The launch of the IGP initial papers on Universal Basic Services (UBS) generated a fair bit of conversation, and some confusion, around access to services that are going to inevitably be in short supply.
How do we allocate access to services for which only a limited quantity is available? The proposals for Shelter and Food are the most obvious examples, partly because our papers acknowledged that not everyone would be able to access these services.
Before we get stuck into the details here, let’s keep in mind that the objective of UBS: to reduce insecurity and increase cohesion. And the reasons to do those is to enhance the function and productivity of our economy, society and democracy.
Much of the difficulty people have is that they bring with them a mental framework that was built to address different objectives and then try and fit UBS into that model. As we acknowledged in our report, the issue of implementation is key to UBS and will require both an upgrade to our localism and some adjustments to our expectations. If we keep the objectives of UBS in mind, this can be a simpler journey.
Next it is worth noting that the word “BASIC” is included in the definition of UBS for a reason: each service is designed to provide just a minimum, a “floor” to the standard of life. The reason for this is partly about affordability, but much more it is about meeting a need for safety and not getting in the way of motivation.
Yes, someone could survive on just the UBS, but I have yet to meet the (phantom) person who would like to live their life just surviving. Everyone I speak to would not be satisfied with a roof, a meal, a bus pass, and some cellular minutes. And when I talk to anyone who says there is someone who would, then that person is not them and not anyone else present at the time. The reality of human nature is that we can safely rely on the great, vast, vast majority of people to have the motivation to contribute, to do better, to succeed… and to want more than just the basic services.
Example 1: UBS Shelter
The UBS proposal for Shelter is not to give everyone a free house, instead it is to ensure that no one suffers as a result of the absence of any shelter.
In our report we modelled building 1.5 million social housing units and providing them rent, tax and utility free. We did that because, in the aggregate, that’s a reasonable stab at defining the cost of a program that would truly remove shelter insecurity from UK society. It is big enough that it covers what is estimated at a 1.5 million unit shortfall of building over recent decades, and it accepts the total costs without expecting revenue returns to offset the costs. In this way we honestly assessed the cost of removing shelter insecurity from UK society.
Does that mean that a UBS Shelter service would actually consist of giving 1.5 million households free housing, guaranteed for 30 years?
No, that would be less effective and only address the problem as if it were a stagnant issue.
Actual implementation of a Shelter UBS would look much more like this:
- Analyse existing supply and need by locality.
- Allocate budget to localities with the obligation that they ensure that all of their constituents have access to healthy housing.
- Local governments would define the places where housing would get built or renovated, and take on the work of creating a supply suitable to their specific circumstances and leveraging best practice support from civil society and central government. Given the constraints on their budgets the housing they add will likely be very basic, and of sufficient variety to accommodate their local needs. The efficiency of brownfield site redevelopment and co-location with other services would hopefully weigh heavily in their deliberations, along with strong input from the community.
- Tenancies would likely vary considerably from quite long term ones for severely disabled people to quite short ones for people just needing support over a hump in their lives or transitioning from one situation to another. It’s not hard to imagine different situations that would merit different tenancies anywhere from 3 months and 30 years.
By walking through the practicalities we can start to see that the reality of a Shelter UBS is more nuanced, and more complicated, than simply building 1.5 million units.
Example 2: UBS Food
We looked at three different versions of a Food UBS, covering the gamut from just replacing foodbank use, to a fully fledged community food program. In the end we selected to address the food insecurity that is revealed by the Food Standards Authority bi-annual household survey. This gives a decent picture of the real insecurity in our society, and provided us with a concrete definition around which to do some costing.
The report specified 1.8 billion meals, derived from providing one third (a meal a day) to the whole population defined as food insecure in the FSA survey. That allowed us to assign a budget to the service, that’s all.
What would a Food UBS look like in practice?
It’s impossible to imagine a Food UBS (or a “Nutrition” UBS as some have encouraged us to call it) without thinking locally. Once again, as we acknowledge, you just can’t do this from the top down. The existing benefits system is the only way to try and meet the challenge of insecurity from the centre using a top-down approach. But if you believe that we need to, and can, do better with a service instead of a cash distribution then you have to accept the hard work of actually delivering the service.
In many ways our report has this message: we have exhausted the ability of top-down, centralised cash distribution to meet the challenge of insecurity in our society, and so now we are going to have to roll up our sleeves and do the harder work of actually tackling the problems instead of trying to get away with putting checks in the mail.
A Food UBS would have to be very local, and would be hugely different in different parts of the country and in different social geographies. Budgets would be allocated to responsive and accountable local governments, and the specifics of the service designed and delivered according to local needs. Hopefully it would be of high quality and great diversity, but ensuring that was the case would have to be a local accountability issue and could never be managed from a central administration.
In my mind, I would like to see a full community food program, where just about everyone partook at least every now and then. An informal survey I ran in 2013 suggests that many others would also like to see such a program, with the results of survey showing that about half of people would take about a third of their meals from such a service.
But, as we said in our report:
In practice this kind of UBS is predicated in the existence of much more devolved government than we have today, and would need to emerge voluntarily from communities that saw value in its provision. As such it is an aspirational model rather than an option which we can reasonably propose at this time.
The UBS journey is about so much more than replacing benefits or delivering free stuff, it’s about building resilient communities that make up cohesive societies – the kind of societies that can handle the coming pressures of automation, ageing, and climate change without falling apart.
Sure, allocating limited resources of things like shelter and food will be messier than can be described on a page of A4, and it will require that we agree to make substantial changes to our local democratic structures and accountability, but it will also be worth it.