LONDON, August 24 -- The world’s first solar farm to power a railway line directly is due to plug into the track near Aldershot, paving the way for solar-powered trains.
From Friday, about 100 solar panels at the trackside site will supply renewable electricity to power the signalling and lights on Network Rail’s Wessex route. The 30kW pilot scheme could pave the way for a larger project capable of directly powering the trains that use this route from next year. The solar breakthrough comes as Network Rail plans to spend billions of pounds electrifying rail lines to avoid running trains on diesel. This could help reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and costs. Solar panels are already used to power the operations of train stations, including Blackfriars in central London. But the Aldershot project is the first time a solar array will bypass the electricity grid to plug directly into a railway’s “traction” system.
Network Rail hopes to use the scheme, developed by the charity 10:10 Climate Action and Imperial College London, to solar-charge its rail lines across the country. Stuart Kistruck, a director for Network Rail’s Wessex route, said: “We have ambitions to roll this technology out further across the network should this demonstrator project prove successful, so we can deliver a greener, better railway for our passengers and the wider public.” The research team behind the project, called Riding Sunbeams, estimates that solar could power 20% of the Merseyrail network in Liverpool, as well as 15% of commuter routes in Kent, Sussex and Wessex. There is also scope for solar trams in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Nottingham, London and Manchester, according to the team. The researchers began work on the plans over two years ago to discover whether bypassing the electricity grid could make solar power a more efficient energy source for trains. Innovate UK awarded the project funding from the Department of Transport after it proved that connecting solar power directly to rail, tube and tram networks could help meet a significant share of their electricity needs.
BEIJING, August 23 -- The family of a worker at the UK consulate in Hong Kong has rejected a "fake" report by Chinese state media that he was detained in the mainland for visiting prostitutes.
Mr Simon Cheng disappeared after visiting the city of Shenzhen from the semi-autonomous city on Aug 8, and the Foreign Office in London said both British officials and relatives have been unable to speak to him since. The Global Times, a tabloid state-run newspaper, said he had been detained for "soliciting prostitutes", citing police in Shenzhen, which lies on the China-Hong Kong border. But a Facebook page run by Mr Cheng's family dismissed the report. "This is a made-up crime of soliciting prostitution, everyone should see it's a joke," the comment said. Beijing confirmed on Wednesday that an employee of the British consulate had been "placed in administrative detention for 15 days as punishment" by police in Shenzhen for breaking a public security law. "Let me clarify, this employee is a Hong Kong citizen, he's not a UK citizen, which is also saying he's a Chinese person," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said. According to the Global Times, Mr Cheng could be detained for up to 15 days and fined up to 5,000 yuan ($977) for the alleged crime. In an editorial on Friday, the tabloid said it was at Mr Cheng's request that police did not contact his family and that "thanks to the British foreign ministry and media, which have been hyping it, the case is now fully exposed".
Mr Cheng was in the process of returning via high-speed train on Aug 8 and sent messages to his girlfriend as he was about to go through customs. He has not been seen or heard from since. The family said it had hired a lawyer in Shenzhen who had been unable to find or speak to the detained man. Police in Shenzhen did not reply to AFP's request for comment. A spokesman for the British Foreign Office said in a statement on Thursday that it was continuing "to urgently seek further information about Simon's case". The incident comes as relations between Britain and China have become strained over what Beijing calls London's "interference" in pro-democracy protests that have wracked Hong Kong for three months. China promised to respect the freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory after its handover from Britain in 1997 - including freedom of speech, unfettered access to the Internet and an independent judiciary - but protesters say these rights are being eroded. Chinese authorities have increased their inspections at the border since the protests, including checking the phones and devices of some passengers for photos of the demonstrations. Beijing has faced criticism in the past for detaining foreign nationals amid ongoing diplomatic spats, and for accusing dissidents or activists of sex crimes.
HONG KONG, August 23 -- Hong Kong’s protest movement began as opposition to a now-suspended extradition bill but evolved into a direct challenge to the city’s government and calls for full democracy.
Beyond their immediate demands, many young protesters, express fears for the future - anxiety that reflects broader uncertainty over China’s promise to Britain to maintain the freewheeling city’s way of life for 50 years. That 50-year period runs out in 2047.
WHY THE FEAR?
The fears are twofold. Firstly, many Hong Kong people have watched what they see as Beijing’s tightening grip on their city, from the detention of booksellers by mainland security agents to the expulsion of a foreign journalist, the jailing of young activists, sweeping legal interpretations by Beijing on city matters, and curbs on electoral freedom. Many say the extradition bill - which would have put Hong Kong people at the mercy of China’s Communist Party-controlled courts - was merely the latest in a string of erosion's. But their fears also reflect uncertainty over Hong Kong’s future that is written into the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that has guided Hong Kong’s relations with Beijing since the handover from British rule in 1997. The document enshrines rights and freedoms - including freedom of speech, assembly and an independent judiciary - inherent in the “one country, two systems” formula that underpinned agreement between Beijing and London. Those freedoms remain far greater than those that exist on the mainland, where the Communist Party ultimately controls many aspects of society, including the media and the courts.
Article 5 of the Basic Law states that China’s “socialist system and policies” shall not be practised in Hong Kong and “the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years”. Just as British colonial Hong Kong was famously described by the Eurasian writer Han Suyin as existing on “borrowed time in a borrowed place”, the clock to 2047 is ticking.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER 2047?
No one knows. Talking to officials, scholars, business people and protesters, there is uncertainty about the broad principles and the impact on specifics, such as property leases and the judiciary. Some believe much will depend on how Beijing views the city at the time, and what political changes unfold across China over the next 28 years. “Of course, it’s vague but it is clear that after 50 years mainland policy can change. They don’t have to change but they can change,” said Simon Young, a professor at the University of Hong Kong Law School. “They would no longer be beholden by Article 5 and the Joint Declaration,” he said, referring to another agreement with Britain. The city’s government has said little on Hong Kong after 2047. Its constitutional affairs bureau said in 2016 the Basic Law had no expiry date. “The country’s sovereignty over Hong Kong will not change 50 years after Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland, nor will the country change its basic policies towards Hong Kong after 50 years,” then bureau undersecretary Ronald Chan said at the time. A bureau spokeswoman affirmed that reply to Reuters this week. “There is no question of the expiry of the Basic Law in 2047 as the PRC (People’s Republic of China) will not change its basic policies to Hong Kong, i.e. one country, two systems.” Despite the protests, Ip Kwok-him, a veteran pro-establishment politician who sits on Hong Kong’s Executive Council, its top policy advisory body, said he believed Beijing still wanted to extend the formula beyond 2047. “In my interactions with China’s leaders, I could sense this position,” said Ip, who is also a delegate to China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress. The central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office did not respond to questions from Reuters on the issue. Many in Hong Kong remain far more skeptical, fearing that Hong Kong will be absorbed into China’s system and its freedoms, already under threat, will evaporate.
WHAT IMPACT ON THE PROTESTS?
As protests enter their 12th week, it is clear the question of 2047 is becoming more pertinent. Young protesters’ increasing focus on issues like democratic reform - promised in the Basic Law - highlights a desire to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms in the years ahead. As thousands of activists shut down Hong Kong’s airport last week, a sign hung above them in the arrivals’ hall: “Let the future be created”.
LONDON, August 20 -- Asking prices for London homes showed their first annual increase since 2017 this month, as the Brexit-battered market started to show signs of life.
New seller prices were up 1.3 per cent from a year earlier, property website Rightmove Plc said in a report published Monday. They eased just 0.1 per cent on the month, the smallest decline for any August since 2006. Rightmove said a shortage of supply is helping to underpin prices, with the number of new sellers down almost 11 per cent on the year. Meanwhile, sales agreements jumped in what is normally a slow month, suggesting buyers and sellers alike are now taking the plunge after years of waiting for Brexit to be resolved. “It’s been three years since the vote and Brexit fatigue has kicked in,” Chris Osmond, sales director at London-based estate agent JOHNS&CO, said in a comment accompanying the report. “After all, life goes on and you can only put plans on hold for so long. We’ve also seen the number of vendors wanting to cash in on long-held investments increase.”
August also saw the largest number of sales nationwide in four years. Rightmove Director Miles Shipside said that uncertainty ahead of the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline had potentially encouraged homeowners to sell earlier in the year than normal. Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid is mulling stamp duty reforms for U.K. home sellers as part of a budget due later this year, he told The Times in an interview published Saturday. While the newspaper reported that tax burden would be shifted from home buyers to sellers to give larger tax bill for those who have benefited from rising property prices, Javid later said he won’t support that in a tweet. Nevertheless, “we need bold measures on housing,” he said. The property market has struggled in the recent years, with the prospect of Britain leaving the European Union weighing on prices. London has been particularly badly affected. A separate report by Acadata found house prices in the capital barely rose in the year through June, with several areas losing more than 10%. Across the country, the picture is mixed. Asking prices were lower than a year earlier in the southeast and the southwest, while northern England, Scotland and Wales -- regions where house prices are cheaper on average -- showed solid increases, according to Rightmove.
LONDON, August 15 -- Jeremy Clarkson has revealed that his co-host James May had to be rescued by crew from monsoon waves during filming of The Grand Tour in Vietnam.
The 59-year-old told The Sun that the team were attempting to cross part of the South China Sea in monsoon season, when they were hit by treacherous weather conditions. Clarkson, May and Richard Hammond have recently filmed the first of the new, special episodes of The Grand Tour in Cambodia and Vietnam, but things didn’t exactly go to plan. The team rowed out into the Mekong Delta river, but suffered serious problems when they entered the sea. Clarkson said: “It transpired four people were killed an inch away from us. “It’s about the only time health and safety has made the correct decision. “I, of course, was fine, but May had to abandon ship as crew boats were filling with water.” Responding to fan questions on DriveTribe, Clarkson promised that the special will prove to be an “astonishing show”, despite the fact filming went very wrong. He said: “It was an incredibly dramatic ending which was entirely accidental.
Hammond also narrowly escaped death when he crashed a high-performance electric car during filming in 2017. The Grand Tour is set to return on Amazon Prime later this year. All three presenters have signed a two-year deal with Amazon that is expected to yield as many as four stand alone shows a year, with the presenters travelling to far flung parts of the world in scenes not dissimilar to their globe-trotting adventures on Top Gear. And fans can expect no-holds barred excitement when the specials do eventually air, with Jeremy claiming they have been given a huge budget to rival the Marvel film franchise. Top Gear, which suffered a ratings drop following Jeremy's departure, is now hosted by Chris Harris, Paddy McGuinness and Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff.
LONDON, August 15 -- Parliament will block a no-deal Brexit if unelected people behind Prime Minister Boris Johnson try to wrench Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31 without agreement, former finance minister Philip Hammond (pictured) said on Wednesday.
The United Kingdom is heading towards a constitutional crisis at home and a showdown with the EU as Johnson has vowed to leave the bloc in 77 days time without a deal unless it agrees to renegotiate a Brexit divorce. After more than three years of Brexit dominating EU affairs, the bloc has repeatedly refused to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement which includes an Irish border insurance policy that Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, agreed in November. Hammond, who served as May’s finance minister for three years, said unelected people in Johnson’s Downing Street office were setting London on an “inevitable” course towards a no-deal Brexit by demanding the backstop be dropped. “The people behind this know that that means that there will be no deal,” Hammond told the BBC. “Parliament is clearly opposed to a no-deal exit, and the prime minister must respect that.” The former minister’s first public intervention since resigning indicates the determination of a group of influential lawmakers to thwart Johnson if he goes for a no-deal Brexit. Hammond said he was confident parliament, where a majority oppose a no-deal Brexit, would find a way to block that outcome.
It is, however, unclear if lawmakers have the unity or power to use the 800-year-old heart of British democracy to prevent a no-deal Brexit on 31 October – likely to be the United Kingdom’s most consequential move since World War Two. Opponents of no deal say it would be a disaster for what was once one of the West’s most stable democracies. A disorderly divorce, they say, would hurt global growth, send shock waves through financial markets and weaken London’s claim to be the world’s preeminent financial center. Brexit supporters say there may be short-term disruption from a no-deal exit but that the economy will thrive if cut free from what they cast as a doomed experiment in integration that has led to Europe falling behind China and the United States. Heading towards one of the biggest constitutional crises in at least a century, Britain’s elite are quarreling over how, when and even if the result of the shock 2016 referendum will be implemented. Part of the problem is that Britain’s constitution, once touted as a global model, is uncodified and vague. It relies on precedent, but there is little for Brexit. The House of Commons speaker John Bercow told an audience in Scotland that lawmakers could prevent a no-deal Brexit and that he would fight any attempt to prorogue, or suspend, parliament “with every bone in my body”. “We cannot have a situation in which parliament is shut down – we are a democratic society,” the Telegraph quoted Bercow as saying at an event on the sidelines of the Edinburgh Festival. “And parliament will be heard and nobody is going to get away, as far as I am concerned, with stopping that happening,” added the 56-year-old who says he voted ‘Remain’ in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Johnson, who replaced May after she failed three times to get her Brexit deal through parliament, has refused to rule out proroguing the House of Commons and Brexit supporters have vociferously encouraged him to do so if necessary.
Hammond said the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum did not tout no deal as a likely option, so to leave under those conditions would be a betrayal of the referendum that would reduce the nation to an “inward-looking little England”. The United Kingdom, he said, would be under threat with referendums likely on Scottish independence and a united Ireland. Johnson’s top adviser, Dominic Cummings, has reportedly said he could delay calling a general election until after Oct. 31, even if he lost a no confidence motion, allowing for a no-deal Brexit while parliament is dissolved. Clearly with him in mind, Hammond said there were people “who are pulling the strings in Downing Street, those who are setting the strategy.”
LONDON, August 13 -- Chinese intervention in Hong Kong would be a “catastrophe” and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson should be more “outspoken” in putting pressure on Beijing, former governor Chris Patten said on Tuesday.
Patten told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that Hong Kong was “close to the abyss”, because its leader Carrie Lam refused withdraw a controversial extradition bill and hold an inquiry into the reasons for the ongoing demonstrations and the way they have been policed. “I think there is a degree of frustration and anger at the government refusing to give any sensible ground at all, which probably provokes more violence,” said Patten, the last British governor of the region. Authorities at Hong Kong airport on Tuesday cancelled all departing flights after pro-democracy protesters blocked the facility for a second day. The abrupt closure came 10 weeks into a crisis that has seen millions of people take to Hong Kong’s streets in the biggest challenge to Chinese rule of the semi-autonomous city since its 1997 handover from Britain. Patten warned against further ratcheting up of tensions, saying it was a “counterproductive thing for the Chinese government to do to give the impression that unless this stops quickly, they will have to consider other methods.
“We know what the other methods have been in Chinese history,” he added. “We’ve seen Xinjiang, we’ve seen attacks on Taiwan and we’ve seen a much tougher line being taken in Hong Kong.” He then urged new British Prime Minister Johnson to take a firmer line with Beijing, and to put pressure on visiting National Security Advisor John Bolton for US help. “I very much hope that our own prime minister will be as outspoken as the prime ministers of Canada and Australia have been in defense of Hong Kong’s freedoms,” he told the BBC. “What he should say, for example, to ambassador Bolton… is that he very much hopes the Americans will agree with us that… it will be a catastrophe if China was to intervene in Hong Kong.”
LONDON, August 8 -- If there was any doubt remaining that Britain has ceased to be a colonial power capable of imposing its will in foreign seas on command, it was evident as Iranian naval vessels ran literal rings around a detained British oil tanker.
Drone footage released by Iran’s Fars news agency showed a bird’s-eye view of the UK’s Stena Impero, moored in the port of Bandar Abbas after its seizure by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In the video, a pair of Iranian boats speed in circles around the tanker to the soundtrack of heavy metal, in a show of force likely designed for domestic as much as regional and global consumption. In the past 24 hours, a leaked audio recording laid bare the failed attempt by the British Royal Navy to avert the impounding. “Alter your course, do 360 degrees immediately, over,” an Iranian officer is heard telling the crew of the UK oil tanker Stena Impero. “Obey, and you will be safe.” A British warship, despite being too far away to pose an immediate threat, then issues a competing directive, telling the commercial ship it should continue on its path. “Stena Impero, this is British warship, Foxtrot 236. I reiterate that you are conducting transit passage in a recognized international strait. Under international law, your passage must not be impaired, obstructed or hampered,” the British officer says, before the vessel is forced to Iranian shores. The veracity of the recording, released by maritime security risk consultancy Dryad Global, has not been challenged by the UK or Iran. The raid itself – videotaped and published by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – shows Balaclava-wearing commandos descending on the British tanker by helicopter. The seizure appeared designed to replicate Britain’s impounding of an Iranian tanker earlier this month. Asked on Monday what the United States would do to help retrieve the vessel of its ally, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to wash his hands of the incident. “The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to care of their ships,” he told Fox and Friends. The UK – in the midst of messy talks to leave the European Union – said on Monday it was looking to its European allies to help secure Persian Gulf shipping. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional arch-foe, appeared to quickly absorb the severity of the situation, releasing an Iranian oil tanker on Saturday which Tehran for weeks had accused Riyadh of illegally detaining.
Iran plays offense
Iran’s senior commanders say the country has officially moved from a position of deterrence to one of calculated confrontation. “We have put aside the defensive approach to also develop an offensive approach,” the lieutenant commander of Iran’s ground forces told a gathering in the city of Shiraz. “Some while ago, we were only after deterrence but today other countries should develop deterrence against us,” added General Nozar Nemati. Another senior commander, Major General Gholam Ali Rashid, told an audience in Tehran on Monday that Iran’s military would henceforth be practicing a “firm and smart confrontation against threatening attitudes and hostile measures.” The statements appeared to enshrine in policy a months-long pattern of tit-for-tat responses against US attempts to choke off Iranian oil exports. “The British committed piracy and we responded to it,” Iran’s parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani said on Sunday, directly linking the seizure of Britain’s Stena Impero to Iran’s Grace I tanker. Tehran had previously cited alleged technical violations as grounds for the detention. The Grace I was impounded by the Royal Navy off the coast of Gibraltar, a UK territory, on July 4. London accused Iran of attempting to export its crude to the Syrian refinery of Baniyas, in violation of European Union sanctions, and said that the ship’s entrance into the waters of Gibraltar provided jurisdiction. Iran said its oil was destined for a legal destination, and quickly vowed retaliation. The United Kingdom, according to its former navy chief, should have seen the seizure of one of its own vessels coming.
Risk of war
Over the weekend, Britain’s former chief of naval staff Alan West penned an op-ed warning that the ongoing Persian Gulf crisis risked escalating into a full-blown war. West chastised his government for failing to protect British shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 30% of the world’s seaborne oil passes: “We should have enacted control of shipping procedures, directing ships to assemble in safe areas and then taken them through in convoy,” he wrote. “Even with only one major warship in the Gulf this could have been done until reinforcements arrived – although the Royal Navy is disgracefully short of ships.” A military response, he said, would not only be inappropriate, but beyond the capabilities of Britain acting alone. The UK now risks becoming embroiled in an open conflict with Iran – a risk that should be the first priority of the incoming leader to address, he concluded.
LONDON, August 8 -- Fifty years ago today The Beatles were photographed crossing a leafy street in north London, creating one of the most famous album covers in music history and an image imitated by countless fans ever since.
The picture of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr striding over a zebra crossing on Abbey Road was taken outside the EMI Recording Studios where they made the 1969 album of the same name, and nearly all of their other recordings. Scottish photographer Iain Macmillan took just six shots of the group on the crossing, with the fifth used as the cover of the band’s eleventh studio album, released on Sept. 26 1969. ‘Abbey Road’, which was voted the best Beatles album by readers of Rolling Stone in 2009, was the only one of the group’s original British albums to show neither the band’s name nor a title on the cover.
VIENNA, July 28 -- The remaining signatories to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are set to meet in Austria's capital, Vienna, to renew discussions aimed at salvaging the accord in the wake of United States' unilateral exit last year.
Envoys from Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran will take part in Sunday's extraordinary gathering, the European Union's foreign policy service said. The meeting will "examine issues linked to the implementation of the JCPOA in all its aspects," the EU said, referring to the nuclear deal by its formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The landmark agreement, which offered Iran relief from global sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme, is in danger of unravelling following Washington's move in May 2018. The administration of US President Donald Trump has since reimposed punishing sanctions against Tehran, plunging its economy into recession and bringing hardship to ordinary Iranians. The pact's remaining signatories oppose Washington's move but have struggled to protect trade with Iran. In May, Iran said it would disregard certain limits the deal set on its nuclear programme. After surpassing a cap on stockpiles of enriched uranium, Iran's atomic agency earlier this month said it has also started to enrich uranium to a higher grade than the 3.67 percent set in the JCPOA.
All of the moves were "reversible within hours" if the remaining signatories upheld their commitments, according to Iranian officials. However, they have also threatened to take further measures if the parties, especially European nations, did not help Tehran circumvent the US sanctions, particularly the restrictions on its ability to export oil.