Q&A: Public-Common Partnerships

Public-Common Partnerships (PCPs) are a proposed approach to the common ownership and governance of assets and resources. Imagined as a reverse engineering of the Public-Private Partnerships that dominated the past 40 years, PCPs propose a role for public institutions in both de-risking and enabling processes of commoning. At its core, a PCP is a joint enterprise that incorporates ‘common associations’, public bodies, and wider stakeholders in the ownership and governance of assets, ranging from coastal aquaculture and country farms to urban high streets. Through creating different opportunities for democratic engagement, and through bringing profits under popular democratic control, PCPs are conceptualised as a vehicle for the expansive definancialisation and democratisation of the economy. 

Frances Northrop interviews Bertie Russell, Keir Milburn & Kai Heron to understand more about their development and how they fit into the wider movement for the democratic economy.

Frances: So how did the idea of PCPs come about? 

Bert: We first started working on the idea of Public Common Partnerships in 2017. One thing that characterised this period was a sort of ‘left hope’, not least due to the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, which had not existed for quite a long time. One of the key things to have come from that period was an acceleration in new economic thinking, where one of the most emblematic interventions was the 2017 Alternative Models of Ownership report. Rather than looking backwards to the 1940s and 50s, with a focus on top-down state ownership and centralised approaches to governance, this new economic thinking was starting to explore what alternative approaches to public ownership could actually look like. What does it mean, in terms of popular participation? What does that mean in terms of who actually owns something? How do these different forms of ownership contribute to a wider ecosocialist transition? 

Keir: A key impetus for us was an article written by Martin O’Neill and Joe Guinan in Renewal Journal called The Institutional Turn: Labour’s new political economy, to which we authored a response titled What Can an Institution Do? Towards public-common partnerships and a new common sense. Firstly, we argued that we had to take seriously the wider effects of the way assets and resources are governed, to consider the positive and negative spillover effects of particular institutional designs. Secondly, reform of public institutions was a central part of the neoliberal revolution precisely because of these spillover effects, changing the way people thought about themselves by inculcating an individualistic mode of thinking [resulting in wider detrimental effects for the prospects for the development of socialist/anti-capitalist movements]. 

So the question for us became, how would you change that? How could processes of democratic governance linked to democratic ownership reverse the social-political effects of neoliberal institutional governance? What sort of institutions could help develop democratic subjects who are able to participate in a flourishing democracy that sees problems as social problems that can be addressed through collective action and cooperation?

Bert: Thinking about the wider socio-political effects of institutional forms certainly isn’t just the preserve of the left. If we take Margaret Thatcher at her word when she said that “economics are the method, the object is to change the heart and soul”, then we need to consider the past 40 years of economic interventions – from the Right to Buy policy to the marketisation of the NHS – as concerted attempts to fundamentally shift the psychological composition of societies. These reforms weren’t just about making the rich richer, but changing the ‘common sense’ of what it means to be a citizen, and what appears politically and socially possible. Institutional design is part of a political strategy.

Keir: We presented some of these initial ideas at a conference in early 2019 called Equality and Democracy in Local and City Government, which was significant in bringing together a lot of people associated with this new heterodox economic practice and thinking. It was there that we met Matthew Lawrence, who was in the process of establishing a new think tank called Common Wealth. Mat invited us to expand on the idea of PCPs in more depth and set out how we hoped they would contribute to a wider project of socialist transformation, which resulted in Common Wealth’s first publication: Public Common Partnerships – Building New Circuits of Collective Ownership.

Given this context, what was the starting point for thinking about how public-common partnerships could function in this way? 

Keir: Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) are one of the flagship interventions of neoliberal institutional reform, with the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) perhaps the most well known iteration. The underpinning principle of PPPs, and especially PFIs, is that public institutions should act to incentivise private enterprise through ‘derisking’ investment decisions, ultimately by shifting costs and risk onto the state. We’ve seen this derisking approach accelerate in response to the 2008 crisis and then covid-19, where governments have consistently looked to socialise losses whilst privatising gains. Current discussions about fixing the energy cap are really more of the same, with the UK government preparing as much as £150BN of public money to effectively underwrite failed privatised energy companies. 

Public-Common Partnerships try to undo this legacy of Thatcherite institutional reforms by directly reversing the direction of PPPs. Instead of the state derisking private enterprise, with PCPs public institutions would derisk projects of common ownership and governance. 

With its early privatisations the UK is quite far along the road towards an ‘asset economy’, in which economic resources are increasingly turned into assets from which rents can be extracted. That’s the context which produces the current cost of living crisis, basically: there are supply constraints, many of which are linked to ecological crises so are likely to persist or recur, but these constraints have impacted upon the tinderbox of a financialised asset economy which guarantees price gouging. The result is an incredible explosion of inflation. At the same time, these derisked and underwritten services are barely functioning, the trains don’t run reliably, you can’t get a dentist appointment, the beaches are covered in sewage, etc. There’s a real sense of collapse and crisis. It’s an especially unsustainable situation because economic decisions about investment and resource distributions have been re-politicised in an overt manner. It’s quite likely that the debate in five years will not be, “Should we have public ownership?”, but “What form should that public ownership take and who’s going to benefit from it?” PCPs are one way in which we can start to trial and work out some of the really hard problems around common ownership and governance. 

We think we should move towards democratic planning of investment priorities and PCPs specifically aim to carve out space for this sort of deliberation. The Wards Corner Community Plan, for instance, calls for the democratic construction of what we call a ‘common plan’ for how the community wants their local area to develop. This is about building what we call ‘common associations’: popular democratic organisations that are directly integrated in the ownership and governance of assets, that don’t just have a ‘say’ but also have the resources to pursue the development of a democratic economy.

You talk about having a recipe for developing PCPs and some underpinning principles, rather than proposing a fixed off-the-shelf model to be rolled out. In practice, though, PCPs have to offer more than a set of principles about ‘commoning’. Could you say more about how you’re taking these ideas forward?

Kai: The first report came out in 2019, and it was making a conceptual intervention. But we don’t really think it’s possible to simply replicate, from place to place, what a PCP will look like. The next step was to try and implant and develop these ideas, so that they speak to particular interests, needs, group subjectivities and so on. With the second report for Common Wealth (2021), we wanted to think about how to translate a formal and abstract model down into a concrete and localised intervention. This meant working closely with communities, adapting the PCP model so that it worked for their aims, context, and struggles. We scoped a couple of different places to work with, and ended up focusing on the development of two PCPs, one in Plymouth (Union Street) and another in Haringey (Wards Corner). Although they can both be characterised as urban development projects, they’re different for many reasons, and these differences resulted in the development of two distinct examples of what a PCP could look like. We learned a lot from working on these two projects, and it’s helping us to refine our ability to actually do place-based design of PCPs.

How do you think PCPs respond to the concern that whilst these interventions might be focused on a deep democratisation in one place, they’re not really responding to the wider scale of challenges that we face? 

Bert: We tend to see this as a question of how ostensibly local interventions act as both the entry points and the substance underpinning broader efforts at political transformation. With PCPs, we’ve talked about this in terms of making three contributions to a wider political project of emancipation: immediate, directional, and solidaristic. Immediate contributions come through the accumulation and redistribution of finance and knowledge, utilised to expand existing initiatives or forge new ones. It’s about having the money and knowledge to keep expanding the base of a democratic economy, and bringing more of what is necessary to our social reproduction under democratic control.

The directional contribution anticipates there is a limit as to how far such immediate processes can take us, and that we can’t just ‘out-grow’ capitalism. We think initiatives such as PCPs can play an important role in developing our experience and practices of collective agency, contributing to the emergence of a new common sense about the rights, expectations, and capacities of citizens and governments. Put simply, these initiatives can help generate a different understanding of what can be achieved through collective action.

Finally, the solidaristic contribution starts from the recognition that any wider political intervention means confronting vested interests, and that these invariably have to be fought for. In simple terms, these fights need to be resourced – a role that trade unions have historically provided – and PCPs are well placed to contribute in solidarity with these wider struggles. An illustrative example here would be the essential role of the Women’s Support Groups in the miners’ strike of 1984-1985, where regular street collections, fundraising activities, and food kitchens guaranteed a basic level of social reproduction and thus sustained the strikes. How would having a substantive democratic control over our food, water, energy, housing and childcare help us sustain wider struggles? The expansion of democratic control of resources in the present simultaneously enhances our capacity to push for change that goes beyond the limits of what is currently strategically possible.

Kai: Another key factor is that broader political shifts are often unachievable without democratic participation, without creating the institutional spaces where people can feel empowered, control transitions, and control their economy as necessary. We’ve seen this in France, where the effort to impose a ‘green tax’ on fuel ends up detrimentally hurting rural workers, or in the Netherlands where an effort to scale back the use of nitrogen fertiliser led to large farmer protests that were capitalised on by the extreme right. Broad popular democratic control of significant parts of the economy is key to actually driving the just transitions we require.

Bert: In the work we’ve just begun around pharmaceuticals in France, we’ve also faced this question “why not just create a national public company”? Why are we talking about these relatively smaller organisational forms? Aren’t we just selling ourselves short of the much bigger goal, which is having national production of public pharmaceuticals? A lot of these questions assume you’ve got a competent left government capable of nationalising or creating a new national company, and to do so in a way that delivers democratically, is accountable, redistributes wealth, is irreversible, and so on. That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen, or that we shouldn’t fight for those things. But you don’t need control of a nation state, or to navigate the contradictions that come with it, to start creating the sort of things that we’re talking about. The point is, how do we go about building a different democratic political economy? How do we start to develop our own capacity for building other worlds? It seems pretty unlikely that we’ll have the political situation, or the necessary experience, for creating democratic and redistributive national organisations, even though this is part of our broader horizon. I’m also unconvinced that any nationalised companies we’re going to see in the near-term will offer the conditions that will help us to expand our collective capacity to fight for wider socio-economic and political transformations. Fundamentally, we’re talking about developing institutions as part of political strategy, not just public companies for the delivery of goods and services. 

The work you’ve done so far on PCPs has largely been limited to specific models for urban development. Could you say a bit more on how this connects with this wider point about driving just transitions?

Keir: There’s a gap between what’s politically possible and what’s fundamentally necessary to address problems such as global heating. It’s a gap that needs to be bridged. This isn’t caused by a lack of knowledge on the problems we face. It’s that we’re lacking transitional organisations that can expand the space of political possibility and provide some of the foundation upon which we drive the necessary changes that are currently out of reach. 

PCPs are initially very pragmatic. We tried to think ahead to the level of change that we need to bring about over the next 20 years. PCPs have anticipation built into their institutional structures, where they work in the here and now as individual projects, but are also structurally oriented towards the rapid growth of the democratic economic sector. And it’s only a democratic economy that is going to be able to respond in an equitable way to the dramatic changes we face in the coming decades.

The reason that I was really attracted to PCPs was because they’re premised on a really deeply democratic way of engaging with people. As climate change bites, we need to better look each other in the eye, and be able to work together. Because without that, if you don’t have those relationships, you are ready to be exploited by reactionary narratives and the far right. The other thing that really appeals to me about them is that they are about building resilient structures, especially when we’re talking about the ownership of land. We absolutely need to own the land, and we need the land to be generative for us in the face of climate change and confronting deep inequality.

So I am interested in how all this connects with community wealth building (cwb), doughnut economics and some of the other heterodox economic approaches that haven’t necessarily cracked, for me, that practical connection with the Earth and the people?

Bert: I think this goes back to the problem, as it’s often put, that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. For sure, there are cracks in the ideological architecture that has largely foreclosed meaningful political alternatives over the past 40 years. Yet for most of us catastrophism still looms large, the sense that capitalism will basically just drive us all into the abyss despite our knowledge that things could be different. We still don’t know what actions and experiences will really undo this deep emotional sense of catastrophe, and instead put us in a position where we recognise our collective capacity to adapt. And I think that’s one of the things that we hope PCPs can help to instil in the day-to-day lives of everyone involved in them: that it becomes easier to both recognise and understand our collective capacities to end capitalism, whilst simultaneously enhancing our ability to actually act. 

This is, I think, the fundamental goal for all heterodox economic practices, and especially those that are putting an emphasis on local forms of intervention. They need to be pragmatic, in the sense that they deliver on something in the here-and-now. But they also need to be prefigurative, in the sense that they are tangibly contributing to the emergence of political trajectories grounded in new forms of collective agency.

Kai: The exact problem isn’t imagining a world beyond capitalism, but identifying the experiential practices that get you to it. How does your participation in a nominally alternative economic configuration result in an understanding of the barriers to democratic participation and control of your environment, and what sort of solutions do we need to that problem?

Keir: I’ve thought about this in terms of developing both inside-out and outside-in strategies for trying to accelerate the co-operative and commonly owned and governed sector of the economy. If you think about cwb, it relies on taking control of local authorities and then trying to use procurement policies to grow the co-operative sector. Of course, this depends on getting ‘inside’ the local authority, and then using the levers you have to try and affect the ‘outside’. 

Another approach to try is establishing a commonly owned and governed project which can directly start the work of transforming a community, and from there, going to the local authority to say, ‘look at the potential here, imagine what we can do together.’ The key to this ‘outside-in strategy’ strategy is using proof of concept to change what civil servants and councillors think is practically and politically feasible. 

You can see how an inside-out and an outside-in strategy could be quite complimentary. It doesn’t make sense to oppose PCPs to something like cwb: it’s about aligning these interventions on a wider trajectory of transition.

You’ve mentioned the previous work with Plymouth and I know you’re continuing to work on Latin Village (Ward’s Corner), but could you give us an idea of some of the other ways that you’re looking to develop PCPs?

Keir: Most recently, we’ve been doing some work with a group called Climavore to propose a series of demands or reforms that could help support development of the intertidal commons in Scotland. That was looking at some of the policy changes that could be made at a national level, which would then allow PCPs to fulfil a much greater potential. This is part of longer-term work with them to establish a series of intertidal aquafarm PCPs on Skye, with a particular focus on how they can contribute to processes that are both socially and ecologically reparative. It’s interesting work as it takes us out of the ‘urban development’ work we’ve done so far. 

We’re also at the beginning of some work with a few groups in France, where we’re looking at the potential for PCPs to be utilised in the production of essential pharmaceuticals. It’s at a very early stage, but we’re really excited to see what PCPs can look like in a very different legislative context, and that, like the work on Skye, is more focused on productive processes.

Kai: We’re also making our first intervention into rural land reform, commoning, and development in a forthcoming report for Common Wealth on the potential for council farms to operate as PCPs. Over the past couple of decades councils have been selling off council farm holdings to plug spending deficits. This short-termist solution is understandable given the pressures councils face, but it consolidates land in fewer and fewer hands and de-democratises its management. Our solution is that council farms could instead be co-managed with tenant farmers or community groups, as a PCP, to provide a secure revenue stream for local councils, boost food sovereignty across the UK, and serve as a space for experimenting with alternative, ecologically regenerative, agricultural systems such as agroecology. Beyond this work, we are starting a project on PCPs for Bradford city centre and another in Hulme, Manchester, on the site of an old pub. This diversity of cases really excites us and we think it shows the potential for PCPs to radically democratise the UK’s economy.

Bert: Working with an expanded group, we’re bringing all this work together through the development of a PCP Agency. We’ve previously talked about something like a National Office for Commoning, an organisation that would function to transfer knowledge and resources between initiatives, proactively look to increase the circulation and expansion of the common, whilst potentially working on wider policy interventions such as those Keir mentioned in Scotland. This is all very nascent work, and the development of this PCP Agency is very much something in process rather than a finished vision. Not least we’re open to hear from others that are interested in pursuing the development of PCPs, and we’re keeping an open mind on what that means for how the Agency might develop. But for certain we’re thinking of this as a prototype, of sorts, for something more ambitious.

With thanks to Stir to Action and:

Bertie Russell is a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the Universidad Autònoma de Barcelona and a research associate for the think tank Common Wealth. 

Kai Heron is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. 

Keir Milburn is a writer, researcher, and political activist. His most recent book is Generation Left. 

Frances Northrop is an Associate Fellow at the New Economics Foundation, and an independent practitioner and advisor in community economic development.

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