Saturday, December 1, 2007

All the World’s a Picnic

It was, of course, insensitive to allow a teddy bear to be named Mahomet. What self-respecting teddy would want to bear a name that remains mired in such controversy? But if Sudanese folk want to make themselves and their religion the world’s laughing-stock by over-reacting, then that’s their business.

The questions which the Gillian Gibbons case raise for us are questions about the organisation of our own society and the terms on which peoples co-exist, without the involuntary surrender of one to another.

Mutual cultural respect is independent of religion. One does not have to worship Allah to appreciate the Alhambra, the Dome of the Rock, Persian poetry or Bengali cooking. Any more than one has to be a devotee of Amun-Ra to comprehend the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings or the temple complex of Karnak. Culture is not compulsory; you take it or leave it and if you leave it the consequences are not usually fatal. It is inclusive, and because it forms part of the outer life it hangs lightly, like sand over the bedrock of being.

Mutual religious respect is another matter. Religion essentially deals with the inner life and, with few exceptions, is exclusive. Sometimes there are penalties for rejecting it, which can even mean being killed by those you have left behind. Or even by those you never agreed with in the first place. The more fervent the religious belief, the less respect for other beliefs is possible. For the devout Christian, Islam is at best the Mahometan heresy, at worst the work of the Anti-Christ. And the feeling can be mutual. The only alternative to mutual hostility politically is a rigorously secular state that takes no cognisance of belief. Thoughtful religions will appreciate that conversion by force of law is no conversion.

The distinction between culture and religion is therefore one of the most important distinctions of all, yet is increasingly neglected. Universal human rights are being exposed as a sham, determined less and less by objective principles, more and more by fear of those who shout loudest, those with the touchiest feelings and the most extreme forms of self-expression. Terrorism shows that the threats are real enough, though any target country with a long history of self-interested and often violent meddling in the affairs of other states might be judged to be getting no more than its just deserts.

Labour’s cowardice in the face of threats is obvious and understandable. Its power depends on appeasement because, within its heartlands, power depends on not losing the Mahometan vote. So it is with the issue of ritual slaughter. It wouldn’t be such a one-sided issue if the English truly were a nation of animal lovers. If fox hunting was banned for animal welfare reasons, as stated (and that’s a very big ‘if’), then ritual slaughter cannot be tolerated either. If it’s against the law for atheists, Christians and pagans to do it, then Jews and Mahometans should be treated no differently, where they do not form the majority. Different regions could have different laws, according to regional preference, but Wessex, with a tiny Mahometan population, would be unlikely to maintain the exemption. Those who dissent can, if necessary, be either vegetarians or emigrants. At the very least, proper labelling should be mandatory so that everyone eats what they think they are eating.

In multi-cultural Britain, the one culture conspicuous by its absence is ours. It’s not one of which we should be ashamed in any way. If it cannot thrive in its homeland, where can it thrive? By ‘ours’ is not meant just English culture in the round but our specific Wessex dimension, still looked down upon by the London media as the butt of ‘West Country’ jokes. Substitute blacks or Irish and see if the jokes are still politically correct. (Wessex folk, it must be said, can be every bit as bad about the Cornish, just as the Irish joke about those from Kerry, and Kerrymen in their turn about the folk of West Kerry.) That’s not to say that we want to take up the standard assigned role as victims. Political correctness – politicheskaya pravil’nost – was invented under Lenin, so we know where that’s taking us. It shouldn’t be necessary to kick up a fuss in the first place and life would indeed be better without ever-more intrusive legislation criminalising thought and choice. Common sense and common respect is all we ask for, not bureaucratised bullying to take the place of every other kind, nor the idea that those who don’t live in London are intellectually and morally retarded by lack of exposure to the big wide world.

We can take care of ourselves, thank you. And so can the world. A common reaction to events in Sudan has been ‘no more aid for ungrateful Africa’. It’s been over 50 years since independence and it’s true that Africans should by now be able to stand on their own two feet. Believing otherwise may be good for a sense of post-colonial guilt but it does Africa no favours at all. Simply contrast what little the decades of aid have done for that continent with China’s runaway success almost entirely from its own efforts.

It’s inexplicable that any teacher from Britain should give priority to teaching Sudanese children over ‘charity begins at home’. Children here are leaving primary school unable to read. One might question whether they should even be going to school until they can, always assuming that their parents are literate enough to give them that start in life. Our education system is in meltdown and centralist attempts to save it have only made matters worse. The National Curriculum was supposed to raise standards, not lower them. But that’s what happens when schools are taken out of the hands of the community and subjected to patronising interference by Whitehall-knows-best. Thanks to the National Curriculum, all schools now teach at the level of the worst and all initiative has been throttled. Transmission of culture has given way to novelty for its own sake. Labour, instead of confronting the teaching profession’s abdication of responsibility constructively, is throwing billions at unnecessary new school buildings. A huge waste of money, accompanied by school re-foundations that wipe out any continuity of ethos. The oldest of the buildings at Eton College is from the 15th century; the fact doesn’t seem to deter parents who can from sending their children to be taught there, nor stunt the pupils’ careers.

The mess created by centuries of centralism will not be put right overnight but the principles are easy to define. We all of us start from where we are and work outwards. Our local community comes first, then our region, and we help the rest of the world with what’s left over. All those who wish to join us in the task of repair are welcome; those who come to sneer, whinge or exploit are not. We mean others no harm and we expect no less of them.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Food is the Future

We’ve nothing against townies. Many of us live in towns. Some exiles even live, in Babylonish captivity, in the very heart of London itself. But as Wessex Regionalists, we all know better than to believe that food grows itself on supermarket shelves.

If only that realisation were universally shared. London, which grows next to nothing itself, is part fed by the farmers of Wessex (in the future, perhaps fuelled by them too). You wouldn’t think so, judging by press coverage of planning matters. According to Richard Morrison in the Times this month, Green Belt is “unused land”, waiting to be built upon. His article adds that Gordon Brown’s three million new homes will only increase urbanisation from 11% to 13% of UK land area. But what if 11% is too much already for one of the most crowded countries in the world? If 2% of land is lost from agriculture every ten years, how long before we run short of food?

It’s true that some farmland is indeed unused, and we pay farmers £4 billion a year in subsidies, including subsidies not to farm. That’s an expensive insurance policy but it’s the price of keeping options open for the longer term. Forever is a very long time and getting farmland back once it’s built on is no easy task. In the nature of things, it’s the sites picked for expansion around towns and villages in the river valleys that tend to be on the best and most versatile land.

The question we should be asking is why the money is spent not to grow food rather than spent to grow it. DEFRA figures show that the UK’s overall self-sufficiency in food fell dramatically in the period 1995-2006, from 73.7% to just 58.1%. We now import 70% of the apples eaten in the UK (a majority even during the UK apple season). Over 60% of apple orchards – many in Wessex – have been destroyed in the last 30 years. Between 1995 and 2005 domestic production of cheese (another traditional Wessex product) fell by 7% to just 63% of cheese consumed. The worst case scenario calculates that, at the current rate of contraction in food self-sufficiency, the UK could be importing all its food by 2051.

Radical changes to the CAP have been pushed harder and implemented more incompetently in England than anywhere else in the EU. Even the Government does its best to avoid buying food produced in Britain. Why? Because agricultural ‘reform’ is part of the drive for globalisation, an economic system that cannot last. A sustainable farming policy would be seeking a Wessex self-sufficient in basic nutrition. So what, if others can grow and transport food across the planet for less? They simply won’t be able to once oil prices escalate. Meanwhile, intensive farming is destroying soil fertility worldwide, at a time when global population is increasing by 75 million a year. That’s another Bristol every two days.

Official statistics for Wessex aren’t readily available, but figures for the South West published by Friends of the Earth (FoE) and the NFU make startling reading. The South West is more than usually dependent on agricultural enterprise, with 14% of businesses in this category (6% in England as a whole). Agriculture contributes 1.2% of the South West’s GVA (Gross Value Added), compared to 0.7% in England as a whole. The South West’s agricultural output is three times that of Wales, which has its own rural affairs minister to fight for it. Wessex, as part of England, doesn’t. (In a 2001 report on food and farming, FoE recommended that decision-making on subsidy payments should be devolved to regional level. The recent fiasco over delays in making payments certainly suggests that central government lacks the necessary competence.)

The South West and South East together account for over half the organic land and organic producers in England, with the South West well in the lead. Farmers’ markets were invented in Bath in 1997. A 2002 survey found that food sold at farmers’ markets in the South West was on average 35% cheaper than food of similar quality in supermarkets in the same towns. Meanwhile, in Winchester, it was found that shops reported 30% greater takings on days when there was a farmers’ market. Research by the Institute of Grocery Distribution shows that 70% of people in Britain want to be able to buy local or regional foods, while in a 2005 survey by BMRB over half considered food and drink to be one of the three main factors defining their regional identity. Yet food miles – the average distance from field to plate – have doubled in 20 years.

The closer one gets to London, the more the economics turns real farms into hobby farms and horse paddocks, especially now that the latter are eligible for subsidy. In the South East, 73% of holdings have diversified out of agriculture, substantially the highest figure in England, where the average is 50% and even the South West – the home of agri-tourism – only reaches 45%. Diversification accounts for 46% of South East farm income (double the national average) and nearly 60% of this income is accounted for by buildings let for non-farming use. These are options not available to farmers in parts of Wessex more remote from London.

There is a complacent tendency to write off farming, which shows in the attitude of some local authorities, only too keen to view allotments and smallholdings as assets to be sold rather than as a continuing service to the community. A long-term view is needed if the skills base is to be ready to meet future home demand. A loss of critical mass in any sector is always difficult to regain.

Making the connections is also vital. Attempts to tackle obesity are hampered by the economics of the food industry itself. Adding value to agricultural produce, to enable it to compete, often means producing highly processed foods with much poorer nutritional value than the basic foodstuffs. Then there are the consequences of animal diseases and drug and pesticide residues to consider. We all pay for the higher NHS costs that result from false economies. And the final chapter of the GM story may not be written for generations to come. Confused thinking has become the norm. Why is real food separately labelled as ‘organic’? Surely it’s the artificial food that should bear the truth-telling labels, if not indeed the Wessex Government health warnings?

Wessex Regionalists demand trustworthy, wholesome food from a farm system that promotes regional self-reliance, landscape quality, bio-diversity and good animal and soil husbandry. Fundamental reform of global trade rules, European policies, UK decision-making structures, land economics and the accountability of institutions ranging from schools to supermarkets are all prerequisites. Recognising the barriers to this, we argue for unilateral action wherever practical.

Food is the future. Our future in an increasingly uncertain world. So let’s think carefully about the often-contradictory pressures we place on those whose livelihood it is. And before it’s too late, let’s stop destroying the very land that grows it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Power Power

It was back in the 70’s that we first argued for the revenues from Wessex mineral resources (including Dorset oil) to be re-invested in the development of alternative energy sources, and in long-term regional employment opportunities, with the ultimate aim of achieving basic regional self-sufficiency.

Today the oil is running out but the long-term perspective remains lacking. Government at every level is still talking about building roads to end congestion and expanding airports to underpin the mad project of economic globalisation. (Just why do we burn irreplaceable fuel to fly in food we could produce for ourselves?)

In place of a long-term perspective we have the politics of panic. For some in the debate, nothing else matters. The South West Green Party greatly prefers wind farms to local democracy. Yet there are so many huge questions going unanswered.

Supply-side policy rules. We tackle the drug dealers; we don’t ask why they have so many customers. We talk about a housing crisis because we won’t talk about rocketing and unsustainable population growth. And we look to renewable energy sources to avoid discussing where and why the demand for energy exists.

The Government’s own Energy White Paper in 2003 concluded that the cheapest, cleanest and safest way of addressing energy policy objectives is to use less energy. Yet reckless economic and population growth continues to outstrip the potential of technology to ameliorate the crisis. We think we’re awfully clever if we build three million new homes on ‘surplus’ farmland and ensure that each one has a solar panel on the roof. But you can’t eat solar panels. Nor is nuclear power the answer. Uranium is finite, just like coal, oil and gas.

This is not sustainable development. This is just another competition to re-arrange the deckchairs on the Titanic. Unfortunately, those who are deaf to the facts are those who are running the country.

Radio 4 this morning, in a programme entitled ‘Energising the West’, gushed for half an hour on the renewables revolution now underway in our region. It’s great, of course, that we have such resources of wind, wave, water, wood and waste. But from the metropolitan viewpoint, these are resources to be plundered for the common good, in other words, for their good. So we end up sacrificing Wessex beauty spots to wind farms just to keep the neon blazing in Piccadilly Circus. We shall not receive anything like the value extracted from our resources. And in the end our tarnished heritage will be cast aside, just like the steam age coalfields and land now blighted by radiation.

The Severn Barrage illustrates the thinking. There are ways to harness tidal power that don’t require destruction of a vast wetland area of international importance for wildlife. Friends of the Earth have the details. Yet in September Labour announced a feasibility study of a Severn Barrage – and nothing else. They are determined to suck out the very last watt of power, regardless of the environmental consequences. Because London demands it (and Labour loves prestige projects). Our view is that tidal lagoon and other alternative technologies are serious options with significant environmental and operational advantages. Additionally, because they wouldn’t turn the Bristol Channel into a lake, they would maintain the separation of Wales and Wessex. A barrage would promote social coalescence to the mutual disbenefit of our respective cultures. Nor would these options require either the closure of all ports upstream of a barrage or the fitting of a lock limiting the size of ship acceptable.

If the aim of national energy policy is the exploitation of Wessex for London’s benefit, a regional energy policy has the equally clear objective of self-sufficiency at the regional level. So how do we secure this?

We begin by auditing the resources we are neglecting. We have an east-west motorway, the M4. Should we not be installing photo-voltaics on the south-facing embankments? We produce around 25 kilogrammes of waste per household per week. Why do we landfill so much and not recover the maximum energy from it? Southampton City Council has made a name for itself in energy best practice. So why are all Wessex cities not performing at the same level?

These are questions that a regional government would be well placed to answer with enthusiasm. National government won’t get involved in the detail. Local government is often too limited by its horizons to do the vision thing. Regional government – a Wessex Parliament – would do the necessary marshalling. Is it better to have a few large energy-from-waste plants that can maximise thermal efficiency? Or more local ones, that minimise fuel transport distances and allow heat and power to be distributed through local networks?

The region is the level at which energy issues come together. That’s why we have regional electricity companies, even though, thanks to Thatcher, they’re now owned by the French and the Scots. It’s been sixty years since they were owned by Wessex folk.

Maybe it’s time to bring back the Wessex Electricity Company? Wouldn’t we rather be paying our bills to that than to a company 70% owned by the French State, whose nuclear power stations are arranged along the Normandy coast so that we’re the first victims of any fallout?

As for the Scots, they’re best known for laying claim to Shetland’s oil, which won’t do them much good in the longer term. But the corresponding issue for the 21st century is who owns the energy of the future. You read it here first. They’re Wessex’s renewables!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Two Cheers for Sir William

“The Green Belt is a Labour achievement, and we mean to build on it.”
John Prescott, 1998

Last Saturday, at the AGM of the Swindon-based National Trust, its chairman, Sir William Proby, announced plans to buy up Green Belt land threatened by Labour’s housebuilding craze. Sir William’s critics are wrong to see anything extraordinary about this: the Trust’s founders were passionate in their defence of open land. Its first chairman, Sir Robert Hunter, came to the Trust from another body that now has its headquarters in Wessex: what is known today as the Open Spaces Society, based in Henley-on-Thames.

With the passing of the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act by a Labour government, it might have been thought that the countryside was safe and the need for voluntary action superseded. Sadly, not so. Labour can dress things up as it likes: ‘sustainable urban extensions’, ‘sustainable new communities’, ‘eco-towns’. The public aren’t fooled by greenwash: they know State-sponsored sprawl when they see it. The reason why Sir William only merits two cheers is that the drive for population growth hasn’t been confronted head-on. Overcrowding is with us now, not some time in the future. Under Labour, extreme opposition is needed to have even the slightest hope of preventing ecocide. Infiltration, protest, legal challenge, civil disobedience, as well as so-called ‘criminal damage’ on development sites will doubtless all play a role.

Labour apologists have been quick to condemn the Trust for defying the will of a democratically elected government. The reality is quite different. Elected by just over 20% of registered voters, Labour can claim no mandate from the other 80%. But a recent poll showed that just over 80% of us are Nimbys (Not in My Back Yard); only 20% are happy to see their surroundings destroyed by the ‘greed is good’ mentality now poisoning our political life. Labour 20%; Nimbys 80%. Do the arithmetic before pontificating about democracy.

So who represents the Nimbys in Parliament? Not Labour, apparently. Their ‘Communities’ Secretary, Hazel Blears, has declared war on us.

How about the Conservatives? Hoots of laughter all round. They started the current trend of destruction back in the days when Tarzan served the Wicked Witch. When Berkshire County Council fought back against imposed housing targets, one London editorial thundered that if Berkshire is not willing then Berkshire must be coerced. So much for local democracy. The Conservatives ultimately did more than coerce Berkshire; they abolished it, putting an end to over one thousand years of county government. So much for conservation, so much for conservatism.

We can move swiftly past the Libby-Dibbys, whose commitment to local democracy is demonstrably patchy and unprincipled.

The fact of the matter is that compromises with greed and pride have left the Nimby majority with no voice at Westminster. That institution is run for the benefit of the City of London and the politicians’ own egos. If we want democracy, then we must build our own. The Wessex Regionalists are committed to placing planning decisions with the people they specifically affect, in the parishes, and ending all Whitehall interference, without exception.

Half the problem with planning is the politicians, the other half is the planners. Politicians generally have insufficient grasp of the subject to notice when planners are pursuing their own agenda. Beware in particular of demographic projection, an advanced branch of sorcery that deserves to be taught at Hogwarts. That’s after the students have mastered cost-benefit analysis and sustainability appraisal, two further opportunities for garbage-in, garbage-out.

Planners’ professional body, the Royal Town Planning Institute, is at the forefront of moves to get the Green Belt scrapped. Many planners today are not employed publicly but privately, by developers, or in ‘planning consultancy’, a form of environmental prostitution. Their influence ensures that destructionists are the movers and shakers in the profession’s counsels and conservationists are in retreat. Even if this weren’t so, planning, with its emphasis on bricks and mortar, will always tend towards built solutions because these require the employment of more planners.

Built solutions are not the only kind. We could, for example, get a grip on migration, both into the UK and within it, by positive as well as negative measures. To help our young people get housed, we could have a system of local preference in parts of the housing market, as works well in the Channel Islands. We could impose punitive taxation on house price increases and on empty and second homes. If EU laws need to be set aside to achieve our aims, then we should get on and do just that; it’s called subsidiarity. What we need is much less planning but much better planning, as part of a more holistic approach to all policy-making. To get there we shall need to remove the pressures that now cause us such grief.

Alternatively, we can go on building on our farmland and let our grandchildren starve. In 2005, the UK was only 60% self-sufficient in food. That means we import 40%, from countries whose own swelling populations may lead them to cut off the supply long before the end of oil will force yields back to pre-industrial levels. Without food there is no freedom. Churchill once wrote that the only time he thought the war against Nazi Germany would be lost was when U-boats were sinking convoys in the Battle of the Atlantic. Today, the UK has 27% more population than it did back then, but less farmland, and, just for good measure, far fewer fossil fuel resources too. Wessex Regionalist policy has always been to re-invest with the ultimate aim of regional self-sufficiency in energy, nutrition and all essential manufacture.

Wessex Regionalists are not anti-change but, unlike other parties, we want to see change for the better, not change for change’s sake. So give your planners hell (they’ll hear plenty enough from developers). And replace your politicians. Because ‘living within environmental limits’ isn’t just a slogan. It’s a fact of life we evade at our peril.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Who Cares About You?

Not the London-based parties. As MPs’ expense claims reveal, they’re far too busy shoving their snouts in the trough. With snouts down, eyes are off the ball and Wessex is being robbed. A couple of examples must suffice for now.

First off, amidst all the hullabaloo over Inheritance Tax thresholds, some very interesting figures have been downplayed. According to research by HBOS, 88% of detached property sales in London were above the tax threshold last year, 59% in the South East, but only 31% in the South West.

This reminds us of two things. One, that much of what is taxed isn’t the result of parental prudence but is windfall wealth, the result of house price inflation. This in turn is the result of a largely fraudulent, paper economy, centred on the City of London. Two, that the tax is the only way the rest of us can claw back any of that ill-gotten gain. Not that under this government there is any probability of the money then being spent in our direction. But even the theoretical possibility was better than what’s now happened.

Alistair Darling’s adjustment of the tax threshold was greeted with whoops of joy in the leafy suburbs (though the perceptive will see from the small print that it’s not quite as generous as journalists first made out). Meanwhile, villages in the west of Wessex have been preparing for another visit by chequebook-wielding Londoners on obscenely large incomes, looking to snap up a nice little cottage for the weekend. A BBC commentator suggested that the right policy on Inheritance Tax could now win elections, in the way that council house “sales” (more like bribes) did under Thatcher. That’s because marginal seats in the M25 doughnut ring determine who gets to ruin the country. A case of “to them that hath shall be given”.

In 1831, a large swath of central Bristol was burnt down by rioters incensed at the way Parliamentary reform was being blocked by a rich and self-centred minority. Hopefully, we shall not have to resort to the same tactics to get electoral and other constitutional reform today. The issues though haven’t changed one bit.

Inheritance Tax may or may not be the right way to capture the unearned value from capital gains. If it’s the wrong way then we need to look at alternatives. The principle is straightforward enough. Houses should be homes – nests – not nest eggs. Taxation of house price increases, after allowing for general inflation and improvements, should be set at 100%. If you’ve got money, go and do something useful with it instead.

Now for the second act of daylight robbery. With at least £5 billion already secured for the Olympics, London was doing very nicely out of the Wessex taxpayer. But the taxpayer’s generosity has now been signed up in support of Crossrail, a £16 billion rail link from Berkshire to Essex via central London.

That isn’t to say that Crossrail isn’t a good idea. But so are many others. It will inevitably create serious reductions in both speed and frequency of rail services to and from Paddington during its construction. This was pointed out by Richard Giles in a recent letter to the Western Morning News. He went on to argue a remedy: upgrading the Waterloo service to hourly by improvements already planned and just awaiting funding to the modest tune of £22 million, about one seven-hundredth the cost of Crossrail. While these improvements would still fall short of the 3hrs 8mins Exeter-Waterloo service of the 1960’s, or indeed the full double line infrastructure, approval or not will test whether Whitehall realises there are folk west of Maidenhead.
While Crossrail soaks up the money like a sponge, Bristol languishes without even the most basic Metro system. The largest city in Wessex is expected to put up with First buses, clogging the streets and fouling the air. Visitors arriving at Temple Meads station look around in vain for the city centre. In London, Newcastle and elsewhere, they’re taken there by an electric underground railway network. It extends out to the suburbs too. But there's no such money for Bristol. Not even to get a train to Portishead, still railless after all these years and all that housing. Bristolians have nothing special to look forward to and even an on-road tram system is viewed as ambitious. The Department for Transport has a phrase for this: ‘managing down aspirations’.

Detailed plans were actually drawn up for a tram system in the Fareham-Gosport-Portsmouth area, known as South Hampshire Rapid Transit. So where’s the money for it? There’s none, so it’s died. Gosport, with 70,000 people, remains the largest town in the UK without a rail service. After approving schemes in some northern cities, the Department for Transport has moved the goal posts. It now factors in as a crippling ‘cost’ the loss of revenue to the Treasury caused by motorists buying less fuel. Do you suppose the Department of Health would decide its policy towards tobacco on this basis? Crossrail didn’t get approval because it’ll get folk out of their cars but because it’ll shave a few minutes off the journey time from Heathrow to Canary Wharf. So we know who counts in Brown’s Britain.
If we’re now fully fed up with being treated as London's back yard and holiday home, and milked for every penny, then Home Rule for Wessex is the solution waiting to happen. The Wessex Regionalists will fight for this. The other parties won’t. So who cares about you?

Friday, November 2, 2007

Britain’s Best Channels?

Proposed restructuring at the BBC could be a fantastic opportunity for the cultural community of Wessex. Alternatively, the opportunity could, as usual, be strangled at birth.

There is no denying that Wessex is poorly served by current arrangements. In contrast to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is no dedicated structure ensuring that our regional identity is reflected in BBC output. We are poorly served by national services, which are heavily London-focussed. We are equally poorly served by local services, which are fragmented, lacking the critical mass to develop programmes appropriate to an audience of regional scale. Wessex is partitioned between three BBC ‘regions’ – South, South-West and West – and there is no evidence of any will to co-operate in presenting themes of Wessex-wide importance. On the contrary, we found when launching The Case for Wessex at Wantage in 2003 that news coverage was restricted to BBC South, in whose area Wantage lies. Management decisions based upon the BBC’s territorial demarcation therefore ensured that the majority of Wessex was not informed of matters objectively of equal significance to all three ‘regions’. Highly localised fragmentation within England is accelerating, resulting in a loss of regional perspective, while in the other home nations identity is being consolidated. One only has to compare the continuity of the Welsh region with the break-up of the Western region (which pre-war had a station in Southampton) to see that this is so.

The quality of existing regional programming falls far short of what we could reasonably expect. Our culture – notably our dialect and literature but also history and music – lacks the serious treatment that its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland receive. News programming is facile; there is no regional equivalent of Newsnight, able to question local and national politicians searchingly about the neglect of our region’s interests, such as in relation to housing, transport and the environment. It’s no defence to say that the public is largely bored with regional programming: such audience reaction simply proves the point about quality.

Last month, Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust told listeners to the Today programme that the BBC should aim to offer distinctiveness and to offer something to every audience. Does that include Wessex? And if not, why not? We are hungry for something of better quality than the purely local can provide, yet which is not submerged in national programming trying to appeal uniformly to an English or British audience. Even national programming appears unbalanced in some respects in favour of other regions. There is, for example, no television or radio soap opera set in Wessex, but a disproportionate number set ‘up north’. Are our lives really that uninteresting?

National coverage of cutbacks has bewailed the planned closure of London’s ‘iconic’ Television Centre. Good riddance to that. It’s just not acceptable that 74% of the BBC’s budget is spent in the capital. The proportion is declining, but nowhere near fast enough. A strategy to reduce property costs must include de-concentrating resources out of London to lower-cost cities. Cost-cutting must not be an excuse for running-down regional production centres; quite the opposite. The BBC must serve the whole of Britain, not just London, and this applies as much to its own organisation as to its output. Bristol, for example, has achieved an enviable reputation for its environmental programmes, one that could and should be developed further.

It’s puzzling that national news coverage relies so heavily on reporters sent out on location from London. Proper use should be made of reporters employed at the regional centres. This would not only be more cost-effective but would provide the opportunity to hear more regional accents. The Wessex accent must be the least well-aired on television; if so, this implies discrimination that ought to be challenged very firmly indeed.

All this assumes, however, that the BBC is actually capable of reforming itself. Viewers annoyed by the incessant self-advertising now filling space between programmes may prefer to regard it as in the final throes of institutional narcissism. Because its senior management is in fact accountable to no-one, any cutbacks now being made will fall on smaller, more creative fry. And that will be the way until accountability is injected.

The BBC is the classic quango, placed at arm’s length as a safeguard of political independence, yet dependent on State funding for its survival. The law says one thing, the money says another. And in between is management, largely left to its own instincts.

Maybe we should start again. A Wessex Broadcasting Corporation could be built to a very different design. Perhaps something like the National Trust, whose governance is a mixture of nomination by expert bodies and election by the membership. If anyone in power had ever seriously wanted an independent BBC, the Board of Governors would have been elected by the licence-payers, a ballot form coming with each licence renewal. The newly elected Board itself could then have set the next year’s licence fee. The challenge now is to get the publicly accountable public broadcaster we should have had all along.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Free is Cheaper

According to Alan Cochrane in the Daily Telegraph recently, “Alex Salmond is walking on water”. The drive displayed by the SNP administration at Holyrood has in equal measure astonished the Scots and enraged the English. Why can we not have the same standard of public services now available north of the border? Well, we can. If we vote for it. But neither Brown nor Cameron has any intention of matching the SNP’s social ambition. And that is because English bile is mis-directed at Scotland for doing the right thing, not at the UK parties for their failure to follow suit.

Funding is a red herring. Apoplectic but innumerate, English nationalists bemoan the Barnett formula, which dooms England to lower spending per head. They ignore the fact that only some public spending is covered by the formula; defence spending and the headquarters costs of the bloated Whitehall ministries are among the items not included. They also seem blissfully unaware of the huge regional variations in spending within England; if they are aware, they have no plans to do anything about it. The SNP, it should be noted, are quite happy to sort matters out by keeping all Scottish revenues, save only a sum remitted to central government for services thought worth having at that level. It’s a system that works well in various forms, for example in the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, the Basque Country and Navarre and is certainly one that we in Wessex should study.

In Tuesday’s Times, David Aaronovitch trialled a different approach, arguing that good public services are a sign of selfishness. “Who benefits”, he asks, “from dropping all prescription charges and all student fee contributions, given that the poor were already exempt? What could be nicer than congratulating yourself on your public virtue while pocketing the state’s largesse?”

Such is the extent to which Thatcher’s children, at least in the media, have lost the plot. Two fundamental principles of the welfare state used to be universal entitlement and the corresponding abolition of means testing. Both remain sound. Giving the same benefits to the better-off as to the poor locks the former into supporting a system that works for everyone. Not having a means test means that no-one falls into the poverty trap, where attempts at self-betterment are forever being cancelled out by the loss of entitlement to benefits.

Destruction of the ‘welfare state for all’ is a joint project of Right and Left. The Right demands the breakdown of community in favour of the war of each against all. Denying public services to the better-off drives resulting bitterness towards those who continue to receive help, allowing them to become scapegoats for all social ills. The Left are just as involved in the project because means testing requires bureaucracy. It’s a source of well-paid jobs for parasitical Guardian types, for whom work means interfering in others’ lives under the guise of ‘doing good’. Smug satisfaction comes from knowing that they themselves need never suffer the iniquities of the systems they administer.

The cost to society as a whole of free provision is less than that of a means-tested system because the need for bureaucratic testing is eliminated. There are other advantages too. Our urban areas are facing increasing congestion. So why not make local public transport free, funding it through a reformed system of local taxation? (Who actually runs the trains and buses under contract is a secondary issue.) More folk would start to use public transport because it’s human nature to take an interest in something that you pay for whether you use it or not (as with state education or the NHS). Traffic would move more smoothly because there’d be less of it around; buses would speed up even more as no time would be lost in collecting fares. Less traffic would make cities healthier and more pleasant places. Expensive road-building plans would be abandoned and highway maintenance costs reduced. Declining car use would free up parking space for other purposes, reducing pressure on the Green Belt.

The more dismal economists will argue that abolishing pay-as-you-go removes the incentive to prudent management of resources. But it ain’t necessarily so. Even if having an NHS means some patients visit their doctor without first applying common sense, it doesn’t make anyone objectively more ill. And no-one hangs around waiting rooms just for fun. Moving from metered to unmetered water doesn’t transform the habit of turning the tap when needed and no more. On local buses, travel cards giving unlimited journeys over a specified period enrich lives; even if they lead to passengers sitting on the bus all day just admiring the view, there are worse things to do with the time. Such fears of ‘unnecessary journeying’ have been expressed over free travel for pensioners, which seems particularly mean given that the bus is making the journey anyway. A more pertinent fault of that scheme is its patronising attitude to the elderly. If money is the problem, then bigger pensions, not bus passes, are the solution. That way the elderly would be empowered to choose their own priorities. Another fault is that funding comes from trimming general financial support for bus services, leaving rural pensioners entirely cut off as their village’s bus is axed. Many others for whom free bus travel would be a boon remain outside the scheme. The young, for example, who are otherwise at risk of developing a car dependency that will not serve them well in an oil-depleted world. Bus passes, of course, need bureaucracy. That means work for local authorities and work for the bus companies. And we all pay more in the end.

Free provision does raise some important moral challenges. It leads to reduced tolerance of behaviour that imposes costs on society. For example, poor health arising from drugs or diet is more likely to attract public censure where the cost of treatment is borne publicly than where it depends on private insurance, where premiums drive home to individuals the consequences of their actions, albeit at the most inconvenient of times. There is however, no logic in the common mid-Atlantic attitude that other folk’s health is not my concern. If not their health, why their education, their fire protection, their street lighting, or their defence? As resources become scarcer, we shall all need to move away from the artificial dichotomy of public and private spheres and look to marshal our society’s efforts as a whole for the community’s benefit. In our case, the community is Wessex but the principle is one applicable to all communities worldwide.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Happy King Alfred's Day

Australians are often characterised as having little time for monarchy but there are folk down under who celebrate King Alfred's Day. If they can do it, why do we in Alfred's own land pay so little attention to the greatest ruler in our history?

King Alfred died on 26th October 899. It's the one important event in his life that can be securely dated. We don't know exactly when he was born, in 849, married, in 869, became king, in 871, or when he fought his great battle with Guthrum at Ethandune, sometime in May 878. So the date of his death is the one day we can call King Alfred's Day and bring to mind what he did to create so much of what we now take for granted.

It’s true. So much of what makes today's England what it is has its roots in Alfred’s Wessex, from the Royal Family to the Royal Navy. It was Alfred who created the first English history to be written in the language of the people and who first codified English law, drawing upon diverse precedents. His checking of the Danish advance was of European significance. He followed this up by leading a remarkable re-birth of the learning so nearly destroyed. In doing so, he drew in scholars from many lands, including Mercia, Wales, Flanders and Saxony. The spirit of freedom under the law was re-established from Alfred's Wessex at a time when most of England had fallen under foreign tyranny. It was to be Wessex, true to the legacy of Alfred, that stood alone at Hastings when that spirit was crushed by another foreign foe. Time after time, generations have looked to Alfred as their model. For although his central achievement ultimately fell – as the Northmen triumphed – the time he bought and the accommodation he sought succeeded in letting a glorious glimpse of the old civilisation slip through.

England's debt to Wessex is rarely acknowledged and treatment of Wessex today leaves much to be desired. Wessex is not allowed the respect it needs to survive and prosper in a changing world. The least that each of us can do, however, is to remember, each year, on the 26th of October, the only English king who is unchallengeably 'the Great'. This is our opportunity to reflect on the astonishing range of reasons why that title is so richly deserved.

Wessex Regionalists have our own very specific reason to remember Alfred’s achievements. The key fact that made them possible was that Wessex was then self-governing. Without a king of its own to rally resistance, Wessex would have succumbed to the invader. Just as, in 1066, England as a whole fell into Norman hands in a single battle, the rest being merely enforcement. It was Wessex in the form of Alfred’s successors that brought a unified England into being, for reasons that made sense to them at that time. It is also for Wessex to keep those arrangements under review, because what matters is what works for us here today. History should be our inspiration, not our prison. Nor is it our blueprint. We are not seeking to go back but forward with renewed confidence. To the cynic’s query ‘when was Wessex?’ our answer is now – and increasingly so as other identities fail us.

Would Alfred have relished today’s challenges? Perhaps, though they are only partly about issues of power and identity that he would find familiar. The greatest challenge today is to make a serious contribution to averting environmental catastrophe. Wessex today is denied the means to do so. Labour plans to build some 672,000 new homes in Wessex over the next 20 years, most at prices beyond the reach of local folk. No consideration has been given to how the new residents will be fed but their homes could gobble up as much as 55,000 acres of precious farmland. As infrastructure groans under the weight of growth, so new road-building returns to the agenda. What other option is there? So asks the congested commuter and the resident of many a village thundered asunder by supermarket lorries.

What other option indeed. The other London-based parties are as complicit as Labour in closing down meaningful debate. And just as useless in standing up to the greedy bullies who now dictate public policy. Wessex needs a party that puts Wessex first, that defends our territory and community, one that neither exploits the rest of the world nor lets it shirk wider responsibilities. As the oil wells run dry over the course of this century, we shall all need to think globally, plan regionally, and act locally. And these are all sentiments to which Alfred of Wessex would surely feel moved to raise a horn of mead, voicing the words which Chesterton gave him in The Ballad of the White Horse:

Asia and all imperial plains

Are too little for a fool;
But for one man whose eyes can see,
The little island of Athelney
Is too large a land to rule.