Annual Lecture 2008
Edited extracts from David Cameron’s speech to CPRE on 12 May 2008
“I was brought up in the countryside, and, representing a largely rural constituency, I live much of my life there today. But you don’t have to live in the countryside to value it.
“The beauty of our landscape; the particular cultures and traditions that rural life sustains these are national treasures, to be cherished and protected for everyone’s benefit. It’s not enough for politicians just to say that – we need leaders who really understand it and feel it in their bones. I do.
“My constituency – West Oxfordshire, the gateway to the Cotswolds – is a permanent reminder of the connections between agriculture and landscape, the past and the present, economic activity and often breathtaking beauty.
“The countryside looks like it does because of centuries of grazing. The exquisite high streets of villages like Burford, the rich Town halls, Corn exchanges and Butter crosses of Witney and Chipping Norton are there because of the wealth generated from Cotswold wool.
“And the whole area – which is not some vast museum, but has a buzzing 21st century economy – retains its beauty because the planners, who I applaud, decided to be tough, balance conservation with economic growth and insist on building in local stone. And this combination of farming, history and landscape is considerably enriched by local traditions and culture that links people with their place and the past.
“Really believing that all of this is important not just for conservation, not just for tourism, but for our own sense of identity and well being that’s why I’m such a supporter of the CPRE and the work you do.
“From your innovative partnership with [the National Housing Federation] on affordable housing in rural areas to your excellent Stop the Drop anti-litter campaign. The CPRE does a vital job and I applaud you for it.
“I know there are many serious problems facing rural communities today, and I know what effective advocates you are when it comes to solving those problems. But today, I don’t just want to talk about the countryside and rural life. Because I believe there’s something bigger that connects the problems faced by rural communities with the problems we face in our towns and cities.
“It’s not about this policy or that policy. It’s about an attitude – a philosophy of government if you like.
“The attitude that the only thing that matters when it comes to policy and administration is economic value – that social value doesn’t matter – has done great damage.
“The real world effect has been Post Office closures, library closures, police station closures, the closure of small shops, small schools and now GP surgeries under threat.
“These are the costs of social failure, the failure to recognise social value as well as economic value the failure to recognise that there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.
THE FOUR WAYS SOCIAL VALUE HAS BEEN UNDERMINED
“There are four ways in particular that social value has been undermined in recent years.
“First, through top-down policy making and a big-is-beautiful approach. Second, through the unthinking adoption of the latest fad or fashion. Third, through endless new regulations that are not needed. And fourth – conversely – through the failure to get regulation right when it is needed.
“Let me take each of these in turn.
TOP-DOWN REORGANISATION: BIG-IS-BEAUTIFUL
“Over the past decade our public services have suffered an almost permanent assault through wave after wave of top-down reorganisations. This kind of bureaucratic restructuring imposed from above has been most notable in the NHS – but you can see it in education, in policing, in many other areas.
“And what these top-down reorganisations tend to have in common is a big-is-beautiful approach – closing down small local services and reorganising them into larger, more distant units.
“That’s what has happened with Post Offices, with maternity services, with A&E – and now it’s the small, local GP surgeries that are next As a Conservative, the pursuit of taxpayer value is part of my political DNA. But value is not the same as cost. These top-down, big-is-beautiful reorganisations may reduce cost in the short term. But they increase costs in the long term.
“It may be cheaper, for instance, to close down the small rural Post Offices but in doing so you close down the informal networks that can give elderly and often isolated people vital interaction and connections that can help avoid the need for more hospital calls or adult social services. The supposed benefits of these top-down reorganisations often seem to accrue to the bureaucracy rather than the user. They do not deliver taxpayer value, because they destroy social value.
FADS AND FASHIONS
“Of course a large part of the problem I’m describing is the result of ‘faddism’ – the second way in which social value has been undermined in recent years. By ‘faddism’ I mean the tendency to jump on fashionable bandwagons, usually without thinking through the consequences.
“Amidst all the zigzags on community hospitals, for instance, did policy-makers stop to think about how hospital closures would affect rural communities? Did they show any understanding of the incredible sense of ownership that local people feel for their local NHS?
“Another fad that made absolutely no sense was John Prescott’s regionalisation agenda. It proved spectacularly unpopular. His grand scheme to impose regional government across England fell at the first hurdle when a referendum in the North East threw out the idea.
“The third way in which social value has been undermined is through over-regulation.
“In recent years, small businesses in particular have suffered a massive increase in rules and regulations. The people who draw up these regulations often impose impossibly high standards that cost a fortune to meet. Instead of taking a pragmatic approach, bureaucrats have an attitude of ‘unless it’s perfect, you can’t do it’.
“This is the mentality that closed many of Britain’s abattoirs. Health and safety standards became so onerous that only a few, large-scale operators could meet them. Of course that meant a big rise in the number of live animals being transported. Did anyone think about the effects: higher carbon emissions; wear and tear on roads; the negative impact on animal welfare? Not to mention the loss of local jobs.
FAILING TO GET REGULATION RIGHT
“But amidst all this over-regulation, there has been a failure to use regulation wisely to protect the things that need protecting – that enhance social value. Whether this failure is due to neglect, or a lack of courage in confronting powerful vested interests – the result is the same.
“Take food and farming. Many British consumers want to back British farmers by buying their produce, but often find it difficult because of inadequate labelling. Food can be imported to Britain, processed here, and subsequently labelled in a way that suggests it is genuinely British. It is the proper job of government to ensure that labelling is accurate and clear.
“But government is not only failing to impose sensible new regulations that would protect the countryside. They are even getting rid of existing ones.
“The Planning Bill currently going through Parliament will give planning powers to remote regional authorities instead of giving planning powers back to local people. This will remove the input of local communities from planning applications and make it easier for insensitive and inappropriate development to occur. The Bill will also further undermine local shops. That’s why we’re fighting the removal of the ‘needs test’ that John Gummer put into planning law specifically to protect the small shops on the high street from being destroyed by out-of-town shopping.
“Another example of inadequate regulation is the relationship between the big supermarkets and farmers. It’s not exactly a relationship of equals. The supermarkets have been in the habit of using their market power to squeeze the margins of those they buy from. Delivering low prices through efficiencies is good for customers and a good thing in general – particularly at a time when the cost of living is going up. But doing so through abuse of market power or, for example through hitting suppliers with in-year retrospective discounts is not.
“There is evidence that the supermarkets are addressing some of these concerns, but there is no room for complacency. Whether threats to the countryside and local communities come from big government or big business, we Conservatives will be on the right side.
THE PRACTICAL STEPS WE WILL TAKE
“Our philosophical tradition places huge emphasis on civil society, on the families and communities out of which a society is built. So our philosophy is one that understands social value and seeks to enhance it. But what will that mean in practice? Let me give you some examples of the specific steps we will take.
“Our school reforms will make it easy to set up more small, independently run schools that are sensitive to community needs and not the direction of central or local government.
“We will make it easier and more attractive to set up co-ops: voluntary collective action to serve local needs.
“And in perhaps less obvious areas, too, we will look for ways to give power to the local, the individual, the community. Power is – literally – a case in point.
“In the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t have to depend solely on the big, lumbering national grid that wastes so much energy in generation and transmission. So our plans for feed-in tariffs will encourage a shift towards more decentralised energy so farmers and others can become producers as well as consumers of power.
“There’s something else we’re looking at too: the position of small shops. The personal and specialised offer from independent retailers, combined with their tendency to be more involved in community activities, to be plugged into local social networks or to support local suppliers, means that they should be treated differently. They should be considered to compete with larger chains not just on economic terms, such as price or the range of goods or services available, but also on their social value.
“If small independent shops have a greater social value than chains or larger shops, then it makes sense for them to benefit not only from retention and strengthening of the ‘needs test’ in planning law but also from an advantageous tax and regulatory regime which tips the balance back in their favour against the larger retailers.
“This new approach is part of a bigger picture. The next Conservative government will attempt to develop a measure or series of measures of social value that will inform our policy-making when in power. When making decisions, ministers will take account not just of economic efficiency but also social efficiency.
“Some people may question if this is possible. I say to them that it has been possible to develop new measures of the impact of public policy within the environmental sphere, which were previously not included in public policy making, and I see no reason why it should not be the case within the social sphere. Taken together with our renewed emphasis on localism – more powers for local government and greater rights for local communities to decide for themselves on issues that affect them, the countryside will be immeasurably strengthened.”
The full text of David Cameron’s speech is available on the Conservative Party website
Audio recordings from the Annual Lecture are available below:
> Introductory speech by Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive, CPRE (mp3, 3.7mb)
> Keynote speech by David Cameron (mp3, 10.7mb)
> Questions and answers with David Cameron (mp3, 6.3mb)
Following his speech, a panel discussion was held to discuss the ideas David Cameron presented. Panel members included Elinor Goodman, from the Commission for Rural Communities; Michael Coupe, from CPRE’s Policy Committee; Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP, chair of the Conservative Party Policy Review; and Shaun Spiers, CPRE’s Chief Executive.