Miliband is right to stand up to the energy companies' blackmail

Were trade unions threatening to plunge the country into darkness, Cameron would be calling in the troops.

Ed Miliband's promise to fix energy bills for 20 months if Labour win the 2015 election will remove some of the pressure that ordinary people across the country feel every day. Households are already paying £2bn more for their gas and electricity after the last hikes in November 2012. Now the energy companies are looking to add another £1.4bn onto bills this coming winter. This has added £300 to the average bill in this parliament. This cannot go on.

Immediately after Ed’s announcement, the usual shouts came that this was "meddling in the free market". "Back to the seventies" and "you can't beat supply and demand" echoed on. Let us put aside the fact that the average yearly growth in the 1970s, 2.88%, is more than the economy has grown in total since Quarter 3 2010. The energy market in this country is not a free market, it is a racket. Six multinational companies dominate, and in much of the country choice is reduced still further. These companies are now threatening blackouts if their profits are in any way challenged by an elected government. Were this a trade union threatening to plunge the country into darkness, Mr Cameron would be calling in the troops. Yet when it is time to challenge a private cartel about that classic seventies question, “who runs Britain?” this government is silent. 

Npower were first out of the traps on Tuesday, with their spokesman decrying these "easy answers", and that the "global market" would drive costs regardless of what they did. The biggest shareholders in Npower, or to give it its proper name Rheinisch-Westfälisches Elektrizitätswerk Npower plc, are a group of German towns and cities. In other words, the profits Npower extracts from the British people allow German municipalities to keep the rates down. The people of Middlesbrough are effectively paying rent to the people of Münster. It seems state intervention is acceptable when investing in your corporation, but bad when it seeks to limit your profits.

This confused attitude to the "free market" runs through all the "Big Six". Iberdrola, owners of Scottish Power, are kept liquid by €27bn in state backed loans and massive subsidies from the struggling Spanish government.  Both Centrica and Scottish and Southern Electric are receiving over £50m each in subsidies just for wind power. E.On’s decision whether or not to build a new biomass generator in Bristol was not dependent upon ‘market forces’, but how much tax-payer money the Department for Energy and Climate Change would promise it.

Perhaps the greatest example of state interference however is Électricité de France, EdF, controlled by the French state. They are the company that we are turning to to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. Britain, which built the first commercial nuclear generator in the world at Calder Hall, must now wait on the whim of the French President.

Has it really come to this? That a country once the workshop of the world relies on the French to build its power stations? On the Danes to forge its turbines? On Norwegian gas to keep our lights on? Is Britain a ‘third world’ country that it has to beg for foreign investment to upgrade its infrastructure?

I welcome companies from all around the world who want to set up shop in Britain. This nation gains greatly from international firms bringing their skills and expertise here, and we are richer for it. Our membership of the European Union and good working relationship with our European neighbours is a key part of this attraction. But those meetings must always be as equals, not as supplicants.

The repeated refusal of the British state to back its own people has led to the basics of life; from water, to energy, to transport being sold off not to thousands of plucky entrepreneurs, but to American corporate titans, Chinese and Arab sovereign wealth funds, or the state-backed enterprises of our savvier European cousins. Rather than invest in our own youngsters, our own infrastructure, our own future, a small elite have skewed our economy not by accident, but by design. As Ed said on Tuesday, Britain can do better than this.

Andy McDonald is the Labour MP for Middlesbrough

The logo of the French electricity company EDF is pictured on a building of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant reactor in eastern France. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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.