Sunday, 5 June 2016

The EU is an expensive luxury we can no longer afford


One of the most hilarious pieces of rhetoric in journalism is "we need an honest debate about immigration". Do these people live in a cave? We have done nothing but debate immigration fro the last three years. And it's fair to say it's a debate the anti-immigration crowd have lost hands down. It is one where they have misdiagnosed the problems and put forth useless proposals for their resolution.

Over the last two years I have changed my of my opinions on the subject largely because it is a complex area where you need to identify the separate strands in order to understand them. One thing I have learned though is that immigration control is very difficult, bureaucratic, mostly useless and seriously expensive.

And so if we have problems with immigration then its our housing, social and industrial policy at fault. I utterly reject this notion that Britain is full. All across the south we are seeing the dormitory towns doubling in size. Not just in the home counties either. The towns along the rail links to London are growing. On balance I think this is a good thing otherwise these market towns would gradually decay and die. It's good to see a revival of rural towns. Ones further off the beaten track presently look shabby and unloved.

The problems we have are with the pinch points. The London tube for instance is at times dangerously overcrowded. If we see a Hillsborough type disaster I will not be in the least bit surprised. So what we need is a policy to de-londonise the economy. I think Brexit might well be the catalyst for that in that it would bring about a serious rethink of domestic governance, stimulating demands for more localism.

But if we accept that Britain is going to be an open country, growing all the time then we need to be mindful that we need some major reforms. Not least agricultural policy. Or should I say rural policy. This is central to this debate.

A report, from the University of Cambridge in 2014 says Britain is running out of land for food and faces a potential shortfall of two million hectares by 2030. The growing population plus the use of land for energy crops are contributing to the gap. It criticises the government's lack of a coherent vision on how to make the most of UK farm land. The authors warn that tough choices may need to be made on future land use. The total land area of the UK amounts to over 24 million hectares with more than 75% of that used for farming.

While self-sufficient in products like barley, wheat, milk, lamb and mutton, the UK still imports large amounts of fruit and vegetables and other farm products including pork. Overall the UK runs a food, feed and and drink trade deficit of £18.6bn.

Now you could leap on this and say the obvious answer is to control immigration, but as it happens, while there are important system tweaks to make, we do control immigration about as well as we are ever going to without placing massive burdens on the state and industry. Ending freedom of movement won't solve anything either, not least because it prevents foreign workers returning home in times of recession, meaning we end up paying them benefits. We need to focus on the economic and social consequences of immigration. In so doing there are many opportunities.

But to rise to the challenges we are going to need wholly new approaches. What we do need is an integrated rural policy and an independent trade policy. If we take it as read that we will never be entirely self-sufficient in food then we need enhanced trade with Africa and an aid policy which develops African agricultural systems and supply chains. We should be doing this independently of the EU, not least because we have the expertise and we'll do it faster.

More urgently we need a very serious rethink of domestic agriculture. Because of our absurd quotas for renewable energy we are turning over yet more land to solar panels and wind turbines. We can debate until the cows come homes as to whether that's a good idea (and I seriously doubt it is) but unarguably it is a waste of good land. The reason it's attractive is because it makes more money than producing food. The UK dairy industry is collapsing.

This suggests that we do need control over our agriculture and yes, we may need to protect our dairy industry. It is a strategic national asset. And when energy policy begins to create a rural crisis it's clear that we need a rethink of energy too. I believe we can sustain present levels of immigration and I think we will be better off for it, but not if we are hamstrung by antiquated EU policy systems from the last century.

There are also other emerging threats to agricultural sustainability. According to a report released last week not enough is being done to protect the UK’s soils. I approach the subject with some scepticism given the people pushing this agenda, but it is clear that centralised policy making will be too slow to adequately respond. Since it will be the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation standards we end up adopting, we will be implementing them faster if we are outside of the EU.

What I see is a number of emerging problems requiring urgent attention and a complete overhaul in how we approach policy making. To do that we need to be out from under the dead hand of the EU. Not least the Common Agricultural Policy because it's a one size fits all policy which has deeply political motivations.

By remaining in the EU we are storing up crisis after crisis, with conflicting agendas running rife, lacking any joined up thinking, and we have to wait for ill fitting solutions to come from Brussels. It could well result in yet more flooding - which is as much to do with land management as anything else.

Not forgetting that Britain notoriously goes from drought to deluge from one year to the next. We have already seen how the UK government is beset by a bureaucratic paralysis when we urgently need more reservoirs.

As much as it's a result of various EU constraints, culturally our politics has slipped into a coma, unable to grasp the necessity for serious grown-up policymaking, while obsessing over vanity projects like the Severn tidal lagoon. We need Brexit if only to shake them out of their complacency and wake them up to the fact they are dropping the ball.

The bottom line is that we have outsourced far too much of our policy making and placed too much of it under constraints which prevent us meeting many of the emerging challenges. When the chickens come home to roost they will all come at once - when we have neither the budget or the liberty to address the issues.

This is a time for pragmatism and innovation. We cannot afford the EU nor can we afford for our politicians to remain in their perpetual slumber. We cannot afford the vanity of our elites and we need the grown ups back in charge. We have major decisions to make and we will require all the democratic tools at our disposal. If we don't leave the EU we face a systemwide bottleneck where things will stop working - and nobody will have the first idea why. It's time to get our skates on and leave.

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