Of Bricks And Booze

by Prof Ryan Spox

Things that annoyed me today:

Mostly it was BritGov’s attempts to stop us drinking ourselves to death whilst enjoying the chilled ambience of the English countryside. Here we are, cunningly, referring to two different news stories on entirely different topics which both reveal the breath-taking lack of thought that the current BritGov puts into its policies before releasing them into the wild to go forth and multiply.

The first announcement is on the controversial topic of minimum alcohol pricing, although this time in England. Apparently Eng-err-land is going to have a minimum 45p per unit price and someone or other (we forget who, read the damned article for yourselves: Booze News) wants that increased to a “more sensible” 50p per unit, as is proposed for Scotland. With reference to the proposed “Scottish Experiment”, we have already droned at length about the sheer, doomed stupidity of any minimum pricing policy as a mechanism for controlling binge drinking. In particular we have pointed out that any “studies” which claim such a policy has any benefits are Scientifically Flawed and represent little more than wishful thinking, which is not something on which any sensible self-respecting government should base policy decisions.

Although it does seem to be good enough for both BritGov and its disaffected Northern Cousin, ScotGov.

The only things of any real note in the article are that the “evidence” being quoted is a study by SheffieldUniversity, rather than the gloriously flawed Canadian study that ScotGov’s trained monkeys preferred. This study, at least, does more than simply establish that raising prices reduces sales but makes a stab at “estimating” (i.e. guessing) what impact reduced sales would have on alcohol-related crimes and social problems. Here, too, it is, inevitably, deeply flawed, not least because it is based on modelling, rather than actual hard data. Now, we are great believers in the power of mathematical modelling for doing all sorts of useful stuff, but it has to be models based on actual, real theories firmly pinned to reality be cold, hard facts. Instead… well read it for yourselves: We Got Paid For This! Read it and weep for what passes for “Science” in modern Britain. And don’t forget to admire the especially entertaining graph that was required to “prove” that, as prices go up, people buy less.

An extra source of irritation in all this is that, as with the imminent “Scottish Experiment”, BritGov’s announcements on their ominously similar English Experiment never seem to address the issue of what happens to all the extra cash that such a policy would extract from honest law-abiding drinkers. It’s not a tax, just a minimum price so, presumably, the money goes straight to the retailers? How does that help the rest of Society? Even if all the cash went straight to profits on which they pay the full Corporation tax, that’s still only at a rate of 24% leaving them lots of dosh for bonuses and dividends. It might not be so bad if the money went straight into programmes to educate the public on the dangers of boozing and to rehabilitate those who hadn’t been paying attention in class. But that, it would seem, is not the case. Instead, problem drinkers will just blindly fork out more cash for their drug of choice and the law-abiding minority will expand their hobbies to include home-brewing of beer and bath-tub fermentation of fruit-based wines.

So we can expect to see a rise in demand in England-shire for houses with a built-in airing cupboard which can provide the ideal warm, fuzzy environment required for churning out gallons of Chateau Plonk and Domestic Cooking Lager. Well, until Nanny decides to crack down on that as well….

Which brings us neatly on to the second aspect of today’s complaint: the rather brilliantly stupid suggestion by England’s Planning Minister, Nick Boles, that what England needs to do is build lots and lots of new housing. And build it pretty much everywhere. (Boles Up!) Well, except on soiled, polluted and derelict “brown-field” urban sites because that would cost a lot and eat into developer’s profits. Fortunately, young Boles has obviously taken a drive through the English countryside and noticed that most of it isn’t really used for much. It has no factories, houses, streets, airports, private members clubs, opera houses or any of the other paraphernalia of Civilisation. Instead there are endless, dreary fields which have either been abandoned to choking infestations of seed-bearing grasses and the sorts of vegetables you can quite easily find in any supermarket or else have been occupied by packs of wholly unsupervised and near-feral domestic pets.

(Let us just make it clear, at this point, that this is a specifically English issue and not a UK one. It’s all part of that Nice Mr Cameron’s plan to drive Scotland out of the Union by showing the Scots what’ll happen to them as well if they hang around too long.)

Anyway, all this waste land is lying unused and England has a housing shortage and building houses would provide jobs for plebs with house-builder-type skills as well as profits for construction companies and would provide houses for people who currently don’t have one, well, at least it would if they could afford them, and, in the same way that a collapse of the construction industry is usually the first sign of an incoming recession, a resurgence in that same industry can be taken as an indicator that, like any low pressure system blowing in from the Atlantic, the recession has passed. Which does make you slightly suspect BritGov’s motives. Do they want to build houses in order to house the homeless and “kickstart” our economy (much like WWII re-armament did for the USA) or do they want to do it just so they can claim that their economic policies have already worked? We dread to speculate.

Naturally, Boles doesn’t want us to build more of the sort of bland brick crappy “smallest houses in Europe” that the Nation’s construction industry has long favoured in order to cut costs and maximise profits (why fit two attractive well-built houses on a piece of land when you can squeeze in four crap-boxes and still charge the same price per house?). Oh, no, he wants nice houses. Indeed, as he says:

The built environment can be more beautiful than nature

No, really, he did say that.

Now, we are not the sort to indulge in some kind of New Age Tree-Hugging Hippy nonsense where we walk these mean streets barefoot in order to feel the quivering soul of the Land (usually caused by a passing juggernaut) nor do we subscribe to some pre-War Middle-England fantasy about raising dogs and children in some quiet corner of “England’s Green and Pleasant Land” but we do accept that, whilst some fragmentary pieces of the “built environment” can be quite breathtaking in appearance, the sad reality is that most of it isn’t. Except in a bad way.

And the reason for that has, generally and historically, been down to cost. Building nice stuff costs more than building crap. Which is why Boles’ call for a programme of frenetic building, but with the aim of producing a better class of construction, seems curiously naïve, especially since his own government (specifically himself) wants to “simplify” (i.e. do away with) much of the current system of planning consent which is intended to protect us from short-term cowboys seeking to make a fast profit by building crap with which the rest of us have to live for generations to come.

As ever with BritGov’s knee-jerk policy statements this one serves only to distract from the real issue that England genuinely does need more housing but that housing needs to be affordable, to the people who will live in it, rather than those who would profit from it, and it should be built where people need housing, not in remote infrastructure-poor areas of rural England. And anything that boosts the construction industry would certainly be of benefit to our struggling economy. Hmm… perhaps we could instigate some kind of State-funded programme to help local authorities build aesthetically acceptable housing in areas of need and then rent it out at a low, but sustainable, cost to those who actually need it? Now that might work.

Although it does stink of a return to the 1930’s… Which might, actually, fit in with the rest of BritGov’s current policies.