Article by Terry Tozer. First published in the Western Morning News in March 2008
Turn on the news and you are likely to hear of another post office closure somewhere in Britain. On Friday (7th March) it was the impending closure of Maida Vale Post Office in London that made the headlines; with celebrities like rock star Chrissie Hynde complaining about the loss of a vital local amenity. Star or not, she is right.
If you are lucky enough to have a local post office you know its worth well enough. Moreover, you will know how it fills many socially important roles as a focal point of activity and social contact. In rural areas the loss of one makes life considerably harder for the elderly and those at the bottom of the income scale. Anyone who has experienced the death of a cherished post office is also likely to know the frustration and futility of campaigns to save it.
Now it seems that local councils are finally stepping into the breach to keep some post offices open. It is this development that interests me. Are we seeing the open acknowledgement that there are some things which belong in public ownership? Consider an example.
When I walk to my purpose built four year old village post office, I pass a brand new youth centre with a bank of computer terminals and an outdoor cinema. Opened in February, it cost of £570,000.
In the post office a notice tells me that another new one has now opened a mile away to serve a new housing development, the residents of which would have otherwise had to use one in the nearest town; one mile further on.
My village also boasts a newly built ultra modern police station. It has spaces for the four police cars that its generous contingency of officers use and sits elegantly in the picturesque square outside the council office, from which the elected mayor directs the council.
Opposite is the bus stop. From here the council subsidised service runs to the railway station every 20 minutes from 6AM to 1045PM, 6 days a week, a journey of 2 miles and 10 minutes duration.
Where is this strange planet with distant echoes of a long past Britain? It is in a large village 20 minutes north of Barcelona in Spain’s Catalonia region, where such services are taken for granted.
Surely we pay handsomely for this nirvana? We certainly do not. My council tax bill was £386 last year. For this we also get 2 rubbish collections each week and hi-tech recycling centres dotted discretely about the village. All that is visible of these is a coloured chute standing about a metre high with a roll back stainless lid. Blue for paper, yellow for plastic, brown for organic waste and so on.
The appropriate collection truck attaches an air hose to a valve in the ground and the whole pavement section rises to chest height. The underground receptacle is then emptied automatically. This is standard throughout Catalonia. We may also boast of our two street cleaning machines, which are deployed every day to help the 3-man broom team wash and sweep the village streets.
How is all this possible? First it is important to appreciate that public funding is deemed not just acceptable here, but vital. National and regional government make their contribution – even with national tax levels similar to those in the UK – and our local mayor has real power. It is he who sanctioned and funded the replacement of the existing library with a new 3-story one, currently under construction. He will fund its staffing too.
He stands or falls at the hands of the electorate and so we may all express our priorities locally. He and his family also run the village shop and so it is easy to offer an opinion whilst paying for your fruit and veg.
It is probably easier to understand such policies if they are seen against a national backdrop of other publicly funded services, such as public transport.
Whilst part privatisation is common in Spain, the national government is unwilling to relinquish complete control. This is especially true of utility and transport industries, like the national rail company Renfe. These vital services, most notably water supply, are thought too important to be left to commerce alone. You won’t find foreign businesses owning Spanish utility companies either.
February saw the opening of a new high speed rail line between Barcelona and Madrid. Soon, routes from Barcelona to southern Spain and north into France will also operate. Tickets for the 2hour 38-minute journey to Madrid on the 210 mph AVE start at £76 for a full fare ticket with advance booking offers also available. This high-speed line was created separately from the existing rail network at a cost of 7 billion Euros – £5.3 billion. Already the business community is its biggest customer, many making the switch from airlines as the preferred way to reach the capital. The total budget for high speed rail construction in Spain is £38 billion.
The lucky commuter, and there are many in our village, may also take the village bus, the train into Barcelona (every 6 minutes at peak times) then a tube or bus ride anywhere in the city all on the same £1 ticket.
As if this is not enough to make a Brit weep, a German doctor working here told me that in her opinion Spain now has the finest national health system in Europe.
Spending public money on public services is unquestioned here. To the Spanish, only the opposite would seem, “loco,” or crazy. This philosophy is dictated by national priorities and cost is simply not the number one issue on Spanish minds.
Sunday’s general election saw the existing Socialist Party government returned to power with an increased majority. The Spanish do not blame it for a slowdown in the economy, which is seen as a cyclical and international issue. It is therefore certain to continue putting public services ahead of costs, a message I confidently expect to resonate more and more with the British public with every step taken in the opposite direction.