In the first series of the Beiderbecke trilogy Trevor Chaplin, the James Bolan character, meets Big Al, played by Terence Rigby, and is introduced to the concept of the White Economy, the perceived threat of which is the underpinning of the plot. It is explained that Whitehall calls it the Black Economy but Big Al and Little Norm are trying to improve its image. Big Al excuses it on the grounds that it was Whitehall and ‘The System’ which made him redundant and he is merely redressing the balance. He insists that none of the goods are stolen but that they are cheap because the middle-man is cut out. The establishment in the shape of the McAllister brothers, local businessman and local councillor, not unnaturally object on the grounds that people should buy things from ‘proper shops’.
First screened in 1985 in the middle of the Thatcher era (1979-1990), a world-view of economics gripped by monetarism, massive unemployment, the rise of the Banking Class and conspicuous consumption, and a sea-change in ethos towards selfishness, the series and the philosophy it espoused caught the public imagination.
Saturday morning and I walked to the station to catch the train back home from up North. Though it is essentially urban there is a route along the River Mersey, part of the Trans Pennine Cycle Route.
I walk this way regularly and so have got to know it fairly well. Not as well as Ruth who until recently cycled along here most days on her route to work. Some time ago she pointed out what at first seemed a minor bit of illicit fun. Somebody was pinching bits of the wooden fencing.
We thought it was just some local scally taking it to fence off his garden. It seemed harmless, if illegal, because the bits of fencing which were being taken were in front of a retaining wall at the foot of a steep bank and seemed to have no real function. Then it increased in scale. The council would come along and replace the missing pieces and within a short time they too would disappear.
Now there are long sections of missing fence rails, many of them at the top of a steep drop down into the river. This is not flimsy stuff but good quality 4×4 and 6×2 treated timber rails. Even the odd post is going missing. Far more has now been taken than would be needed for a bloke’s garden. Or even his neighbours’. I reckon somebody has identified it as a business opportunity and is making the most of it. An example of a Grey Economy in action.
On Saturday I noticed that a section of substantial wrought iron fencing had been unbolted and removed. A little further along some paving slabs have been removed and others loosed as if in preparation for removal.
This Grey Entrepreneur is clearly diversifying but sticking to the basic business model.
As well as Big Al’s rationalisation I have heard this sort of thing excused with arguments such as “it’s not doing anybody any harm”; “if the council didn’t want us to do it they would build the fence better”; “the Government doesn’t pay enough in unemployment benefit”; I’m just doing a favour for a few mates”; I’m just earning a bit of money” .
It raised a smile at first but has now gone well beyond a joke. Apart from it being theft it raises two major concerns. First the barrier at the top of the drop to the river is being removed along 100s of metres of the cycle path. I know people who have gone off the canal towpath and cycled into the canal by accident. This is potentially more dangerous. Second, the cost of repairing/replacing the fence comes out of the public purse at a time when public finances are being severely cut.
So where is this going? Will it continue to escalate as the Grey Economy booms in time if recession? Will the council do anything to stop it? How long can the council ignore its third party liability? Will the police take any action? Or will the Grey Businessman eventually make enough money and go legit as is so often the case.
One thing is sure. The Grey Economy is far bigger than a bit of cheap fencing.