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Poms see red, white and blue as green and pleasant land labelled ‘rip-off Britain’

The Sun-Herald (Sydney), 7 September 2008, p. 6

By Jacqueline Maley

WHEN Dr Oliver Hartwich first came to Australia in 1999, a laconic customs official at Sydney airport told him the place was “just like Britain, mate, only warmer”. But Hartwich, who is about to quit London to take up a position at Sydney’s Centre for Independent Studies, is convinced the differences between motherland and former colony run deeper than that.

In recent weeks Hartwich has infuriated the British press by launching a scathing attack on the high cost and poor services of London, which he compared unfavourably to Sydney. The German-born academic also provoked the ire of thousands when he predicted the decline of Britain’s northern cities. The Opposition leader, David Cameron, told the press that the sooner Hartwich got on a ship to Australia, the better. “No city is perfect but I would prefer Sydney to anywhere,” Hartwich says. “At first it looks a little bit like the outer suburbs of London. Then you look around and you see your first parrot or cockatoo and then you see palm trees. You don’t see them in London.”

Such is the dudgeon he has provoked across Britain that Hartwich will probably not be missed when he leaves it behind next month.

His recent report, co-authored by fellow academic Dr Tim Leunig (a distant cousin of the cartoonist Michael) and James Swaffield, concluded that government urban regeneration projects in Britain’s economically depressed northern cities have been a failure.

It recommended the British Government make it easier for residents of the north to move to the south, which has a stronger micro-economy and more jobs.

In his clear-eyed German way, 33-year-old Hartwich was simply presenting the facts as he knew them. But the report played into historic rivalries between the plain-talking, working-class folk of the north and the posh spivs of the south. Proud northerners took the report very personally and responded with fury.

It didn’t help that the report’s publication coincided with a tour by the Tory Opposition leader of the northern cities, where he desperately needs to win votes.

Cameron sought to distance himself from Hartwich and his thinktank, Policy Exchange, which has links with the Conservative party. He called the report “rubbish”. About a week later, Hartwich’s popularity sank even lower when The Observer published a piece by him slating London, the capital of what he called “Rip-off Britain”.

Train travel, food, movies and car-related expenses were all much more expensive in Britain than Australia and for no apparent reason, he wrote.

“It may seem unbelievable to British motorists, but Sydneysiders are currently complaining about record-breaking fuel prices – at just under 80 pence [$1.70] a litre.”

Britain’s exorbitant prices would be bearable if there was a corresponding leap in the quality of life, Hartwich wrote. “Yet, having thought about it for a long time while my tube train was stuck in a tunnel on Thursday morning, I do not believe this is the case.”

Next came a grim warning: “If the UK continues to be one of the most expensive addresses in the world while it fails to provide the best infrastructure and public services, it should not be surprised if it loses its most qualified people.”

As an expert in economics, housing, development law and infrastructure, Hartwich can count himself among the exodus of the highly qualified.

After completing a masters in business administration and economics from Germany’s Bochum University, he went on to do a PhD in law, specialising in trade practices.

Hartwich spent about a year of his PhD at Sydney University under the tutelage of the late Professor David Harland. He thinks Australia has a magnificent Trade Practices Act, but it was not the main reason he wanted to study here. He was lured in large part by his Australian girlfriend, Julie, who is now his wife. The two were penfriends from their teens and when they finally met in their early 20s, they fell in love.

It may stretch credulity but Hartwich is genuinely interested in Australian law. When he begins at the Centre for Independent Studies, he will focus on the hot-potato issue of affordable housing and the planning laws that are supposed to facilitate it but which, he believes, more often stymie it.

In 2005, Hartwich published a report that compared the planning approaches of different countries, including Ireland, Switzerland and Australia. He argued that under the British-style approach to planning, which Australia follows, councils are weak and generally try to limit development. This leads to smaller and more expensive housing over time. “But in Switzerland, taxpayers pay their taxes directly to the council,” Hartwich says. “So if you’re a councillor, you basically want to have all these people, so you provide all the room and infrastructure they need. You compete for inhabitants.”

Hartwich says the price of land in Sydney is artificially high. “Planners in Australia told me they were running out of land. Coming from Europe, from really densely populated countries, you think, ‘You’re joking.’ There is no shortage of land, there is shortage of political will to provide it because the incentives are not in place.” He also has much to say on privatisation of public transport, on why we should pay to use roads, and on how government debt is structured to disadvantage the younger generation. For all that, we’ll have to wait for his arrival. Just as long as he doesn’t recommend mass relocation of Queenslanders to NSW.