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Public-Common Partnerships: Building New Circuits of Collective Ownership

This report introduces a new institutional framework for a transformative socialist politics: the Public-Common Partnership (PCP).

Whilst the era of new public-private partnerships in the UK has apparently come to an end, more than £199 billion of Public Private Partnership (PPP) payments from the public to the private sphere are due into the 2040s. This accumulation of wealth for the few comes at the cost of deteriorating services for the many. The debt itself serves to foreclose political alternatives by tying the hands of future authorities with ceaseless debt repayments and the further entrenchment of market logic.

The popularity of calls for the nationalisation of utilities or services – such as energy, water, and housing – points to a widespread rejection of the marketisation of essential services. Yet straightforward state ownership through nationalisation or municipalisation, often treated as a panacea, is not the only alternative. As well as questioning when and where centralised ownership is appropriate, we need to think about the institutional forms of ownership and governance that are most appropriate to a radical project of social transformation. What are we trying to achieve, and what institutional forms can help take us there?

Drawing on partial examples such as the co-owned energy company in Wolfhagen, Germany, we provide an outline of what we call a Public-Common Partnership (PCP). PCPs offer an alternative institutional design that moves us beyond the overly simplistic binary of market/state. Instead, they involve co-ownership between appropriate state authorities and a Commoners Association, alongside co-combined governance with a third association of project specific relevant parties such as trade unions and relevant experts. Rather than a mono-cultural institutional form applied indiscriminately PCPs should emerge as an overlapping patchwork of institutions that respond to the peculiarities of the asset concerned, the scale at which the PCP will operate (whether it be city-region wide energy production in Greater Manchester or the commercial activity of a North London market), and the individuals and communities that will act together as commoners.

PCPs can help address challenges of political risk and economic cost, enabling more innovative and “risky” initiatives. However their real strength comes from setting in motion a self-expanding circuit of radical democratic self-governance. The aim of this circuit is to bypass the need for private financing and sidestep the mechanisms through which finance capital exercises its discipline and structures the economy. PCPs will function as a “training in democracy” and help foster a new common-sense understanding of how we relate to one another. They are a method for “taking back control” of the infrastructures and resources that underpin our collective well-being – from food markets to water basins – while increasing our collective ability to fight for the wider structural changes in our society and economy that are so urgently needed – from a reduction in the working week to the implementation of a comprehensive Green New Deal.

This report is aimed at policy makers and social movement actors, both of whom are essential to the implementation of PCPs. Whilst a Left Labour government could dramatically increase the potential for the rollout of PCPs, there is already scope for their implementation by progressive municipalities such as Preston and new city-regions such as the North of Tyne. If these projects are to succeed, however, they will also need the mobilisation of social movements, ranging from housing unions such as ACORN or environmental groups such as Frack Free Lancashire. These movements can help define the problems to be addressed, add pressure to change calculations of political cost, and act as seeds in the formation of the Commons Associations that will drive the creation of PCPs.

To read the report in full, download the PDF.