Oxford illustrates at a local level two issues central to Blair’s failure – the dissipation of the proceeds of high taxation for little or no benefit, and the feeling that we are poorer in an intangible way despite an increase in national prosperity. The money dribbles away in the hands of irresponsible local authorities. What they buy with it cheapens our lives rather than enriching them.
I owe to Alice Miles in the Times of 6 December 2006 the expression “England’s Brown and unpleasant land” to describe a country in which the Chancellor’s pursuit of GDP has driven out quality of life with “a government screwing as much ‘productivity’ out of each of us as it can muster in order to spend it on grandiose macho projects”.
She identifies planning and roads as two main areas where restraint is being loosened to no benefit to those whose taxes pay for it. Part of her complaint is the wresting of power from local authorities. A close study of this small region shows that local authorities are not fit custodians of that power anyway, not here at least.
Oxford is badly administered, in part by Oxford City Council, one of the least competent authorities in Britain (“weak” according to the Audit Commission), and in part by Oxfordshire County Council, which is little better in the respects which affect the appearance and fabric of the City.
Oxford has local examples of the big themes which seem remote as headlines in the national news – the pursuit of alleged “improvement” at the expense of quality of life and the dissipation of public money without public benefit. We have a dull sense that nothing we can do as individuals can change things, derived from two apparently contradictory fears – that government control extends continuously and, simultaneously, that no-one is actually in control of the factors which most affect us.
I think that this is a mistaken view or, rather, that it is not too late to arrest the decline into apathy. Whilst many local changes, good and bad, derive from factors beyond local control, many of the decisions which affect us are made not by “the system” but by individuals – councillors and bureaucrats.
It often becomes impossible to allocate blame between central and local government, between elected representatives and bureaucrats, between deliberate legislative acts and a slow drift towards a culture which no-one actually wants but which is the cumulative product of decision, indecision and the spirit of the times.
Its agents are indiscriminate planners, incompetent highways officers and endless rows of bureaucrats with functions as useless as they are expensive; elected representatives who couldn’t sell a pound note for 19 shillings but with responsibility for spending millions; political correctness; an inability to distinguish between hazard and risk or to measure either; high taxation and little to show for it; policing with no discernible priorities; healthcare compromised by administrative incompetence; education driven by targets rather than – well, education.
These are national issues, but it is hard to grasp them at a national level. They come at you as headlines backed by generalities and random examples picked from somewhere else. At a local level, however one can see their effects at close hand.
Gordon Brown pours billions into public services; at a local level we can see where it dribbles away, spent on things which no-one would dream of buying outside the spendthrift ethos of public service.
John Prescott wanted to “concrete the south” and Ruth Kelly has adopted his policies uncritically. We can see locally that this is not just a handy catch-phrase but an accurate description of the consequences, aided by developer-friendly planners and supine councillors.
There is no Government transport strategy in the sense of a coherent plan to get people out of cars and into public transport. There is a generalised anti-motorist approach but nothing which suggests a positive encouragement on to buses, bicycles or trains. Where the Government fails to lead, Oxfordshire’s highways officers follow.
The main agents of destruction are the Oxford City Planning Department and the Oxfordshire County Highways Department. The former is known formally as the “Planning Support Group” and more widely as the “Developers’ Support Group”. The latter is properly known, after a recent rebranding, as “Oxfordshire Highways” and informally by a variety of labels, mostly not suitable for publication in a family web site.
Between them, they and the councillors who rubber-stamp their recommendations have the power to affect not only what the city looks like but how it works for its residents, businesses and visitors. They misuse that power daily. The result, in Oxford as in Britain as a whole, is continuous change for, at best, no discernible improvement in the quality of our lives.
Part of the purpose of this site is to examine decisions which appear to me to have been wrongly made, to criticise where relevant and to invite – and capture – comment on them. The formal “consultations” undertaken by Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council are an expensive fraud, full of leading questions aimed at getting apparent support for decisions already made, and ignored if they do not get the “right” answer. The local newspapers are full of trenchant comment, but it is forgotten by the following week, buried beneath the next wave.
A Blog can jump over both these difficulties, capturing comment, attempting to draw a genuine conclusion from it, and preserving the facts, the comment and the outcome – perhaps to await the next local elections.