The new regulation of public infrastructure services in the European Union. Challenges for territorial cohesion
Public infrastructure services (or Services of General Economic Interest, SGEI) in the European Union have undergone significant reform in the recent period, including privatization, liberalization and deregulation. These reforms, however, have led to concerns about the potential impact of pursuing economic profitability over service quality, affordability, accessibility and universality. Traditionally, because SGEI have been understood as playing a key economic, social and strategic role, they have been subject to specific rules in the general interest: so-called Public Service Obligations (PSO). A key objective of PSO is to ensure equal access to services, independent of the place of residence, income or other factors. PSO are, therefore, a key instrument as regards ensuring equity and territorial cohesion. As such, it constitutes a fundamental concern in European regional policy. Traditionally, the regulation of SGEI has focused on the supply side, as it has been assumed competition in an integrated European market would benefit citizens. Despite this, little research has actually been done on evaluating regulation from the demand side, not to speak of applying a regional focus. The aim of this paper is to evaluate SGEI provision and regulation in the EU from the perspective of citizens as consumers using a regional perspective. We focus on the region (NUTS1) and the urban/rural character of the place of residence as possible determinants of disparities. To do so, a microeconometric analysis of citizens' revealed and stated preferences is performed, focusing on three large European countries (Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom) for four services: electricity, gas, water and telecommunications. First, disparities in spending on the services are analyzed, using National Household Budget Surveys. Next, differences in dissatisfaction with service access and price are analyzed, using the Eurobarometer. Finally, we analyze whether lower consumption of a particular service in a particular region or rural area is related to problems of accessibility, affordability or to other factors. Findings show different regional patterns of services use. Moreover, serious and widespread problems are observed regarding equal access to services such as gas and telecommunications in rural areas, of some concern for the question of territorial cohesion.
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