Dig Up the Roads

Local economies will prosper only by cutting their global links

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 29th May 2001

Had the ministry of agriculture set out to spread foot and mouth as far and wide as possible, it could scarcely have done a better job. While refusing to vaccinate susceptible livestock, it has been carting diseased corpses through unaffected zones. Two weeks ago, MAFF officials in Devon botched their slaughter of a herd of bullocks so badly that the animals stampeded, breaking through the fences and spreading foot and mouth to another twelve farms.

At the beginning of the month, the disease arrived in north Somerset, allegedly on the boots of a farm worker who had been attending a training course in Devon’s foot and mouth epicentre, which the organiser had forgotten to cancel. The organiser was, of course, the ministry of agriculture. The course — which proves, I think, that there is a God after all — was on vaccinating farm animals.

So it isn’t hard to see why some people are claiming that the spread of the disease through Britain is a government conspiracy. The obvious flaw in this theory is that it credits the ministry with both a coherent strategy and the capacity to implement it.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on MAFF, for though it’s incapable of pursuing a programme, it does at least possess an objective. As it first revealed in 1999, the ministry wants to cull all but a handful of British farmers. The Labour manifesto confirms that the government will use the opportunity provided by foot and mouth to accelarate its human slaughter programme.

MAFF argues that “consolidating” the industry into a few enormous farms will help farmers to compete in the global economy. For some time I’ve been arguing that this makes no sense at all. Our tiny islands are being pushed into direct competition with million-acre grain farms in Canada and Russia, and million-sow hog cities in North Carolina. British farming will survive only by re-capturing local markets.

Labour’s manifesto appears, implicitly, to recognise this, when it maintains that “the economic hub of a rural area is often a thriving market town”. But joined-up government has seldom been New Labour’s strength. What the party of both globalisation and devolution refuses to accept is that globalisation favours the centre at the expense of the margins.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the map. London, for four centuries the world’s great beneficiary of globalisation, squats on the page like a perfect histological diagram of a cancer, commandeering the nation’s blood supply. Follow the infrastructural arteries north and west and you’ll see how the economy drains into the capital. You can travel from London to Holyhead without changing trains, but you can’t travel by rail from north Wales to south Wales without passing through England. With the exception of the tourist line from Dingwall to Kyle, there is no east-west railway service in Scotland north of Fort William.

When we see this pattern elsewhere in the world, we have no difficulty in understanding what it means. In his remarkable book The Open Veins of Latin America, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano points out that his continent’s infrastructure was developed solely in order to suck its wealth into the ports, and thence into the colonial and neocolonial economy. Even today, Latin American governments invest massively in new roads to the ocean, but fail to provide links between villages and market towns. Latin America, Galeano argues, is so poor because it is so rich in resources: it has been developed as an extractive economy. Its infrastructure is designed to leave as little wealth behind as possible.

Ports, roads and railways in Wales were built with similar intent: to remove coal from the Rhondda and slate from Snowdonia and to deliver English travellers to Ireland. Transnational infrastructure favours those who have access to economies of scale. As soon as slate and coal became cheaper elsewhere, those parts of the Welsh economy which were competing in the global marketplace collapsed. Caenarfon, surrounded by some of the richest natural resources in the United Kingdom, has an average income of just over £4000.

People whose economies are dominated by small businesses and local infrastructure, by contrast, are doing rather well. Indeed, it’s arguable that the triumph of the service sector over manufacturing in Britain represents the triumph of the local economy over the global economy. As the peasant farmer and pamphleteer Simon Fairlie has pointed out, service industries are principally local, shielded from global competition (you don’t travel to Mumbai to take a taxi from King’s Cross to Waterloo), while manufacturers must compete worldwide.

Tragically, the solution prescribed by some of those who claim to defend the victims of the colonial economy is more of the problem. When the A55 from Chester to Bangor was upgraded ten years ago, the people of North Wales were promised that the new road would bring them jobs. It has all but completed the destruction of their residual economy.

As Friends of the Earth Cymru has pointed out, since the road was finished, the three westernmost counties through which it passes — Gwynedd, Conwy and Denbighshire — have all qualified for Objective One funding: the money reserved for Europe’s poorest regions. It’s not hard to see why. As transport costs are now lower than warehousing costs, companies have taken advantage of the faster road link by centralising their depots in England. The Post Office has closed its sorting offices in Bangor, Colwyn Bay, Rhyl and Wrexham and moved its operations to Chester. British Gas has followed it, while Northern Foods has shifted its factory from Colwyn Bay to Warrington.

Tourists have shunned the A55 corridor: that visitors come to Wales to find peace and natural beauty surprises only the country’s transport planners. Superstores have taken advantage of the new road to move shoppers out of town and into their own hands.

But, like the British government, the champions of big business in Wales refuse even to acknowledge this disaster, let alone to learn from it. Six weeks ago Rhodri Morgan, head of the Welsh Assembly, opened the new extension of the A55 from Bangor to Holyhead, off the coast of Anglesey. The Bangor and Anglesey Mail marked the occasion by predicting that the road would be “the key to prosperity”. Sue Essex, the Welsh environment minister, told the paper “it will spur the economic regeneration of Anglesey as a whole, and Holyhead in particular.”

On May 16, the same newspaper reported that Holyhead’s economy has just collapsed. It is now in danger of becoming “a ghost town with tumbleweed blowing down the street”. A town councillor lamented “if only 10% more of the millions of ferry passengers that travel through the port every year could be attracted into town it would be a great help.” But the purpose of the new road, of course, is to keep the passengers out of town and shift them onto the ferries as swiftly as possible. Big roads do to local economies what superstores do to small shops.

Everywhere we are assured that bigger is better, that we will prosper only by competing with the largest and fiercest corporations on earth. It’s a macho fantasy which has destroyed local economies all over the world. If you want your farm or your region to thrive, then dig up the roads.