Why changing how public services are run and financed is off the agenda

How public services are funded and how they are run have been two central questions to dominate news and political conversations.

The scale of problems associated with the NHS, from the crisis in A&E to the scandals revealed in the Francis Report in Staffordshire, have all been about money and staffing.

And yet, as the General Election gets closer these two questions are moving into the background. It seems to me that whilst the headlines are all about poor funding and inadequate staffing levels, both of the major parties are not quite sure what the answers are. They would rather the discussion was focussed on the personalities and the gaffes (as much as they say they would rather concentrate on the issues).

We saw last week with the news that the new Greater Manchester body is to be given responsibility (or share it with existing NHS organisations) for all health spending that the major parties were not sure how to react. In a sense it was a counter intuitive response : the Conservatives who are supposed to be sceptical about the way Labour Councils are run, is in fact, transferring millions of pounds and responsibility for a range of services to an overwhelmingly Labour dominated new authority. And Labour, who are supposed to favour greater devolution, found themselves with their national spokesperson on Health being critical of the proposal. And (predictably) the news followed these two apparent contradictions.

I want to suggest that what they tell us is that neither party is clear (or confident) about what to do next.

The funding crises in the public sector is built in for the next five years. Austerity is not over we are about to move into the next phase – Austerity 2.0. The real discussion needs to be about what we are prepared to fund (both the level and the scale of service) and that avoiding either of those two questions does not help the public conversation.

Why the public realm still matters

 The idea of the ‘public realm’ is one which is unlikely to grab everyone’s attention. But it captures an important set of ideas and they are ones we tend to take for granted.

At its heart is the simple proposition that the health of a good society can be seen through its commitment to shared and collective provision of services from public health to education to welfare and social services.

In the late 19th century the urban centres of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow were places where this set of ideas had their expression through the provision of range of services including gas and electricity as well as libraries and parks. This age of city hall being the centre of a newly emerging public realm is an important historical moment. It sets up the expansion of the public realm  following the end of World War 2 with the NHS as well as key changes too in public education.

Why does this matter? And why now? It matters, I think, because we are at risk of forgetting the long history of state funded or locally funded investment in services which were about improving the quality of life as well as improving the health and education of society more broadly. Would we fund libraries now? Or would we assume that those who wanted access to books could go and buy them for themselves ? Would we fund art galleries from scratch – without the economic case or the business case which we make now?

The recent open letter (Who Is My Neighbour : A letter from the House of Bishops to the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015) reminded me of this past history. It makes the case – not just for public engagement with the debate and voting too  but also for a debate on what kind of society we are. It is a letter which sets out a particular case (based on the values and theology of the Church of England) and, at the same time too, makes the case for the ‘public realm’.

It argues for an healthy civil society which is itself a necessary pre-condition for a healthy democratic society too. Whilst, I think there are absences too in their analysis it is a good starting point for comparing the idea of a ‘public realm’ in which there is a sense of the shared and collective arrangements of services to the market in which provision of services is determined by price and demand not by values and an ethical framework. I will come back to this tension in the next series of postings.