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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.