The next phase of the Preston Model is the Public-Commons Partnership

The famous bus station in Preston, an obligatory inclusion in all stories about the Preston model. Image: Getty

With the erosion of NHS hospitals, G4S’s disastrous private prison scandal, and the collapse of Carrillion, the funeral for Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) is long overdue.

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.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.