Saturday, 21 May 2011

What are councils for? Why do taxpayers invest in services like education which don't help people to understand why taxpayers should invest in services? Uncritical and uninformed condemnation of the notion of state services funded through taxation is so embedded in our society and heavily reinforced by our media, it comes as a surprise to find even a public sector broadcaster taking steps to redress the balance. The beeb went to a street in Preston, withdrew council services for six weeks and reimbursed people with their council tax. The programme involved quite a lot of interference, juggling with the logic of relations between different public services, economies of scale, the need for expertise and adherence to the law, and so forth. The result, The street that cut everything, can be seen here for a few more days. I will pass over the trampled ethics of powerfully invasive forces, like television and all its accoutrements, provoking disagreements between neighbours. One of the more easy-going of the televised residents observed,'you don't realise how dark it is, do you, when you turn the lights out'. The turning-off of street lights was an eye-opener, you might say. And it helps to keep the metaphors simple. On the whole, what happened was that people came to realise the point of paying for, and the complexity of, public services, some more readily than others. The woman who says at the outset, with regard to her council tax, 'I just can't see any value for money' completely revises her opinion at the end. Behind that, there were curiosities, like the single mother insisting 'I'm not used to relying on anybody' without acknowledging that the state support she receives might just count. With creaky logic, although the council 'doesn't exist', the programme makers require residents to invest in other council services by volunteering their time. So we see two neighbours cleaning city centre public toilets with the poignant observation, "If you wanna use 'em you should be prepared to clean 'em." And why not? What is to stop us organising a rota so that council money is saved and we all contribute to the maintenance of such an essential public resource? Pragmatic democracy, anyone? The big society theorists may have been missing a trick. Start with the bogs. Has anyone done the arithmetic I wonder? Depending on population obviously, it might be a duty you'd have to carry out a couple of hours in a year. Not quite the same as jury service I know but the idea's there. John Crace in the Guardian suggests the programme helps to explain why 'the big society is probably a doomed project': 'However much people might talk up their community credentials, when given the financial choice most are only really happy to pay for the services they believe they benefit from directly and not for those they might one day need or are required by the more vulnerable. So a civilised society depends on a state which removes that choice.' That seems a little cynical...

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