The Firm

I found a fantastic book completely by chance whilst browsing the shelves of Leeds City Library on Bank Holiday Monday (and just renewed online, how handy!). I was there because the university library was closed and I needed to work on my dissertation. Even though I don’t live in Leeds, I was allowed to sign up to use all of Leeds’ public libraries (how kind!) and spend up to two hours per day for free on their PCs (complete life-saver!).

While I was waiting for my turn on the computers (I’ve never seen a library so busy), I went to see what the politics collection looked like, to see if my dissertation findings rang true in Leeds, too. That’s when I spotted Post-Democracy by Colin Crouch (here’s a nice review!), which turned out to be incredibly useful, just in the nick of time. I had a sit down in a lovely quiet reading room upstairs, found some brilliant quotes to strengthen some of my arguments, jotted down the page references and then edited my dissertation using the free PCs and internet connection.

Thanks Leeds Libraries!

Anyhow, the point of this blog post was to quote a big chunk of the book. This excerpt touches upon The firm as an institutional model and makes a pretty uncanny reference to the location of supermarkets and public services:

“There may be strong reasons for ensuring that everyone should have access to certain goods and services, which it will be unprofitable for firms within a free market to produce. This is a familiar problem, to which the normal answer is that this indicates the role of the government. But to acknowledge this requires acceptance that the modus operandi of government and private firm differ in certain respects. To take just one simple example: supermarkets place themselves on major out-of-town traffic routes where the majority of profitable customers can gain access to them. This leaves a residuum of people who find it very difficult to go shopping, but these are poor people whose small purchases it is not worth the supermarkets’ while to bother about. This is sometimes considered a minor scandal, but this is small compared with what would happen in the following case. Imagine that a public authority responsible for providing schools in a town announces that, as part of its policy of market testing and best-value procedures, it has been taking lessons in cost-effective location from consultants to supermarket chains. Henceforth it will be closing most of its schools and will reopen a small number of very large ones, located on motorway access points. Research has shown it that the small numbers of pupils whose parents do not have cars are likely to be poor educational performers. Therefore, in addition to considerable cost savings resulting from the closure of many schools, the town’s scores in league tables will improve as a result of the inability of these poorly performing children to attend school.

“Everyone can think of many reasons why this is unacceptable and never practised. In doing so one makes use of concepts like the need for universal access to essential public services [my emphasis], which mark out the essential differences between public-service and commercial provision.” (Crouch, 2004).

I’d strongly recommend this book to everyone even vaguely bothered about what’s happening to our public services, particularly libraries, because the examples used are what we’re already seeing playing out infront of us with public libraries. Recommendations have been made to place libraries in supermarkets (why would a firm selling a resource want to promote the free loan of the same resources from a public service?), which (for the reasons above among many others) is a ‘solution’ to budget restrictions that does not serve the interests of the many in need of library services.


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