‘THE COST OF EVERYTHING BUT THE VALUE OF NOTHING’ The epithet is often used to describe the deficit of knowledge and judgment associated with the Conservative Party in government.
As the humane services upon which we depend for a decent and secure life splinter and slide towards collapse under the combined pressures of 12 years of Conservative austerity, a pandemic which is not yet over, an accelerating climate crisis and a terrifying increase in the cost of living, the truth of this has never been more evident.
Margaret Thatcher once expressed the view that empty beds in hospitals were not an efficient use of NHS resources. The UK has one of the lowest number of hospital beds and ICU provision among western nations and this has been cruelly exposed by Covid-19.
This narrowly utilitarian view of the relationship between capacity and variable usage is now baked into government thinking and the damage it does extends far beyond the NHS. In all the services to which we turn when we are sick, injured, afraid or in danger – in other words, services which are called on in emergency and crisis – it has proved a disaster.
The NHS, the police, the fire service, our essential infrastructure, housing and education have all been subject to cost-cutting, whilst building capacity for a growing population and a climate emergency has been neglected. The failure ot vision to see, understand and plan for this, is taking a heavy toll. And, as always, it is those with the fewest resources who are bearing the heaviest burdens.
We will always be subject to “events, dear boy, events”, as Harold Macmillan put it. But that does not exempt governments from recognising that war, drought, fire, flood and pestilence happen. Nor does it excuse failure to build the capacity for managing these by paying attention to the seedbeds of ‘events’. Diligent analysis, forward planning and intelligent investment has been overtaken by the selling off of assets, the stripping back of essential services and a blasé refusal to countenance the presence of dangers where doing so might impinge unfavourably on politicians’ own interests. Increasingly, it feels that we are living in a spiv economy.
As the drought bites into our landscapes, farmers warn that the food supply is at risk and wildfires stretch the fire and rescue service to its limits, the rapidly changing climate has joined Covid in exposing government priorities which have left the population in real danger.
Not one reservoir has been built in the past 30 years and around 30 billion litres of water are lost through leaks every day from our Victorian infractructure The privatised water and sewerage companies which have presided over this neglect have paid dividends to their shareholders of around £13.4 billion during the past 10 years. The organisation Corporate Watch found that in 2021, the CEOs of these companies received £15 million in pay and bonuses.
The government has cut funding to England’s fire services by £140 million since 2016, with some brigades losing as much as £22 million. Their life-saving work is one more area where the obsession with austerity has blinded politicians to the necessity not only of sustaining funding, but ensuring there is sufficient ‘slack’ in the systems to meet the often unpredictable, but always certain, occurrence of emergencies and crises.
This failure of long-term planning and strategic investment has also left the UK’s energy supply in a perilous condition. Dependency on imported energy and a deficit in storage capacity has added a potent weapon to Vladimir Putin’s armoury.
For decades, the UK relied on its North Sea reserves for gas on demand. It also appeared to believe that it could continue along this course even as those reserves began to dwindle. Then in 2017, the government decided not to continue subsidising the maintenance and upgrading of the gas storage facility situated at Rough off the Yorkshire coast. It closed in June 2017.
As the ‘Beast from the East’ hit the UK on 1 March 2018, the National Grid warned that the country might not have sufficient gas supplies to meet the demands of a bitter winter.That we did, is due more to luck than to planning.
Professor John Underhill of Herriot Watt University also warned the government: “Short of the lights going out, cookers failing to light and radiators going cold, this may be as close as we get to the ‘black swan’ moment where people realise where our energy comes from and our need to ensure there is sufficient home-grown supply, reliable import sources and back-up to avoid shutdowns and other unintended consequences for food supply chains and the like.”
The ‘just in time’ model is falling apart across all supply chains. The problems caused by gaps on supermarket shelves or by having to wait weeks for car parts, are bad enough, but the shortcomings of this system are now manifest in our health care, energy provision and housing, to name just a few. This is a different order of moral magnitude and blame must be laid at the door of a myopic, selfishly orientated politics. Sustaining a nation’s security and well-being is an expensive matter. Governments must be willing to borrow, invest and prepare if we are all to survive and thrive.
The crises we are currently facing may have distinct and individual causes, but they all have in common a long standing failure to invest and a horrifying indifference to the responsibilities of the state.
The story of the lamps of the wise and foolish bridesmaids may pivot on the use of a fossil fuel, but more importantly, it reminds us of a false economy and improvidence which is still with us. We must demand better.
Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and works on editorial issues. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen