Some suggestions for Homebase

As someone who has been renovating a house for the last few months, the news that Homebase is in trouble was the least surprising piece of news I’ve read this week.  They really don’t get internet shopping.  I have a few suggestions to up their game:

  • The whole idea of ‘Click and Collect’ is that you have the goods ready for the customer to collect on the date you’ve given them. So, when a customer has driven 15 miles to pick up twelve shelf brackets, the news that the goods are still in the warehouse in Swindon will not be received well.
  • Internet shopping is not an excuse for staff at your branches to distance themselves from responsibility. “Oh, it was an internet order!  Can’t help you there.  The internet lot have nothing to do with us.” is not a good line.
  • When a customer rings a branch about an order, it does not inspire confidence if the phone is answered by a man who tells her that it is no good quoting the order number, because he doesn’t know how to turn on the computer and he’ll have to get ‘one of the girls’.
  • A DIY warehouse is not a bank. Is it really necessary to demand that your customers register before ordering and give you their date of birth, mother’s maiden name and a password containing two numerals?
  • Having made them register, is it also necessary to insist that they sign in before checking whether the local branch has a pair of rising door hinges in stock?
  • Having given them access to the page showing rising hinges, it is counterproductive to time them out of the site while they are comparing prices at your competitors'; that is unless your aim is to drive up sales at B&Q and Wickes.

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Low Finance

This blog entry is about my strategy for maximising my state pension. I’m making the entry for anyone else in my position — that is with a low income but spare cash, or a partner with a higher income, which means that they are not forced to claim their state pension at the first opportunity and who has reached, or is reaching state pension age before 6th April 2016 when the single tier pension comes in. Mostly they will be like me: women in their early sixties. If you are like me, there are a number of tax concessions available.  The question is how to best utilise them:

I’m not poor; I have cash and property and my husband has a good income, but my personal taxable income is well below the personal allowance now that it is £10,000.

I reach the state pensionable age in March next year.  If I take my pension then it will raise my income above the personal allowance and I will have to pay some tax.  But, if I defer taking the pension I can utilise two tax concessions to increase my income meanwhile.

The first is the cash added to a Stakeholder Pension by the government, even if you are a non-taxpayer. If I invest £2,880 the government will make it up to £3,600.  I can take the whole lot out as cash using the ‘small pot’ rule, making a profit of £720 in the 2014/2015 tax year.

Next year, 2015/2016, I can do the same thing again, but I will also be able to utilise the transferable tax allowance for married couples which will be available for the first time in the 15/16 tax year.   I will be able to transfer £1,050 of my unused tax allowance to my husband, reducing his tax bill by  £210.  So my ‘profit’ for 15/16 will be £720 + £210 = £930.

Then I repeat in the tax years 16/17 and 17/18.  My total gains over the four tax years will amount to £3,510, which I would not have made if I’d not deferred taking my state pension.

Then I will claim my state pension at the start of the 18/19 tax year, by which time I will be sixty five and a half, I will have deferred my pension for a total of three years, four weeks. You get an increase of 1% for every five weeks deferral, so my pension will be increased by 31%, an extra £1,823 p.a at current rates.

It will be nearly ten years before the total extra money I’ve been paid in pension is more than the pension money I would have got between March 2015 and April 2018 if I hadn’t deferred, and by that time I will be 75.  But, actuarial tables tell me that my life expectancy as a healthy 62 year old is 87 years old. If I live that long, the deferral will have gained me an extra £22,000 in state pension over my lifetime. My mother is a reasonably hale 88, which encourages me to hope that I may even live longer.

There is one other offer being made by the government to people in my position, which is the Class 3A National Insurance Contribution. I’m considering it, but it isn’t very attractive to me at the moment. It doesn’t help that the online calculator isn’t currently working. But, according to the information that is available, the latest date for paying in will be April 2017. At that date I will be 64 and the online table states that a 64 year old will have to pay £913 for every extra £1 in pension. To get the full extra £25 a week I’d have to invest £23,075. That’s an inflation proofed return of 5.69%, which compares well with buying an annuity, but not so well with deferral. Every calculation I do suggests that anyone who has the cash  to invest in Class 3A contributions would be better off using the money to subsist on while they defer their state pension for a period. I’d love someone to explain to me what set of circumstances would make Class 3A contributions preferable to deferring, other than having deferred previously (because you are only allowed to defer once, although you can have a period of ‘deferral’ after having claimed your pension).

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Post Referendum Reform

Well I wasn’t on-message over the Scottish referendum.  On the post-referendum reforms, however, I’m just undecided.

Nick Clegg suggests that we should start by implementing the recommendations of the McKay Commission. I’d probably agree with him if I could get my head round what those recommendations would mean in practice. Until  a Peter Snow has explained them to me with the aid of digital 3D diagrams, I don’t relish the prospect of going canvassing and trying to argue the virtues of a Legislative Consent Memorandum.

On the other hand, the McKay Commission proposals are the least risky reform on the table, the others being radical reforms to remedy, what is in reality, one of the least significant imperfections in the democratic process. McKay’s solution to  the West Lothian Question may be inadequate, but I think I prefer a weak nutcracker to a destructive sledgehammer.

The constitutional issues I care about are, unsurprisingly, reform of the House of Lords, a fairer voting system, a written constitution and more power for local democracy.  So, I support Miliband’s proposal for a Constitutional Convention.  I’ve signed Unlock Democracy’s Petition.

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The Scottish Referendum

My husband and I disagree on the subject of the referendum.  He, a Canadian of Scottish descent, believes wholeheartedly that Scotland should vote No.  I, an Englishwoman with no Scottish connections whatsoever, am undecided but veer towards Yes.

The fact is that I can’t possibly know how I’d vote if I lived in Scotland, but I think the prospect of living in a smaller, more egalitarian society with a fairer voting system and no Tory party would have enormous appeal. On the other hand the dire warnings about the effect of independence on Scotland’s economy might sway me and I would not be reassured by Salmond and crew underplaying the difficulties ahead.

I’m certain that the rhetoric by the No campaign about what our country has achieved ‘together’ would have the opposite effect to the one intended. I find it very distasteful that David Cameron, the descendant of slave-owners, claims the abolition of slavery as one of Great Britain’s achievements.  It is a mitigation of our slave-trading past, but it is not something to be proud of. And his claim that the Enlightenment was kickstarted by the UK is just ignorant.

I’m also certain that the decision this Thursday is one for the people of Scotland and them alone.  I wish them success whatever they decide.

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Bats in the Attic

A minor complication in renovating our house has been that we are a bat roost. Our bats needs come first, by law.

In fact, there is only one bat  — a male pipistrelle who uses our loft as a roost during the breeding season, away from the wife and kiddies. The mating season has just started, so he has left, but will probably be back next year. 

We had minor storm damage to the roof from Hurricane Bertha, but despite the absence of Sir Nick (named after a cousin who is a bat expert), we still had to get permission from Natural England to replace a missing tile and a damaged chimney cowl.

Our liaison with the world of battery has been through Samantha the batwoman, who turned up a few weeks ago with 35 baby bats (known as pups) in boxes, which had to go everywhere with her while she was nursing them. She caught Sir Nick (the name was her suggestion since she knows of my cousin — the world of bat conservation is not large) and brought him downstairs to  introduce him to us. He looked rather cross, but bats do anyway.

We got emergency consent from Natural England for the roof repair, but they will eventually send us full guidance, which we will be bound by law to obey.  I’m hoping we will be allowed to store our Christmas decorations in the loft because this isn’t a large house and I can’t think where else to put them.

Almost everyone I’ve told about our bat has gone ‘ew’ or expressed sympathy, but we are feel rather proud of being a bat roost and Samantha’s visits have been fun.  We’ve joined the Bat Conservation Trust.  Natural England has been informed that we are ‘bat friendly’. Which is a slightly odd bit of personal info for a public body to hold on one, I think.


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Some notes on retrofitting.

We’ve decided not to put solar panels on the roof.  We had decided to go ahead with them because of the profits from the FIT, but then we were driving back from Bude over the moor and seeing our house from a distance below us, we realised that we can’t bear to cover up our beautiful Delabole slates.

The loft already has plenty of insulation.

We have uninsulated cavity walls, but the result of a scoping survey was that the house is unsuitable for injected insulation because there is too much rubble in the cavity. 

The quotes for double glazed wooden sash windows were not as eye watering as I had feared, but we still decided not to go ahead. There was no way we’d see our investment back in our lifetime, and I prefer to be able to hear the birdsong in the garden.   If we do find it draughty in winter, we will consider secondary glazing.

That leaves the floors, which are suspended wood over a ventilated crawl space. Rather than get the floorboards up we caulked the gaps and laid new wool carpet over an insulating underlay made by Axminster from recycled materials. As far as I can discover, carpet and insulating underlay is not included in the Green Deal, which seems unfair to Britain’s struggling carpet industry.

So, no solar panels, no cavity wall insulation, no double glazing and no underfloor insulation. I guess we’ll just have to invest in thick jerseys. We do have an efficient combi boiler (running on oil) and a wood-burner, plus by the time we’ve cleared our fifth of an acre garden we’ll have about three years wood, our tree feller says more.

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The Green Deal flops again

The Green Deal Home Improvement Fund has been cancelled with effect from today because an increase in demand has quickly exhausted the fund.  Anyone who has got a green deal assessment done in the last few weeks, thinking they could get cash back from the fund, is out of luck.  I’m one of those people.

We moved into our house in Devon a couple of weeks ago and immediately set about renovations.

We had a Green Deal report last week.  It was not completely useless: We already have two surveys, one saying that the house is solid walls, the other that it is cavity walled.  The GDA (Green Deal Assessor) climbed into the loft and confirmed that it is in fact cavity.

But when the report arrived it contained the inaccuracies that are so common in these reports. It stated that our normal thermostat setting is 21° when it is, in fact, 18° and there were a couple of other errors.  Without the errors, no improvement that could be made to our house would qualify for a Green Deal loan because the savings that could be made on our fuel bills would not be greater than the repayments on the loan. So GDAs are forced to finesse their reports to make the Green Deal look workable.

The Green Deal should be scrapped entirely.  It has been an abysmal failure.

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