In my last article, I took a look at a report by the Institute for Global Prosperity on their idea of Universal Basic Services: a set of services that are free and universally accessible to all. Adding to the UK’s existing universal services – health, education and legal & democracy – the authors proposed four more: transport (free bus and other local transport services), information (free phone, broadband and BBC license fee), food and shelter. In particular, my article assessed whether Universal Basic Services could fulfil the aims of Universal Basic Income (UBI) – a universal, unconditional payment to every citizen – as the report’s authors claimed. My conclusion was not only does the authors’ vision of Universal Basic Services (UBS) fail to fulfil the aims of UBI, it doesn’t even live up to UBS’ name, as some of the services aren’t universal. From this basis, I would like to explore briefly what a genuinely universal Universal Basic Services would look like.
In their report, the Institute for Global Prosperity propose four new Universal Basic Services: Transport, Information, Food and Shelter. The first two, as discussed in my previous article, are both universal and comprehensive. Transport provides free bus and other local transport services. While it would require a complementary expansion in local transport provision, particularly in rural areas, this service would be a universal service that would improve opportunities for all. Likewise, in providing free phone, broadband and BBC television to everybody, UBS Information is a universal service that would again provide tremendous opportunities for all by allowing everyone the same access to the information that is so vital in the modern age. In looking to expand Universal Basic Services we must therefore look to improve the two remaining areas of the UBS programme: Food and Shelter.
Putting the universal back into nutrition
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) – a programme that, while a positive step forward – is clearly nowhere near universal. A far more comprehensive, radical and universal Universal Basic Service is an option that the report’s authors suggest and then discard: namely, a “community service with completely open access to all”. This more ambitious, “aspirational” model of UBS Food would see everyone from the entire population given the option to receive free meals. As a safety net available to all, a community network of outlets where food can be bought for free is a much better articulation of what UBS aimed to do from the outset: provide services in a way which is either complementary to UBI or in a way that renders UBI unnecessary. The authors even detail how such community food programmes would function: each programme would be designed and delivered locally; there would be different varieties of food service (from public canteens to food boxes) and provision for different dietary preferences. Such a vision for a UBS Food programme could be transformative for local communities, by offering everyone a safety net while also ensuring that – through the use of multiple outlets – choice and quality are maintained for all, not just the richest. This visionary, radical Food scheme would therefore create greater social cohesion by ensuring that everyone engages in their local democracy as a means of determining the types of food service on offer, while also expanding individual freedom by ensuring everyone can not only receive food but good food that they like to eat. This form of Universal Basic Service would be a compelling foundation and safety net for everyone.
The home stretch
The author’s proposed UBS Shelter is as anaemic as their proposals for Food, with more ambitious ideas discarded in favour of an easier but lacklustre programme. Their scheme suggests increasing the stock of social housing by building 1.5 million homes over 30 years, with free rent and an allowance on utilities for those most in need of it, which is a valiant suggestion but not a universal one. So what would a truly radical and universal Shelter programme look like? Well, unlike UBS Food, the authors do not expand upon their limited Shelter scheme to explore other possibilities of ensuring everyone has access to affordable housing. However, the answer appears relatively clear: a utilities allowance for everybody to spend on heating, electricity and water, plus publicly supplied housing available to everybody. The latter of those two suggestions may seem controversial and old-school statist, but in fact it’s a system that has proved incredibly effective in capitalist sweetheart state Singapore.
In Singapore, state-supplied housing (known as HDB, after the government’s Housing & Development Board) often takes the form of apartments that are nothing special but are safe, clean, functional and available to all. The country, coincidentally, also has next to no homelessness. Such a housing scheme in Britain – one in which the state guaranteed a home for everyone – would eradicate homelessness while ensuring everybody has access to good quality housing. It would also have the potential to revolutionise the way home ownership is viewed in this country, with its population to date often considering a house a financial asset rather than a place to live. Combined with the more radical vision of UBS Food as described above, this Universal Basic Service would provide a good safety net by ensuring everyone has a roof over their heads.
At your service?
In their initial report proposing the idea of Universal Basic Services, the Institute for Global Prosperity were half way there in offering Britain genuinely universal basic services: free local transport and free access to information services like phone and broadband. However, their plans for a UBS Food and Shelter, in an attempt to keep costs down, relies too heavily on insidious means-testing that would see its recipients shamed in the national press, while also blatantly flouting their status as apparently universal services. The plans outlined above (in part inspired by alternatives put forward by the original report’s authors themselves) would not only provide genuinely universal safety nets but could also have a transformative impact on people’s lives, with the potential to allow universal access to good food while eradicating homelessness and increasing engagement in local democracy. The suggestions I’ve put forward are there to expand the boundaries of what is possible for the political conversation, and unlike the original report I don’t go into funding or costings, which I may do in a future article. In addition, this radical vision of Universal Basic Services could be expanded further, for example in areas such as access to utilities or national public transportation. There are also questions over whether even the approach I’ve outlined here would be desirable compared to other options. In their own right, however, the above proposals form the basis for a genuinely universal UBS, something the original report couldn’t measure up to.