First we discovered fire, then somebody invented the wheel and now finally – after what seems like a similar wait – Derby has it’s new bus station. A brief recap. The previous station was built in 1933 and while not without a hint of art deco charm it was hopelessly unfit for purpose when it was closed in 2005 in preparation for work on the new facility. There was a fierce and at times comical campaign to keep the old station open on a range of hotly disputed grounds, culminating in a protestor literally taking up residence in a caravan on the ROOF of the old station. I always felt this was strangely poetic after hearing one objector defend the old station on the grounds of “how good it looked from the air” – an unhelpful factor when you are exposed to the elements & trying to find out where your bus departs from.
Five years (!) later and the new bus station is set to open this weekend. Being Derby it obviously comes with yet more drama; various delays; scope change in response to the global financial meltdown; a burst water pipe that flooded the station a week ago. Oh, and the seemingly trivial revelation that the station toilets will cost 20p to use. The quoted rationale is that it is a small nominal fee that will help cover costs and deter people from entering and misusing the facilities, which on the face of it doesn’t sound too unreasonable. It is the wrong decision. Let me explain why…
We like to think of Britain as a civilised society. Our country has invented or championed many social innovations that have earned us a reputation for civility and that to this day leave legacies to the former colonial areas we exploited to our own ends. I remember visiting Sri Lanka and listening to locals talking with genuine pride and enthusiasm about the enduring legacy of road, rail, school and health infrastructure left behind by the British Raj, although they diplomatically failed to mention the fact we nicked their tea & spices. Oops – sorry. Here’s some tourist pounds instead.
There can be no doubt that following the industrial revolution the nation entered a rocky but golden age of social reinvention, moral introspection and intense philanthropy that to some extent still informs our present day expectations and attitudes.
We have learned to expect certain minimum standards in the provision of education, health, civil liberties, democratic governance, etc, etc. These baselines are funded through our system of tax and ensure everyone gets basic healthcare, a right to schooling, bin collection, street lighting and so on. Not everyone agrees on where the baseline should be set or what an acceptable cost is (or profit if the service has been privatised – GRRRR) but I suspect there is a fairly broad consensus that there should be a baseline. The alternative would be a purely market driven society where no money means no medical treatment or education. There are people who would be happy with this every-man-for-themselves scenario and it seems that we have a continual fight on our hands to recognise and protect what we have.
On a related note I was taken aback by the massive opposition the Obama administration faced when trying to get their health bill passed to grant all citizens access to (very) basic state health provision in the year 2010. The argument seems to boil down to the wealthy “haves” not wanting in any way to fund the “have nots” that they might crawl from the bottom rung of society; aspire to more than survival; to have dignity.
So, to the crux of my argument. As I see it social provision falls into three tiers:
- Mandatory – full provision
Non-optional services we should all be entitled to that are fully funded by tax and free at the point of delivery.
eg: Non-lifestyle healthcare, education fees upto school leaving age, access to public toilets
- Mandatory – infrastructure provision
Non-optional services we should all be entitled to that where a basic universal requirement is funded by tax and then consumers are charged on the basis of personal usage/consumption
eg: Water, Electricity, Phone, Transport infrastructures. (Your tax pays for the roads. You personally fund your choice of transport)
- Personal choice
Optional services we can take or leave but must fully fund ourselves.
eg: Sky TV, subscription to Viz comic, Breast implants (I can see a couple of arguments for funding this through tax…)
In summary any basic common requirement for our civilised communal existence whether a “complete” service or an enabling component of “infrastructure” should surely be paid for up front by tax. The real focus should be on where we draw the lines between these three tiers – it is this that should form the basis of public debate and not the side show issues the political parties would rather have distracted us with. Much easier to respond to the symptoms of a problem (eg: a one-off tax on bankers bonuses) than deal with the underlying issue (eg: the absence of any meaningful controls within the banking sector).
Toilets are non-optional. We all need to use them (apart from Noel Edmunds). Are we as a society saying that only people with money (however little) can use public toilets? Are we saying that only people with the right change can use public toilets? That is what the local authorities are inferring – is this their official guidance? Are they seriously telling people they should pop into pubs/cafes/shops and use the facilities there and if so what do those businesses have to say? Are we meant to “hold on” – pregnant women, small children, elderly people or even (dare I say it) healthy young males, and if so is this advice sanctioned by the British Medical Association? I’m guessing the City Council wouldn’t tolerate hordes of people using the Derwent as a means of relief, so which of the aforementioned options are they recommending?
Yes it costs money to provide a public convenience and yes we expect to pay for it. But let’s pay equally, fairly and up front via our taxes. Let’s afford all of our citizens the dignity they deserve and regulate our civic affairs with a little bit of class. This is not an optional service in the same way that brakes are not optional when you buy a car. Yes, people may have less disincentive to use the toilets for drug taking, vandalism, etc – but that’s a separate problem to be addressed on its own merits. We don’t ban young people from walking the streets with mobile phones just because they may be more vulnerable to mugging. The Daily Mail will no doubt come around to this suggestion soon.
When all’s said and done the current debate may just be about public conveniences but dig a little deeper and what’s at stake are the values we are demanding from those that administer our public affairs. These are the same values that determine whether or not your children go to a disfunctional school, whether your local hospital is clean or whether private organisations are given free reign to charge whatever they please for essential fuels.
I know people have different opinions on this matter but there is one thing we can all agree on – we can’t trust local or national authorities with their vested political and personal interests to look after our needs with impartiality.