Why the public sector should be in charge of public services in Peterborough

By the time this article is published we will have officially left the European Union, writes Cllr Shaz Nawaz, leader of the Labour group on Peterborough City Council in his weekly column.

Sunday, 2nd February 2020, 5:52 am
A picture taken on January 23, 2020 shows the European Union flag and the British Union Jack waving in front of the European Parliament in Brussels. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP) (Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images) SUS-200128-093544003

Some will celebrate, some will mourn, most, I suspect, will sigh with relief. “That’s that,” may be the thought, “at least it’s done.”

I hate to disabuse anyone with that notion, but it is more complicated than that. We have until the end of December to restructure our trading relationship with the European Union, which has hitherto been frictionless. How frictionless it remains will depend on our willingness to align to EU rules.

Put it another way: we wouldn’t let in products that didn’t adhere to our safety standards because we couldn’t sensibly be sure that they were all right for consumption by the public. There would have to be checks. These checks are time consuming and have a cost. How many of these do we want? How many will we tolerate in return?

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We will face these questions every time we sign a new trade deal. If it sounds complicated and tedious, that’s because it is. We will have to see if our current leadership has the skill, wisdom and work ethic to work through these complicated issues by the time we’re bidding farewell to 2020.

This brings us to a problem in government: what people want is generally simple. Brexit is a straightforward proposition: we want to leave the European Union. Also, we want the council to provide better roads and services. Achieving these wants, however, can be very complicated.

An active, competent government will plunge right into the detail and work it through. An overwhelmed government will try to push as many of its responsibilities away from itself, lest it get the blame. Hence, we see outsourcing: let the contractor deal with the complexity, all we have to do is pay them.

We also see privatisation: the government didn’t want to be responsible for telephones, electricity and water any longer, so it sold it off to the highest bidder. However, there is a flaw in that approach: by outsourcing, the motives and incentives change.

A private company is there to make money for its owners; a truly public service is there to serve the public. Can we say that the provision of our water and electricity has improved at the same rate as the price of these services has risen? Can we say that our council’s experience with procurement, favouring firms outside the city, has been an altogether happy one?

There is a myth that a more activist government is somehow more expensive. The question is, expensive for whom? The NHS is a leading example: its purchasing power as a large organisation helps keep our health care costs spiralling compared to American levels. But it is complicated and requires active participation by the state. The Labour Group is committed to the active management of our city; we believe it’s the only way to achieve the Peterborough we would all like to live in.