Feeling guilty is never a good reason for spending money, but it’s often a necessary one. Whether it’s the Big Issue seller looking miserable in the rain, or the child who’s desperate for the toy you know will be discarded next week, you’ll feel better if you stump up.
It’s rational, too, because you know the consequences of walking away. A homeless person may need to turn to more nefarious ways of earning; the child may make your life unbearable.
Every three years most public and voluntary organisations become virtual Big Issue sellers, standing outside the Treasury calling for the loose change from the comprehensive spending review. Instead of selling magazines they sell arguments, often backed up by compendia of statistics, glossy marketing material and a professor or two. The fundamental message is the same: give us your money, you know it makes sense.
Faced with the hydra-headed arguments of every sectoral interest group, it’s no surprise Treasury officials tend to regard the run-up to the spending review as a kind of triennial whingefest. Their response is a sullen: ‘Sorry, things are really tight’.
The government’s approach has been to say no to most people, but throw in a few big announcements about investing for the future. So, this week, Gordon Brown signalled that Crossrail would go ahead – after all those years, the £16bn project to run trains from east to west London is finally happening, or will do in 2010. You’ll even be able to catch a train in 2017. This week, too, the Sustainable Development Commission made the case for investment in a Severn barrage that could supply 5% of the nation’s electricity from renewable sources.
These massive engineering projects, disruptive as they are, have clear benefits and can capture the imagination. Less exciting is the idea of keeping programmes going that have nothing sexy and shiny to show at the end of the process.
Housing market renewal, for example, with the best will in the world, isn’t great telly – and there seems to be a growing view in Whitehall that we can now expect the market that created the pathfinder areas’ problems to devise the solutions.
The programme may have its flaws, but private investors are no more likely to complete the job than they are to bail out Northern Rock. And the public investment is worth it: the consequences of failing to renew these neighbourhoods are as dire as failing to provide efficient public transport or sustainable energy generation.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine