Saturday, 11 April 2015

In praise of things public

Things that are public are available to everyone. If they are truly public that is. This makes it a positive, valuable, powerful, democratic idea. Take for instance: public health, education and social services; Bristol’s excellent public parks and open spaces; public meetings; and public rights of way.  

Some things we call public are not determined by what the public want though. Take public transport for example. Private companies own and determine rail and bus services, subject to regulation, with limited public involvement. The result is they are not run for people as a whole and are not done by and for the people. The same can be said for what we call public utilities like gas, electricity and water. Ownership and running of such things should be fully open, accountable and public.

The public interest (or common good) should be determined by broad, inclusive, direct and indirect public involvement not a minority of powerful, wealthy private interests.  Private interests can afford to by-pass public services, using private vehicles, private schools, private health care.

Things truly public are open, accountable to and shared by the people. Greater Bristol’s public transport system should be run by a strategic transport authority operating in the public interest. We forget the very large increase in public health that resulted from public provision of clean, safe drinking water and sewage removal and treatment. These services provided some protection from disease and sources of harm. We should apply the same strategic thinking to transport. Traffic congestion is a definite source of harm, with 29,000 deaths per year caused by air pollution, including hundreds in Bristol. Only smoking causes more premature deaths.


Public enquiries into developments like new roads or power stations need to be genuine, real exercises in public participation. Elected representatives such as Councillors, MPs, Mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners should be subject to public opinion between elections (recall), with a by-election triggered if enough people in an area sign a petition. It’s the public that should decide what - and who - the public really wants. 

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