Nadia on… Public Ownership

Words: Nadia Whittome
Photos: Fabrice Gagos
Wednesday 02 November 2022
reading time: min, words

From celebrating NCT buses to thinking about the British Railway, regular columnist and Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome muses on public ownership...


Much as I’m passionate about good quality, affordable public transport, I can’t relate to my colleagues who talk about how bad things are in their constituencies. Nottingham buses never let me down. If I miss one, I know I can expect another in minutes (which is very much not the case when I’m down in London). When I was at college, I would sometimes even do my homework on the bus because the WiFi was better than in my own home! 

As well as being modern and reliable, they are among the greenest in the country, leading the way in replacing diesel with electricity and biogas. No wonder they can boast an impressive list of national awards.

Why am I bringing this up? On Sunday 16 October, Nottingham City Transport celebrated 125 years of public ownership. While transport networks across the country were being sold off, Nottingham buses remain in the hands of the Council. 

For over forty years now, since the era of Thatcher, we’ve been told by politicians of all stripes that privatisation is the only way. The private sector, they argue, is synonymous with efficiency; competition drives up standards and lowers costs. But do the facts back up these claims? Let’s look at some examples.

Take water. Since it was sold off to private providers in 1989, bills have gone up by 40% above inflation. Last year, while sewage was flowing into our rivers and pollution targets were not being met, 22 bosses of water companies paid themselves £14.7 million in bonuses.

Just like water, the rail is an example of a “natural monopoly” where the rules of market competition simply don’t work. Unlike with jeans or ice cream, you can’t switch to a cheaper brand or pick one you like more. If you rely on a train to get you to work, you don’t have much of a choice - so you’ll put up with pricier tickets regardless of the quality of service. This allows the operators to keep raising fares, while you sigh hearing of another delay.

Rail, mail, energy and water should belong to us all, and be run in the interests of citizens, not profit

Given that British railways were privatised 25 years ago, it’s ironic that most of our train lines are owned by governments - just not our own government. Britain’s ticket fares, famously among the most expensive in Europe, are used to subsidise better public transport abroad. 

Privatisation harms not only customers, but also workers. While many rail bosses are paid more than the Prime Minister, low-paid staff face real-terms pay cuts. Similarly, despite having made £758 million profit last year and paid its CEO a hefty £753,000, privatised Royal Mail has refused to lift its staff wages with inflation - and announced job cuts to break up their strike. That’s why many unions involved in the recent wave of strikes have not only demanded pay rises, but also talked about the need for services to be returned to public hands.

The energy market has been making headlines like rarely before, as soaring bills erode our paychecks and force millions to choose between heating and eating. It’s heartbreaking to hear about children going to school hungry or pensioners shivering in cold homes. But it’s enraging to learn that large energy companies are not experiencing a crisis at all, but making billions in excess profits thanks to rising prices. CEO of BP, Bernard Looney, who famously described the company as a “cash machine”, has seen his salary more than double in a year, to an eye-watering £4.46 million.

Public ownership doesn’t have to mean going back to the 1970s - it’s the norm across much of Europe

What would change if these services were nationalised? For starters, they would be run with more than just profit in mind. Rather than trying to squeeze every penny out of us, they could prioritise keeping prices reasonable and workers’ wages liveable. Instead of going into shareholders’ pockets, any surplus made could be reinvested into improving quality or sustainability. 

Public ownership also enables more transparency and accountability. When public institutions don’t meet expectations, we blame the Government or councils, and can elect a different one. When privatised services are subpar and prices go up, there’s little we can do. A small company could go out of business and be replaced - but many of the corporations that provide our essential services are too big and powerful to simply fail. The Government spends billions on bailing out private companies when they’re struggling, but they get to keep the profits when they’re thriving.

Public ownership doesn’t have to mean going back to the 1970s - it’s the norm across much of Europe. Switzerland’s railway, considered the best on the continent, is state-owned. So is France’s biggest energy provider EDF, which helped ensure that French energy bills only went up by 4% this year (compared to 96% in Britain). But we don’t even need to look across the Channel for examples. Scottish Water, which was never privatised, has been ranked by customers as the UK’s most trusted utility provider.

 It’s time we learned from this and accepted that public ownership works. Rail, mail, energy and water should belong to us all, and be run in the interests of citizens, not profit.

 Meanwhile, I will continue to praise Nottingham buses. I’m only being a little bit biased when I call them the best in the world.

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