The demise of private finance initiatives is a metaphor for bigger shifts in political thinking.
Today, while giving his Spring Statement, the chancellor Philip Hammond announced a giant metaphor.
The consultation on the future of infrastructure investment is an acceptance that private finance initiatives (PFIs) are finally kaput as a policy. It is also a sign that marketisation of the public sector is increasingly defunct. A whole model – not just for public services but for policy, politics and society – is spluttering to a halt.
This is a metaphor for the bigger battles playing out over Brexit. The astounding rudderlessness of Westminster is only driven in part by conflicting attitudes to withdrawal from the EU.
For many years both main parties bought in wholeheartedly to the marketisation mentality of which PFI was a significant part. That consensus has broken down as Labour moved towards a more statist approach while the Conservatives drifted into deep confusion about their overarching narrative.
Rows about Europe have filled the void, but cannot hide the deeper malaise. Neither party has a perspective that seems to answer the big questions confronting the country, nor one that can hold together their fragmenting supporter bases.
The market model worked well, politically at least, in the long period of uninterrupted growth. But since the 2008 crash, its resonance has disappeared along with the economic confidence of the country.
But if only national politicians were willing to look beyond the current Westminster obsessions, they might begin to find the answer on the frontline of public services, and particularly in local government. There, public servants who cannot rely on well-funded in-house services or adequate private provision are turning instead to communities to achieve their goals.
When neither the state nor the market can deliver, the solution to social challenges is being found in mobilising communities, tapping into their assets of mutual support, and being led by their inherent desire to solve problems before they arise. It is an approach the New Local Government Network calls the ‘community paradigm’.
This is not just the cutting edge of public service delivery. It is the beginning of a new overarching perspective that has the power to return the lost mojo of national politics.
The consensus over the market is dead. A consensus over a new interventionist state will not emerge, given such a vision is better at answering the challenges of the 1950s than the 2020s.
By contrast, a political consensus on the need to empower and resource communities to address their own challenges is timely, fresh and relevant – as public servants working at the hard edge of delivery are discovering every day.
Adam Lent, director, New Local Government Network