Coalition of the Unwilling


This week the UK government announced an ”end to anti-car policies” reversing the guidance to local authorities to dissuade citizens from using their cars in favour of public transport. Charges for parking will be reined in, they promise.

It should be good news. The comically-named ”traffic calming” schemes put in place by the outgoing government were deeply unpopular. Still, we are getting used to taking our announcements from the new coalition government with a pinch of salt.

Before the election Housing Minister Grant Shapps backed demands from the Housebuilders’ Federation for a ‘right to build’. That might seem unnecessary, but in Britain the planning laws are so prohibitive that owning land extends no right to build upon it. Instead planning authorities extend permission to build where it meets the terms of the local plan.

The impact of Britain’s planning laws has always been a problem, but for the last thirteen years the ‘local plan’ has been hi-jacked by anti-growth campaigners from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Urban Taskforce and the massed ‘NIMBY’ campaigners of the Tory Shires.

The new local government minister Eric Pickles explained that the net effect of the planning system’s strangle hold on house building was that ”we’re at rock bottom”: ”1924 was the last time we built this little number of houses”. His Labour predecessor Nick Raynsford had ”done more damage than the Luftwaffe”, said Pickles, exaggerating a little, but making his point (Sunday Times, 12 September 2010).

So what about the changes? Grant Shapps’s published policy does include the words ”right to build” – but they are heavily hedged about:

”provided that [the new homes and buildings] conform to national environmental, architectural, economic and social standards, conform with the local plan, and pay a tariff that compensates the community for loss of amenity and costs of additional infrastructure’ (Open Source Planning, Page 3).

All of which sounds pretty much as bad as it was before. What right to build, you might ask? Indeed the words ‘right to build’ feature just once in the document, as quoted above, in the executive summary. There is a question mark, too, over who it is that has the right to build. ”Communities”, according to Shapps, and the government have the right, but just how these ”communities” are defined is not clear. More likely they will be the same planning authorities as before. In that case the only developers that get a look in will be the powerful and well-connected like Tesco or Barratt Homes – those who are in a position to meet the municipal fathers’ demands for baksheesh… or ”planning gain” as it is known in the UK.

Coalitions are new to Britain (apart from one shaky Liberal-Labour government in the seventies). But with neither David Cameron’s Conservative Party, nor the deeply demoralised Labour Party of Gordon Brown winning enough votes to command a majority in the House of Commons, Cameron had to turn to Nick Clegg’s minority Liberal Democrats.

This arrangement seems to suit Cameron. Cameron became leader on a pledge to lose the ”nasty party” image the Conservatives had after years of office in the 1980s. His method is a mirror image of Tony Blair’s repositioning of the Labour Party as a centre party by distancing it from its socialist roots. First we had a Labour government that was against socialism. Now we have a Conservative-led government that is shy about capitalism.

Sidelining the old-school Thatcherite, free market Tories in favour of his friends in the public relations, media and volunteer sector, Cameron seems obsessed with changing the party brand.Although this did not work in the election, the advantage of an alliance with the Liberal Democrats means that he can ditch whatever fundamentalist free market doctrines whenever convenient on the grounds that ”coalition government is compromise”.

The net effect is a government that keeps sounding as if it is going to do something decisive, but then doesn’t.

The greatest challenge has been the state of the public finances. Britain’s government debts are astonishing: one trillion pounds sterling, or 68.2 per cent of GDP. Since most of the debt was contracted under Labour’s watch, the coalition government has the moral high ground. The Labour coalition says that the cuts announced in the public sector put the recovery in danger because they are too far, too fast. They stand by ”counter-cyclical” spending, but Labour has little mainstream credibility in terms of the country’s finances.

For the left, though, balancing the capitalists’ books is hardly the issue. They are looking forward to a re-run of the campaign against the Thatcher public spending cuts of the 1980s. The protests and banners all seem to reinforce the idea that the government is indeed planning to rein in public spending, but it is not. As former Tory Minister John Redwood has pointed out, the planned cuts are not even cuts at all, but a limit on spending growth.

Cameron’s government had to sound tough on public spending, because the bond traders were in fear of Britain’s debt rating being marked down, and the wider impact of a loss of confidence. With both Greece and Ireland’s finances in trouble, the British government needed to promise stability.

But the same city traders are just as determined that the spending party should carry on, even if the volume is turned down to avoid scaring the neighbours. For years Britain’s ”private sector” has been dependent on extraordinary boosts of government cash. Under the outgoing government’s Private Finance Initiative, public institutions like hospitals and schools were allowed to raise funds by issuing their own bonds, debt that was not reckoned in the official accounts. Then Gordon Brown’s banking bailout found government buying up failing banks like Royal Bank of Scotland.

Despite their fawning support for austerity Britain’s City traders still expect to be looked after. The Bank of England’s emergency policy to meet the shortage of credit in the economy is called ”quantitative easing”. In practice it means that the government trades government bonds for the banks’ own toxic debts, while bond traders make money on the commission.

Even the one controversial cut in public spending turns out to be something more like a gift to the banks. The government says that they will let universities charge fees approaching the market rate, and that students will no longer be subsidised. Since those who made the decision all got to go to university for free, the backlash was understandable – the kind of rioting Saturnalia that Britons indulge in from time to time (“off with their heads!“ shouted student rioters when they chanced upon the Prince of Wales’s limousine and mobbed it, while running from the police).

To moderate the impact of the fees, though, the government has promised to expand the student loans scheme, where the State lends the money, and then recovers it later, through the tax system. For the banks, what could be more perfect? Here is a tranche of debt created overnight, guaranteed by a government that undertakes to recover it on their behalf: More of a subsidy to the City of London than a cut in government spending.

Though the Conservatives are thought of as ”Thatcher’s Children”, they behave much more like their ”New Labour” predecessors. The tough talk is for show.

Nowhere is this proto-New Labour approach clearer than on energy policy. Although Energy Minister Chris Huhne has acknowledged that Britain faces severe electricity shortages – he fails to ascribe the problem to its proximate cause, the failure to build enough coal-powered power stations.

Huhne’s solution, though, will make things worse. Not more coal-powered stations, but a government imposed increase on tariffs for fossil-fuel generated power, and a special allowance for renewable energy. Of course, renewable energy on any normal pricing system would be uneconomic. Britain’s latest windmills even had to be heated up to stop them freezing solid this winter. The net effect of Huhne’s proposal: no fix for the energy shortage, and more expensive electricity.

These policies have had disastrous, even lethal, results. According to the latest figures, excess winter deaths in the UK are in the region of 25 000, most of them the elderly, often hastened along by fuel poverty. With Huhne’s proposals, those numbers are set to increase, as electricity becomes something of a luxury to the poor.

At least in this area, the Tories are “conservative”. The tradition of the poor freezing to death in wintertime is being restored, and so too may be the old class system that allows the City to enrich itself as the expense of everyone else, including the taxpayers.

James Heartfield is the author of Let’s Build: Why we need five million new homes, a director of, and a member of the 250 New Towns Club.

Photo by Chris Devers