Time out with Nick Cohen

Why Kate Barker, the bogey woman, who wants to build over the green belt might just create a country

The basics any government has to provide if it hopes to be popular are food, water, security and shelter. Food is so cheap that obesity is common among the poor, while Marie Antoinettish fads for organic and against GM food insult the world's hungry while amusing the wealthy. As floods engulf the southern lowlands, water is hardly a problem at the moment, although the unpredictable effects of global warming may make it so one day. Whether you believe the fall in the official crime figures is genuine or not, no one, not even Daily Mail readers, believes that life is as insecure in Britain as it is in Iraq or South Africa. But the cost of shelter is so exorbitantly high that decent housing has switched from being an essential to a luxury.

It is a sign of how the middle-aged and middle class dominate public life that the house-price inflation of the past decade was celebrated for so long by the property sections of the press. Real prices have doubled to seven times the average wage since Labour came to power. The average first-time buyer is having 19 per cent of his or her income taken up with repayments - and in London and other hot spots he or she is spending far more. People have taken extraordinary gambles - borrowed six times their salary, committed themselves to 50-year mortgages and burdened themselves with "interest-only" loan payments that leave the capital untouched - simply to get into an apparently unstoppable market.

Many pressures have forced the Brown government to say "enough" - including the pressure on MPs from desperate constituents - but chief among them is the work of Kate Barker, a jolly economist with old-fashioned priorities, who more than anyone else has rammed home the scale of the crisis. To simplify in a manner that would appall her, Barker said that to get any kind of sanity back into the market Britain needs to build a minimum of 70,000 and a maximum of 120,000 additional homes a year. We must also build thousands more social homes - the number of which has actually declined by 9 per cent under a Labour government. If providing private and public housing means building on the green belt, so be it. If it means overriding local authorities and local objections, that's tough.

For a mild-mannered member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, these are radical recommendations that will transform England, and Barker has come to terms with becoming a bogey woman. A strange alliance of environmentalists and Tories accuse her of wanting to concrete over flood plains and thus ensure a repeat of the misery of the past few days. She is getting used to receiving "a large and often rather aggressive postbag wrongly accusing me of bringing a destructiveness equal to the Luftwaffe".

We share a pot of coffee in the Bank and she reflects on her transformation from a backroom adviser to business and governments to a public figure. Her work itself was a transformation. Gordon Brown was worried about the housing market long before the media caught up with him, but the Treasury's original concern was about monetary not social policy. Brown's question to Barker was whether the national obsession with property and membership of the euro were incompatible. Changes in the price of mortgages set by central bankers could have vast and unintended effects on the British economy. Low interest rates in the eurozone could fuel asset bubbles and consumer spending splurges - of the type we have been living through. High interest rates could trigger a wider recession - of the type we may soon be living through.

Target of abuse

But the longer Barker looked at the housing market, the more she worried about the poor stuck on council house and housing association waiting lists, the families stuck in mean and cramped flats and couples who want to have children but can't afford the space to house them. "I decided we had to increase the housing supply," she says.

This simple and humane thought has made Barker the target of vitriolic abuse and not only from letter writers to Threadneedle Street. Friends of the Earth dressed up an essentially reactionary assault on her in the modish language of anti-corporatism. Barker was the tool of her old employer, the Confederation of British Industry, its officers alleged; blindly following the boss class's agenda to "elevate the needs of businesses and the goal of economic growth at the expense of the environment and the views of the public".

One of the myths of British politics is that there is a united "voluntary sector". In truth, there is an unbridgeable divide between supporters of social justice and supporters of the environment. Senior figures in homeless charities privately told me they saw Friends of the Earth as a club for selfish nimbies. But Barker gives me a more sophisticated argument against the environmentalists. They talk, she says, as if a large chunk of the population of England doesn't exist.

"We're going to have a rise over the next ten years in England's population," she explains. "If we build less than adequately, people will be forced to share houses, there will be more overcrowding in London and we will have to do something draconian about second homes. But whatever we do, people will still be there. My critics say that extra homes will create more rubbish and use more water. But actually people will still be using water and producing rubbish if we build more homes or not. The only real environmental question is whether we turn more land over to building."

Like Friends of the Earth, Conservative commentators, notably on the Daily Telegraph, are as keen as the nominally leftish environmentalists on stopping building on greenfield sites, and they, too, accuse Barker of following a rigged agenda: but this time the alleged fixing of the terms of reference hasn't been done by the CBI but by Gordon Brown. They ask why he ordered Barker to look at supply rather than demand. If she wanted to know why house prices have shot up, she should have examined the effects of immigration and family break up. Surely, his instructions were a transparent attempt to cover up the failure of Labour to control Britain's borders and protect marriage.

Upsetting the locals

Barker was born in Stoke-on-Trent and has spent most of her adult life as a Home Counties commuter. For all her political influence, she is not a political animal and is unused to the accusatory nature of metropolitan politics. "Well," she says, when I put the Conservative criticisms to her, "the biggest pressure on housing is the increasing demand of elderly people for homes because they're living so much longer." She pauses and shoots me a look which reads, "What do you want me to do, call for euthanasia?"

The one charge against her which is undeniable is that she will further weaken our enfeebled local government. It's not that she's against planning; on the contrary, she says her critics get her hopelessly wrong when they say that she hasn't thought about the danger of floods and global warming. She has. But the effect of Barker's recommendations will be that local people won't be able to stop developments on their doorsteps. Too many councils, she tells me, don't want to see their towns grow because they don't see the advantages of growth. To which the only reply is that, of course they don't, because 80 per cent of tax revenues are taken by central government. Councillors may as well support local objectors because newcomers won't provide them with the taxes to improve public services. As I listen to her, I realise that she is trapping local government in a spiral of decline. But apart from having less local freedom, I want to know how else the England Barker and Brown aim to create will look.

First, she says, its urban areas will grow at the edges. Her main advice to the Prime Minister is to expand existing towns and cities to allow people to live close to where they work - although, as she grimly admits, the housing shortage is so great we may have to expand cities and build new towns as well.

Second, after decades of councils selling off playing fields, she hopes urban England will be greener. "I feel very strongly that you must have usable green space in cities. I'm always rather distressed about bits of green space that say 'No ball games' on them. I realise ball games annoy people but kids have got to get out. I'm very troubled by the sight of children with nowhere to play. That, I think, is a real social evil."

She then turns the question back at me and asks what England will look like if we don't follow her recommendations. There's now every incentive for people who live in big houses to stay there. Because they think prices are going to keep on rising and the supply of housing will carry on being constrained, there is, indeed, every incentive for the wealthy to grab as much housing as they can, regardless of whether they need it or not. If nothing changes, young people with money will carry on throwing every penny they can raise at property because they fear being left behind, while vast numbers who can't match their borrowing will suffer. Many will be poor, but if the poor can get into council and housing association homes, they won't be so badly off. Working- and middle-class families, however, will be caught in an hourglass property market. Beneath them will be council tenants, who may be in reasonable accommodation, above them will be the wealthy, who will certainly be in reasonable accommodation. They, however, will feel the squeeze.

"So if we don't build, housing will be incredibly unfairly shared. If we do, I think England will be a nicer place to live. The feeling of congestion that we all have is partly because we all live quite uncomfortably. I hope we can find an easier feeling and a less congested feeling, and create towns and cities where there is green space and room to breathe."

For all the dampening of the spirit the weather has brought this summer, that seems to me to be a vision of a country worth living in.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State