The diversity of public ownership


This past week has been full of portents of the times to come as the oil available at viable prices, regardless of any momentary fluctuations, runs out.

For instance, the American Congress, of all people, voted to increase subsidies to the state-run local railways and public transport systems that will be a vital way for people to get around as oil-dependent cars become unaffordable and replacement technologies unavailable.

Similarly, in Pakistan, and in Nigeria, there were increased calls for local governments and publicly accountable bodies to control energy supplies. This follows April's riots over power shortages in Pakistan. Nigeria is involved in high-level talks with Venezuela to study models of how to do that, and has been considering the Putin and Asian Petronas examples of state oil control closely.

In Britain, a new group was launched to make the railways accountable to their customers by the Co-operative Party, which is affiliated very closely to Labour. As someone involved in the Campaign for Public Ownership, soon to go live, I am very glad of the effort.

Having spent time in university land and the furthest orbits of the law, I am also aware of how chartered universities and colleges are public institutions protected from direct interference on the part of the state, though unfortunately dependent on its funding apparatus.

I'd like that to change, so that colleges, schools and universities were freer to provide for the public without state interference but still chartered public bodies--a bit like a BBC with a popularly elected Board of Trustees and Director. That would imply rights to set their own fees, to control their own endowments, and to sidestep the more complex or offensive recommendations of government inspectors.

It is only a matter of time now before collapses in world markets make the funny-money private finance initiative 'yesterday's game'. That means that regardless of other pressures, the state, social bodies, and local government are going to have to involve themselves in direct public provision of utilities and goods again.

However, I have also found myself thinking about how the association of national ownership with the socialist Labour governments of the nineteen forties has diverted most people from realising just how old a pedigree the idea has.

Of course, one could stretch the term immensely and see in Henry VIII's land-grab from the monasteries the first statist act of government control. I was thinking, though, about Brompton cemetery, and the provision of public graveyards.

Brompton cemetery, linking Fulham road and Brompton road, is one of London's hidden glories. It was designed by Benjamin Baud to mimic in its layout a cathedral, with catacombs, vast aisles and cloisters. Baud's original design for the thirty-nine acre site also included a large, domed Anglican chapel at the end of the great walk, and two smaller chapels, one Catholic and one for dissenters, on either side forming 'transepts', which were never built.

The interesting thing is that Brompton cemetery, which contains many many amazing sculptures and mausolea, was the brainchild of a private company when conceived in 1840. Yet it did not remain so. Those clever Victorians, as with many other projects, allowed a private company to develop the site, make just enough to recoup its investment, demonstrate its lack of long-term social awareness--and then they bought it compulsorily after a decade.

Burying people was big business, and also a matter of forward planning, because London, as Catharine Arnold pointed out in her excellent book Necropolis, is in some ways afloat on layers of the dead. The reason the tube bends from South Kensington to Knightsbridge, for instance, was that it was impossible to drill between the two directly because of the sheer physical obstacle posed by the vast ancient and modern layers of the dead.

There is a curiously modern ring, with shades of the Wembley stadium fiasco, to how Brompton slipped into public hands. Its creator company, the west of London and Westminster Cemetery Company, organised the appointment of architects, who allowed tenders for architectural ideas rather than providing any themselves, which is where Baud came in. Then they changed, fiddled, pared down, augmented and generally messed up the ideas, before spending less than they should have done. The government then nationalised them, and offered half of what the shareholders asked for in terms of cash, but more than they would have got elsewhere.

Public cemeteries were one of the great national ventures of the nineteenth century. They provided a decent respect for the dead, but also allowed for civic planning, community coherence and continuity, and public health. Indeed, Brompton makes this point as one walks through it, and I do regularly to a lecturing job I have in Cromwell Road. John Snow, hero of the fight against cholera, and Emmeline Pankhurst are buried there, as are many generals, RAF and counter-zeppelin pilots, the entire cast list of Beatrix Potter's works, and some Roosevelts.

Victorians had a penchant for social entrepreneurship. Brighton's sewers, for instance, some of which have been adapted for quirky tourists, were the product of local government effort. The notion, I suppose, that there needs to be a distinction between private and public provision, which makes our present-day sterile debate about private versus public possible, is in fact a very twentieth century thing.

Public conveniences too, were nationally provided by the Victorians, even if their penny locks were eventually associated with mentalist conjurers.Here's a link to a piece Neil Clark wrote on the subject for the Daily Express, though I'm not to enamoured of the accompanying picture.

Gas, water, sewage, cemeteries--the Victorians were not the out-and-out laissez faire crowd that most people assume them to be. Instead, they suggested a model of how to get private business to meet the public need and then, in moments of crisis, how to take over the mature operations of the businesses to maintain public provision.

Don't make the mistake of thinking, either, that it was only with 'gas and water socialism' at the end of the Victorian period that they took a turn towards social provision. Here's a link to an 1842 report on water provision 'without the agency of private companies', and of course the beginning of the great age of public cemeteries was in the 1850s.

As banks, railway companies, power generators and distributors begin to feel the pinch, perhaps we too should contemplate how we are going to provide publicly accountable, low cost services in a world of high energy prices and diminishing capital.

We could begin by looking to the gardens of peace in Brompton, and then let minds wander to the London Underground, which it is fashionable to complain about because of the often unpleasant conditions upon it. Where else, though, could such a system deliver people even semi-reliably over such distances every single day of the week?

To me, the cemeteries and the tube in London are two of the wonders of the world. I love my city-state.

The picture at the top of this blog is of Alan Nazerian's excellent London underground painting. There are many such examples of the underground map rendered in oil on canvas, one of which you can see here.

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