My work is about stuff like land reform, invasive plants, squirrels, deer, marine plastic, youth hostels and outdoor sports.
I suspect some of my journalist colleagues, the wonks who love wall-to-wall discussions by over-confident hacks speculating about economic futures that no-one can ever really know, or getting responses to the latest piece of dickery from one political party or another, see it as a light sideline, a wee bit of colour before they get back to the serious stuff of men in suits and well-coiffed women saying what they think should happen to us all.
But almost every time I write about the problems and challenges of our countryside I am struck with the same thought: it is massively political, and it’s all about tax.
Take the heated debate about camping byelaws in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. What’s happened here is that over the years people have been visiting the park and breaking the law: vandalising trees and fences, dumping litter, getting drunk in public, fighting and worse.
That’s given as the cause for byelaws that control camping (and while in principle I don’t like it, I’ve spoken to the people of Balmaha about what a relief it has been that people no longer steal their garden furniture for lochside bonfires, threaten them outside their homes and generally cause mayhem on their doorsteps).
But all the things the bad campers do are illegal, and they can be arrested for them: if there were enough police they could patrol the loch-shore and other areas where problems are caused by the small minority who behave in this way, and make sure this behaviour is ended.
Why don’t we have enough police to do this? We can’t afford it, we are told.
Invasive rhododendrons are a major environmental menace: they will eventually destroy most of our native woodland and blanket many open hillsides, unless they are controlled.
As I discovered this year, getting rid of them across the whole of Scotland over the next 10 years would cost £400 million and rising. It would be money well spent, preventing an environmental catastrophe in the future, and, through local contractors, injecting much-needed cash into remote and rural areas.
Will we do it? Will we buggery. We don’t have the money.
Most recently Argyll and Bute Council have hiked their car-parking charges in Arrochar to £9 a day, an 800% increase. Cue outrage in the outdoors community, justifiable purely on the grounds of harm to the health and well-being of thousands of people in the Central Belt who use those car parks for healthy exercise. It seems insane. But if you saw the figures that the council is looking at to balance its budget you would understand how it came to this. They almost scrapped more than half the public lavs in their area. They don’t have enough money to do the things we expect councils to do.
Of course, the land and outdoors issues might seem minor in comparison to roads, the health service, education and more, all screaming for money. It’s just that outdoors issues are what I deal with all the time.
But railing at the councils, the cops, the park authority won’t cure this: they will just shuffle the money about and give it to the causes that shout loudest.
We live in a society where, to put it bluntly, we all have Netflix and indoor shitters. We have fridges, cars, flight to Spain, takeaway dinners, clothes and shoes delivered to our doors: in short, we’re a very rich society. And we can’t afford the cops, the environmental measures, the car parks, the things we need and want to be a society? Pull the other one …
Yet the suited and coiffed of this world still don’t dare put up taxes, to raise the money for the society we want. Something happened, maybe around 1979, that gave tax a bad name. Whether the politicians are scared of the Daily Mail or their own shadows, I don’t know, but it’s time for us all to dip our hands in our pockets and reconnect with the cost of the services we expect.
We should all pay more tax, even if for the low-paid it’s just a tenner a year more. The rich, yes, should pay loads, but we all need to realise we get what we pay for. And if people bleat about the impact on their household budget, well, can the Netflix; scrap the next takeaway; and get what you really want, not what Jeff Bezos or some other grasping bastard wants you to buy with your tax cuts.
In my case it would be well-made footpaths that protect the environment they pass through; freedom to camp where I want in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, protected by efficient policing; a car park that doesn’t cost me £9 a day; a recycling system that really worked.
See how much better off we would all be? What we really can’t afford is to NOT pay more tax.