Wednesday, August 13, 2008

That Policy Exchange report: Is Tim Leunig a closet Marxist?

The Tories and the media have missed the big story about Cities Unlimited, the Policy Exchange report on regional development policies. (You can download a PDF copy of it from the think tank's website.)

As James Graham pointed out this morning, the report's lead author Tim Leunig is a Liberal Democrat. Indeed, during my days on the party's federal policy committee he was something of a fixture on that committee's working parties.

Earlier this evening, debating the report with John Prescott on Channel 4 News, Tim said he was not a member of the Conservative or Labour parties - and said no more. He may be an academic, but he is not unworldly.

David Cameron has called Cities Unlimited "insane". My own reaction on reading it is quite different. While I like the idea of selling empty property cheaply to its neighbours and local control of development funds, it seems to me to be based on two quasi-Marxist assumptions. They are:
  • contempt for piecemeal reform;
  • the belief that it is the state's role to forecast how society and the economy will develop and then expedite that development.
Let me explain.

The assumption behind the report seems to be that unless regional development aid can be shown to have reduced regional disparities then it is a waste of time. The argument that it might be worth putting some effort into slowing the increase of those disparities is not even considered. Policy Exchange scorns our bourgeois liberalism: it wants revolution.

And I am puzzled by the idea that Oxford and Cambridge should be vastly expanded. Can government really predict where industry will wish to expand before industry knows itself? If government had made such decisions 25 years ago, just before the implications of information technology began to be realised, they would seem very strange to us now. How can we know that our own decisions will not look equally strange in 25 years' time?

I also wonder if this development might not be self-defeating in that it destroys the quality of life that attracts people to Oxford and Cambridge in the first place. I do not know Oxford well, but Cambridge, which was until recently a small city, has now outgrown its centre. As a result, that centre is now grossly overcrowded and I now rarely visit the place.

Of course, I may be wrong, but my point is that it is not possible for government or anyone else to know such things in advance. Therefore a less ambitious policy, not the Policy Exchange's picking of winners, is indicated.

A market economy is dynamic, and places do rise and fall. Some of the settlements where my Stiperstones lead miners lived have disappeared altogether. And Iflracombe in the late 1980s, a seaside resort abandoned by the railway and by most holidaymakers, is one of the saddest sites I have seen. Every B&B had its price in the window, trying to undercut the establishment next door.

Government cannot prevent such historical movements, but it seems to me it is worth trying to ameliorate their worst effects. And when I see a former mining village like Creswell, I cannot help thinking the fact that the most ambitious and able young people are leaving is part of the problem, not part of the solution.


Anonymous said...

Scruffy, Overcrowded, Overpriced, Full of murderers, Thieves, Daily Stabbings and shootings , Armed robberies, Drugs, Homlessness starving people roaming the damp streets.
Tim wants to put down the library books and come into the real world.
Has he realised that we live on a very small island with good means of transport all around the Country
He is a good reason the Liberal Democrats will never get into power.

Liberal Polemic said...

" is not possible for government or anyone else to know such things in advance."

Now, you're not just talking about regeneration, are you?

An excellent post, Jonathan. However, you've overlooked the point that regeneration budgets are part of the problem: when 70% of employment in the North East is public sector, 57% of its GDP is government spending and yet businesses are expected to pay the same wages and follow the same regulations that apply in the thriving South East, there is no chance for native growth or inward investment.

The solution is not, as Policy Exchange argues, to encouage the skilled to move South. It is to encourage them to work and invest in the North. This isn't achieved by chucking money at the problem, but it might be achieved by reducing regulations and taxes on businesses so that they have a reason to take advantage of the huge opportunities (not least, a massivly under-employed workforce) that exist there.

dreamingspire said...

One of the recent changes (i.e. last 30 years) has been the unwillingness of people to move to another area, but still they take jobs there - long distance commuting is the result. And it seems that the higher the pay (until you get to the level that can afford 2 homes) the further they commute. Nevertheless, I was in Oxford recently on a Friday afternoon and its much more crowded than it used to be.
Another item from Ch4 News last night: the abysmal report on the risks to London's Oyster and the even worse Snowmail advance notice. Oyster is most definitely NOT being rolled out across the country, and the national spec for electronic transport ticketing mandates the ability of ticketing equipment to handle several types of smart media, some a lot more secure than Mifare. Silly season indeed, but resources correctly deployed to stories like Georgia as well as on the Olympics and China in general.

John B said...

London: Scruffy, Overcrowded, Overpriced, Full of murderers, Thieves, Daily Stabbings and shootings , Armed robberies, Drugs, Homlessness starving people roaming the damp streets.

Feel free to believe that nonsense and leave those of us who like it here unmolested...

dreamingspire said...

London 30 years ago: I accompanied my then boss there to meet a dealer in secondhand mainframe computer systems and peripherals. The dealer was an Irishman who told us that he found the buzz of London irresistible. He took us to the Playboy Club for lunch, explaining that it was the best value for money place for an excellent lunch. The girls were certainly very welcoming.