Is Britain turning into a developing country?

The Institute for Fiscal Studies says the government will put the clock back to 1948. Does this mean we aspire to be a developing country?

The question has been intriguingly asked by Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian. We already know from that remarkable book The Spirit Level that Britain is one of the most unequal of the ‘developed’ countries, and that UK levels of inequality are more characteristic of the global south. But Chakrabortty gives us many more examples. For instance, what advanced country would champion the widening of the A14 as a major piece of infrastructure investment, as Osborne did last week? And as he says, Britain now falls behind such third-world models (and I don’t mean that ironically) as Vietnam and Nicaragua in (respectively) maths skills and gender equality.

But this set me thinking about housing-related issues. First, as the media have also been making clear, we have become a nation of extreme debtors. UK credit card debt is not only the highest in Europe, it dwarfs that of the rest of Europe. As anyone who has lived in a developing country knows, inadequate wages mean that people survive by borrowing. And of course we aspire to inadequate wages too – as we know from the news that a new working person signs up for welfare benefits every five minutes. Don’t let’s rely too much on the welfare system though, as Osborne clearly wants to extinguish it. While developing countries like Brazil have created welfare systems where no adequate ones existed before, we’re busy destroying ours.

Of course, our over-reliance on homeownership is much more typical of a developing country than it is of an advanced west European one, and goes hand-in-hand with our propensity to borrow. Many southern countries would love to have a social housing system, especially one like ours where half the sector (the council half) no longer needs state subsidy. We’re eroding that too. In private renting, you could say that the ending of rent controls and the weak enforcement of standards already places us among developing countries, which tend to lack standards or else can’t enforce them. I remember once collecting money to help earthquake victims. I rattled my tin at one man who berated me for supporting countries which have no proper control of building standards. How soon before we reach this state ourselves?

Visiting London Boroughs coping with the ‘beds in sheds’ problem a year ago, it struck me how like dwellings in shanty towns they look. Many don’t even have toilets: they could be equally at home in a Mumbai slum. Unfortunately we’ve given up the common custom of ‘less developed’ countries of looking after older people within the family. However, as the Supporting People system collapses, we might need to relearn quickly the habits still practised in poorer parts of the world.

Another unfortunate feature of many developing countries is the absence of effective town planning systems. Cities tend to grow incrementally and look like down-trodden versions of Miami (not that Miami looks that great). If Osborne and Co return us to 1948 or thereabouts, will they wind the clock back far enough to repeal all the successors to the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 and the system it created, which used to be the envy of other developed countries, let alone developing ones.

There must be many more examples: I invite Red Brick readers to supply their own. Somewhere there must be a seasonal game in this. Except that this is no joke.

Chakrabortty uses a brilliant quote by Indian writer Shashi Tharoor, who says that India isn’t a developing country, in historical terms it’s a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay. Perhaps Britain’s decay isn’t yet as well advanced, but at the current pace it will catch up soon.

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