Wednesday , November 21 2018
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The royal ribbon problem

Image: Michael Garnett

The image of some dignitary cutting a ribbon stands as an icon for the fruits of public spending.  The charity sector has its equivalent in the ubiquitous images of supersized cheques being handed over.  The image is supposed to reassure us that “something is being done,” and that we should be thankful that the great and the good are doing their bit to solve our growing list of social and economic problems.  There is, however, a darker political/psychological side to these images that ought to ring alarm bells.  I call this the “royal ribbon problem.”

Back when I worked for a medium-sized charity, raising money was by far our largest problem.  This was not because of an absence of money (these were the years prior to the 2008 crash).  There were in fact billions of pounds in grants available from foundations and government departments.  The problem was that very few of them were available for funding ongoing work.  In effect, those doling out the grants were actively undermining successful work.  That is, it would make sense in purely charitable terms to continue funding services and initiatives that have already proved they can meet charitable aims; but government departments and foundation trusts prefer to risk most taxpayers’/donors’ money on unproven services and initiatives that are likely to fail.

The reasons for this are often psychological and political.  With very few exceptions, grant-making bodies insist on maximum publicity when they make awards – hence the pictures of big cheques being handed over.  This is the reason why, for example, the European Union insists that grant recipients incorporate the EU flag into everything they produce – web pages, leaflets, road signs, building signs, etc.  Indeed, in some cases, it is difficult not to conclude that the primary aim of the grant is to make the grant-making body look good.

The psychology of status is involved too.  It is not simply about having a photo opportunity to be seen handing over a cheque or cutting a ribbon.  British readers will, perhaps, be more aware of how this works given the continued power of the Crown in our daily lives.  There is a big difference between having, say, some local politician or Z-list celebrity handing over the cheque than – the highest accolade of all – having the Queen herself turn up to do the honours.  Of course, nonagenarians struggle with mobility, so even the most prestigious initiatives these days have to settle for one of the minor royals or one of the few remaining landed members of the House of Lords.

Charity is not, of course, the only arena where this happens; and it may be about to add to the many woes that our fast-collapsing economy is experiencing.  To give just one example; Britain’s road network is falling apart.  According to a new report from the Institution of Civil Engineers:

“The UK has 24,000 miles of local roads in need of essential maintenance, which will cost at least £5bn over 10 years to repair. Alongside the move to a zero-carbon vehicle fleet, which will reduce the viability of fuel duty, it’s more important than ever that we talk about how the next generation of road transport levies will be raised.”

The problem is that politicians are no different to charity grant-makers when it comes to publicity and prestige… and there is nothing prestigious or newsworthy about fixing potholes.  My own country – Wales – exemplifies this.  According to the BBC:

“Fixing roads in Wales should be treated as a priority over building new ones, an assembly report has said…

“The report suggested a ‘long-term approach’ to road maintenance and cited a study by Leeds University which claims it costs ‘between 17 and 19 times more to do odd fixes rather than doing planned asset management upgrading’.

“It also cited claims by the AA which said as many claims had been made for damage caused by poor road surfaces in the first four months of 2018 as the whole of 2017.”

Which is all well and good, but the Welsh Government has been systematically starved of cash by an austerity-obsessed UK Treasury.  More importantly, though, the politicians that approve spending what money remains in Wales have chosen to perpetuate the royal ribbon problem when it comes to roads.  The single road development that is exercising our elected representatives as we speak is the proposed M4 motorway relief road; the inquiry alone into which has already cost £11 million.  The eventual cost of the road (if it is ever built) will be somewhere between £1.3bn and £1.5bn.  No doubt the politicians and civil servants are already sketching out the arrangements for the royal opening of the new road sometime in the late 2020s.

In fact, the M4 relief road is just one of several royal ribbon projects that have been approved despite the overarching austerity policies pursued by the UK government.  Even as he was turning disabled people out of their homes and sending Britain’s working poor to the foodbanks, former Chancellor George Osborne managed to set aside billions of pounds for favoured projects like HS2, the third runway at Heathrow and the 3.2GW nuclear power station at Hinkley Point.

Importantly, the other thing that these royal ribbon projects have in common is that they are all extensions of twentieth century business as usual.  The M4 relief road is based on the unquestioned assumption that vehicle use will be subject to infinite growth.  The environmental objection that we need to leave the remaining oil in the ground is glossed over with the highly unlikely prospect of a seamless switch to electric vehicles.  In the same way, the third runway at Heathrow is based on the assumption that the number of commercial and freight air journeys will continue to grow exponentially.  HS2 – the high speed railway between Birmingham and London (which is eventually intended to link to Manchester and Leeds) – assumes that the British economy will experience a resurgence of growth that will accelerate the centralisation of the economy within the Cambridge-London-Oxford triangle.  In order for the economic hub to continue growing, it requires that skilled workers are able to commute from ever further afield.  Motorways are too congested for this and Britain’s Victorian rail network inadequate.  Therefore a high speed link is the only solution (and, again, civil servants and politicians will already be planning the royal opening ceremony).

Hinkley Point C, perhaps, is an exception insofar as it concedes that business as usual cannot continue.  Britain’s ageing coal power stations will cease operating by 2025 (several have shut down early); older nuclear plants are also at the end of their lives; and there is currently no means by which renewables (and the yet-to-be-invented storage they require) can close the gap.  If the intention is to continue to meet our existing electricity demand and facilitate the electrification of transport and home heating, then nuclear has to be part of the mix.

As readers of this blog will be aware, there is good reason to be sceptical about the prospect of business as usual continuing for too much longer.  Forget climate change; look instead at net energy.  The days when the world was awash with easy to obtain sweet crude oil are long gone.  Saudi Arabia is pumping water into its oil fields in order to squeeze out the final couple of billion barrels (the world consumes 100 million barrels a day).  Kuwait has even begun adding detergent to the mix.  Meanwhile the US is drilling loss-making shale plays to produce oil that itself requires processing before it can be refined; Canada is churning out loss-making oil from its bitumen sands; and the UK is desperately attempting to tap into (relatively) tiny oil deposits in the Atlantic.  This strongly suggests that we are going to be doing less driving, flying and commuting in the near future.

The danger of the royal ribbon problem at this stage in our decline is that our existing infrastructure breaks down even as lots of shiny new – and increasingly irrelevant – infrastructure projects are completed a decade or so from now.  Writing about the situation in US cities, Charles Hugh Smith notes that:

Soaring housing costs have pushed workers farther into the exurbs, lengthening commutes and choking highways constructed for a much smaller populace. The population of the U.S. is now a third of a billion people, and the vast majority of the nation’s infrastructure was designed for a much smaller populace, a significant percentage of whom were expected to reside in rural counties.” (His emphasis)

The same problems are now manifesting on this side of the Atlantic.  As the BBC reported this week:

“Researchers visited more than 20 new housing developments across England in what they say is the first piece of research of its kind.

“They found that the scramble to build new homes is producing houses next to bypasses and link roads which are too far out of town to walk or cycle, and which lack good local buses.

“Jenny Raggett, researcher at Transport for New Homes, said: ‘We were appalled to find so many new housing developments built around the car with residents driving for almost every journey.  As those cars head for our towns and cities they clog up existing roads. Commuter times get longer and longer. Car-based living of this kind is not good for our health or quality of life’.”

As Hugh Smith notes, only backward people still think in terms of building new roads to relieve congestion:

“While bulldozing swaths of cities to lay down a new 6-lane freeway was the go-to ‘solution’ to congestion in the 1960s, that has fallen out of favor for a variety of reasons, including the destruction of urban neighborhoods, the inordinately high costs, the legal challenges and the terribly inconvenient reality that the new freeway quickly filled with vehicles, leaving older roadways just as choked…

The congestion isn’t just on freeways and highways. Local streets are taking a pounding as everyone seeks alternative routes, and subway systems are overloaded.” (His emphasis)

Which brings us back to Britain’s fast failing infrastructure.  Only if we assume infinite economic growth (which after a decade of stagnation looks unlikely) does it make sense to build new infrastructure.  If (as is increasingly likely) we are looking at a period of decline and re-localisation, the debate we should be having is about which of our current infrastructure gets maintained; and which has to be abandoned.  That is a debate that no elected politician and no state bureaucrat wants to have; because there are no royal ribbons to be cut when you allow suburban residential streets to turn to gravel tracks.

As you made it to the end…

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