Public ownership is back and this is how we do it

Jack Harmsworth from We Own It makes the case for why the UK must learn from its European neighbours and take back control of privatised industries.

A National Express train awaits departure at King's Cross Station, London. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

The international political-economic settlement is in flux. After forty years of financial deregulation, privatisation and rampant individualism, we stand at a crossroads: do we double down on a failing formula or try something new?

Gramsci’s words, ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’, are more poignant than ever. Yet an increasing part of the ‘new’ is re-emerging through public ownership. Indeed, in much of the world, its role in providing key public services has survived successfully, despite decades of hegemonic thinking in favour of privatisation.  

In the UK, we know a thing or two about privatisation. Between 1980–96, the UK counted for 40 per cent of the total value of public assets privatised across OECD states. Indeed, Britain went further than many of neoliberal allies when it chose to privatise industries like its railways and more recently its postal service.   

Yet such moves have generally caused increased prices and lower quality services. In the UK, train lines are now the most expensive and fragmented in Europe – a combination of the uncompetitive nature of natural monopolies and the contradiction between profit and public service has sunk the capacity of private companies to provide anything but shareholder return in many privatised public services.   

The extreme nature of UK privatisation has led to a major political party, the Labour Party, to committing to bringing many of its non-competitive industries into public ownership. This reflects broad public support, according to recent polls, public ownership has an approval rating of 83 per cent for water, 76 per cent for rail and 77 per cent for gas and electricity.  

We Own It – a campaign group for public ownership – has released a report which uses international examples of public ownership to inform future governments about how to make publicly owned industries so successful that it would be absurd to put them back into private hands. In the UK, the debate about renationalising public assets usually lead to howls of a ‘return-to-the-seventies’, but an empirical study of contemporary public ownership models debunks this as ill-informed.

So, which examples exactly? Well, across Europe sectors from electricity to water have been protected from private enterprise. This has resulted in high-quality, affordable services that in many cases give a return to the public purse. These models of public ownership are diverse but show a common theme: the dictum that ‘private is best’ is false.  

In Germany, Munich’s municipal government has set itself the commendable task of developing its own electricity supply powered by 100 per cent renewable energy. The local government chose to do this after frustration with private companies who were hesitant to make the necessary investments. It is expected that, by 2025, the entire city’s electricity quota will be met by this municipally-owned provider. In the context of a global climate crisis, this example shows us that public ownership has a central strategic role to play in creating a carbon-neutral economy.  

The city of Paris has shown how public ownership can be implemented successfully. After 25 years in private hands, Paris brought its water system back into public ownership in 2010. Since then, water bills have been cut, leakage levels have been halved and an innovative new lab has improved water quality.

All these improvements have been overseen by a modern public governance structure which collaborates with citizens, councillors, workers, consumer and environmental rights groups, scientists and other experts. The serious yet creative organization of Paris’ water supply is reflected in its incredible efficiency and provision of public goods, such as still and sparkling public water fountains!

In Denmark, public ownership of wind power has been encouraged on a broad local scale. The Danish Wind Turbine Owners Association consists of 5000 members who campaign for strong local energy policies. Far from the top-down centralised model that public ownership has often come to be thought of in the UK, this decentralised model puts communities at the heart of decision making. Public ownership ought to be about this kind of radical community empowerment.

It seems clear that the tide has turned. Challengers to the status quo are often dismissed for having all the criticisms but none of the solutions. Yet in this detailed report, We Own It provides a comprehensive plan for how to concretely transform the status quo. The new is emerging, and this time it will be in public hands.