As the end of the contract approached I learned the team was to be split, and each part augmented to create two full teams, one to undertake an identical contract on a second of Eggborough’s four boilers whilst the other moved to Ironbridge to repeat the work on one of that site’s two. The contract manager was going to head up the Ironbridge team and wanted me as his planner. There would be a lodging allowance and mileage for travel home every Friday afternoon and return on Saturday night/early Sunday morning. (The standard pattern of work on these contracts was Sunday – Friday with Saturday off).
After discussing this turn of events with Freda, we agreed that she would give up her job if we could find a holiday let in the area for the whole three months. The contract manager was happy for me to use my allowances in this way. We found a cottage in the village of Plaish, between Much Wenlock and Church Stretton. The proprietor had just finished modernising it and put it on the holiday let market, so was pleased to be able to let it to us for the whole summer. It meant that we had our evenings, Saturdays and August Bank Holiday to spend together exploring the Shropshire countryside. It was also near enough to Hereford for more regular contact with our relatives there than we usually had.
Living in the country made us realise how much we had come to miss the joy of being surrounded by nature and creating a garden. Added to this was the long drive from Cleethorpes to the company head quarters or any of the power stations. We decided to look for a house closer to Snaith and the motorway system. We looked at the outskirts of Pontefract, a new estate in Goole, and a number of other places before we settled on a small development just coming to market in the village of Eastrington, a short distance from the ancient market town of Howden.
I was approaching 50 so needed a 15 year mortgage. At the time interest rates were very high by current standards. However, interest charges could be offset against income tax, as could the premiums for life insurance. The financial services industry came up with a scheme whereby the loan was covered by a life insurance policy which would pay out a lump sum at the end of the term – an endowment.
Later, many firms would be accused of miss-selling such products because they continued to encourage clients to take them on when the tax incentives were no longer available.
At the time, however, it was ideal for people like us for whom the capital element of any repayment would need to be relatively large in order to pay back the loan in such a short time. We moved in early in April of 1991.
The winter months in the company’s business were spent compiling estimates and plans for future work. The team was familiar with all of the routine tasks and knew from past experience how long they should take and what the resultant cost would be. The “Low Nox” installation was an exception, but now that we had completed three installations that, too, could be estimated and planned with confidence.
Up to that time contract plans had been constructed manually. A decision was taken to computerise the operation. The company purchased new PCs and a project planning software package called Pertmaster. One of the young software developers who had been a member of the development team at Pertmaster was recruited to oversee the introduction of the system and a group of us spent most of our working hours during January 1991 holed up in a hotel seminar room learning, not only how to use the software, but a good deal about the fundamentals of PC architecture at the time.
The work plan for the overhaul “season” in 1991 included a repeat of 1990 – two outages at Eggborough and one at Ironbridge. I should not have been surprised to learn that I was not required at Eggborough. When June arrived and we began work at Ironbridge with most of the team from the previous summer, the possibility of taking a holiday let was not a practical option. Unlike before, when we had friends in Cleethorpes who could, and did, keep an eye on our property in our absence, we did not yet know anyone in Eastrington well enough to do the same.
I spent my nights from Sunday to Thursday lodging in a boarding house together with most of the other team members, driving home on Friday evening and back again very early on Sunday morning.
With the contract ended, in the autumn, it was back to planning future work in head office. With major work now completed on many stations – ours was not the only company in the business – the future work load was likely to be less intensive.
For my 50th birthday Freda contrived to surprise me by inviting a group of our old friends from Cleethorpes Liberal Party. I knew nothing about it. They all arrived whilst I was in the bath and must have come in very quietly. I was completely taken aback when I came down the stairs, which led right into our living room, to find them all sitting there!
One morning, a couple of weeks after that, I was called into the manager’s office and told to pack up my things and go home. I was being made redundant. I could, if so minded, return on a temporary contract basis, next summer.
Meanwhile Ian had taken a job as a community psychiatric nurse in Surrey, working from a building attached to a large hospital where he was able to live in the nurses’ accommodation. There he had met an Irish woman who was working in the same hospital.
I attended a selection day, held in Leeds, for a company specialising in power station overhauls. At the end of the process the consultant informed me that he would be recommending me for both positions, those being Planning Engineer and Sub-contract Manager.
The next stage was an interview with a company representative at their head office. When I was offered the Planning Engineer role I asked “what about the other job?” and was told I was being offered only the Planning role. I accepted and began work on the first Monday of March 1990.
Power stations do not generally operate at full capacity during the summer in the UK. Their operators take the opportunity to shut some of them down in order to carry out major overhauls. Most consist of two or more generating “sets” so the whole station does not shut down, only one set at a time. On a four set station, two sets will be shut down over a six month period, each for three months.
The first shut down is usually scheduled for late March/early April. That year the shut down of one of the four sets at Eggborough was brought forward because of a breakdown – the operator decided not to restart for a 2-3 week run but to commence the planned overhaul right away at the beginning of March. That is where I was sent on my first day.
In 1990 all UK power stations were still operated by the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board). The government had decided to privatise, dividing the enterprise into two businesses, National Power and Powergen. Neither privatised company wanted to takeover an enterprise that was not efficient, so the CEGB was investing heavily, on behalf of the government, ensuring the plant was in good condition, as well as installing modifications to make them less polluting.
This mostly concerned the boiler element of the set. All of the work had to be accomplished within 90 days. There was a penalty clause under which the contractor would have to compensate the operator for loss of revenue in respect of every day by which the restart was delayed. The role of the Planning Engineer was, therefore, an important one.
A power station boiler is the size of a city apartment block: 160 feet (50 metres) high, 80 feet x 40 feet in plan (25 x 12.5 metres). Access is provided at 40ft., 80ft. and 120ft. above ground. The inner chamber up to 80 ft. is constructed entirely from thick walled steel tubes containing water under pressure which is heated by the burning of powdered coal blasted in through 24 nozzles each about 4 feet in diameter.
One of the jobs being undertaken during this round of overhauls was to replace those nozzles with new ones designed to eliminate the production of nitrogen oxides (Nox), a principle cause of acid rain. The tubes in the front wall are shaped to surround the nozzles. Because the new nozzles were a different size to the original this whole wall had to be cut out and replaced.
Elsewhere the extent of erosion and corrosion on the other walls was measured. Where this was found to be excessive the defective sections of tube were cut out and replaced. All of these tubes are embedded in refractory cement, outside which is a sheet steel case, then a layer of insulation and an outer cladding of sheet aluminium, all of which has to be removed to provide full access to the tubes, and then replaced after all tube welding has been completed.
The nozzles are supported within a steel structure on the front of the boiler. The old nozzles have to be unbolted and lifted out and the new nozzles lifted in. A difficult operation that has to be co-ordinated with the removal and replacement of the matching tube wall.
At Eggborough that March it soon became apparent that this sequence of operations could not be completed within the permitted time. I was charged with the task of devising an alternative sequence that would meet the time constraint. This proved successful.
Meanwhile there was much other work taking place. In the upper section of the boiler chamber a series of “U” shaped tubes hang down, also filled with water under pressure which is heated by the hot gases rising out of the chamber. All of these required inspection, as a result of which many were shown to be in need of repair.
All of the tubes emanate from a series of large bore tubes, or headers, located above the chamber roof. These too are subjected to inspection and repair as required. All around the boiler valves are repaired or replaced. All of the large ducts conveying air and hot gases to and from the boiler are cleaned out and, where necessary, their walls repaired.
The coal pulverisers are stripped down and worn parts replaced. The turbines, too, are subjected to an overhaul. Progress on all these tasks has to be monitored to ensure that nothing prevents the re-firing of the furnace on the contract date. Additional labour is recruited if needed, and additional hours worked, more than the usual 60 hours per week.
The sub-contract manager’s role is to liaise with the many specialist sub-contractors – scaffolders, refractory and insulation specialists, cleaning and inspection teams – to ensure that they have sufficient resources allocated when and where needed.
Both roles require the incumbents to spend large parts of the day in the thick of it, clambering about in confined and dirty spaces as well as attending meetings with contract supervisors and the client’s team and, in the case of the Planning Engineer, time spent at the desk assessing where delays are occurring and coming up with possible strategies for correcting them when the original strategies for preventing them have plainly failed.
The draughtsmen we employed in the capital projects department at Courtaulds in Grimsby were supplied by an agency which had been set up some years earlier by a former employee. After losing my county council seat I contacted the MD , sent him my CV and enquired if he had any suitable vacancies. He sent me to Tioxide, then a subsidiary of ICI, who operated a titanium dioxide manufacturing facility a short distance along the Humber bank from Courtaulds. I was offered a job as a draughtsman. The hourly rate was equivalent to a salary rather more than I had been getting at Courtaulds 3 years earlier but without paid holidays, sick pay or pension rights.
There was still one more political commitment to fulfill: the European Election in June. At this time the UK was still using First Past the Post for elections to the European Parliament, except in Northern Ireland. PR for elections to the European Parliament for the whole of the UK was not introduced until 1999.
The party had no money to spend, despite its enthusiasm for the EU “Project”. Debts had been incurred running the Richmond by-election and the county council elections. Councillors distributing post-election newsletters were asked to include a plea for support for our candidate in the European election and that was it. There was a £1,000 deposit to find. We “crowd funded” it – 10 people, including me, each pledged £100, in the hope that we would gain a vote share large enough that we would not have to forfeit the deposit.
I attended election meetings in Hull and Bridlington, where neither the Labour nor Tory candidates bothered to turn up, although they did send representatives. The same was true of a phone-in on BBC Radio Humberside. A TV crew filmed me handing out leaflets on the main street in Barton-upon-Humber and the late Nick Clarke, from BBC Newsnight, interviewed me over the phone – this was to gain impressions, not for broadcast.
The count was held on a Sunday in Hull City Hall. The Labour candidate, married to a Labour county councillor I knew and liked, won. The Green candidate came third. Nationally the Greens took almost 15%. I struggled into fourth place just ahead of the SDP candidate. I took the opportunity to make a speech pleading with the dissenting members of Liberal and SDP to recognise that they were destroying any future for the centre ground in British politics.
We lost our deposit. I paid up my £100 share. I’m not sure how many of the others shelled out but suspect the agent had to find more than £100 from his own pocket.
I still had two years to serve as a Borough Councillor but, apart from continuing to help at elections, my dream of a political career was now over.
At Tioxide I was working on small improvement projects not unlike those I had managed at Courtaulds. There was one major project that occupied the majority of men, and one woman, working in the small office. Among the staff there were a couple of young men and two guys older than me with wide experience as Project Engineers or Site Engineers. Their draughting tables were across an aisle from mine, the young men behind me. We were all employed by the agency. I tended to relate more closely to the older guys and drank with them at lunch time in a converted Humber ferry moored in Grimsby docks.
With me now earning a reasonable income once again, and Freda working in the small supermarket a short distance from our home, we decided to move into a larger apartment. I had fitted all new kitchen cabinets and carried out various other improvements to our existing apartment, including hiring a plumber to upgrade the bathroom. With a relatively small loan we could afford to move to something more spacious. We purchased the whole upper floor and the back kitchen of a large semi-detached house on Queen’s Parade, not far from the sea front, moving in in November.
A Stupid Decision
The young men in the office came to the conclusion that the woman was being favoured in some way by the supervisor. There was a suggestion that she had been permitted to book more hours than she had actually worked. After a number of days of listening to their mutterings I suggested they take the matter up formally with the supervisor. I really should have known better. I was nominated to undertake the task.
The supervisor, of course, denied the allegation. When I attempted to press the case he said I was accusing him of lying. Within a matter of hours the HR director from the agency was in the supervisor’s office. It did not take long. He came to my drawing board to tell me that unless I apologised I was dismissed from that assignment. Furthermore, he had no other vacancies available.
I decided to eat some humble pie and apologised. But I knew that my days there were numbered and began searching the situations vacant pages of the Yorkshire Post and Daily Telegraph for suitable jobs.
My decision to leave that place was strengthened when an interesting development project on which I had worked with a young, female, chemical engineer was transferred from Grimsby to the Tees side head quarters. We had proved the recycling process with a small pilot plant and I was looking forward to being involved in scaling it up to full production. The company board decided that work would be undertaken at head office, leaving me disappointed.
Stop press: I have updated my Publications page with a cover reveal and blurb for my forthcoming book.
As well as visiting schools, we were expected to make occasional visits to our local Police Station, and to council run childrens’ homes and old people’s homes around the county. And there were, inevitably, the things the general public regarded as “Jollies”, the national and international conferences and fact finding/lobbying trips undertaken at council expense.
There were two annual conferences for education authority members, the Northern conference in January and the National conference in July. There was a conference for European Regional Airports and Airlines (only one such during my term). This took place in Eindhoven. The Dutch international airline, KLM, took the opportunity to launch a regional subsidiary during the conference.
Attendees were taken by coach to the venue, where we were treated to a canapes and wine reception and each of the men were given a tie in the airline colours, emblazoned with its crest. I remember being affronted when we returned to the coach and a group of Labour members of a northern airport authority discovered a box of the ties on the back seat which they proceeded to share among themselves.
Businesses setting up, or increasing their investment, in the county, invited members of the authority to receptions, launches and factory tours. I have on my mantelpiece an example of Norwegian glass sculpture presented to me – and the other delegates who accompanied me – on a visit to the Norsk Hydro fertiliser factory.
A visit to a chicken hatchery and processing plant near Scunthorpe included the laboratory where we were informed that salmonella is endemic in chickens and were shown the steps taken to ensure it did not reach the food chain. I don’t know if one of my colleagues passed that information to Edwina Curry – she may have got it from an entirely different source – but it was only a few weeks later that she repeated the fact in Parliament thereby creating a brief cause celebre.
The council funded a number of community and voluntary organisations, among them Councils for Voluntary Service, Citizens’ Advice Bureaux and an organisation called Humberside Co-Operative Development Association. Council members were allocated seats on the boards of these organisations in order to ensure that they were properly managed and the funding used for its intended purpose.
Thus I found myself on the boards of the CVS and CAB serving Grimsby and Cleethorpes and also on the Hull based CDA. My contribution to the latter was appreciated to the extent that I was invited to remain on the board after I ceased to be a councillor. Its role was to assist social enterprises and worker owned small businesses with training and the accessing of grants, as well as offering advice on legal and financial matters affecting their business.
Whenever the full council met, four times a year, as well as debating again the more controversial of the issues already dealt with by the service committees, there was an opportunity for individual councillors to bring forward motions with the objective of changing some aspect of the council’s central policy.
As Liberal councillors, we were members of the Association of Liberal Councillors. The ALC was headquartered in a small office in the village of Hebden Bridge, close to the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire. For our small subscription we were able to receive artwork we could use in our newsletters and other literature that we distributed around the districts we represented. They also provided suggestions for motions to present to councils which, even if unsuccessful in influencing policy decisions, nevertheless gained publicity for the causes close to the hearts of Liberals.
One of these causes, one that had attracted me to the Liberals in the first place, was environmentalism. So when the ALDC suggested that Liberal councillors should attempt to persuade the councils of which they were members to incorporate in their purchasing policies an intention to purchase timber products only from sustainable forests, I welcomed the opportunity
On the morning of the day of the meeting we were informed that the motion was inadmissible because we were not permitted to discuss issues that were not directly relevant to the county. We were a long way from the rainforests, so protecting them was deemed irrelevant.
I vaguely knew that one of the problems arising from the destruction of rainforests was rising sea levels. Humberside was a coastal county, one, moreover, in which parts of the coast were already eroding, clay cliffs regularly falling into the sea. Spurn Point, an important nature reserve, was especially vunerable. Could we not at least have a debate around the question of the subject’s relevance? The Chief Executive reluctantly agreed.
It was all very well having a vague idea about the connection between rainforests and sea levels, but if I was to present a convincing argument I needed some detailed background. Fortunately the debate was scheduled to take place after all the committee minutes had been debated, which meant late afternoon or early evening.
I spent the lunch break in Beverley library where I found a book that explained the connection. In brief, there is a great deal of water permanently bound up with the forests. Destroy the forest and that water has to go somewhere. Where it goes, eventually, is the ocean, causing the sea level to rise. A neat theory, but the oceans cover a vast area. How much forest do you have to destroy to add more than an inch or two to their level?
My argument was greeted with scorn from both sides, one member in particular muttering “Stuff and nonsense”. Some years later that particular member’s daughter would marry a certain David Cameron. In Autumn 2013, and again in Februry 2017, the spit of land connecting Spurn Head to the mainland was breached, turning Spurn Point into a tidal island.
1989 began with a by-election in Richmond, Yorkshire. This was to replace a Conservative who had resigned following his appointment as a vice-president of the European Union. Our former constituency chair person was chosen as the candidate for the new party and I joined many others campaigning hard for her election. There were eight other candidates, including a Liberal and one from the SDP, as well as Labour and Green.
The election was won by a young William Hague with 37% for the conservatives, the SDP candidate receiving 32% and ours 22%. A bitter disappointment that could have been avoided if the SDP leadership had accepted the decision to merge the two parties. The new party was now in debt and facing council elections and a European election.
It became obvious that the four Liberals on Humberside County Council would be unlikely to retain their seats at the May election. Were any of us to do so, we would have much reduced roles and it would be necessary for me to return to full-time employment. When the election came, only one of the four was re-elected, joined by two others. My vote reduced me to third place on the ballot for the Cleethorpes division I had represented for the preceding four years.
By then each of the other three had separated from their wives/partners, at least in part as a consequence of the heavy workload, mostly self-imposed. Only one of our number went on to achieve a modicum of success in politics – our leader. He moved to London where he quickly got elected to Camden Borough Council, a position he held on to for many years.
When I say the workload was self-imposed, it was the inevitable consequence of our insistence that we must play a full part in the work of the council. Four of us chose to attempt to undertake the same amount of work as that shared between 30+ members of each of the other parties.
There were recruitment panels, such as that already mentioned for head and deputy headships in Grimsby, but extending also to a new Assistant Chief Constable, a Manager for the Airport, and various other vacancies that occurred from time to time during the four years. There were disciplinary appeals panels organised as a final tribunal for staff members who contested a sanction imposed in response to unacceptable behaviour. There were several meetings each summer to dispense discretionary grants for third level education.
One of the more pleasant duties associated with membership of the Education Committee was school visits. In particular, there was a national award for the “best community school” given to the school that demonstrated active involvement between school and community. A small panel of councillors and education officials sifted through the various applications from our area, visited the ones whose initial presentation seemed most promising and selected the one that would be put forward to represent Humberside.
The winning school was located in a picturesque East Yorkshire village. The school was clearly at the heart of the community. The primary aged children were encouraged to participate in many activities beyond the traditional curriculum, with a section of the playground given over to the creation of a small farm with chickens and small animals.
I can’t recall now if that school won the National award, but I do remember attending the award ceremony at a prestigious London venue. Interestingly, I see that there is now an annual Community Education Award in the UK but, according to the website, it has been in existence only since 2011.
At that time the late Paddy Ashdown was Education Spokesman for the Liberal Party in Parliament. He invited each of us who were members of local government education committees to submit a report on the state of education in our areas. My report featured the importance of community within the ethos of Humberside Schools. Subsequently an organisation promoting community education asked permission to publish my report as an article in their magazine. A version also appeared in Liberal News.
I saw an advertisement for a job producing articles for a business magazine. The idea was that you contacted local businesses with a view to providing them with a feature in the magazine, funded by advertising from their suppliers and clients. I was quite familiar with a number of businesses I’d used as contractors whilst working for Courtaulds. Several were generous enough to accept my offer to write a feature. I certainly enjoyed talking to the business people and writing about their projects, but the selling of advertising was a task I hated – and it was commission on the income from advertising that was my only reward. Mostly people would fob you off – “he isn’t available/is in a meeting/will call you back tomorrow” (‘he’ never did!).
We were now living on just the attendance allowance I received for my council duties. I don’t know how councillors are remunerated now in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter. Back then we were paid for each four hour period, with a maximum of three such periods in a day. That maximum only ever happened on the four occasions each year when the full council met. Sessions that lasted more than four hours were quite frequent, especially in 1988 during the period when the re-organisation of Grimsby’s schools was in the implementation stage. This meant conducting a series of interviews of all the heads, deputy heads and some teachers who deemed themselves ready for headships, with a view to filling the leadership roles in all the new schools and the sixth form college.
Nevertheless, the daily allowance amounted to much less than I had been earning at Courtaulds. Freda suggested to me that we no longer needed such a large house. She went on to point out that there was a flat for sale above a shop across the road.
We obtained a valuation for our existing house and I was surprised to discover that its value had increased threefold in the nine years we had lived there. Although this was mostly accounted for by inflation – my Courtaulds salary had more than doubled in the shorter period up to my leaving – we had, over the years, put in a number of improvements, including all new kitchen units, fitted wardrobes and new double glazed windows at the front. We had, it transpired, sufficient equity in the house to enable us to purchase the flat outright, eliminating the mortgage from our outgoings.
After the Alliance failed to make the expected breakthrough in the 1987 General Election the bulk of the membership of both parties began campaigning for a merger between the Liberals and Social Democrats. A serious problem had emerged at the election when the two leaders had made statements that seemed to contradict each other in key policy areas. At each of the parties’ annual conferences in autumn 1987 there was overwhelming support for the move and this was later confirmed by ballots of members.
Nevertheless, David Owen and a few others were unable to support the new party and tried to keep the SDP going (called “The Continuing SDP”). And a group of Liberals from the radical wing of the party tried to keep a separate Liberal Party alive. All of this meant there was a collapse of support and funding for the new party.
I had been approved by the Liberal Party as a potential Parliamentary candidate and had begun applying to various constituencies seeking candidates, including our own. This involved meeting selection committees and then addressing full meetings of constituency members. So far none of these attempts had proven successful.
I had also joined an organisation called “The European Movement”. The local branch was chaired by the conservative MEP for Lincoln* but it was a cross party organisation for people who supported the ideals of the European Union. When I learned, through colleagues on the county council, that the new party was looking for someone to contest Humberside in the forthcoming European elections, I put my name forward. It was acknowledged on all sides that we hadn’t a whisker of a chance but it was deemed important that supporters have the opportunity to demonstrate their support by voting for the party in every election.
*Bill Newton Dunn defected to the Liberal Democrats in 2000. His son, Tom, is a well known journalist.