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  • Writer's pictureAnna Coote

Why we're backing Universal Basic Services

By Anna Coote

Originally published by PRIME, 31 October 2020

PRIME is supporting a new programme to develop and communicate universal basic services (UBS) as a route to wellbeing for all, greater equality, full and decently-paid employment, and ecologically sustainable economic activity.

UBS is a framework for policy and practice that fosters collective responsibility, exercised through public institutions, to meet needs we all share. It recognises that income has two dimensions: one is money and the other is ‘social income’, derived from in-kind benefits (usually public services). Both are essential, but the value of in-kind benefits is too often under-rated or overlooked.

The goal is to ensure that everyone has access to life’s necessities – what we need to live a sufficient and flourishing life – as a right, not a privilege. These necessities include education, healthcare, housing, childcare, adult social care, transport and access to the Internet. Each one is met differently, but following the same, principled approach (which could also be applied to food, utilities, green spaces and other areas of need). Some needs are usually met by individual market transactions. Some can only be met through collective action. Others require a combination of private expenditure and public service to achieve universal access.

The case for UBS is set out in a new book and explored further on this website. It draws on lessons from the strengths and weaknesses of post-war welfare states and offers a route towards a new system fit for the 21st century. Key features include:

  • universal entitlement to life’s necessities,

  • equal access according to need not ability to pay,

  • devolution of power to localities,

  • active engagement by residents and service users, working with staff to co-produce services,

  • multiple models of ownership and control with all providers subject to the same public interest obligations,

  • a strong commitment to sufficiency within planetary boundaries.

The state provides some services directly and otherwise has four essential functions: to guarantee equal rights of access, to set and enforce standards, to collect and distribute funds, and to support and coordinate a range of public interest providers.

The new project aims to raise awareness about UBS as widely as possible, among policy makers, service practitioners, academics, community leaders, activists and campaigners, to encourage scrutiny and debate, and set wheels in motion for further research and development. With support from Network for Social Change, we have formed a Task Force to oversee this work. It is led by Anna Coote, Principal Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and includes PRIME directors Ann Pettifor and Jeremy Smith as well as Andrew Percy of UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity and Ian Gough, visiting Professor at the LSE and others. We will post further reports on the project over the coming months.

For further details, see the UBS background paper here. We’d welcome your comments and queries, either in the comments section below, or by email to: info[at]


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