Wedding and windbills

Is the credit crunch going to have an impact on guest numbers at eco-villages? Rhiannon Hanfman reve

Last week I drove my friend Judi Buttner to Loch Ness to officiate at a wedding. Judi is the Findhorn Foundation’s official marriage celebrant and can legally perform weddings not only in the community but anywhere in Scotland. The Foundation has, for at least ten years, had its own celebrant so that community people who do not, as a rule, want a traditional church wedding could have the kind of ceremony they prefer without needing to go the Registrar’s office to formalise it.

She is very busy these days with engagements throughout the Highlands, hence the trip to Lock Ness. More couples and not only those with an alternative outlook want to create individual ceremonies that incorporate words that are meaningful to them. I have been to a number of these events and each one is different and all are moving in their own way. This particular wedding took place on a boat in the middle of the loch in the shadow of Urquhart Castle. It was a very small and informal affair with family only, nevertheless the bridal pair was decked out in full wedding kit. Unusual as the venue was, some conventions do persist.

While waiting for the ceremony to begin I was chatting with a young woman who was one of the crew and learned that the number of visitors to the Inverness area is down on last year by 300 a day. Why, is no mystery. The cost of fuel, the credit squeeze and economic shambles we are in are keeping people away.

As a result of that conversation I was curious as to whether the Foundation was also experiencing low guest numbers. Fortunately, it seems not, or at least not yet. The numbers are pretty much the same as last year. This is good news for us but it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the economic downturn will reduce guest numbers eventually.

I wonder, however, if the reverse may not happen. When times are tough, people begin to question accepted truths like, for example, the superiority of free market economics, and will look for alternatives. An eco-village model such as Findhorn provides alternatives on many levels. The free market is increasingly becoming unsustainable and people may want to look for something that is.

Only yesterday, I spotted an interesting alternative in the front garden of my friends, George Goudsmit and Mary Inglis. There was a large metal object that looked like a cross between a bird and a modern sculpture, turning gently in the wind. George, who runs AES, a solar heating company in Forres, explained to me that it was a wind turbine designed to operate on the roof of an ordinary house. He and his neighbour hope to promote it and had placed it in the garden to see what interest it generated.

It certainly got my attention. Single-dwelling windmills have already been manufactured but some have the unpleasant side effect of making the house shake when they are going flat out. Apparently this turbine does not do that. What it does do is produce about 500w of electricity. The cost is reasonable too. George thinks it could pay for itself within three years. It’s encouraging to learn of a green energy option that doesn’t cost the earth.

It’s a bit of a ramble from weddings to windmills and sustainability. The common theme, if there is one, is change—change of status, change of lifestyle, change in the world. In the community we talk about change as a good thing, generally. The changes afoot in the world at the moment are challenging and it remains to be seen how we meet them, individually and collectively. The thought I am left with is that in the I Ching the hexagram symbolising ‘danger’ is the same as ‘opportunity’.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.