Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Brexit makes Christmas at least 20% dearer

There are many Brexiters who will insist that there has been no discernible effect on Britain's economy because of the EU referendum vote. It is true to say the Brexit effect has been a slow burn. But nonetheless there have definitely been repercussions. And the repercussions are manifesting themselves with higher shopping bills.

Weak pound & fewer migrant workers

The pound has barely lifted after its dramatic drop the day after the referendum and remains more than 13% down from its pre-Brexit levels.

While there hasn't been a mass exodus from the City or from Britain's ailing manufacturing industry [Reuters] there have been some departures and concerns raised by others  [Verdict]. And while some firms talk of leaving, many migrant workers are failing to turn up in the numbers seen before the EU referendum.

There were many Leave voters driven by the issue of immigration. However the situation that has resulted from the vote brings one's mind to focus on that age old adage 'be careful what you wish for'.

An exodus of many EU migrants and a drop in numbers coming to Britain to work has resulted in shortfalls in the NHS and also in Britain's farms where there are reports that vegetables are now rotting in the fields.

Farmers & NHS see shortfall in workers

In June this year it was reported that there had been a 96% drop in EU nurses registering to work in Britain since the Brexit vote. Official figures showed only 46 nurses came to work in the UK in April, down from 1,304 in July the previous year [Guardian / BBC].

The effect in the NHS has yet to be seen. But a fall in the number of migrant workers in the farming industry is already having a marked effect. One survey conducted for the National Farmers' Union revealed that there was a 29% shortfall in seasonal workers for horticulture businesses in September 2017, raising the average shortfall for the year to 11%.

The survey also showed that the number of returning workers to farms, a critical source of the workforce, fell to 16%, its lowest level all year. The returnee rate had been as high as 65% in January.

"The perception from overseas is we are xenophobic, we're racist, and the pound has plummeted too. We've gone with Brexit and that makes us look unfriendly," says John Hardman, director of Hops Labour Solutions, which supplies about 12,000 workers a year to food-growers, those numbers are dropping fast [FT / EDP24 / Farming UK / Guardian].

Moulding fruit & rotting vegetables

And as the numbers of workers drop, so the yield from British farms drops too. And there are reportedly already shortages of main staples in the shops.

According to some reports there are already shortages of traditional festive items such as parsnips, Brussels sprouts and even potatoes [Daily Star].

Last year some papers joked over the price of chocolate coins that are often bought as stocking fillers [Mirror / Coventry Telegraph].

However a year on the low value in sterling and a decline in seasonal workers within the agricultural industry has brought less amusing anecdotes.

Inflation & prices rising

Inflation is now running at 3% and shoppers are beginning to notice. Official figures show prices were up by 4.2% in October compared to a the previous year [Guardian].

But this is far from a true picture. In fact some products have increased by around 30% with butter having increased some 40% [Guardian].

A comparison of prices on a selection of products at a Sainsbury's supermarket over the course of a year is just one small indicator as to how much prices have risen.

President butter has increased from £1.50 to £2.00, a 30% increase since October 2016. Meanwhile, fish has significantly increased in price. Even home produced Scottish salmon has jumped from around £3.50 to £4.50 for a 2 fillet pack. That's a 28% hike.

Other big price jumps have been seen in breakfast cereals. A 600g pack of Cheerios has risen from £2.95 to £3.50, an 18% price increase. Meanwhile a jar of Sainsbury's own brand olives £0.85 in October 2016, is now £1.00, a 17.6% increase. A pack of tagliatelle has only edged up from £0.75 to £0.85, but is still a 13% increase. Broccoli was £1.10 in October 2016 and is now £1.30 a kilo, an 18% increase.

Some increases have been less dramatic. For example Andrex 16 pack toilet rolls were £6.00 in 2016 and are now £6.50, an 8% increase.

Main staples have either remained the same or only risen slightly. Eggs have increased with a 15 pack edging up some 2.5% from £2 to £2.05. Meanwhile a 2.272 litre bottle of milk is still a pound as is a 500g carton of Sainsbury's own brand Greek style yoghurt.

Family shop £1,000 more per year

But overall, prices have risen between 10% and 30%. A few pennies here and there may not be immediately noticeable. However, for weekly shops that were once £100 consumers are now spending anywhere between £440 and £520 a month. Over the course of a year that could equate to between £480 and £1,440 extra being spent by families just on shopping.

For more well off families the cut backs will simply be less bottles of wine and chocolate treats. But for those already struggling the fall in Sterling is going to bite, and bite hard.

This is only the beginning as many retailers have held back on passing on costs to consumers. Brexit, and particularly a hard Brexit, will bite very hard indeed in the months to come.

Perhaps the only advice is to stock up on the non-perishables whenever there's a good offer.

A bleak Christmas & a bleaker new year

But even good offers have failed to excite consumers. This year's Black Friday was still a bonanza for retailers, but early indications appeared to show consumers were far more savvy. Online retailers also did better than the traditional high street stores [BBC / Bloomberg].

As purse strings tighten more and more people will begin to question the so-called bargains they are being offered [Independent].

Christmas 2017 is certain to be at least 20-30% more expensive. The annual yuletide food survey by Good Housekeeping magazine found that the cost of the cheapest set-piece meal on Christmas Day – for 8 people and including 11 ingredients from turkey to fresh vegetables and cranberry sauce – had risen from £19.82 to £23.53, or from £2.48 a head to £2.94.

The Good Housekeeping basket comprises of a whole turkey weighing at least 3.5kg, at least 880g each of potatoes, sprouts, carrots and parsnips; stuffing mix; a jar of cranberry sauce; at least 900g of Christmas pudding, Christmas cake, at least eight mince pies and a jar of brandy butter [Guardian].

There might be some savings to be made by hitting Lidl or Aldi over Sainsbury, Waitrose or M&S, but even the budget stores have increased their prices.

This week the Brexit secretary David Davis finally handed over heavily redacted Brexit assessment papers to the select committee which drew ire and condemnation from MPs who suggest the government was attempting to cover up the impending disaster that is to come with Brexit [Guardian / BBC].

However, one does not need to see the impact assessments to get a indication of how disastrous Brexit will be. One only needs to check one's shopping receipts.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The pros & cons of the electric vehicle's future

Pictured: A Renault Twizy, a Renault Zoe and a UK charging point

The war on petrol and diesel cars has been simmering for some time. Diesel vehicles in particular have been singled out with some cities around the world restricting their use.

But whilst few would argue that vehicles running on petrol or diesel are polluting, the electric vehicle alternative has yet to tick all the boxes as far as those wanting to buy a new car.

The biggest issue for many is the range of the vehicle and the perceived inconvenience of charging up their vehicle. Technology is certainly improving and some electric vehicles, or EVs, can cover more than 400 km. But there are still many drawbacks. 

Drawbacks & cost

The first major issue for many people is one of initial cost. There are very few second hand electric vehicles on the market and thus the only real option is to buy new.

The Renault Twizy [pictured above] is probably not what most people envisage themselves driving in. While it is certainly nicely designed it only has capacity to carry two people, and the passenger will find themselves rather squashed behind the driver. The vehicle has a range of 100 km though this can drop to around half in some conditions. With a top speed of 80 km/h [50 mph] the vehicle is perhaps best suited to urban driving though the cost, ranging from £6,990 to £7,400 is likely to put off many [Renault].

Due to the very small luggage space the vehicle certainly wouldn't be much good for to take a weekend or summer break unless one is travelling very light indeed. In fact there's no boot to speak of. Instead a 31-litre lockable storage cubby exists under the rear seat that's large enough to carry some small bags, a laptop or a modest amount of shopping.

Another off-putting factor is the fact the price does not include the battery pack. Instead owners have to lease the battery from Renault for a £45 monthly fee, although it does include roadside assistance and a battery replacement guarantee.

Perhaps a more practical EV is the Renault Zoe [picture above] which retails at £18,045 up to £23,645, although currently UK buyers get a so-call Plug-in Car Grant or PiCG which reduces the cost.

However, the PiCG which gives buyers up to £4,500 towards the cleanest new cars, will only run until March 2018 [Guardian].

The Zoe has a range of over 210 km [130 miles] but like Twizy owners, one still has to lease the battery which costs between £49 and £110 per month depending on the length of the agreement and annual mileage [Top 5 EVs].


Recharging takes 3 to 4 hours which could prove inconvenient for long journeys. In fact aside the issues of cost and leasing batteries, charging times and range is the crucial issue for most people.

Short hops around town is not an issue. It's those journeys to the airport or the weekend trip to the coast or the drive to France on a camping trek which create the challenges.

From one side of London to the other via the M25 is around 100 km [60 miles]. So a return trip from the Essex border to Heathrow Airport could be achieved in a Renault Zoe with 16 km [10 miles] to spare. But ideally one would really want to top up before that return journey.

There are only 4 electric car charging points available at Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 Short Stay Car Park and herein lies another issue. There are some compatibility issues, but the biggest issue here is numbers. If there is no free space one could very well be left stranded on the M25 without juice. Given there are only 4 charging points, finding them might also prove to be a challenge.

There is also the cost. While charging is often free, or very cheap, parking at Heathrow for 2 or 3 hours in order to charge up one's car would likely set one back around £14.

Costs and benefits

That said, £14 is considerably cheaper than the cost of petrol or diesel which would have been burned up in a conventional vehicle.

Currently there is no VED [Vehicle Excise Duty] payable on pure EVs worth less than £40,000. So that's a potential saving of anything up to £300 a year.

But of course even EV owners have to pay out for an MoT and insurance and withe monthly cost of battery easing with many EVs the running cost per year can easily soar towards £1,000 before driving anywhere.

This cost is similar for most vehicle owners however. But unlike conventional car owners, EV drivers do get some perks. Many areas offer discounted parking, such as Westminster in central London where EV drivers need only pay for just 10 minutes on street pay-to-park bays and park for the maximum prescribed period. In some areas a free resident's parking permit for residents is offered for owners of an eco or electric vehicle. And EV drivers do not have to pay London's congestion charge.

An EV for everyone

So there are some advantages and disadvantages. And there is an EV for pretty much for everyone.

There is the tiny Twizy which is great as a little city runabout. There is the Renault Zoe and the arguably better Nissan Leaf which both offer comfort and space, and could be considered small family cars.

And there are even electric SUVs in the pipeline in the coming years [Business Insider / Autocar]. 

Currently there are few electric SUVs, but the Kia Soul EV is certainly a vehicle that makes the idea of driving an electric vehicle a little more cool. However with a range of only 150 km [93 miles] in optimum conditions there are serious issues to be considered as regards charging.

Charging & Range

Indeed, it is charging that is the biggest problem when it comes to EVs. Whether a vehicle has a 600 km range or a 150 km range there needs to be an improved infrastructure, not just across Britain but across Europe and around the globe.

Not everyone wants or can afford a second vehicle. So in order to persuade new car buyers to buy an all electric vehicle the infrastructure needs to improve.

Payment issues

Whilst there are many charging points across the country not all are rapid chargers. Some are free, some require registration and others require payment through an app or via an online account. So without preplanning one can encounter issues concerning payment even before plugging in. In fact this, and non-working machines, is perhaps one of the biggest problems [YouTube].

Anyone with a regular gas guzzler can drive into a service station, fill up and pay with cash, debit or credit card, or even Apple or Android Pay in many UK locations. But for many EV charging stations one has register, purchase special cards and top-up online.

The issue could be solved simply giving users the option to pay with a debit or credit card with perhaps the offer of benefits to those who sign-up to the specific scheme.

Plug compatibility & Infrastructure

Then there's plug compatibility though for the most part this is not really a major issue since most charging stations offer the two main types [YouTube / EVObsession].

For those with the extra cash for a second vehicle an EV is definitely the way to go. But for a primary vehicle there are, at present, too many drawbacks.

Fast charging stations need to be at every petrol station, supermarket and town centre car parks as well as on-street parking locations. And this roll out needs to be Europe wide.

A London to Bournemouth trip might be feasible at present, but it would be a brave soul attempting a European tour with an EV.

While there are some EV charging stations dotted across France, they are few and far between. The same is true of Spain and Portugal where one can easily find oneself travelling for hundreds of kilometres without seeing even a petrol station let alone an electric charging station [Charging points map]

A greener future

Today the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced new efforts to clean up the air with further  measures targeting diesel vehicles whilst putting forward financial incentives and pledges to build an increased EV charging infrastructure with a promised £400 million fund [Business Green / Huffington Post].

But there are two major challenges that have yet to be properly addressed when it comes to electric vehicles. The first is the drain on the national grid as more people adopt the new technology.

Electric vehicles are here; and they are here to stay.  But by 2050 there could be anything from 7 to 26 million on the road. And the National Grid in the UK has already questioned whether it will be able to cope with demand [National Grid PDF / Guardian]  

The grid recently warned that, by 2030, electric cars could require 3.5-8GW of additional capacity, on top of the current peak demand of 60GW [Guardian].

When the lithium runs out

But there's another perhaps far more pressing issue, and that concerns the battery that powers the vehicle itself.

Currently most EVs use Lithium Ion batteries. However, there are only finite Lithium resources.

It has been estimated that should EVs really take off there is only enough lithium to supply the market for around 17 years.

Back in 2015 the US Geological Survey produced a reserves estimate of lithium which concluded that the world has enough known reserves for about 365 years of current global production of about 37,000 tonnes per year [USGS PDF]. 

But of course, that did not take into account possible future use [Green Tech Media / Bloomberg].

There is a revolution taking place already in that many people are beginning to accept the new technology. No longer are are electric vehicles geeky, the Twizy perhaps being only one exception. The range is improving and along with it the charging station infrastructure, if a little slowly. But there needs to be a another revolution in battery technology otherwise the the electric car will soon come to a grinding halt [Guardian].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, November 18, 2017

After microbeads is it time to ban glitter & straws?

This week it was reported that a nursery in the UK had banned glitter - on environmental grounds. While glitter is only a small part of the microplastic load getting into watercourses and the sea, such efforts have surely to be commended.

There is far too much wastefulness in our modern life, and Christmas doubly so. A small step has been made in banning microbeads or persuading manufacturers to stop using them. But there are far too many non-biodegradable and readily disposable items used in our everyday lives.

Glitter is not necessary to make Christmas a joy. Furthermore it is potentially dangerous should it be ingested and especially if it gets in one's eyes. It also creates a mess which makes for constant vacuum cleaning. And of course there are environmental considerations.

Tops Day Nurseries - a chain of 19 day care centres across southern England - is outlawing the sparkly substance [BBC / Sky News / Guardian]. That's highly commendable. But today I, like I'm sure many parents did, received a leaflet from my child's school directly encouraging pupils use glitter and tinsel in some decorations they've requested the children design and make for Christmas.

This is proof that while the message gets through to some that some things are bad for the environment, not everyone takes notice or is even aware.

Thus it is surely up to government and industry to find natural, biodegradable and safe alternatives and ban materials and methods that are harmful to our planet. Some have already called for a ban of all glitter and other microplastics. "I think all glitter should be banned, because it's microplastic," says Dr Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist at Massey University [Independent].

Most glitter is made of aluminium and a plastic called PET.  Dr Farrelly has investigated how PET can break down to release chemicals that disrupt hormones in the bodies of animals and humans. Such chemicals have been linked with the onset of cancers and neurological diseases.

Some eight million tonnes of waste plastic ends up in the sea each year and while only an estimated 86 tonnes of microplastics are released into the environment every year in the UK alone, every effort to reduce such waste helps.

Plastic straws are another problem which is only now being addressed. Over 500 million plastic straws are produced in the US alone every single day, only to be used for a few minutes before being thrown in the bin or littered. But slowly there is an effort to reduce this waste too.

Cornwall could become the first county in Britain to ban plastic straws in an attempt to protect its coastline according to recent reports [Independent]. And the pub chain Wetherspoons is to only hand out plastic straws if requested with a complete ban from January 2018 when they will make the switch to biodegradable paper straws instead [Sun / Independent].

Many of us can make our own decisions and act. But sometimes the choices are forced upon us. Unnecessary supermarket packaging for fruit and vegetables is a case in point.

The consumer can only do so much. While few of us like an interfering nanny state, it is only by implementing bans on these environmentally damaging substances, packaging and products that real change will be made.

The chancellor, Philip Hammond, is set to announce possible taxes on single use plastics [Guardian].  However, such measures are only likely to lead to increased pricing of products which will be passed on to consumers. What is really needed is a total ban on such use.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, November 10, 2017

Brexit turning into a Fawlty Towers farce

For many looking on at the farcical Brexit negotiations and surrounding chaos that appears to developing since the EU referendum it is more akin to a sitcom than a serious attempt to take back control and build a better Britain.

Indeed the whole fiasco has come to have stark similarities of the infamous sitcom Fawlty Towers.

Theresa May is much like the beleaguered wife of Basil Fawlty, trying to keep things in order whilst those around her become embroiled in one fiasco after another.

The bumbling Foreign Secretary is surely not too far removed from the Major and Basil rolled into one as he makes inappropriate remarks and insults.

Life imitated art earlier in the year when Johnson urged the French president not to "administer punishment beatings" on Britain for choosing to escape the EU "rather in the manner of some World War Two movie" [BBC]. This was very much like Basil Fawlty's faux pas when he kept making inappropriate references to the war to some German guests while late claiming that he might have "got away with it.

Johnson, just like Basil Fawlty, hasn't confined his comments to one group of foreigners, though he hasn't yet begun to lash out at Spanish waiters and tell them they are a "waste of space".

Many are bewildered why Britons should have voted Brexit at all and wrench themselves from one of the world's biggest trading blocks. Foreigners, not only in Europe but around the globe are puzzled why Britain would go through such painful negotiations and create such uncertainty for its own manufacturing industry as well as those who might wish to invest in Britain.

The same puzzlement is reflected in Fawlty Towers as a psychiatrist staying at the hotel exclaims that there existed "enough material for a whole conference" given the farcical events taking place.

It is perhaps no wonder that outside Britain's walls media commentators are making similar analogies.

The New York Times columnist Steven Erlanger recently said that no one knows what Britain was anymore and that it had become nearly unrecognizable to its European allies.

The party led by May has itself become more and more shambolic by the month [Reuters]. After staggering through a disastrous and unnecesssary election May has had to make deals with DUP to prop up her minority government. The Tory party conference was itself a comedy of errors as a comedian delivered a fake P45, May spluttered and coughed through her speech and letters fell off the backdrop display, a reminder once again of Fawlty Towers where the sign at the hotel entrance is displayed with missing or rearranged letters.

"Like the sign outside Fawlty Towers, the missing letters behind Theresa May are an emblem of a tragicomic farce. Who needs Basil's hotel? We now have the Tory Party," The Sun said in an editorial.

Some months ago Boris Johnson was ridiculed after he exclaimed that Brexit would "be a Titanic success", an unfortunate comparison given the fate of the ocean going liner.

The boat analogies have not gone away however. In his article published in early November 2017, Erlanger described Britain as being like "a modest-size ship on the global ocean" heading towards uncharted territory if not the rocks.

The ship, Erlanger suggests is "unmoored, heading to nowhere, while on deck, fire has broken out and the captain — poor Theresa May — is lashed to the mast, without the authority to decide whether to turn to port or to starboard, let alone do what one imagines she knows would be best, which is to turn around and head back to shore."

But making such a U-turn would, many claim, be undemocratic and betray the will of the people.

In one episode of Fawlty Towers Basil makes a disastrous mistake in telling some guests to leave after misconstruing things he overheard. On informing his wife Sybil. "Oh my God," Basil exclaims, "What have I done" before asking what am I going to do?"

"Tell them you've made a mistake," Sybil suggests. "Oh, brilliant! Brilliant. Is that what made Britain great?" Basil retorts, before storming up to the guests to apologize, but blaming the fiasco on his wife.

The line "Is that what made Britain great?" reflects very much attitudes that still prevail in Britain today. Many people still have difficulty in forgetting the glory days when Britain traded internationally across an empire over which "the sun never set".

The colonialist Britain is very much in the past and Britain's relevance is not as significant in today's globalised world [SMH].

In fact rather than a vote for a global Britain and economic liberalism, Brexit was a vote for protectionism, and its political system nowis deeply provincial and introverted at a time when Britain is supposed to be heading out into the world.

The architect of Article 50, Lord Kerr, has declared that the letter can be torn up at any point until 29th March 2017 [Guardian].

Despite concerns Britain is heading for a no deal scenario the Theresa May seems adamant that the Good Ship Brexit is on the right course.

Johnson for his part seems just as unlikely to turn around and say he's made a mistake. His recent blunder with facts that landed a woman held by Iran in even hotter water seems to indicate that whatever the evidence May, Johnson and the Tory government are unlikely to change course [Guardian].

Only when the ship is dashed against the rocks will the people and politicians perhaps realise their folly. But unlike Fawlty Towers no one will be laughing as the end credits roll.

tvnewswatch, London, UK