Friday, September 19, 2008

Bish bash HBOS

A worrying time for my home town of Halifax, with a significant number of local jobs sure to disappear in the wake of Lloyds' white knight takeover of HBOS. Exact numbers have yet to be announced, but I'd guess at least a thousand in the town - maybe more.

Lloyds has said that preserving jobs in Scotland will be a priority - job losses there were also small when the Halifax acquired the Bank of Scotland back in 2001, with most of the limited cutting then done at lower levels, and Edinburgh also had the honour of hosting the head office at the BoS's historic HQ on the Mound. So saving jobs there seems fair enough - the Guardian reports that the group has 6,459 employees in Edinburgh, a fairly significant chunk of well-paid employment in a city of 450,000.

But what's worrying is that nothing's been said about jobs in the Halifax' eponymous home. HBOS also employs around 6,500 in and around Halifax - and this is a town of just 90,000, with far fewer other major industries than the Scottish capital.

There are obvious political motives for favouring Scotland, which will put Labour into even more disfavour locally. Fair enough, most will say.

But the potential economic impact on the town and the surrounding area is likely to be terrible. The presence of the bank here - its head office until the BoS takeover and, after, the base of the expanded retail operations - has been the main factor in protecting the town from the worst of the industrial decline and saved it from being quite as bad as, say, Burnley. Any major reduction of HBOS employment would, alongside the general downturn, easily make it as bad as, say, Barnsley when the mines were closed. Not a happy prospect.

It might not be that bad, of course. There's inevitably going to be swingeing cuts at the common operations of the two merged groups, but it's a question of deciding how that's going to be split between Lloyds and HBOS. I'm less familiar with Lloyds' operations, but I'd guess the bulk of their operations are in London. It might then be an attractive option for them to cut jobs in that more expensive employment market, and keep them in the more cost-effective West Riding.

But even if that happens, I'd guess that in Halifax they'll be cutting from the top; and in London, from the bottom. Fewer well-paid, professional jobs here in finance, IT, management and so forth, but we'll likely still get the minimum-wage call centre and data input end. Not a great deal.

More generally, it's been fun to see the scrabbling for scapegoats to blame for the deeply shite state of the banking markets, and the faux outrage over the antics of the short-sellers and speculators who we are shocked (shocked!) to find are inclined towards amoral profit-seeking based on some rather unrealistic financial models. At least, I hope it's faux - surely no one who's been keeping the vaguest of eyes on the financial markets and the economic orthodoxy can honestly be remotely surprised?

As per the title of this blog (borrowed from Galbraith, of course), it looks like reality has caught up with its would-be escapees.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Invention of Yorkshireness

Congratulations to William Marshall, curmudgeonly columnist on the Halifax Evening Courier, on securing a grant to research a topic close to my heart - 'The Invention of Yorkshireness: Yorkshire cultural identities 1850-1914'.

The Yorkshire Post quotes Marshall on that noble creed 'See all, hear all, say nowt; eat all, drink all, pay nowt' -
"It's interesting to discover the ways in which Yorkshire people have come to define themselves like this.
"One area of source material I've been looking at is picture postcards from the early 1900s. There's a series of "Yorkshire Sayings" which depict pot-bellied farmers dispensing such advice as a mother telling her daughter to only marry for money or a father telling his son never to do anything for 'nowt'.
"The thing is, these stereotypes actually seem to have been taken up by Yorkshire people themselves.
"They seemed to relish this idea of being quite stubborn and selfish – many of these postcards were bought by Yorkshire-folk and sent to other people within the county, so this negative self-image was not only acceptable to them but perpetuated by them."

More in the Courier itself, although that paper does show some distressing regional stereotyping in its headline: Our William is given an 'Ey oop' award.

On a related subject, I'm quite pleased with this panoramic pic I did of Halifax as seen from Beacon Hill -
Halifax, in all its glory
Click through for full-size, to admire the town's geographic and architectural glories - given the financial news of the past few days, it could be a last chance to see the HBOS head office before they put the shutters up...


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Nuclear future and past

This week's Crain's Manchester Business includes a technology focus section mostly written by myself. The lead story explores how the University of Manchester is positioning itself as a centre of nuclear R&D to serve the planned new generaton of nuclear power stations.

It's a fairly controversal move, as the Manchester Evening News picked up a few weeks ago. Personally, I've come to conclude that nuclear power has to be a key part of the UK's energy market for the near-future - but, at best, it's a medium-term solution with very long-term costs and consequences.

Local worries are likely to be fuelled by a report in the Guardian today on some of the long-term consequences of the university's previous nuclear work -
Radiation left over from 100-year-old experiments by Ernest Rutherford, the father of modern nuclear physics, may be responsible for the recent deaths of two Manchester University lecturers. Hundreds more former lecturers and students at Manchester University could be at risk from nuclear materials they were exposed to. At least as late as 2006, there was still contamination in the building in which Rutherford worked, known as the Rutherford Building[...] A confidential report given to the university in June, written by three academics who worked in the building, claims that the university suspected that there was a potential radiation hazard, but allowed staff to continue working in the building.

It's extremely unlikely that any of the uni's current or proposed research facilities will feature yer actual messing-about with radioactive materials in the centre of the city, but the university management's apparent response to the pollution problem will hardly inspire public confidence.

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