Last summer my wife was enjoying sitting in the back garden with some friends who were visiting from the Netherlands when they realized that there were an awful lot of wasps buzzing around. On investigation they discovered two nests in one of the garden walls. “We had that problem last year.” one of the friends said “Two nests. Called someone out to get rid of it. Cost about 35 euros”. Imagine my surprise then when I phoned to get a quote for solving the problem and was quoted a figure around £200 by two different pest control companies. At today’s exchange rate that means that getting rid of wasps’ nests is apparently seven times (!) more expensive in the UK than it is in the Netherlands. It would almost be cheaper to get a Dutch company to send someone over for the day on an Easyjet flight.
And that’s not the only thing that’s pricier. I lived in Holland for fifteen years and moving back here the cost of living has taken some getting used to. In my local supermarket in Nijmegen I used to buy 15 oranges for 3 euros (£2.30). Here I’ve not been able to find them cheaper than £1 for three, which means they are more than twice as expensive. Car insurance, public transport, food, hairdressers, childcare, dry-cleaning, show repairs – all are considerably more expensive here, to say nothing of rent which is astronomically high – in the UK for people who rent the cost accounts for a higher proportion of their wages than in any other country in Europe. To be fair my wife tells me that health and beauty products are cheaper in Britain than they were in Holland but they hardly account for a big chunk of your weekly expenses.
Our politicians continually try to win our support with promises to put more money in our pockets. There seems to be a widely accepted idea in Britain that if you can earn a bit more and pay a bit less in taxes then you’ll be better off. Ed Miliband’s “cost of living crisis” never really caught on but I’d say there’s something in it. I earned less in the Netherlands than I do here and I paid proportionately more of my wages in tax but I was financially better off there. Living in Holland has showed me that paradoxically there’s more to being rich or poor than how much money you’ve got. It’s how far that money can stretch that matters.
So what’s prompted this decidedly non-archaeological post on today of all days? It’s a piece I read in the Guardian this morning which claims that the new so-called “living wage” (can’t we please just call it what it is, a rise in the minimum wage?) means that according to the Big Mac Index British people on the minimum wage are going to have more spending power than in any European country except for Luxemburg. And no it’s not an April Fool’s joke, the Big Mac Index really does – the Big Mac is apparently used, as a widely available and relative cheap product, to measure relative spending power around the world.
I’ve checked online and a Big Mac is a rare example of an item of food that costs almost exactly the same amount in the Netherlands as it does in the UK £2.69 here and € 3,45 (£2.70 at today’s exchange rate) in Holland . So, it seems to me that this doesn’t so much prove that spending power is higher in the UK as that Big Macs for some reason are one of the few things that are relatively cheap here. And why might that be? Might it be because fast-food chains somehow have lower costs in the UK so that they can keep down their prices and still make a healthy profit? And if that is the case where might those savings be made? Well, one possibility that springs to mind is that it might have something do with employment conditions in the UK where people working in fast food chains are presumably very often on zero-hours contracts so that even if their employer does pay them the new, higher minimum wage they will still be making savings on pension contributions, sick pay and holiday pay? Is it just possible that measuring wealth in Hamburgers isn’t so useful after all? Just a thought…..
Of course we’re all thinking a lot at the moment about Britain’s place in the EU. I’d say that one of the best things about membership is that it makes it easier for us to spend time living in other European countries, and living abroad can open your eyes to the things that work well in your home country and the things that work less well. My understanding of economics is shaky to say the least and I don’t pretend to understand why life is so expensive here compared to some other countries but this does seem to me to be a major problem in the UK and I suggest that to find a solution we could do worse than to consider why it’s a problem that other countries on our doorstep don’t seem to have.
And to finish on a lighter note: just in case you’re wondering, the landlord paid to get the exterminators in so it isn’t all doom and gloom. Well, not unless you’re a wasp.