Public institutions are being felled – now can we accept that privatisation is a disaster?

The felling of Sheffield trees offers a broader lesson

Image: Natalie Bennett

The long-running saga of the felling of Sheffield trees by a private company took a new turn last week, with the final outstanding charges dropped against the total of 14 people who had been arrested for peaceful protests defending the health and wellbeing of their communities.

The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to proceed with any of the charges, meaning the actions of the contractor, Amey, and Sheffield City Council will not face court scrutiny, although the actions of the South Yorkshire Police in making those arrests, and apparently acting as an agent of the multinational Amey, do come into focus.

But it is important not to lose sight of the broader issue here, which is privatisation.

What is happening to Sheffield’s trees — the felling of healthy, valuable, contributing institutions in the interests of profits — is only one highly visible example of what is being done to our NHS, to our prison and probation services, to social housing under right-to-buy, to all of the public services that have been subjected to the ideologically driven agenda of handing over public services to private, for-profit hands.

We were told that the private sector would be more efficient, that it would take on the risks of service provision, that services would improve. We know these were lies.

Privatisation is a model that is built on three things: cutting the pay and conditions of workers, cutting the quality of services, and shovelling public money into private hands.

The cuts in pay and conditions of workers have been disastrous for the workers affected and their families, with midwives, teachers, social workers, refuse collectors, fire fighters and many others facing a further nine per cent cut in real pay by 2020, after a 15 per cent cut between 2010 and 2015.

The explosion in the number of workers on zero-hours contracts has been much highlighted — but the role of privatisation, which has seen many public sector workers who were in secure, modestly-decently paid roles in the past but have now been tipped into the untender arms of giant multinational service contractors — is under-discussed.

Jobs to build a life on

The end of jobs that workers could build a life on while delivering stable, decent public services also left communities stuck in a spiral of economic decline. Those workers don’t have the money in their pockets to spend in local cafes, the opportunity to upgrade their homes, or enjoy even basic leisure that others take for granted – and local businesses in their community also suffer.

The costs are high — and money that might have been spent on services is tipped into the pockets of giant multinational companies, and
all too often then into tax havens.

In the most extreme cases we’ve also seen the public assets that were cavalierly handed over also mortgaged to the hilt — the water companies being the poster boys for this bloodsucking approach — while the promise of competition, always nonsensical, has proved as illusory in this sector as it has in the provision of energy by the Big Six companies.

What privatisation has also done is removed democratic accountability for the actions of the state and its failure to meet the basic needs of citizens. This is most pernicious in prisons, jails and criminal justice. If the state is going to use its coercive power against citizens, there should be an elected person directly, immediately responsible, to be held to account if that power is abused.

But it is disastrous for democracy in every case for when questions are asked —as in the case of Sheffield trees — about the terms of the contract, about the decisions being made, the veil of ‘commercial confidentiality’ descends, the thick black ink of the redactor making Freedom of Information a mockery.

And that in the end, if the private sector finds it can’t make the expected profits, it simply walks away. We shouldn’t forget G4S leaving it to the military to provide security for the Olympics, Circle handing back Hitchingbrooke Hospital, when National Express pulled out of the East Coast mainline train services. Then the state must
step back in to rescue the situation.

Politics is at a crossroads now. The model that you might call neoliberalism or neo-Thatcherism — that has pushed privatisation, concluded that greed is good, inequality doesn’t matter and we can keep trashing the planet — is clearly on its last legs.

Building something new

It’s time to build something new, in our politics and our institutions. That means acknowledging the failures of the past, and one of the biggest and most damaging of those has been privatisation.

One practical model of the way forward is provided by the NHS Reinstatement Bill, which would remove the damaging, hugely expensive purchaser/provider, ban for-profit providers and restore the Secretary of State’s responsibility to provide services.

It means all workers providing the services we need and use being paid a genuine living wage, not George Osborne’s fake living wage, open accountability for spending and investment, and above all democratic control over the essential services and infrastructure that supports our lives.

All of that needs to be funded by a fair, progressive taxation system in which multinational companies and rich individuals pay their way.

It means big changes, but one things clear, the status quo, continuation of the bleeding dry of public services for private profit, of trading on the goodwill and compassion of staff while their pay is slashed and conditions undercut, the reducing quality of services, cannot continue.

As spring awakens in Sheffield and trees saved by peaceful protesters spring into leaf, cleaning the air around them, helping prevent flooding, contributing to human health, we can look to a new flowering in politics — a rejection of the tired, discredited old model of privatisation, to be replaced by a model that puts public good before private profit.

Natalie Bennett is a former Green Party leader and a prospective parliamentary candidate for Sheffield Central

See: Never-ending austerity is a threat to our social rights

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