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?