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Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Public Ownership and Regulation

I was interested in seeing this plea for public ownership.  It seems the debate always seem to assume that there is a sharp divide of public ownership (meaning total control) or private ownership (leading to no public control.  I think the answer is much more interesting.

Public ownership seems to be assumed to give the politician at the top automatic control over what goes on in the organisation.  I think it gives more control, but you just have to look at the NHS to realise that big organisations need people capable of follow through for changes to happen.  In other words, nationalisation can simply mean that governance is in the hands of a set of anonymous unelected managers.

What I find more interesting is the potential of regulation to control private business.  Of course, all companies are already subject to various legal restrictions and regulations.  These are often said to be too intrusive, although attempts to strip away say planning powers can cause problems of their own.

The big gap in this debate seems to me to be the lack of oversight of the former nationalised industries.  Given the governance mechanisms were all set up by the Thatcher government, it is not surprising that they were designed to limit political interference, but there are legitimate questions about the direction of some of these industries that should be the subject of debate.  In the water industry for instance, should companies aim primarily for the lowest cost to consumers, supporting British industry through procurement and training, becoming national champions, reducing pollution and raising water quality or simply maximising profits?  There are legitimate arguments for each of those objectives, and one might expect a regulator to take an interest in them.  Why shouldn't the public and elected representatives also have a say?

The odd thing is that this kind of thinking is quite old.  Harold Wilson, in his bonfire of controls days, was much more sophisticated than modern politicians. 

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