18 April 2013

The choices Thatcher gave us

At the tender age of 34 I'm really a bit too young to remember much of the Margaret Thatcher years. I can certainly recall where I was when she resigned – walking down my primary school corridor, and passing the much feared French teacher's office. It seemed like the world had ended, given that she'd been Prime Minister for all but one of the years I'd lived.

British Telecom
'Ambassador' telephone advertisement
Yet I do remember some of the perversities of the country back then, which Thatcher's governments were slowly chipping away at as I grew up. We had state-owned British Telecom's standard issue 'Ambassador' telephone. It was cream in colour, with chocolate buttons and what the advertising described as a 'handy personal directory pad, which allows you to note important numbers'. One day my parents came home from a shopping trip to Tottenham Court Road, where they'd picked up an incredibly futuristic grey and black contraption complete with built in digital answerphone (no tape to wear out) and preset autodial buttons. Ominously, it had a sticker on the bottom with a red triangle telling us we'd get in to trouble for using it.

So this in a sense was my grounding in the basics of politics. A clumsy state enterprise that wasn't responsive to demand. My Mum and Dad ran a business from home, and told me that not only did you have to wait weeks for the BT engineer to turn up, you then had to bribe him if you wanted anything done that wasn't on the work specification – or indeed if you wanted to choose the colour of your phone.

Twenty years later and I’ve just gone before the Parliamentary Assessment Board in Manchester. Before I travelled up for my PAB one of my friends suggested that I figured out what three words summed up Conservatism for me – a good exercise, although the most interesting part comes when you compare your words with someone else as it neatly reveals differences in perspective. Mine were responsibility, honesty and choice – although today's endlessly voguish talk about 'aspiration' made choice seem a little passé.

Yet the genius of Thatcher and her reforming governments was in understanding how choice underpins everything, and her passing this week is a timely reminder that aspiration is built on having options. Thatcher's insistence that Cellnet had a private sector competitor (provided by electronics firm Racal) gave consumers choice, and drove both businesses forward – Racal's offspring Vodafone is now a global leader and turns over £46bn annually. Incidentally Frances Spufford's excellent book Backroom Boys describes the transformation of British industry under Thatcher's watch (including the early days of Vodafone) and is well worth hunting out.

Today the battles of the Thatcher years might not mean much to the under-30s. But when you point to the price plans, handsets and networks they can choose from when buying a mobile, and tell them about the old days when your Government approved phone came in three shades of brown, then you can begin to explain how transformational choice has been to modernising Britain in the past three decades. Some of this would undoubtedly have happened with or without the government's help, but Thatcher knew that people are empowered by having options and making decisions, and her promotion of choice – more than any of the more 'headline' events of her leadership – is the foundation for her legacy.

First published by Platform 10 on April 17th, 2013

11 April 2013

Nimbyism? That’s not even the half of it.

Pity the poor Nimbys. Not only has the government’s horrible new planning regime come into force, but last week we heard the pro-HS2 lobbyists describing them as ‘posh people standing in the way of working-class people getting jobs’. Even Isabel blames them for wanting to preserve the idyllic views from their breakfast room window. Being a nimby is so last century.

Alas, calling the naysayers nimbys simply glosses over one of the biggest problems facing our society, namely how government deals with the built environment. This has little to do with preserving greenfields, areas of outstanding natural beauty, Jerusalem – or indeed nimbyism. It is simply that building houses in the countryside inherently designs significant expense into people’s lives. Little consideration is being given to how people are meant to travel to work, with developments usually far away from the local railway station, and money available for local infrastructure from Section 106 levies woefully inadequate.

So the lovely garden that the nice Nick Boles wants families to believe is their right has a nasty price tag attached ever so discreetly: the cost of a season ticket on our state subsidised railways and running two cars on our congested roads, with the cumulative loss of more than a working day a week in the commuting grind rubbing salt into the wound. We’re placing ridiculous and entirely avoidable stress on families, and commuting is penalising people for poorly designed cities.

The good news is that we already have lots of houses fit for families; the bad news is that they’ve mostly been subdivided into flats, a perfectly rational market response to the changing shape of British society. Of course we haven’t built enough houses, and yes, immigration has seen demand soar. But Britons are also leading different sorts of lives from a few decades ago: we marry later, and are more likely to divorce, meaning that fewer people are interested in the old concept of a ‘family home’. We’ve failed to build accommodation in line with the demands of 21st Century life, and the result is soaring rates of flatsharing in poorly converted apartments. Incidentally most young professionals must look at the protests over the bedroom tax with disbelief – in the private rented sector spare rooms get filled very quickly, and sharing your home is common if you’re young and saving for a mortgage deposit.

Frustratingly house building companies – almost uniquely – deliver products that the market doesn’t want. Unlike cars, cameras and computers where ‘new’ is aspirational, the building industry is churning out a product that only a quarter of home buyers would actively consider, a damning indictment that you’d think would merit a stiffer response than the Government merely ‘telling them to think a bit about it’. RIBA has already pointed out how bad regulations are for new homes, with people having to store food in their cars as kitchens haven’t been properly designed. Tragically the new planning regime will merely compound these failings, with swathes of new houses financed by state credit, built in the wrong place and for the wrong target market, and the opposition brushed off as heartless to the challenge of the ‘yet-to-haves’.

First published by Coffee House on April 11th, 2013