‘Lovely’ is probably not a word that goes with ‘Essex’ in many British people’s minds. And yet the county does have its unspoiled parts, even if they take some hunting out. I am fortunate enough to live in one – a small medieval town surrounded by largely open countryside. But in the next ten years, much will go under the bulldozer, as we are currently facing several large schemes for mass housing development, to say nothing of a waste incinerator up-wind of the town, and a major new road scheme… Such is the consequence of living in what, we are told, is the most rapidly–growing area of Britain. And nothing – but nothing – must come in the way of economic ‘progress’. To object is just to be a NIMBY.
A recent article in The Guardian had the temerity to question the popular ‘wisdom’ that there is a housing shortage in Britain; the problem, it said is more the degree of speculation that goes on in the housing market pushing prices out of people’s reach. A neighbour added that the ease of access to credit was adding to the problem, as people see houses as investments rather than residences. Recently I noticed the sale of some apartments in a neighbouring village specified as for sale “to investors only”.
It is becoming clear that far from bringing the virtues of quality and freedom of choice, this country’s economic model is socially an utter disaster. As I mentioned in the previous post, it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that business activity here is completely out of control. It seems that the only values that count for anything are monetary ones – and that anything at all is worth sacrificing for a quick buck. Well, I suppose that is the natural instinct: it is what companies do. But we have also had decades where successive governments have failed to do what governments are for – and that is regulate such activity in order to retain a reasonably equitable balance for all.
Instead, they have allowed the psychology of the market to flood into every nook and cranny of national life: if it doesn’t make money, it is not worth doing. That is also the message, this week, of the government minister who called for any degree-level subject that does not have immediate economic benefit to lose its financial support.
At this stage in Britain’s story, I fail to see how anyone cannot notice that such narrow, economised thinking is cutting deep into the nation’s fabric. Hospitals can no longer treat people because their funds need to be funnelled into paying back private contractors; schools are making staff redundant rather than cut the increasingly large salaries of the academy chain heads. (The one who did that to me was well into six-figure salary level himself – and I don’t think cutting that was on his money-saving agenda: the loss of my livelihood (and mental health) was just collateral damage in the preserving of his – that’s how this system works).
And we are seeing yet further tracts of our relatively scare land mass torn up and turned into mass housing of the most banal and over-priced sort – at the same time as the executives of the companies doing it reap multi-million pound bonuses. What’s more, they show utter disregard for the social and environmental consequences of their activities: most of the new developments round here will be utterly dependent on car use – and will be completely devoid of any social infrastructure. Those things just eat into profit margins.
It is not good for democracy either: the erosion of public space by private owners continues apace – and we are finding that even when the planning process (itself not above question) rejects an application, it is only a matter of months before it is resubmitted and the fight to object begins all over again. There is only so much that local residents can do in their spare time: it is not an equal fight.
What we have here is a system that will stop at nothing in the chase for profits. One wonders where it will end: is it realistic to imagine the big construction companies one day winding themselves down on the grounds that they have built all the houses that will be needed? They need to build to justify themselves – and of their own volition, while there is money to be made, they will never stop. But in that sense they are only typical of a system that has got its priorities utterly wrong.
The monotone from the politicians continues: this country needs to be more competitive, needs more business acumen, and more entrepreneurs. It is true, any country needs a productive economy – but at any price? And yet, far from enhancing lives further such people are now the prime movers in destroying much of what makes life liveable for many; the only lives that really improve are their own. The story of my own area is only that which is happening the length and breadth of the nation; being in the South-East it may be rather more pressurised – but that is all.
As one local observed recently during a discussion on these things, “Isn’t capitalism fun?” We are getting to the point where it is no longer the preserve of the loony extremes to believe that a complete re-think is rapidly becoming necessary.