Thursday, October 31, 2013

Tunnel Vision

“You can’t play politics with our prosperity.”

With these words, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin tried this week to push the lid down hard on the HS2 debate.  You must do what corporate capital wants.  Or else.  It looks like we’re all in transition from evidence-based policy to policy-based evidence, and it’s a worldwide trend.

It’s widely acknowledged that HS2 is a thoroughly bad deal for us.  But not within the London regime, which this week published figures showing that the alternative of upgrading existing lines would lead to 14 years of disruption.

So why is that the only alternative?  Have they never heard of ‘demand management’, of reducing the need to travel in the first place?  Which they could do by taking 99.9% of the decisions currently made in London and allowing them to be made locally and regionally instead.  MPs apart, few in Mercia or Northumbria would then need to go to London ever again.  And neither would we in Wessex.

The whole debate about rail investment in the UK is skewed by the unchallengeable idea that top priority must go to improving links to and from the capital.  It ought to set alarm bells ringing.  Why should London be given that importance?  Is it for our benefit, or for London’s?  What is it that London has that we should all want to access?  If it’s power and wealth, then those are things that can be moved to where we are, and moved far more cheaply.

All the money that goes to speed up connections that already exist is money deducted from the possibility of making other connections that don’t.  Ones that would actually be of some use in strengthening our regional economy, and those of others elsewhere in over-centralised England.  In the previous post here, passing reference was made to the ‘foundation projects’ that a free Wessex should be putting its mind to undertaking.  One will certainly need to be the rebuilding of our rail network so that transport in Wessex becomes less dependent upon routes created primarily to link the region to London.

Abingdon, Axbridge, Bideford, Blandford Forum, Bridport, Chard, Cheddar, Chipping Norton, Cinderford, Cirencester, Clevedon, Coleford, Corsham, Cullompton, Devizes, Faringdon, Fordingbridge, Glastonbury, Gosport, Highworth, Holsworthy, Ilfracombe, Ilminster, Kingsbridge, Langport, Lyme Regis, Malmesbury, Marlborough, Portishead, Radstock, Ringwood, Seaton, Shepton Mallet, Sidmouth, Somerton, South Molton, Stalbridge, Stow-on-the-Wold, Street, Sturminster Newton, Tavistock, Tetbury, Tewkesbury, Thornbury, Tiverton, Wantage, Wellington, Wells, Wilton, Wimborne, Witney, Wootton Bassett.

This is a list of places, but not of stations.  Certainly not stations on a high-speed line, existing or proposed.  Not stations on any line, of any speed.  These are places that once had their own stations (in some cases more than one).  All are substantial places that, post-Beeching, have no passenger rail access to the outside world, while many smaller places do.  Some are on existing lines, or on past strategic links that cry out to be re-instated.  Never mind the Y-shaped HS2: let’s get on with putting back the Y-shaped S&D.

The London regime seriously asks us to believe that places such as those listed should continue to languish in the late 20th century.  (The locals don’t always agree with that.)  All because the money that could join them up with the rest of Wessex is going to be spent cutting minutes off the journeys of those heading somewhere big that really ought not to matter all that much.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Serfs For Sale?

“Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor liberty to purchase power.”
Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack (1738)

If you’re going to keep on repeating lies, the risk isn’t that others will start to believe them.  It’s that you’ll start to believe them yourself and end up trapped inside them.

Thatcherites are now in that position, confronted by realities they failed to anticipate, mainly because they were convinced that the rest of the world plays by the same demented rules that they do.

Let’s start by taking a look at two of her favourite ideas.

The first is that the private sector is good and the public sector bad.  Thatcher famously told a group of nationalised industry executives that if any of them were any use they’d be in the private sector.  It doesn’t take long to work out the corollary: that in her view public services should all be run by second rate managers to ensure that they fail.  The very services for which as Prime Minister she was responsible.

Today, many of those services are back in the public sector.  Owned by the Dutch, French and German governments, to name just a few.  And there’s the problem for Thatcher’s successor.  Either these nationalised firms are managed competently, which is impossible, since they’re State-owned, or they’re not managed competently, which ideologically would be much more comforting.  And if indeed they’re not, then David Cameron has just placed Britain’s energy future in the hands of incompetent State bureaucrats in Paris and Beijing.  Which means they’re doing a more competent job than he is.

Time for the second great idea.  The idea that the State doesn’t have any money of its own.  According to Thatcher, every penny it spends is wrung out of taxpayers, without whom it would be nothing.  It never was true, since at the core of every State is the common wealth, the rights of the community to things managed in common.  The air, the water, and in some cases still, even tiny little bits of a once-common heritage in land.  When publicly-owned industries make profits, those profits too flow into the common treasury.

Today they flow into other countries’ treasuries, allowing them to reduce taxation on their own folk.  In the case of railways, for example, our taxes go to pay operating subsidies to companies owned by the railway administrations of France, Germany and the Netherlands, allowing them to invest more in their own systems.  The case for public ownership of utilities is that these are natural monopolies, providing things we need in order to live and which, for various reasons, are impervious to competition.  The prices they’re allowed by regulators to charge are therefore little different from taxes.  And by allowing other governments to buy the right to make those charges, our own has in effect sold the right to tax us to foreign powers.  We are serfs for sale.

None of this was supposed to happen.  Nationalised industries were to be replaced by lots of little local companies all competing for business.  Not national and international conglomerates able to dictate terms to any government daft enough to let them.  Totalitarian liberalism is unrepentant, since if this is what the market produces then it cannot be questioned.  The problem never lies with the market.  It lies with the alternatives we champion, with our failure to understand the rationality of values far superior to the choices we are capable of making together.  For the liberals, we, the customers, are the problem when we unite in our refusal to play by the rules.

Public anger at the sell-off of Royal Mail and at the deal struck over Hinkley C with French imperialists and another foreign regime, one with an even worse record on human rights, will not abate easily.  Too many things are happening all at once for that.  The failure of even the Co-op to act responsibly, destroying a treasured institution, has folk of goodwill grasping at any straw that will re-assure them that the future is not one long dark night of corporate piracy without end.  In the process, they will clutch at many straws that will soon blow away in the wind.

The first thing we need to realise is that the UK, as it has long been understood, cannot form part of the solution.  It’s too late for that.  Attlee’s Britain no longer exists.  His model is not repeatable and it would be a ghastly mistake even to try.  It was always bound to be a betrayal of truly democratic principles, as our forebears in Common Wealth argued at the time.  The industries nationalised were managerialised, not democratised.  Yes, there was a Scottish Region of British Railways, but no Scottish Parliament to oversee it.  There was a Wales Gas Board, but no Welsh Assembly.  In England there were ultimately regions for electricity, gas and water, for railways, for hospitals, and for many other things.  But how many of them matched?  How many were designed around areas that made sense as the basis of future elected regional governments?  Few, if any.  No wonder it all ended so badly.  Thatcherism arose in the 1970s as the establishment response to demands for devolution-all-round.  It preserved London-based power by transferring the keys to Britain from Whitehall to the City, which is now in the process of handing them on to the Chinese.

The second thing is to beware any attempt by Labour to tap into the demand for re-nationalisation.  For Labour, the nation is Britain and the clamour is there to be manipulated in defence of a centralised union under its absolutist control.  There are better ways, ways offered by the nationalist and regionalist movements of these islands.  Labour, to misquote Aneurin Bevan, is simply the future refusing to be born.  It was revealed this week that London and the south-east of England continue to be the principal beneficiaries of the mess for others which those in power there have long sought to engineer.  With more to come.  Labour will equally continue to argue that the social distribution of power is everything, while its geographical distribution is irrelevant.  Despite centuries of evidence to the contrary, millions will go on believing it.

The third thing to note is that restoring common ownership in a modernised form today has been made more difficult by the British State’s determined attempts to bankrupt itself.  How is it all to be paid for?  Even if assets are deprivatised at the same 30-40% discounts at which they were privatised, that is still a huge amount of money.  Surprisingly little is said about how easy it is to find the money to buy problem assets, like toxic banks, or failing airports in Scotland, Wales or Cornwall.  Politically too, it’s a smoother path to attend to precious lame ducks than to prise assets seriously worth having from the grip of more reluctant sellers.  It’s the profits, not the losses, that need diverting from the private to the public realm.  Marx and Engels are rarely read these days but they did wickedly point out that those who make such a fuss about the sacred character of property rights are the heirs of those who got rich by treating past property rights with contempt, say during the French Revolution, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, or the Norman Conquest.  A little less reverence where rights do more harm than good would be no bad thing.  In a real crisis, the City’s worldwide paper ‘assets’ will amount to nothing at all.  What’s on the ground is what will count.

Inevitably, such matters are ones of opportunity and pragmatism rather than a precise strategy to roll forward the State.  What we know is that the world is changing, and changing faster than we have been willing to notice.  The more successful countries of the future will be those already thinking long-term, say 30-50 years ahead.  Watch China’s moves in Africa, and now in Europe, and weep at our weakness in that regard.  Fortunately, we are not alone.  There are many, perhaps surprisingly many, parallel movements for change in small nations and historic regions right across Europe and beyond, opposed to dogmatic centralism in all its forms.  Wessex is one piece of a very big jigsaw.

So what are the basic tasks a self-governing Wessex should look to organise?  One list of ‘foundation occupations’ for any well-founded society that doesn’t wish to be occupied, economically any more than militarily, is as follows:

Category 1 – Occupations calling for the exercise of considerable professional skill, e.g. administration, justice, security, education, health.  To the extent that a society alienates these services it also alienates itself.  The identification of these professionals with the territory in which they work, its customs, its needs and its interests, is what gives a society its essential character.  Deprive them of the opportunity for loyalty to place and no-one else will feel any either.  There is room for unsubsidised, non-core private sector involvement in education, health and the law but public values are inevitably subverted if that involvement enters core services.

Category 2 – Occupations with duties where incentives are impractical, e.g. ambulance and fire services, post, prisons, traffic police, waste collection.  Target-setting is likely to be counter-productive if it ends up degrading the service provided.  There is therefore no substitute for managers sensitive to circumstances.  The private sector has nothing to offer that is not equally available to an adequately resourced public sector.

Category 3 – Occupations with specialist technical skills, e.g. electricity, telecommunications, water and sewerage.  These are areas where private sector involvement has often been the norm, but on a tight leash given how vital these services are to modern life.  It’s likely that we under-estimate the consequences of losing control over them.  It’s also likely that they’ll become ever more vital to our future and ever more vulnerable, e.g. to cyber-attack.

Category 4 – Occupations where productivity can be affected by the worker, and where worker co-operatives could therefore be organised, e.g. transport operation and maintenance.  The problems of worker co-operatives in these sectors do not relate to the organisation of work but to the funding of investment.  Every one of the transport co-operatives resulting from privatisation has since been bought out by corporate capital.  To guard against any repetition, that funding issue needs to be addressed.  Capital, according to William Barnes (in Views of Labour and Gold), is no more than that part of wealth that is rendered useful by labour.  Considered thus, there is therefore no reason why it should not be organised by means of a democratic process, though necessarily on whatever scale, or scales, is commensurate with the needs of a modern society.  Does a transport company with an ageing fleet always have to be bought out by those with the money to replace it, or are there other options such as asset leasing?

Category 5 – Occupations whose nature could change with circumstances.  This is where watching the signs really matters.  There are many services we normally entrust to the private sector, but what do we do when things are abnormal?  Where would we be without tanker drivers or those overseeing the logistics of supermarket deliveries?  To whom do they answer in a diplomatic crisis involving a foreign owner?  Let’s not panic. But let’s at least have the answers to hand in a self-governing Wessex region of the future that seeks to prosper in interesting times.

The age of scarcity into which self-government is born will require a range of ‘foundation projects’ as well as occupations, though these are less easy to predict from history.  Let’s not allow current prejudices to prevent us contemplating future solutions.  They not only can be radical but will need to be radical.  Today is the anniversary of the death, in 899, of King Alfred the Great, a Wessex hero, but also a warning to us.  Alfred took risks for the sake of Wessex, such as assuming responsibility for kingless Mercians and Northumbrians, that were soon to lead to the unification of England and, under the Normans, to the eclipse of Wessex for centuries to come.  All his investments of effort, in the physical infrastructure of military and naval defences, and in the defences of the mind provided by his revival of learning, were ultimately ineffective against the superior organisation and determined infiltration of hostile neighbours, despite their relatively small numbers.  High-tax, high-spend policies of the Alfredian kind, directed towards rebuilding and securing a worthwhile society, won’t always be effective, it’s true (a well-organised world actually makes a more tempting target for top-down takeover).  It's just that they're always better than not trying at all and succumbing to unintelligible chaos.

In the 1940s, Friedrich von Hayek wrote a famous critique of the State entitled The Road to Serfdom, yet still concluded that “In no system that could be rationally defended would the State just do nothing.”  The small, community-benefit State we envisage for Wessex is one that ought to do much more than nothing if it is to have a better chance of lifting the yoke from our necks than the blind pursuit of post-Thatcherite sell-out we endure today.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Light Relief

Any fool can do irony.  It takes an Eton education to do irony on the grand scale and get away with it.

David Cameron’s regime announced with glee today that a multi-billion pound nuclear hazard, turning out radioactive waste that no-one knows how to manage sustainably, is to be built on the north coast of Wessex (on the estuary where the great ‘tsunami’ occurred in 1607).  It’s ‘clean’ energy, apparently.  It will generate 7% of UK electricity (the same % as is lost in transmission and distribution).  And it will all be done, risk-free, by private enterprise.

Right.  By companies owned by the French and Chinese governments, to be a little more accurate.  (Just how much kowtowing was there in Beijing recently?)  Underwritten by UK taxpayers, and subsidised by UK consumers to the tune of double the current wholesale price for electricity?  If it’s a good deal it’s only because prices will have more than doubled by the time the electricity starts to flow.  Altogether, it’s a brush with future reality we don’t often experience in such frank terms.  Politicians would much rather be making empty promises to hold energy prices down.

It wouldn’t be possible for our own public sector to do it for less?  It might well be, if we had one, and past experience shows that the region is an excellent geographical scale at which to organise such things as power supply.  (Wessex, for example, which once had its own Wessex Electricity Company, has a much more coherent independent power grid than Wales.)  Public ownership is also ridiculously popular.  With everyone but the London parties.

Why did it happen?  Why did politicians decide to evade responsibility for any industrial decision (even those of strategic importance) by selling it all off cheap? 

Anyone who remembers the 1970s will know how mired the politicians became in labour relations, having to have a view on exactly how much a miner or a railwayman was worth in weekly wages.  But they were at least accountable for such judgements.  Now, when stratospheric salaries are set by scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours remuneration committees in the City, no-one else has any redress.  The managerialist network of interdependence is how the system really operates, skimming off wealth from employees and shareholders alike.

In 1988 the Chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board, responsible for a successful nationalised industry the size of a small multi-national corporation, was paid twice as much as the Prime Minister.  In 2009, the highest paid director at EDF was paid £1 million, about seven times David Cameron’s salary, currently £142,500.  The system we live under, totalitarian liberalism, judges money to be above morality.  It will take politics, not preaching, to alter that.

The gap between directors’ pay and the PM’s pay has grown as the latter’s authority has shrunk.  It’s self-inflicted shrinkage.  And it produces the most pathetic consequences.  Endless complaining by politicians that voters don’t trust them, that turnout is falling, that folk are losing faith in politics.  What do you expect if for 30 years you stand inside the system and tell everyone beyond that it’s their enemy and that for their own good you plan to dismantle it and expect to be rewarded for doing so at the polls?  And don’t tell them that your promises will become increasingly meaningless in proportion to the extent to which you have destroyed the means of redeeming them?

One thing we’ve not had over the past 30 years is a consistent long-term energy policy.  Instead we’ve had a series of desperate short-term measures.  The politically motivated destruction of the deep coal industry, necessitating the sterilisation of tens of millions of tons of workable reserves.  The ‘dash for gas’.  Lavish subsidies for renewable technologies that haven’t been matched by investments in energy storage and smart grid technologies to store and manage the power generated.  At least not on the scale that would win over sceptics who rightly want to know what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.  A foot-dragging attitude to the enormous potential of wave and tidal power.  And, as Jonathon Porritt is forever reminding us, we need, above all, to push the energy conservation button and keep on pushing.

(We oppose a Severn barrage, which would create as many problems as it solves, but would like to see far more advanced research into tidal lagoons.  Currently, renewables are not cost-effective but will become increasingly so as oil declines.  We all know this, so even if we aren’t going to start harnessing tidal power for decades yet, we CAN commit now to doing so and thus provide certainty for all those affected.  Continuity of nuclear expertise has been lost.  Continuity of renewables expertise should not.  We should be training now the generation of engineers who will devote their working lives to such projects.)

How would a self-governing Wessex set about doing things differently?  We could start by having an energy ministry that also has oversight responsibility for housing and transport, two of the biggest users of energy.  We need an end to the current nonsense whereby the Department for Transport sees its job as getting folk and things from A to B as quickly and cheaply as possible, when its real job should be to eliminate the need for that travel.  (Apparently, HS2 is needed because, in a competitive economy, businessfolk can’t make rational decisions unless they’re looking the other crook in the eye.)  We all have to think through the implications of the fact that the current purchase price of a new house will be less than its lifetime running costs.  Higher house prices as a result of sustainable design and construction can be a good thing if they mean lower energy bills.  Housing finance needs to be restructured to take more account of this.

We need to use regional networks – the electricity and gas grids, combined heat and power, the railways, telecommunications, etc. – as the framework for a smart, low-energy society.  Networks are ‘Level 1’ in this plan and they need action at the regional level to integrate them much better than at present.  Let’s end 70 years of talking about integrated public transport and actually do it.  Let’s have real, underground metro systems in cities like Bristol, instead of make-believe ones that are just a fancy name for bus lanes.  Let’s have a local railway electrification programme that doesn’t leave us as the laughing stock of Europe.  Let’s get everyone, everywhere, onto superfast broadband, saving the cost of unnecessary travel in the first place, and enabling smarter two-way domestic energy management as a side effect.  Unbelievably, the London regime is still spending money on building ROADS in Wessex.  Who in the future is going to be using them?

‘Level 2’ are the places the networks link.  We need to think about retro-fitting energy conservation measures into buildings and laying down footpaths and cycleways.  Not along disused railway lines that will need to be used again but maybe following similar routes that link local destinations.  It will be a lot easier to think about how we retro-fit these things once we’re no longer wasting our time wondering where we’ll put the millions of new homes needed for London overspill.  Once effective devolution to Wessex and other regions forces London to solve its own problems, Londoners will have to think twice before causing them.  Denying them the automatic right to help themselves to our land, transport, energy and water resources is as much for their long-term benefit as it is for ours.

‘Level 3’ is perhaps the key to success and also the most difficult to organise.  Level 3 is all those activities that go on within the regional and local networks that we as a society have created.  Activities that need to be re-thought in a low-energy direction, even by politicians.  Should we, for example, be funding ‘free schools’ or other educational experiments that involve children being driven in opposite directions across our towns and cities instead of attending an inclusive local school of assured quality within walking distance?  We already have as party policy the radical proposition that all publicly-funded schools must be community schools, paid for out of local taxes and accountable only to the community, with Michael Gove’s interfering London-based department abolished.

All of these things require joined-up thinking, something completely incompatible with private ownership of the process.  We want a self-governing Wessex for many reasons.  We want to be free of the strangling red tape of a London regime whose patronising attitude to local initiative would be bad enough even without imposed policies whose content is irrelevant to our needs.  But we also want to use the freedom we win to build something worthwhile for the future.  A region whose physical and social infrastructure is resilient to the global changes now inescapable over the course of this century.  Our society may never again have as much energy at its disposal as it does today.  We can use it to create a sustainable future.  Or we can allow the London regime to go on wasting it.

Some will breathe a sigh of relief that the deal on Hinkley C has been done.  The lights won’t go out.  Not yet.  But the fact remains, as energy prices continue to climb several times faster than incomes, that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Stampede at the Sales

MK Leader Dick Cole blogged this week about the sell-off of Royal Mail, which has now taken place despite the opposition of two-thirds of the public.  (Unsurprisingly, the strongest support for the sale came from an urban environment, London, but even there it was little more than a quarter of those polled.)

He pointed out not only the massive under-valuing of the company’s shares but also that large slices were snapped up by sovereign wealth funds, from the likes of Kuwait, Norway, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Where is OUR sovereign wealth fund in all of this?  Why is it that we don’t have one?  (We certainly had the oil, some of it in Wessex.)  Why is it a cause for celebration when vital national, regional and local assets are bought cheaply by foreign governments?  And a cause for great anxiety amongst politicians of all the London parties if anything is left still owned by us?  Whose government are they exactly?  Not the one that we, or the majority of the public, would like to see in power.

Taken For A Ride

Since 2000, London has had to contend not only with the pomp of its ancient mayoralty within the Square Mile but with the brashness of its new one within the broader mass of Greater London.  Lord Mayor and Antimayor, like Pope and Antipope in the Middle Ages.  Henley’s former MP, Boris Johnson, is the current Antimayor, never out of the news for long.  This week he offered the Chancellor a bold suggestion: provide tax relief for commuter fares.

The UK has a very strange economic geography, with wealth massively concentrated in the south-east corner.  Market forces have little to do with this, since public spending is massively skewed towards supporting this agglomeration.  In the 1990s it was worked out that the annual subsidy for London commuter rail services came to more than the entire annual budget of the Welsh Development Agency.  No-one seemed concerned.  Apologists for the City like to argue that London pays in far more than it draws out but such arguments routinely ignore the unapportioned (and largely unnecessary) cost of running central government itself, which is of course based in London.

Few folk seem willing to believe that the figures really are unfair (or unfair enough to stir them to action), even though they are entirely real.  The problem stems from the fact that it is not just political power that is centralised.  Where the power is, there too is the wealth.  So we have the economic centralisation already mentioned.  And where the power and wealth are, so too is the talent.  We have massive cultural centralisation in all departments, from the arts to museums to newspapers.

The media are mainly centred in London or dependent on decisions, proprietorial and editorial, taken in London (or from a global ‘big city’ perspective that echoes the same concerns).  These decisions are not shaped by journalists personally disinterested in London’s prosperity.  So a sophisticated language of doublethink has grown up, whereby public spending in ‘the provinces’ is a waste of money, propping up dead regions in defiance of natural economic law.  But public spending in London and the south-east is a vital national ‘investment’ in success, even where the project cannot operate to normal commercial standards and therefore becomes a burden to taxpayers throughout the UK.

BoJo’s cheeky demand that we all chip in towards transport costs for his city’s workforce is more of the same.  If accepted, it would mean hard-pressed house-hunters in much of eastern Wessex seeing house prices rise still further beyond their reach as the market adjusts to the newly enhanced spending power of long-distance commuters.  Who in turn will therefore be able to commute over even longer distances instead of adjusting their working lives to the fact that oil is on the way out.

Johnson can say these things and be listened to because as Antimayor he has been given a platform that few others can share.  Perhaps the only other politician outside Westminster whose words matter in the same way is Alex Salmond.  Johnson speaks for a city.  Salmond speaks for a nation.  Who, besides us, will speak for the downtrodden residents of the region of Wessex?  Not the dozens of local authority leaders, individually meaningless.  Yet Wessex has as big a population as London, or as big as Scotland and Wales combined.  If Wessex folk would be heard, then Wessex folk must likewise learn how to all shout at once.

Growing Into What?

Labour announced last month that it will return to its bad old ways with a vengeance. Towns and cities will be given ‘the right to grow’, that is, the right to build over adjoining land. Neighbouring areas that resist will simply be stamped upon.

It appears that Ed Miliband really is thick enough not to realise that the last time ‘the right to grow’ was out and about it was known as Lebensraum. There’s a lot more to that than Godwin’s Law: it’s an entirely serious point. Miliband, like all big nation-state politicians, cannot grasp the vital analogy between national sovereignty and local autonomy.

Invade a country uninvited, with tanks, etc. (because you have an expanding population and the power to dismiss as worthless what others treasure) and that’s a crime. Invade the countryside uninvited, with bulldozers, etc. (for exactly the same reason) and that’s trumpeted as a progressive social policy. In the world which WR strives to create, it’s still a crime. The policy is that of a bully, dressing up a love of force in pretend social conscience, and with an environmental conscience approaching zero.

Oh, but we have a housing crisis! We do not. We have a population crisis, thanks to Labour. And whom does Labour punish? The reckless masses of the burgeoning towns and cities? No. It punishes the innocent. The rural areas that just want to be left in peace. To grow food for THEM.

Labour really doesn’t do agriculture. Even more than the market fundamentalist wings of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, Labour is blind to the fact that ‘growth’ has to displace something that is already there and which has a value in its own right (even before Peak Oil bites). The ‘growth’ that all the London parties crave is not taking place into a vacuum. It isn’t just a load of worthless scenery disappearing beneath those bulldozers. Growth is taking place into a resource – our farmland – that represents our future.

That resource has a value, or at least a price, but how it is valued by policy-makers drastically under-estimates its worth.

Consider the ‘blue finger’. It’s a strip of high-grade farmland on the edge of Bristol, so called because, as Grade 1 land, it is coloured dark blue on Agricultural Land Classification maps. It has a long history of market gardening to meet Bristol’s food needs. There is a local group, the Blue Finger Alliance, devoted to its protection.

On its website is an article on the true value of land, which exposes the false accounting used when deciding to take land out of food production and use it for something else, like housing or road building.

The benefits of a development, say a road, are measured over its expected lifetime, say 60 years. But the value of the food production lost over that time is ignored. Only the immediate compensation value of the farmland is measured. The cost of a scheme is what it takes to build; the benefits are calculated on a far more generous basis, so the result can never be fair to objectors.

Over the course of the 20th century, politicians have had to make ever more complex decisions about the use of resources, and technicians have therefore come up with ever more complex systems for measuring costs and benefits. But do they – can they? – get it completely right? Accountancy and economic forecasting are hugely political areas, where a little fiddling with the figures can turn a dead duck into the panacea for all our problems. Think HS2. At times it really has been about dead ducks, or at least dead geese. In the 1960s the choice of where to put a third London airport involved trying to assign a price to the wildfowl of the Thames estuary.

So: we try to measure the unmeasurable and yet we ignore what can be measured. Advantages are exaggerated and monetised, while dis-benefits are minimised or ignored and not monetised. Tiny time savings by individual travellers – minutes or even seconds – are aggregated up to persuade us that the result will be an economic boom. The result of all this false accounting is massive spending on the wrong kind of infrastructure and other development. Not the kind that will be needed in a regionalised future but the kind that results from projecting unsustainable trends into infinity. It’s high time for a new politics that values other values than ‘value’.

When we point out the bare facts, they are routinely dismissed. Weren’t the existing cities green fields once? Yes, of course they were, but adding more damage won’t make a better world. We’ve long passed the point where we can go on accommodating urban growth and still have enough land to be self-sufficient in food. The right of the cities to grow equals the duty of the countryside to shrink and always, always, to retreat, and that cannot be in anyone’s long-term interest.