About Rob Skinner

I'm Rob Skinner. My family know me as Robert. My wife calls me Ert. (The part of 'Robert' that I don't always use...) I've been working in PR since 1987, mostly in financial services. In my spare time, I enjoy cycling reading, editing videos on my computer and practising my Welsh (dwi'n dod yn wreiddiol o Gaerdydd). And blogging. Do please post a comment! NOTE: this is my personal blog. It does not represent the views of the organisations I work for.

Royal Mail: rewarding shareholders, failing customers

What a surprise. Royal Mail is handing £400 million to shareholders after a rise in postal deliveries during the pandemic. It’s bitter news for its hapless customers.

I finally received a birthday card two weeks after blowing out my candles. I’m still waiting for last week’s New Statesman – and the previous edition, published 11 days ago.

This isn’t a new failing. Twice I have had to chase The Times because I haven’t received my subscriber’s tokens for the print edition of the Sunday Times. Businesses like The Times and New Statesman are suffering customer complaints through no fault of their own.

When will Royal Mail reward its customers rather than its shareholders, and provide the service we have paid for?

HS2: broken Tory promises

What a surprise. After countless promises to build a high speed rail line to Yorkshire, Boris Johnson confirmed that the Tory government was cancelling the eastern leg of the HS2 line to Leeds and Bradford.

It just shows you can never trust UK governments – especially Tory ones – to invest outside South East England.

If there had been any justice, construction of HS2 would have started in the north rather than London. The English capital gets a staggering £864 per person in transport spending compared with a pittance of £349 in the north of England. But when the government wanted to save money, it was the north that paid the sacrifice. Not the ever-spoilt money pit of the south east.

HS2 works, Chalfont St Giles, 2020

Yes, many in the south protested against HS2. But rather than cancelling the project, the Conservatives blew extra billions on a tunnel for HS2 under the Chilterns, including our village of Chalfont St Giles.

Leeds and Bradford are rightly outraged. (Bradford has the worst rail services of any major English city.) But spare a thought for Wales. Despite HS2 being billed as Britain’s railway, it will go nowhere near Wales, or Scotland. A cynical Tory move led to HS2 being treated as an ‘England and Wales’ project. So no extra money will flow to Wales under the Barnett formula.

Work begins, Chalfont St Giles, August 2020

There’s a sensible debate to be had about how to invest in green transport for the 21st century. HS2 may not be the right, or only, answer. But why is Britain, the country that invented railways, the nation with the fewest miles of high speed railways in western Europe? As I blogged when HS2 was first proposed, Britain’s Victorian rail network is hopelessly ill-suited to high speed trains. British Railways conceived the tilting Advanced Passenger Train in the 1970s to overcome the limitations of the West Coast Mainline, built in the 1830s and 1840s. By contrast BR chose Brunel’s Great Western mainline for its InterCity 125 high speed services because it was so level and straight, unlike its rivals.

The moral of the saga of HS2’s cancelled easter leg is that London politicians – especially one as cynical as Boris Johnson – will always favour the south east. Talk of levelling up is all bullshit. They simply don’t care about the north, Wales or Scotland. But as long as English voters keep reelecting London-biased governments, nothing will change. The case for Welsh and Scottish independence just grew stronger. Perhaps a Yorkshire National Party will follow…

PS: I reported on the HS2 works in Chalfont St Giles in August 2020 here.

Blue sky November

It was a typically gloomy November day. We hadn’t seen the sun for days. But just before the end of my lunchtime bike ride the sun came out. The difference it made was stunning. Suddenly, the roads were bathed in sunlight. The autumn trees cast shadows where there had been none minutes earlier.

I looked up and was stunned to see the edge of a weather system. Half the sky was a glorious shade of blue. The other was a blanket of thick cloud. Later, I learned from the BBC weather bulletin that this weather front stretched from eastern England as far as Russia. A continent was covered by cloud. The lack of wind had anchored it over us for days.

It was an unforgettable sight. Here’s to sunshine in November.

COP26: the end of King Coal?

Penrhos Junction, 1920. Gwyn Briwnant Jones, Photo credit: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

It was a symbol of Welsh industrial might: a locomotive hauling a coal train that seemed to go on for ever. A century ago Welsh steam coal powered the world. Yet Wales has become one of the first countries to join a global coalition of nations aiming to phase out fossil fuels: the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. It’s comes as criticism grows of the weak response of the COP26 climate conference to the climate crisis.

I grew up in Cardiff on tales of King Coal. As I lay in bed I could hear the growl of locomotives hauling coal trains along the old Rhymney Railway line from Caerphilly. And I loved visiting the mock coal mine at the National Museum of Wales – appropriately located in the basement. The museum is in Cardiff’s magnificent civic centre, part of the impressive architectural legacy of the immense wealth created by the coal boom, along with elegant ship and coal owners’ mansions such as Insole Court, Llandaff.

Continue reading

My 25 years online

It’s 25 years this month since I got online for the first time. I’d had a computer for years – an Amstrad word processor in 1987 switching to a PC in 1994 – and had been following the growing excitement about the ‘information superhighway’ as the web was called back then.

The web looked very different back then. Pages were light on graphics, as they took ages to load on the slow 56k dial up connection most people used. (Broadband came later.) And you couldn’t use the (landline) phone at the same time as it used the same line. You also paid your internet service provider for online access as well as the cost of dialling up to get online.

The web might have been made for me. I have an incurable curiosity and was soon addicted to finding out about anything and everything online. During the 1997 general election, I found out my local winning candidate from the BBC website. (The Tory candidate – unlike in so many places during Tony Blair’s landslide victory.) Soon after, Dad and I pondered the age of the prized cricket bat that his father had bought him in the 1930s. Because it had been signed by the England and New Zealand teams, we were able to date it based on the signatures. Curiously the website we used for our research was from India.

Continue reading

Cycling The Way of the Roses with Peak Tours

High Hill Lane, Settle – well named!

Not another hill! I was struggling. It had been a very hilly day, and I was climbing yet again. Even in my lowest gear, the wheels barely seemed to be moving. The Yorkshire Dales are stunning, but far from flat.

I was cycling along The Way of the Rose, a coast to coast route from Morecambe on the Irish Sea to Bridlington on the North Sea. The name refers to the famous symbols of the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, although most of the route is in Yorkshire. More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, I was ready for a cycling adventure, and the Way of the Roses in three days was ideal. Best of all, it was run by Peak Tours, the company that so impressed me with its Land’s End to John O’Groats tour in 2019. I originally booked for May 2021 but Peak Tours happily transferred me to the June tour when lockdown prevented the original taking place.

Eric Morecambe in his hometown

I drove up to Morecambe the day before the tour began, and enjoyed walking along the seafront to see the statue of Eric Morecambe, the comedian who with Ernie Wise was one of the best-loved names in British television when I was a child in the Seventies. (He certainly brought us sunshine during the tour, in contrast to torrential rain and flooding in the south.) At dusk, I walking back from dinner with the tour guides and fellow cyclists, I was thrilled to see horses galloping across the sands. It reminded me of legendary 1970s Grand National winner Red Rum, who was famously trained on Southport sands.

Continue reading

The Last Mountain: the story of Tom Ballard and Alison Hargreaves

Tom Ballard – screenshot from The Last Mountain, BBC

It was hard to hold back the tears. Back in 1995, Alison Hargreaves, a mother of two young children, was killed on the descent from K2. Almost 25 years later, her widow took a call from their daughter breaking the dreadful news that son Tom had been killed climbing another mountain not far from K2. It was as if tragedy had become an inheritance.

My emotional moment came as I watched The Last Mountain, a brilliant documentary telling the remarkable story of Alison Hargreaves and her family. The focus is on the lost Alison and Tom. We see them preparing for their expeditions that end in disaster. Tom especially is portrayed as a special talent, a young man who inherited his mother’s love of the world’s high places. We see his dedication, and feel the bitter irony of seeing his ultra-fit frame, knowing that this was the body that succumbed to the brutal elements on Nanga Parbat, Pakistan, in 2019.

Continue reading

iOS15: Left Behind

iOS15: crying wolf too many times

My heart was racing. I’d just seen a message on my Apple Watch: my iPad was ‘left behind’. I’d dropped Owen at his Sunday sailing session, and was on my way home.

Not left behind

But then I remembered that my iPad was sitting on the passenger seat next to me. Over the next 30 minutes, I got a stream of similar alerts, each time saying that the iPad was last seen at varying places on my journey. Even though I hadn’t stopped the car or taken it out.

This happens every time I take the iPad out of the house. A stream of false ‘left behind’ alerts.

The trouble with crying wolf when there is no wolf if that when a wolf does appear we take no notice. It’s the same with iOS15. Last Sunday, after I collected Owen from sailing, I told him that I’d had the usual left behind alert. We ignored it. Yet this time, it was genuine. I had left my iPhone on the table at the lovely Cafe in the Park at Rickmansworth Aquadrome. I hadn’t noticed that the alert was for my iPhone not the iPad. I had to make a return trip to collect my iPhone. (Thank you, Cafe staff, for keeping it safe.)

Why is this alert so unreliable? How can it think a device that is sitting within inches of me has been left behind? I can only assume that it cannot track the iPad’s location as it relies on wifi not a cellular network to connect. As soon as it goes to sleep, it is off grid, disconnected from my iPhone’s hotspot. Why didn’t Apple work this out? Why hasn’t it corrected this glaring failure?

The day I met Michael Heseltine

Me and Michael Heseltine

It was a tumultuous time in British politics. Prime minister John Major had just resigned as leader of the Conservative party in a desperate attempt to get his critics to put up or shut up.

All eyes were on Michael Heseltine, whose challenge to Margaret Thatcher in 1990 destroyed the Iron Lady’s premiership. Major’s fate appeared to be in Hezza’s hands. Would he slay another Tory prime minister? No – days later, he affirmed his loyalty to Major, who made him deputy prime minister.

The night I met him, he was in good spirits. The occasion was a reception at B.A.T Industries, the owner of Eagle Star, the insurance company I worked for. We had something in common: when he returned to government under Major as environment secretary he set up a competition called City Challenge. Inner city areas had to bid for funding by partnering with the private sector. I was seconded by B.A.T Industries to Lambeth Council to bid for funding for Brixton. Hezza had reportedly told Lambeth not to bother as jt had no chance. (The Tories had long memories of Lambeth’s left wing leadership in the 1980s under Red Ted Knight.) It seemed a daunting assignment.

Continue reading

Climate crisis: the train must take the strain

What an irony. Thousands travelling to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow were stranded in London after the two rail lines to Scotland were closed by severe weather. Many took flights instead.

Trains have a vital role to play if we are to tackle the climate crisis. As Clare Foges explained in an excellent column in The Times (Trains are key to getting net zero on track) rail travel creates 14 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger mile compared with 158 grams by car and 285 by plane. Yet Britain’s railways and governments seem to do everything in their power to encourage us to take more polluting forms of transport.

Family travel – at a cost

Cost

Travelling by train in Britain is eye-wateringly expensive. A Which? survey, quoted by Foges, found that domestic flights are typically half the price of the competing rail ticket, yet six times worse for carbon emissions. I’d love to travel by train more often, but even for one person the cost is punitive. If you’re travelling as a family, you may need to take out a second mortgage. Saving the planet? All the odds are stacked against us. Esoecially as the UK government has just announced a cut in the tax payable on domestic flights, just days before COP26 began. Madness.

Continue reading