Solar panels

Back last summer, we decided not to put solar panels on our roof, but recently we have reconsidered the pros and cons and decided to get fresh quotes.

On the con side are the aesthetics.  This was the deciding factor last year, since our house is part of a terrace of coastguard cottages which are a local landmark. The roof is mellow dappled Delabole slate. The terrace is not listed, however, and one of the houses already has panels. The other con is the uncertainty about how long we will remain in the house and whether it will be long enough to get our money back (I don’t buy the argument that panels will increase the value of the house on resale: panels are a depreciating asset so even if they add value initially, they won’t after a few years).

But, there is one big pro, which is that the FIT (feed in tariff), even now it has been reduced several times, makes panels one of the best financial investments we can make with our savings, possibly yielding as much as an inflation proofed 9% p.a. compared with less than 6% fixed from an annuity.

I could also argue that it is our civic duty to utilise our prime south facing sunny site, but actually I think the ethics are fairly evenly balanced pro and con. On the one hand the FIT is a ‘middle-class subsidy’, and George Monbiot makes a convincing argument that due to the inefficiency of panels in our maritime climate, it is a poor way of spending public money to reduce our carbon emissions. On the other hand, this is a democracy and this is the way we as a society have decided to fulfil our commitment to combat climate change, so is it right to opt out when I agree with the objective and only object to the method?

Last year I was also put off by the difficulty of comparing quotes and checking the information provided by salesman and I’m not relishing going through the process again.  There doesn’t seem to be any industry standard for comparing the efficiency of panels. A label system for panels similar to that used for electrical appliances would be very helpful for consumers. The  Energy Savings Trust provides a useful solar energy calculator which estimates the savings for the first year after installation, which is a better guide than the figures provided by salesmen.

Most installers seem to be small local firms, which means that any guarantee they give for their workmanship is almost valueless, so a national guarantee scheme would also be helpful. Not that there seem to be many complaints about workmanship, but it is of particular concern to coastal dwellers like ourselves, whose panels will have to withstand high winds and salt-laden air.

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On 8th November, the Guardian reported that MyCSP, the government’s ‘flagship mutual venture’ was a shambles.  If our experience is anything to go by, it still is.

My husband applied for his civil service pension in early October.   Shortly afterwards, our marriage certificate which had been enclosed with the application was returned to us. Then nothing.  We rang them in early November and were  told that his application would be given priority.

About a week later we got an email telling us that his pension together with lump sum was going to be paid ‘by close of play today’.  My husband had filled in the form to have the lump sum commuted to higher pension payments, so we replied pointing this out.

The following day we received a reply from the same cricket-metaphor using clerk, saying he had the case to ‘the systems service desk’ and would get back to us when he had a response.

That was eleven days ago and we’ve heard nothing since.  Off my own bat, it seems to me that MyCSP is on a sticky wicket and put onto the back foot.   I’m stumped if I know how to get an early payment from them of what we are owed, since their complaints system gives them four months to reply to a letter, so I’ll be knocked for six if we get a payment before Christmas.

Seasons Greetings to everyone.

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Alternatives to Save the Children

Towards the end of last year I did a blog piece saying that, once we had returned to the UK, I was going to review our regular charitable donations and maybe find smaller charities to donate to, that did not pay their executives enormous salaries, rather than the big guns than make up the DEC.

But, I haven’t got around to doing the research yet.  Recently, feeling uncomfortable that we hadn’t made a charitable donation since the end of June, I sent a cheque to Save the Children.

Now I wish I hadn’t. Apart from the award to Blair, I’ve been reminded that Blair’s former advisor Justin Forsyth is paid more for heading Save the Children UK  than David Cameron’s salary as Prime Minister. I appreciate that international aid charities require highly qualified specialists to operate effectively, but, however rare they are as individuals, I also find it impossible to believe that such people have to be paid more than the head of government of the world’s sixth richest nation.

Save the Children is my husband’s choice of charity but I’ve never objected to it previously. In order to persuade him to switch, I need to find that small charity that isn’t enriching its executives, and so I’m making a plea for suggestions from anyone reading this piece.  He is very interested in funds for educating child refugees, particularly from Syria.

Meanwhile I’m going to put off setting up a direct debit for another few months.

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Impressions of the UK

We’ve been home for over four months now. I visited the UK every year that I was away, but visiting is not the same as living in a place and there has still been a cultural adjustment to make after eight years in Canada.

It’s not so much that things here are different to Canada, but that they are different to the way I remember in 2006 when we left.

My expectations have been pleasantly confounded by my experience of the NHS since I got back. Yesterday, I had to go to the fracture clinic again, because my cast had become loose as the swelling went down. Yet again I was seen within a couple of minutes of my arrival; so quickly that my husband hadn’t had time to park the car and join me in the waiting room.  Despite all the dire reports of crisis in NHS care in the papers, I’ve felt reassured by our experience so far

On the other hand, customer service by many of the big companies is no worse than I remember it, but it certainly hasn’t improved. Over the last four months, I reckon I’ve spent time equivalent to at least a working day in frustrating phone calls to undertrained staff in call-centres, taking hours to sort out petty problems that should have taken minutes.  It is not hyperbole to say that the combined poor service of the utilities and telecommunications giants must have a negative effect on national productivity. In the future when I’m shopping around for services, I’ll pay attention to the company’s customer service reputation and whether their call centre is staffed by anglophones.

When I went to Canada in ’06 a greater percentage of Canadians were sceptical about climate change than British.  In the last eight years that statistic has been reversed as the number of climate sceptics in Britain has doubled.  Yet, despite that, Britain still feels like a much more environmentally aware country than Canada. It helps that we don’t have a tar-sands industry, or a prime-minister who treats environmentalists as unpatriotic traitors, but it is also the effort that British companies make to show that they are green as well as the ubiquitous wind turbines and solar panels; an equivalent of Marks and Spencer’s Plan A is almost unimaginable in Sears or The Bay.

Despite the partial economic recovery, Britain still feels as if it is in recession.  Most of the smaller gaps on the high street seem to have been filled, but it is several of the the bigger stores which seem to be struggling, evidenced by perpetual sales or discounts, demoralised staff, and stock shortages. The revolution in self-employment is very evident in our locality.  Almost everybody seems to have more than one job.  Our local pubs sell ‘hand-crafted’ beer, the local shop sells local ‘artisanal’ ice-cream.  Our neighbour’s gardener also has a business making and hiring out yurts. It’s a hand-craft economy that might have pleased William Morris as much as David Cameron, but the economic insecurity must be frightening for many.

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I won’t wear a poppy again.

I didn’t wear one in Canada because I objected to the partisanship of the Royal Canadian Legion, but I intended to start wearing one again once I returned to the UK.

But, I’ve found the mawkishness of the WW1 centennial celebrations — I think celebration rather than commemoration is the right word — very distasteful.

I feel that the British political class has been manipulating national sentimentality and patriotism.  With Cameron it seems to be a deliberate policy, partly inspired by Thatcher’s triumphalism over the Falklands, and partly inspired by Blair’s handling of the death of Diana. First we had Thatcher’s funeral, now this.

Of course there is nothing new: a similar manipulation of sentiment was probably what led my grandfather and his brothers to enlist in WW1, and to the deaths of two of them.

But, I am disgusted by the lack of dignity and propriety and the dishonesty.

So now the fairground attraction that is the sea of ceramic poppies will tour the country to delight the general public.

I won’t wear a poppy again.

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The Single Tier Pension roll-out

My husband reaches state retirement age in 2017, so he will be eligible for the single-tier pension.  But, he recently got a pension forecast and discovered that the years he spent in contracted out employment would reduce the single tier pension by nearly half.

If somebody was entitled to a higher pension under the old rules they will be given that amount.  My husband comes into that category.

We had thought that he needed to pay five years Class 3 voluntary National Insurance contributions to bring his record up to 35 years, but there is no need: Since he already has the thirty years needed for the old style pension, there is nothing to be gained by buying more.

Que sera sera – the full single tier pension would have been more money, but we weren’t relying on getting it. I knew that there was going to be a reduction for contracting out, but I had no idea it was going to be so large.

I wonder if anyone who has spent a substantial part of their career in public service will get the single-tier pension. Or indeed, how many people will get it at all in the first few years of the scheme, since there is another category of people better off under the old system — people who were not in contracted out employment and paid substantial amounts of SERPS (or ‘second pension’) contributions.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think the new scheme is a good idea, but I do know a number of people who are very uncertain about their own level of entitlement. This is a more important issue for people on lower incomes. At the moment single-tier pension forecasts are only available for people born before 1955.  The Pension Service website states that for everyone else, forecasts will only be available from April 2016.  It would be helpful for people in their late fifties planning retirement, for that date to be brought forward.

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My past experiences of the NHS A&E service were not very positive.

In 1978 I went over the handlebars of my bike and smashed up my left arm; I had a shattered elbow, fractured wrist and mild concussion.  I was found by a man who took me to hospital in his car — an exquisitely painful journey — but it meant I walked into A&E.  I was ‘triaged’ by the nurse at the desk as a non-urgent case and told to sit down and wait.  I waited, in agony, for some time before I lost control and started screaming uncontrollably, which got me some attention.

In 1988 I was rushed to hospital with a life-threatening kidney infection.  I’d been unable to keep down the antibiotics I’d been prescribed and needed to be given them intravenously. Despite arriving in an ambulance, I was then put on a trolley and not seen for an hour and a half.  Keeping hydrated is vital with kidney problems, but nobody put me on a drip and I may have only survived because my mum kept ferrying me paper cups of water from the washroom. Eventually I was found a bed on a nursing ward, only because the ward sister decided to ‘uncut’ the three beds on the ward she wasn’t supposed to fill.

Of course, that was the height of Thatcherism.  Whom we gave a state funeral including a lift on a gun carriage. And not one leading politician had the courage to refuse to attend…. all unprincipled cowards and wimps.  But I digress.

In around 1994 I spilt some boiling water on my foot.  I only attended A&E because my brother was visiting and he insisted on taking me.  After we’d waited for two hours to be seen we went home and I dressed the wound myself.

I’ve just related this series of anecdotes (and I have more) because they contrast with my recent experience at Barnstaple.  It’s been my bad luck to have to attend A&E twice in the last two months.  The first time was because flashing lights and floaters in front of my left eye indicated a risk of a detached retina, and the second was because I’d broken the fifth metatarsal on my left foot.

On the first occasion at Barnstaple A&E I did have a wait, not long, maybe half an hour, but I think that was because they had to get an eye doc over from the eye clinic. On the second occasion, for my broken foot, I was seen within minutes and was plastered and discharged within an hour, with an appointment at the fracture clinic for the following Monday. Even at the fracture clinic I was seen within five minutes of my appointment time.

This is marvellous.  This is not the NHS I’ve been nervous about putting myself at the mercy of in old age.  I keep reading that the NHS is in crisis, which may be true, but crisis is a relative term, and for the NHS, I suspect it has a different meaning for those of us whose expectations of the health service were forged in the seventies and eighties.

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