29 July 2010

Pavements, Politics and Plan E

Over the last few weeks our customary dawn chorus of crowing cockerels, barking dogs, croaking frogs and bleating goats has been replaced by the sound of stone-cutters, jackhammers and dumper trucks.  They are doing the road up.  The quaintly undulating cobbles, spattered with random blobs of tarmac put down over the years to fill in holes, are being replaced with nice neat grey stones all laid by hand by a fleet of workmen.  They have also replaced the storm-drains, so it's just possible that next time we have torrential we won't get a brown river streaming past the house (we live halfway up a very steep hill).

Best of all, they are rebuilding the pavement.  If its treacherous predecessor had been in England, some local authority would have been sued by now.  I might actually be able to get my faithful shopping trolley back from town without the wheels falling off!  Unfortunately our neighbour, who had built a concrete ramp over the old pavement into his splendid double garage, now can't get his car in because the angle on the new pavement is too steep.  He is insisting they rebuild it again - and again -  third time lucky?  (The same thing happened to us four years ago when they did the lower part of the hill, but as we weren't living here then, by the time we found out it was too late.  Eventually we stopped worrying about what to do about it, and turned the garage into a workshop-cum-toolshed.)

It's not just our road that's being restored.  All round Alcalá there are new pavements, pedestrian crossings and speed-bumps by the dozen, shiny new rubbish chutes, and even designated parking bays (which, needless to say, are almost completely ignored).

The money for this refurbishment has come from the government, under a scheme called Plan E.  When effects of the global financial crisis hit Spain in 2008, it suffered more than many countries in Europe because for the previous ten years it had experienced an orgy of property speculation and construction.  Most of the private sector loan-financed building ground to a halt, leaving two million houses half-built or unsold, and millions of unemployed workers.

The Socialist government responded in 2009 by injecting around 33 billion euros into public spending: increases in social welfare benefits; a two-year suspension of mortgage repayments for families hit by unemployment; easier credit for small businesses; and job creation schemes like the ones in Alcalá, aimed at improving local infrastructure while keeping 300,000 people off the dole.  Rather than pay for this via taxation, they used the budget surpluses built up over the previous three years and borrowed the rest.

This is why I get just a bit pissed off when people accuse President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of doing nothing while Spain fell into deeper and deeper economic decline.  It was a brave attempt to apply Keynesian economic principles, to protect the ordinary working people who had nothing to do with the causes of the crisis, and to avoid burdening the taxpayer. Naive, possibly. Pissing against the wind, certainly.   No other EU country did this.

Now the baying hounds of global capitalism, from Angela Merkel to the IMF, have ordered him to stop spending and start saving, and this is being achieved by massive spending cuts, a freeze on pensions from 2011 and a 5% reduction in public sector salaries.  This will almost certainly result in him losing the next election and letting the odious and corrupt Partido Popular back in.

But at least we´ve got our new pavements ...

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