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Britain’s ‘social snapshot’

03 February 2011

This year is a census year, Sunday March 27 being the due date when we muster in our living rooms to record a snapshot of all those living within the walls of our homes. As past census records are progressively posted on the Internet, they have very rapidly become the tool of choice for amateur and professional genealogist alike, but the significance of the statistics drawn from this decennial state undertaking goes far beyond simply satisfying our curiosity for the antics of our forebears. They also reveal some interesting social trends.

Indeed, one of the main uses for the census, over the course of its 210 year history, has been to track societal change. Decade by decade, as our society has changed due to war, industry, disease or migration, the data gathered from each census has helped governments, agencies and organisations track long and short-term trends.

The first modern census was taken in 1801, at a time when people feared that Britain’s growing population would exceed the country’s food supply. Around nine million people were counted and the country’s turnip stores were deemed safe. But the fact the census data could be used to these ends, to track changes and to plan on a major scale for a societal landscape that was forever shifting, meant census questions and British society would be intrinsically linked for the next 200-plus years. To find out more about the 2011 Census, and some interesting facts about its history, click here.

A nation of contractors?
According to figures from YouGov, around a third of the UK workforce would like to create their own company. Unemployment, graduates struggling to secure jobs, the virtual demise of final salary pensions, job security and zero percentage wage rises, is pushing many people’s hands, says SJD Accountancy, which handles the tax affairs of around 10,000 limited companies. And that seems to be borne out by SJD’s own figures, which show an unprecedented 70 percent rise in the number of contractors coming to the market and going limited.

Managing director, Simon Dolan says that historically, the contractor and freelancer market has largely been the domain of the self-employed IT specialist. “In the past few years there has been a shift, in that we are seeing many traditionally permanent job roles being converted into contract positions, including human resources, sales, marketing, healthcare and engineering.”

“Currently, nearly 50 percent of all new clients are from sectors outside of IT,” he says. “With permanent jobs no longer making people feel secure within their roles, we feel the future will see a lot more people wanting to take back control by contracting or setting up their own company, as has been shown throughout 2010”. 

An energy infrastructure in crisis
Last week, the Energy & Climate Change Select Committee convened to discuss electricity market reform in Britain. It was the third oral evidence session to which key stakeholders were summoned to explain how they intended to overhaul this creaking market. Subjects aired included rising gas and electricity bills, the energy security challenge, climate change mitigation and UK market competition.

M&C Energy Group senior analyst, David Hunter was not overly impressed, particularly by the industry’s stance on energy prices. While the energy companies sitting in front of the committee might refute claims of excessive charging, Mr Hunter says there is no hiding the fact that they have enjoyed huge increases in profit margins - an average of 38% according to OFGEM in December.

“After suffering the coldest winter in years, the government is under pressure to take control of run-away energy prices and introduce measures that protect consumers,” he says. “Insisting on a minimum notice period for price increases has been mooted, but not acted upon by the regulator thereby playing right into the hands, and indeed the pockets, of the energy companies.”

Research undertaken by his company has identified that consumers wait longer for announced price reductions to come into force, but increases are implemented with unseemly haste. Indeed, M&C’s analysis shows that in the last three years, suppliers have given customers an average of nine days’ notice of their intention to put up bills, but are making householders wait an average of twenty days for price discounts to come into effect.

Furthermore, in the last three years, 75 percent of price cuts were made at the end of March to coincide with the return of warmer weather, whereas two thirds of price increases were announced in late summer and early winter in time for peak energy usage.

More pressing is the fragile state of the UK’s energy infrastructure, which is increasingly exposed to imported fuels and ageing power stations. According to reports, even France, with its massive nuclear infrastructure, could start to see a power shortfall as soon as 2013. This will put greater pressure on the UK (an importer of electricity from France), worsening our supply situation and forcing further price rises.

The committee also sought ideas from those giving evidence as to how the industry might attract the £200bn required to replace the UK’s ageing infrastructure. As any investment must be privately funded, the government has proposed incentives for private investors, including capacity payments, ‘feed-in’ tariffs to support low carbon power sources, and a ‘floor’ on the carbon price. The balance the government must strike is to provide a healthy incentive for private organisations to invest without writing a blank cheque.

Mr Hunter, however, has serious reservations. “Reforming a market which is frankly on its knees and dominated by a few private organisations looking to increase shareholder returns is a difficult task; getting it right will deliver major economic benefits for Britain, getting it wrong is simply not an option.”

Les Hunt

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