Inspired by examples from elsewhere, the momentum to democratise UK public services is growing

In Nottingham, Robin Hood Energy was the first municipal energy company in the United Kingdom created by a local council in over 75 years. Since its founding in 2015, it has aimed to live up to its name by providing affordable energy and to help tackle fuel poverty. It’s one of a number of UK cities joining an international movement.

That same year, councils and housing associations in Scotland combined to create Our Power, a not-for-profit affordable and green energy supplier. The following year, Bristol City Council launched Bristol Energy, with similar social and ecological goals. Without shareholders or highly paid CEOs, these companies can reduce prices and invest in renewables. But in the UK these initiatives, alongside an extensive plan to remunicipalise London’s energy supply, are exceptions.

“We welcome proposals to bring public services back in public hands, as we have seen a wave of privatisation over the last 30 years, which has accelerated recently with a number of services failing,” says Clara Paillard, president of the culture sector at the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and a campaigner for climate action and green transition.

“Fuel poverty and high energy prices are caused by a handful of companies holding a monopoly. Clearly, these corporations will not move from fossil fuels to a clean economy based on renewables,” she says.

“PCS with other unions and campaigners produced the one million climate jobs proposal. It is about public ownership of energy, public transport and housing, and connects to the programme [Labour Party leader Jeremy] Corbyn is putting forward to be developed as part of a just transition.”

John McDonnell, the UK Shadow Chancellor, announced on 8 February that “the next Labour government will end austerity and properly fund local authorities, instead of cutting back and passing the buck like the Conservatives are doing. We can bring services back in-house, stimulate the economy and provide decent jobs, extend ownership and control, and strengthen local democracy,” he said in the northern English town of Preston, which is serving as a model and launchpad for the Community Wealth Building Unit, an economic plan that rethinks public services.

Labour says it will support public services, including the National Health Service and railways. It will encourage anchor institutions, like universities and hospitals, to buy locally and support credit unions as alternatives to big banks.

Preston has already done these things. It has enabled the council to return an estimated £200 million (US$280 million) back into the local economy and support an extra 1600 jobs. A key pillar of the Community Wealth Building plan is the facilitation of municipal energy companies, which connects to a wider global shift away from privatised provision.

Germany at the forefront

Germany is leading the global charge in remunicipalisation. Last year, the Transnational Institute detailed 835 cases of public services such as waste management, water and transport either returning from various forms of privatisation (outsourcing of services, public-private partnerships, etc) back into public hands, or cities and regions creating new local public services. Some 347 of these examples took place in Germany, 284 within the energy sector.

Hamburg, the country’s second-largest city, took back its gas network, electricity and district heating after the campaign Our Hamburg, Our Grid successfully won a citywide referendum in September 2013.

“The social movements were key. They placed the democracy issue on the table,” explains Sören Becker, a University of Hamburg researcher whose focus is municipal energy. “The organisations divided their roles. Friends of the Earth spoke on the environmental, sustainable, climate and Energiewende-orientated topics; the Customer Advice Centre talked about prices and services; and the Lutheran Church created a society-orientated umbrella, putting the debate into the centre of society based on traditional values,” he says.

Becker says that behind the movement was the concept of green energy transition – the Energiewende, which literally means ‘energy-turn’. Simply put, the policy is about swapping nuclear and fossils for renewables. Conceived in the 1980s, it gathered pace across Germany after the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011.

“As a discursive frame Energiewende was the core, especially in Hamburg, which was one of the centres of energy-related protests in the 1970s against nuclear plants and later protests against coal power plants from the 1990s.”

Back in the UK, the tilt towards remunicipalisation has gathered pace in recent years. “I think public support has always been there for public ownership, but Corbyn and Labour’s [2017 General Election] Manifesto has shifted the Overton Window. Now the conversation is happening in a different way,” Cat Hobbs, director of We Own It, a UK pressure group for public services, tells Equal Times.

Amongst key UK outsourcing corporations, Carillion collapsed in January 2018. Capita is in crisis. There is an escalating financial crisis in local government funding. All of which have fed public sentiment against privatisation.

“The Legatum Institute polling that came out last September found 83 per cent supported public water, 77 per cent for energy and 76 per cent for rail. This is a right-wing think tank and I’m not sure what they were expecting,” says Hobbs.

She reflects back to when she founded We Own It five years ago: “In 2013, numerous outsourcing companies were getting things wrong: G4S at the Olympics; Serco and G4S being paid to tag prisoners who, as was revealed later, were dead; ATOS conducted dreadful assessments of disabled people. Each scandal received media coverage, but now the conversation has a new political context.”

Municipalism driving the just transition

Hobbs suggests that municipal public provision could help drive the just and green transition. “We need an energy distribution network that encourages communities to come up with renewable solutions and incentivises and works with those communities to make that happen as soon as possible, and it is very difficult to have that if you have got companies that are dedicated to their own interest.”

Tackling climate change is one of the key motivations of the new global wave of municipal provision, according to a report by the Transnational Institute, titled Reclaiming public services: how cities and citizens are turning back privatisation.

Other driving factors are cost savings, improved quality of service, financial transparency, and regaining operational capacity and control. Becker authored the report’s chapter on German municipalism, in which he explains how unions in Hamburg often resisted.

“One issue was that the workers would end up in a different system of collective bargaining. Another was a traditional tie with the SPD [Social Democratic Party], who were often against municipalisation,” he says.

Becker gives the example of union members at odds with their representatives as well as leading political parties. “Some rank-and-file members campaigned on a grassroots level in favour of remunicipalisation in Hamburg,’’ he says.

We asked Paillard what the key concerns might be with regards to expanding cooperatives and local energy in the UK. She says: “We need to make sure the conditions of employment are right, because you cannot be talking about making profits from employing people on the minimum wage, on zero-hour contracts, with no proper employment rights.”

In contrast, Labour’s Community Wealth Building Unit has unions on board from the outset. Becker thinks this is crucial: “Involving unions quickly is a strategic must. […] The contradiction is that unions are normally ideologically in favour of remunicipalisation, as public services should be accessible, but have institutional interests to protect the interests of the worker. So, at the moment [of change] fear arises that workers’ interests could be compromised.”

To overcome this problem, he recommends making exact guarantees and creating a concrete roadmap. “You must speak both in the particular workers interests and in the interests of general workers and broader populations,” he says.

A further obstacle against municipalisation is corporate resistance. “We know there is huge vested interest in the energy industry, and they are not going to like it when we take control of energy,” Hobbs explains.

This can be seen in Catalonia against a wave of water remunicipalisations.

Catalonia and beyond

The town of Terrassa, 30 kilometres north-east of Barcelona, has been at the forefront of recent developments in Spain. On 9 December 2016, the city council ran by Terrassa en Comú (Terrassa In Common) – a people-led platform that controls the city hall – announced it would take advantage of the fact that its 75-year contract was up for renewal by remuncipalising the water supply. But the vote was contested legally, and the creation of a municipal water company has been delayed until the end of 2018, as private water company Mina Pública de Terrassa attempted to challenge losing its monopoly in court.

Terrassa council, like many in Spain, is run by a coalition of grassroots groups. The most well-known of these is Barcelona City Council, which is governed by Barcelona en Comú. They crowd-sourced their election manifesto, which included municipalising the water system. Straight after the 2015 elections the manifesto was put online, and again, water municipalisation received popular consent.

This year the council is asking the public to reaffirm their support. This summer there will be a referendum with water municipalisaion on the ballot. “It’s powerful for us that there’s a vote on remunicipalisation of water, so the call comes from the people rather than from our party, because it’s easier for the opposition to just make it into a party issue,” says Kate Shea Bird, who works with Barcelona en Comú and is elected to the party’s executive board.

Meanwhile, the European Public Service Union (EPSU) is putting pressure on the European Union to put water back in the people’s hands. Through its Right2Water campaign, EPSU is pushing the European Commission to establish a human right to water and sanitation. One key aspect of this is to remove water services from market liberalisation rules that favour privatisation.

The campaign is built on galvanising public support. In December 2013, the Right2Water petition collected almost 1.9 million signatures, far surpassing the million needed to implement an European Citizens Initiative, where EU policy is crowd-sourced by citizens. As a result, in February 2018, the European Commission altered the Water Drinking Directive.

In practical application, this directive means that the EU will direct national governments to provide more public water fountains and stiffen regulation around tap water quality.

The ESPU described the proposed Directive as a “step forward” but said it “misses the opportunity to recognize the Human Right to Water.”

Pablo Sánchez, a campaign officer at ESPU, coordinated the Right2Water campaign. He tells Equal Times how remunicipalisation is vital in the continental fight for universal access to water.

“It is very important that the four levels – the global, European, national and regional – coordinate. In a way, municipalisation is key, and not just for water. The start of the efforts for municipalisation came about 10 years ago, starting in small places and little by little, the momentum has grown.”

Returning to Catalonia, both Terrassa en Comú and Barcelona en Comú show that even with manifesto pledges, water municipalisation needs a lot of bottom-up pressure to break the grip of the water companies. On 22 March 2017, these cities and towns clubbed together with five councils to form the Association of Municipalities for Public Water Management, which aims to guarantee universal access to affordable water. The group was launched with a mass protest and presentation involving city representatives, trade unions, political parties and grassroots organisations.

If Barcelona follows Terrassa’s example and returns its water supply from private to public delivery, this could catalyse further municipalisation across Europe. “If a city of four million people can municipalise water in a cheaper, more socially-conscious and environmentally-friendly way, it proves that the human right to water is not an unrealistic proposition. It can be done if there is political will,” says Sánchez.