Universal Basic Services and how it compares to Universal Basic Income

A crowd of people waiting for a train.

In the past few months, there has been significant interest in parts of the blogosphere with the idea of Universal Basic Services, a vision of state provision of services that not only covers education and healthcare but also transport, information, food and housing. The idea comes from a report by University College London and the Institute for Global Prosperity that has caught the imagination of many radical and not-so-radical thinkers.

Many of the articles written since the publication of the initial report have presented the context of Universal Basic Services in different ways. Some have written about the dire state of British welfare, of which the government’s botched rollout of Universal Credit (a system where several benefits are replaced with one single payment that is significantly lower than the benefits it replaces combined) is foremost in people’s minds. Others have instead emphasised the historical context, emphasising the idea that Universal Basic Services is formulated in the spirit of the revered postwar Labour government that founded the National Health Service (NHS).

A further line of inquiry in these articles has been to present a different contrast: one between Universal Basic Services (UBS) and another idea that’s gaining traction, Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is a regular, universal, unconditional payment to every citizen of Britain. Like UBS, UBI is intended to provide a foundation for everyone from which they can build their lives, while staving off the possible consequences of increased unemployment as a result of impending mass automation of the workplace.

That writers are seeking to contrast UBS with UBI should come as no surprise; the report’s authors themselves spend a large amount of time detailing how UBS would be a far superior means of achieving UBI’s objectives, to the extent that they include costings of both in an attempt to prove how much value for money UBS provides relative to UBI. Indeed, in naming their idea “Universal Basic Services”, the authors invite comparisons with UBI.

However, the question is: whether it’s cheaper or not, does UBS really achieve UBI’s objectives as the authors claim?

You can read my summary of UBI here but its objectives are fairly straightforward: it is to be universal (given to every single individual), unconditional (no strings attached or hoops to jump through to receive it) and non-withdrawable (it cannot be taken away from the recipient). In addition, UBI aims not only to help someone get back into work, but to support them to do work that they really want to do. Voluntary work, part-time work, caring for a loved one and further education or training would all be supported by a UBI, which gives people the ability to buy the necessities or invest the money how they want to.

Can the same be said of UBS? Let’s take each of the component parts in turn. The report’s authors begin on the assumption that the UK already has three “basic services”: healthcare, education and legal & democracy. It then adds four more, namely transport, information, food and shelter, which I examine here.

Getting the show on the road

For the Transport element of UBS, the authors suggest giving every British citizen a Freedom Pass – a perk currently enjoyed by those aged over 60 that allows them to use all bus services for free. In addition, the authors also suggest allowing free travel via all tube, tram and local overground railway services. So, in summary, UBS Transport would allow all British citizens to take any local public transportation for free, allowing them to access work, school, university, the shops or the hospital without incurring any additional cost to themselves. The authors suggest this would lead to an increase in public transport use of 260%, which they believe will cost £5 billion a year.

UBS Transport would be very much in line with the spirit and aims of Universal Basic Income. It is non-withdrawable, unconditional and universal (with the obvious caveat that people living in cities already have a greater access to a range of public transport options than those living in rural areas). It also provides individuals with a means of thriving by increasing their mobility – whether it is to travel to work, study or otherwise, the only barrier for people under UBS Transport is time; money would not be an impediment. UBS Transport would essentially be a UBI that had to be spent on travel, but with the bonus that (according to the report’s authors at least) it would cost a lot less than an individual UBI. It could also have obvious environmental benefits if people switch from private to public transport in their droves.

However, UBS Transport does raise a couple of significant issues. The first is that there is little point in providing free transport if the transport itself is too infrequent, too unreliable or too unpleasant for people to use to its fullest potential. In many rural areas in particular, buses and trains are so irregular that having a car can often be a necessity, which defeats the whole point of creating a free public transport scheme. The other is the aforementioned disparity between rural and urban areas. Providing free transport without a further expansion to provision in the countryside would mean supporting those with access to a variety of transport options (cities) at the expense of those without. It strikes me that a radical expansion of public transport provision would be required before a UBS Transport could be instituted in a way that would be useful to everyone.

Enough bandwidth?

Like Transport, UBS Information service satisfies the objectives of UBI. Information would see every household gain basic phone and broadband connection for free, as well as a free BBC TV license fee. At £20 billion it is the most expensive of the authors’ four proposals, but of the four it is the one that appears to align most with the aims of UBI. It is universal, unconditional and nonwithdrawable – every person will have access to it. Like a UBI or the UBS Transport programme, giving everyone free access to the Internet will help improve work and social opportunities, as connectivity becomes an increasingly important aspect of gaining both. Like UBI, UBS Information would therefore combat inequality by helping the poorest and most marginalised (who are least likely to have Internet access currently) while also providing a service available to everyone. In effect, free Internet access would be replacing the free public libraries, which still exist but in much shorter supply than a decade or so ago. Providing a free BBC TV license fee – less important than free Internet access but still a significant public good for the impeccable news coverage it provides – meanwhile provides a good to everybody that is currently only available to the oldest in society, mirroring both Transport (free bus pass) and UBI (state pension). The Information service that the authors’ UBS stipulates is therefore one which largely satisfies the aims and spirit of UBI, and therefore the best service that UBS has to offer.

Transport and Information are therefore highly universal and opportunity-creating services that would give everyone the chance to flourish, by ensuring mobility and knowledge are available to all. As the authors note, providing these services would demand less radical changes to the tax system that UBI would, and their claims of value relative to UBI appear legitimate. They are both promising ideas which, provided the logistics and infrastructure are there to support them, could and should be implemented as soon as possible.

However, by their very nature and in stark contrast to UBI, both Transport and Information are highly narrow and piecemeal in their scope. Indeed, the problems they address appear to be secondary to the larger issues that some people face: what is the use in being able to travel to the other side of the country when you can’t afford to feed your family? What is the use of free broadband for your household if you don’t have a home? UBI provides a safety net for these circumstances if the recipients want it to act as such; even taken together, Transport and Information do not.  The report’s authors appear to recognise this, and thus have two more ideas for services to address it: Food and Shelter.


UBS Food would provide one third of the meals for the poorest 2.2 million households (those who are believed to experience food insecurity in the UK today), costing around £4 billion a year. Poverty and food insecurity in the UK is a national shame, indicated in the fact that, according to the Trussel Trust, 586,907 emergency food supplies from foodbanks were given to people in Britain in the period April – September 2017, a 13% rise on the same period in 2016. This suggests that UBS Food is a welcome contribution that could go some way to alleviating poverty in this country.

However, as a realistic replacement for what a UBI would provide in this area it is lacking. Firstly, UBS Food is not universal. As one of the authors, Professor Jonathan Portes, notes: “the food program modelled is one that would end ‘food insecurity’ rather than provide free food to all or even to all those on low incomes [my italics]”.  Indeed, as Professor Portes concedes, 2.2 million households may be those in food insecurity, but providing for them alone means that he cannot truthfully label UBS Food a universal programme. UBS Food as envisioned by Professor Portes and his colleagues is a means to tackle food insecurity and an attempt to address a deficiency in UBS. However, as a universal programme it is clearly not up to scratch.

By noting that UBS Food is not universal I am not merely point-scoring for the sake of bolstering UBI vis-a-vis UBS; the fact that UBS Food is not universal has implications for how the programme would be delivered in practice. While the authors go into great detail of how much UBS Food would cost to deliver, in terms of summarising how they would practically deliver all those meals to participants in the service they are notably coy. Although the authors suggest that UBS “would add to existing programs” such as free school meals and meals on wheels, it does not specify what form UBS Food itself would take.

So the best we can do is speculate, and it seems to me that there are three clear options for UBS Food. The first is to broaden the scope of meals on wheels to all those suffering from food insecurity. This would probably be the least divisive because it would build on an existing and popular programme, while also providing fully cooked meals to families (although nowadays many local authorities have switched to sending out frozen meals to cut costs). However, regardless of whether frozen meals or freshly cooked meals are used, this would likely be the most expensive, as local authorities would have to employ more people to deliver the meals. A second option is to institute state-sponsored food banks, which would be a depressing development: food banks were intended to be a temporary measure at a point of crisis and the fact they have lasted so long suggests an existential failure of the current system; providing them with state money would confirm this. The third option is to import the dreaded food stamps system from the United States – a welfare programme for a country that does not trust its own people to spend their money wisely.

What these three options illustrate is that by putting cost before universality, the authors have made UBS Food unfair: not for those who don’t get the chance to receive it, but for those who do. In the first instance, I have to wonder how one might become eligible for the UBS Food scheme, and the inevitable conclusion is means-testing. In practice, this will mean endless form filling and participants having to prove that they belong on the programme. This in turn begs the question of how it’s possible to provide evidence that you aren’t eating enough (plus it isn’t hard to imagine governments of particular persuasions making these tests extremely punitive in order to cut costs). In addition, while UBS Food might ensure there is food for all, the quality or choice of that food on the programme is not assured – that becomes the preserve of those people who aren’t a member of the 2.2 million. Finally, attending food banks might become a personal humiliation for many participants once it becomes a state-sponsored activity and tabloids begin to shriek about public money being used to feed the poorest. If UBS Food were universal, the problems with the scheme would be easily averted.

Give me (and everyone else) shelter

There are similar issues with UBS Shelter. In many ways Shelter is the most ambitious of the four services that the authors propose: increasing the stock of social housing by building 1.5 million homes over 30 years, with free rent and an allowance on utilities, all for a total cost of around 13 billion a year. However, again Shelter falls short of being able to deliver what a UBI promises. Like Food, Shelter is focused purely on those most in need – understandably, given the extortionate amounts such people have to pay in the private rental sector – making it not universal, as UBI would be. Indeed, another means-testing klaxon sounded in the back of my mind when I read the following in the report: “Distribution of housing will require allocation that will have to be based on assessed needs,” no doubt with all of the negative consequences described above.

It’s clear that UBS Shelter aims to solve an immediate and profound crisis in Britain today by addressing the lack of affordable housing and helping avoid the grim choices some people have to make over whether to feed themselves or keep the lights on. It is a quest I champion, and I look forward to any possible attempt to formulate this further as a policy independent of UBS. However, to give any impression that this is a universal programme by conflating it and Food with the other Universal Basic Services that the authors describe is deceitful. Neither UBS Shelter or Food are universal and neither can be accessed without jumping through the hoops of a means testing process. In these instances, it appears the authors decided to present programmes that are cost effective rather than universal (perhaps to avoid seeming hypocritical for emphasising UBI’s price tag). Let’s just hope that – should Food and Shelter be implemented – they are not faced with a future government wanting to tip the balance further in the “cost effective” direction.

The delivery plan

Now we have had a look at each of the four services in turn, let’s discuss briefly one final aspect of UBS: how it would be delivered. The authors emphasise – and make a virtue of the fact – that “Responsive, effective  and  accountable  local  government  –  with  financial  autonomy  –  will  be  necessary  for the practical implementation of UBS.” The belief in strengthening and further democratising local government is one I agree with and a move that could have profound effects on the delivery of many policy areas. However, in the context of UBS it seems bizarre: either central government leaves the design and implementation to local councils (leaving people in a postcode lottery of more or less generous local authorities) or central government dictates how UBS will be delivered (rendering local government a delivery arm of the centre, making improved local accountability and responsibility pointless). UBS can only provide a foundation for everyone if it is steered from the highest possible level of government. Finally, the authors suggest that the UBS would be more cost effective than UBI because services (unlike cash payments) provide economies of scale. They also argue that people who work to implement the UBS scheme would also use the services provided, cleverly offsetting costs. However, what they fail to mention is that while UBS would necessarily lead to an increase in government bureaucracy, a central aspect of UBI is that it would cut bureaucracy through simplifying the system of welfare payments, which would in turn lead to lower delivery costs. By increasing bureaucracy, UBS would again fail to fulfill UBI’s promises.

This isn’t all to say that UBS is not a worthwhile idea – I heavily support the idea of Universal Basic Services and the broader creation of public services that are available to all. However, in its current form UBS does not feel like a unified programme of services but more several different policies trying to fulfil different aims; only a few of the policies can even be called universal. This is brought into focus by the authors’ own comparison between UBS and Universal Basic Income which, as the discussion here suggests, merely shows that the they are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. UBS is a good group of policies lumped together under a misleading name – compared to the transformative potential and simplicity of UBI it cannot compete in its current form.

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2 thoughts on “Universal Basic Services and how it compares to Universal Basic Income

  1. One of the biggest problems with universal basic services is that when it comes to localised services, if the money is spent well, then rents in areas with access to the services will go up – shutting poor people out of accessing them and giving rich people the lion’s share of the service, and if rich people don’t want to live near the services, then that will likely be because the services are terrible.

    There is something to be said for giving everyone free travel off-peak, as it would tremendously improve the efficiency with which are expensive transportation infrastructure is used as well as shifting some of the peak load to periods that services run below capacity. But free peak-time travel would require costly expansions. How do the authors know how many extra-users would take advantage of the free travel? Or how much extra money would have to be spent to manage the extra load if travel was completely free?

    Beyond that there are other questions about free transport. Maybe people would switch from travelling by car to travelling by train, but people might also switch from travelling by bicycle to travelling by train. If transport was free people might move further out of town commute far longer distances – good for housing but not necessarily good for the environment. There’s also evidence that time in public transit, is time when people feel most unhappy.


    Not to mention the fact that while public transport make save energy, crowded public transport also spreads transmissible diseases.

    Universal basic income would allow people to get less well-paid jobs outside urban powerhouses and live closer to their work. Free public transport will probably cause people to live further from work.

    Libraries already have free internet. If you invest in giving everyone’s house free internet then the one group you won’t be targeting will be homeless people. The group that needs it most. Though free publicly financed internet cafe’s that are well run, secure and regularly checked for viruses is one of the few forms of UBS I would support, as only poor people would use them so it would be a good way to naturally target the poor without imposing any bureaucracy. I say let people pay for broadband access in their house and 4G mobile internet themselves. But strategically placed free-internet cafes in poor areas that were hygienic and well maintained could be a cheap bureaucracy-free way of giving the poor and homeless greater connectivity and fast internet access (along with access to bargain deal like too-good-to-go and freecycle).

    As for food…food banks already exist. There’s just lots of queues, not much choice and they’re demeaning. I don’t see how universal basic food is any different from food banks or soup kitchens that are already out there. Whenever you give away free food, you will get queues. This means that UBS will mean poor people will have queue for food in long lines with other poor people for a basic meal in a cantine with not much choice while rich people who don’t want to queue and want better choice will buy food instead. In a sense UBF will target poor people…but the idea simply isn’t new. Its something we already have. Everyone who wants food can go already to a soup kitchen run by a church and get a portion of gruel to eat. Its just they get treated like cattle and it produces a two tier society.

    If you deliver the free food to people’s door and impose no inconvenience to get it, it’s quite likely people will order more than they need and that this will in fact increase food waste. Not to mention greenhouse gas emmissions from lots of unnecessary door to door deliveries

    As for universal basic shelter… this is just social housing by another name…simple as. The only way to affordably provide real universal basic shelter without introducing means-testing on an affordable budget would be to make the shelter so grotty that no one except desperate poor people would use it. This would have to be in the form of building large numbers of cheap government hostels with 10 beds to a room which everyone rich and poor can make use of, but only the poor want to make use of. Such a system might boost GDP by attracting backpacking tourists to the country. But its hardly sufficient answer to the general problem of below par housing.

    In conclusion the are two paths that UBS can take:

    1) The provision of free good services – which the rich will monopolize by raising rents and reducing the access of the poor to them

    2) The provision of free low quality services – which naturally target resources at the poor in a bureaucracy free manner but reinforce their status as second class citizens that live a lower quality of life than the rich, have access to worse services and spend more time in queues.

    Grotty universal basic services that are carefully designed to provide for people’s basic needs that are available to everyone (no questions asked) but which are sufficiently grotty that very few people who weren’t poor would actually take advantage of them are a bureaucracy-free cost effective way to provide a targeted safety net of living standards for societies worst off.

    But because these grotty free services would be so cost effective, they would still leave plenty of room in the budget for UBI. UBI is and important accompaniment to grotty universal basic services as it takes the edge of the degree to which the users of these services are demeaned and humiliated every day. Even if universal basic income cannot full fund a wonderful lifestyle, if they give the poor the occasional break from using grotty free services. Maybe give poor people enough money to afford the occasional meal in a restaurant, then UBI will go along way to raising the dignity of those in poverty above the UBS floor.

  2. This is a great summary of UBS in the context of the UBI discussion, without feeding into the oppositional presentations made by both UBI supporters and UBS supporters. While the report itself admits (or at least Howard Reed admits) that some form of cash grant on top would be needed, most of the publicity and blogging about this posits UBS as ‘the better option’ without looking at the good things in both.

    The point for me is that some activities in society (like transport, what they call ‘information’ but what I would call ‘connectivity’, housing and fuel) are best addressed collectively, while others, especially food, might be well addressed by intential local coops (which would be better facilitated by a UBI I think) but ultimately must be for every person to decide. That’s a lot of the shame of using both food banks and meals on wheels – the lack of choice over what people can get. I feel it is a fundamental point of human dignity to be able to decide what we put in our mouths, and for that some form of cash basic income would be necessary.

    It is a huge problem though that for particularly transport there is no mention of expanding bus services in places of low service in rural areas, or rationalising them where there are multiple competing services (as in Manchester). My reading of the original report saw no mention of ‘nationalisation’ of transport services (nor information for that matter) which would be key to providing truly universal coverage throughout the UK.

    On housing, I think that this could be provided a lot faster by Compulsory Purchase of empty, badly managed or underused dwellings already built, rather than building still more while leaving the underused ‘luxury’ accomodation untouched. There was a programme like this in London in the 1970s, where councils took over badly managed private dwellings – unfortunately they didn’t then have the money to upgrade them at the time, and then in the 1980s these were largely sold off either through Right to Buy or simply sold by councils directly back into the private sector. I also think that LAs should take back all leaseheld properties currently being rented out as buy-to-let, (this might then require a UBI to compensate the small landlords who got into BTL as a source of personal income) and all properties handed over by them to the increasingly profit driven housing associations.

    One thing that the UBS report does not go into is the critical need for better building standards, both in terms of space and light (got rid of by Thatcher) and ecological sustainability – much of which could be retro-fitted as well as incorporated into new build.

    That a reasonable level of UBI might encourage people to move out of high density areas like London to make their lives (and start businesses?) in places where there is an absolute oversupply of housing because of the undersupply of jobs, as well as counter the current trend of further atomisation into ever-smaller households, is another little discussed potential of UBI.

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