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The Policy Ask with Cat Hobbs: “It turns out my mum was right all along – it’s all about balance”

The campaigner for public ownership of public services on restoring the NHS and the value of routine.

By Spotlight

Cat Hobbs is the founder and director of We Own It, a campaigning organisation that seeks to protect and expand public ownership. She studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University and started out running a local rail campaign in Bristol. She worked at the Campaign for Better Transport, a credit union and a sustainability consultancy before starting We Own It.

How do you start your working day?

Green tea, porridge with berries, and a walk or run around the block or cycle to the office. I try to plan out my day and set my three main priorities. Over the years I’ve got a lot more organised and developed better habits – I’m learning the value of routines and planning!

What has been your career high?

So many highs! We’ve won quite a few victories in campaigning and making the case for public services for people not profit – from the NHS to buses. I think what makes me happiest now is that we’ve developed a really amazing team. When I started We Own It people would often ask “is it just you?” I’d have to say “yes” and they’d sometimes look at me like I’d lost the plot. Now we’re still small but I’m working with some really impressive and wonderful people in the team, incredibly passionate and committed supporters and donors and we’re linked in with brilliant wider networks of people.

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What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

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I think it was probably the moment I gave up the day job and went full-time at We Own It. For a few years I’d been doing communications for a sustainability consultancy part-time while getting We Own It off the ground. Having that buffer gave me some financial security, but at the start of 2016 I took the plunge and crossed my fingers that it would all work out!

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

I think campaigners can have this built-in issue, which is that we think we can change the world, and to have an impact we need to really believe that and claim our power, but then with power comes responsibility and it’s hard to know where the limits are. It turns out my mum was right all along – it’s all about balance…

Which political figure inspires you?

I think Caroline Lucas is absolutely amazing. She does so much and makes it look easy.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

It’s right that the government is allowing mayoral combined authorities to re-regulate the buses. Since Thatcher, bus passengers have been totally failed by deregulation and privatisation. Wales is consulting on regulating its whole network, Scotland is allowing local authorities to run buses directly, and, of course, Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester has committed to re-regulating the buses despite huge opposition from the private bus companies. Other cities are planning to follow in his footsteps. Next stop: reviewing the ban on councils owning and directly running bus services, which the government’s bus strategy says is “ripe for review”. Publicly owned Reading Buses shows us what’s possible – it reinvests an extra £3m into services because it doesn’t have to pay dividends. The best bus networks are both publicly regulated and publicly owned so they can be planned and run for passengers, not profit.

And what policy should the UK government ditch?

The government should ditch its 40-year extreme ideological fixation with privatisation, which means we’re all paying more and getting less – whether that’s outrageous energy bills or privatised water companies pouring raw sewage into our rivers because they don’t want to invest. Actually “taking back control” means having public services that work for all of us, not just a handful of shareholders. We need a mixed economy instead of insisting that private companies must do everything. Oh, and the government should ditch the plan to privatise Channel 4, like yesterday. Industry doesn’t want this sell-off and neither do three out of four Conservative voters.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

It’s hard to choose – there are so many countries where public ownership is the norm for public services and it means people have more money in their pocket and a higher quality of life. Public transport in Switzerland is a great example. The Swiss invest properly in their public transport and it’s run for people not profit. Their railway is the best in Europe and it links in with “clockface” trams and buses. Every village of 300 people or more can rely on a regular service.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

Reinstate the NHS as a fully public service, end outsourcing and stop the real-terms cuts, invest in our NHS. I believe our NHS is the best thing this country has ever created but we’ve wasted so much money on private companies (like the £37bn spent on privatised Test and Trace). Reinstating the NHS without private companies and providing proper funding would be a hugely popular, common-sense policy. Patients would benefit, staff (who’ve sacrificed so much) would benefit and we could all rely on the NHS again. That kind of policy would give people peace of mind. We wouldn’t have to worry about our health and could trust that the NHS will be there for our children and grandchildren.

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