Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Vanishing Public Realm

Polly Toynbee writes:

Post Office staff are on strike today, protesting at the rolling closure of crown post offices.

Some 60 are scheduled to go now, with many more expected to follow. More than 2,000 experienced counter staff will go too.

The fine, 100-year-old crown post office I know well in Lewes always has long queues, where people talk as they wait – but now it’s to be replaced with a counter crammed into the back of a small branch of WH Smith. 

The CWU says that trained Post Office staff will be replaced by lower-paid shop workers. 

Here’s why it matters.

Post offices are a precious public face of the state, the front door to myriad things the state does.

Penny-pinching and lack of imagination means they have never been well developed commercially, even as the mass sending and returning of parcels has become essential to internet shopping. 

Think what else these prime sites could do.

But above all, think what they are: the welcoming providers of help, information and support. 

However much we do online we still need a human face: someone to ask, someone to explain.

Royal Mail has gone, and the Queen’s head with it, shockingly undersold at a knockdown price. Watch the Post Office ebb away too.

The human face of the state is everywhere in retreat, no longer speaking to its citizens. 

HMRC has closed all its public counters, where people often came for help with paying their taxes.

Libraries, that great fount of civic knowledge, are closing everywhere, occasionally replaced by well-meaning volunteers without the information people need on everything from benefit applications to local planning consultations.

Even schools are no longer plainly part of our public heritage, with academy chains run and branded by business.

As for “free” schools, what are they “free” of? Of us, of our councils, of public ownership. 

Pools and leisure centres are privatised, costing more, while half of all parks, says the Heritage Lottery Fund, have hired out or sold off chunks of their estate to private enterprises, making hiring pitches or other resources more expensive. 

Bus services have been savagely cut back in rural areas as public subsidy is slashed. Ticket inspectors are replaced by machines, stations denuded of reassuring staff in uniforms.

Local museums are closing or sharply reducing their opening hours.

Deep police cuts means less presence on the street as daily reminders of a sense of order and security. Local magistrates courts are shutting, so justice is taken a further remove from everyday life.

As the armed forces shrink rapidly, local bases close – bases that used to link many communities to the life of the services. 

Even our air search and rescue is now privatised, run by the Bristow Group – its pilots (Prince William included) parasitically trained, of course, by the RAF, not by the company. 

Public space is replaced by the growing world of shopping malls: private spaces patrolled by private guards, with limited public rights. 

In that private sector, the human face is vanishing too, friendly supermarket checkout staff replaced by those damned self-checkouts. 

Local banks are closing, leaving just an ATM and online banking.

Britain is “advanced” in dehumanised services, but it may help explain why polls show we are becoming one of the European nations least trusting of each other, suspicious and alienated. 

By 2020 the plan is to shrink the state to 33% of GDP. 

Even if, as before, it misses that target and is 35% of GDP, it will become American-sized, far from the average of 45% in the EU, where social democratic traditions persist. 

The headcount of public employees has already shrunk to just one in five. 

Good, say those who think the state a wastrel and the enemy of enterprise. How absurd to resist cuts. What next, bring back the lamp-lighters? 

But when does the moment come when the functions of the state are worn too thin, too invisible, too impersonal? 

The veneer of civilisation is perilously thin. 

One by one, they might justify cutting a rural bus with too few passengers, a library or post office with low footfall, a museum or pool not used enough at certain times. 

But take it all together, and we lose communal space, owned by us all, run for our benefit alone. 

Knowing something is there in our community is a reassurance. There is a warmth about something being public, for all of us. 

Even for those who can afford to pay, the emotional sense of civic pride is lost when a service becomes a privatised transaction. 

A sense of order and safety depends on plenty of public servants behind public counters or in uniforms, comfortingly visible, from park keepers to station masters, street cleaners to CSOs. 

A bouncer in a borrowed G4S uniform working for a temp agency, here today and gone tomorrow, is no substitute for a civic presence employed by us, working for us.

Goodbye, crown post offices.

With you goes a great symbol of what we pay our taxes for: who we are, how we access the faceless state, with a friendly chat and explanation across the post office counter. 

The vanishing public realm diminishes us all.

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