We already have one broken democratic system that leaves half our voters wondering why they vote, and a third not even bothering to vote at all. Whatever our response to the currently burning West Lothian Question, it surely cannot be a response that launches an entirely new layer of government that attracts even fewer votes, and even less support from you and me.
When I hear talk of Regional Assemblies for England, I despair. The overwhelming majority of English residents struggle to name a single local councillor, many constituents can't name their MP (often a majority), and even the people that work for local councils often can't name the leader of the council they work for.
Let's be crystal clear: we don't have an engaged electorate asking for more offices full of yet more officials and more automated telephone switchboards. We should run fast and scream loudly whenever we hear proposals that promise more of the same. Regional Assemblies will have floors of desks staffed by officials with ludicrous roles that make the Tax Payers Alliance cry, and could no doubt take on some of the responsibilities that local authorities have already chosen to share, like Parking Appeals Tribunals. This is a route to less democratic engagement, not more. What we need now are radical proposals, new approaches, and ideas that would energise and engage England, not bore it to death.
That leads me neatly to my proposal: to bring the English counties and cities back into the heart of our government. It is our cities that drive our economy, not Whitehall, and it is our counties that inspire cultural identity and sporting excellence. There is only one level of natural administrative order in England apart from Westminster, and it is one that the population understands: it is our cities and our counties. The identity is easy, the description is clear: I am from London, I grew up in Hertfordshire, and I went to school in Sussex. Nobody is, or ever will be, a North Easterner, and the people of that imaginary region made their views on that subject clear when given the chance. You can be Scottish, but you can't be East Anglia-ish.
But park that for a moment. We also have a major issue with the semi-reformed House of Lords. The idea that we can allow the new panic over post-Referendum English political reform to leapfrog the need to fix the outstanding dysfunction of the second chamber defies common sense analysis. And I think there is a way to deal with both, once and for all.
The cities and counties need stronger representation within our central government, and previous Westminster governments have tried to achieve that. But we have to acknowledge that local mayors and crime commissioners have had limited success. I think we could start to change that by basing a reformed House of Lords on the cities and counties, and devolving more powers to those existing local institutions.
In a post-Referendum world there are strong arguments and commitments to see more freedom for local government to raise or reduce taxation, and maybe move some centralised areas such as local NHS control to them as in Scotland. One of the few areas of local democracy that has engaged local voters has been health (I'm thinking of Wyre Forest), and so perhaps the provision of primary care, or emergency care should be a locally-managed, or at least locally regulated, function. But to allow local democracy to take on more genuinely life-and-death responsibility, we have to increase the profile of our cities and counties, and ensure that they become part of the day-to-day discussion of life on our streets.
And so to reform of the House of Lords. I would like to see a new chamber, perhaps with some appointees, but in which the overwhelming majority of members were elected to represent our cities and counties. They should I think, be elected for long, single terms, to ensure that they do not become Party apparatchiks, voting along whipped lines as they chase a political career. This new House of Lords should remain a revising chamber of grandees, but of people elected to represent the people of Manchester, or Wiltshire, or Cornwall.
If the cities and counties of England have more power to manage budgets, and to control the issues that actually affect their communities, and we have representatives of those cities and counties sitting at the very heart of government, then I think there is a chance that we could inject real energy back into our democratic system.
The risks of following a regionalised route are plentiful; people won't vote for a start, candidates will be selected because they sat quietly on the board of a regional LEP or other anonymous, invisible and preposterous body, and Westminster will have succeeded in ensuring Whitehall continues to control the purse-strings and dictate the over-arching policies and budgets that affect my rubbish collection, GP opening hours, and road gritting.
Make Lincolnshire, and Cumbria and Somerset real on the national stage. The dukes and earls that sat amongst their ermine-edged friends in the old House of Lords were exactly that - in some cases they practically owned the counties - but the appointment of thousands of retired MPs, trade unionists and party donors to the chamber has led us to where we are today. So let's turn the clock back in a sense, effectively electing the modern dukes and earls who speak for their electorate, rather than their own self-interest as was previously the case. Let's create a new power-base for the UK's counties and cities down the corridor from the House of Commons.
In the last few days I have heard senior Labour politicians trying to revive regionalism in a last gasp attempt to hold on to an English power-base. As a common-sense Conservative I don't want to see that happen, and we can't allow more faceless bureaucracy to give power to cadres of the party faithful. Inventing fantasy layers of government that don't exist naturally is the preserve of Soviet communism: it has no place here.
I think it is time to revive the English cities and counties, give them new and important voices in the heart of our political process, and we might have a chance to revive the idea that all local communities can truly elect leaders with a national voice - a sort of Boris for all.
I was asked to post the speech I gave in Birmingham this morning somewhere, and this seems the logical place. The views are mine, not those of Comux UK or Canis Media. I was also asked to leave the jokes in: I apologise in advance.
Birmingham Business Breakfast Club Speech
18 September 2013
Last night I visited a Chinese restaurant in Birmingham. They gave me a fortune cookie.
I normally ignore the wisdom of fortune cookies, but I was on my own, I was a bit bored, and my Kindle was running low on batteries.
So I opened it.
To my immense surprise it said,
'People will travel many miles to hear you speak'.
Thank you for the opportunity to come and speak to you this morning. I don't normally write my speeches down, but then I don't normally speak at this time in the morning!
I'm Ed Hall, the founder and Chief Executive of Comux UK. I have created and managed a series of television and broadcast businesses, and had the good fortune to sell several of them.
I used to describe myself as an entrepreneur, but in the post-Dragons' Den world that has come to mean self-promoting nutter, so I'm now happy to stick with businessman.
This morning is a chance to find out more about one of the biggest developments in British broadcasting: the launch of local TV. And to talk about why we chose to launch in Birmingham.
Some years ago, the Government noticed that local TV was a valuable type of broadcasting in many countries and said that it was worth having another go at making it work here.
Ofcom research agreed that there is a huge demand for local content, in particular news.
The BBC was asked to commit 40M of funding to help, 25M of that is to build the infrastructure, and 15M goes to Robert Thompson here, the Editor of Midlands Today.
Well not all of it, but over three years the BBC's regional newsrooms will spend up to 15M on content from the network of local TV stations.
The business that I created two years ago, Comux, won the licence from Ofcom to build the infrastructure to make it happen. And that's what we are doing.
We are spending the 25M on creating a new broadcast network and an operations centre to support local television in the UK. It's an impressive and exciting project.
But there are many who are cynical about the commercial viability of local television: not least here in Birmingham.
Many examples over the last twenty years have showed that the business models for local TV didn't stack up. So I thought I would take you through my journey and tell you why I think, that this time, it is different.
Ten years ago I watched local TV face challenges it couldn't overcome. I was running my company, Canis Media, providing a wide range of broadcast commercial services.
And we dealt with most of the local TV channels. And we watched them close.
There were many reasons:
The cost of technology. The cost of tape. The tape issue is a major one: even now a professional video cassette can set you back over 20 pounds for a half hour.
The machines that view, record and play them can cost you 30,000 pounds, and they have limited life.
To install a proper video editing suite running professional standard tape machines in 1999 or 2000 would have set you back more than 100,000 pounds - even if you spent the money carefully.
Then came the big numbers, transmission technology and platform access costs. Half a million a year to be a satellite channel - before you even made a programme.
And if you were a terrestrial channel? The dizzying costs of analogue transmission - and then the need for retuning.
The result was always the same: tiny audiences.
Perhaps it's worth me talking for a moment about the business model of television. It often appears to other more prosaic businesses to be a crazy creative and mysterious undertaking. TV people are weird, though not quite as odd as web people. I think we are placed half way between the grey suits of the industrialists and bankers and the facially-pierced blue hair of Silicon Valley.
Well it isn't really like that. TV channels are at a basic level simply factories that make viewers.
It's a commodity business: the more viewers you can make, the more you can sell. The cheaper you can make them the more productive and profitable your business becomes. The measurement system is a standardised one, and buyers and sellers negotiate around standard pricing models.
In 2012, 4.5 Billion pounds were spent in this commodity market.
But on the old local channels advertising was being sold without measurement and without accountability. They had no commodity to sell.
The largest station that failed had a potential reach of a million homes, the smallest tens of thousands.
What percentage of that tiny, fuzzy, mistuned analogue audience did they expect to sell?
It didn't work.
So why do I say that this time it's different?
Costs of producing TV have plummeted. No tape, no expensive machines, no need to hire expert editors whose technical skills have been learned as a craft over decades.
Today I can buy Adobe Premiere from John Lewis for 79.95 (although not of course in Birmingham until the new store opens in 2014). That one software package can do most of what the edit suites of old could do, if not more.
I can buy a professional edition of Adobe Premiere (that is way more advanced than an editor in 1999 could dream about) for 510 pounds. On Monday at a TV technology conference in Amsterdam I watched an editor take an audio clip, right click on it, automatically open the clip in an audio editing package, edit out a police siren from a noisy sound-track and then replace the audio clip back into the main video edit.
When I began in television in 1991 you could not have done that.
Ten years ago you could have made decent job of it in a specialist audio suite at the cost of hundreds or thousands of pounds.
Today you can do it with a right click in about two minutes.
With a decent home computer, a video card, and plenty of memory I can now set up a professional edit suite with audio and graphics capability for a couple of grand.
As a consequence our raw material costs have been slashed.
TV programmes are now for sale at international markets for as little as 2 or 3 hundred dollars an hour.
But the demand side has changed too. Advertising buyers have learned to look at new platforms and fragmented audiences.
The internet has taught buyers that audiences can be bought in smarter and more precise ways.
There has been a wholesale shift from TV only, to TV AND Web.
They now roughly split the market for ad spend down the middle - though the web-spend is now winning. But they are both growing - expect advertising spend in the UK to top 17 billion pounds this year.
And most interesting to me is that the area of growth in internet advertising spend that is growing fastest, is video. However you deliver it, television businesses are still creating and delivering the most powerful medium.
So we can make our product cheaper, and our buyers are smarter. But how do we distribute our product more cheaply and more effectively?
Well that's where Birmingham comes in.
Local TV will launch on Freeview Channel 8 in England, and the signals will be compiled into television channels and sent to the transmitters from our new operations centre here in Birmingham.
Our network centre is at the heart of a new fibre network linking every local TV studio, to every major TV mast in the country.
Last time local TV launched each home had to manually tune in to a new, weak, analogue channel.
This time 12 million UK homes in 19 cities will mostly light up automatically with a new high-profile channel.
These are predominantly urban homes that have premium advertising value.
Here in Birmingham most homes will have access to their new local channel, and they will find it very hard to miss City TV stuck between BBC3 and BBC4.
The Comux business model has a positive impact as well.
We are using the BBC's money to support the centralised buying of technology and infrastructure to reduce the costs of launching and operating a local TV channel.
Our network centre here at the Aston Science Park, Innovation Birmingham Campus, is replacing many of the systems that each licensee would have to buy individually.
We are their cloud.
By November we will be able to launch the first local channel - in Grimsby - and light up the rest of the network.
Every local TV station that launches will link to the operations centre here in Birmingham.
Advertising will be inserted here in Birmingham.
Video streams for mobile phones and tablets and other devices will originate here in Birmingham.
The staff and skills that we need to operate and develop a network centre will be developed, here in Birmingham.
So, why did we come here?
Well it wasn't because of HS2!
Honestly? Well the City Council offered to support us with a rent-free period.
What an easy obvious simple way to attract new business.
The team at the Innovation Birmingham Campus could not have been more friendly and helpful.
And they have stayed helpful as our start-up model has inevitably changed and altered its requirements over several iterations.
Lastly, but most importantly, the workforce.
A few cynical industry observers told me that I would not find the expert staff we needed to operate a broadcast network centre here in Birmingham.
They were wrong. We now have a qualified, cheerful and committed core team working at Innovation Birmingham, and we will be recruiting more.
In fact, apart from the weather, it's been a very easy City to do business with.
Last night I was so impressed by the Fortune Cookie that I asked for another one.
I opened it and it was just as prescient. It said,
'You will be hungry again in one hour'
11 June 2013
To: Dr M S Spurr, Headmaster, Westminster School
Dear Dr Spurr,
I'm a volunteer RNLI crewman on the Thames, and twice a month I head to the station to patrol and train, and to wait like the proverbial coiled spring for the call to respond to an emergency on the river. I got up at 0545 this morning to ensure that I had the time to drive to the lifeboat station at Chiswick where I was about to begin a 12-hour shift at 0730.
The lifeboats have been on the River Thames since 2001, and I joined the crew when they started, which makes me one of the longest serving crew. In more than a decade I have taken part in rescues on many occasions, and had the privilege of working with our crews to save the lives of people in the river, on the riverbank, and on the bridges.
Given that I am pretty busy in my day-job running a high-profile media and broadcast company and am currently launching the infrastructure behind the national network of new local television stations it is quite a demanding voluntary commitment. Nevertheless I feel that is worthwhile and rewarding.
I have pulled a semi-conscious mugging victim from the water near Hammersmith Bridge, saved the life of an elderly man who had walked into the river off Duke's Meadow, rescued a troubled young swimmer in distress near Richmond, helped a man that had wandered from a local hospice to the river and climbed in, and persuaded a sixth-former from St Paul's Girls' School not to kill herself. There are plenty of other compelling stories of the work we do, and I hope that you and your staff and pupils support the tremendous work of the RNLI in any way you can. It is a superb organisation.
And so to the purpose of my letter, which I am writing in a wholly personal capacity, and not on behalf of the RNLI. Sometimes however, as I'm sure you recognise, you cannot help but be so annoyed about something that it feels right to say something, and so I am writing to you. As I say, this is an entirely personal letter.
Today at 1615 while we were sitting in the Lifeboat Station the telephone rang. A member of the public from an office on Barn Elms Reach had seen a rower and capsized boat in the water, and was very concerned that, in his words, 'nobody was doing anything about it'. We informed the London Coastguard and were asked to launch immediately.
When we are 'on service' we aim to be underway within 90 seconds if we can. To achieve that objective we run to the lifeboat in our dry-suits, fire her up and head to the location of the incident. We turn on the siren and the flashing blue lights and accelerate up to about 40 knots to get to the scene as fast as possible. It is a task that takes a great deal of skill and training, and when there are rowers on the river this can be very challenging. The rowers are generally aware that in case of wash (of which we actually make very little at top speed), they should stop rowing and lay their oars flat on the water for stability. That also happens every time a large tourist vessel passes by.
I’m sure you now have a sense of where this is going: we passed several Westminster School boats with distinctive pink oars on the way to the location. The boats did not stop rowing and so we did instinctively slow down at one point. We are acutely conscious of the wash we make, and try to find ways to minimise the impact. Today for example we took the left hand side of the river to stay away from the rowers on the Surrey side, even though that was not actually the shortest route.
When we arrived alongside the Harrods Depository we found the single scull upside down and being towed by a small safety boat. The rower had collapsed with cramp and was being looked after by the safety boat driver. All was well. We checked that they needed no further assistance, and informed London Coastguard that no further help was required. We turned back up river and started heading back to the station. We did this at about five knots and again took the opposite side of the river to the rowers.
As we passed the first Westminster School boat a quite extraordinary thing happened: a grey-haired pompous middle-aged man raised his megaphone to his lips and barked across the river at us.
'Thanks for the wash, boys.'
Seriously? There is a member of staff at Westminster School who thinks that barking patronising comments to the crew of an RNLI Lifeboat is a sensible way to behave? Was the River Thames gifted to Westminster School in some quaint ceremony as part of Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee celebrations?
Well I am not a 'boy', I'm a 45-year-old Chief Executive who gives up 24 hours a month of his time to crew a lifeboat. I do it day and night and have done so for more than a decade. I have used up my holiday to take part on training courses in crewing, helming, fire-fighting, sea survival, radio procedures and first aid. I do not appreciate being shouted at by a man who has clearly lost all sense of reality and must be filled to bursting with a sense of his own importance. Is he by chance related to the psychotic PE teacher Sue Sylvester from Glee?
Perhaps you would find an appropriate method to ask your school masters to behave in a way that would be a credit to them and to your school. It's hardly surprising that people accuse public schoolboys (like me) of being pompous twats if they grow up with that sort of behaviour to model themselves on. I bet they had a good chortle in the dressing rooms at the machismo shown by their masterful coach barking sarcastic epithets at the lifeboat.
Enough said. I understand that rowers would prefer that fast boats were not on the river, but I believe that the more than 300 people we have pulled from the water since we started would disagree.
Ed Hall, Chief Executive
Going home at Christmas can be enormous fun, particularly for your relatives. If you let them know in advance that you are coming then they can make a plan. If you live a long way away from your family then you can fly there, in fact using aeroplanes can help you get to many places faster than you realised, and flying can be great fun.
It's always best to get a ticket for a flight before you travel. You can buy tickets at the airport, but Christmas can be a very busy time of year, so by buying a ticket in advance you can avoid the problems of queuing at the airport! Tickets can actually be bought up to a year ahead, so why not buy one for next year and keep it in the freezer until you need it?
If your family lives in a colder country, don't forget to pack something warm to wear: red and white can be very festive colours, although any autumnal pastels can light up a festive evening. We always wear coats at my home when we go outside, you could think about doing that too.
Many people forget that it is traditional to give presents at Christmas, well it is a very busy time of year. Don't worry though, the clever people at the airports have already thought of this. All over the world you will find that despite being airports, these buildings are also full of shops! This is a time to be adventurous and look at what is available: don't just buy the sandy coloured Toblerone, you can buy the black one and the white one at the same time. Just imagine how much fun that could be when you arrive at your home with not just one, but three Toblerones, all in different colours!
Some manufacturers actually put Christmas logos and special wrapping on their stock at Christmas: just think how much time you could save if you buy presents that are already wrapped!
Some people find Christmas very sad, particularly if they have recently lost a close relative or friend. Why not find a photograph of the recently deceased, cut out the face of the person from the middle of the picture using a sharp pair of scissors, and mount it on a piece of cardboard with a Santa Claus hat on it? In that way you can cheer you relative up by helping them to feel as though the dead person is actually there with you celebrating! If it has been a particularly sad year you could make several and stand them together in the middle of the Christmas table. Cotton wool placed around the pictures will help it look as though it has been snowing.
It's wrong to kill animals on Christmas Day, that's why my in-laws always wait until Boxing Day. For many families this can be a problem. If you are torn between a fox hunt and a pheasant shoot what should you do? Well the choice is yours! But make sure you wear the right clothes: nobody should shoot pheasants in hunting pinks, even if the colours are gorgeous.
Many families drink at Christmas, I know we do! But some relatives drink too much and behave in embarrassing ways. The best thing to do in that situation is ignore them, or keep drinking yourself until you're more pissed than they are. Try getting them to dress up in silly costumes, and then it's harder to take them seriously. Anything with ermine or a crown should do it.
Whatever you do, make sure you do go home for Christmas, I know I will!