New Ideas Number 1- Public Ownership But Not As We Know It Jim

New Ideas Number 1- Public Ownership But Not As We Know It Jim

I promised new ideas when I started out on this blog, so this week I thought I’d make good on the promise. I want to set our briefly an idea for a new understanding of, or means of, public ownership. Or more precisely, my take on what is probably a well-known idea.

When we think of public ownership, too often we think of strikes, poor service, inefficiency or Ministers fiddling about with the decisions of managers, as Gerald Kaufman talked about in his great little book on How To Be a Minister. Or we think of images like these:

But I want to suggest that there is more to public ownership than coal mining or other giant monopoly industries, or great swathes of remote forest and upland. This website gives a pretty good (if standard) take on common ideas.

I also want to discount the traditional British form of public ownership, where we assume the state must own the property and take decisions on our behalf e.g. Brtish Steel, British Leyland, the forests estates etc. That leads to poorly thought through proposals to sell off public land by ‘passing ministers’ with too much power and not enough awareness of tradition and place, when proposed either at UK or Scottish levels.

I think the history of public ownership in the UK is very mixed, and has always been subject to passing political whim. Ministers will always be tempted to meddle in the running of businesses, either by second guessing management, or stripping out profit, or denying capital, or using price as a constraint on demand or by simply removing the competitive edge- managers know if they mess up the state will always be there to pick up the pieces. And so many right wingers want things to fail to justify privatisation. So, I’d say there are practical and theoretical reasons (1) to be cautious about the traditional form of public ownership in the UK, without ruling it out entirely of course.

I also don’t mean to say that the sort of mechanical socialism and Fabianism that dominated Labour and left-wing thinking for so long is the only way. But instead that of course that are many other means and forms of ownership- from the ancient world of estovers and pannage, to modern forms of common land and access , to Rochdale cooperative principles and mutuals.

But the problem with the traditional approach is that it tends to assume only two main actors- the private sector and the state, with no room for real members of the public. The problem with other forms of ownership such as common land, mutuals, co-operatives and others, is that either not enough people want the hassle of running the show themselves, or that they are too small to really affect trends, or that they are still subject to passing whims on taxation, regulation and incentives.

So What Is The Big Idea?

 So, enough with the throat-clearing and down to business. What is my idea?

My idea is simply this- that ownership of public assets should be transferred from the state to the public. More precisely, those who meet certain rules of UK citizenship will automatically become the owners of state assets. As owners they will have rights and responsibilities, and it will be for them as owners to decide on the future of major policy decisions including sell-off of local land, closure of facilities, or privatisation.

What do I mean by state assets. I mean firstly the transfer of all crown lands from the arcane fiction of the ‘Crown’ to members of the public. Not just that we would own (small shares in!) Buckingham Palace, but that we’d own the sea-bed, the foreshore, the airwaves and so on. Secondly I mean that at a regional and local level we’d own the roads, the railways, the land, the hospitals, schools, council buildings and so on.

Setting out one more time- whilst management of the assets would be vested in our representatives (and through them public employees)  as now, either at national, regional or local government levels, the legal ownership of the assets would be shared across UK citizens.

Now, we’d need some rules first of all about who qualifies. My suggestion is that anyone who has reached voting age and who is on the electoral register is entitled to a fraction of ownership and would be recognised as such. We don’t have to make ownership conditional on electoral registration of course but it might provide a boost to voting and participation in democracy.

Secondly, we’d need to define what rights and responsibilities such ownership entails. My view is that responsibilities are ‘civic’ in the sense of keeping up to date with trends and developments associated with the assets. And secondly that if a vote is called on something, one is required to participate. But I believe these responsibilities should be modest, whilst also empowering.

What does the idea mean in practice? Well, I’d suggest at local level that anyone on the local electoral register would be considered a part owner of the assets from all state bodies in the area- including government buildings, parks, roads, schools, forests, common land, hospitals and so on.

Secondly, it means that the managers of the assets- our current state-led pubic bodies, would take on a new role of stewardship, not the sometimes rather technocratic, aloof and arrogant ‘ownership to do with as we please on a change of political leadership’ approach we (too often) see. I believe for key local assets often at the centre of controversy- land sold off for new developments, planning decisions, closure of hospitals, that representative bodies will need to work far harder to secure agreement.

My idea is that according to some local ‘standing orders’ that define the limits of state authority and the circumstances under which change is allowed, that the state and local managers will need to be far more engaged in place, in community and in explaining and justifying decision making. We can imagine for example a proposal to sell off a school playing field where either all local people in the council area, or a defined subset ‘affected’ by the plans, will be able to demand, hold a referendum and defeat the proposal, perhaps much like a shareholder resolution can defeat the management of a company or send a strong signal on the desired direction of travel.

We can imagine consultative discussions held at national and local level with citizens (as owners) on the ideas a state entity is considering, before they are activated or indeed placed in manifestos. We can imagine a dedicated public body, analogous to the electoral commission, (the ‘Consultative Commission’ perhaps), taking national or regional or indeed local ‘rolling polls’ of the views of citizen-owners prior to an election campaign. We might find that citizens recognise a central hospital would be cheaper and more effective but want to keep their local hospital. We might find that citizens like keeping local job centres and tax offices or reject out of hand private companies running certain public functions.

One obvious issue to consider is the precise relationship between local and national decision making- but I think that can be overcome with enough thought. A second obvious issue is to define the circle of ‘affected’ people tightly enough so a local desire for action isn’t swamped by a national or regional push-back, whilst at the same time allowing meaningful and engaged citizens across a defined but not just hyper-local area. We would need to think carefully to avoid the problems encountered with the referenda-heavy, money-heavy policy and campaigning approach seen in California. We would need to look for ways for assets to be protected from a generation simply ‘cashing in’ as many did over the transfer of building societies from mutuals to private companies in the 1990s. 


Why Propose This? 

To me, this is a radically different proposal from standard common ownership. We are asserting the genuine power of citizens, as the owners of state assets, which, after all, their taxes and efforts have paid for. I hope it will improve the sense that citizens have of engagement with, and empowerment over, the political process.

I hope it would sharpen up the performance of state actors, across the education, council, health, environment, tax, social security and transport communities. I expect it would reduce the power of ideologues, winner-takes-all political administrations, think tanks and media moguls. I hope it would even reduce vandalism and disrespect for public property because after all, the owner in this case is the person considering the damage!

More broadly as well as linking ownership rights to voting and electoral registration, we could link it to the idea of a basic income, which I blogged on before. 


What Are the Downsides? 

Clearly I don’t have all the details worked out so much more work would be needed to translate this outline sketch into serious policy proposals. It may be that the idea isn’t radical at all, and is common in other countries (please let me know if it is!).

More work would be needed on legal definitions to ensure watertight ownership, and to define a ‘scheme of delegation and authority’ from local citizens to state entities. If we did take over Crown property, some more legal work would be needed to overcome centuries of daft constitutional showboating, overhangs and silly fiction.

More seriously, we’d need to undertake a large campaign of awareness raising to ensure people really did feel empowered and understood their rights and responsibilities. A crucial point as I mentioned above is to provide enough ’empowerment’ that a genuine local wish to prevent something occurring can be created, whilst avoiding a tidal-wave of NIMBY-style inertia and factionalism. But I see no reason why with enough care, such problems couldn’t be overcome.


Part of A Bigger Picture? 


Readers may have noticed that such a scheme, radical as it may sound, does not by any means tackle all of the fundamental issues facing us. Whilst I do believe it would go a long way to increase the sense of engagement with the state and empowerment that citizens feel, it only touches the surface of inequality issues.

In particular, it ignores the pattern and distribution of private ownership of resources- land, income and wealth, company shares, rental income and dividend etc. There are some fascinating ideas on newer forms of capitalism that I want to explore at a later date, centred around market socialism ideas.

To finish though , the real reason I think the idea would be worth exploring is back to my ideas on a fair, equal and liberal society:

‘It is fundamentally whether I feel I am an equal citizen of equal worth, with all the dignity, freedom and ability to execute my life plan that I expect.’

In that blog I set out a principle for just such a society which I think is relevant here:

Principle 5 The basic structure of society should be designed such that power is dispersed politically at multiple levels and across multiple geographical areas, consistent with the achievement of other principles and goals

I believe that we simply must go beyond discussions about tax and spend wealth transfers, about public vs private and get to a point where citizens really do feel equal, empowered and ‘all in it together’. I hope the idea I’d proposed might have some merit on the journey towards that ambition.

Thanks for reading.



(1) John Roemer A Future for Socialism (1994) Verso Books ISBN-13: 978-0860916536


Author: DaveGorman

An Englishman longtime in Scotland, interested in new ideas for liberalism that recognise our challenges in the 21st century. Loves clouds, ideas, environment and applying liberal thinking to make things better. Speaking in a personal capacity of course.

2 thoughts on “New Ideas Number 1- Public Ownership But Not As We Know It Jim”

  1. Lots of “yes, but.. ” with this one!

    In theory nationalisation with democratic control is a good idea, but…

    On one hand no-one wants to go back to Austin Princesses, British Rail sandwiches and council house front doors a limited selection of primary colours. On the other hand privatisation of many public services has not been in the public interest, and we need to remember that much of the old school nationalisation was deliberately set up to be inefficent in order to provide post-war jobs.

    In my view there are some public assets which should be inalienable and therefore have to remain in public hands, although the bodies controlling them could be democratised. These include land (including the Crown Estate), other resources with no tradition of private ownership (wireless frequencies, the seabed, the water in running and standing water bodies etc). I would also include things which are essential but are monopolies in this e.g power distribution networks, water supply and railway track, as well as things which aren’t necessarily monopolies, but which work better with a unified and co-ordinated management e.g rail services, and probably bus services, phone provision. There are also service which I think should be publicly owned because it is ethically wrong for profit to be made from them this would include the NHS (I don’t think it’s right for people to make money from sick people – this could extend to the pharmaceutical industry too I guess, but that affect R&D investment, so might need a think, but I’m not sure that lots of “me too” drug development is necessarily a good use of resources when there are less profitable, but more pressing needs for treatment for some diseases. And anyway a lot of medical R&D is publicly funded, but big pharma reap the benefits).

    Then there are the things which the public bodies might find it beneficial or sensible to own, but which could be owned or managed using other models. This includes things like renewables, banks, manufacturing sites, Forestry Commission campsites and log cabins, English Heritage/Historic Scotland (or whatever they’re calling themselves these days) gift shops supply and distribution chains, student accommodation etc, which could perhaps be bought or sold by the public sector depending on the public’s will.

    But I think the big barrier is how much enthusiasm there is for being involved with the democratic control of public organisations. After two referenda on important national issues we’re told that the population is “referenda-ed out”, which seems to be true. We’re sometimes told that the public is more concerned about local than national issues, so would they turn out en masse to vote on the future of their local park? Quite possibly not if local election turn out and the ease with which local elections are diverted into discussion of national issues is anything to go by. And community council elections attract even less interest. I also don’t see queues of folk competing to be on the boards of public bodies or parent councils (a point I made on your old Drefan blog a decade ago and still true even post Indy Ref). Would it be any different with bodies controlling other public assets?

    Plus, the public don’t always make decisions which are sensible in the long term (of course managers and professional “decision makers” also make bad decisions sometimes as well) – you mentioned the 1990s carpet bagging of mutuals, but there’s also the sale of council houses, which was popular at the time, but hasn’t ended well, and of course Brexit! Our mutual friend Mr McCallum recently told me that he thought it would take a couple of generations for the civitas to become educated about their responsibilities. If that’s true (and I think it may be), what do we do during the decades in which they are still becoming educated?

    So public ownership of certain assets, yes! Public ownership of everything, no! Direct democratic control of public assets – not sure!

  2. A good challenge back. My problem with letting public ownership = state ownership though is that it puts things at the whim of politicians- and that’s what I am trying to address. But I take the point that we’d need to think how to avoid NIMBYism and short-sighted selfish decisions, and/or apathy. Potential solutions are education as you mention, minimising the responsibilities of owner-citizens i.e. you don’t need to run it you just have rights when a change is proposed, and/or a threshold for change has to be reached (50% of citizens registered vote to allow a sell-off? 60%??)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *