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Friday, 9 September 2011

Family, Home, Work, Health and Order

This is the mantra of the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary (for some reason this morning I can hear John Prescott inside my head saying 'Hungaria' but let's allow that to pass ...) and it's secured the party overwhelming public support; they have a two-thirds majority in parliament, sufficient to secure changes to the country's constitution. Budapest is like any developed Western capital, the same brands of cars fighting for scarce parking, the same well-dressed people strolling the boulevards and squares wearing the same clothes as in London or Paris, all made in China. Hungarians have taken to the International Shopping Mall like ducks to a muddy pond; they have blossomed everywhere, each a gleaming glass and steel clone of all the others. Imagine Bluewater or Westfield but with the signs in Hungarian - all the brands are the same. TGI Fridays, McDonalds, Debenhams, Hackett, Joseph, Kurt Geiger and all the rest. It's all really rather disappointing.

You have to poke around a bit to find the pre-1989 Hungary. The granite plinths around the side and back of Nyugati station where the shrapnel and bullet scars from the Siege of Budapest were not worth disguising; the hideous Soviet victory sculpture on the Citadel, the wasteland areas left fallow since 1945 on the outskirts now being mined by assiduous Hungarians with metal detectors for an insatiable US market in 'battlefield relics'. And of course the mass concrete and poor quality steel of the Soviet era that can't be disguised with pretty stucco or brave banners. Amongst the echoes of the old Hungary are the railways - very cheap, highly staffed, hugely over-engineered. Imagine one of those massive EWS freight diesels hauling two or three suburban passenger coaches on a stopping line. But at least the carriages have windows that open and through which you can poke your head - long banned on our domestic railways. The terminals are the same mixture of minor sleaze, dirt and decay that our own used to be before they became the ground floor of commercial office blocks, and I felt a filling nostalgia for Liverpool Street Station circa 1978. There's something about it you could bottle. And here's a picture of a Hungarian train of the most modern sort;

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Tax and Duty

I remember research from the 1970s on the levels of sales tax in adjacent states in the US. If the difference were greater than about 3%, folk would cross state lines to buy cheaper white goods. Given that America is vast, and distances great, and petrol (back then) cheap, it is the cost in travel-time to secure a saving of say $30 that's important.

Now, when I was in Hungary three months ago, a packet of fags at the airport duty-paid was HUF710  (£2.27). OK, there are only 19 rather than 20 in a pack. This week the price was down to HUF630 (£2.02); outside the airport, ciggies are normally sold in small corner shops, many branded, er, SPAR (yes really - the same 60s logo, wavy line and the rest that disappeared here twenty years ago) and the price is even lower - HUF590 (£1.89). Given that the cost of an easyjet return ticket is about £120 with a 2 hour flight time, and the saving on a quite legitimate and legal smoker's supply of 15 cartouches is now some £750 against equivalent duty-paid UK fags - an annual tax saving (avoidance, not evasion) of £3k for those like me - why wouldn't you? (and decent locally brewed beer is £1 for half a litre ...)


Simon Jenkins in The Guardian pleads for the government to target newly printed money at consumers in a bid to boost what he calls stagnant demand in the economy; Sam Bowman on the Adam Smith blog argues that there is no demand deficit, just a structural adjustment, and that distorting this natural process will prolong recession. Both agree that apart from the very first wave of QE, giving newly minted money to the banks is a very bad idea; all they do is to hoard it. In an odd sort of way, I agree with both of them. 

Increased consumer spending is just consumption - wasted. We should be recovering our money from the banks, not giving them more. And if there's a need to boost 'consumer confidence' in the UK, it's obvious locus is the value of housing. We're peculiar amongst developed nations in the extent to which we rely on equity in our homes. It determines our willingness to borrow and spend, buy furniture, white goods and textiles and even vehicles. So if new money does anything, we should target it at maintaining aggregate property values in line with inflation, whether through bonds or some other mechanism. 

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Not the NHS, but electoral reform

Any reforms of the NHS generate more heat than light in debate, and it's an area of service provision in which the usual rules sometimes don't apply; generally, Localists shy away from making simple pronouncements about health structures. Take the Localist tenet that services should be delivered at the lowest possible economic level - but would you rather have your triple bypass done by a surgeon in a regional centre who carries out the procedure twenty times a month, or one in a cottage hospital who does three bypasses a year? Reforming the NHS is a bit like making Gesso. One has to stir a bucket of Plaster of Paris and water constantly, not pausing for a moment, to achieve the thin cream required rather than the lumpy sediment that nature seeks. 

So you'll forgive me if I abstain from pronouncing on NHS reform. I don't think it's the important Parliamentary story, anyway; that comes next week, when the Conservatives attempt to reform our rotten and corrupt constituency boundaries against the self-interest of the rotten and corrupt MPs of the Libdem and Labour parties. Watch this space. 

Blogging may be difficult over the next couple of days as I'll be reliant on mobile phone alone. 

Sunday, 4 September 2011

These signals *do* matter

I remember hosting a small party of London chums for a weekend in Suffolk some years ago. Amongst them was a City lawyer, and because he was 90% City and only 10% lawyer he was superlatively good company. However, he didn't translate well from the square mile to the empty quarter; he pitched up in cashmere City overcoat, cufflinks and black loafers, his only concession to the country being immaculate jeans. Clearly, a winter's tramp through the clay of newly turned fields was not going to be on the agenda, so we spent the time much as we would in London. In the pub, watching rugby. 

I imagine Cameron's wardrobe being similarly limited to town suits, morning and evening dress, with some jeans, shorts and Boden polo shirts for the hols. As the Mail points out, he appears to be sporting the same pair of black town loafers for the Braemar games that he wore for his Tuscan holiday, and his brown suit with the patch pockets looks like Lord John circa 1978. Now those who know me will be aware I'm the last person to comment on men's fashion, but in a Prime Minister these signals do matter.

As a Cameron, he could legitimately sport his clan tartan, and thus signal to besieged and demoralised Scots Tories that he identifies with them. Not to take this obvious opportunity may signal the opposite - that he doesn't want to be seen as identifying with Scotland or the Scots, or even to draw attention to the gaelic derivation of his surname, the 'Cam' part meaning 'crooked' whichever way you translate the 'eron' part. 

Alternatively, he could at least have bought a pair of brown brogues and a Barbour. Not to conform to the simple expectations of the country also signals that it doesn't matter, that rural folk are not a constituency worth wooing. 

No, not snobbish or pretentious. The Prime Minister has a certain responsibility to conform to the simple courtesies of a diverse nation. We already have a Speaker who dresses like an end of the Pier ventiloquist and has made a mockery of his office. 'One nation' doesn't mean 'one wardrobe', Prime Minister. 

Greenfield building

Let's be clear that the UK doesn't have a housing shortage, London and the South East has a housing shortage. And this means we're not talking generally about building on greenfield sites, as attractive as this is to developers, but specifically on greenbelt sites. I'm sure that local housing pressures elsewhere in the UK can be met by the reuse of brownfield sites without despoiling the Chilterns, the Malverns, the New Forest, the Somerset levels or my own Brecklands. 

John Redwood had half the solution when he asked why we were using premium rail routes into the centre of London for heavy steel-wheeled rolling stock; wouldn't it make more sense, he asked, to move the heavy rail termini to the outskirts and use these valuable inner corridors for rapid, rubber-wheeled, high capacity, computer queued light transit stock that could move millions of commuters about effectively and overcome overcrowding of both heavy rail routes and carriages?

The other half of the solution should be this; draw a 40 minute travel-time (by light mass transit) radius around London. Within this area, existing main line rail routes will pass through the greenbelt; between Gatwick and Victoria, Chelmsford and Liverpool Street and so on. A development corridor or ribbon two miles wide centred on the mainline, equipped with new stations and stops, through the existing greenbelt, will allow as much new housebuilding as anyone will ever need, with no additional pressures on the road system. 

Too simple? Probably.