Another morning and another increase in the volume of traffic on the M5 motorway. The building industry seems really to have swung back into action, everything from heavy plant on low loader lorries to white van driving workmen. Among the assorted heavy and light goods vehicles, two which testified to a widening revival of economic life, a seven and a half ton van from a luxury bed company, and a landscape gardener’s truck laden with trees and shrubs.
The greatest encouragement came passing the lay-by on the Tewkesbury Road from Cheltenham. The lockdown had meant the snack van had ceased to do business, but this morning it was open and two men stood waiting for their breakfasts. One bacon roll might not make an economic recovery, but it is a sign that the corner has been turned, that life is returning.
Economic vitality depends on such small enterprises. Real capitalism is not the massive corporations taking great profits and putting little back into communities, it is small businessmen taking risks, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. Town centres and high streets will only be revived by a renaissance of the small business.
The big supermarkets and chain stores have hollowed the heart out of towns. They have built ugly, out of town developments, each one indistinguishable from all the others. They have taken money from towns and taken money from communities and brought nothing more than blandness, uniformity and mediocrity.
In the Financial Times, columnist Merryn Somerset Webb wrote last week of the billions of pounds of loans that the government had given to businesses. In a radical departure from traditional capitalist thinking, Ms Somerset Webb suggested that the government should convert the loans into equity in the companies, relieving the businesses of a massive debt burden and giving the state assets that it might, at some point, sell at a profit. It was acknowledged that state ownership of many businesses would not be the choice of capitalists, but neither would coronavirus, lockdown and massive debt.
If the government is going to take equity stakes in companies large and small, up and down the country, then it will have leverage to determine the future of our towns.
There needs to be more people like breakfast van man, individual entrepreneurs prepared to take initiative and respond to public choice, and fewer people like the corporate executives who pay themselves bonuses even when their businesses lose money.
The government should require a shift back into towns, a re-engagement with local communities, a return of money to local people. It is public money, it should be used to the public good.