Sunday, 1 December 2019

Labour Manifesto – Environment

Labour says, 

“We will maintain and continuously improve the existing EU standards of environmental regulation.” 

As an objective perfectly admirable, except that given the much larger size, and proximity of the EU, whatever Britain does to combat pollution itself will be overshadowed by what happens in the EU. Moreover, if Britain leaves the EU, which is presumably the goal of Labour's commitment to negotiate its own Brexit deal, it will already be facing a large competitive disadvantage with its largest and closest trading partner. Lumping further additional costs on to British business, compared to EU businesses, by these proposed higher standards, will not only act to undermine UK growth, and so the tax revenues etc. that are required to fund additional environmental improvements, but it will also lead to businesses migrating from the UK to the EU. The idea that any of these major issues can be dealt with by the small British state going it alone is simply fanciful. 

The Manifesto says, 

“Labour will introduce a new Clean Air Act, with a vehicle scrappage scheme and clean air zones, complying with World Health Organisation limits for fine particles and nitrous oxides.” 

But, trying to police such measures is next to impossible, and costly. Fifty years after smokeless zones were introduced, and we got rid of coal fires, we now have every new, and nearly new, development littered with log burners, and multi-fuel burners, churning out choking pollutants. Far simpler to just ban such polluting devices in the first place. But, again introducing such regulations is only rational on a larger scale, such as an EU wide basis. Higher standards for any form of energy production, or engine only make sense on an EU wide basis, because otherwise, producers of such equipment have to produce to different standards for different markets, raising costs. 

Labour says, 

“We will provide an extra £5.6 billion in funding to improve the standard of flood defences and respond to the increased risk of flooding, prioritising areas at risk in North West England, Yorkshire and the East Midlands that have been neglected by Conservative investments.” 

But, flood defences are a waste of money, and counterproductive. In the US, where large scale flood defences were built along the Mississippi, and other rivers, they have started to be dismantled. The reason is that all they do is to prevent rivers from naturally flooding into their flood plains. They send increasing volumes of water downstream so that they cause these downstream areas to flood where they never did in the past. That appears to be what has happened recently in South Yorkshire, for example. The flood defences which prevent rivers flooding into their natural flood plains not only have these deleterious effects on other areas, but they also encourage builders to build in the flood plains. When houses get flooded in these areas, because, often, insurers will not insure the properties, the householders then expect to be made good by the taxpayer. 

This is just a repeat of what has happened with the banks and the financial crisis. It is an encouragement of moral hazard, and reckless behaviour. The owners of these houses, often expensive houses, because of their pleasant, riverside locations, enjoy the private benefits of such ownership, but, they then demand not to pay the cost of that ownership, so that the cost is then socialised, in the same way that the capital gains of the financial speculators are privatised, whereas their capital losses were socialised via the bailing out of the banks, and reflation of asset prices via QE. In effect, it is the taxpayer who lives in Grenfell Tower, or some other less desirable location, who picks up the tab for the reckless decisions of others to buy expensive houses in a flood plain, which ultimately means that it is the builders who sell those houses that are bailed out. 

Around the coast, such as at Fairbourne, the rationale has been accepted that fighting against nature is an expensive folly. Rather than wasting large amounts of money on flood defences, it would be better to use that money to be building the new council houses we need, and the other infrastructure, and to do so in places that do not require flood defences and so on. Its not as though Britain has a shortage of available land on which to build new housing developments.  Currently, residential properties account for just 1% of the land mass.  It would be better to use resources to be migrating communities, over a period, away from such locations, and into areas away from flood and other environmental risks. 

In addition, a better use of the resources would be to build additional reservoirs, to absorb excess water, so that we can begin to avoid the perennial problems of months of heavy rainfall followed by the introduction of hose pipe bans, if the weather ever does manage to have a few dry days during the Summer. 

A further problem has been created by the policy of high density housing. Putting as many houses on to the smallest pieces of land possible, usually amidst already existing developments, with little green space available on such developments, often also with no gardens, or only the tiniest gardens, means that rainfall has no soil to sink into. It runs rapidly off roof tops and gutters on to concrete and other surfaces, thereby flooding into drains and sewers, many of which are no longer regularly maintained, so that flash flooding is increased, and when the water does get into water courses, it, thereby, hits them in larger, more sudden volumes, causing streams and rivers to flood. If Labour wants to avoid that problem, then ending the policy of building on brownfield sites should be a start. Turn them into green spaces that can absorb water to soak into the water table slowly. Limit the size of new developments to no more than 250 houses, and ensure that each house has a minimum size of garden front and back. Front gardens should be no less than 70 square metres, and back gardens no less than 100 square metres. Each development should be separated from others by a mini-green belt around it, amounting to a quarter to a half mile, comprising open meadow, and copses. 

The Manifesto says, 

“We will embark on an ambitious programme of tree planting, with both forestry and native woodland species.” 

Labour's tree planting programme has been ridiculed, with claims that it amounts to planting 200 trees a minute, 24 hours a day. In fact, its not particularly ludicrous. If 200 people are involved in the programme, its only 1 tree a minute each. If 1,000 are involved only 1 tree every five minutes. Given Labour's proposals to establish a number of new national forests and parks, where its quite possible that more than 1,000 people will be employed, and that they will be using the latest arboricultural equipment, to plough and plant, what it actually amounts to is highly practical, especially given that Labour proposes to pay farmers etc., to do some of this planting. 

More importantly, its not clear that this is a good use of all that land. More trees and forests are indeed required for other purposes, such as biodiversity, but some of the land should also be devoted to increasing the acreage of land based wind turbines. They are not only cheaper, and quicker to erect than offshore wind turbines, but it has been shown that an acre of such turbines reduces CO2 levels more than does an acre of trees. 

“We will establish a new environmental tribunal to ensure that administrative decisions are consistent with environmental and nature-recovery obligations.” 

This is a recipe for NIMBYISM, and delay. If the government is elected to carry out its programme, and local councils are elected with appropriate planning powers, also committed to implementing a strategic plan, they should be enabled to just get on with it. There will always be some special interest group, otherwise, who will find reasons why nothing should ever happen. 

Labour says, 

“A Labour government will maintain agricultural and rural structural funds but repurpose them to support environmental land management and sustainable methods of food production. 

We will invest in more county farms to replace those lost, and will work with agricultural organisations to increase access into farming for new entrants.” 

This just sounds reactionary; an equivalent of its reactionary position of supporting inefficient small business as against large business. It shows again, why continued membership of the EU is necessary. Britain's food requirements are more easily and rationally provided for by the much larger land mass of the EU, and its generally more favourable climate conditions. Trying to prop up UK agricultural production is a bit of a fool's errand, and waste of money, similar to trying to prop up high street shops in the age of online shopping. Britain will, of course, continue to be an agricultural producer, but the agricultural production it requires is not a reactionary reversion to inefficient methods of small scale, low intensity production, but the adoption of large scale industrial farming, using the latest technologies. 

The vast amount of land is in the hands of a tiny number of very large landlords, such as the Prince of Wales, Duke of Westminster and so on. Labour should adopt the policy put forward by radical Ricardians in the early 19th century of the nationalisation of land. Only in that way, can large-scale rational land use be planned. The rents from the land would then flow to the state, thereby reducing the amount of tax that the state has to levy, so enabling greater capital accumulation. Land never belonged to anyone to begin with, but was stolen by individuals from society, so there is a good argument for nationalisation without compensation. That is what a Workers' Government would do. But, we are talking about a Labour government, not a Worker' Government. As a compromise, therefore, Labour could offer to pay a tenth of the total rental the government collects, to the former landowners, for their lifetime. That avoids any upfront costs to the government of taking over the land. 

The Manifesto states, 

“Labour will introduce A Right to Food. We will end ‘food bank Britain’. We will ensure everyone has access to healthy, nutritious, sustainably produced food.” 

But, this seems to completely miss the point. As Labour says, a quarter of all food purchased is wasted. We have the cheapest food ever in Man's history. The problem that Labour identifies “an epidemic in food-related ill health, obesity, malnutrition and diabetes” is not due to food being too expensive or unavailable. It is largely due to it being very cheap, and, in the form of fast food, all too available. Its easy to see why many people resort to fast food. If you are working several jobs to earn enough to live, then come home to have to look after your kids, cooking is not the first thing on your mind. That is why a large part of the solution is not related to cheaper food, and so on, but is to be found in a higher Minimum Weekly Wage, and a reduction in the Working Week. But, its not the whole solution. 

I recently went for my annual health check up. The nurse said I had the blood pressure of a teenager, and the resting pulse of an athlete. Not surprising, given that I do not drink or smoke, and that, as she went through my exercise routine with me, it too is that of someone in their 30's. But, my kids have also been given that positive roll model by me and my wife too. They do not work multiple jobs, do not have kids to look after and so on. On the contrary, they still live with us. Yet, both are overweight. My youngest son, indeed, used to be super fit, having trained in Lau Gar Kung Fu with me from when he was six up to when he was 22. 

This is clearly a wider societal problem, and much more complex than the availability of cheap, healthy foods. In the 1960's, we used to imagine the future in which, the time taken for eating could be reduced by just having a pill that provided all the nutrition required. Today, eating and drinking has become a major social arena for leisure and entertainment. When I was young, entertainment involved burning off hundreds of calories, playing football during the day, and dancing at night. Today, it involves consuming hundreds of calories eating fast food during the day, and drinking alcohol at night. 

We have TV full of food programmes of one sort or another, but their main function is not to teach people how to cook cheap healthy meals, but is itself a form of passive entertainment, encouraging people to sit in doors on their settees watching this or that celebrity cook, whilst nibbling on their nachos, or the pizza they have just had delivered. 

“We will set maximum sustainable yields for all shared fish stocks, redistribute fish quotas along social and environmental criteria and, if people vote to leave the EU, require the majority of fish caught under a UK quota to be landed in UK ports.” 

But, what will be the point of that? The EU migrant food processing workers will have gone home, so that, as with the fruit and vegetables now rotting in the fields, because there are no migrant workers to pick them, the fish will also rot. Moreover, if Britain is outside the EU, then the EU will impose large tariffs on UK landed fish, of around 45%, so that it will be impossible for UK fishing companies to sell their production in the EU profitably. The EU will not abstain from imposing those tariffs unless the UK agrees to opening up its fishing waters to EU fleets. 

If Labour wants to improve recycling, as well as to free up the time of individuals, it should scrap the multitude of recycling schemes imposed on households by local councils, which transfers the cost, time and responsibility from the Council to the individual. The multitude of waste bins, recycling bins, and rules that households have to follow are an absurdity. Walk along the streets of any estate, and you will see more litter than ever scattered around, because the various boxes, always end up getting blown over, opened up by animals and so on. From an economic perspective, this is the very opposite of obtaining the benefits of economies of scale. In Germany, the responsibility is placed much more on the local authority to undertake the recycling. It means that each household can simply put all its waste into one bin, and then large-scale, high-tech investment at council recycling plants sorts through all of the waste, and separates it accordingly. 

As a County Councillor some years ago, I went on a visit to one of the council's recycling plants and noticed what a farce it is, because all of the different types of waste were tipped into various large skips, but then someone had to go round each of these skips and manually check that nothing extraneous had been deposited in it. Total lunacy. 

“We will invest in three new recyclable steel plants in areas with a proud history of steel manufacturing.” 

Again, this is total fantasy outside the EU. Before even the formation of the EEC, Europe created the European Coal and Steel Community, as a post-war example of international social-democracy, of the need to introduce planning and regulation on an increasing scale. Any rational future for steel, as with every other large-scale industry, requires planning and regulation on an EU wide basis. That is why Labour's proposals for Brexit are themselves a reactionary absurdity.

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