The invisible privatization

Brett Christophers’ new book The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Land in Neoliberal Britain is eye-opening. Or perhaps jaw dropping. Its subject is the privatization of publicly-owned land in Britain since the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher. Christophers, a professor of economic geography at the University of Uppsala is a consistently interesting thinker. For instance, he was one of the first people to focus on the absurd way the contribution of the financial sector to total GDP is measured, in his Banking Across Boundaries. This new book demands attention for a remarkably little-debated aspect of the Thatcher revolution, the sale of around half of the land owned by th public sector when she was first elected.

The figures are startling in two ways. One is scale: around half of all land owned in the public sector in 1979 has been sold to private owners – including the land under council houses but much more from MoD and NHS land to school playing fields and parkland. The sum is probably more than £400bn. The other reason to be startled lies in that ‘probably’: there is scant data on what has been sold, to whom, at what price, and what remains. No figures, no debate.

One of the themes that stood out for me is the fact that the process has been a Whitehall (Treasury and Cabinet Office, assisted by the National Audit Office, whose idea of value in value for money excludes public value and public goods) assault on the wealth and power of local authorities. Christophers estimates that around 30% of the 1979 land holdings by central government and national bodies has been sold but 60% of the original holdings of local government. This means allotments, school playing fields, leisure centres, local museums, playcentres, town halls, bowling greens and so on – all formerly part of the fabric of community life. This evisceration of local assets ties in with the extraordinary burden of ‘austerity’ on local government. Surely a large number of local authorities are close to not being able to function, and so unable to deliver the services that are among those closest to people’s lives.

The book assesses the process as wholly ideological, generating none of the private sector efficiency benefits it was supposed to unleash. And, as it points out, the public sector should not be expected to behave like the private sector anyway. Why should its land be expected to generate the same financial return it could get in private hands? The public sector should be using public land to provide public goods.

The move to accrual accounting is pinpointed as a potential turning point: “Different accounting systems represent different ways of seeing: something visible under one system may not be visible under another, something accorded significant value under one system may be valued much less highly under another.” Accrual accounting makes it more likely that the value of public land will be recognised, and so bargain basement sell-offs less likely. For instance, many councils were valuing parks at £1 each. On the other hand, recognising their true worth – say £100m – makes them an even more tempting target for the Treasury to require to be sold.

As the book concludes, there is no evidence the privatization of land has delivered any significant benefits, but equally almost no serious study of the process at all. The lack of data no doubt explains why, so we owe Christophers thanks for assembling all the evidence he has managed to find.

My one quibble is the use of the term ‘neoliberal’. I think it obscures more than it enlightens, not least because those who deploy it often seem to believe all of economics is neoliberal – I still remember being gobsmacked by Wendy Brown’s bracketing of Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Lucas as essentially the same in their ideology. What’s more, the virtue-signalling to many social scientists in universities is likely to put off some other readers who would otherwise be sympathetic to the book’s argument. Michael Sandel managed to explore ‘neoliberalism’ in his bestseller What Money Can’t Buy without ever using the word, and was all the more influential for it.

Having said this, the book doesn’t massively overuse the adjective, and is well worth reading for the light it does shine – perhaps even on why Britain voted for Brexit, looking for somebody to blame for this huge but virtually unnoticed depletion of public wealth.

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True wealth

I’ve been meaning to write about National Wealth: What is Missing, Why it Matters edited by Cameron Hepburn and Kirk Hamilton. This volume (in which I have a chapter, The Political Economy of National Statistics) looks at different types of wealth from a number of perspectives. The opening set of chapters look at the link between wealth and sustainability (measurement of assets being essential to take the future into account) and the link between wealth and well-being, as well as my paper looking at how one might move from a GDP/income flow to a wealth measurement standard. Part two covers the historical perspective on wealth. Part 3 looks in more detail at the measurement of specific components of wealth, and part 4 at sustainability.

As the editors write, “Policies that create wealth go beyond increasing output; they involve investments today for returns in the future … A focus on wealth generation … shifts policy away from supporting immediate consumption.” There are plenty of ideas and an increasing amount of data making it possible to start accounting for wealth, and specifically the change in real wealth. The challenge is the policy challenge of getting consensus about the need to change the focus.

With my co-author Benjamin Mitra-Kahn, we suggested how to go about this as our entry for the inaugural Indigo Prize, which we were honoured to win jointly with Jonathan Haskel and his colleagues. Their ideas for improving GDP are excellent; but Ben and I still think priority needs to be given to the sustainability-enhancing potential of a wealth focus rather than an amended GDP focus. Wealth and sustainability are “joined at the hip,” as National Wealth puts it.

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True wealth

Klaxon: this week sees the publication of National Wealth: What is Missing, Why It Matters, edited by Kirk Hamilton and Cameron Hepburn. The book is a collection based on the Wealth Project, itself a follow up to work by the World Bank on measurement for sustainability. As sustainability inevitably involves thinking about the future, there is a need to measure an economy’s stocks of different kinds of capital assets rather than current income or consumption flows (which is what our GDP lens does).

I have a chapter in the book about the political economy of moving to a new framework of economic indicators from the current system of national accounts. This is a shift analogous to changing a global technical standard, in which enough key participants have to make the move to tip everyone else into following suit. I conclude, though, that for this to come about there has to be enough consensus about what new standard to move to, which is still a work in progress. There’s a proliferation of dashboards and alternative indices. We need just one framework to get the shift.

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The Wealth Project

On Monday & Tuesday I attended an absolutely terrific conference, The Wealth Project, which is about “changing how we measure economic progress,” to quote the conference strapline. The aim is to develop concepts and measures of different kinds of wealth so that policies and decisions take due account of the future potential for consumption and well-being, as well as the short term. This has been a preoccupation of mine since at least writing as well as my . The Wealth Project will produce a book around the end of 2016 or start of next year.

Meanwhile, it’s always interesting to see what books people cite at conferences. This week I noted: C.A.Bayly, ; David Hume, ; Karl Polanyi, ; Dieter Helm, . I referred back to the recent crop of GDP books and the Inspector Chen novel featuring GDP growth as villain.

[amazon_image id=”0631236163″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Blackwell History of the World)[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”0140432442″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects (Penguin Classics)[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”B017LCJ8XE” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet by Dieter Helm (2015-05-01)[/amazon_image]

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