Dividing Lines: Getting old

The graph of doom.

In local government they call it “the graph of doom”. It is the chart with one steep downhill line showing budget resources and, soaring above it, another line showing the demand for services to look after an ageing population.

According to the latest census, one in six Britons is past retirement age. The number of pensioners will rise from roughly 12 million now to 16 million in 2050. The number of people aged over 100 (now around 12,000) will double over the next decade. As local authorities are responsible for adult social care, they won’t be doing anything else in the future unless the system changes.

What about the National Health Service?
It isn’t designed to provide long-term care for the elderly. Many people discover that only when they or their parents need urgent help. By some estimates, a third of all hospital beds are occupied by elderly patients. Long-term social care, arranged by councils, isn’t free for all. There’s a means test.

That’s the bit where I sell my house, right?
Under current rules, if you are worth more than £23,250 you pay. How much depends on the kind of care you need and where you live but the exposure is potentially unlimited. That often means cashing in equity.

Politicians should do something.
They are. The government is proposing a cap of £75,000 on the amount any one person would have to spend, starting in 2017. There will be a new, tapered means test starting at £123,000 – and so someone worth £50,000 still has to pay something, but less than someone worth £100,000. No one should pay a penny beyond the £75,000 cap.

Really?
No. In the small print, you are still liable for some “hotel costs” – the bed and board element of residential social care, the logic being that you’d still be paying for that sort of thing at home. But the state will now ease the burden for tens of thousands more pensioners.

If all these people are being let off the hook, where does the money come from?
The Treasury will need to find about £1bn extra per year. Some of this will be coming from additional employer National Insurance contributions. Most will be raised by freezing inheritance-tax thresholds, skimming more revenue over time from legacies of the dead.

Death taxes! Yuck!
Funny you should say that. It’s the very line that the Tories used in the 2010 general election campaign when attacking a Labour plan for universal social care, funded in part from inheritance taxes.

Oh, the irony.
That’s one word for it. That campaign poisoned relations between the Labour and Tory health teams, which made cross-party agreement impossible even though everyone agrees this is one of those big, long-term issues that demands collaboration. After the election, the coalition commissioned Andrew Dilnot, an eminent statistician, to come up with a plan. His report, published in July 2011, forms the basis of the coalition’s proposal. The government’s cap is a bit less generous than Dilnot recommended.

It took them 18 months to make that tweak?
It took them the best part of 18 months to summon up the courage to do much at all. There was a social care white paper last year that avoided the Dilnot route, which sounded a bit difficult and expensive to implement. Then the coalition parties realised that they needed some policy for the second half of the parliament. That became more urgent the clearer it got that fixing the national finances – formally declared Tough Issue Number One and the coalition’s stated raison d’être – wasn’t being tackled to anyone’s satisfaction. So Dilnot’s plan was fetched into Downing Street from the long grass.

And how’s that cross-party consensus coming along?
Labour has responded cautiously to the new coalition plan, with variations on the classic “too little, too late” holding rebuttal. Separately, Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, has devised a grand plan to integrate social care with the NHS. The idea, under the rubric of “whole-person care”, is to find ways to maximise the value that society gets from the huge health budget with a more strategic focus on promoting healthy, happy living – supporting the elderly to stay in their homes, for example. That, in theory, works better and costs less than the present inefficient process, which intervenes too late and ends up throwing money at random at the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles and poorly managed chronic conditions.

What does that mean in practice?
There’s a review to work out the details.

What about the money?
The right kind of interventions at the right time save money in the long term, as health and social care spending would go much further if the system wasn’t forced into making so many costly last-minute emergency interventions. Hospitals wouldn’t be turned into vast geriatric warehouses.

Long-term savings appear only in the long term. You’d need money upfront to fix social care, even just to match what the government is doing.
Yes, you would. And when Labour finally decides what its spending priorities are, there is a strong chance this will turn out to be one of them.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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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.