You would be forgiven if you had missed it but there is a quiet revolution going on in the global utility sectors.
After decades of privatisation, cities, regions and, in some cases, whole countries' water and energy systems are being brought back under public ownership and control. As I outline in a report for the think tank Class, there are some important public policy lessons from the rest of the world, relevant to our experience in Scotland and the UK.
Since 2000, 86 cities around the world have taken back their water systems from privatised contractors. These include Atlanta, Indianapolis, Paris and Berlin. In countries as diverse as Argentina and Denmark, new, hybrid forms of organisation are also emerging in which utility ownership is split between local public sector ownership and various forms of worker and consumer cooperatives. In Germany, rainbow grassroots campaigns of Greens, leftists, social democrats and even some conservatives have been involved in a massive wave of remunicipalisation in the energy sector. Since 2007, more than 100 urban and regional electricity distribution networks have come back under public ownership, while 44 new municipal energy companies, or Stadtwerke, have been established, charged with producing their own renewable energy supplies.
Behind these campaigns is one common denominator: the desire by public authorities around the world to bring core services and infrastructure back under their own control after decades of poor performance, particularly a lack of the promised investment in modernisation which privatisation was supposed to bring. Added to this should be rising consumer prices and increasing fuel poverty as real incomes stagnate.
In the wake of the financial crisis, many cash-strapped local authorities are also keen to capture future revenue streams that can fund other public services as well as much needed infrastructure renewal. These experiences resonate strongly with the UK, where dissatisfaction with the effects of privatisation means that strong majorities support utility and rail renationalisation, even among Conservative voters. But the Coalition Government has set its face against these broader currents, continuing its privatisation model, most recently with Royal Mail which was almost certainly sold off well below its real value. Some elements in the Labour Party leadership do appear to be flirting with rail renationalisation, although the continued opposition of Ed Balls is a major stumbling block. His enthusiasm for all things private remains undiminished despite the overwhelming evidence, indicated in the Class report, that public utilities perform as well as, if not better than, their private counterparts.
Germany's Stadtwerke are at the forefront of the country's renewable energy revolution. One Munich politician, Dieter Reiter, of the city's governing SDP party, put it succinctly: "By 2025 our utility company aims to produce so much green energy that our entire city demand can be met. This can only be possible if the long-term goal is sustainable economic success rather than short term profit maximization".
In Scotland, the Government has promoted community ownership of renewables, a model that leading energy academics in Germany have cited approvingly in a recent report. But this is just scratching the surface in a privatised energy regime administered from London. Could an independent Scotland could go much further in delivering both more effective forms of new public ownership and management whilst reinvigorating local democracy?
Could Scotland's towns, cities and rural communities set up own Stadtwerke to ensure that the energy transition benefits the common weal rather than private interests? As part of the revival of public debate spurred by the referendum campaign, a conversation about who owns and benefits from our economy and resources is surely overdue.
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