Mario Laghos is a political analyst and the editor of Just Debate.
So many of our countryside towns, which are home to historic churches, school buildings and libraries, are increasingly blighted by the emergence of fresh-faced red brick town houses.
They buffet the existing architecture in the most jarring way, even though not too dissimilar in aesthetic quality to the sort of brown Soviet-style flats that were built in the 1970’s and 1980’s to facilitate those same town’s growing populations. Iconic villages are being swamped by the apathetic copy and pasting of dwellings whose one and only reason for existing is the cheapness involved in their construction.
In most if not all cases, however, these villages are sited next to quarries, from whence the original buildings’ constituent stone is derived. Yet those quarries sit dormant, even while so many of our youth suffer the indignity of precarious employment, or flee to cities for opportunity.
These sites could give meaningful work to the young whilst ensuring our historic towns are conserved by using local resources, local labour and local style. Why not honour our past, and capture its spirit for our future, by re-opening them?
Well, primarily because of cost, of course. It isn’t economical, prima facie. The steel we use for construction, and the coal required to forge it, are imported in such huge volumes – and from China no less – despite the fact that we sit atop a mountain of coal and are a nation home to some of the best steel workers in the world.
Our steel industry is essential to the defence of the realm. Much of our coal wealth sits beneath some of our most destitute regions. Yet we refuse to extract it for fear of emitting carbon. Far easier to have a freight ship carry it across the world, so as to keep the CO2 off of our books. After all, the cost of having to beautify the mine after it has been exhausted, erecting solar farms to offset emissions, and cutting all the red tape would no doubt be a costly and time-consuming affair.
Thus towns which were once the engines of the nation are resigned to destitution and sink into terminal decline, buoyed only by call centres, coffee houses, and betting shops.
In 1998, we imported 20 per cent of our energy. Today that figure stands at 40 per cent. We rely on Russia for the bulk of our solid fuel and much of our petroleum. Yet while many could be given high-skilled work and boundless opportunity by extracting energy via fracking, a technique which has made the US a net exporter of energy, we have placed a moratorium on it.
Worse, we are an island nation who continually fail to make good on our geographic gift; that we are surrounded by water. We are constantly told that we are set to become the Saudi Arabia of wind, but why not of tidal power, too?
We have become so infatuated with financial services and the City of London, we have lost sight of our nation’s traditions and its strengths. Thanks to the market economy we have become acutely aware of the price of everything: we know goods and materials from poor countries with inadequate labour laws are cheaper than those produced onshore. The start-up costs associated with brickmaking factories or quarries can be prohibitive – far better to buy them in then, and let balance of payments deficit grow further still.
The list goes on. We have found it convenient to be energy-dependent, particularly as self-sufficiency often necessitates government subsidies, a most unattractive proposition. And there is little profit in being readily prepared around the clock for a once-in-a-century medical crisis, as the state of our PPE warehouses attests.
But we must become more attuned to the virtue of value, rather than the seductive mistress of price. Rather than sending young people into the doldrum of recruitment agencies which recruit for recruitment agencies like Russian dolls, meaningful employment and national value can be found in traditional industry, and the kickstart costs incurred by the helping hand of governance will be paid back. High-wage taxpaying workers, the value added of energy self-sufficiency, the control of our destiny, and the improved social relations and reduced crime wrought by stable work and increased home ownership will pay back and more that which would be required to jumpstart dormant industries.
Of course, such work is not limited to simple labour, but will require the efforts of highly skilled engineers, architects and technicians, and administrators.
Simultaneous to refinding our concern with work that exists outside the service sector and our reconnecting with the virtue of conservation, should come a great slashing of the pointless regulation which holds back this nation as a ball and chain would Usain Bolt.
The UK is a leader in the global race to administer vaccines. But we could improve our lead, and once we finish in poll position could turn our resources over to benefit of the world.
But our programme, excellent though it is, was late off the blocks, its momentum partially scuppered by (now-scrapped) regulation which required vaccine givers to have completed 21 documents, including courses to combat terrorism and have adequate knowledge of human rights. It failed to move into fifth gear fast enough due to an evident reticence to involve the military. And it is set to be dealt a further blow still by our lack of onshore manufacturing capability, as Pfizer’s Belgium plant is having to ration its output.
Much like our dithering on extracting British coal, which has held up approval of a singular Cumbrian coal mine for years, and as with the moratorium on fracking, despite our willingness to import natural gas, it is another instance of tedious regulations which serve only to straightjacket Britain from fulfilling its potential – all while exacerbating the harms they are designed to mitigate.
It is time to throw a one-two punch. Market forces must no longer be allowed to hollow out towns, cities and villages with race-to-the-bottom-on-cost housing. Nor should they relegate to a footnote of history proud and noble industries with strategic value in favour of financial services and the City of London. And to achieve these ends the government must become adept in knowing when to step up and offer needed support, and when to step stand back by consigning counterproductive regulation to the dustbin.