The debate on privatisation has shifted so suddenly and dramatically that privatised industries are panicking as they try to justify the unjustifiable.
There is huge public support for public ownership. This was the inspiration for We Own It but has only just been discovered – really discovered – by the mainstream press. Recent polling by the Legatum Institute shows 83 per cent of us want water in public hands, 77 per cent want energy to be publicly owned, and 76 per cent support public rail.
Public ownership is wildly popular, and thanks to Labour’s manifesto pledges, it’s now on the political agenda like never before.
Industries that like water, rail and energy are under scrutiny. Privatisation, remember, was supposed to give us a stake in the British economy, reduce prices and improve services. Its actual track record is abysmal.
The dream of a shareholding nation, of course, never really came true – most British company shares are owned by foreign investors.
But more importantly, this is a story of taking advantage – we’ve all been ripped off, consistently, on a massive scale.
Regulated rail fares have increased by 24 per cent in real terms since privatisation. The private monopoly delivers well for rail firms who take very little risk for their return. State owned railways from Germany, Holland and Italy make a profit from passengers here and send it home to improve their own railways.
Energy firms have overcharged us by around £1bn a year, according to Citizens Advice, thanks to Ofgem allowing “sky high” profits at the expense of consumers (Ofgem contests the calculation). National Grid profits flow to investors in Australia, China and Qatar.
The water industry’s record is perhaps the most scandalous. Debt has gone from zero to a mountain of £42bn, while shareholders extract 12 per cent profit year after year. Water companies have repeatedly polluted our rivers with raw sewage while increasing our bills by 40 per cent in real terms.
Should we learn the lessons of the past? Absolutely. The public ownership of the future needs to be smart and self aware.
Let’s invest properly to boost the long term value of public assets, support jobs and make our economy greener (instead of underinvesting as the government did with British Rail). Let’s build public ownership with the right culture, management and incentives. Let’s create accountable, transparent institutions that give us, the public, a real say.
But let’s not pretend that privatisation can deliver what we want, or that we have “choice” in a “market” when we get on a train or run a tap. Or that wasting profits on shareholders instead of reinvesting them is somehow “efficient”.
We Own It never talks about renationalising because we can’t go back. We need to go forward and localise, regionalise and nationalise.
The national level is vital but we also need to give local authorities the capacity to provide responsive, accountable services to their communities, instead of cutting them to the bone.
Bringing rail franchises in house as they expire would cost us nothing and we could gradually build an integrated network that puts passengers first. When the East Coast line was run in public ownership it was the most efficient franchise in the UK.
Bringing energy into public ownership means encouraging local public energy companies like Robin Hood Energy and Bristol Energy – in Germany these have 50 per cent of the market. It also means buying the National Grid and distribution networks, which would pay for itself in 10 years.
Bringing water into public ownership by creating regional public water companies would save us £1.8bn a year on shareholder profits. In Scotland, water is already publicly owned – as it is in Paris and cities around the world.
These are perfectly sensible policies in the tradition of mainstream European social democracy.
Privatisation can’t be justified; the rip off has gone on long enough. The public deserves better and they know it.
Cat Hobbs is the founder and director of We Own It, a campaigning organisation making the case for public ownership. This article was a response to “Labour’s nationalisation plans ignore some awkward historical facts”.