Baker cooked

I was on the panel of a fringe meeting at the LibDem conference organised by the Association of Train Operating Companies yesterday with Norman Baker who is the junior transport minister, although rail is not part of his brief. He was not, though, impressive.

First while lauding the construction of Workington North station in six days after the flood, he got the details wrong suggesting that the station had been swept away when, in fact, it was of course the road bridge which went and necessitated the construction of the station.  It may be a bit harsh, but now that he is minister he should really be clearer on the facts.

It makes the criticism of him in David Aaronovitch’s book, Voodoo Histories, a tome devoted to debunking conspiracy theories, rather more persuasive.  Aaronovitch takes apart Baker’s book on the death of Dr Kelly, highlighting various aspects where it does seem that Baker’s theory that the government adviser was murdered looks pretty fanciful. Certainly some of Baker’s posturings have little basis in reality.

The meeting, which was remarkably well attended with over 125 people present, did highlight the impossible situation that Libdem ministers like Baker find themselves in. For example, he stressed that the construction of railfreight terminals should not be  stopped by local opponents, and yet his government is preparing a huge Localism bill which, precisely, will give local people much more ability to stop precisely those sorts of schemes. When I quizzed him on this, he merely admitted that, yes it was a dilemma.

The government’s local development proposals have received little media coverage but actually will have an enormous impact, basically ensuring that very little is built, and with local councils getting the blame. Transport, in particular, is a field where Nimbyism must be overcome through national imperatives – it will be interesting to see how the government balances localism with its intent to build high speed two.

  • Dan

    “For example, he stressed that the construction of railfreight terminals should not be stopped by local opponents, and yet his government is preparing a huge Localism bill which, precisely, will give local people much more ability to stop precisely those sorts of schemes. When I quizzed him on this, he merely admitted that, yes it was a dilemma.”

    Sadly typical Lib Dem – I alsways enjoy the story – which may be apocryphal but maybe not – about local Lib Dems near Heathrow – where in one area where H-row is important for jobs the local lib dems were supporting airport expansion – but in another area – where the issue was noise and disruption / pollution from H – row – there, the local Lib Dems were opposing expansion.

    Localism in action I guess – sounds good in theory – ends up being daft in practice…

  • Peter Hooper

    Think it’s a bit unfair critising only the LibDems for localism around Heathrow.

    Lets not forget the the Conservatives under Michael Howard (Vlad the Impaler) supported a R3 at Heathrow, but their local candidates opposed it; ditto for NuLabour under Blair & Brown.

  • Dan

    Fair point Peter – but that is not the same as taking a diff position which end of the runway you happend to be seeking election (in the same election presumably)!

  • Matt

    Dan – political parties are themselves coalitions, with differing views on the same subject. Witness Brownite-Blairite clashes on all manner of issues, or the Eurosceptic/ Europhile schism in the Tories. The story you describe is completely normal and understandable.

    “The government’s local development proposals have received little media coverage but actually will have an enormous impact, basically ensuring that very little is built”

    Another consequence of this will be to protect land and property values. As little can be built, ‘planning blight’ will not affect property prices. And as the supply of housing will not increase by as much as it could, increasing demand will chase the same amount of supply. And who benefits the most? Property owners who tend to vote to the right. And who loses? Non property owners, who tend to be young and vote to the left.

    But if you think transport will be badly hit, the really interesting battle will be over power. With this country about to have a power shortfall in a few years, more power generation must be added to the Grid. Localism, nimbyism, whatever you call it, will stop this capacity being added. A national crisis awaits.

  • Stephen G

    I think it’s a bit harsh on Norman to criticise him on details for Workington North. His brief is, after all, roads, buses, taxis and light rail, and railways are under the responsibility of that hopeless Villiers woman. As for David Kelly, no-one quite knows what happened to him, let alone Blairite and Iraq war supporter Aaronovitch.

    Baker has done a superb job for Lewes and promoted the Uckfield/Lewes reinstatement scheme in the face of heavy opposition from the Tory-controlled council. He now finds himself in a similar position in government, having to reconcile his own views on transport with Tory petrolheads. It can’t be easy working under a boss who, like many before him, is not interested in transport, except as a means of getting promotion to another job.

    Baker should be applauded for the fact that he is, like Adonis, genuinely interested in transport issues and has ideas which, if followed, will get this country back on track.

  • Dan

    Appreciate that Matt (as it happened I worked for one – a political party – for nearly 10 years some considerable time ago now).

    You make a good point about supply and demand in housing and impact on land use and prices – the big issue here is exactly as you say the effect on people who can’t afford to get on the housing ladder (and are thus stuck in private renting) vs those with a massive asset (tied up in property price) that they naturally seek to want to reatin the value of. That this conflict is not a more central part of political debate is strange. After all it was such shortages back in the 50s and 60s that led to the politicians vieying with each other to beat the numbers of their predecessors during the ‘Butskellite’ period.

    I’m not sure about power though – politicians will fear a massive backlash if power is interrupted and the coalition has already shown that ‘localism’ is good rhetoric but when it comes to challenging vested interests of big business and profit you will suddenly find that power stations can be constructed (but not enough of them to drive down fuel bills…)

  • Guzzibasher

    “the big issue here is exactly as you say the effect on people who can’t afford to get on the housing ladder (and are thus stuck in private renting)”

    Presumably, if someone is renting a property it does exist? The “big issue” therefore would seem to be the tax/regulation system regarding buy-to-let, which inflates house prices, not a shortage of physical bricks and mortar. Planning and nimbyism doesn’t really affect this.

  • Dan

    Stephen – some agreement with what you say (having grown up in Lewes I know how much more impressive he is than his predecessor who held the seat for the Tories and frankly did very little regarding it as a safe seat). However, I have to say that his pronouncements and energy when in opposition are in stark contrast to his low profile now in power – and this is a problem. If you are high profile when you have no power – people expect action when you have some!

    Interestingly one does not have to look very far from some Nimbyism

    http://www.cix.co.uk/~normanbaker/local/housing.htm
    http://www.cix.co.uk/~normanbaker/local/falmer.htm

    But an interesting line on transport here (no doubt out of date from his opposition days)!
    http://www.cix.co.uk/~normanbaker/national/public.htm

    Mildly amusing, but I suppose that for someone who believes in conspiracy theories he perhaps thinks he’d better not remove this from his own website….

    I’ve got to say though – however important you might personally feel an issue is – I can’t think of many who have ended up becoming more credible as a result of getting involved with conspiracy theories.

  • Dan

    Guzzibasher – yes but house prices (and thus affordability) is supposedly linked (in a whole number of studies eg Kate Barker report, and no doubt others who subscribe to economic theories of supply and demand) to supply – and thus more supply would bring down prices, and thus create downward pressure on rents – this would reduce profit to be made by BTL (since true profit comparison is a % return on the investment tied up in the asset in this case the house – which is essentially the capital you could do something else with – eg place in a savings bank account, or buy shares with).

    I think this is Matt’s point and I agree with him. Your point about tax / regulation regime for BTL is also probably true (although I have not seen that it is more advantageous than other forms of business investment), but it is not the root cause in this analysis – it just makes the purchase of the asset easier for those who have access to capital (older people with savings or existing assets to borrow against) when they are competing with younger people who have no access to such capital.

    Having said all this I must say I’ve never been absolutely convinced by the supply and demand argument since when I look at the history of house prices the price booms co-incide with periods of extra money supply (not extra shortage of homes) –
    eg House price boom in the early 70s (Barber boom increased money supply – this article is amusing with hindsight:)
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/propertyadvice/propertymarket/3319016/The-house-with-an-exchequered-past.html
    1980s price boom as a result of deregulation of financial services sector pushed more money into the house purchase system.
    1990/ 2000s low interest rates allowed people to borrow more to compete against each other for homes and again drove prices up by allowing more money into the system.

    All of this seems to me to be about money supply, rather than property supply – but there we are – I realise I’m putting forward contradicting statements in the one post. Apols to Christian as we are verging off topic on this one!

  • Matt

    1990/ 2000s low interest rates allowed people to borrow more to compete against each other for homes and again drove prices up by allowing more money into the system.

    You’re right it was to do with money supply, but low interests weren’t the root cause

    It was more to do with global imbalances, in that the oversavers of producer countries (mainly Germany, Japan and China) recycled/ invested their money to consumer countries (UK, USA, Spain etc). In the case of China, buying US Treasury debt helped keep their currency low, our exports cheap, our inflation down and our interest rates low. All the while lots of cash was available in homeloans – there was massive oversupply, hence the price for it went down (i.e. 125% mortgages)

    Anyway, what’s this got to do with planes, trains and automobiles?

  • malcolm Smith

    Baker previously had a very pro-rail record being a big supported of the reopening of the Lewis-Uckfield railway. Let’s hope he can get some pro-rail victories in his tenture.

    Unfortunatly all he has been able to do is approve the potty luton guided bus, as promoted by the previous labour government

  • Dan

    Yes Malcolm – good point – but he should have scrapped that (Luton busway) and turned it over to rail to show that re-openings work – which would have then re-inforced the argument for Lewes – Uckfield on his own manor. I’d have honestly thought the debacle (delay and overspend I hope I am correct) over the Cambridge St Ives guided bus would have sorted the issue.

    Matt – yes, time to get back on topic but thanks for your added comments!

  • Chris M

    Dan, always enjoy your posts. Thanks especially for the Lord Barber article.

    Funny how the Lawson boom is never mentioned, isn’t it?

    Back on topic, anyway.

  • Dan

    Have I been too harsh on Mr Baker – some high profile coverage of him builds up the prospects of investment. He will not look good if nowt happens! We shall wait and see….

    http://www.thisisnottingham.co.uk/news/Tram-campaigners-offered-hint-encouragement-Transport-Minister/article-2719186-detail/article.html

    Mr Baker also said the people of Nottingham could “take heart” from an announcement by Chancellor George Osborne that transport schemes which offer the biggest kick-start to the economy would be prioritised.
    He said: “We are reviewing the cost benefit analysis of transport schemes to ensure we get the best schemes going forward. When the spending review is completed we will be able to re-evaluate all the schemes in the pipeline and make sure the ones that are the most pertinent go forward.
    “Here today, ahead of the spending review, money is being announced for this hub and that’s a really good signal for what the Government thinks of Nottingham.”

    AND

    http://www.thisisnottingham.co.uk/news/economy-relies-tram-extensions-remaining-track/article-2715378-detail/article.html

    AND
    http://www.thisisnottingham.co.uk/news/Station-163-60m-revamp-gets-ahead-8211-let-s-secure-tram-A453-schemes/article-2715831-detail/article.html

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