Monday, November 15, 2010

What Are Public Services For? Reflections on Res_Publica's Report on Community Ownership of Public Assets

Philip Blond, director of think tank Res_Publica, advocates allowing local communities in Britain to take over failing state-owned assets in order to run them as community enterprises.

At the heart of the concept is what Res_Publica describe as a

"shift in emphasis from public spending to public investment."

The fact that the launch of today's report, To Buy, to Bid, to Build: Community Rights for an Asset Owning Democracy was attended by Greg Clark MP, Minister of State for Local Government and Communities, lends credence to the critics of Res_Publica that the think tank is too close to the Conservative Party.

Certainly, an article in today's Morning Star criticises the report and sees it as paving the way for the "Ultimate Sell Off" of public assets, including hospitals, schools and libraries.

At the heart of the Star's critique is an interesting quote from Andrew Fisher:

"Leisure centres and libraries meet social needs. They should not be run for profit no matter who owns them."

Some questions occur to me for both Res_Publica and Morning Star (should they not have better things to do than read this blog):

1) How does Fisher define a "social need"? Is food a social need? If so, does the Marxist world view that underpins Morning Star logically lead to statist-capitalism, where the state (albeit in the name of the working classes) owns all property and directs its use?

2) If "social needs" are defined more narrowly, the question of profit still requires examination. If we accept that there is room for a "not-for profit" sector within the economy, who or what should occupy that space? Soup kitchens? Homeless shelters? Swimming pools? Libraries?

It is interesting to note that many groups that have traditionally occupied the non-profit sector in the UK (charities, primarily) have been at the forefront of running profitable enterprises in recent decades, rather than relying exclusively on traditional fund-raising methods. The host of charity shops occupying commercial space on every high street in Britain have, in turn, contributed to an upsurge in social enterprises which have sought to combine and integrate business with socially beneficial or charitable ends. Examples in my own city of Bristol include Aspire; nationally, the Divine Chocolate Company.

3) Is Fisher of the opinion that profit per se is inherently undesirable? This perspective is, in my view, limiting and self-defeating. The desire to benefit from one's labour is a natural and ethical human instinct, in my opinion. Having said that, it is an instinct that is capable of unethical outworking. Witness BP's careless destruction of the physical environment, XE's profiteering from the illegal war in Iraq, or the creation of products which serve no social use.

4) Are Res_Publica concerned about their perceived closeness to the Conservative Party? Do they see their social policy ideas as capable of adoption across the political spectrum? Is Philip Blond's Red Toryism really red? Or mostly Tory?

5) Have Morning Star and Res_Publica thought of getting together for a pint and a natter? The Star, after all, is owned by a worker's cooperative (The People's Printing Press Society), the kind of employment vehicle that has received much praise from Res_Publica in recent years.

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