Sunday, 21 November 2010

Sunday Ramble


Getting the children up for church this morning I suppose like the rest of us I gave some thought to the pope’s new position on condoms, ineffability is always a difficult thing and the proposition that their use is acceptable to the church in some circumstances seems to have left some Catholics I know in difficult position.

Having spent the last few years defending what looked like an untenable position, they now seem to have had the rug pulled out from under them.

Strange really is the Catholic Church’s position on this matter, it seems to have come out of some notion about contraception that developed about three hundred years ago, prior to that time the church actively condoned abortion.

History is a funny old thing and looking into it in more depth, this seems to have been OK during the first forty days after conception. Life wasn’t thought to start until that time, that is for males it was considered that the life of females didn’t start until eighty days after conception. This was given as the explanation as to why men are more intelligent then women.

Times change of course, one lunatics, criminals, women and members of the house of lords were not allowed to vote, now it is only members of the house of lords.

I think I had better get back to local matters before the trouble starts, I am afraid that I didn’t buy a local paper this week, hence the national news comment. I was distracted by the shape of Margate seafront, somewhere that I once worked and have to admit that I hadn’t given any thought to. As you can see from this week’s posts, it would seem that at one time the sea in Margate came up to about halfway through Primark, which is where the cliff face once was.

The original level there would once have been about the low tide mark, this raises the question, why does the sea get progressively deeper further from the shore? Obviously there is the exception of the geology that existed before the prehistoric movements of our geology, that as it were produced the ups and downs, hills and so on. Although with Margate the valley that slopes toward the sea is not thought to have been produced by movement of the earths tectonic plates, but by water erosion. This of course raises another question, why didn’t the water soak into the Thanet Chalk? The current answer to this one is that it was rendered impervious to water during the permafrost of the last ice age.

Back to the sea getting deeper, well costal erosion of our chalk cliffs has always been down to about the low tide mark but because of rising sea levels since the last ice age, this low tide level is further down the further out you go.

Costal erosion at Margate is about 30metres per century so if you go out to sea 600metres and are standing on chalk that would be about the low tide level at the time of Christ.

Considerations about Pleasurama now, I was talking to one of the councillors this week who said the situation there has come down to; after many years of me disagreeing with the council’s civil servants, most councillors taking the civil servants position on this.

There are various factors here, with the flood risk the position seems to be on the one side me and the environment agency’s expert taking the view that to proceed with the development, without a flood risk assessment, could be dangerous and even result in loss of life and the council’s civil servants and the developer taking the view that as they have ticked all the right boxes, the development can go ahead without one.

My contention here is that the council officers should have know that the site had historically been subject to flooding and storm damage and should have insisted on one. The problem here is that there isn’t really a way that civil servants can admit to a mistake in this country without putting their jobs at risk.

Historically they have chosen the route of killing people rather than admitting their errors, and all of the checks and balances that exist within out system of government to prevent this sort of thing have been ridden over, when one government department comes to examine the doings of another.

A fine example here is the way that airship safety operated, I am using this example for several reasons, one being that aviation safety is supposed to be something that the government controls very tightly and this has been the situation since WW1, another being that people were actually killed because it was one rule for commercial aircraft manufacturers and another for government run aircraft manufacturers.

Back in the 1930s it was generally assumed that intercontinental air travel would be done by airships, this was quite reasonable at a time when commercial aeroplanes hadn’t managed to cross the Atlantic and commercial airships had.

The leading country in airship design was Germany and British government run manufactures produced a series of British airships with a design based on scaling up German airships that had been shot down during WW1.

What I mean here is that they produced a series of aircraft without the fundamental engineering principle of calculating the mechanical stresses acting on their structure, instead they copied the German design scaling it up, without understanding it.

The culmination of this project was the production of the R38, on her third flight various problems were observed and made light of by the civil servants, who were supposed to have designed it, but had actually just scaled up the structure of a smaller German ship.

On her fourth flight her structure failed causing her to break in half and crash, this resulted in 45 people who were onboard being burnt to death.

The problem here was that the inspecting government body was inspecting a government department and a government owned engineering structure.

The civil servants who, well designed is the wrong word here, were responsible for her design, well you may well wonder what happened to them, ordinary commercial aircraft designers who designed an aircraft without making stress calculations would have gone to prison when that aircraft failed.

This group of civil servants weren’t prosecuted for manslaughter, the documents showing that there had been no stress calculations didn’t in fact come to light until years later, government documents can be like that.

No ultimately they were rewarded with being given another airship design project to be in charge of, the R101, this eventually crashed due to faults that were passed through by the ministry because they were inspecting the work of another government department.

The civil servants involved issued an airworthiness certificate for this aircraft without it even having had a test flight at full speed.

This aircraft crashed on her maiden voyage and 48 people on board burnt to death.

This brings me to the safety of the cliff behind the Pleasurama site, a situation where I am trying to get the health and safety inspectorate to examine problems with the cliff façade, another government owned structure.
What we are talking about here is checks and balances, the normal checks and balances are operated in this instance by various government departments and if a private company were to have a potentially dangerous structure, then the first port of call here would be the council’s development control department.

The problem with the cliff is that the structure belongs to the council and to get in to the condition that it is in now has cost the council about £1m, the work involving this spending of this was overseen by the council’s development control department.

As I said I have been trying to get across the message for a number of years now, the message has been that I want the cliff examined by experts that don’t have anything to lose if anything is found to be wrong with it.

Back in 2008 I thought I had finally got through to them when I went on site and took various photographs of parts of the cliff façade that looked visibly dangerous.

Now as the result of an foi request I have discovered that the council didn’t have the façade professionally examined as I had asked, but instead asked the same team that had said the £1m contract was ok, to visually examine the façade,
I am told that no report was prepared, so there was nothing I could foi however as a result of this visual examination the council spent £10,700 making the façade look visibly better, weeding it and replacing a panel that was badly cracked and bulging.
Now I tried to get the council to make a proper inspection and failed there, so I approached the health and safety executive, I was surprised by their position on this one which was that their remit was the health and safety at work, so that until work started on the site there wasn’t anything much they could do.

There doesn’t seem to be any government department that oversees public safety of a structure apart from the council, so I was stumped until work started there.

You have to appreciate here that I am not saying that the structure is dangerous or liable to imminent collapse, just that after the council and the council’s specialist advisors had supervised the £1m contract the work didn’t appear as it should.

It shouldn’t, for instance, have needed another ten grand spent on it for one thing and there should have been some signs of foundations that weren’t visible where the design drawings said they should be.

Anyway time went on and at the other end of the cliff a drain got blocked, now this part of the cliff façade is much older and part of it has collapsed in the past, the most likely reason for this collapse was water getting into it due to poor drainage.

Well eventually work started on the site and so I contacted the health and safety executive pointing out that I thought the most dangerous bit now was the bit by the blocked drain.

The health and safety executive then asked the council if they thought that their cliff was safe and the council replied to them that it was safe.

Then a lump of masonry fell off the cliff façade and the workers left the site, so I asked the health and safety executive what they were going to do about it.

I expect you guessed their answer, that was, as there in no one working on the site then it isn’t their remit.
Well the council came along with a cherry picker and knocked the lose bits off the façade so that they couldn’t fall on anyone, I believe this could be called reductive maintenance, anyway what they didn’t do was unblock the drain.

Well time went on and another bit of came loose and was left hanging over the site.

At about the same time I received from the council the results of my foi request for reports on the cliff condition and in it was one prepared by the developers contractor confirming my contention that at least one of the main façade supporting pillars had no foundation.
This was helpful to me as when I pointed this out when work first started on £1m contract the councils supervising engineers told me that I was mistaken about this and it was sitting on 2metres of concrete and not on what I had observed, a pile of muddy soil.
Anyway work has now started on the site and I have once again contacted the health and safety executive, who tell me that they are looking into the matter.
Now I come to the problem of where our elected representatives the councillors fit into all of this, with the R101 airship the main elected representative involve was Lord Thomson the minister for air, essentially he accepted the word of the civil servants that this airship was safe.

Aspects of it though were visibly wrong, essentially the main factor in the safety of an airship is its disposable lift, the amount of upwards force it has, so any unnecessary weight effects its safety.

When this airship was designed the idea was to stop it by changing the pitch of the propellers, this didn’t work so that the design team resolved the problem by having one engine put in backwards.

In other words on a journey of thousands of miles it would carry one diesel engine weighing several tons just to be used for the final few hundred yards to stop the thing.

Something like this would have rung alarm bells in the mind of anyone with the most rudimentary understanding of engineering, I would have thought that most car drivers would be suspicious about buying a car that had a separate engine for going backwards because the designer couldn’t make the gearbox produce reverse gear.

In the end this problem was resolved but the airship didn’t have enough lift for the weight of fuel, so the designers cut it in half and inserted an extension in the middle so that they could get more lifting gas into it.

Lord Thomson was one of the passengers who burnt to death and I wonder if this is something to do with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance syndrome, I don’t suppose he would have trusted a designer who couldn’t produce reverse gear in a car, but the airship was so large, as big as an ocean liner, so perhaps he assumed that people working on something so large must be competent.

I am reminded here of the size of the Pleasurama cliff façade, I suspect that most of the councillors wouldn’t have any problem if they had a garden wall, that had produced a large bulge and cracked just after they had paid for an expensive repair to it, if they had I suspect they would have taken some action if lumps had started falling off or two different people had probed around and couldn’t find the foundations.
I think another problem here is that some people consider that I am hostile towards the council in these matters, an interesting point here to consider is that I know quite a few civil servants, among them several Thanet District Council officers.

I would say that of the people I know, these are the ones that understand the problem here the best.

The nub of the problem is that any civil servant, who criticises another civil servant, is likely to be the one who is looking for a job, not the civil servant who has made the mistake you understand, but the one who stands up and points that mistake out.

In a world where every human being makes mistakes this is a very difficult situation to get in.

The R101 is a very good case in point here, now the civil servants who were responsible for designing it must have known that it was dangerous, must have known that it hadn’t been tested properly.

The problems mostly stemmed from the fact that when public money has been spent on something and that something doesn’t work properly, then it just isn’t possible for one of the government employees responsible to say. “We have spent a million pounds of public money and the project is an abject failure.”

In business when this happens there is always both the checks and balances imposed by some sort of government department and the customer who won’t buy the something.

Often the customer is the government and then we get into a sort of grey area.
This seems to be regulated not so much as to how bad or unsuitable the something is, but much more how much government money has already been spent.
Back to the condoms, well I suppose contraception of one sort or another must go back pretty much to the dawn of time, documentation about it certainly dates back to 1850 BC. The condom however although it probably dates back to before this time, the first documented mention of it is not as a contraceptive, but in the 1500s as a method of preventing disease.

However in the here and now I suppose the biggest problem that we face as a species is population expansion.

In the time the world’s main religions have developed the problem has changed from there mostly not being enough people to there being too many.

As far as I can see there isn’t anything to suggest that contraception is a bad thing in biblical times, I think it can be taken for granted that back then and up to quite recently expanding the human population, of the community that one was part, of was a good and beneficial thing.

I would say that most religions have generally supported good and beneficial things and their rules and regulations have been modified to encompass this.

Now I suppose we are coming to a situation where the habitable parts of the world are filling up because of human occupation.
I suppose the problem for the Catholic Church is that while it may be acceptable to say that adultery is a bad thing or prostitution is a bad thing, they either have to say that sex is a bad thing, or that the unlimited expansion of the human race, to the ultimate detriment to every other species on the planet is a good thing.

11 comments:

  1. Michael,

    I applaud your work and share your concern over the Pleasurama project.

    However, I must take you to task for your generalisation that all Civil Servants will never admit an error, even to the extent of endangering life. For you to state that a civil servant will always lose his job for making a mistake is, at the risk of being frank, uninformed rubbish. These remarks were not worthy of you, Michael. I suspect that your remarks were born out of anger and frustration with TDC and who can blame you for that. But it does come across as rather glib, some might call it a calumny.



    Whatever the case may be, your assessment of civil servants does not have the ring of truth in my experience.

    My last job as a Civil Servant was as a member of a small Client Team on a 40 million pound project on a Grade 1 listed building in Westminster. This project subsequently won awards and plaudits from HM Treasury. We made it clear to all concerned that the Client was in charge. We hired the best structural engineers, architects, etc in the business to form a design team; and they all worked for us and not for the contractor.

    The structure of the building was thoroughly examined before plans were finalised and a contractor appointed. Even so, after work had commenced we sometimes came across Victorian horrors that perhaps we should have spotted earlier. We always rectified the problem. We concealed nothing. We never endangered life in order to protect our egos and jobs, nor would we ever.

    I can only speak from my experience of thirty years as a member of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. I know nothing of Local Government. TDC may be many things but I find it hard to accept that any one of them would knowingly risk someone's life in order to cover up a mistake.

    The evidence you present suggests to me that there is something seriously wrong with the Pleasurama project. It appears to me that TDC needs a strong leader for this project who can whip it into shape.



    Keep up the pressure, Michael.

    Regards,

    John

    PS I'm sorry that this post is so long but I did not have the time to make it shorter.

    ReplyDelete
  2. John this is a difficult one, of course I am not saying that there is a problem with all civil servants in this respect. Having said that I am experiencing problems with some, example in quotes.

    “I reported to the HSE a relatively small area of the façade as being particularly dangerous on the Monday, on the Wednesday they phoned me to say that they hadn’t gone and examined the cliff but had instead had phoned the cliff’s owner the council and the council had assured them that the cliff was safe.

    As far as they were concerned that was it they had done their job, they politely told me that I had made a fuss about nothing, if this had been a police issue I think I would probably have been prosecuted for wasting police time.

    On the Saturday a lump of cliff big enough to kill anyone who happened to be underneath fell from fifty feet up. After this the workmen didn’t return to the site.

    After various emails and phone calls between the HSE and me, the HSE told me that the issue wasn’t their problem as there wasn’t anyone working on the site anymore.”

    Now here in Ramsgate we have a government owned structure that I consider to have structural defects, now confirmed by a reputable local contractor see http://thanetonline.com/cliff/

    What I have been trying to do now for about two months is to get a coherent response about this, either from the council or the HSE, offering some plan of action.

    I am not asking for a lot here, just a proper inspection of this structure and simple safety precautions like a weight limit on the top until they know how dangerous it is.
    The only examination that has been made of the structure recently was in 2007 this missed the bulging panel that subsequently cost over £10,000 to repair.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Evening Michael,

    I do not dissent from your view and that of others that there is something seriously wrong with this project, and that the fault lies at the heart of TDC. Caused I suggest by a cavalier approach.

    In my view TDC should put a good officer in charge with the authority to sort out this mess. It cannot be solved by a committee. This Project requires leadership.

    ReplyDelete
  4. John I have resolved the HSE problem I think, it seems that they have to use a different inspection system and different inspectors, when work is occurring on the site to the ones they use when work isn’t.

    So the problem has been bouncing back and forward with the work starting and stopping.

    I now have their assurances that one of their civil engineering inspectors will examine the façade.

    It would seem the wheels of their machinery grind fairly slowly, it is my hope that they grind fairly fine too.

    I think one of the worse situations that could occur here is that the building piles are put in before the problems of cliff safety are resolved, as this would render the site unusable for any other use.

    It is always as well to consider too that the dev eloper and the council seem quite happy for the development to go ahead without the flood risk assessment strongly recommended by the environment agency, see http://www.michaelsbookshop.com/ea/

    ReplyDelete
  5. John

    I note that you opened with the conclusion that Michael is wrong about the Civil and Public services in general (A "Calumny") and finished with the mitigation that your experience is limited to the Foreign and Commonwealth office.

    Only in the public sector coul;d such irrational extrapolation pass for professionalism.

    Some examples.

    1975/76 Panorama broadcast an expose' of poor care standards in Thanet's private care home industry. Who, in the public sector, was supposed to monitor and report on such poor standards ? Well it included the benefits department then DHSS. How many reports re shortcomings in Thanet's "Section 37" care homes did the local DHSS office initiate ? That would be zero then. Public sector parasites concerned only to avoid making waves.

    Warnings given before the 1989 bombing of Deal Barracks. Police action ? Nil

    Warnings given about emergency backup generator unreliability and sabotage specifically mentioning Guys Hospital. Action nil. Child in post op ICU later died during emergency power failure which cut power to life support.

    Do read on. I sent an advance affidavit to HM Coroner Southwark. I received a reply (public sector) informing me that the hospital generator that failed was not of Petbow manufacture. Hence I was not called in evidence. After the inquest I continued to check. The Southwark Coroners officer began to bleat (poor little old public sector parasite) that he was being harassed. He said how many deaths a year he has to deal with (Poor lamb) and I said "Fortunately for you I am only querying one of them"

    Then he made the cardinal sin of the public sector. He tried getting clever and he wrote to me calling me a few names and telling me he had taken the time to check the evidence and could assure me the manufacturer of the generator was MVA model 1.5

    Keep reading John. I replied that is the power rating in MEGA VOLT AMPS (A more accurate way of expressing Kilowatts.

    Now you may see why I played a part in bring about Article 2 Inquests (Such as the July bombings one in which HM Coroner is empowered now to call MI5 and Police to answer about whether they did all they could to protect life)

    I also played a part in bring about the IPCC to increase answerability of the public sector parasitic police.

    After 9 11 the MOD commissioned Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology to report on terrorist threat to our nuclear plant. However when it was brought to MOD attention that the IRA planned sabotage and it had not been included as a declarable weapon in the Good Friday Agreement, MOD decided that sabotage would be the responsibility of Works and Pensions (Health and Safety at Work Act) and Home Office (Homeland Security)

    Meanwhile at DTI Head of Civil Nuclear Security Mike Smith (Not an engineer or scientist) declared that sabotage is not a security issue his remit is "How high the fences are and who gets passes")

    The Nuclear inspectorate said it is not their responsibility.

    And Police said it is an issue for County Trading Standards.

    You could not write this as fiction.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Morning Michael,

    I am puzzled why the person in charge of the project - surely there must be such a person - does not want to conduct a flood risk assessment bearing in mind the proximity to the sea.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hello Retired,

    You say about me, "Only in the public sector coul;d (sic) such irrational extrapolation pass for professionalism." In reply, I say that your conclusion is arrant nonsense.

    Clearly you have an agenda where the public sector is concerned. There is venom in your blog.

    I get the impression that you enjoy taking civil servants to task. This is something to be encouraged. You lay claim to some success in this endeavour. Are you perhaps able to assist Michael?

    Keep up the good work.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Puzzled of MargateNovember 23, 2010 1:00 pm

    To Retired,

    You state in your post of 23 December
    that 'You could not write this as fiction.' But you have just done so.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Sorry Michael I got bored about Primark and gave up I will go back and have another try later. I wonder what it would have been like if they hadnt put the road along there ? Sho for a swimsuite in Primark and go out of the bottom doors to try before you buy maybe?

    ReplyDelete
  10. I am sure Tony did a very informative article a bout the building of that seafront road Or maybe it was yourself. It had the plans and costs etc

    ReplyDelete
  11. Don I will post with the 1870s map overlaid on a modern map for you.

    I don’t remember Tony posting on this I will have a look.

    ReplyDelete

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