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Monday Memories – Back in the Real World #7: Back to the Beginning

The project at Scunthorpe was to install a new bloom casting facility and was expected to last 18-20 months. Most of the new machinery was to be installed below ground level, so the first task was the creation of a large hole lined with thick concrete walls. This began with the driving of sheet piles around the perimeter of the hole. With these in place to support the surrounding soil, excavation of the hole commenced. At a depth of 3 metres and with 7 still to go, the sheet piles began to cave in. Work was halted and a specialist in soil mechanics from Sheffield University was engaged to identify the problem and propose a solution.

It turned out that the site had been excavated many years previously to recover iron ore, then filled in with spoil. This in-fill was unstable, a situation not helped in the least by the presence of an underground spring. The solution proposed was the casting of a reinforced concrete ring beam to hold the tops of the sheet piles in place. Moreover, because of the length of the pit, this beam would itself need to be supported by cross beams, also cast in-situ in reinforced concrete. Whilst the ring beam could be incorporated into the final walls of the pit, the cross beams would have to be removed so as to maintain the open access required for an overhead crane servicing the machinery. This, of course, significantly extended the time required to construct the pit which necessitated considerable juggling of later operations to bring the project back on track.

As well as detailed planning and monitoring of daily progress, I was put in charge of collating perceived hazards as part of the site safety regime. This allowed for anyone on the site to fill in a simple form identifying potential hazards, from something as simple as some object protruding from the ground that might cause someone to trip, to poorly constructed scaffolds. These reports were discussed at the daily progress meetings and it was my job to ensure that any recommended remedial action was implemented.

As the project progressed from the Civil Engineering stage to the mechanical, I was in more familiar territory, dealing with the installation of pipework and machinery.

Early in 1997 I attended a recruitment day for a company then called British Aerospace who were recruiting Engineers for their aircraft design and manufacturing facility at Brough, a short drive from our new home. This was followed by a day of interviews and factory tours, after which I was offered a job as a Project Planner/Engineer, subject to security clearance.

Weeks passed with no news. I enquired about the delay and was told that they were still awaiting security clearance for me. Eventually I got the call in the middle of June. The Scunthorpe project was almost complete and the Project Manager was happy to let me go with a week’s notice. I began my new job on the last Monday in June – the same day that the company received the signed contract from the government of a Commonwealth country for the supply of fast jet training aircraft. A fact that made me question the veracity of the reason I was given for delaying my appointment!

Image shows two fighter jets flying in tandem over a coast - probably North Wales.
Hawk T2 Fast Jet Trainer. Image credits: Creator:Cpl Paul Oldfield RAF
Credit:Crown Copyright
Copyright:Crown Copyright

Negotiation of the contract, like all such projects, had taken several years. A central part of the contract mandated that it be operated using Earned Value Management, monitored and audit representatives of the client government. (If you follow the link you will need to scroll to the bottom of the page to find the reference).

I was one of a team of individuals who would be responsible for implementing EVM. First we had to demonstrate that our system was properly established and robust enough to satisfy the client’s rigourous testing. This was the first milestone on the contract, which triggered the first payment, and was supposed to be reached in November. Our systems failed the test. We were granted an extension to improve our systems. It was hard going but we made it.

As well as being an essential requirement for that first contract, being approved users of EVM opened the door to other markets. Contracts for several other governments followed, culminating in one for the RAF, keeping the company – which, along the way, changed its name to BAE Systems – and me busy until retirement in 2006.

I had begun my career as an Apprentice Engineer in a small company making parts for aircraft. After many years during which I had been involved with the Engineering of facilities for the manufacture of everything from Biscuits to textiles and from pharmaceuticals to steel slabs, I was back where I began, dealing with aircraft design and manufacture.

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Monday Memories – The Work of a Councillor, Pt. 2

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.

Hebden Bridge – image from Wikipedia

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.

Beverley Library – image copyright Bernard Sharp / Beverley Road, Kingston upon Hull

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.

Double Digit Birthdays

I suppose it is a truism that the most of these one can have is nine. I just reached my seventh. Seems like a good time to look back at the others and see what I was doing.

My first, 11 in 1952, saw me just commenced at boarding school. About six weeks into my first term in this new and strange environment I can’t honestly recall what I was feeling. I do know that I was not particularly happy in that first year. Looking back at the whole of the six years I spent there I do think the experience was good for me. Over the last few years, thanks to the magic of the internet I have been able to make contact with some of the men who were fellow pupils there. In the last couple of days we have been discussing the effect on us of the religious education we received there and it seems that the majority are, like me, either atheist or agnostic, certainly sceptical about religions.

My second double digit birthday, 22 in 1963, happened six weeks after my marriage and 3 months after completing my apprenticeship. Definitely a happy time, excited at the life ahead of us as a couple and the interesting work I was already doing in a small design drawing office.

My third, 33 in 1974, I was in South Africa, embarking on what would become a very happy and fruitful period. There will be more about this in forthcoming installment in my Monday Memories sequence.

240px-cleethorpes_central_promarade_28june_201229By double digit birthday number four, 44 in 1985, I was a County Councillor in North East Lincolnshire, then part of Humberside. One of 4 Liberals holding the balance of power, I was struggling to keep up with the enormous work load and my full time job. A year later I accepted a generous severance package which allowed me more time for political activities and, or so I fondly imagined, writing.

On my fifth double digit birthday, 55/1996, you would have found me working as a Project Planner at a steel works in Scunthorpe. Knowing the job would not last beyond the following summer, I attended a recruitment fair staged in Leeds around that time by British Aerospace. Later I would be invited to attend a selection day, and at the end of June 1997 I joined that company, still in the role of Project Planner.

Eleven years ago, my 66th birthday on November 2nd 2007, I was beginning my second year resident in Ireland, retired, painting, writing and looking for opportunities for volunteering. The following year I began work as a volunteer with the local community development company, a move which subsequently led to both of us becoming volunteers with a local support group for cancer patients and their relatives, which we still are.

If I make it to an eighth double digit birthday I shall have out-lived my mother by a week – she died the day after the 7/7 bombings, five days before her 88th birthday. As for 99, that’s too far in the future to contemplate!

Saturday Sound-off: Mixing Politics With Other Work

This recollection is provoked by the news that the MP for Tatton, George Osborne, has been appointed to edit the London Evening Standard whilst maintaining his seat in Parliament and his other highly lucrative, if part-time, jobs.

20170318_132007[1]

My 1981 election leaflet

In the 1980s I decided that, if I wanted to change the world, it was time to stop moaning and get involved in politics. I joined the Liberal Party and stood for election to the County Council. I didn’t make it at the first attempt but four years later – in May 1985 – I was successful. I became one of four Liberals holding the balance of power between 36 Labour and 35 Conservative councilors.

It was a large county. About a quarter of the population of over 800,000 resided in the city of Kingston-upon-Hull. Grimsby and Cleethorpes formed the next largest centre of population. Scunthorpe was also included within the county boundary as were three other sea-side resorts, the port of Immingham and eight or so medium sized towns.

Back then the County Council had responsibility for Education – schools, colleges and adult education; Social Services, including childrens’ homes and old people’s homes; Economic Development, which included responsibility for a small airport; Libraries, Police and Fire Services, Weights and Measures inspectorate and the maintenance of major roads. The Authority employed in excess of 20,000 people in these important activities.

The four of us decided from the outset that we would not form a coalition with either of the other two parties. Instead we insisted that every decision must have the agreement of a majority of members. It didn’t matter how that majority was constituted so long as two of the three parties were in agreement. Of course, that meant we had to be represented on every committee, sub-committee, and ad-hoc panel or consultative body.

Airport management

To begin with it didn’t look as if the commitment would be too heavy. The council worked on a 3-monthly cycle during which each main committee and the full council met once. So, two committees plus full council would mean twelve meetings a year, one day a month to take off from my job. But the Education Committee had two large sub-committees, one dealing with schools and the other with everything else. And there was a sub-committee of Economic Development to deal with management of the Airport. So that doubled the commitment to two days a month. Still quite doable.

But Schools Sub-Committee members were expected to meet with the governors of the schools in their area. If a school was facing a possible upheaval of some kind there would be meetings to be had with governors, teachers’ representatives and parents. If an employee was accused of some misdemeanor he or she had the right of appeal to a panel including councilors. Recruitment to fill vacancies in senior positions in the Authority was undertaken by a panel including members. And I’ve posted elsewhere about the panel of members, advised by staff, who determined which young people could and which could not receive a grant for their third level education.

Severance

Before long I was taking two, sometimes three, days off every week. My employer was remarkably generous in granting me this much time off for what the contract of employment defined as ‘public service’. The deal was that I continued to receive full pay so long as I returned to the company any allowance I received from the council for carrying out those duties. After a year and a half I was asked if I’d prefer to leave. I was offered a very generous severance package which I am still reaping the benefit of 30 years later.

grimsby_docks

Aerial view of Grimsby docks. Image from Cycling Weekly

The council embarked on the full scale reorganisation of the schools in Grimsby which involved closing every existing school and opening a bunch of new schools covering different age ranges. Every teacher in that part of the county had to accept early retirement or apply for a job in one of these new schools. The process began soon after I was elected with a consultation exercise in which the nature of the proposed change and the reasons for it were explained at a series of meetings. Feedback from the consultation was debated and the proposal document amended accordingly. Once the plan was approved by the Department of Education at Westminster it had to be implemented. Councillors sat in a long series of meetings with governors to choose heads and deputy heads for the new schools.

The work of a councilor, in these circumstances, did indeed become almost a full time job, for a while at least. For the first 6 months after leaving my job I worked unpaid for the Party, as election agent for the District Council election and the General Election that followed a month later. My wife and I decided to find a shop – a disastrous venture the details of which have no place in this post. I got a part-time freelance job as a feature writer and advertising sales agent for a regional business magazine.

All of this recollection is provoked by the news that the MP for Tatton, George Osborne, has been appointed to edit the London Evening Standard whilst maintaining his seat in Parliament and his several other highly lucrative, if part-time, jobs. He is the same age as I was when a county councilor. Several former editors of the Evening Standard were interviewed on the BBC last night. At least one suggested that the job could occupy up to 100 hours a week. I dare say the job that Osborne has taken, though described as Editor, is much reduced from what the person with that title formerly had to undertake. Even so, I don’t envy him trying to juggle the demands of both roles. He has to survive until May 2020 unless he decides to resign from one or other post before then.

Will he last three years? I’m not a betting man, but I am inclined to think that he will not. What do you think?