On Wednesday morning’s Today programme there was one of those most revealing moments that shows the underlying bias or assumptions behind so much of the journalism. The presenter was faced with the story that Northern Ireland’s water utility had let the public down, unable to deliver water by pipe into many homes following a run of burst pipes. The first unstated reaction seemed to be to think it was a privatised utility, which would allow the usual condemnation of privatisation, and lead to cries of stronger regulation and extra taxes. He paused with doubt in his voice and asked on air for confirmation that it was still a nationalised utility. Once that was confirmed he mused that there was nothing you could do about that. The normal diet of threats and menaces suuitable for a private sector business was left unspoken. He went off instead in the BBC public sector direction, to suggest the problem was probably based on insufficient investment or public spending in the past. Rarely do they think that perhaps a part of the public sector could be badly managed or wasteful.
Let me make it clear again, I do not belong to the school of thought which says all private sector institutions are good and all public sector ones are bad. I just get frustrated by meeting so many many who think the opposite, seeing the pursuit of profit by enterprise as wrong in principle and bound to lead to bad results. They are usually hurrying to their competitive supermarket to buy their food in their private sector produced high quality car where every moving part was made by a profit maximising company.
I dislike monopoloy, whether it be in the private or public sectors. It is monopoly that normally lurks behind poor service or high price. The performance of privatised Heathrow this winter did not delight me, any more than the performance of nationalised Northern Ireland Water. Both are monopolies of a kind. Heathrow still seems to have occasional monopoly style thoughts based on the relative size and position of the airport.
I dislike poor peformers amongst private sector companies, as well as amongst nationalised service providers. The private sector ones worry me less for two reasons. Most of them are not monopolies so I can go elsewhere. The private sector has an easier way of closing down poor performers – they run out of customers and money. State sector ones worry me more. I often cannot avoid using them as they have a monopoly. The more mistakes they make, the more I and other taxpayers and customers have to pay for them.
The BBC should look more seriously at the plight of Northern Ireland Water. No sensible person can say Northern Ireland has been short of public money in the last decade. Spending per head is well above the rest of the UK and has grown strongly. How can a nationalised monopoly end up unable to supply its customers with a basic service?
The government needs to introduce competitive pressures wherever possible to public sector trading services where customers pay for the service at the point of use. Competition is the best way to keep businesses honest and to keep prices down.