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Published on Sunday, April 2, 2000 in the London Observer
On The Road To Ruin: Whether It's Digging Up The Roads Or Tearing Families Apart, Business Brooks No Interference
by Will Hutton
 
We live in a business civilisation. Our purpose as a society is to serve business. Our fitness as individuals is judged by our willingness to be flexible and entrepreneurial. The fitness of government is judged by its capacity to please business. Business must like the Budget. Business must not suffer the 'burdens' of taxation or regulation. Enterprise must be allowed its free reign. Compassion? Justice? The public good? Only if they serve business.

The dominance of this belief system is so complete that we no longer find it extraordinary. We were warned last week that business leaders think the honeymoon is over between business and New Labour. The Government's crime, it seems, is that the increase in health spending announced in the Budget is judged to so have increased government spending that interest rates might have to be raised to curb inflation. Worse, it is playing with the idea of introducing paid maternity and paternity leave as a statutory right in its manifesto.

The improvement of the circumstances of the people is not seen as a reasonable concern of an elected government; rather it is abasing itself by being 'populist' and, worse, damaging the pro-business climate by trying to deliver an improved health service and stronger families. No more heinous offence could be imagined.

Business is over-reaching itself. It is certainly true that a return to the dog days of the 1970s would be bad news; capitalism needs its companies to make profits. But the pendulum has swung too far. Even reasoned regulation or extension of public authority are regarded hysterically. Taxation is universally regarded as an insufferable burden that should be reduced to minimal levels. Business thunders that it will migrate abroad rather than make any contribution to the society of which it is part.

Yet this mania for deregulation, light government, low taxes and hire-and-fire labour markets as the recipe for all business and human happiness needs challenging. Even if it were the necessary and sufficient motor for wealth creation - which I do not believe - there is enough associated cost for even the most battle-hardened member of the Institute of Directors to give pause. Indeed, as they sit immobile in some traffic jam as a direct result of the philosophy they champion, they will have more than paused - they will not be moving at all.

Britain is experiencing a glut of roadworks, making movement by road in all our major cities close to impossible. More than 80 utilities, freed from the 'burden' of having to apply to local authorities to dig up the road - made possible by a piece of pro-business legislation left by the Tories (the 1991 New Roads and Street Works Act) - are exercising their freedom with a vengeance.

The Tories' idea was to lift the tyranny of inefficient local government in favour of enterprise and replace it with 'light' regulation run by the Department of Transport. The only obligation upon a utility is to inform the DoT and local authority of what road it intends to make impassable; it cannot be refused, asked to defer its activity or made to work quickly or at night. That would be too large a 'burden' on wealth creation.

As a result, some key thoroughfares are being dug up wantonly by a succession of cable companies and other utilities with no attempt at co-ordinating their digging; there is no capacity to refuse them. Some roads are dug up, patched, and then dug up again by a sequence of companies. London's Camden High Street has been dug up 85 times in 12 months, Glasgow's Great Western Road 233 times.

The solution is simple. Instead of a multitude of networks, we need one national cable network, run along public-interest principles, so that any company that wants access to create a digital TV channel, or whatever, must use it rather than build its own network with all the attendant costs. All road-digging ambitions should be closely regulated by powerful and accountable local authorities serving the communities which elect them. There should be fines for time-wasting, incentives for early completion, and compulsion to work at night on key roads. Old Labour thinking, perhaps, but I value being able to move around in the city in which I live, as, I suspect, do others, even businessmen.

The sheer lunacy of the current framework will force change. Here, the case is obvious and easy to make, but there are other costs of business pressing for fewer 'burdens' and more deregulation that are more hidden from view but which are no less pernicious.

Britons work longer hours than any other workers in Europe. Contrary to received wisdom, our light regulation of the labour market predates Lady Thatcher. Even in the 1970s, when British unemployment was high, our labour markets were so 'flexible' that many more British worked 48-hour weeks than their European counterparts. But the numbers have increased over the last 20 years. In consequence, working fathers and mothers spend more time at work and less time with their children. A succession of opinion polls shows that the results are deleterious.

Nor is it just a soft-hearted question of preference. There is mounting evidence that British children suffer a disproportionate degree of stress-related illnesses; one in five according to research released by Mothers In Management last week. As any parent of any child will testify, notions of quality time and all the rest make no sense in the context of child rearing. You can't schedule when they want to talk or play with you as you do with business meetings. You have to be on call so that you are there when they want you (I plead hopelessly guilty at not practising this, by the way). And children get the message pretty quickly that if you're not about, then what is happening beyond the home is more compelling than what happens within - and their self-esteem drops and associated stress rises accordingly.

If long hours were associated with high productivity then there might be a case, but if anything the opposite is true. The British lecture mainland Europe about the need to copy our allegedly work-friendly labour markets but our productivity still runs some 20 per cent below theirs. Are we sure the trade-off is right? Are greater productivity, shorter hours and less stressed families really so undesirable? We work such long hours not because we want to or because they are productive but because it has become culturally acceptable to do so. And part of that cultural acceptance is our too- ready willingness to concede business's special pleading that any change would wreck the process of wealth creation.

But this has been the stance of the British business community for decades. It opposed the Factory Acts in the nineteenth century. When the government banned children from sweeping chimneys, Herbert Spencer predicted the collapse of freedom and capitalism. The fight to have toilets in the workplace in the 1920s was resisted as an outrageous increase in business costs that would set back Britain's international competitiveness.

Today, the insistence that road works should be performed at night, that maternity and paternity leave should be paid and that 48-hour-plus weeks should be prohibited are seen as an illegitimate threat to business. As to the accusation that having a European-quality health service will temporarily involve higher interest rates, a specious proposition in any case, my bet is that the British would willingly pay it.

Business needs forcibly reminding that successful business is the means to a good society, not the end. Work needs to have limits. The best businesses already recognise that allowing some flexibility in the hours that are worked - and limiting long hours - is good for both them and their employees. But this is done within a wider vocabulary and culture in which such interventions go against the grain.

If that culture is to change so that regulation becomes possible again, we need conviction that other values matter and that the business interest is not the public interest. That in turn requires leadership from both enlightened business and government alike. The Prime Minister is in a lucky position. He does not even have to legislate. He can take one week off when his baby is born to show that other values matter, an act with incalculable consequences. Curiously, it is becoming one of the most important decisions of his tenure in office. He's worried that not working will give the wrong signal. He needs reassuring. It's the signal we need.

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