The Case For Universal Basic Services by Anna Coote and Andrew Percy

The Blurb On The Back:

The idea that health care and education should be provided as universal public services on the basis of need is widely accepted.  But why leave it there?  Why not expand it to more of life’s essentials?

Anna Coote and Andrew Percy argue that such a transformational expansion of public services is exactly what we need.  They show that expanding the principle of collective universal service provision to everyday essentials like transport, child care and housing is not only the best way of tackling many of our biggest problems: it’s also efficient, practical and affordable.

Anyone who cares about fighting for a fairer, greener and more democratic world should read this book.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Anna Coote is Principal Fellow at the New Economics Foundation and Andrew Percy is Co-Director of the Social Prosperity Network at the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity.  This book is an interesting introduction to what Universal Basic Services could be and how it could benefit people, together with some indicative GDP costings for the same.  It’s not so much a case as the beginning of a conversation but COVID-19 makes it increasingly relevant.

The authors describe Universal Basic Services (UBS) as collectively generated activities that serve the public interest, that are essential and sufficient to enable people to meet their needs and which everyone is entitled to in order to meet their needs regardless of their ability to pay.  They provide some history where the idea originated from and why it’s needed (focusing on the UK in particular, which did make this a lot easier to follow) and there are analogies to the existence of the national health service and state education, which again are easy to follow and make it easier to understand what UBS is intended for.

What I particularly liked was the focus on how UBS doesn’t mean putting money into failed institutions and how the authors are aware of how existing institutions are underfunded or poorly managed or subject to political interference (or a combination of all three).  The chapter setting out the benefits of UBS was also particularly interesting in how it looks at it in terms of outcomes and comparing expenditure between countries.  

I was less convinced, however, by the focus on increasing community engagement and participation, simply because in practice people never seem to want to get involved, leaving it to a specific core and the comments on sustainability seemed a little under developed and optimistic to me (although I would like to see more on the topic).  I was also not particularly convinced by some of the services that the authors think should be included within UBS – notably food, which seemed to have too many variables for it to work adequately in practice.  However the sections on housing, adult social care and transport were very interesting and seemed to me to have a lot of potential.

There isn’t a huge amount of detail within the book – everything is kept pretty broad and discussed in terms of objectives rather than specifics.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, although given that the book is about making the case for the topic, I have to say that the lack of detail did not make that a particularly convincing case.  I also think that in the UK in particular, we have been exposed to so many think pieces and media opposition to anything resulting in higher public spending (including anything necessitating higher taxes) that the authors needed to do more to address this than they do in the book (they talk about surveys where people say they would be more willing to pay higher taxes to get better public services and yet that never seems to translate into an election vote for the same).

I think that had I read this book before COVID-19 hit the UK (and it was published before the pandemic began), then I’d have viewed it as an interesting but impractical set of nice-to-haves.  However as the authors identify in the final chapter, sometimes a crisis can precipitate change, including in public opinion and given the transformational impact that COVID has had on life in the UK – including the use of furlough and the way it is making people re-evaluate public services and the effects of austerity – means that this seems like an increasingly prescient and important topic.  As such, this book forms a good starting point for a conversation about how we should more forward, even if it doesn’t bring a lot of answers about how it would work in practice.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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