My Grant Shapps obsession

The Tory minister who has demanded my attention.

I suppose it's a bit odd to admit to a growing preoccupation with a Tory minister. But the unavoidable truth is this: I'm becoming increasingly obsessed with Grant Shapps MP.

Our current generation of front bench politicians are largely sensible, sober, and utterly downcast men and women. On a media day they drone out their pre-prepared sound-bites at some ungodly hour to Evan Davis, then they trudge around Millbank saying exactly the same things to Jane Hill, then Dermot Murnaghan; then they might have to pretend they find Andrew Neil's jibes on the Daily Politics amusing and by 2pm they're often trembling, broken husks, sloping back to their departments with the air of someone who's been stuck in the job for forty years.

Shapps gives an altogether different impression. The man simply loves being a politician. His Twitter feed is a curiously engrossing stream of Tiggerish minutiae. Whether he's making a five-minute appearance on Radio Luton or holding a surgery in Hatfield, you can always rest safe in the knowledge that Grant will keep you up-to-date.

I find myself getting increasingly excited as I wait for his next tweet. Exactly how frivolous will it be? And then it comes, and his 40,000 followers learn he's "On way to Partnership Accreditation for Landlords launch at University of Hertfordshire," and you think: brilliant. Who cares about that? Obviously I do, because I'm slightly obsessed, but what about everyone else? I suppose it's like following Joey Barton or Jedward: never mind if you find his updates boring; he clearly doesn't. You end up being buoyed along by the enthusiasm.

Frankly I'll take that over whichever spambot is responsible for, say, Andrew George's feed. Maybe you think Shapps is a fraud, and he doesn't care half as much as he makes out. Well - you tell me that the man who stars - I mean, really stars - in this video doesn't love his work.

But passion apart, what matters is how well the man's doing his job. And here, the jury's out. First, he's done some excellent work on homelessness prior to coming into Government. Few would dispute he understands the problem and is committed to solving it. But on housing, while it's early days, his record is already patchy.

Make no mistake: this is a huge issue. It's one of the oddities of political discourse. Outrage over tuition fees, cuts, NHS and welfare reform is understandable, but in terms of our day-to-day existence, the steady refusal of successive Governments to intervene in the market and provide affordable housing is one of the greatest political betrayals of our time - but protests have been conspicuous by their absence. The cruel vicissitudes of the private rental market create misery for millions. Yet when in October last year the Chartered Institute of Housing, the National Housing Federation and the housing charity Shelter declared that overall house building is at its lowest level since 1924, it was met with barely a murmur of dissent.

Shapps seems to have an somewhat contradictory attitude to social housing. On the one hand, he clearly wants to remove the stigma from it and make it provide a first rung on the property ladder. His announcement of flexible tenancies seems a sensible step in the right direction, and he's been praised by housing professionals for ending the complex subsidy system. The aforementioned CIH report also commended him for his work to improve mobility within the sector.

It was therefore a bit of a shock two months later when he was laying into social housing without a shred of evidence to back up his claims: "For years the system...has been associated with injustice - where rewards are reaped for those who know how to play the system best." His remarks sparked outrage from a number of beleaguered providers, and getting Andrew Gilligan on board did little to dampen their rage.

Then there's Shapps's new version of right-to-buy. Inevitably, there will be a shortfall in terms of revenues received - one estimate claims each house will raise just £10,000, and the chief executive of Plymouth Community Homes has stated publicly that he will probably have to sell two, perhaps three, discounted homes to build one in the same area. There's no new money to make it up - so the fears are other development will fall by the wayside as the Government seeks to provide "one for one". Shapps claims that the affordable rent programme means it's possible to build a public home by investing less money than previously. But hovering over all this is the question of who keeps the receipts - council or Government - if it's the latter and a grant is provided, will it be given in addition to existing affordable housing programmes? How can he ensure the money is spent wisely?

Shapps's serene public mask has only slipped once, on the Today programme. The accusation was that he'd tried to bury bad news by avoiding a discussion regarding the slowdown in the number of social houses being built in Britain - the day after the Government made a major house-building announcement. He didn't take it well, and ended up sounding outraged at the accusation he'd choose to miss out on any media appearance, regardless of the timing. The very idea. Once the discussion finally did get under way he asked to be judged over a longer period of time. Fine. But for all the initiatives he's introduced, it doesn't look promising. He's only managed to deliver 106,000 homes to September last year.

He has a hell of a job ahead of him. One thing in his favour is that he doesn't seem to mind rocking the boat a bit. Last week he was on Channel Four News discussing the proposed council tax freeze. Krishnan Guru-Murthy made the point that several of the councils that were refusing to accept the Government money being offered to enable the tax freeze were Tory. Shapps narrowed his eyes and stared down the lens. There was a hint of Clint Eastwood on the dirt road, facing off against a particularly vicious band of outlaws. He growled: "Don't confuse localism with meaning we don't encourage people to do the right thing. We're saying where councils refuse to pass on the cash they might have to face their electors." Take that, Surrey Council! Your own Government minister just suggested your constituents vote Labour or Lib Dem if you don't do as he says. You can't even call that playing hardball - it's just plain maverick.

It's pathetic I know - but I find myself rooting for Grant Shapps. He's the best kind of Tory: enthusiastic, self-made, and devoid of airs and graces. Quite apart from that, his cousin was in The Clash. If that isn't a decent enough reason to follow someone on Twitter, I don't know what is.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets @aljwhite.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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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.