Sir Torquil Norman – an Inspiration

By Mary Couzin published in Global Toy News 11 April 2011.

During the London Toy Fair, I attended the brilliant UK Inventor's Dinner and sat next to the most intriguing person - Torquil Norman. He was engaging, entertaining, charming and a proper English gentleman (the latter until he told stories of past inventor dinners and running across table tops to elude the police and such).

Torquil - Henry Red PlaneYou know Torquil is an interesting person when his Wikipedia entry starts out, "An Old Etonian, graduate of Harvard and Cambridge, he stands 6' 7". Torquil gained his pilot’s license at eighteen, did National Service in the Fleet Air Arm and when he left, bought a Piper Comanche, flew in No. 601 Squadron RAF and took up skydiving, a passion shared by his wife Anne.

After working as an investment banker in the United States for eleven years (years in USA during the war as a child, then a year at Harvard and five years at JP Morgan), he returned to the UK in the 1960s and subsequently entered the toymaking industry, first as chief executive of Berwick Timpo toy company from 1973, and then in 1980 founding Bluebird Toys, makers of the Big Yellow Teapot House, the Big Red Fun Bus, and the very successful Polly Pocket line of dolls."

Kick the TyresThere’s more. He was knighted, is a philanthropist, designed and built a barge on the Seine to escape, piloted a plane over the Atlantic and North Pole and still more. Click on the wiki link to read highlights. He recently wrote an autobiographical introduction to a book he is penning about lousy government, Kick the Tyres, Light the Fires. I asked if I might share a part of it. It was quite difficult to choose just one story from the 62 pages, but the idea of giving back to the world, in particular to children, resonated. I think you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I did.

Anne with two eldest boys - Jesse and Casey in 1965Torquil: "I should explain a bit of background to my involvement with the Roundhouse. In 1986 my wife Anne, who was always a wonderful supporter of good causes, had been giving my overdraft away at such a rate that I couldn't keep up with it, particularly as we had five young children approaching school age.

So to try and buy time to catch up, I persuaded her that we should take around a third of our shares in Bluebird Toys and put them into a charitable trust which, if it was successful, would be dedicated to good causes – mostly, we agreed, related to young people. The other two thirds we divided among ourselves and our children. The company was only small at that time (just five years old) so to me it didn't seem a huge sacrifice and Anne was happy with the idea. To our surprise, largely due to the worldwide success of our miniature doll Polly Pocket, Bluebird started to fly from that moment on. By the time I retired from Bluebird the charity had built up a significant amount of money.

Torquil with Big Yellow Teapot (first toy) and friendsWhen Anne and I discussed it we both thought the best idea was to devote the money, which amounted to over £6 million, to a large project related to the well-being of young people, rather than spread it around among large numbers of small projects. We felt, for a lot of reasons, that during our lifetime many young people in Britain had received a lousy deal.

I remember as a young man after the war thinking that the country could only get better and that Britain was a wonderful place in which to live and work. It was full of energy, life and exciting ideas and the future seemed unlimited. Thanks to an excellent education and a small amount of capital inherited at a young age following the death of my father, it was clear that my own life had been especially privileged. Although, during the intervening years, the country has got richer, the gap between rich and poor has grown ever wider, and all around us so many young people with so much potential have been poorly educated, remain in poverty and suffer all the problems related to that. Society also suffers as a result.

The second barge Torquil designed for vacationsWe wanted to spend our money on something that would demonstrate how to work with large numbers of mostly deprived young people and show them a better way of living their lives. Perhaps over ambitiously, we wanted to build a model that might be copied all over the country – to actually do something rather than talking about it – which could leave young people better off than when we started.

Most of the varied projects which I had worked on during my life had one thing in common. They seemed fairly straightforward in concept but turned out to be much larger, more complicated and time-consuming than I had ever imagined when it came to seeing them through. The phrase ‘biting off more than one can chew, and then chewing it’ used to occur to me.

The idea for the Roundhouse came to me in the bath. This was where I got most of my ideas (both good and presumably most of the bad ones too). Perhaps it was the hot water that stimulated me. It probably followed something I had read in the local paper. Anyway, I thought I would try to research the ownership of the famous Roundhouse in Chalk Farm to find out whether it could be bought. Anne and I had fond memories of taking our children there for musical performances when they were young, but it had been a pretty wild place in those days and had subsequently fallen on hard times and stood virtually derelict for years, immune to all attempts thus far to resurrect it.

By strange coincidence I was introduced at the very same time to the daughter of one of my Cambridge rowing crew. She came for a drink one evening with her partner, who happened to be a leading London estate agent. I asked, by way of conversation, whether he thought the Roundhouse could be bought. He answered unequivocally that he was pretty certain it could be. I discovered later that his brother, a property developer, was actually occupying the car park adjacent to the Roundhouse. This seemed to me divine intervention, and as a non believer I guess I shall never come closer to the real thing.

The 1993 DH 85 Leopard Moth en route to Oshkosh from England in 2000A couple of weeks later I had made an offer to the owners of around £3 million in s cash from our Trust, which was accepted, and without any form of due diligence (beyond my wandering around the smelly, pitch-dark undercroft with a torch and inspecting the title) Anne and I, as sole trustees, became its new owners.

Be all that as it may, we did eventually buy it and in fact we needed all that time (and a good bit more) to raise over £30 million to pay for the construction and the equipping of what has since become one of the finest venues in London as well as a huge creative centre for the benefit of young people. Most of our personal funding was set up as an endowment to support the Roundhouse for the indefinite future. We gave the Roundhouse Trust a 99 year lease on the building and the car park for the particular, defined purpose of supporting work with young people in exchange for what the agreement calls ‘one red rose’.

The Roundhouse in LondonWhen I last enquired, the Roundhouse Studios had worked with well over 20,000 young people, many very disadvantaged, from a wide range of social, cultural and religious backgrounds. It is interesting to note that throughout the ten years that we have now been working with these young people, none of the team has lost or had damaged or stolen a single piece of equipment and the young people themselves have been exemplary in every way. It has proved to me what I suspected (but had had no experience of beyond the personal): that young people respond to encouragement, help, support, responsibility and the feeling of belonging in surprisingly generous ways. They grow in confidence and their attitudes change. It is verging on the miraculous how people can change in such circumstances.

We have to inspire young people to become creative themselves, rather than passively sitting around, watching their pop idols on TV, listening to their iPods, playing computer games and feeling excluded. They could be designing the games, playing the music and performing on stage! We know this because we have done it over and over again."

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Pictures (in order): The 1936 DH Dragonfly Torquil flew to Oshkosh from England in 1995, Anne with two eldest boys - Jesse and Casey in 1965, Torquil with Big Yellow Teapot (first toy) and friends, the second barge Torquil designed for vacations, the 1993 DH 85 Leopard Moth en route to Oshkosh from England in 2000 and the Roundhouse in London.

Letter to the Press

Torquil writes to the Financial Times March 2011.

Letter to the FT

Article: This welfare web is snuffing out the will to work

Torquil Norman writes in The Sunday Times 8 August 2010.

Many young people with whom we have worked at the Roundhouse, the charitable arts trust that I established in the building of that name in north London, come from poor, disrupted families who subsist on our complex system of means-tested benefits, tax credits and allowances.

In fact, almost half of households receive benefits of some kind. Welfare increased from £90 billion in 1997 to about £160 billion 10 years later — more than 25% of total government expenditure.

Our welfare system includes more than 50 different benefits which overlap and confuse, taking complexity to a level approaching insanity. For example, the Department of Work and Pensions issues 14 manuals, with 8,690 pages, to help decision-makers apply the department’s benefits. There are many more for those managed by local authorities and HM Revenue & Customs. Armies of government employees are charged with policing all the conditions and rules applying to the benefit system — an impossible task.

The way this mostly means-tested system operates contains serious disadvantages. A fundamental one relates to the tax rates that apply if someone on benefits takes employment. As they earn money they will often lose benefit that results in marginal tax rates of between 60% and 95% — a massive disincentive to millions of people to work.

Perversely, it becomes a huge encouragement to work in the grey/black economy without declaring their employment or paying taxes. The size of this underground economy has been estimated at between £140 billion and £200 billion.

The days of huge government-financed welfare are surely numbered and should be replaced by real incentives for people to work and improve their prosperity, at the same time finding the joy and satisfaction in work that Lord Beveridge tried to foster. The present widespread culture of idleness that is taking root in this country, and that is, alas, being handed down to young people by benefit-dependent parents, must somehow be reversed. If it isn’t, we shall soon become — if we aren’t already — a second-class nation. The popularity of immigrant rather than native labour clearly illustrates the problem. This is what needs urgently to be done.

The present government approach to raising the income tax threshold is along the right lines but doesn’t go far enoughFirst of all, the benefit system needs to be simplified. There have been two recent suggestions as to how to do this: one by David Martin, in his report Benefit Simplification, and the other contained in Breakthrough Britain — Dynamic Benefits, by Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice. Martin’s reforms, over three years, would leave us with a benefit system comprising a single benefit with few conditions, negotiated through local government offices and a single monthly payment that would be made directly into the claimant’s bank account. Second, the corrosive side effects of means testing and the disincentive to work imposed by high marginal tax rates need to be minimised. The solution is simple: it is to make the income tax system more fit for purpose, removing much of the necessity for the benefit system as it is now set up.

The present government approach to raising the income tax threshold is along the right lines but doesn’t go far enough. Since some 30m people (about half of the population) receive benefits, it is appropriate that about 50% of potential taxpayers should be freed from income tax completely, achievable by raising the threshold to £15,000 from the present government target of £10,000. The cost of this is affordable and would leave many people at the lower end of the tax scale better off. It would strike a heavy blow at the grey/black economy — a very attractive cost-saver for the exchequer. And a surge of energy and initiative would be released into the economy as millions of non-workers would be incentivised to go back to work. In addition, the army of civil servants trying vainly to police the system could be demobbed.

Changes to the level of benefits or ways of reducing total benefit expenditure should, I feel, be done by some form of royal commission looking at all the facts and figures. Undoubtedly large savings could be made and there will be many areas, such as mental health, where extra payments will be merited.

Finally, we should tackle the much-discredited tax credit system, which could be greatly improved and simultaneously yield savings of about £8 billion a year.

The principle that the best way out of poverty is through one’s own efforts is infinitely superior to the present system of being given large handouts, often for not working. A member of the US Congress ways and means committee said: “When you subsidise people not to work, you get more non-workers.” Beveridge wrote: “Complete idleness, even on an income, demoralises.” I could not agree more.

Torquil Norman’s charity, the Roundhouse Trust, has helped more than 20,000 people in 10 years, giving them new skills in the arts and media. His book, Kick the Tyres, Light the Fires, is published by Infinite Ideas, £12.99



Latest News

Sir Torquil Norman – an Inspiration

By Mary Couzin published in Global Toy News 11 April 2011.

During the London Toy Fair, I attended the brilliant UK Inventor's Dinner and sat next to the most intriguing person - Torquil Norman. He was engaging, entertaining, charming and a proper English gentleman (the latter until he told stories of past inventor dinners and running across table tops to elude the police and such).  read more »

Letter to the Press

Torquil writes to the Financial Times March 2011.  read more »

Article: This welfare web is snuffing out the will to work

Torquil Norman writes in The Sunday Times 8 August 2010.  read more »

London Evening Standard: Roundhouse man has got a manifesto for Britain

Sir Torquil Norman, the man who restored the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm to glory as an arts centre, has more ambitious plans.  read more »