Wednesday 31 May 2017 07.00 BST
Imagine designing one of our great cities from scratch. You would quickly discover that there is enough physical space for magnificent parks, playing fields, public swimming pools, urban nature reserves and allotments sufficient to meet the needs of everyone. Alternatively, you could designate the same space to a small proportion of its people – the richest citizens – who can afford large gardens, perhaps with their own swimming pools. The only way of securing space for both is to allow the suburbs to sprawl until the city becomes dysfunctional: impossible to supply with efficient services, lacking a sense of civic cohesion, and permanently snarled in traffic: Los Angeles for all.
Imagine designing a long-distance transport system for a nation that did not possess one. You’d find that there is plenty of room for everyone to travel swiftly and efficiently, in trains and luxury buses (an intercity bus can carry as many people as a mile of car traffic). But to supply the same mobility with private cars requires a prodigious use of land, concrete, metal and fuel. It can be done, but only at the cost of climate change, air pollution, the destruction of wonderful places and an assault on tranquillity, neighbourhood and community life.
This conflict is repeated in financial terms. In order that the very rich can pay less tax, public playgrounds are allowed to fall apart. The beneficiaries might use the extra money to build private play barns for their children. Public toilets are closed so that some people can install gold-plated taps in their bathrooms. Public swimming pools are put on restricted hours so that the very rich can turn up the thermostats in their private pools. Public galleries need to charge for entry so that billionaires can expand their own art collections. Wealth that could be shared and enjoyed by all is sequestered by a few.
It is impossible to deliver a magnificent life for everyone by securing private space through private spending. Attempts to do so are highly inefficient, producing ridiculous levels of redundancy and replication. Look at roads, in which individual people, each encased in a tonne of metal, each taking up (at 70mph) 90 metres of lane, travel in parallel to the same destination. The expansion of public wealth creates more space for everyone; the expansion of private wealth reduces it, eventually damaging most people’s quality of life.