So, what’s next? Building on the Preston model, we need local solutions of ownership and governance that can be both more democratic, easily scaled up, and effectively scaled out.
That’s what we’ve proposed in a new report on collective ownership and local governance for Common Wealth. “A joint enterprise structure that involves unions, social movements, and local government offers an incredibly useful institutional framework,” explains Preston Cllr Matthew Brown. “Public-Common Partnerships present an opportunity for local people to have a stake in how economic decisions are made in their area.”
A left-institutional turn needs a collective approach to decision-making for local energy systems, large-scale public housing, and infrastructure such as water, transport and food production and distribution. We’ve developed the idea of Public-Common Partnerships (PCPs) to address this need while linking local wealth-building ownership initiatives across the UK.
This is how it would work: at the centre of a PCP is the Commons Association made up of citizen-owners. The Commoners Association would govern the PCP jointly with state government of the appropriate level, in partnership with a third group – a project-specific coalition of experts and stakeholders, from unions to experts in the field.
Like the procurement policy in Preston, PCPs reinvest gains back into the community, taking a substantial proportion of the surplus generated for its own growth, while the rest goes to capitalize other collective ownership schemes.
Take, for example, the proposed Greater Manchester Energy Company. Called for by mayor Andy Burnham and developed by the GM Low Carbon Hub, local interpretations of economic and political risk are serving to lance any more ambitious and innovative models of ownership and governance.
An alternative solution would be a collectively owned energy company, co-governed by local residents in a commoners association, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, and a stakeholders panel made up of energy and environmental experts, along with local trade unions representing energy workers. The company could reinvest surpluses in other climate mitigating Public-Common Partnerships building the kind of self-expanding circuit that problems the size of climate change demand.
This isn’t a model of top-down centralized State ownership – the Commons Associations are at the helm. Neither is it completely novel. One model to look at is BEG Wolfhagen, a German energy cooperative owned by citizens in a small town in the region of Hesse. These citizens get an annual dividend and make the decisions about how profits from the energy company are reinvested.
Although they all differ in reality, there are a wealth of examples – from Eau de Paris, the Parisian water company that was brought back into public control in 2010, to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District – that challenge conventional thinking and practices of how to successfully govern major utilities.
Cooperatives are a time-tested governance structure. What makes PCPs different is the way they actively work to definancialise initiatives by creating a self-expansive circuit of PCPs across the country, bypassing reliance on the financial system and more equitably distributing wealth across the country. Unlike a PPP run by say, Carrillion, profit isn’t the driving force. Instead of a financialised system with off-balance sheet liabilities and value syphoned off by corporate investors, equity and democratic control would be held by local people.
The times require a fundamental challenge to the dominant assumptions about how our infrastructure should run, and how our towns and cities should grow. Building on experiments in collective ownership and governance, such as those found in the Preston model, we believe PCPs can be a load-star for progressive bottom-up planning. Collective ownership in a co-governance structure offers a training in democracy, where residents get to decide the metrics of success in their own communities.
With calls to ditch GDP as a measurement of growth, we can reorient our economic thinking towards determining the common values upon which people wish to organise their lives. In this manner we can reach a situation where people can really ask themselves what sort of lives they wish to live.
Bertie Russell is a Research Associate at Sheffield Urban Institute. Keir Milburn is a lecturer in political economy and organisation at the University of Leicester, and author of Generation Left. You can read the full report here.