Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Transportation to and from London dominates the news again

Our government still fancies the country as a world leader. If there were prizes for short-sightedness and bloody-mindedness, we'd certainly be top of the pile.

I awoke today to news of new runways for both Heathrow and Gatwick. HS2 has gone quiet for the time being but there's rarely a time these days when people aren't discussing new ways of transporting people to and from our over-crowded, unaffordable, claustrophobic capital. Recently, domestic news stories have been dominated by house prices and the lack of new homes being built and new runways for London airports will result in houses being demolished. I feel like my brain is going to explode!

When are our leading politicians going to realise that drastic FORWARD-THINKING action is needed to reduce the pressure on London and spread employment opportunities more evenly around the country?

I still think that the amount of business-lead transportation is absurd in this day and age. But even if more environmentally and economically friendly ideas continue to be ignored, there's still no sense whatsoever in continuing to develop London only and ignoring everywhere else. HS2 will bring people to business in London; it will not bring business elsewhere. Increasing the capacity of London airports will just make the City even busier, even more expensive.

Constantly concentrating everything in London is like giving plates to 10 people but putting all the food on just one of them. Instead of trying to squeeze more people into an ever more expensive, more claustrophobic corner of the country, we need to move some of the country's opportunities to other areas with more space to expand. This is especially obvious with many areas desperately short of work.

It's infuriating how the problems of airport and rail capacity, housing shortages and prices and unemployment in other areas are being worsened by this ridiculous, short-sighted, pig-headed obsession with London.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Home building needs a hand; retail and profit is often the enemy here too.

A thought occurred to me that the lack of land available to build homes on might have a link to the growth in retail seen over the last two or three decades.

I looked over maps of places I’ve known for more than a decade: the Chorley area and the Manchester area. I recalled buildings etc that existed ten or twenty years ago in certain places and realised something quite worrying but not altogether surprising.

Business premises often stand empty for a long time after companies go out of business or move elsewhere. Whenever something is demolished, be it old run down housing, empty warehouses and business premises etc, it is more often than not replaced with a new retail development of some kind, often a supermarket. Sometimes a supermarket with a petrol station and a row of large retailers. Stores such as Currys, Carpetright, Halfords etc have always used this sort of development but now high street stores are there too: Marks and Spencer, Next, New Look etc. The new stores and office developments tend to be larger than the next nearest alternative, and when the customers/clients cease to use the original stores, they sometimes close even if they were not intended to. This results in town centres becoming quiet and often with many empty shops. And those customers who were still using the shops that are left behind will gradually stop using them too as the decline continues.

I’m well aware that linking town centre closures to out-of-town retail developments is nothing new. But this is the first time I’d thought about the impact on housing. Town centres are not usually the best places to live and as shops close, areas become run down and are even less desirable. So with retailers buying up land – and with councils encouraging this because such projects usually bring in revenue in the short term, where will new houses be built?

We don’t need to build on green field sites; we need councils to look more closely at commercial development proposals and only accept those that use existing commercial sites, or at least carefully consider the availability of land for future housing before giving them the green light. They also must lower town centre business rates, or raise out-of-town rates to match. Public transport may need to be improved and town centre parking will need to be looked at.

Town centre regeneration is a well-known issue and towns need to bring customers back there from the outskirts, leaving those areas free for housing projects. This can work hand-in-hand with the idea of satellite offices I’ve mentioned before.

I'm aware that using my memory to note the changes in of a couple of towns is not a scientific way of viewing the entire problem but wherever I go, I see new, or fairly new out-of-town retail parks so I can only assume this issue is replicated across the country. Something needs to change.. 

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Something HAS to change

This government, particularly that smug git Gideon Oliver Osborne (that's his name - he added 'George' himself), are very satisfied with themselves. What they've managed to do is shrink the state and cripple the poor and vulnerable enough to reduce the budget deficit a bit* and we even have a bit of growth.

*For anyone who doesn't quite understand these terms yet - and you're in powerful company, because the Tories regularly get it wrong too - the 'budget deficit' is basically the difference between money coming in in taxes and money going out to pay for public services, benefits, pensions, handouts to people like Richard Branson, MPs expenses etc. A 'structural deficit' is a term sometimes used when an economy has been running at a deficit for some time. Deficits can be re-balanced either by recouping more taxes (so closing tax loopholes, or if there were more people in work paying income tax,that would help) or by making cuts. The 'national debt' is the amount of debt the country is in. That hasn't been falling, despite the cuts.

The growth, of course, is based on more personal debt, mostly as a consequence of buying homes. This had to happen eventually: people have been buying far fewer houses in the last 3 or 4 years so it was only a matter of time before people started to buy again. The 'help to buy' scheme has, inevitably, driven prices up because it enables people to get 95% mortgages again, meaning there are more people in the market and very few new homes being built.

So with house prices now back on their pre-recession trajectory, are we in a better place? No, absolutely not. This current flurry of housing market activity will not last unless the economy begins to re-balance and this current government's policies will not help that.

Already there are people in some areas earning good salaries who can't afford a modest home and elsewhere people with average and above average incomes are unable to buy a house that less than ten years ago would have been well within their means. Salaries, which have fallen dramatically in real terms* since the crash, are still rising lower than inflation and significantly more slowly than property prices. So this growth that the government are milking will flat-line again in no time, unless salaries start to rise. But the reason salaries are not rising is not going to change any time soon.

*'Real terms' basically means 'taking into account inflation' and is only used by politicians if it suits their point.

Capitalism works when those at the lower end of the economic scale can afford to buy luxury good. The way that capitalism has evolved in most countries, particularly in the UK and US is not about those with money being liberal with it - unless of course that money is someone else's. Company chairmen/women do not satisfy shareholders by paying staff good salaries and in a time of austerity, those employers who value, reward and share profits with their staff have to be more cautious. On top of this, public sector organisations are suffering - or are at risk of - huge cuts and so they are also having to change pay structures.

So with no one driving salaries up for the majority of workers, who on earth is going to be able to afford to buy homes? At present, a lot of properties in certain areas - particularly London - are being bought by overseas investors who then rent them out. But as the sale prices increase, the rents will rise and eventually, potential tenants and some of these overseas investors will be priced out too.

I can't work out what the Tories' plan is. Either they know that their policies are destined to fail the economy but are using this opportunity in government to rip chunks off the state and feed their wealthy friends and donors with nice public services at bargain prices. Or they are actually completely inept.

I'm not sure which is more worrying.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

They're selling OUR assets, so where's the outrage?

I found out yesterday - and I can't believe I had missed this one for so long - that the government are fiddling with further and higher education to encourage private sector growth in the area. And of course, we're talking about the Tories here, who 'encourage' private sector involvement by handing them pots of public money and tipping the scales massively in their favour.

This is on top of the Royal Mail privatisation, which was at least well reported unlike the NHS, fire services, security and probation, and all the other sell-offs that are going on under our noses.

So where's the public outrage? These services have been built up with taxpayers' money for decades and we're just sitting by and letting this government sell them off to their rich friends and donors for bargain basement prices. On top of that, they'll now be profit-making organisations and as a result, will need to change in order to make profit. There will be cuts to spending - probably meaning job losses - to increase profit margins, unprofitable areas will be cut out altogether (which will have a huge impact on services to rural areas, for example) and overall, the quality of the service will suffer. Either that or they'll start to cost a lot more. I actually think - looking at the railways, water, electricity, gas and all of the other things that have been privatised over the last few decades - that they'll cost more AND be lower quality.

These are OUR services. WE paid for them and nobody voted to sell them off to the rich friends of the tories. If someone broke into your home, took your possessions and sold them off for profit you'll never see, you'd be livid and would expect the police to do something about it. This is hardly different. And the BBC yet again are failing to report what this government is doing so a lot of people have no idea.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Scottish independence

Ever since the debate became serious a few years ago, I've been hoping that Scotland votes 'no'. This is mainly for two reasons:
  1. I have been hoping to see borders coming down, not new ones going up. Borders divide 'us' from 'them' and are usually as a result of some form of conflict. Borders divide us and are used to control us. I don't like borders.
  2. The way the debate has been conducted. I don't trust Salmond. Much of the debate has been fuelled (pardon the pun) by the fact that oil and gas off the coast of Scotland boosts the UK economy as a whole and many Scottish people would prefer this to be kept to themselves. But it will run out in time. The campaign has become very much one of 'them' vs 'us' and puts all English people on the wrong side. I like Scotland and want what's best for Scotland and I don't like being one of 'them'. Especially when 'them' are Tories and the contented (yet oddly grouchy) upper middle class and landed gentry.
Despite this, I would love to have the opportunity to vote for something that has the potential to mean real change to the political landscape. The Tories are supported by the wealthy and others who don't want to pay taxes that might benefit anyone other than themselves. Yet repeatedly we have their ideals forced upon all of us, whether by a Tory government, a Tory-led coalition or a Labour party following a general right-ward shift of mainstream British politics since the late 1970s.

I think that if people in the north of England (where I was raised and have now returned to from Scotland) had the opportunity to break off from Westminster, many would vote for it. And it wouldn't just be the north: people all over England feel that the last few governments have served a few rich people in London and the 'home counties' and for the most part, ignored the rest.

So although I still hope Scotland votes 'no', if they vote 'yes', I'll seriously consider moving back up there.