Friday, 24 May 2013

Not the big society About three years ago I was told first hand by someone closely involved in propaganda for the new government, that a group of officials had made a visit to Finland to collect examples of big society behaviour. The prize specimen, most proudly displayed in conversation on their return, was to do with groups of residents who filled the potholes in their own roads. Apparently this was it. The great Cameronian idea was that citizens did not feel they had to depend on their local authority to repair their roads: they got together and did it themselves. I waited for some explanation as to why this made sense, but none was forthcoming – the story just stopped there, as if it was self-evidently beneficial all round. Outside my window this afternoon, a truck drew up. Two men got out and took about 10 minutes to effect a thorough repair to a glaring pothole. I have reasonable confidence that they knew what they were doing, having done it before. Some of my neighbours might know what to do – what ingredients to use, what mix, what order they should go in, the optimum temperature for the sealing tar, etc – but I certainly wouldn’t. If asked to make a contribution to those costs, I wouldn’t really want to have to make another contribution in a year’s time because we got it wrong. I take reassurance from the fact that the highways department, whose decisions are monitored more or less thoroughly by democratically elected representatives, is in a position to know what is needed, can buy the materials in bulk, has access to experienced workers who do quite a lot of this county-wide, and can carry out quality control. I’m no more expert on economics than the folk in the Treasury seem to be, but I believe the phrase ‘economies of scale’ is relevant here. The local state is the logical steward for maintaining our roads, and fortunately the folly of the pothole-filling principle never took root. As with the hugely expensive privatisation of services, I think the overall point is that this government wouldn’t want an ideological obsession to be obstructed by the possibility of doing things more efficiently, fairly and less expensively.

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