Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Privatisation is being pushed off rails by voters. So why is Stormont committee recommending it?

DRD Minister Danny Kennedy
DRD Minister Danny Kennedy

Last Sunday, 83% of voters in a referendum in Berlin backed a move to take the power companies serving the city back into public ownership. The result came just weeks after Hamburg voted the same way.

Unlike in Hamburg, the Berlin vote isn't binding. The support of at least 25% of the eligible electorate is needed to carry a referendum. A turnout of only 29% meant that even the huge majority for the yes side wasn't enough.

On the same measurement, of course, only 17% of voters – 5% of eligible citizens – signalled they wanted the power supply to stay in private hands. German commentators say the main reason for the low turnout was that the result was seen by all as a foregone conclusion.

Opinion surveys suggest that the same attitudes prevail across Germany and are beginning to be seen as common sense in other European countries.

State and municipal ownership of the services people depend on is increasingly popular. Selling services off to private interests is increasingly unpopular.

People want the public sector to deliver essential services, because it is more efficient, more accountable and amenable and doesn't siphon resources into the coffers of outfits driven by hunger for profit.

In spite of all this, there's an element here in the north that never gives over about the public sector being too big and bloated, while calling for greater state support for private business and simultaneously demanding that the state get off business's back.

Few object to private companies getting a handout from the taxpayer in order to save, or create, jobs. But they'd like it if the private interests would show a little more gratitude every now and again; try to follow the more dignified example of welfare recipients.

The turbulent history of the East Coast line in Britain – from London to Aberdeen via Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh – illustrates how experience differs under the different systems.

The line was hacked off from the old British Rail network in 1995 and sold to Great North East Rail (GNER). When the GNER franchise expired in 2006, the National Express Group took over.

But, by 2009, the line had plunged into debt as the group forced fares up and investment down in an effort both to fund franchise costs and turn a profit.

National Express turned to – where else? – the state and asked the Labour government to take over again.

Four years on, the East Coast line is back on track. Far from needing the unfeasible subsidy eventually required by National Express, the state-owned Directly Operated Railways last year returned £270m to the taxpayer, while investing £40m in upgrading the service. Naturally, the Westminster coalition is now intent on flogging it off for a second time.

Let the public sector nurse the enterprise back into profit, then return it to the market at a knock-down price. A version of the old Royal Mail rope-a-dope trick.

The most recent poll shows that, by a majority of 58% to 21%, the British public doesn't want the line reprivatised. And all other recent surveys show a majority in favour of renationalising the whole network. There is also steady majority support for public ownership of gas and electricity.

A poll conducted by Survation in August suggested that the neo-liberal notion that public services should always be brought to the market unless there are compelling reasons not to do so is supported by fewer than one in 10 of the population; that four out of five people want the public to have a say before any scheme to privatise a public service goes ahead; and that the same proportion believes that, even when a decision has already been made to contract a service out, there should be a mandatory public sector bid for the contract.

So the majority of British people maintains a belief in public ownership of basic services.

The members of the all-party committee at Stormont which has recommended moves towards privatisation of the Belfast Rapid Transit Project might usefully put this in their pipes and smoke it, as a change from whatever it is they are smoking at the moment.

At least DRD Minister Danny Kennedy appears to have been keeping abreast of opinion.

Imagine that: an Ulster Unionist minister left standing up for the public service, while Sinn Fein, the SDLP and other self-proclaimed opponents of privatisation want private operators ushered into our public transport system.

And people say there has been no change in this place.

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