Our public services are in steep decline. Can we change track?

Some of the failures we've seen recently would shame a Third World country

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The Independent Online

We have, as a country, some big decisions to make. Sadly most of those will not be debated seriously in next year’s election campaign. Instead, it will consist mainly of a fantasy debate on the deficit  and tax and spend, alongside caricatures  of the party leaders.

But the actual choices are real, deep and will determine the type of country we want to become. Their importance is exemplified by the familiar story of travel chaos over Christmas – and in particular the vivid image of crowds crammed dangerously into the small Finsbury Park station in  north London.

Some mainline stations were closed. Engineering work had overrun as usual. An alternative starting point in north London was chosen, one wholly ill-equipped to meet the demand. I cycled past Finsbury Park and the packed, fearful atmosphere outside the station would have shamed a Third World country.

Later that day I got an email from a friend of which the following is an extract: “Today I wanted to go to Biggleswade (I’m a man of modest ambition...) but even this the Gods decided to deny to me, choosing  as their human agents the planners at Network Rail who have fallen into a situation of having Paddington, Euston  and now Kings Cross all closed at the  same time. I got to Finsbury Park and  was caught up in a scrum that was edging towards the frightening.”

Here is our first choice as a country, one with wider implications. Do we want to live in a land where, during peak travel times, it is impossible to get from North London to Biggleswade in Bedfordshire? Or do we have higher ambitions?

It appears we have already made the decision. We accept the squalid chaos at Finsbury Park. I draw this conclusion on the basis that we have tolerated the intolerable for many years now; that is, some of the most expensive train fares in the world, unreliable, overcrowded trains and a culture that aims to deliver the minimum for passengers while extracting as much cash from them as is possible. But I suspect that if there were a proper public debate the choice would be different.

 

The cause of the squalor, as with other increasingly fractured public services, is partly structural. If you pose the deadly question, “Who is accountable to whom?” the answer is never straightforward. Network Rail is responsible for the infrastructure and took the decisions that led to the overrunning of engineering work and the absurd use of a frenzied Finsbury Park. The rail regulator is ready to fine Network Rail for its incompetence but any fine is virtually meaningless. In effect passengers will pay for it. Network Rail cannot go bust. Its managers will continue to earn their high salaries. Some bonuses will be paid. The supposedly mighty Transport Secretary huffs and puffs but has lost the power to do very much.

So, instead, bewildered passengers seek compensation from the train companies, but on this occasion they were not responsible for the cock-ups. As I was describing the mad, dysfunctional structure to a GP yesterday, he noted that there were many similarities with the way the NHS is being restructured. There, blurred lines of responsibility make the railways seem like a model of simple good sense.

The state of the health service demands an even more urgent public debate. Once again we won’t get a proper one during the election campaign. But I note that both the shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, and the Liberal Democrats’ health minister, Norman Lamb, have spoken of the need for one in the next parliament.

In the case of the railways and even more in relation to the NHS the debate cannot solely be about governance, important though that is. There is also the key question of resources. Do we want high-class care for the elderly and a properly functioning health service? Or do we accept the squalor of some nursing homes and the lottery in which some will lose all their savings to pay for this poorly regulated care?

Paying taxes is presented in this country as a “burden”. Yet for selfish reasons I would pay a health tax if it guaranteed a decent national care service in the future. Most other voters would too. I would consider such a proposition to be a bargain, a good investment, rather than the alternative of waiting to see whether every penny saved is required to pay for dodgy elderly care at some future date. Earlier this year I argued that instead of a destabilising referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, we should have a plebiscite on whether or not we back an earmarked health tax to address the demands of a growing elderly population – a far more urgent issue than Europe. It will not happen. The Treasury has a collective nervous collapse when targeted taxation is proposed. It would not be able to cope with the idea of a referendum to legitimise a tax increase. But without such a device other ways must be found to have a grown up debate about how an affluent country can meet the demands of its civilian population.

Although the election campaign will be largely puerile, we already have hints as to where the parties stand on the question of how to handle public services. In the Autumn Statement – unexpectedly the most significant domestic political event of the year – George Osborne outlined sweeping spending cuts over the next few years. Not only does he want to wipe out the deficit, he seeks to build up a big surplus towards the end of the next parliament, despite the introduction of some large tax cuts. Even on his terms the planned cuts mark a return to the quality of public life in 1999, before the last Labour government began to invest in services. This was a point when the UK’s services were being compared badly with those of eastern European countries.

I assume therefore that David Cameron and George Osborne have made their choice on the bigger questions relating to the quality of public service provision in the UK. Presumably they are content to live in a country where a passenger is crammed into a Tube station so packed it resembles a badly managed football crowd, to then wait for a train to Biggleswade that never comes. Without falling into all the fantasy “tax and spend” traps that distort the pre-election landscape, Ed Miliband must show he has higher ambitions for a country with some defining choices ahead.

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