For Sale! One set of well cared for public services – any offer considered.
David Cameron intends to break the state’s monopoly on service provision by opening it up to the commercial and voluntary sectors.
As a science fiction geek, I can’t help but find parallels from the world of film in real life and what is being proposed by David Cameron, especially when it comes to big business taking over some of ‘the states’ functions, is one of them.
Even is you’re not in to sci-fi, I’m sure most of us can think of at least one film where the story revolves around big business pulling the strings of government and government appearing to be unable (or unwilling) to do anything about it. One of my all time favourites is Harrison Ford’s Blade Runner, where the big corporation is run by a shadowy genius, who never leaves his penthouse, whilst wielding power over almost everything and everyone (including the police).
Today’s reality is not so stark. However, spare a thought for all those services that used to be, but are no longer, controlled by government. Gas, electricity, water, telephones, the post office, and the railways – I’m sure readers could think of a few more. Most people would immediately say that things are far better now, as these private companies bring the much needed investment to industries starved of it by government. I would agree with the last point, whilst questioning the first. Apart from the pathetic telephone services that existed in this country prior to privatisation, just about everything else seemed to work pretty much as advertised and just needed leadership and investment. Even more worrying and call me xenophobic if you must, many of the companies with their fingers on the light switch are now owned by foreign interests.
Government now wishes to farm out all the remaining services, whilst at the same time believing it can keep some level of control over the quality and cost to the end user. Standby by for more Ofwats, Ofgems, Ofcoms, etc, etc. Anybody think these regulators are doing a very good job for us?
Even more alarming is the government’s record on doing deals with the commercial world. The private finance initiatives used to build hundreds of public buildings, such as schools and hospitals, would be worthy of the world’s greatest conman, Bernie Madoff and his $50billion Ponzi scheme. Likewise, the MOD was a cash cow for the defence industry, that is only now being culled. This government bailed out the banks, continues to own large chucks of them (on behalf of taxpayers remember) yet remains unable to control their behaviour effectively. When it comes to dealing with the commercial world, time and time again, government seems to take a tiger by the tail, without having a clue how to get to the business end to put on the collar.
A bit like the Royal Air Force, this latest proposal means that local government has probably had its day. Of course central government will still need a local mechanism to deliver its agenda, but this will be no more than a contract monitoring office, staffed mainly by lawyers, bean counters and clerks.
Elected members can then be dispensed with, as an unnecessary encumbrance to what, without their interference, would be a straightforward set of business transactions. After all, if localism is about giving local people control, why would you need elected members to be advocates on behalf of the people who now have control?
The public service ethos will be maintained by exploiting the willingness of local voluntary groups to deliver those services the commercial world finds unattractive, because they don’t make the right level of profit.
Finally, any political representation required, to give the few people that actually bother to vote something to do, would be provided by the directly elected mayors, that will be imposed on us at some point in the future. This role will involve glad-handing, pretending to listen to the community and keeping an eye on the lawyers as they churn out all the contracts.
Just to finish on the sci-fi theme. David Cameron has said that the judiciary and security are not up for grabs. Robocop is all about an outsourced police force, where the dedicated cops on the street spend all their time being dropped in it because the greedy corporation that employs them, starves them of resources in order to increase profits. Never say never Dave!