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The Return of the State and an Agenda for Common Ownership

For almost half a century, public policy in much of the west has been dominated by an ideological discourse espousing the values of the private individual and freedom to accumulate personal wealth irrespective of its wider consequences. This ‘neoliberal’ project, which has prioritised opening up more and more areas of economy and society to privatisation and marketized values, has been an unmitigated disaster for humankind and the planet. Beyond the self-serving interests of political and economic elites to accumulate vast wealth, which is then squirrelled away in tax havens to escape public scrutiny, neoliberal policies are creating multiple economic, social and ecological crises. 

On the one hand, the deregulation of markets under globalisation and the opening up of the public realm to the pursuit of profit and rent-seeking by rich individuals and large corporations has deepened inequalities and led to growing anger and disenchantment, helping to fuel the rise of racism, xenophobia and right-wing populism. On the other hand, neoliberal policies have proved ineffectual in tackling the critical public policy issues of our time.  Already evident in the wake of the financial crisis and subsequent austerity policies, as well as in the ineffective proposal of marketized and privatised solutions to deal with the climate emergency, the COVID pandemic has been a further reminder of the importance of collective and public solutions.

This is the context around the world for the return of state intervention in diverse forms to prop up the economy. Even before the Pandemic, there was a growing realisation among the more far-sighted policy makers of the limits to privatisation and market-based policies in providing sustainable infrastructure and services, whether this was in the health system, transport, energy or water supplies. Despite the ideological aversion of many in its ranks, the current Conservative Government is being forced into various nationalisations notably, in the failing privatised rail sector.

Below the mainstream media and policy radar, there has been a remarkable trend around the world for local and regional governments to de-privatise essential services. In a process known as remunicipalisation, the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI) has carried out some remarkable research to uncover more that 1,500 examples – from every continent – of local authorities that have turned their backs on privatisation. 

Within this trend there are some excellent examples of local governments creating very different kinds of public ownership, going beyond the rather top-down managerialist forms of nationalisation from the past to create much more democratic forms of public ownership. In other words, forms of a more genuine ‘common’ ownership of services and utilities that engage citizens, users and workers in developing the agenda for public enterprises. These can harness user and worker knowledge to improve the performance of public services as well as stimulating broader values that go beyond narrow commercial imperatives. 

One well known example is the German town of Wolfhagen, where a local citizen led campaign successfully challenged multinational energy utility Eon in 2006 to take back control of its electricity grid with the aim to decarbonize its energy system with its own renewable energy supplies. The resulting new municipal energy company not only achieved its aim of generating 100% of its electricity from renewable sources (with investment in a local wind farm and solar panels) by 2015 but it also set up an innovative democratic hybrid form of public-common ownership, part owned by the town’s council (75%) and part (25%) by a residents’ cooperative. 

Greater local devolution of powers, compared to the UK, mean that these kinds of examples are replicated across Germany.  But even in less propitious circumstances, there are interesting experiments of what we might term the ‘commoning’ of public services through new models of citizen engagement. Spain, like the UK, has been hit hard by austerity policies over the past decade but, in spite of this, there have been over 100 remunicipalisations. Many of these have set up new councils and forums where the public utility’s strategies and values are shaped by workers and citizen. After taking its water services back into public ownership in 2015, the Catalan city of Terrassa set up a Water Observatory, an autonomous citizens panel that has mandate to inform and shape the policy direction of the new public enterprise. This emulates similar initiatives following remunicipalisation in Paris, Grenoble and Montpelier.

Closer to home, following a decade of austerity and growing levels of poverty in its more deprived neighbourhoods, the City of Plymouth has pioneered a ground-breaking experiment in community engagement; the Plymouth Energy Community (PEC); a social enterprise created with financial assistance and staff support by the City Council to tackle the twin goals of decarbonisation and addressing fuel poverty. Partnering with the city council, to date, PEC has supported over 21,000 households to reduce their fuel costs and created its own community owned energy subsidiary PEC renewables. Through raising money through funds from the city council and a cooperative resident share-owning scheme, it has created its own solar energy generation which is creating local jobs, returning profits back into public projects such as community gardening and affordable housing.

As these examples show, a common and democratic ownership agenda for public services that bring communities, users and workers together with local government actors can develop alternative strategies and values which ensure that revenues generated go back into enriching our common wealth rather than being siphoned off to the benefit of global elites.


Sources

For further information on Public-Common partnerships, see:
Hopman, L. Kishimoto, S. Russell, B. and Valentin L (2021) Democratic and
collective ownership of public goods and services: Exploring public-community collaborations. Transnational Institute, Amsterdam:   
https://www.tni.org/en/publication/democratic-and-collective-ownership-of-public-goods-and-services 

For more evidence of the global remunicipalisation trend, visit the Public Futures database, here: https://publicfutures.org/

Read more about the Plymouth Energy Community here:
https://municipalpower.org/articles/plymouth-energy-community-a-story-about-energy-transition-and-social-justice/

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