Saturday, February 28, 2009

The People’s Ponzi

We’ve been hearing quite a lot recently about Ponzi schemes, as the financial chickens come home to roost. A Ponzi scheme is an investment scam that promises investors a high rate of return but in fact is paying earlier entrants out of the money collected from later entrants. Eventually, for whatever reason, the scheme will be unable to go on expanding, at which point the game is up.

The United Kingdom has an ageing population, with Wessex, as the centre of the retirement industry, having a particular interest in the matter. Three out of the five ‘most aged’ local authority areas are in Wessex and the statistics reveal something of a ‘retirement belt’ stretching across the south of our region from Exmoor to the Isle of Wight and beyond.

It is generally asserted that immigration is needed to sustain a working age population capable of supporting this mass of greybeards. The problem is, of course, that everyone who survives long enough gets old, and immigrants are no exception. The population equivalent of a Ponzi scheme is the belief that you can deal with the economic consequences of ageing simply by having an ever-expanding population. The reality is that this is simply not sustainable in environmental terms. Once ecological capacity is exhausted, the result is collapse. To maintain the ratio of 15-64 year-olds at its current level, the UK population would need to rise from about 61 million today to 136 million by 2050. Pro rata, the figures for Wessex would see a rise from about 8 million to over 18 million. Bristol, for example, would need to become a city of over a million folk.

The available data suggests an almost totally misplaced concern about ageing, and that concern needs to be refocused elsewhere. The UK spends about 6.2% of GDP on State pensions, rising to 8.5% by 2050. But if the retirement age were to be raised proportionately in line with life expectancy, the rise is only to 7.75%. So a third of the problem simply disappears.

Low population growth actually brings massive economic, social and environmental benefits. Productive work can be aimed at improving the quality of life, instead of building ever more infrastructure and housing. Less money spent on rearing children and on education means more to spend on pensions. In the UK 43% of young folk go into higher education and can be dependents well into their twenties. Young folk are also disproportionately reflected in crime and unemployment statistics. Conversely, many retired folk remain active in developing the social capital of their communities, giving time to voluntary organisations, in effect free labour that might otherwise have to be paid for. In 2007/08 the UK spent £76 billion of public money on support costs for young folk, compared to £71.5 billion supporting the over-65s. Financial assistance is given down the generations – not up – on average until the age of 75.

Smaller families can mean that folk inherit more housing capital: two children each inherit half the parental home, three children only inherit a third. The potential importance of housing equity – which can be freed up to part-fund consumption in retirement – is huge. The value of housing assets in the UK, even after mortgage debt, is considerably larger than all pension funds combined. (How much of this money really exists is, of course, another matter!)

Economist Phil Mullan, author of The Imaginary Time Bomb, has suggested that the obsession with a looming pensions deficit has less to do with demographic fact and more to do with a political agenda to cut back the welfare state. Countries with much older age structures have out-performed those with younger ones, while a report for the Institute of Public Policy Research confirmed that “there is little correlation between ageing and increased health care costs”.

In short, the way we relieve the ‘burden’ of an ageing population is that we draw upon the money that would otherwise have been spent on the extra housing, schools, hospitals, roads and other infrastructure needed to accommodate population growth. Energy infrastructure is one very significant part of that package. So too are the additional costs of growing a population through immigration, such as translation costs, along with those that stem from inter-communal tension and divided loyalties.

The alternative to population restraint is a planet confronting unsustainable trends, where each new child will likely produce more than 20 tonnes of greenhouse gases every year and where civilisation everywhere is in imminent peril as a result.

If we go on building, we are sure to find ourselves living in a house of cards, miserably waiting for the wind to blow.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hands Off Our History!

On Monday a letter appeared in the Bristol Evening Post advocating a radical overhaul of local government in Wessex, linking this with the name of our Party. The proposal was to sweep away both districts and counties in favour of Jacobin-style ‘cantons’:

“the Canton of Oxford would include much of Berkshire, parts of Buckinghamshire and parts of Wiltshire. Kingswood and Long Ashton would come into the Canton of Bristol...”

Needless to say, the truth is that these views are not those of the Wessex Regionalists, a party that values our heritage most highly. We oppose the Prescott zones of ‘The South West’ and ‘The South East’ precisely because they are soulless, a dull denial of the richness that life in an old country offers. Wessex suffers economically, socially and environmentally because its identity lacks institutional, democratic expression. It is not animated by power, nor is power over the region reined-in by a deep sense of civic duty to it. It would be the height of caprice were we to take the very opposite view of local government. Anyone who has examined the evidence will see that where historic shires cease to be the focus of political power they wither away, largely because map-makers and the media then cease to make use of them. If we want our shires to live on, then we must use them.

And live on they must. We need to nail the lie that county government is an invention of the Victorians. Their achievement was to democratise what was already over a thousand years old. When the new unitary ‘Wiltshire Council’ comes into being it will be as the successor to Wiltshire County Council, which in 1889 took over the administrative powers of the county justices sitting in quarter sessions, themselves the successors to the mediaeval sheriff’s court. And so on back to Alfred and Ine. It was in Wessex that the first shires were created, around 1,300 years ago. Nowhere in the world can claim such a pattern of continuity. English county government is part of humanity’s common heritage, no less precious in its own way than the Pyramids of Giza or the Great Wall of China.

To attack this heritage as so many ‘relics’ or ‘fossils’ is empty cant. The antiquity of the counties is actually neutral as a fact. It is the interpretation placed on their survival that is crucial. To the ideological moderniser, it is self-evidently time to sweep them away. To other minds, their very resilience points to something worth a closer look. If the counties have already survived a millennium of social upheaval and technological change it is important to understand their strengths and at least to demand the proof that radical change is now, suddenly, justified. The ‘experts’ have their own agenda and their claims should never be taken at face value.

The metaphor of ‘sweeping away’ is always revealing, because it suggests something unhygienic about the status quo, something untidy, something that gets in the way of doing some other, unstated thing. It is no accident that demands for the reorganisation of local government on the lines of ‘city-regions’ or ‘metropolitan areas’ emerge at times of development stress. One such period was the late Sixties, when so much of our heritage was ‘swept away’ unthinkingly, leaving us to regret its loss at our leisure, bewailing the short-lived bag of beans we received in return. ‘City-regions’ are always a developer’s charter because they place the land around cities under the political control of city-based authorities, allowing the destruction of the countryside to accelerate. They are singularly inappropriate in Wessex. We are a rural region where cities know their place. And it is not lording it over the rest of us.

Like counties, cities, as we have known them, are under attack. Both major parties are enthusiastic about elected mayors. We are not. Our aim is a widening of local democracy, not its contraction, and Mafia-style ‘boss’ politics is no part of our vision. Democratic debate and voting in open meetings should not give way to dodgy deals in the privacy of the mayor’s parlour. The eclipse of our once-vigorous civic life by new, secretive models borrowed from business is one of the great tragedies of our time and must be reversed if local democracy is to be renewed. Advocates of these ‘Mafia mayors’ tell us that the powers of local councils need to be concentrated if they are to be effective. That, it must be pointed out, is because there are now so few powers. The job of a local politician is no longer to help make decisions but to talk to other people, elsewhere, who wield the real power. That is why the ‘new Caesarism’ is rampant and folk have stupidly let it happen by voting for one or other of the London parties.

Hand-in-glove with the structural turmoil has gone a new vocabulary. Emblematic of this was the creation of ‘De-clog’, the Department for Communities and Local Government, currently headed up by Bleary Hazel. Its remit is to promote ‘community cohesion’. Since real communities cohere naturally – by definition – it is clear that the control freaks have been exceedingly busy on this one. First, destroy real, stable communities. Then create new, unstable ones by decree, like the Prescott zones or local city-regions. Then help yourself to a job for life using State coercion to hold them together.

Our solution is simply to put right the damage. Our Party’s policy is to restore traditional local government areas and status, including Berkshire County Council (abolished by the so-called Conservatives), the traditional county boundaries, and borough status to charter towns. Structures should be accountable for the use of their powers at the smallest practical level, with nothing done by a wider area that a more local area feels it can do for itself. We demand committees, not cabinets. We seek the formation of new, smaller districts, based on the old, ecologically-sound hundreds and run by parish delegates. We oppose area boards that deny voting rights for the communities being ‘done to’. We have a wonderful tradition of local self-government that is slipping through our fingers. It is time to seize it back, to make it truly local – and to ensure that it really is all about government and not the costly smoke-and-mirrors act we endure today.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Smaller World, Please

Think globally, act locally. The sentiment is sound but the first instruction requires a lot less effort than the second. A lot less effort, because successive centralist governments at Westminster have made the second instruction well nigh impossible to carry out.

Take the example of planning, where local discretion has now been all but abolished. When the 2004 ‘reforms’ were pushed through at the behest of the power of money, community groups naively fell in behind them. The package included a requirement that councils bind themselves to a ‘Statement of Community Involvement’. Community groups thought that Christmas had come early. At last, councils would be forced to do as they told them, and not as elected local politicians wished. The reality is – and always was – that this was a smokescreen behind which decisions were taken away from the locality altogether. Now unelected civil servants decide everything of any importance in the planning world and matters are getting progressively worse. The Campaign to Protect Rural England had the true measure of ‘community involvement’ all along. As their poster proclaimed, “Your new airport goes here. What colour would you like the fence?”

When Labour politicians – and the Tory ones are no better – speak of empowering communities, the rhetoric translates into reality with so many caveats as to be deeply deceitful. A new generation of environmental protestors is now coming to the fore, one that will not be content with sit-ins and stunts that simply delay the bulldozers by days. Westminster diktat may find itself met with a more resolute denial of authority and legitimacy. We should not be surprised to see big developers and their pocket decision-makers vilified very personally as the public enemies they clearly are. No moral individual could defend those who are busily wrecking Wessex in the name of a despotic Parliament whose right to rule is nothing but self-proclamation backed up with tanks. When road protestors set fire to the contractors’ plant, can we say that that was a crime? And that what that machinery was doing to our land was a lawful act, advancing truth, beauty and goodness? We shall have to think again very thoroughly about what we mean by the law. The only certainty is that Westminster has no claim to be making it.

One pressing reason why power needs to be radically decentralised is that the planet needs this. World government is not the answer to the world’s problems. Small is beautiful not because it allows good things to happen, although it does, but because it prevents big, bad things being allowed to happen. Those who have to live with the consequences don’t willingly foul their own nest.

So a philosophy that puts Wessex first is not one that denies our interdependence with the rest of the world. Quite the reverse. We seek to contribute to a sustainable, equitable world where the health, security and liberty of all is paramount, regardless of race or creed. But we do that from our own land, by showing solidarity, morally and economically, not by gung-ho intervention where we’re not wanted. Humanitarian aid – well-organised by charities – is best kept quite distinct from political meddling. ‘Foreign policy’ is a fancy term for not minding our own business. It could be a very attractive as well as unique selling point for the Wessex Regionalists to be the only party whose foreign policy is not to have one. Globalisation is on the defensive – protectionism is making a comeback – and internationalism is up for redefinition.

Watching the television news it is hard to resist the feeling that anywhere and everywhere matters except home. Recent events in Gaza were tragic. But did they justify top billing night after night after night after night after night after night after night? Let us examine why foreign news has such a fascination for broadcasters.

There are the superficial reasons. One is that foreign correspondents cost money. If you have them, you use them. Not using them would only get you into trouble with the accountants. Another is that editorial control is in the hands of a generation whose background leads them to embrace the foreign and despise the domestic. Hippies who spent the 60’s out east don’t care much what happens in Easton or Eastleigh. The Middle East is ‘cool’, whichever side you take. And so it’s assumed that everyone else would want to give it the same gravity.

But there is a deeper agenda. George Orwell’s proles and his ‘outer party’ won’t have spotted it but the ‘inner party’ will have thought it through carefully.

Firstly, for every foreign story that dominates the headlines there is a domestic story that has been spiked. So what is the bad news that this is a good day to bury? Corruption in high places? Another piece of repressive legislation waved through Westminster without the public’s knowledge? Revelations about a failed Government policy? The squandering of public money? Your guess is as good as mine.

Secondly, foreign news fosters a sense of powerlessness. Domestic news makes folk angry and there is plenty they can do about it. They can change the government. Even change the system. But foreign affairs are by definition immune to the outcome of a British general election. Whether Brown, Cameron or Clegg sits in Number 10 makes no real difference to the sufferings of others thousands of miles away (unless British troops are involved). So when foreign news makes people angry, that is all it does. And belief in politicians drains away all the faster. And if politicians can’t change anything, why have them? When pundits now talk about a ‘post-democratic Europe’, its handmaidens are easily identified. They are the sirens wailing their song nightly upon our screens.

When cuts fall on the broadcast media, it is not the foreign correspondents who suffer. The first casualty is always regional news. Understandably so, since it often amounts to little more than ‘cat stuck in tree in Chippenham’. One of our key tasks in the years ahead will be to change the media organisations, so that they speak to us primarily about ourselves. Together we can then make that story interesting as local action increasingly challenges our oppressors. Yes, folks. The revolution WILL be televised.