Sunday, October 30, 2011

Western Spring

WR President Colin Bex speaks truth to power on the streets of London.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Noz vat, keneil

Good night, friend. In Breton.

Tuesday saw the funeral of Yann Fouéré, who died on 20th October at the age of 101. A life-long advocate of Breton and other minority rights, founder of the Movement for the Organisation of Brittany and other political and cultural movements in Brittany, co-founder of the Celtic League and the European Free Alliance, Fouéré’s most iconic contribution to political thought was the idea of ‘the Europe of a Hundred Flags’. The phrase is a translation of the original title of his 1968 book, L’Europe aux Cents Drapeaux, published in English in 1980 as Towards a Federal Europe: Nations or States?

The phrase is much more inspiring than the book, which now appears very dated. All regionalists who have not yet achieved the degree of autonomy they desire will be disappointed with the pace of change, the resurgent intransigence and tactical slyness of the nation-states and the lack of genuine interest from those now busy building a bankers’ and bureaucrats’ Europe on the ruins of idealism.

Nevertheless, we are pleased to have counted Fouéré among our allies, just as he was to give ‘Le Wessex’ an honourable mention in his magazine, L’Avenir de la Bretagne. His book was too early for us to receive a mention there. What the book does say is that the future English region-states are “foreshadowed in the eight economic regions into which England has already been divided” but that “some adjustments may be required as far as the limits of these regions are concerned”. Commenting on the situation in the late 1970s, it goes on to say that “France and Spain are lagging behind England”. Not any more!

Despite his flexibly federalist leanings, Fouéré posed a warning: “Could Zone No. 6 or the West-North-West Region kindle in the hearts of their citizens some kind of local patriotism, which is the condition of a vigorous local life? On pain of being purely artificial and devoid of every human warmth, the region-states should be inspired by a spirit of resistance to absorption and assimilation. If not, they would be like dead cells, and dead cells cannot make up a living body. They would soon be swallowed up by a unitary European state, using its centralized and despotic power to destroy the freedom of men and regions.”

John Prescott tried to give us precisely the kind of map that Fouéré condemned. We begged to differ and fought top-down regionalisation every inch of the way. We were right, and are right, in believing that when regional government finally triumphs it will not be under the logo flag of some ‘South West’ or ‘South East’ assembly but when the fiery standard of Wessex comes to be unfurled over the first gathering of our region’s Witan in near a thousand years.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tackling the Taboos

“There are those who say the system is broke. It’s not. That’s how it was built. It is there to make rich people richer.”  Bilbo Goransson

In parts of Wessex, second homes are an epidemic. In the coastal communities of south Devon, including towns such as Salcombe, second homes and holiday lets now account for over 50% of the housing stock. For those who don’t live in south Devon – and it could equally be parts of Somerset or Dorset – try imagining the scene. Every other home, empty all winter. The locals? Who?

South Hams District Council has done what it can. It has recognised the harm to communities that results when family members are ripped from their roots by lack of affordable housing. Schools, shops and facilities suffer.

Before 2000, the council’s priority was to protect the environment. Since 2000, it has been to get affordable housing built. Not a popular policy with everyone. Council officials have faced death threats. Folk feel that their environment is under attack, as well they might.

The sad fact is that conflict is an inevitable consequence of the law as it stands. Because the Londoners won’t forgo their cosy cottages, local authorities face an unpalatable dilemma. Build – and destroy farmland, landscape, tranquillity, road safety and the rest to accommodate ever greater numbers, eroding the very attributes of rural living that attracted the newcomers in the first place. Or don’t build – and see the community die. A not-so-holy alliance between planning departments (seeking fees) and building firms (seeking profits) means that bricks-and-mortar is the stock answer to any social problem, always preferred to truly constructive thinking.

There is another way. The way that keeps the housing stock stable but gives priority to locals when vacancies arise. It works well in the Channel Islands. It would work well in Wessex, were it allowed to. Empty and second homes could be taxed out of existence. Change of use to a second home could require planning permission. If all else fails, the public sector could step in and buy those homes whenever they come on to the market and rent them to local homeless folk. You remember. Council housing? The very opposite of current policy, where Right to Buy discounts are to be increased, allowing more and more tenants to effectively steal public assets, and where ‘affordable rents’ are now to be redefined as 80% of market rent, regardless of whether local incomes are anywhere near that figure. The Wessex Clearances are underway then. As Robin Stanes put it in his history of Devon, “If it has lost much of its native idiom and rural style and if the Devonshire dialect is now seldom heard – and mocked when it is – that probably does not bother the new Devonians, the incomers who probably now make up the majority.”

When Labour ruled the roost, it labelled second homes a localised problem requiring localised solutions, but always denied us the powers and resources to do anything but moan. Solutions do exist but to reach them will mean putting people and place above property and privilege. Lack of money is the worst possible excuse for not doing something. Money is infinite, just an accounting convention, a symbol for the finite real resources that society either squanders or puts to good use. It is society’s job, through its democratic institutions, to allocate and re-allocate resources, through defining and re-defining the scope of the property rights it will recognise, to achieve just outcomes. It’s time it got on with it. Until then, we shall continue to ask the question: can we, environmentally and socially, continue to afford a part-time populace? Or must the price of their fun in the sun be a lifetime of squalor for the ordinary folk of Wessex?

Happy King Alfred’s Day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Wrong Type of Railway

Transport developments continue to make the headlines this month. Figures for rail use so far in 2011 suggest that this will be a boom year, with the number of passenger journeys at its highest since the mid-1940s, and the highest in peacetime since the 1920s. The Independent (a London newspaper) commented in its editorial on 17th October that: “Soaring petrol prices is one of the principal factors powering the growth in train travel, and as a return to the days of cheap petrol appears inconceivable, it would be wise to bank on the need for continued rail expansion. Yet there is not much sign that the Government has taken this on board.”

Enough of that rolling on the floor laughing. Of course, petrol prices are still ridiculously low but at least there are some who realise, however imperfectly, that the only way is up, just as there are those who realise that growth really is dead, even if they have yet to see the body. There will be huge investment in the railways in the years to come. The London regime has embarked on one of the biggest rail development programmes since Victorian times – 2,700 new carriages, £900 million for electrification, and the Crossrail and Thameslink projects. Not to mention High Speed 2 ruffling Tory feathers in the Chilterns.

The question we should all be asking is whether this is money well spent. Will it help decentralise the UK and facilitate the re-formation of substantially self-sufficient regional economies? Or will it re-inforce provincial subservience to dictates from the London branch office of the global banking scam, and so disastrously delay our transition to a sustainable way of living?

Left to the market, the answer might well be the former. The highest growth this year has been in journeys taken in London and the south-east rather than in the long-distance travel that politicians like to talk up into a series of glamorous grands projets. Another growth area has been in use of small rural branch lines – precisely the kind of lines that used to be considered the network’s biggest liability. No doubt that pattern would have been even more marked if so many services outside the south-east had not been rendered inaccessible through branch line closures. “The argument deserves to continue, therefore,” opines the Indy, “over whether future investment should be targeted towards further improvements to high-speed, cross-country routes, or plugging the woeful gaps in our often neglected commuter and branch line services.”

No prizes for guessing our choice. Or that the London regime has the opposite view, knowing full well that the £30 billion cost of HS2 would drain the rail sector of the resources, financial and human, needed to do anything really useful at this time. (Besides creating a climate of confrontation and fear that could turn a lot of decent folk against rail development as such.)

North Warwickshire MP Dan Byles told his colleagues recently that HS2 is “such an important national project that, regardless of whether you as an MP are for or against it, you need to know the issues at stake. Every family in the land will end up paying for this.” The Institute of Economic Affairs has said that there is no business case for HS2. The Economist magazine wrote that: “the effect of such projects in other countries has often been to strengthen the competitive advantage of an already dominant city.” Paris has gained the most from the creation of a high-speed network with itself as the central node and London now seeks to repeat the feat. The HS2 Action Alliance has concluded that what is needed to benefit the north and midlands are “transport improvements that improve the efficiency of their labour markets, not ones that expose them to greater competition from London” (‘competition’ subsidised, of course, by all us poor provincials). Dismantling the fake regional structures of the Prescott era without replacing them with a genuine regional alternative will make that turn-around harder to achieve. According to Ed Cox, director of the think-tank IPPR North, handing powers to Scotland’s devolved government and London’s mayor while ignoring everything in between has allowed those areas to advance economically while others suffer.

We’ve been saying all of this for 30 years now: that what’s needed is a Wessex-oriented transport system to link our principal towns and cities to each other, not to London. And the same goes for every other region in our position. The great centralist lie is that Whitehall rule is fair rule, that the national interest is the sum of regional interests and not something that in fact is structurally biased in favour of the south-east corner of these islands.

Sneering at regional solutions, as the Coalition does, and insisting that cities and their hinterlands – ‘Local Enterprise Partnerships’ – are the expected basis for sub-national collaboration is economically illiterate. Like it or not, rural areas do exist and do have a contribution, increasingly important, to make to our sustainable future. As a strategic rail link, the Wessex Main Line is not just Bristol’s commuters at one end and Southampton’s at the other, with an empty bit in the middle and the main focus of attention catching connections for Paddington and Waterloo. It is the backbone of a region, which is why the London regime likes to run it down and turns a blind eye to the overcrowding. And will go on doing so until we retrieve the power to set our own priorities.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bright Sparks

Ten years ago yesterday there began a brief spell when our region had its own train company, Wessex Trains, which basically ran the former Western Region local services, excluding the Thames valley and south Wales. The original plans for the franchise would have seen it eventually take over the remaining ex-Southern Region diesel-hauled services on the Exeter-Waterloo route. That idea – and the franchise itself – was killed off in 2006 on the irrational ground that London commuters, poor things, might suffer if more than one company shared access to Waterloo station. After that, the more nostalgic trainspotters could sleep easy too, knowing that the GWR/Southern divide would stagger on largely unblurred into the 21st century and that rail planning regionally would continue to be about getting folk up to London and not – perish the thought – about seamless travel around Wessex.

Thanks, or rather no thanks, to the London & South Western Railway and its successors, many of the lines in south-eastern Wessex were electrified using a live third rail, instead of the overhead wires more generally used. Not clever. In 1904, Professor Silvanus P. Thompson had warned that “the live rail is itself already an obsolete device. It is an engineering blunder. I would therefore ask whether the time is not right for public opinion in some effective form to step in and prevent the railway engineers of England from committing our railway system any further to the dangerous and unnecessary device.”

Clearly the time was not right. Bournemouth to Weymouth was electrified using third rail as recently as 1988, when British Rail’s Class 442 Wessex Electrics were introduced to operate the service. Eastleigh to Fareham was infilled in the 1990s. But last winter, realisation finally began to dawn that third rail just doesn’t like cold weather. Ice forming on the rail can break contact and so the train effectively breaks down. The answer is to run de-icing trains, but then what to do if their path is blocked by trains that have broken down already?

And so the thinking has started. In June this year, Peter Dearman of Network Rail suggested that the third rail network will need to be converted to overhead at some point. It has reached the limit of its capabilities, especially as train technology continues to advance, and it is not sustainable to continue with a system where 25% of the power is lost from heat. The capital costs of conversion work out cheaper than renewal of the existing equipment, needed within the next 10-20 years in any case – a once in 40 years opportunity that must not be lost. The disruption in the short term will deliver increasing benefits over time.

A Commons select committee looking into how well the transport system dealt with last winter’s conditions recommended a series of steps to improve matters. Ultimately, “the Secretary of State should commit the Government to the long-term aim of replacing the existing third rail network with a more resilient form of electrification.” The Department for Transport’s response confirmed that “the rail industry is assessing the case for replacing the third rail system over time with an overhead electrification system. Such a system would be more energy efficient as well as providing better resilience in severe winter weather… However, at this stage it would be premature to commit to the very substantial investment which such a change would involve.”

Since Wessex was the last victim of the third-rail blunder under British Rail, it will be interesting to see if it is also the first area to be converted. Unlike other areas to the east, constrained by sea, there are important connections with other local routes, at Weymouth, Southampton and Basingstoke. As conventional overhead electrification is also rolled-out on the former Western Region lines, so the technical excuse for not treating the whole of Wessex as a unit for local rail services will recede into history. Welcome back, Wessex Trains?

One-Way System

“Localism is about liberating the natural desire of local communities to become more prosperous. The notion that communities choose decline and reject prosperity is perverse, wrong-headed and not based on evidence.”

So says Eric Pickles. Two questions then for the obese obfuscator.

If he’s that sure that local communities, left to themselves, will destroy their environment, accepting growth over decline (because the middle way of conservation has been neatly airbrushed out of the argument), why does he need the safety net of the Planning Inspectorate to overturn their decisions if they go the ‘wrong’ way?

And why has he published a 65-page draft National Planning Policy Framework that tells them precisely what decisions to make?

The existence of the leash is the proof of the lie.

We have responded to Pickles’ current “consultation” in the degree of detail it deserves. With a single sentence: “We oppose the concept of a National Planning Policy Framework, imposed by central government, as fundamentally incompatible with local democracy.”

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Biggest Society

Communists and fascists agreed that an efficient society requires a strong element of focused terror – the fear of physical attack. We may think we have moved on but in fact, ever since the 70s, we have been moving back, back towards an older idea that an efficient society requires a strong element of unfocused terror – the fear of economic insecurity.

Nothing better illustrates this slippery slope than the Coalition’s plan for privatisation by stealth in the NHS, which having been waved through the Commons by the glove puppet party has recently begun its progress through the Lords. At our policy meeting last month we agreed a statement on health, namely that the Party:

· condemns the introduction of market forces into the NHS and the corresponding erosion of democratic accountability for the use of public funds;

· notes and condemns the fact that the drive for marketisation has been and continues to be supported by all the major London parties, denying any effective choice of direction;

· notes that in Scotland and Wales the NHS remains true to its founding principles and is organised through local health boards, co-ordinated by the respective devolved health ministers;

· notes that health policy for Wessex is made nationally by the London regime and is imposed on Wessex regardless of local or regional opinion;

· believes that health care should be provided by, or in close collaboration with, elected local bodies with unfettered powers to make decisions and to scrutinise and correct the decisions of others in this field, where not solely concerning the exercise of personal clinical responsibility;

· sees a role for regional action to support local choices, similar to the role of the health ministries in Scotland and Wales and the former regional health authorities in England, and demands that Wessex should form one such regional unit;

· recognises that a major cause of ill-health is the pressured nature of our society and calls for a fundamental reassessment of priorities so as to improve future health at source.

The Coalition parties claim as their aim the replacement of the Big State by the Big Society. Underlying this thinking is no great philosophical depth but simply a desire to rebrand more public assets for private benefit. Having found the State mired in debt, thanks to their banker chums, the only room for manoeuvre they perceive is to get the voluntary sector into debt too.

Less stupid folk will recognise straight away that the biggest society of all, the most comprehensive expression of the common good, IS the State. The real challenge is not to monetise and dismantle its institutions but to decentralise and democratise them, recreating opportunities for volunteers to exercise their skills and enthusiasm WITHIN the public sector, not through some amateurish substitute for it. The ongoing process of stripping out democracy, cutting the number of councils, cutting the number of councillors, giving them less to do, tying them up in rules that ruin their role, handing power to paid officers, executive members and elected mayors to do secret deals with the propertied and moneyed classes, is but the doing of a clueless flock of sheep, now well on their way to be butchered.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Rock and a Hard Place

For those who value our environment, and those who care about the future, there is a distinct lack of choice on offer from the London parties. The Tories and their glove puppet want to turn the planning system into a developers’ charter, telling us that localism doesn’t, after all, do what it says on the tin. With characteristic cynicism, they tell us instead that: “Only through empowering communities will we succeed in gaining their buy-in for development.” The intention is to maintain “a strong set of national policy principles to provide direction to local councils to ensure that sustainable development decisions are made.” Tory (and glove puppet) nanny knows best, just like Labour nanny did. And still does?

Surely not? There must be an opening here for Labour to confess and repent? Not according to Jack Dromey, Labour’s shadow communities minister (that’s ‘shadow minister for communities’, not ‘minister for shadow communities’, before you start to get spooked). The man told a fringe meeting at the party conference that Labour would reintroduce regional ‘imperatives’, including top-down housebuilding targets. Moron. We already have two to three times the number of homes that a sustainable population requires. And nowhere near the amount of farmland needed to support the one we actually have. He’ll start telling us next that we need ‘growth’ in order to save the planet.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

New New New Labour

Time was, long ago, when among the London parties a leader’s speech to conference was about how best to put the party’s purpose into action. Not now. Today the leader is there to explain what the party’s purpose is. Or is this week. Or until the polls suggest the nuance isn’t quite honed yet. What underlies the purpose isn’t principle but simply lust for the perks of office.

The truly fascinating thing is that the pundits can’t see anything wrong with this. The Labour Party ripped out its purpose – Clause 4 – in 1995 and threw it away. To be replaced with what Alex Salmond described at the time as ‘mush’. Labour’s concept of the common good was flawed by its French Revolutionary leanings – too distrusting of democracy, especially the endless variety that flourishes with local choice – but at least it existed. Labour believed in the common good, not ‘greed is good’. And now it doesn’t. So why does it still exist? Every one of those BBC and Guardian journalists who yearns for another ‘1997’ moment is missing the obvious. Labour was created to deliver a vision of a better society it has now rejected wholesale. What was a dynamic has become a ritual, designed to keep in being an organisation whose purpose has been hollowed out, leaving behind a shell party to be filled with any vacuous thought that passes through. Better by far it was put out of its misery.

At our policy meeting in May we considered how best to describe our Party’s own position on the political spectrum, concluding that we’re ‘radical decentralist’ rather than ‘Centre-Left’ or ‘progressive’. While there is sympathy with the latter positions, they are too vague to describe our own programme and are easily co-opted by hostile forces.

Radical decentralism is viewed as having three dimensions – a constitutional dimension (localism/regionalism), an economic dimension (co-operation/mutualism) and an environmental dimension (ecology). Unlike the Coalition parties, when we talk of localism we do really mean ‘power to the parishes’, power to decide whatever they like, without nanny setting limits. Unlike Labour, when we talk of a co-operative economy we want to see an end to corporate power, the introduction of a three-day working week and ultimately production, through voluntary association, for use and not for sale. Unlike any other party in Wessex, when we talk about protecting the environment we don’t qualify that goal by saying ‘but only so far as it doesn’t slow down economic or population growth’. For us, ‘decentralisation’ isn’t just a slogan to be betrayed. ‘Radical’ means what it says too. Someone has to say it because, increasingly, it needs to be said. And if no-one else will say it, we’re only too happy to oblige.