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A new ‘nationalisation’ of essential Public Services is necessary to help head off the Cost-of-Living Crisis. But Public Sector reform, removal of union influence and practical reality is essential too

October 14, 2021 Leave a comment

Any service necessary for each every one of us to function in our daily activities and continue to be an active member of society should be shielded from the constraints and bias of private interests and maintained under impartial public or community control.

Yet this is not where we are in the UK today. The problems that having so many public facing services under the direct control or heavy influence of private, profit-making interests is now impacting our lives like never before.

First things first. My reason for writing about ‘Nationalisation’ today is of course related to the energy crisis being caused by escalating prices of natural gas supplies which are being brought in from Europe and beyond.

It is important to be clear here that the price of these supplies before they reach the UK wouldn’t matter whoever is in control of utility companies across the UK.

But the fact that we are in the situation that we now are says more about the way that Government has dealt with the energy question for a long time, and how successive governments have failed us strategically over and over again.

This is where I will refocus onto the rather pressing question of who controls public energy provision in the UK and therefore the ongoing cost.

The pathway to today’s mess

Privatisation was probably the most damaging legacy of the Thatcher years. Not because the many Public Companies that were sold off didn’t need to be run better or placed in more capable hands as they most certainly did.

Privatisation was inherently damaging because that ‘Conservative’ Government failed to recognise that any shareholder-led business will always put the value of their business and what they earn from it before anything else. When handed a virtual monopoly, the owners of private ‘industries’ will ultimately dictate the prices of everything so that their margins rise and are maintained first.

Yes, a public sell-off sold to us all under the premise that we could all become owners of the services that worked for us sounded like a great plan. And it might have been, if all those shares that started off in small tranches sat in the back pockets of welders, builders and secretaries hadn’t been sold off when the promise of a quick return quickly passed them all into large corporate and deep-pocketed hands.

On the face of it, it seems extraordinary that the so-called Party of Business could not have foreseen that with the wider changes that they were facilitating and contributing at the time, this is how things would soon be.

But as we are learning to our continuing and significant cost, foresight and thought for the impact of decisions and what will then happen when the chain of subsequent decisions are six or seven times

removed are in short supply when our current crop of politicians are involved.

The reality today is that the energy sector doesn’t exist to provide us all with light, heat, electricity with the purpose of serving the public in the best ways that it can.

The UK energy sector today exists to provide dividends and profit to shareholders with a level of power and influence that our politicians gave it, which guarantees that it can.

The fact that private interests can command profit levels which leave parents, families and people both old and young who live on their own, rationing their power and heat, is an absolute travesty.

With all the related personal harms that follow, such as anxiety, social issues, food poverty (where heat and power is prioritised), it is incredible that any government – Conservative, Labour or anything else – wouldn’t see and prioritise addressing this matter as a No.1 cause.

Re-Nationalisation & Cultural Reform of the Public Sector

But here we are.

We have to consider the other questions around returning to public ownership and the provision of energy in the UK today and tomorrow first.

The Labour Party is talking about Nationalisation again. And in terms of the principle of returning public services to public or community-focused ownership, I would certainly have to agree.

However, what would be as bad, if not worse than what we have and what people are experiencing today, would be for all of these companies, industries and sectors just to be returned to a situation where civil servants and union barons have control.

With the public sector in desperate need from the sclerotic, protectionist environment and culture that it now is, the last thing the UK public would need is for energy to be under the control of people who hide behind their job titles to excuse their ineptitude by being ‘public servants’. It is an entire sector living in fear of wokeism and everything that could lose them their comfortable salaries and pensions.

As such you can be certain that these re-nationalised services handed back to the Public Sector as it is would immediately capitulate to union control.

Let’s be quite fair about Unions. There was a time when they provided a great service to the low paid and to mistreated employees. The Union Movement certainly precipitated and even facilitated great and positive change.

But that was a Century ago, and with even a fraction of the rules and regulations around employment that now exist, Unions have long since become an archaic device that does nothing more than further the self interest of a few by pushing damaging industrial action. And just like with the banks and big company fat cats, it is the general public that ends up paying the inevitable price.

So whatever model of Nationalisation that were undertaken, it would be essential that public sector reform and the removal of union influence be right at the top of the policy change list, and that is where some of the biggest political controversies lie. Or at least they do at the current time.

The model would most certainly not work if it was anything near to being like the publicly owned model of service companies from the 1970’s and before. But there are ways that a good operational model that priorities service to the public first can be achieved and run on very commercial lines. Just as long as the governance and the people who are able to influence those systems of government are the right people with the right values to do that job.

Energy Provision must be practical today with idealism helping us do things better for tomorrow

Going around in what feels like a bit of a circle, we now come back to the issue at hand today.

Beyond the immediacy of the impending ‘energy crisis’ itself, the issue is UK energy self-sufficiency; How we maintain that self-sufficiency and how we meet the fluctuations of domestic and business demands night and day, seven days a week and 365 days of the year.

Right now, the UK isn’t achieving this. That is why small energy companies are going bust as they cannot supply energy to customers at the prices they have committed themselves to.

It’s why the monopolistic members of this exclusive utility club are piling pressure on Ofgem and the Government to be unleashed from the restraints of price caps that will allow them to charge whatever it costs them to buy wholesale energy – whilst maintaining or continuing to grow profits and dividend payments that will just extend the unnecessary and avoidable pain that is steadily affecting the lives of us all.

Whilst we have to wake up to the risk to us all that climate change has created, and accept that the ideas, habits and thinking behind them now have to change, we cannot allow impractical idealism rule over the process if we want to achieve aimed for result, without causing a lot more harm and pain.

Green Energy is expensive to the public, because it isn’t as efficient, reliable and doesn’t offer providers the same kind of returns as traditional sources of energy with technology and management in its current form.

Making Public Policy commitments and setting timelines to phase out technology that works now, is proven and is reliable on the basis of alternatives that are unproven, not evolved to a workable degree or haven’t even been developed yet is government and political foolishness in the extreme.

It is incredible that power stations have already been decommissioned that could have now still been in use. And before anyone one starts to argue about the need to stop using fossil fuels for this purpose – which most will readily agree must happen as soon as we can provide alternatives consistently that make sense to do so – please take a good look at what China and other Countries with significantly higher carbon footprints are doing right now.

One of those alternatives, at least for a realistic and continuing period of time, has to be a greater reliance on our own UK Nuclear Power production and the development of smaller reactors that may be easier to commission and put into service, making energy production localised as quickly as possible once more.

We are not safe from foreign or malign interest of any kind for as long as these services that are essential to our lives remain out of public hands.

It should now be the priority of government run by whoever in power it might be, to return the UK to full self sufficiency of energy production in whatever form necessary to achieve this in the shortest time.

Once we our energy self-sufficient and only when we are, the priority must then be to promote the development of the greenest alternatives possible, ensuring that they are always available, are reliable and that they make being green a voluntary and easy choice, rather than one which is imposed by law or default.

Great British Railways: Yes Minister, you can change the wrapping, but that won’t remove the structural rot and make rail travel the public service it should be for us all

Before anything else, Railways are a public service, and it is important to recognise what a public service really is or should be.

Public services are the essential services that every member of society should be able to access so that they have the same essential opportunities that everyone should have in life. Public services are usually run by Government or the Public Sector for the benefit of everyone. Either alone or collectively public services are run on the basis that they will provide universal access for the public to the service or services they provide. The master that calls the tune of public services should always be the public itself. One of the key reasons public services are in public hands is the intrinsic truth that providing a universal service means that provision in some locations will be cost effective and in some locations it will not. Public services are run objectively, not subjectively in the way that profit-led services are. Public services are created, maintained and developed for the benefit of us all.

The drive to privatise public services in the 80s and 90s has proven to be one of the Conservatives most destructive steps on the pathway to making the basic building blocks of life unaffordable for the poor.

A series of privatisations like British Telecom and British Gas were sold to us as an opportunity for normal people to take ownership of the services that are provided for us all.

Yet the decision to sell off public services was based on a flawed economic theory expounding the principle that free markets left alone to regulate themselves would ultimately look after and support us all.

The privatisation of public or municipally owned bus companies and franchising of the Rail Network was fundamentally the same. Despite the heavy element of government subsidies being paid even now, the result has been the changing of service priorities from public service to private profit, and that has had implications for us all.

The neoliberal approach to policy and public ownership adopted under the Thatcher regime was the toxic part or downside of the 1980’s Conservative legacy. It created a ticking time bomb that is now in the process of going off with an explosion of implications that are there for us all to see.

Public services are always cut or reformed with an inevitable loss of quality when they fall into private hands, no matter the promises that are made when the process is underway to sell them off or award them to contractors to run. Government subsidies do not matter and in all likelihood make the situation worse as they’re just a way of transferring wealth directly into shareholder hands.

British Railways are at a crossroads where the COVID pandemic has precipitated a steep fall. With private rail operators literally handing contracts back, the situation has literally forced government hands.

The solution that Transport Minister Grant Shapps is now giving us, is the creation of the ‘new’ Great British Railways brand.

Yes, the packaging may take on the look and appearance of a restructure. But the action taken by this Government will do nothing to address the institutional problems embedded within the UK railways system and the way it is operated.

Politically speaking, this is not just a Conservative problem. Labour are historically up to their necks in it too.

Employment rights, an unworkable zero-risk approach to safety and the working time directives that left wing progressives have pursued at every turn created an institutional problem for all public services and the structures of government. The focus on staffing conditions rather than the services they offer has made staff too expensive to afford under ‘public management’ and made a significant list of problems that an organisation as big as the UK rail network faces significantly worse.

Throw into the mix the self-serving influence of union barons, that is no better than the greed and profiteering of greedy bankers at its absolute worst and you have a recipe a disaster, rather than there being any sensible kind of choice when the whole system falls into disarray.

No government or politician can fix the problems that the railways face without addressing all of the different areas of public policy which have influence on the situation leading to the railways demise.

Lack of understanding of how railways and all forms of public transport function and operate has become an endemic flaw within the foundations upon which public transport policy is now made.

For instance, HS2 was never needed in the form of a completely new and separate transport infrastructure. Not when the real questions facing the railways and its management only extend to infrastructure when station capacity and the turnaround of trains at terminus stations in Towns and Cities like London is involved.

Throwing money at the Railways or simply restructuring them will not address the problems that need to be solved.

There is nothing to be gained by either renationalising the railways or continuing to attempt to run this vital public service by placing it in other private hands. 

Until such time as our politicians are big enough and prepared to enact the reforms and development of public policy that will facilitate public ownership of public services to run in the best interests of everyone, Rail services should be placed into the hands of non-profit making trusts. Our Railways should be run as a business by ethical, commercially experienced managers and executives who are motivated to run public services in the most efficient and professional manner and without the expectation that has become endemic throughout the public sector that executives don’t have to worry about income and how they provide value to customers, because their wages will always be paid.

It sounds like a tall order. But this is not something that is impossible to do. It just takes imagination and politicians leading us who have the will to do it, rather than concentrating and focusing on only doing whatever avoids the problem and at the same time makes them look good.  

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