May 7, 2018; Equal Times

From 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, until the Great Recession that began in 2008, the dominant trend in Europe had been privatization of public services, including energy and water utilities. But that has changed, reports Steve Rushton in Equal Times.

For example, in 2015, Nottingham became the site of “the first municipal energy company in the United Kingdom created by a local council in over 75 years.” The new municipal company’s name, suitably enough, is Robin Hood Energy. Rushton notes that, “It has aimed to live up to its name by providing affordable energy and to help tackle fuel poverty.”

Meanwhile, also in 2015, “councils and housing associations in Scotland combined to create Our Power, a not-for-profit affordable and green energy supplier.” In 2016, Bristol City Council launched Bristol Energy, with “similar social and ecological goals.”

As NPQ covered, in February, John McDonnell, the UK Shadow Chancellor announced the launch of a Community Wealth Building Unit. In addition to its support of cooperatives, a key pillar of Community Wealth Building’s plan, Rushton explains, “is the facilitation of municipal energy companies, which connects to a wider global shift away from privatized provision.”

An even more widespread shift is evident in Germany. According to Rushton, it is Germany that “is leading the global charge in re-municipalization.” A June 2017 report from the Transnational Institute, notes Rushton, “detailed 835 cases of public services such as waste management, water and transport either returning from various forms of privatization…Some 347 of these examples took place in Germany, 284 within the energy sector.”

For example, Rushton points out that, “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 researcher at the University of Hamburg who studies municipal energy.

Spain, especially Catalonia, has been one other area in Europe that has been marked by a high level of activism toward restoring local control. So far in Spain, however, the focus has centered on gaining local control over water rather than energy.

One example, Rushton notes, is Terrassa, a city about 20 miles northeast of Barcelona. The city is governed by Terrassa en Comú (Terrassa In Common), elected with the support of a strong coalition of grassroots groups. In December 2016, the Terrassa city council announced that it would take advantage of the fact that the city’s 75-year water contract was up for renewal by re-municipalizing the city’s water supply. The creation of a municipal water company, however, notes Rushton, “has been delayed until the end of 2018, as private water company Mina Pública de Terrassa attempted to challenge losing its monopoly in court.”

A similar coalition in Barcelona (Barcelona en Comú) has also gained a city council majority. Barcelona, the capital city of Catalonia, is home to four million people. “This summer,” Ruston reports, “there will be a referendum with water municipalization on the ballot. “It’s powerful for us that there’s a vote on re-municipalization 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 on the party’s executive board.

Cat Hobbs, director of We Own It, a UK advocacy group for public services, suggests that municipal ownership of resources such as energy and water could be key to making a more sustainable economy possible. “We need an energy distribution network that encourages communities to come up with renewable solutions and incentivizes 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.”—Steve Dubb