Sunday, 11 May 2008
Who's in charge?
It's summer. Suddenly the centre of Nottingham, which has been almost empty in the cold and rain, was thronged with people. I'd forgotten about the noise of happy crowds. In the Old Market Square a French market drew smiling queues. I couldn't resist the quince jelly or chestnut jam, let alone a wonderful mustard "aromatisee" with goats' cheese and basil.
Real baguettes were a necessity. And although French cheeses are more expensive after the change in the exchange rate, I succumbed to the lure of some favourites: a good comte and emmenthal, a thin slice of tome de Savoie and a small piece of Roquefort. They offer a taste of holidays - just a taste as I asked the young man on the cheese stall for "cent gramme, seulement."
He served everyone with a flourish, in French when the customer spoke French but otherwise in an English sprinkled with French words and intonations, rapidly charming customer after customer. He was swift as he sliced and wrapped cheeses but always found time for smiles and politeness - and he had a happiness in his work that infected everyone. I was nearly tempted to extravagance.
Nottingham must have one of the most crowded city centres in Europe. It's compact, held in by a dull inner ring road, Maid Marion Way. (Maid Marion deserves better.) The Old Market Square has recently been rebuilt with fountains where children play when the weather is hot. Much of the central area has been paved so that only buses, trams and taxis trouble pedestrians. Despite the hilly terrain, the centre itself is as flat as it can be, so that it's easy for wheelchair users to navigate.
Around the city, traffic crawls along access roads and car parks are crowded. There have been debates about a congestion charge but the city council has come up with a different solution: taxing car parking spaces at work. I haven't read through the arguments as I don't live in the city but I have noticed that public transport is excellent, especially in the day-time, and there are the usual park-and-ride schemes. In a small city, traffic adds to pollution. Not everyone enjoys the sunny weather in the city centre; some choke or gasp.
Yesterday's Nottingham Evening Post published the response of businesses to the proposed parking charge. "Impose the charge and we'll quit the city," they say. The threat - to withdraw employment from the area - is a serious one. It raises a serious question: who's in charge?
Nottingham electors vote for their council. If they don't like the parking charge, they can vote the council out. It's called democracy and, for all its shortcomings, it's a decent, fairly open system. But when businesses threaten publicly-agreed policies, they short-circuit the democratic process. Are our cities run by elected councillors or by wealthy corporations?
Companies have always influenced politics. Councils and countries want thriving, successful economies. Today they court businesses as the providers of wealth and apparently fail to notice that they give more than they gain. Companies demand tax inducements, special provisions, an education system that serves its needs, subsidies, consultation - even deference - when the government proposes new policies. In a global economy, the threats of big companies are huge and dangerous. They can relocate where workers are cheap and unprotected - and where no-one expects them to care about the environment. They can get together and threaten mass unemployment. And despite legislation, they can achieve a near monopoly in the supply of necessities. Small traders have to look out.
If councils and governments defer to businesses, we don't live in a democracy. Bribes and blackmail govern our lives. Of course, there are organisations which could protect democracy against the corporations: the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, the European Community and the United Nations. But these seem to have fallen for an absurd notion which correlates the free market with freedom and democracy. And it's not the same thing at all.