Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for April 8th, 2013

Margaret Thatcher and me

The Guardian this morning explains why “do not speak ill of the dead” does not apply to politicians. Even so the overwhelmingly right wing mainstream media are full of hagiography today. They have had plenty of time to get these puff pieces ready.

I am not going to do a sort of rebalancing act here. Though if I find anything suitable I will probably link to it. I will stick to my preferred format. Since this is my blog, I use it to record my thoughts and experience, since they are not expressed elsewhere much these days. The events I chose to focus on are those that  I was involved in. Not her worst crimes by any means – nor even, given the length of her rule and the extent of the damage she did, of very much significance perhaps. But they seemed bad to me at the time, and on reflection still seem worth noting.

One of the strongest influences on her political approach was her relationship with her father – a grocer in Grantham: a small shop keeper. Local authorities in general – and the Greater London Council in particular – were becoming concerned about the way that retailing in Britain was changing in the 1970s. Town centres had been identified across London, and policies were put in place to try to preserve and promote their diversity. They provided a broad range of social and economic functions – not just in terms of shopping but a whole range of public and privately provided services and amenities. They tended to support each other, and create a sort of local ecology of urbanity. The larger, chain retailers were seeking to increase their market share, and by adopting a model where their stores were larger, with extensive car parks and combined several functions would actually replace entire shopping centres. They also argued that such places were a better urban environment since they provided shopping without having to deal with busy streets and through traffic. They created a pedestrian realm which was safer and pleasanter than the traditional High Street, with heavy trucks and buses at close quarters to shop fronts.

In London, the boroughs were looking for ways to reroute the the traffic and make the shopping areas easier to use. But the retailers and developers were eyeing both large greenfield sites on the edge of town, usually with a motorway access nearby, or failing that some of the large areas of land being freed up by the modernization of the railways. These brownfield sites were more expensive to develop but were usually closer to where people lived – and could also be reasonably served by short diversions of established bus routes. Of course, none of this could be done on the fly: there had to be plans and a planning process. Data had to be collected and analysed. There would then be public consultations before the plans were finalized. The data source all relied on was the decennial Census of Distribution. This noted the location and style of every retail outlet – and calculated the total retail turnover of a given area. It was generally accepted that retail turnover was pretty much set for each area – and in real terms was not expected to grow by very much, except in areas identified to attract new populations (like the Docklands or Thamesmead – the former Royal Arsenal).

When someone proposed a major new development the borough impacted would consider the planning application, but if they decided to reject it there was a process of appeal. This usually resulted in a public enquiry – a quasi judicial process with witnesses, evidence and cross examinations. This is where the data came under direct scrutiny. The authorities had no ability to create a protective zone for established businesses, but they could question the need for the development and object to its location, usually based on the established local plan land use designation.

One of Mrs Thatcher’s “reforms” was to cancel the Census of Distribution. She said that small shopkeepers – like her father – had no time to fill in all these forms the bureaucrats demanded. Their time was valuable and their were more important things for them to do, so the burden of bureaucracy should be lifted from them. What that meant was that when Tesco or Sainsbury proposed to build a new large supermarket – or even a whole new out of town shopping centre – there was no longer any objective, reliable data on the impact that would have on established centres. Only the John Lewis Partnership went on record as opposing the decision – as most small shop keepers adored Mrs T and anyway had always voted Conservative. They resented local planning controls as much as any other business.

There are now very few traditional High Streets left in Britain. The only retailers interested in small shops are those run by volunteers for charities: payday loan sharks like them too. Stricter drinking and driving laws, combined with very low price alcohol in supermarkets put paid to the local pub – often the social centre of many communities. The Post Office saw its role shrink too.  The small shopkeepers that Mrs T so admired have been, pretty much, eliminated. But many of the people whose livelihoods have gone, and those communities that have seen their centres wilt and fade, continue to read the Daily Express and vote for that nice Mr Cameron.

Parenthetically (and regular readers will know how fond I am of parentheses) the whole thing about preferring real town centres to shopping centres – aka “malls” is spelled out here  with respect to what is now going to happen to Oakridge, Brentwood and Lougheed. We were just ahead of out time, that’s all.

The other huge impact her decision making had on me was the abolition of the Greater London Council. I have written about that a lot here. I got promotion out of that. Initially I was tasked with organizing the research that backed up the campaign against abolition. We thought that facts and figures, carefully collected and documented and clearly presented, would win the argument. I think they did actually, but that makes no difference if the person who you are trying to convince makes her stock in trade implacability (“The lady is not for turning” – “There Is No Alternative”) and she has a secure majority in the House of Commons.  So the GLC was abolished and I was recruited into the Civil Service in part to help clear up the mess.

That was also why I decided to emigrate to Canada. I did such a good job at Traffic Management, further promotion was offered to Water Privatization. There was never any convincing economic case advanced for the abolition of the Regional Water Authorities. They were very efficient indeed, producing plenty of clean water for homes and businesses at extraordinary low cost – as well as a variety of related services in environmental protection, public health and leisure facilities. So what would an Economic Adviser actually do?

I think it is fair to say that prior to Mrs T, the UK civil service was apolitical. Though the incoming Labour Government in 1964 was convinced of its opposition to some of its policies – so ably documented by Minister of Housing R H S Crossman in his diaries, later adapted for tv as the series “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”. Indeed, we kept copies of the books in our top left had drawers for ease of reference, when some piece of political silliness needed to be stopped. But increasingly my masters were looking worried. Mrs T would swoop through the corridors with her staff – and the most Frequently Asked Question was “Is he one of us?” Your future depended on the answer.

To her credit I have to note that she was not so dogmatic as to scrap London Transport (though I credit Prof Christopher Foster’s timely history lesson on the state of traffic in London prior to the LPTB for that) or indeed British Railways, which she hated, never used but recognized was better run than the hodge podge of companies that emerged after John Major’s foolish interference. The Falkland Islands are also still British – after relatively modest loss of lives – and seem likely to stay that way. If you think the British Empire is – or should be – dead instead, well … then you’re A Wet, aren’t you. The worst thing she could call anyone. And,  she did make a conservative case for tackling climate change. Though she switched sides later.

I was mistaken in thinking that Thatcherism was a British phenomenon. The lurch to right was actually occurring everywhere. Interestingly in Canada, it became most noticeable after we elected a Liberal government, which published a Red Book which was mostly Keynesian in tone but then appointed Paul Martin as Minister of Finance, who ran the place like an offshoot of his shipping company. Perhaps those who think a Liberal revival under the Dauphin Trudeau would be a Good Idea should take second thought as it is not at all clear if he has any political convictions  – other than an insatiable lust for power and fame.

Mrs Thatcher had a long and very successful life in which she achieved most of what she set out to do. The consequences were, mostly, dreadful for ordinary people. But those who shared her husband’s priorities – he had a large personal fortune and not much to do as the result of his sale of Castrol – did Very Well Indeed. I am hoping that the current wave of leaks of personal information at least put a brake upon some of their worst excesses.  I would like to think that government of the people, by the people, for the people might once again replace government by corporations, for corporations. But I think far too many people are still bedazzled by the myths and legends those people create. When you read Mrs Thatcher’s obits, keep that in mind. She was not St Margaret and must not be allowed to become that posthumously.

I will leave the last words to the Guardian editorial writer

Her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 8, 2013 at 11:40 am

Posted in politics

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