Saturday 11 May 2013

Train fares, Legoland and the reason prices rise

Two things have made me feel poorer than I really wanted to yestoday.  The first was a tweet by Steve Richards, the political columnist:

"On train to York. The ticket, not paid by me, is £249, second class. Can't get a seat."

Rather a familiar scenario that one.  Of course, he has an open return, but we all used to get open returns not many years ago.  A second class open return really isn't the height of aspirational luxury.

The second happened when I took my six-year-old to the barber's shop in Crystal Palace and found myself idling away my time reading the Sun, and there was an advert for their Saturday paper promising that they will be giving away two free tickets to Legoland in Windsor, worth - and here's the rub - £91.

Now, again I know there are cheaper ways of inserting your family into Legoland.  You can book online and in advance and get ten per cent or so off the price.  Perhaps a little more.  I don't understand the complexities of the pricing system any more than I understand the complexities of rail ticket pricing.

But I admire the non-technological simplicity of Lego.  My children have wanted to go to Legoland for months and talk about it most breakfasts (reminded by the Rice Krispies packet).  But there is no way I'm going to go there if I can't get the family in for less than £150, and this seems unlikely.

I started this month writing about house prices and the rents the result, and the news today is that you need a salary of over £38,000 to rent a one-bedroom flat in London now.  If house prices rise in the next 30 years as they have in the last 30 years, the average UK house - not London house - will cost £1.2m, as I explained in my book.

But the way that the financial elite have pushed up prices for everyone is far more widespread than simply a roof over the head.  Because some business expenses run to £249 tickets to York, then the price rises that high.  Because some families will pay £150 just to get into Legoland, then that is where the prices rise to.  There are reduced price options for ordinary people - for the moment at least - and rules that allow us to afford to squeeze into these privileges, but that is what it is.  Concessions.

It is strange that the world of foreign exchange trading and Big Bang, and all the privileges given to the financial elite, were given in the name of fighting inflation.  That was the central objective of Margaret Thatcher's government.

Yet, in practice, the rapidly increasing gulf between us and them in our society is now fuelling inflation - until the point where many of us could no more afford a home in the neighbourhoods we grew up in than fly to the moon.

Inflation caused by too much money sloshing around the financial world - and by the blind eye turned to monopolies by successive governments.  The rest of us live on concessions, as long as we are allowed to.

I rather set the cat among the pigeons with my Comment is Free piece in the Guardian this week called 'Why everyone needs the middle class'.  There were more than 800 comments on the end of it, so I know this is just at the beginning of a wider debate.  But I am trying to construct a political narrative that can attract right and left - because that seems to me to be the only way of making anything happen.

It is the only way that, paradoxically, we can rein back some of those accelerating prices, and break out of the little box made for most of us marked 'concessions'.


Richard T said...

If you want to add to your programme for Liberal populism what about getting us back the days when you could turn up at a station and buy your ticket at a reasonable price?

When the railways were privatised, the civil service foisted the theory that rail travel should be like air travel - that you bought your ticket in advance and that although discounted travel was available, it should not be so on a turn up and go basis. This overturned the whole basis on which folk had travelled by train for the previous century and a half (or so).

Anonymous said...

I think there's two things causing inflation of the sort you describe. As well as the widening distribution of income (already mentioned), there's also a greater emphasis on positional goods - that is, things with a fixed supply, so that if one person gets them, another cannot. Whereas in the past, when prices were rising, we could build more of whatever it was to absorb the extra demand, now we can't any more. This seems to apply to houses, places at good schools, some rail fares and even entrance to Legoland, which is always as over-crowded as it is over-priced.

Iain King