Modernisation continues at Royal Mail

Royal Mail is undergoing one of the most important change programmes undertaken in the UK. New delivery methods designed to enable Royal Mail employees to deal with the changes in the postal market – a decline in letters and an increase in packets – are being introduced. Significant reductions in the number of mail centres are also underway and around half of the 64 centres in 2010 could eventually close by 2016 or sooner.

Today, after more than nine months of consultation with the CWU under the 2010 Business Transformation agreement, Royal Mail is announcing its plan for rationalisation and investment in Greater London. With the number of postal items posted in London expected to more than halve between 2006 and 2014, it is imperative that Royal Mail continues the modernisation programme.

Following these consultations with the unions, it is likely that only five mail centres will be needed in Greater London. We expect the rationalisation of the mail centre estate to see the phased closure of the East London and South London mail centres to commence immediately. The mail centres remaining are: Croydon, Greenford, Jubilee (Feltham), Romford and Mount Pleasant. New accommodation is also being sought for the administrative and support staff based at Rathbone Place. The Greater London rationalisation programme is expected to achieve annual savings of £30 million.

Mount Pleasant is a large facility which needs significant investment to handle the postal volumes in London, including the change in the mix of items. Royal Mail expects to invest £69 million in Greater London as part of the UK-wide modernisation programme; of this, £32 million will be invested in Mount Pleasant. The latest automation equipment will be installed there; working conditions will be significantly improved.

Royal Mail would like to thank the CWU for its valuable input including a report produced by the union. Following the union’s input, East London mail centre will close six months later than originally planned. The company is also providing extended outplacement facilities for its employees in London, as discussed with the CWU. The consultation on the London mail centres commenced in early June. In November 2010, Roger Poole and Peter Harwood were asked to assist in bringing the review to a successful conclusion. Both Roger Poole and Peter Harwood had played a significant role in the 2010 Business Transformation agreement.

After much study and careful thought, Royal Mail believes it will not have to resort to compulsory redundancies to manage the reduction in the number of employees. With people demonstrating reasonable flexibility, Royal Mail expects that everyone who wants to remain in the business will be able to do so. As a result of the rationalisation programme, we expect the number of people employed in London will decline by approximately 751. The company has in place a well-developed programme to help its people to adjust to these changes.

Consultations with Unite/CMA will also begin shortly on reducing the number of Royal Mail operational line managers across the UK by up to 1,000 through voluntary means. This follows a separate review of managers in head office departments which will result in 1,700 people leaving the Group when this specific initiative concludes. The company has reduced the number of employees by around 65,000 since 2002.

Mark Higson, Managing Director of Operations and Modernisation, said: “Royal Mail’s modernisation programme, which is vital to ensuring a successful future for the letters and parcels business, depends on having the right number of people in our business as well as deploying the right technology and equipment.

“We are conscious of the impact today’s announcement will have on our staff in London. It is hard to reduce job numbers at any time; we are committed to doing everything we can, in line with our agreement with the union, to make these changes on a voluntary basis. We will be providing specialist outplacement advice to help our people affected by this announcement to look for new opportunities outside Royal Mail.”

Punch Taverns to sell over 2,000 pubs

Punch Taverns, the UK’s biggest pubs group, announced plans today to split its business in two and sell over 2,000 of its pubs.

The announcement is the result of a strategic review by Chief Executive, Ian Dyson, following his take-over of the company in 2010.

Punch has been hit by the recession, the smoking ban and the rise in cheap supermarket booze. This has resulted in a fall in company profits and sky high debt, hitting a massive £3.3bn last year.

The company plans to separate the managed and leased pub operations to create two new public companies.

The leased side, where landlords rent the property and get their supplies from Punch is facing more difficult conditions and will face the bulk of the cuts.

Currently they have 6,000 leased, or tenanted, pubs, over half of which will be sold at a rate of about 500 per year.

And some will be transferred to the managed division, Spirit, which includes brands such as Chef & Brewer, Fayre & Square and Flaming Grill.

Although the managed side is suffering lower sales and profit margins than its competitors Punch believe they are well placed to take advantage of the growing trend in eating out.

Ian Dyson said: “We believe that there is a significant value creation opportunity at Punch, with immediate upside in managed and longer term upside in leased.

“We do not believe that either opportunity can be maximised within the current Group structure and accordingly, we propose that the two businesses be separated.

“This will be achieved by the demerger of Spirit and the creation of two independent public companies.

“Spirit will be positioned to deliver market leading sales and profit growth and to expand with the aim of becoming the UK’s leading managed pub operator.”

But bondholders expressed concerns that the restructuring did not tackle the issue of turning around poor trading results.

A spokesman for a special committee of the company’s creditors said: “We remain concerned to see the real issues in the operating businesses addressed fast.

“We have waited six months for the review to be conducted, during which time operational performance in the leased estate, where bondholders have £2.5bn at risk, has continued to decline.”

Shares in Punch Taverns rose 4% following the announcement and ended the day 2.3% higher.

Sarah Taylor

Local authorities help first time buyers

First-time buyers who are struggling to save a deposit will soon be able to get help from local authorities as part of a new scheme.

The scheme is aimed at individuals that can afford mortgage repayments, but cannot afford the deposit for a property.

Under the scheme, local councils will provide security of up to 20% of the property’s value, which will be held with the lender and on which interest would be paid, enabling buyers to qualify for a lower mortgage rate.

They would still borrow up to 95% of the property’s value meaning they would own it outright, unlike a shared ownership scheme.

The local authorities Blackpool, East Lothian, Newcastle Under Lyme, Northumberland and Warrington will be piloting the Local Lend a Hand scheme.

It is possible that ten more councils will offer the scheme in the next month.

Lloyds TSB Mortgages is the first lender to sign up to the programme, and has adapted its current Lend a Hand product where parents can put up to 20 per cent of a property’s value into an account as security for the loan.

Now it is the local council that will provide this money, and first time buyers will only require a minimum five per cent deposit for the property.

Interest rates have not yet been decided, but Lloyds have said they will be similar to their Lend a Hand product, which include either a fixed-rate of 5.09 per cent for three years, with a £895 fee, or a rate of 5.79 per cent with no fee.

Lloyds TSB’s traditional range offers a rate of 5.99 with a 10 per cent deposit, meaning the new scheme gives cheaper rates.

Each local authority will decide on the maximum amount they will lend, and also which places in their area the scheme will be available.

Housing Minister Grant Shapps said: “I’m delighted to see that those on the front line of building homes and providing mortgages are stepping up their efforts to help aspiring first-time buyers get a foot on the ladder.”

First-time buyers can visit their local Lloyds TSB branch to find out if the new scheme is available to them.

Alex Wainwright




Vebnet and Towers Watson Announce Partnership Throughout Latin America

Vebnet, a market-leading global technology provider of total rewards and flexible benefits solutions, and Towers Watson, a leading global professional services company, have announced a formal partnership in Latin America.

The partnership combines Towers Watson’s expertise in benefits, investment and communication consulting with Vebnet’s market-leading technology to support organisations that need portal-based flexible employee benefit schemes. Vebnet and Towers Watson have a similar, successful partnership in Asia Pacific.

“The increasing diversity of today’s workforce makes flexibility an essential component of benefit provision and total rewards programs,” said Segundo Tascon, Latin America benefits director of Towers Watson.

“Together, Towers Watson and Vebnet will offer a fully integrated yet highly configurable solution to clients and their employees. Vebnet’s FIX&FLEX is an intuitive and highly configurable technology application that enables companies to provide education and information content through engaging communications and consistent messaging within a common employee brand.”

By combining Vebnet’s technology, bespoke communication programs delivered through multimedia channels and highly experienced consulting and implementation teams, Towers Watson can develop and deliver a differentiated employee benefit strategy and solution to leading companies. This solution can include communications plans, total rewards statements, flexible benefits  and online pay slips to bring more choice, empowerment, flexibility and automation to the company’s benefit scheme. The technology can be deployed in multiple languages and currencies and be the application controlling multinational or global employee benefit scheme provision and administration.

This technology currently supports over 260 organizations, covering 400,000 employees. The technology is deployed in over 20 countries and in different languages including Chinese, Thai and Spanish.

The partnership is specifically designed to assist companies facing any issues prevalent in Latin America such as; escalating benefit cost inflation, increasing complexity and cost in benefit scheme administration, increasing diversity in the workforce and different employees’ needs, a desire to leverage the value that employers spend on benefit provision, the challenge of engaging employees through relevant and effective communications, an obligation to educate and inform employees of the need to save for and plan for retirement and becoming an employer of choice with a differentiated reward and benefit strategy.

“We are very pleased to partner with Towers Watson and bring our clients a solution that will address a number of key employee benefit issues and deliver innovative market-leading and truly differentiated benefit solutions,” said Gerry O’Neil, chief executive officer of Vebnet.



Petrol prices reach record high

The average price of petrol has reached a record high at just over 130 pence per litre – according to industry analyst, Experian Catalist.

The soaring prices at the pumps have resulted in a 15% increase over the last 12 months in petrol costs, with diesel now averaging 135.44 pence per litre.

And surging oil prices caused by unrest in the Middle East mean they are set to stay sky-high.

In the last month alone prices have gone up 10% following the uprising in Libya, who are a major oil exporter.

The increase in VAT, from 17.5% up to 20%, is also to blame for the sudden increase seen since 2010 when prices were 6 pence lower.

RAC motoring strategist, Adrian Tink, said the current unstable oil market and the intended fuel duty rise in April could see petrol prices ‘increase by another 8p a litre in the near future’.

He said: “This kind of rise will seriously impact on people’s car use, many of whom have no other option but to travel by car.”

And filling up a typical family car is now costing an extra £8.65 compared to last year.

AA president Edmund King said: “Now that petrol has hit record highs at the pumps the Chancellor must abandon the proposed tax hike (next month) and seriously consider reducing fuel duty to stabilise prices.

“The current fuel costs and political uncertainty in the Middle East and North Africa means that the Government must bite the bullet and act to stop fuel prices from fueling inflation and driving people off the roads.”

The increase will also be felt elsewhere as holiday company Thomas Cook introduce a fuel surcharge on all flights. The surcharge applies to both flight-only or package holidays, and applies whether the trip is booked through a travel agency or directly with Thomas Cook itself.

The holiday company blames a 40% increase in fuel.

A spokesman for the company, Ian Ailles, said: “We’ve worked hard to keep the impact of the rising fuel costs on our holidaymakers to a minimum but the fuel levy is an unavoidable result of the rising price of oil.”

Sarah Taylor

Laura Ashley Opens First Bahrain Store

From very humble beginnings, Laura Ashley UK has recently branched out by opening its first store in Bahrain. This company has become a recognized name in the fashion and home décor business. Little did a stay-at-home mom envision what a dynamic business entity would result from a cottage industry beginning in a tiny London flat. Ashley, originally from Wales, first created headscarves and a few simple items such as tea towels and dinning table mats. With the help of her husband who perfected a machine with which to transfer the designs to fabric, a world-class business was born.

Ironically, Ashley fashions were launched into the public eye by Audrey Hepburn co-starring with Gregory Peck in the movie ‘Roman Holiday’ in 1953. In the film Hepburn was seen wearing a beautiful headscarf designed by Ashley. Since this movie was quite a hit with women, seeking to obtain such an accessory became of paramount importance.

Recently the Laura Ashley conglomerate opened its first store in Bahrain. This establishment is a 5000 square foot shop located in the Seef Mall. The opening was heralded with a ribbon cutting ceremony which included the British Ambassador, Jamie Bowden. According to company officials, this area was chosen based upon a two-year previous relationship with the Al Aqili Group of Dubai. It was noted that the people of this area are known for their willingness to be open to new ideas especially with regard to their homes and families. In the UAE in general, much attention is given to the beautification of homes and in most cases no expense is spared in the process.

Although primarily a UK company, Laura Ashley fashions and home décor items can be found in the US as well. Among the more popular items are wallpaper and a variety of types, colors and textures of interior wall paint and wallpaper. Shopping online at is the simplest way to purchase and using Laura Ashley voucher codes are a great way to save.

Laura Ashley, first known primarily for woman’s apparel has ventured into many other areas including a special clothing line for ‘little women’. The Laura Ashley collection for children is definitely stylish and cutting edge without making little girls appear to be ladies fashion clones.

Whether used to grace a stately mansion, a lowly flat or an American family room, the fireplace is a mainstay bringing warmth to the home as well as the heart. Once again, Laura Ashley has vaulted to the forefront with a beautiful collection of fireplaces and accessories.

UK Fuel Costs Expected To Hit Record High

Motorists face further anguish today as petrol costs hit a whole new record high of £1.22 a litre, as outlined by the AA.

Following a 7 days of traffic pandemonium with the Big Freeze, the expense of refueling at the pumps is ready to surge – adding roughly £25 towards the month-to-month bill of a two-car family.

It arrives as individuals throughout Britain fight their way with larger food and utility bills.

Rising Oil and wholesale fuel costs – together with claimed profiteering from oil companies and suppliers – are held responsible for the increases in the price of petrol. Prices are likely to rise even higher in the New Year when the VAT rate goes up another 2.5% – to 20%.

The AA has predicted highs of up to 124p in the coming weeks.

‘It is highly likely that UK average petrol prices will set a new record on Friday,’ said a spokesman.

AA President Edmund King said: ‘In the past week, we have seen the average price of petrol shoot up 1.7p a litre across the UK and diesel rise 1.61p.

‘It comes at a particularly bad time for drivers who have struggled with appalling winter weather and often seen their fuel drain away while stuck in snow-bound traffic jams.

‘Although the wholesale price of petrol has risen sharply in the past fortnight, there is a growing feeling of helplessness among drivers with winter travel disruption and ever-rising fuel costs.

‘If current prices persist, the new year increase in fuel duty and VAT will push petrol prices up to 124p a litre.’ He added: ‘Our only hope is that either oil and fuel markets settle back down or the pound strengthens against the dollar. Until then, it is an even more uncomfortable ride for families trying to keep their cars on the road.’

ITV Set To Be Real Winner In X Factor Final

UK terrestrial TV channel ITV are all set for what will be the most lucrative British TV show of all time with their weekend showing of the X Factor Final.

The channel are expecting to rake in £25m in advertising revenue over Saturday and Sunday night as the hugely popular singing show draws to a climax with four contestants battling it out for the title. Young rapper Cher Lloyd, smooth crooner Matt Cardle, Liverpool soulstress Rebecca Ferguson and teenage boyband One Direction are all in the running for a £1m record label prize and a massive catapult into the music business.

According to ITV figures, this weekend’s X Factor could earn £10,000 per second as 30-second commercial break slots sell for as much as £300,000. The show is expected to be the most-watched TV event of the year with over 20million viewers predicted to watch the Sunday night results.
And The Guardian reports that ITV has increased its usual allocation of five commercial breaks within each show to six to maximise its revenue potential. The paper maintains that advertisers are paying up to £250,000 for slots on the Sunday night show, and around £200,000 on Saturday.

As well as advertising cash, the money will also roll in from those phoning in to vote for their favourite act. The X Factor’s money-spinning ability has soared and it is expected to smash through the £100million advertising revenue mark for the first time this year.

Advertisers thought to have been in talks about taking up the slots in the final include Microsoft, BSkyB, Pizza Hut and Hallmark. The X Factor final is now regarded as the British version of the U.S. Superbowl in that it is the TV event of the year for advertisers.

Scottish trawlermen found guilty of £37m worth of illegal landings

Scottish fishermen have pleaded guilty to a long-established plot to sidestep landing quotas.

More than £37m worth of herring and mackerel were illegally caught between 2002 and 2005 in the waters around Shetland.

Six trawler skippers from the island pleaded guilty at Edinburgh’s high court on Monday. They were convicted of falsifying records in an attempt to avoid the declaration of £15.25m worth of catches during the three-year period.

In all 14 fishermen have admitted bringing in illegal mackerel and herring to Shetland’s main port of Lerwick in a practice referred to as ‘black landings’.

The case is the biggest ever of its kind in Britain and involved a huge and often complex investigation by the police and fisheries officials, leading in all to three court cases this year.

Between them the skippers have admitted to 524 undeclared ‘black’ landings, a total of £37,212,271 worth of fish during 2002 and 2005.

Sentences are expected to be handed down to the fishermen next year. They are also likely to suffer big fines with prosecutors having the power to seize assets and money and invoke confiscation orders.

One of Lerwick’s best known fish processing companies, Shetland Catch Ltd., was also found guilty of helping the 14 skippers land their illegal catches.

Prosecutors in Edinburgh expect to bring more related cases to court in 2011.

“The ramifications of overfishing on such a scale are extremely serious, due to the potentially devastating impact for the marine environment and the fishing industry itself,” said Scott Pattison, director of operations at the Crown Office.

He also said that in all the cases so far “there was a false declaration of the quantity of fish landed. This was the principal method of deception used by the skipper accused throughout the relevant period.”

Black landings have by and large died out in Scotland after tighter controls and voluntary conservation plans.

Honda to Recall Almost 400,000 American Motor Vehicles

Honda VT1300 RecallJapanese automaker Honda Motor Corporation will recall almost 400,000 vehicles sold throughout the United States due to ignition issues. The company’s shares were trading at a 1.2% decline from their previous rate after the company announced intentions of recalling the vehicles, which those involved in the automotive industry believe could cost the company tens of millions of dollars.

Honda is one of the world’s largest automotive and heavy industries companies, building millions of vehicles annually and competing in both the consumer cars and motorcycle markets. The Japanese corporation also manufacturers engines and equipment for boats and specialist engines for vehicles designed to provide public transportation or suited for specific industrial tasks.

The affected vehicles include the Accord, Civic, and Element – three cars popular throughout the United States. The problem in question affects the ignition system of the vehicle, causing random shutdowns of the engine without the car in locked gearing. Safety experts believe that the defect is unlikely to cause injury or pose a threat to drivers, although it may result in a small loss of control.

While this recall is likely to gain less negative press than Toyota’s large vehicle recall earlier this year, it’s the second of its type for Honda this year. Earlier in 2010, the company’s road motorcycle division was forced to recall thousands of VT1300 motorcycles which were sold throughout the country using the wrong axle weight stickers. Once again, the fault in question provided no major safety risk for users of the motor vehicles, although it may have affected reliability.

Honda also ran into trouble this year due to a failing battery issue. The company has since replaced the affected batteries free of charge, leading many owners and brand enthusiasts to believe that the Japanese automaker will complete the recall process fairly smoothly both for owners and company shareholders.