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Public-Common Partnerships: Democratising Ownership and Urban Development

This report provides a detailed account of how Public-Common Partnerships (PCPs) - a diverse institutional design for collective ownership - can play a foundational role in shaping a commons-led approach to urban development. The report is aimed at policy makers, community activists and social movements, all of whom are essential to the implementation of PCPs.

The past three decades have been dominated by a cookie-cutter model of extractive urban development. Inwards private investment has been seen as a cure-all for everything from the provision of jobs and housing to the creation of nominally public space and ‘cultural vibrancy’. Yet inevitably, as local and regional authorities have competed to appear attractive to developers and private investment - sometimes incorporating largely powerless processes of ‘citizen participation’ - the result has been to produce towns and cities that primarily reflect the needs of private finance.

When this model is supposedly working, we see Victorian-era hospital buildings converted into WeWork coworking spaces, ‘regenerated’ housing estates displacing former residents, small-traders priced out of their premises and replaced with dark-kitchens and food delivery warehouses, traditional markets demolished and replaced with unaffordable build-to-let housing units, and former cotton mills - once home to garment manufacturing, art studios and small breweries - redeveloped into ‘boutique’ student accommodation. Meanwhile, those places problematically framed as ‘left behind’ largely struggle to pursue a different pathway, as speculative capital sucks-up land and assets in anticipation of ‘their turn’ to profit from a development boom. In both cases, what is foreclosed is an approach to urban development that prioritises improvements to the well-being of existing residents.

Through an in-depth account of two contrasting cases (Wards Corner in Haringey, and Union Street in Plymouth), this report shows how Public-Common Partnerships can act as conduits for an alternative model of urban development. Responding to the specific context of each case, and drawing on existing ownership legislation in the UK, the report outlines two distinct models for how a Public-Common Partnership could deliver democratic community control of assets and the value generated through them. These models are then considered in the context of a wider approach to democratic urban development.

Both models work with an expansive understanding of economic democracy, moving beyond traditions of worker ownership and representation to explore the potential for wider democratic control of assets. They also confront limited understandings that exclusively equate ‘democracy’ with public institutions, instead demonstrating the opportunity and potential for new democratic spaces of urban development.

The report presents five key findings:

  1. Collective control and ownership of assets and resources can address systemic injustices and crises. This includes, but is not limited to, the problem of escalating inequality, declines in democratic participation, assisting the post-pandemic recovery, and reversing decades of land and resource privatisation.
  2. Meaningful democratic participation only becomes possible when communities have control over assets and resources, but after over 40 years of privatisation premised on - and producing - atomised individuals, the existence of communities cannot be assumed. Rather, they must be built and sustained through democratic processes and institutions.
  3. Participation in meaningfully democratic structures such as PCPs improves individual and community capacity for self-governance and democratic practice. Fighting for such institutions similarly develops collective capacities for self-governance.
  4. Off the shelf models for commoning do not exist. Each PCP must be developed with its particular cultures, economies, and social dynamics in mind. This can only be done with the community’s full participation.
  5. The expansion of the commons, through PCPs or similar institutions, is a viable alternative to private and privatising development. This means that the decision of Local Authorities to pursue private investment is a political choice and not a pragmatic decision made under unfavourable economic circumstances.

To read the report in full, download the PDF.