Canterbury tales

More comment on the Archbishop's NS guest-edit.

Today, the Sunday papers are having their say on the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarkable leading article in this week's New Statesman, which he guest-edited. Here's a roundup of the commentary.

Like most Fleet Street commentators, Matthew d'Ancona, in the Sunday Telegraph, reads Rowan Williams's leader as "an astonishing attack on the Coalition", passing over in silence the Archbishop's observation that "we are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently [to the coalition government] and what a left-inspired version of localism might look like. D'Ancona spends some time examining Dr Williams's claim - which has attracted most attention this week - that "we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted". D'Ancona at least grasps, as many other commentators haven't, that the Archbishop was not questioning the legitimacy of the coalition as such, but rather its mandate to carry out certain policies (especially in relation to public sector reform) that were not in either of the governing parties' election manifestos. In response, he quotes from a recent book on the coalition by regular NS contributor Vernon Bogdanor:

As Vernon Bogdanor, David Cameron's former tutor, argues in his book on the Coalition: "In future... if we are entering a world of hung parliaments, the manifesto will be seen as nothing more than a bargaining chip, parts of which can be done away with once the votes have been counted." Lest we forget: Miliband himself was a member of Labour's negotiating team in the post-election inter-party talks 13 months ago. In the unlikely event that he and his colleagues had cobbled together a "rainbow coalition", would he - and indeed Dr Williams - have considered its decisions in government illegitimate, too?

In the same newspaper, Tim Montgomerie chastises the Archbishop for failing to acknowledge the role played by Christian Conservatives (like himself and Iain Duncan Smith) in the formulation of current government policy. Predictably, Montgomerie doesn't mention that Dr Williams commissioned a column from IDS, in which the Work and Pensions Secretary defends the coalition's welfare reforms. He's more interested in reminding the Archbishop - as if he doesn't know - that those reforms spring from the work that Duncan Smith and Montgomerie did together at the Centre for Social Justice, the right-wing thinktank formed after IDS visited the blighted Glasgow housing scheme of Easterhouse in 2002. (I discussed the work of the CSJ in an interview with Duncan Smith last year.) "Inspired by Catholic social teaching," Montgomerie writes, "[Christian Conservatives] sought to build a Conservatism that was as serious about tackling social injustice and environmental pollution as it was about crime or red tape." Montgomerie goes on:

Conservatives believe government has an important role in providing a safety net for everyone - but that strong families, a good education and work are the best routes out of poverty. Sadly, the Archbishop of Canterbury's New Statesman article leaned on the language of the Left, a language of spending and regulation.

That's a crude misrepresentation of what the Archbishop wrote. Rather than dismissing the government's welfare reforms out of hand, he urged ministers to present their message more clearly:

If what is in view - as Iain Duncan Smith argues passionately ... - is real empowerment for communities of marginal people, we need better communication about strategic imperatives, more positive messages about what cannot and will not be left to chance ...

There's nothing there that suggests a statist contempt for "empowering" the poor and the "marginal". Indeed, it seems to me that all the Archbishop is doing is suggesting that the government make Montgomerie's point - that "Conservatives believe government has an important role in providing a safety net for everyone - but that strong families, a good education and work are the best routes out of poverty" - more sharply.

Neither d'Ancona nor Montgomerie questions the constitutional propriety of the Archbishop's intervention. David Cameron didn't query Dr Williams's right to pronounce on public matters either; this was left to the odd Tory backwoodsman and people like Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society, with whom I debated the question on Radio 4's The World Tonight on Thursday. A leader in today's Observer defends the Archbishop's right to speak out:

[S]ome have argued that his intervention was misguided because the spiritual head of the Anglican church ought not to be getting political. We don't agree. To his credit, neither does David Cameron. He was correct to say that Rowan Williams is entirely free to express opinions that the government disagrees with.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The Land Registry sale puts a quick buck before common sense

Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, property scandals would be much harder to uncover.

Britain’s family silver is all but gone. Sale after sale since the 1970s has stripped the cupboards bare: our only assets remaining are those either deemed to be worth next to nothing, or significantly contribute to the Treasury’s coffers.

A perfect example of the latter is the Land Registry, which ensures we’re able to seamlessly buy and sell property.

This week we learned that London’s St Georges Wharf tower is both underoccupied and largely owned offshore  - an embodiment of the UK’s current housing crisis. Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, this sort of scandal would be much harder to uncover.

On top of its vital public function, it makes the Treasury money: a not-insignificant £36.7m profit in 2014/15.

And yet the government is trying to push through the sale of this valuable asset, closing a consultation on its proposal this week.

As recently as 2014 its sale was blocked by then business secretary Vince Cable. But this time Sajid Javid’s support for private markets means any opposition must come from elsewhere.

And luckily it has: a petition has gathered over 300,000 signatures online and a number of organisations have come out publically against the sale. Voices from the Competition and Markets Authority to the Law Society, as well as unions, We Own It, and my organisation the New Economics Foundation are all united.

What’s united us? A strong and clear case that the sale of the Land Registry makes no sense.

It makes a steady profit and has large cash reserves. It has a dedicated workforce that are modernising the organisation and becoming more efficient, cutting fees by 50 per cent while still delivering a healthy profit. It’s already made efforts to make more data publically available and digitize the physical titles.

Selling it would make a quick buck. But our latest report for We Own It showed that the government would be losing money in just 25 years, based on professional valuations and analysis of past profitability.

And this privatisation is different to past ones, such as British Airways or Telecoms giants BT and Cable and Wireless. Using the Land Registry is not like using a normal service: you can’t choose which Land Registry to use, you use the one and only and pay the list price every time that any title to a property is transacted.

So the Land Registry is a natural monopoly and, as goes the Competition and Market Authority’s main argument, these kinds of services should be publically owned. Handing a monopoly over to a private company in search of profit risks harming consumers – the new owners may simply charge a higher price for the service, or in this case put the data, the Land Registry’s most valuable asset, behind a paywall.

The Law Society says that the Land Registry plays a central role in ensuring property rights in England and Wales, and so we need to ensure that it maintains its integrity and is free from any conflict of interest.

Recent surveys have shown that levels of satisfaction with the service are extremely high. But many of the professional bodies representing those who rely on it, such as the Law Society and estate agents, are extremely sceptical as to whether this trust could be maintained if the institution is sold off.

A sale would be symbolic of the ideological nature of the proposal. Looked at from every angle the sale makes no sense – unless you believe that the state shouldn’t own anything. Seen through this prism and the eyes of those in the Treasury, all the Land Registry amounts to is £1bn that could be used to help close the £72bn deficit before the next election.

In reality it’s worth so much more. It should stay free, open and publically owned.

Duncan McCann is a researcher at the New Economics Foundation