Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Raining On Their Parade

After tomorrow, it all kicks off. How much better can it get? Can you contain your excitement? Bought the official Olympic flag to wave (beware of imitations)? Wondered where we’d be without the stern authority of the IOC and the generosity of public-spirited corporate sponsors? Stopped whining, as Boris demands? Faced with a series of jaw-dropping security scandals, the only silence seems to be coming from those who’ve spent their lives arguing that global big business invariably does it better than the democratic sector.

Or maybe you’ve had a giggle at the Teletubbies layout for the opening ceremony, with its scale model of Glastonbury Tor? (Shame then that there’s no real cider or ale on sale in this ‘showcase for Britain’.) Or, better still, maybe you’ve had a chuckle at the idea of intercepting London’s rain so that it falls on Wessex?

Laugh? We could have cried. Greece hosted the 2004 Olympics, and look where they are now.

Bye Bye Beauty

Last week saw the first results published from the 2011 census of England (& Cornwall) & Wales. (We’ll call that ‘ECW’ for short.) The results are interesting both for what they say and what they don’t. There’s a gap of maybe a few million who aren’t included and therefore have to be estimated. It’s an offence not to complete a census form but there have only been 252 prosecutions. Which is a symptom of a government that’s losing control and doesn’t care, or is too scared to enforce the law, or else recognises that the law may not be on its side, given the outsourcing arrangements made for the 2011 census. The statisticians shrug and tell us that a 94% response rate is good enough for most purposes, and was the same last time. It’s said that the only folk who can tell for sure now what the population is are the major supermarkets, who know from grocery sales how many folk are being fed.

London politicians’ reactions to the news that ECW’s population rose by 7.1% in a decade (twice the rate for the previous decade) range from glee to indifference to resignation. The destruction of our environment is either welcome, irrelevant or inevitable. Wessex, of course, has suffered more than some other regions, as London’s overspill continues to spew over our central and eastern shires. Our population has now passed the 8 million mark, to stand at 8,028,500. That comes to 262% of the population of Wales and 98% that of London. So where’s OUR assembly then?

The breakdown by shire, using the best available approximation to pre-1974 administrative boundaries, is as follows:

Berkshire – 842,700
Devon – 1,133,800
Dorset – 512,900
Gloucestershire (including Bristol) – 1,288,000
Hampshire (including Wight) – 2,129,300
Oxfordshire – 532,900
Somerset – 908,700
Wiltshire – 680,200

West Somerset, much of it protected by the Exmoor National Park, is the only area of Wessex to have lost population (down 1% since 2001), though Hinkley Point C’s construction may well reverse that loss. Some urban areas have grown by 10% or more (the most being 16%, in Swindon), as have rural districts as widely spaced as Mid Devon, North Dorset and West Oxfordshire. While eastern England, from Lincolnshire to Kent, has borne the brunt of the growth, the consequences for our own countryside (and other open land) are clear.

And continuing. Areas with the largest proportions of 0-4 year-olds are concentrated along the motorway corridors, with many coastal areas seemingly abandoned to the growing numbers of retired. We are seeing a polarisation within Wessex based on accessibility to the major inland routes, especially to London, though this is not necessarily the same thing as distance from London. Planned investment in rail electrification could further transform our geography in the decades ahead.

London politicians are keen to claim that our treasured local environments are safe. Because planning will protect them. It’s all lies, because planning does no such thing. Planning just prioritises which treasured environments are to be destroyed now and which will be permitted to survive for another decade or two before the clamour for homes overwhelms them. The roads and the houses go on advancing towards the crack of doom. To escape, we need to confront the problem of growth itself. And no London politician will dare do that.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Rights & Wrongs

“To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise.”

The London regime has invited comments on a UK Bill of Rights. But where do ‘rights’ actually come from? The official line is that they’re concessions made by government towards the governed. Politics is defined by the struggle of the latter to defend and, where possible, extend them. Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights, the Great Reform Act. Our island story places these historic documents on their pedestals not just to remind us to be grateful for what we have received but to distract attention from what we are still denied. A real self-governing community would have whatever rights it desired: the very word would probably lose all meaning.

Today, any discussion about rights has been crippled by three decades of political correctness on the one side and totalitarian liberalism on the other. Neither is helpful to an understanding of the full range of rights that can exist and can be championed politically. In fact, there is a third point of view that has been systematically marginalised.

There are broadly three kinds of rights – individual (human) rights, property rights, and community rights (constitutional rights retained in common). For the real enthusiast, human rights are something we ‘discovered’ in the 17th or 18th century, just as if they were Newton’s laws of motion. Free speech comes closest to being an objective right, since in Popperian terms the progress of knowledge is impossible if the status quo cannot be criticised. Elsewhere, there is little acceptance of the fact that rights are both asserted and resisted and that the balance of argument can fall on either side. Some ‘rights’ claimed, it is right to deny.

Individual (human) rights are those we are born with. Property rights are those that belong to property owners, who are only rarely born with their property entitlements. Yet international human rights make no distinction. The right to private property (and not just personal property) is defended as fanatically as the right to life, if not more so. Public property is not protected at all and can be, and often is, stolen to order through forced sales or legal redefinition. We have gone from Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’ to today’s ‘private property is sacred, even when (or especially when) it is held illegitimately, whereas public property, democratically managed, is to be regarded as a barbarous relic’.

We reject these dogmas because our policies run directly counter to them. Limits should be placed on how much of Wessex any one person may own. Those not resident in Wessex should have no right to own our land at all. And it is OUR land, because title to it is granted by the community and can be withdrawn by the community. Land ownership in Wessex is a privilege, not a right, to be used or else forfeited. We reject submission to universal human rights, not because we do not see value in the bundle overall, but because lurking within it are rules that constrain us from pursuing policies that are both reasonable and necessary in a just society. Universal human rights are compatible with democratic decentralism only where they reflect a genuine consensus.

Mention of collective, community rights usually brings out all the screaming banshees of liberalism to denounce them as the justification of tyranny. Really? It’s quite simple. Your village is agreed 99% to 1% that the field over there should not be developed for housing. But its owners have property rights. Planning won’t save you – it’s a stitch-up that always favours the growth junkies. You have to win, and keep winning, every time. They only have to get lucky once. So the field gets built on. Democracy?

Liberals despise democracy because it curbs their rights, especially their right to exploit environmental property for private gain. We have a wider vision, one that values the community’s right to defend itself against imposed change. Would you like to be able to know who your new neighbours are and veto them if they’re unsuitable? Why should that right be limited to those rich enough to buy the houses either side of them? Should newcomers automatically get the right to vote, before they know anything about the community they set out to transform, permanently, for the worse, before they move on to their next victim?

We have always said that Wessex is for those who care about its future, whether native or settler, but we’ve also striven to devise means to prevent its ruination by those who would turn it into a copy of the urbanised and industrialised regions they left behind. We’ve considered a tax on newcomers – but that discriminates more against the poor than against the rich. We’ve considered withholding the right to stand for election from those who’ve lived here less than, say, five years – but that discriminates against what may be much-needed ability. Withholding the right to vote for a number of years may well strike the right balance, giving time for newcomers to actually understand and appreciate the community they wish to change.

All the above is grist to the mill. Our first task, however, is to roll back the frontiers of the mental terrorism that for 30 years has told us all that our only right worth having is the right to show how little we care about anything that cannot be expressed in selfish terms. Public service is not dead – but the modes of thinking that underpin it are certainly on life-support. We now need to operate before it’s too late.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Trust Not

The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty is a bit bogged down just now. It finds itself embroiled in an unholy row over an allegedly pro-creationist display at the new visitor centre for the Giant’s Causeway. It’s said that it came under financial pressure from Democratic Unionists in government to do the deed. After all, they did input £9.25 million of public money to the project. Although there’s now some grudging backtracking, the damage to reputation is done, with most of the impact felt in England among outraged members here.

We can take away two lessons from this. The first is that opinions vary, so let’s accommodate that diversity. Opinions regarded as normal in Ulster may not be so normal elsewhere – but the Trust cannot extract itself that easily from goings-on in its most distant province. It isn’t a federation of regional trusts – within the UK only Scotland has its own, fully independent National Trust – but a single entity. That means a central organisation, based in Swindon, that is nominally accountable for all of the Trust’s actions (and so has to suffer all of the indignant mass resignations). Might it be better off breaking up? It might well be. The Scottish and non-Scottish trusts have an agreement to recognise each other’s membership cards, so visitors need not see any diminution of their experience. What they would see is regional organisations much better attuned to regional priorities. Instead, the Trust, like the Coalition, has been hammering its regional offices, pushing small decisions down to local level while centralising all the big ones. Any sense of cherishing distinct regional identities has been eliminated through ruthless application of an increasingly inane corporate image.

The second lesson is that we are seeing, more and more, that independent charitable status is nothing of the kind. The Trust has been given a New Labour makeover in recent years, dumbing down, reaching out, and pulling its regions into line with the Prescott zones. First the East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria regions went. And now Wessex too, swallowed up in, you guessed it, ‘The South West’. Charities are the ideal vehicle for politicians, a shock absorber that distances policy makers from policy deliverers. In a traditional government department, the Minister is responsible for every detail – and is expected to resign if it’s not right. Give a grant to a charity though and different rules apply. You still claim the credit if the policy works. But you can blame the charity if it doesn’t. With post-democratic Britain fast regressing towards the 17th century, there’ll be plenty of this ‘Big Society’ hands-washing and arms-lengthing. Charity – things for which to be grateful, yuz zur, not community – things enjoyed as of right – chimes with the mean and haughty spirit of the age.

How, in a truly decentralised, democratic, community-focused society, does natural and cultural heritage get organised? One answer is that local councils do it. They’re responsible for archives and libraries, and sometimes for museums and country parks. But they’re also under enormous pressure at the moment. Small unitary authorities, or even larger ones with just one or two big attractions to manage, will look for better ways to use what managerial talent they employ. Two Welsh councils have recently brought in the National Trust to manage things for them, handing over the presentation of Dyffryn Gardens, near Cardiff, and Tredegar House, near Newport. Under Thatcher, councils gave things away to the Trust for nothing. Now it’s all done with much greater caution on both sides, councils retaining the ownership but outsourcing the management.

The Trust can provide economies of scale that councils, whether small, poor, or never that enterprising anyway, cannot hope to achieve. It also provides access to a huge marketing system. Council heritage struggles to raise visitor numbers because it costs so much to let folk know it exists. Organisations like the Trust, or English Heritage, have handbooks, websites and networks of contacts, all deploying information arranged in standardised formats for ease of comparison and implying certain levels of accustomed quality. All of this is driving the move out of local control.

But with economies of scale come diseconomies of scale. English Heritage and the National Trust now attract criticism for being just too standardised, too bureaucratised and too little interested in the idiosyncrasies of place. There has long been a view in Wales that it should have its own National Trust, to match CADW, the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage. So why not regional heritage organisations within England, perhaps combining the relevant parts of EH and NT, to achieve economies where these would most make a difference through eliminating overlap, while avoiding the worst of giantism?

The specific case for regional organisation is that heritage is the raw material for tourism. We still, despite everything, have regional tourist boards, even if they’re no longer called that. There are two very good reasons why, and why the Coalition’s desire to eradicate regions altogether is such rubbish. One is that itineraries can often be arranged for two- or three-centre holidays that cover a regional scale. Anything larger and the travel between centres starts to eat into and erode the holiday experience. Windsor-Bath-Salisbury. Wantage-Athelney-Winchester. Expand that to the English national scale and it becomes exhausting. The other reason is that tourist promotion isn’t just about selling England to the Americans or the Japanese. There is a domestic market as well, in which Wessex is competing with Cornwall or the Lake District for holidaymakers from Birmingham, Leeds or Manchester. A Wessex identity carried right across the heritage and tourism sectors, internationally and domestically, and taking in transport too, would offer powerful synergies.

These are synergies the London regime is determined to frustrate because anything, even wrecking our prosperity, is better than conceding that England cannot be run on exactly the same lines as Celtic countries a fraction of its size.

Over its first century, the National Trust got very good at what it does. But where should it stop? Is it part of its conservation remit to commission modern art, provide affordable homes for locals, or plug renewable energy? Thinking holistically, all these things have their place but a conservation charity cannot make priorities of all of them. Holistic thinking has to be the role of the community as a whole, acting through its democratic local and regional institutions. And that may mean a much more hands-on approach from those bodies. The Trust will always seek out new ways to maximise income to spend on its core objectives. So it’s not the Trust’s fault if its cottages get let at the market rate and our villages are taken over by retired and weekending Londoners. There are things the Trust gets ‘wrong’ because it has to. Those are the rules Parliament has made for it. But the first opportunity that comes with a decentralised, democratic, community-focused society is the opportunity to re-write the rules. And if that means the Trust as we know it today isn’t around to mark its second centenary then so be it.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Tax – and Spend Better

“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes

What defines a community? Among other things, it requires trust. It requires it because it calls for a lowering of the barriers that separate the private from the public. At whatever level, it’s about sharing. Time. Money. Identity.

One reason for believing that corporate capitalism is NOT compatible with democracy is that a permanent state of competition requires permanent distancing from others, and a pervasive culture of secrecy. What the Government does can be prised open, at least at the margins, under the Freedom of Information Act. In contrast, whatever the private sector does, even if it has huge consequences for the community, is ‘commercially confidential’. That is not a distinction compatible with any genuine democracy. Among other things it implies is that whenever there is a conflict between public interest and private interest, the latter is given a substantial advantage in access to the relevant information.

Nevertheless, we are witnessing a long-term trend towards a more open society (despite strenuous efforts to curtail it, especially in the realm of judicial process). In the age of the memory stick, even the best kept secrets can be all round the world at the click of a mouse. It makes resistance to openness all the more bizarre. For nearly 130 years, the Land Registry was a government department that guaranteed title to privately owned land but whose records were not publicly accessible. Now they are, and no-one can see what harm it ever did to release them. We are having a great debate in Britain about whether politicians’ tax returns should be made public for all to view online. Why just politicians? In Sweden, the law is that everyone’s tax returns are public documents. There is nowhere to hide. Taxation is a transaction with the State, so not to publish tax returns is to protect private interests at the expense of full accountability for the exercise of the public interest. HMRC have come in for justifiable criticism of the deals they have done over corporate taxation. Transparency is the way to end that. If it drives a few top bankers to a less scrupulous tax domain, then great. We’ve tolerated them, even venerated them, long enough.

Transparency sounds like a good idea. But can it be abused? That’s partly what’s under discussion at the Leveson Inquiry, where the right to invade privacy is defending itself from attack by the right to avoid harassment. Politicians are increasingly resorting to moralising – whether over press freedom or over tax avoidance – to condemn practices that are legal but which they see a need to question. That’s a bad road to go down, because it’s an admission that the legislation needed to eliminate these practices is too complicated to draft. (Though actually it isn’t, if the nettle is grasped.) And so applying social pressure is said to be the only way to get things changed. It’s a bad road because members of society should know, in black and white, what the limits are on both sides, both what the State demands, and what they are free to do beyond that. Grey areas are where persecution flourishes.

We’re a party that believes in the community and so we’re necessarily a party that believes in high taxation, while still enabling all individuals to have the means to support a comfortable level of discretionary spending. Community cannot thrive under the fashionable feudal arrangement whereby it exists at the whim of super-rich philanthropists (those with more money than friends). It has to have the financial security that comes from common wealth.

Does that mean that avoiding paying tax is wrong? No. If it’s that wrong then it needs to be made illegal, and if it’s not illegal then either it can’t be that wrong, or somebody has leant on the politicians and we need to straighten them out. Resistance to taxation has many motivations. Greed is one. But so is morality. Is it more immoral to avoid paying taxes, or to pay them, knowing that they will be used to fund terror bombing in Asia? Much of the money raised in taxes is wasted. It’s wasted because there is no real, detailed accountability for how it’s spent. There aren’t enough elected representatives with real, detailed control over budgets to be able to carry out the necessary scrutiny. Councillors and MPs have been marginalised by the managers. That’s why we need regional devolution, to break Whitehall down into manageable chunks, and why parishes need real power, including the ability to veto local spending they consider of no benefit to themselves. The political pyramid needs to be turned the right way up, so that instead of communities going cap in hand to Whitehall to plead for their money back, Whitehall has to justify every penny it spends to them.

Talk of plugging loopholes suggests that the tax system requires nothing more than a little fine-tuning. In fact, it could do with a major overhaul. A Land Value Tax to deter speculation and prevent derelict land lying idle, for the first time integrating planning policy, land ownership policy and revenue-raising across the board. Or taxation of the increase in value of housing on re-sale (at 100%, allowing for inflation and improvements), to stabilise house prices and divert speculative funds into more productive activity. High taxation of empty and second homes, to finance the repurchase of privatised council houses, avoiding the need for new housebuilding. The current Inheritance Tax threshold lowered to capture the huge wealth built up in the London suburbs by families who have done nothing more active than enjoy rising house prices brought about by the over-heated economy of the capital. And is not David Cameron’s refusal, against the wishes of most other EU countries, to impose a financial transaction tax, which would ‘hurt’ his friends and supporters in the mainly London-based financial sector, also ‘tax avoidance’ of a sort? Finally, we learned last week that, over the past two years, HMRC has written off £10 billion in unpaid tax. Is it really that difficult to extract or does HMRC just need a good shaking?

Property taxes are among the easiest to collect and the hardest to avoid. HM Treasury allows billions in potential revenue to slip through its hands every year because of ideological obsession, and desperate fear of the Daily Mail. Not only that, but property taxes can be used as policy tools in their own right to steer events in a beneficial direction. Sometimes, they can be regressive in their impact. But that means that they need to be carefully designed, and integrated with the welfare system, not that they should be shunned.

We’ve had 30 years of ‘no tax please, we’re British’ and know too well the signs of public squalor for all that are the flip side of private affluence for the few. Higher taxes, well-targeted, can transform that situation. They won’t happen without radical decentralisation because folk rightly suspect that their hard-earned money will otherwise be squandered by murderous scoundrels. Allowing communities the power to decide their own priorities is not just the only way to reconcile taxpayers to tax. It’s also through local debate about what those priorities should be that we might start to rebuild a sense of community and the fabric of a functioning civil society. The first priority for any ‘Big Society’ then, locally, is to demand a refund of the taxes so wrongly paid to London.