Osborne's £12bn black hole

Without further cuts and tax rises, Osborne will likely miss his pledge to eliminate the structural

As the Lib Dems fight in Birmingham to emphasise their "distinctiveness", it's worth remembering that they and the Tories are at one on the need to stick to George Osborne's deficit reduction strategy. Like Cameron and Osborne, Clegg and Cable argue that the adoption of a "plan B" would trigger a dramatic loss of confidence in Britain and a rise in interest rates. As Clegg told Andrew Marr on Sunday: "Does anyone seriously think that by ripping up the plan to balance the books, that somehow you will create growth by next Tuesday? It is a complete illusion. Actually what you would create is outright market panic, higher interest rates and more unemployment."

The coalition has pledged to meet two fiscal targets by the end of this parliament - the elimination of the structural deficit and a reduced debt-to-GDP ratio. But lower-than-expected growth (as the graph below shows, forecasters have slashed their 2011 growth predictions), reduced tax revenues, and higher-than-expected unemployment means that both goals are in doubt. Osborne was forced to announce an extra £44.5bn of borrowing at the Budget in March and the economic picture has only darkened since.

Average of independent forecasts for 2011

A

Source: Treasury.

Today's FT offers confirmation of the Chancellor's woes. The paper replicated the model of government borrowing used by the OBR and found that the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that remains even after growth returns) is set to be £12bn higher-than-expected. Consequently, without further spending cuts and/or tax rises, it's likely that Osborne will miss his pledge to eliminate the structural deficit by 2014-15, and he may not even meet it in 2015-16. Judging by this prognosis, all thought of a pre-election "giveaway" should be abandoned. Indeed, austerity may well last into the next parliament. The FT notes that plugging the black hole at the next Budget would require the equivalent of raising VAT from 20 per cent to 22.5 per cent. But if I was Osborne I'd be more inclined to adopt a version of Vince Cable's "mansion tax" in addition to other taxes on property and land. Polls show strong public support for new wealth taxes.

Of course, Osborne and his allies will argue that all of this vindicates the government's approach. If even the coalition's austerity measures can't eliminate the structural deficit, how would Labour do? But the opposition, in the person of Ed Balls, will rightly reply that it was Osborne's decision to cut (and tax) too hard and too early, that led to reduced growth and, consequently, a slower pace of deficit reduction. The widening gap in the public finances could turn the fiscal debate on its head - and not a moment too soon.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.