Gordon Brown has claimed to issue his vision of Britain, in his Observer interview today. There are slightly warmer words for those of us who believe in defending and strengthening our civil liberties, with a promise that ID cards will not be compulsory. Why not just drop them altogether, as an unwanted expense and a temptation to government to intrude too far? Why not introduce proper border controls, and use the passport and visa system, to deal with immigration?
In contrast there are tough words for those who want to preserve Englands green and pleasant land ?? or what remains of it. Mr Brown has decided his crusade is to go to war with the Nimbys, using a highly overcentralised and bossy state to drive through new houses, nuclear power stations, new runways and eventually new train lines. He thinks he can make himself more popular by announcing unpopular decisions. It is an unusual approach.
Readers of this blog will know that I think Mr Brown is fighting yesterdays war on housing in the wrong way, instead of fighting todays war the right way. The issue today is not how to expand the supply of new housing, but how to stabilise the market in second hand homes. If he does not succeed in protecting the UK housing market from the credit crunch, housebuilders will not want to build all the extra homes in Mr Browns 12 year plan.
Mr Brown tries to create the impression that the credit crunch is made in the USA. He needs to recognise that the run on Northern Rock was made in the UK. It is banks based in London and regulated in London that are having to pull in their horns after a period of easy money and excess which occurred during his time as Chancellor. Today Mr Brown needs to come up with the right mixture of regulatory reform and money easing to prevent the credit crunch pushing house prices down too far too fast and undermining his hopes for new homes.
He also needs to understand that in many constituencies that Labour needs to hold in the suburbs and the countryside in England there are strong feelings that communities can only take so much extra development. There is growing resentment at the way large scale high density development is pushed onto reluctant communities by the centre. Trying to trap the Tories over Nimbyism is a very high risk strategy at the best of times. It is particularly silly at a time when government can force through the planning permission but cannot force a housebuilding industry under pressure to build on the scale Mr Brown thinks is needed.
Mr Brown is right that the UK is short of transport capacity of all kinds. It has become so because this Labour government has failed to initiate any major new project to expand rail, road or air capacity. They have completed the Channel tunnel rail link they inherited, but precious little else.
Readers of this blog will know that I pursued their last announcement that they intended to build Crossrail, only to discover that they are not going to make the final decision about it this Parliament. I doubt if anything has changed, and assume this is another re-announcement of the same lack of progress. Their much publicised difficulties with engineering works on the West coast mainline over Christmas will not encourage them to try to speed up rail improvements, against the background of poor performance and a shortage of trained staff.
The Prime Minister is also right in realising that we are also short of generating capacity. This island of coal set in a sea of oil and gas did almost run out of energy last winter. This Christmas I was asked to help constituents who had a power cut all Christmas day so they were unable to cook their Christmas dinner. I forget how many times we have heard they are going to take the ??tough?? decision to build nuclear stations. We heard that before the consultation before last, only for them to be defeated by a legal challenge. They had to consult again.
I have regularly suggested they hold a competition between all the low and no carbon technologies for generating power to decide which mixture would give us the best trade off between low cost and good security of supply. Has Mr Brown now got as his command all the figures, so he knows nuclear is the outright winner? How much subsidy ?? or guaranteed carbon price ?? will it take to justify building a new generation of nuclear stations? Will the taxpayer or the electricity consumer pay?
If Mr Brown is to turn this interview into a working vision of the future he needs to have answers to these questions:
1. How much will Crossrail cost? Who will foot the bill? When will the contract be let?
2. How will nuclear power be subsidised or supported to enable it to compete with gas and coal? Why is it better than renewables and other low carbon options?
3. How will he stabilise the residential housing market, so that housebuilders will want to build all the homes he seeks? Will he take seriously the objections of local communities who may have their own views on numbers of new homes and densities? Will he recognise that new homes require new roads, schools and hospitals to sustain them?
It is easy to caricature Mr Browns statement: he wants a UK where you will have to live next door to an expanded airport, or a nuclear power station, or a new housing estate which he intends to drive through regardless of local opinion.
He is right that the UK needs to expand the capacity of its networks. He is wrong to think there are simple top down answers, and to believe that local opinion can be overwhelmed. The art of government is persuasion. More need to be persuaded that the government has the right answers. In the meantime there are many other things that could be done to remedy the transport shortage, the electricity shortage, and the housing problem.