Richard Butcher, managing director at PTL, laments the decline of the annuity
I spent my teenage years, in part, knocking about the pubs of Surrey. Villages like Woodmansterne, Banstead and Kingswood or, sometimes, Dorking or Redhill.
We wandered because we enjoyed the texture of variety. The faded pictures of moustachioed men in flat caps stood in front of the pub where now we sat, the tarnished trophies of once victorious local football teams and, of course, the local legends: village men done good, of the war hero or the boy who ran like the wind who sailed half way round the world to run on the Olympic stage.
These tales were the colour that gave each village its identity although some legends were relayed to us more than once in different places.
One such story was of the Surrey Darts Player.
I’ve never attempted to validate this story – I wouldn’t know how to begin to. The version I give here is a simple distillation; the common features of an often repeated story with local embellishment stripped away. It almost certainly isn’t true, in its strictest sense, but none the less the legend persisted until at least 1980s.
The Surrey Darts Player wandered the same pubs as I was later to do, at some time early in the 20th Century. He was, clearly, a travelling man although his roots were local. He spoke sparingly but with soft voice accented by the now almost lost Surrey burr. He wore a cloth cap that never left his head, whether rain or shine, indoor or outdoor. He was, in most ways, unremarkable.
He was, however, very remarkable in his skills at the darts board. Legend has it he was never beaten. Village men who fancied themselves with the arrows would take him on until they gave up in good grace with a grin or in a fury.
One feature of his game, however, was repeated time and time again from village to village and from pub to pub. Old men, not yet born at the time the legend began would repeat this as they had heard from their fathers or grandfathers.
The Surrey Darts Player could hit a double top whenever he wanted. It didn’t matter which way he faced, nor where he looked, whether he used his left hand or right. It was even said that he could drop a dart and yet it would curve and climb before hitting its target.
Oddly enough there was, until recently anyway, a modern and equally remarkable equivalent in the world of pensions – and most people who retired from a workplace pension could do this. No matter when they retired nor how old they lived to be, whether in good health or poor, it was possible to make their pot last precisely until the day they stopped needing it – the day they died; leaving not a penny behind nor running a penny short. Remarkable.
Freedom and choice hasn’t, of course, killed the annuity but the recent report from the Social Market Foundation has highlighted a risk that was blindingly apparent to anyone, looking at pension provision through the lense of social as opposed to tax policy, as soon as the Chancellor stood back from the dispatch box in March last year.
Without an annuity people will run out of money.
It is probably heretical to say and I run the risk of being accused of being anti-freedom, but I think Freedom and Choice was the wrong policy. The right policy would have been a mix of liberalised triviality and drawdown rules and a crackdown on the annuity market.
That said, it’s too late now. We are where we are. Unlike the Surrey Darts Player, we have missed the optimal target. All we can do is pick up the pieces and play on.
Richard Butcher is managing director at PTL