Royal Mail – Not For Sale!

 Articles, Community, Information, Opinion  Comments Off on Royal Mail – Not For Sale!
Feb 182011

Members of the Communication Workers Union will be holding a demonstration outside the St Nicholas Centre on Saturday February 26th to raise awareness of proposals put forward by the Government to privatise Royal Mail. Voice’s Stephen Davy-Osborne reports.

The proposal, set out earlier this year, sees the link between Royal Mail and the Post Office Ltd severed as Royal Mail becomes a privatised company, while the Post Office remains in public ownership under a partnership similar to that of the John Lewis Group.  These proposals have caused a great deal of concern to those employed by both organisations.

Once privatised, there would be no guarantee of Royal Mail making use of the Post Office network; which is already facing 900 closures up and down the country.   Once a vital amenity for any village, town or city; the Post Office has faced increased competition from other companies offering similar services resulting in decline in footfall, and therefore closures.

Alan Robertson, Secretary of the Grampian & Shetland branch of the CWU, is hopeful that further closures and subsequent job losses can be avoided:

“The future of the Post Office Ltd does not have to be gloomy.  If the Government stuck to its election promise of putting a fully-blown bank within the Post Office, then it would help secure its future. Last year alone 150 Post Offices shut down.  If privatised and not given banking services, then Post Offices will simply wither on the vine and the people who suffer the most will be the elderly, those in remote areas, and the most vulnerable in society.”

people think either it will never happen or it’s a ‘done deal’ – neither of which is true

Demonstrations and marches have been taking place up and down the country over the last few months, with many more yet to come.  Just last month following  the announcement of the proposed changes, the CWU marched on the constituencies of both David Cameron and Minister for Postal Affairs, Ed Davey, to highlight that privatisation is not in the best interests of Royal Mail or its users.

Members of the Grampian & Shetland branch of the CWU will also be journeying down to London at the end of March to join a march against cuts being organised by the TUC.

Royal Mail has attracted a lot of media attention over the past couple of years, with reports of inefficiencies and huge job losses on the horizon as it sought to compete in a modern market.  Despite the bad press, Mr Robertson is confident that things were starting to look up for Royal Mail:

“The long-term problems we have had are already being addressed.   Last April our membership ratified a three-year deal that accounts for things like the decline in mail, new machinery and ways of working.  This will lead to a significant drop in headcount for our members, but it has been done on a proper basis that will see a more efficient Royal Mail at the end of the three years.”

However, all of these agreed changes, which saw heavy campaigning from the unions to secure a fair outcome for all, could be put in jeopardy by privatisation.

The demonstration outside the St Nicholas Centre will therefore try and raise public awareness and let people know what the results of privatisation would mean to them.

“I believe that most people think either it will never happen or it’s a ‘done deal’ – neither of which is true.” adds Mr Robertson.

For further information and to show your support for one of the nation’s most vital public services, head along to the CWU’s demonstration outside Marks and Spencer, St Nicholas Centre between 11:00 and 13:00 on Saturday February 26th.

Feb 112011

For thousands of years the world’s great civilisations have understood the importance of libraries:  storehouses of knowledge, exchanges for ideas and philosophies and essential developing technologies, social centres, and sources of inspiration. However, as Voice’s Suzanne Kelly reports,  our libraries may yet again be facing the threat of cuts and closures.

The great library at Alexandria housed the factual and philosophical literatures of all the cultures of the times. There is historical evidence to suggest that any ship docking in the Alexandrian port had to declare the books it had aboard, and any that the Alexandrian library did not have were ”borrowed”, copied and translated, and the original returned to the ship in due course.

The importance of storing and sharing knowledge in various languages was paramount in the Classical world.  It was a major loss to civilisation when this great library was burnt, but the concept of libraries was entrenched in civilisation, and the storage and sharing of knowledge has been central to all of mankind’s great advances.

The great European libraries, including the world-famous British Library are looked upon with pride and respect by scholars, researchers, writers, and those who seek both knowledge and entertainment.  However, this view of the library’s importance is under threat throughout Europe, as governments look for soft targets for budget cuts.

Library hours have been cut, book buying budgets slashed, and library buildings – some of which are of considerable historical and architectural value – are being converted to other use or even destroyed in the pursuit of valuable development real estate.  Books are often sold to raise funds and swept aside to make space for newer media, unfortunately this has meant important collections being split up or sent to storage.

Elaine Fulton, Director of CILIP in Scotland:
“Contrary to what is widely reported in the press, Scottish libraries are not experiencing a decline in demand for services. In fact, the past two years have seen the number of visits to our public libraries rise by 2.4 million. This is a clear indication of the support that exists for libraries and the value that people place on our services within communities across Scotland.”

Along with the out-and-out direct attacks on libraries, the insidious attacks are just as damaging.  Libraries have quite rightly branched out into lending music and DVDs, and the advent of Internet access available to all via library computers is likewise welcome.

But rather than expanding the importance and diversity of the library, many local governments are deciding that books and other printed works are of secondary importance. An offer Councils frequently make is that libraries can stay open if non-professional ‘volunteers’ are willing to staff them. As a professional librarian would tell you, there is more to running a library than just putting books on shelves.

The management of vast stocks of printed works, the ability to find information quickly and efficiently, the understanding of the cataloguing numerical system, and best practice are but a few issues which need professional attention.

Some years back Aberdeen City ordered its library services to cut £100,000 out of its budget, from any area it chose

A volunteer staff could not be expected to show the same commitment to professional development, and would doubtless fall short of offering the reliable, consistent service that library users are accustomed to. Furthermore, there are perhaps risks associated with the limited accountability of volunteers – the worst case scenario is that this could give rise to stock depletion, whether through mismanagement, under valuation and subsequent disposal or even theft.

It is emerging that a museum in Glasgow has suffered numerous thefts over the years, which are only now coming to light, largely due to low staffing levels and poor stock management. In fact the British Library itself was the victim of vandalising theft:  a library user was removing extremely valuable pages from ancient books and whole books in some cases – removing knowledge from common access, and destroying volumes of books in the process. If professional librarians had not been operational, who knows how long this could have gone on and how much more damage would have been done.

Alan Reid, President of CILIP in Scotland:
“All support for libraries and recognition of the need for professional and well trained staff is welcome. It highlights the passion which many in Scotland share for their libraries and the rising tide of concern at what the current public service financial cuts will mean. I am sure there will be many more protests of this nature in the next few months.”

Some years back Aberdeen City ordered its library services to cut £100,000 out of its budget, from any area it chose.

Rather than losing jobs or cutting down the annual book budget, opening hours were cut. This had an immediate detrimental effect on resource availability for the elderly, children, people who do not have English as a first language, students, and young people with either family or financial issues who depended on the libraries for so very much more than books.

Any of the options open to the library services would have been detrimental, but there was no choice than to make this cut.  This Aberdeen City Council has spent millions on consultants in the past, and has written off millions of pounds in bad debts. Surely funding services such as libraries should be seen as both possible and desirable.

There are countries which deny their citizens this important asset, and people who would desperately love to have libraries

On Saturday 5th February I visited Aberdeen’s Central Library. I was trying to research ‘Urban Sprawl’, a topic for which many associated books, articles and pamphlets have been written by scientists and EU officials. Our library had nothing.   However, the librarian’s assistance was invaluable, and it is planned to get some items in on the subject – budget allowing.

One of the benefits of being in the library was the physical access to the collection:  it was possible to spend an hour or so wandering the well categorised shelves, and finding titles that were of interest to me which otherwise I might never have known existed. I also found information on community events that I hadn’t known of, posted on a bulletin board.

I had no sooner left the library than I ran into a group of pro-library protesters belonging to  ‘Cilips’ – the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland.  As their leaflet and their spokeswoman explained:

“Not only do libraries make a valuable contribution to our society, they stand for important values in our society including intellectual freedom, equality of opportunity, engaged citizenship, informed democracy and a society in which people have the chance to achieve their potential.”

There are countries which deny their citizens this important asset, and people who would desperately love to have libraries.  Let’s ensure they are not taken for granted or worse, taken down.  It is an amazing arrogance on the part of the budget-cutters to think they know better than all of the past societies and conclude that libraries are a luxury.

Let’s not let them get away with closing our libraries.

Dec 032010

By Alex Mitchell.

Causewayend School was one of the many handsome and impressive Victorian granite Board schools created in Aberdeen for the fast-expanding city population of the later 19th Century. In fact, Causewayend was more handsome and impressive than most such schools, being designed by William Smith in 1875 and with a later Baronial-style keep by William Kelly.

But the school has now closed because of the declining number of children resident in its catchment area of Mounthooly-Gallowgate-West North Street. Not for the first time, we are struck by the sheer folly of the systematic removal of population and community from this (and other once-thriving and central neighbourhoods) through demolition of older tenement housing and its replacement – if at all – by tower-block flats, soon found to be unsuited to the needs of families.

The thing is that Mounthooly-Gallowgate ought to be what estate agents would describe as ‘a sought-after urban-village locality’; central, historic, characterful, surrounded by vistas of steeples, towers and spires and within walking distance of M&S. But its almost entirely public-sector housing provision – and that largely in the form of tower-block flats – effectively excludes would-be owner-occupiers, the ‘mortgage paying classes’, as well as those with families to raise.

The consequence is that the area contains relatively few middle-class families, but disproportionate numbers of poor and/or elderly people. Those blocks which are hard-to-let will also typically feature high concentrations of benefits claimants, the unemployed, single guys just out of the services or prison, alcoholics, drug addicts and the mentally ill.

A functioning community needs a more representative social mix than this; the better-off as well as the poor, high-achievers as well as under-achievers, people with scarce and marketable skills, professional expertise and entrepreneurial talent. The local schools, like the canaries in coal mines, give the early warnings that a community is in distress, being especially vulnerable to a downward spiral of local disadvantage, poor test and exam results, pupil withdrawal, declining enrolment and so on.

The current pre-occupation as regards housing provision is with the supply and availability of ‘affordable’, i.e., low-cost, housing. It may seem perverse to say so, but what Mounthooly-Gallowgate really needs is more high-cost housing, such as would attract the mortgage paying classes back to this locality. Housing costs in any neighbourhood tend to reflect the earning-power of local residents. In the U.S. context, you have to pay a high rent, or house price, to live in, say, Manhattan, because you are surrounded by high-earning people. (The characters in Friends couldn’t possibly afford to live there!) You would pay a lower rent or price to live in Brooklyn or Queens, because there you would be surrounded by lower-earning people.

Low-cost housing reflects the low earning power of local residents, their lack of marketable skills and expertise and/or entrepreneurial flair, possibly compounded by, or attributable to, low educational attainment, poor physical and mental health, drug and alcohol abuse and criminality. A failed or collapsed local economy, such that decently-paid jobs are simply unavailable, might also come into it; but that has not been the context here in Aberdeen for some decades past.

The World Bank investigated the underlying causes of the relative wealth or poverty of different countries in 2005. They concluded that: “Rich countries are rich largely because of the skills of their populations and the quality of the institutions supporting economic activity”.

Much of this is attributable to intangible factors – the extent of trust amongst and between people, an efficient judicial system, clear property rights and efficient government. On average, the ‘rule of law’ accounts for 57% of a country’s ‘intangible capital’, whilst education accounts for 36%. But whereas Switzerland scores 99.5% on a rule-of-law index, and the USA 91.8%, Nigeria’s score is a pitiful 5.8% and Burundi is worse still at 4.3%. Some countries are so badly run that their intangible capital is actually shrinking. The keys to prosperity are the rule of law and good schools; but through rampant corruption and failing schools, countries like Nigeria and Congo are destroying the little intangible capital they possess, and are thereby ensuring that their people will be even poorer in the future.

There are too many parts of Britain where no-one in their right mind would think of starting a (legitimate) business enterprise

What is true of countries in the global context is also true of regions, cities and towns within a country and even of neighbourhoods within a city or town. The rule of law, i.e., crime-prevention, and a functioning education system are basic pre-conditions for industry, investment and employment; not least because decision-takers are picky about where they live and the schools their children attend.

There are too many parts of Britain where no-one in their right mind would think of starting a (legitimate) business enterprise, and where almost no one does.

Even in the relatively prosperous context of Aberdeen, there are neighbourhoods where the trend is all-too observably one of business closures and withdrawal rather than start-ups and expansion, and for all-too obvious reasons; a collapse of law & order, rampant criminality, and a lack of relevant skills and, consequently, of spending-power amongst the local population and labour force. As the World Bank concludes, the solutions are (a) the rule of law, and (b) efficient education systems.

In the local context of Aberdeen neighbourhoods like Mounthooly-Gallowgate, the immediate or quick-fix solution is probably that of improving the social mix by making available a wider range of housing types – private-rented, owner-occupied, detached/semi-detached or at least maisonettes/terraced, rather than having only high-rise blocks of Council-owned flats. However, closing schools like Causewayend and nearby Kittybrewster seems like a seriously bad move.

The theme of the emptying inner city came to mind on a recent visit to Aberdeen Arts Centre, which has long occupied the former North Church, No. 33 King Street.

This splendid 1830 Greek-Revival building by John Smith was positioned so as to be visible and conspicuous from almost all angles, central to the whole area. Yet it is surrounded by streets, once vibrant with people, shops and businesses, which now contain little or no resident population; the south (town) end of King Street, Queen Street, East/West North Street and Broad Street.

It is as if the planners had set out to ethnically cleanse the whole area of humanity. That has certainly been the effect of past planning decisions, even if not the intention.Even on a sunny Saturday afternoon, there is not a soul to be seen in any direction. We are reminded of the bleak post-war Vienna depicted in the film The Third Man, its population dead or dispersed to the four winds.