Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Shocking news

Dreadful news this morning that David Cameron's son Ivan has died. Quite properly, Prime Minister's Questions has been cancelled today and statements will simply be read out in the House of Commons. I'm sure everyone's heart will go out to David Cameron and his family. Not only will this be an awful time now, but the nature of his role is that he will continue to be in the public eye almost constantly over coming months and it will be very hard for him to find the space and time that he and his family will need to grieve. I hope that the media in particular will be sensitive to the family's need for privacy not only in the immediate aftermath of this dreadful event, but also in weeks and months to come.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

The dog blog

This afternoon we've had a new arrival in the Webb household - a one year-old black labrador called Sally. As someone who has never had a pet before (beyond a hamster) it's going to be quite a change in our domestic routine - needless to say, the family are all very excited. We found Sally through the local group DogsFriends who take in dogs that would otherwise have no home, find people to foster them in the short-term and then try to re-house them. If you could help foster a dog or would be able to re-house one, do visit the website.

We had to supply our details through the website and then DogsFriends came and checked out that our home was suitable. We identified a suitable dog from the website and talked to the family who have been fostering her and this afternoon went and fetched her - it's all been less than a week from start to finish. It's so sad to think that without DogsFriends a dog like Sally might not have had a home and might have ended up being put down.

I'm sure that the exercise will do us all good - look out for the new slimline Steve Webb!

Friday, 20 February 2009

A hidden gem

A second visit this week to a local business turned up something unexpected. I visited DSTi Output in Bradley Stoke who employ around 200 people locally and are part of a multi-billion pound worldwide group. The company handle the billing for companies such as Orange and GE Money, so if (like me) you get an orange phone bill then the chances are it will have been generated, printed, folded, stuffed and posted out from Bradley Stoke. I toured round the factory and was highly impressed by the very hi-tech equipment that they have - for example, each person's Orange bill will have a different number of pages so there are sensors on the bar codes reading the right number of pages for that particular bill before the printed bill is cut off the huge reel and then stuffed and sealed into envelopes. The company prides itself on high reliability, as you can imagine that even if a tiny percentage of bills were wrong or never arrived it would cause real grief for a client.

What was also encouraging, apart from the commercial success of the company, was the commitment of the management both to their workforce (with incredibly high staff retention figures) and also to reducing the environmental impact of the business. We talked about electronic billing which the company also handles and the extent to which that could reduce the carbon footprint of the company's activities. But, of course, if we all get electronic bills which we print out on our home computers, or if we all have our computers on longer because we are downloading bills from a massive 'server farm' somewhere that has to be powered and cooled, then the carbon impact of the two different ways of billing may not be quite as different as you would have assumed.

At a difficult time economically, it is good to visit a locally-based firm that has successfully retained contracts with its major customers and which has ambitious plans for expansion over the coming years.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Good news on the green energy front

One of the upsides of being out of Westminster this week is the chance to get out and about visiting local businesses. Yesterday I went to Bath to see a green energy company - blue-NG - who are on the brink of making a major contribution to Britain's renewable energy needs. The basic idea revolves around the fact that the 'mains' gas network around the UK (and in other similar countries) is run at high pressure but has to be stepped down to lower pressure to be useable. The network has large numbers of 'pressure reduction stations' and at each of these there is a huge amount of energy being wasted as a byproduct of this pressure reduction process. blue-NG - which is a partnership with the National Grid - are looking to apply their technology at many of these pressure reduction stations to generate heat, electricity and - interestingly - refrigeration. The heat can go into district heating schemes, the electricity can go into the grid and the refrigeration can be used for things like cooling down big 'server farms' full of computers.

What was exciting about the visit was that the company weren't looking for special taxpayer subsidy or lobbying for a particular change in the law. They were simply excited about what they were doing and wanted me to know about it. The technology is already set to go live in the UK over the next 12 months, and the company is looking at similar projects in Europe, the Middle East and the US. They also have some exciting ideas about how to make 'concentrated solar power' schemes more energy efficient.

Amidst all the doom and gloom about climate change it makes a pleasant change to meet a company that is making real progress on a commercial scale.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Facebook 'surgery'

I thought I would try an experiment this morning by flagging up to be online for 'Facebook' chat for half an hour at a pre-arranged time. I reckoned a Thursday morning ought to be relatively quiet (probably only around five per cent of my 'facebook friends' were online at the time) to see how it went. I was encouraged by the response. At one stage messages were popping up so fast that it felt like one of those plate-spinning acts that you see on variety shows on the TV.

What was positive was that people felt able to do everything from chat about the weather in South Glos. (seriously snowy) to raising pretty fundamental issues like local housing, public transport, Gaza and ID cards as well as - perhaps inevitably - the lack of grit on the roads.

I will probably try this again at 'peak time', though I may need to put bandages on my typing fingers afterwards...

Monday, 2 February 2009

Yate train services - it could get worse before it gets better...

A mixed meeting this afternoon with the new Managing Director of First Great Western. I highlighted the very poor service on the Yate-Bristol route, with too many overcrowded trains, carriages not turning up and lack of information when things go wrong.

In the medium term, there is a hope of improvement. A few new carriages have so far been allocated to the West of England, but a bidding process is currently going on involving First Great Western which should hopefully mean quite a few more carriages - but they probably wouldn't be in service for the best part of two years. Likewise, the idea of a 'turnback' at Yate, which could mean more frequent services is being considered, but isn't currently included in Network Rail's five year priorities document that has just been produced.

In the short term, the company was keen to stress that the newly opened Bristol maintenance depot had led to a big improvement in reliability, which is welcome. But some of the carriages currently being used on the route are on loan from Wales, and the Welsh Assembly Government can ask for them back with just 3 months' notice....

It looks like no short-term respite for Yate commuters, so the fight goes on.