One of the most tedious aspects of this Institute's work over the past 13 years has been the ridicule which initially greeted most of our ideas and which is (or was) so symptomatic of a nation imbued with outmoded notions of 'public works' and 'service to the community'. You will recall what the professional doomsayers said about water, gas and electricity privatisation. 'Who benefits?' 'How can this help the consumer?' they asked. And yet who now can doubt the rewards that the free market has brought to areas of our national life once moribund under public ownership? Certainly we hear no complaints from the Government, or the new shareholders, or the executives of these liberated monopolies. All of these have been enriched, ergo the nation is richer. This, we think, is the truth that Adam Smith himself was driving at in The Wealth of Nations.
Today, however, we detect something of a diminuendo in official enthusiasm for the philosophy which has so radically transformed the nation's fortunes. Railway and coal legislation has not progressed as fast as we had hoped (though we are pleased with privatisation of the school inspectorate). It is time, we suggest, to think the unthinkable once again if the Government is to regain its philosophic momentum.
Which brings us to pavements. Throughout the country the vast majority of pavements remain in public ownership. Many are in bad condition. Accidents caused by uneven flagstones are a drain on the national wealth, via compensation paid by insurance companies and the treatment offered by the National Health Service. This need not be. There is nothing inviolably public about pavements, any more than there was about water or is still about roads (see our monograph on road-pricing).
History has lessons for us here. A little-known pamphlet by Jonathan (Dean) Swift in 1729 puts the case well. 'It is a melancholy object to those who walk through the towns,' Swift wrote, 'when they see the Streets, the Roads, and the Pavements crowded with beggars importuning every Passenger for alms, a sorry emblem of the quaint notion of Public Property. For, how can our Citizens appreciate the true worth of their walkways, and be assured efficient and speedy passage, when those who gain little ambulatory value from pavements must pay as dearly as those who live, sleep and have their very being on this Public Provision.'
Discount what some suggest is Swift's ironic intention in this passage from his A Modest Proposal. The fact is that some of Swift's stoutest followers were the proprietors of London's first railway company, and at the side of their line from Southwark to Greenwich they built a path or pavement which pedestrians might use at the cost of one penny. The growing municipal improvement - and unfair competition - of London's streets cut off this experiment in its prime. But that, in our view, is where Britain, fattened and made idle by its early start in the industrial revolution, went wrong.
Pavements are an opportunity, perhaps the last and greatest opportunity in the unfinished revolution of the free market. It is quite remarkable that after 13 years of Conservative government people still expect to be able to get away with paying so little for pavements. Placing them in private hands would make it possible to charge profitably for the use of pavements at source. Different grades of pavement will, of course, demand different prices. For example, rubber-sprung pavements in Enterprise Zones would be more expensive to use than old-fashioned stone or aggregate pavements which are much harder on the feet.
To provide maximum consumer choice, privatised roadside walkways could be widened and divided into three types of pavement: an inner band paved with rubber (or even gold in areas such as Knightsbridge), providing a luxury walking experience at upmarket prices; a middle 'heritage' band offering Regency-style York stone slabs; and an outer band nearest the traffic.
This outer band (whose users regularly risk a drenching in heavy rainfall) could be provided at low cost by companies operating on small profit margins. They could be paved with ex- public-sector paving stones or simply left unpaved, making do with compacted sand, tarmac or refuse. Senior citizens, the disabled, those on low incomes and the unemployed, can rest assured that there would be an affordable low-cost service for them.
A Pavement Regulatory Authority would be set up to maximise commercial opportunities. Franchises could be sold to companies offering services including shoe-repair, shoe-shining, pavement art, life assurance and mortage-broking. Charges to pavement users would be, of course, entirely a matter for individual companies. Pedestrians would be able to pay per metre walked using a charge card that would give access to either executive, heritage or senior citizen pavements.
Many publicly owned pavements are so dismally subfusc that city centres present an unwelcoming aspect to overseas visitors. Private companies would be encouraged to enliven our streets with colourful pavements, thus providing a welcome boost to the British design industry. British paving design and expertise promises to become an invaluable export achiever, with rich rewards for companies with the requisite vision and entrepreneurial flair.
We believe that privatisation of British pavements would be an important step forward in halting yet another absurdity of public sector financing and provision.
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