you will take it for granted. The public needs to know that the people driving that tanker are experienced, properly trained and know how to handle an incident.”

All three drivers are shop stewards at the Unite union, so while they are an unscientific sample of a 2,000-strong workforce, there is a sense that talks with Acas will be given a chance at least, provided the terms of discussions can be ironed out on Monday. That said, the phrase “enough is enough” abounds. The talks have to be serious, even though the past week has given Unite and its drivers a stark illustration of what the threat of industrial action alone can do. A strike would, inevitably, be worse.

Army on standby as petrol tanker drivers vote on strike action

Category : Business

Government says preparations are being made to call in soldiers to deliver petrol ahead of possible tanker driver strike

Preparations are being made to call in the military to deliver petrol if tanker drivers stage a national strike, in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the chaotic scenes that followed blockades by fuel protesters in 2000.

The Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, called on the Unite union, which is balloting drivers at seven fuel distribution firms, to seek an agreement with distribution companies. But he said the government had “learned the lessons of the past” and was prepared to do what was necessary to prevent fuel shortages for motorists and the emergency services.

While the government is refusing to publicly confirm specific contingency plans, officials say ministers are prepared to use emergency powers to allow 300 army tanker drivers to distribute fuel if needed. The military drivers will begin extra training next week in preparation for a possible strike, the BBC reported separately.

Ballot results from about 2,000 tanker drivers, about 90% of all those who deliver fuel to UK petrol stations, will be announced by Unite on Monday. The vote was called last month amid union concerns about safety and training, among other issues. A strike could begin from 3 April.

Maude said: “We are calling on Unite and the employers involved to work together to reach an agreement that will avert industrial action. Widespread strike action affecting fuel supply at our supermarkets, garages and airports could cause disruption across the country. The general public should not and must not suffer from this dispute and strike action is manifestly not the answer.

“Although we are pushing for an agreement, we have learned the lessons of the past and stand ready to act to minimise disruption to motorists, to industry and, in particular, to our emergency services, in the event of a strike.”

The government is desperate to avoid the sorts of scenes that dented Tony Blair’s image during his first term in office. In the summer and autumn of 2000 a series of blockades of fuel refineries and distribution centres by protesters complaining about high fuel prices prompted panic buying as thousands of petrol stations closed due to a lack of supplies, hampering distribution of food and other essentials.

The protests lost impetus relatively quickly, but the impression of a government at a loss to halt the mounting chaos was a PR disaster for Labour ministers.

The Petrol Retailers’ Association, which represents more than 5,500 petrol stations, said it knew nothing about any government contingency plans and was advising members to keep stock levels high. “We have had no word from the Department of Energy and Climate Change whatsoever,” the group’s chairman, Brian Madderson, told the BBC.

A spokesman for the energy department said plans were in place to “minimise disruption to essential services, public transport and motorists”. He said: “We would do everything possible to keep the country running especially in the current difficult economic situation.”

Unite argues that outsourcing in the haulage industry has triggered relentless pressure on costs, with the likes of Asda, Shell and Esso all contracting out their deliveries.

According to union officials, fracturing the industry into a patchwork of smaller suppliers is leading to a lowering of standards and pay. Because fuel and truck costs cannot be lowered easily, Unite claims that haulage firms are targeting staff and training costs instead. As a consequence, hauliers are seeking a minimum wage rate and an agreed set of pan-industry standards.

The most significant single ballot result will be at Hoyer, the logistics company which delivers Shell fuel, among others, and whose staff comprise about a quarter of the 2,000 drivers.

A Unite spokesman said: “We want to avoid a strike and would prefer to sit down with the companies and discuss these issues. When the results are in we will discuss what happens next.”

While he would not comment on whether soldiers would be sufficiently qualified to transport fuel around the country, he stressed it was a complex and potentially dangerous task: “There is a lot of training which goes into being a tanker driver. It’s not just a case of shipping cargo around. It’s a very volatile substance.”

Road privatisation is the latest step in the stripping of Britain’s assets | John Harris

Category : Business

If you wonder where David Cameron’s plan to sell off our roads will end up, look at how wealth is torn out of the heart of America

Welcome, once again, to the great British garage sale. What with the outsourcing of the police now a serious prospect, and the deeply strange spectacle of Richard Branson bidding for NHS work, today’s announcement from David Cameron about selling off our roads is one of those things which is simultaneously shocking, and no great surprise.

In fact, this particular wheeze has been on the agenda since the time of George Osborne’s last autumn statement, when the chancellor talked up the government’s “national infrastructure plan”: proposals for 500 projects that would be funded by private sources to the tune of £20bn. Pension funds were the focus of most of the resulting news coverage, but there was also a big projected role for sovereign wealth funds, those ever-growing interests that represent one of the 21st century’s strangest quirks: the fact that nationalisation is back with a vengeance, but it tends to involve assets in the supposedly free-market west being bought up by foreign governments.

Cameron’s speech today, then, represents one of those occasions when the government announces something it has actually announced already, as proved by a Financial Times story from November last year. “‘For sale’ sign goes up over UK infrastructure projects” was the headline, and the opening paragraph ran thus: “George Osborne will next week hang a ‘for sale’ sign over British infrastructure projects worth tens of billions of pounds, as he attempts to tempt UK pension funds, oil-rich Gulf states and other sovereign wealth funds to pay for new roads, railways, housing and other projects.” There was a brief flurry of comment (from me, among other people), but the issue duly quietened down, while ministers and civil servants got on with making the plans a reality.

George Osborne has been to China to push the proposals; as the FT piece reported, the treasury minister Lord Sassoon has been to the Gulf, where he discovered a “huge appetite” for investment in British infrastructure. While there, he also underlined the watershed nature of what was being proposed, by harking back to the glory days of the Thatcher and Major years. “As an asset class,” he said, “UK infrastructure is generating about as much interest as there was with the privatisation programme of the 1980s and 1990s.”

I bet it is. Whatever this move represents, it has nothing to do with capitalism: it’s all about trading years-long monopoly contracts for a short-term fillip to the Treasury, with the hope that while extracting a profit, our roads’ new owners will somehow improve and expand them (they might, but surely on terms akin to the eyewatering arrangements of PFI deals). The government claims that tolls will only be charged by roads’ new owners for new capacity, but that sounds distinctly like one of those weedy assurances given by politicians that, once yesterday’s lunacy has become today’s accepted practice, is swiftly forgotten (to these ears, it has a similar ring to all those early New Labour claims about strict limits on private involvement in the NHS, or what the likes of Nick Clegg have said about profit-making schools).

The whole wheeze points in only one direction, as evidenced by a 2007 piece in Time magazine about American road privatisation: “Tolls often skyrocket under private owners, though with the blessing of elected officials, who avoid the political costs of raising tolls or taxes themselves. That’s how privatised roads deliver double-digit returns for investors.”

More generally, all this highlights things that the political class is too sold on neoliberalism to acknowledge. It may be hopelessly old-fashioned to point it out, but there is such a thing as a national economy. In that sense, it’s right to make a distinction between assets and businesses that may suit being traded for speculative purposes, and ones so central to our national wellbeing that they ought to be left well alone (water privatisation is apparently the government’s ideal model – doesn’t that make you feel better?). While we’re here, you might also like to ponder on how you’ll feel about your vehicle excise duty and/or tolls going to some of the most oppressive regimes in the world.

Some of the best writing on these issues has come from Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine, whose 2010 book Griftopia contains a sobering section about exactly the kind of plan the prime minister is now proposing, and its history in the US. Taibbi makes mention of no end of infrastructure already flogged off, and the cynical reasons for doing so: “A toll highway in Indiana. The Chicago Skyway. A stretch of highway in Florida. Parking meters in Nashville, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and other cities. A port in Virginia. And a whole bevy of Californian public infrastructure projects, all either already leased or set to be leased for 50 or 75 years or more in exchange for one-off lump sum payments of a few billion bucks at best, usually just to help patch a hole or two in a single budget year.”

But he also zeroes in on why all this is bad news for millions of Americans, in a passage that focuses on the Pennsylvania turnpike, almost sold by governor Ed Rendell after a bidding war that included the Spanish corporation Abertis and Goldman Sachs.

Taibbi quotes a friend who worked for a Gulf-region sovereign wealth fund, apparently offered a stake in the turnpike by American investment bankers, and also makes reference to a small Pennsylvanian businessman called Robert Lukens. He points up that the latter’s trade is already declining “thanks to soaring oil prices that have been jacked up by a handful of banks”. He highlights the fact that rising petrol prices mean that even more of Lukens’s money is going into “the pockets of Middle Eastern oil companies”. At the same time, his suffering business means that he’s paying less tax, with the result that cash-strapped state governments are now selling off toll roads, parking meters and ports, often to those self-same oil-rich states.

Taibbi concludes thus: “It’s an almost frictionless machine for stripping wealth out of the heart of the country, one that perfectly encapsulates where we are as a nation.” Here, as in America, it certainly does.

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