· Published in Cities versus multinationals

Public-Community Municipalism in Defence of the Commons

What lessons can we draw from the experience of the first “rebel cities” of Spain in terms of confrontation with corporations and established powers? And how, beyond conquering government at municipal level, can we build strategies for effective and enduring change, with social movements and citizens?

The 15M/Indignados social movement that emerged in Spain in 2015 offered social actors who did not belong to the “political class” or have economic power an opportunity to charge into political institutions; they were intruders in the institutional political system, the heirs of
social struggles and local community movements. Part of this new movement gave rise to citizen candidates who promoted a political change within institutions. These candidates were cooperativists, feminists, ecologists, associationists and social trade unionists who believe that transformative municipalism needs to go beyond the institutional dimension and requires a true commitment to radical democracy.

In May 2015 these candidates conquered important cities in Spain such as Madrid, Zaragoza, Valencia and Barcelona, constituting what became known as the “municipalities of change”. This led to the beginning of a new political cycle with enormous challenges. These included developing a different way to manage public funds in order to redistribute wealth; genuine, direct democratic mechanisms giving greater control to citizens. In a nutshell: designing institutions “in common” that would be based on new forms of public management through public-community co-operation models.

It was a counterintuitive challenge in the context of extremely globalised, commodified cities. It is a fact that the urban governance of our cities has always been based on a co-operation between the public and private sectors, which has led to the privatisation of basic goods such as land, housing, water and municipal heritage while producing opaque, undemocratic governance structures. The governance model that prevailed was one of public-private concessions, in which the private sector absorbs the benefits of speculative large-scale projects while the risks are shouldered by the public sector.

This growing commodification of cities has, however, co-existed with community practices which, given the lack of protection afforded by the state, gave rise to alternative models of governance and social processes of self-protection based on a non-commodified co-operative logic. From self-governed social spaces with cooperative practices of work, service and care to reclaiming democratic control over resources such as energy, water or culture, these counter-powers have shaped cities through social struggle and conquests, prefiguring current municipalist policies for the defence of the commons.

In fact, the most redistributive policies enacted in cities such as Madrid or Barcelona have their origin in local community struggles, many of them focused on building infrastructure in urban peripheries. One example is the Neighbourhood Remodelling Plan of Madrid (1976-1988), in which the local community movement pressed for huge investments in more than 28 impoverished neighbourhoods and the construction of more than 15,000 council flats. [1] Or the Neighbourhood Reform Plans of the mid-eighties, which brought great improvements to working class and immigrant neighbourhoods in Barcelona.

Later, at the beginning of the 2000s, citizen platforms were set up to combat poverty and problems in accessing housing in connection with self-managed social centre networks, local movements and cooperativist and social economy networks.

This legacy of self-management and self-organisation went through a boom in 2011, when city squares in all parts of the world were occupied. These mutually inspiring and inspired movements brought a wind of change which paved the way for a new form of governing the commons, questioning the established political and economic order.

So, without the practices and the transformative power of Republican cooperativism, social struggles, the feminist movement and associative and community networks, municipalism is just an empty word.

Just as these struggles confronted the capital-state alliance that undermined the foundations of the right to the city, municipalism today means consolidating pub- lic-community alliances that confront the establishment and devise new ways of making and being a public institution.

This article aims to share some of the practices and reflections from the standpoint of municipalism in Barcelona. Firstly, by giving a global socio-economic context to the main difficulties faced by local governments in implementing specific measures; and secondly, by describing different forms of public-community co-operation, in order to pinpoint some of the possible keys to this new institution.

What are the obstacles, in terms of legislation and corporate power?

If one of the challenges of municipalism is generating public-community institutions that safeguard the public function and guarantee universal access to resources, multiple difficulties arise in considering the creation of institutions that protect the commons. Firstly, the limitations of municipal competence and their lack of financial resources. Secondly, the large oligopolies and global vulture funds that operate locally with no democratic or political control. And lastly, the lack of a legal framework that responds to stimuli and metrics other than the logic of commodification.

Municipal policy has been confronted with a paradox that is difficult to resolve in the short term: despite being the government that is closest to citizens, it has the least capacity to act locally. Although the financial crisis led to an increase in social demands, this did not result in a greater capacity for intervention on a local scale. The competence of local governments is in fact quite limited. In the case of Barcelona, competence over basic rights such as health, education or housing is regional. And Spain’s central government has jurisdiction over labour policies, the regulation of economic and financial activities, and control and sanction mechanisms related to local investment.

Municipal policy thus comes second in line to the policies and legislation of regional or national governments, which are in turn often determined by European directives.

Inadequate financial resources and an inability to generate revenue is another important issue that affects municipal management. This has led many local governments to become over-indebted or to de-capitalise by selling public assets to large private equity funds. The European policy of spending cuts and austerity initiated during the economic crisis has put the noose around the necks of many local governments, which have dedicated their entire budget to paying off debt. Furthermore, the Spanish Local Government Rationalisation and Sustainability Act (known as the “Montoro Act”) has led to a recentralisation of power by the national government, while shifting more and more responsibilities onto municipalities.

Hence, while large global equity funds are operating in the city unfettered, local governments are paralysed, waiting for laws that never arrive and under the close scrutiny of Europe – a European Union which allows vulture funds to operate anonymously and with no kind of democratic control or accountability.

Housing is a good example. Despite the efforts of the Barcelona City Council to regulate the rentals market, it has been impossible. Firstly, because a change is necessary in the Urban Lease Act, [2] which depends on national legislation, and on a regional law that regulates rents. It has not been possible in either case to achieve political consensus to change them. In addition, it has not been possible to intervene in the free market in order to implement restrictions on real estate firms that buy and sell land without being accountable to anyone, protected by international regulations and political agreements.

This is, therefore, a path that leads nowhere. In this case, the local government can build housing – if it has sufficient funds and public land – and intervene at least by regulating land use through urban planning. However, the capacity to implement an integral public policy that really provides access to housing is something that is beyond the city council’s control.

Another example is the process for outsourcing public works, services and sup- plies. Public-private co-operation has led to the creation of new monopolies that have taken over the management of municipal services in the name of efficiency and efficacy. This has led to cases of corruption with the approval of public and political actors. One paradigmatic example is that of water management under the AGBAR monopoly, based on a fraudulent agreement enabling the company to obtain sizeable profits every year from the bills of Barcelona’s citizens. The referendum for the Remunicipalisation of Water in Barcelona [3] has demonstrated the need to review the management of municipal resources. Since Barcelona City Council first announced the referendum, which would have allowed citizens to voice their opinion on water management and which collected more than 26,000 signatures, AGBAR has rolled out a plethora of legal and administrative appeals and leveraged all its connections in the economic and political establishments to prevent the referendum from taking place. Effectively, it has not yet been possible to hold the referendum, despite the fact that the Municipal Plenary Meeting has agreed that it should indeed take place.

In view of this huge attack on local sovereignty and the challenges involved in breaking away from legal and economic constraints, a consolidation of public-community frameworks is necessary in order to change the rules of the game. The public-community wager means entering into direct conflict with a governance that centralises resources and power among private players and political forces that operate on a supra-municipal scale. To play this game, it is essential to first know where the starting line is, to be able to confront the opponents, as well as to interact with other municipal and supra-municipal players that make it possible to operate on an international level.

Municipalism today: different forms of public-community relations in Barcelona

Urban governance has taken on a new meaning over the last few decades of the 20th century, when the idea emerged that all institutional, political, social and economic stakeholders should be involved in developing public policies and decision-making processes. This would enable shifting from a vertical government to a horizontal and pluralistic participative government. Or such was the promise of entities such as the World Bank, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and European political leaders. However, this was not the actual outcome. In practice, cities were not built on a foundation of equity and co-operation between parties. So-called governance has prioritised the interests of private players at the expense of social-community actors.

In Barcelona, participative governance has had, and still has, some singularities that set it apart from other cities. It has an extremely rich civil society – more than 4,500 associations – and a myriad of participative mechanisms that have created communication channels between the street and institutions. Even so, this historical bond has not always been organic or led to real participative governance, but has often served to co-opt the associative movement and neutralise citizen control.

If we focus on the most recent cycle since the institutional breakthrough of 2015, the relationship between community demands and government action over the past four years has evolved in different ways, sometimes through informal channels, and sometimes through established institutional mechanisms. Four different types may be identified. These are explained and illustrated by way of examples below.

The first is a relationship of transfer. In these cases, local government appropriates the political agenda of movements, mainly in areas such as social economy, mobility, climate change and feminism, with the goal of converting these movements’ historical demands into an enduring municipal public policy. This approach has had mixed results (it is up to the social actors involved to undertake a detailed analysis) but the basic intention was to extend and open the boundaries of the institution, using the government as the mere executor of a collective legacy.

The second type is that involving a relationship of co-operation between movement and institution. This approach is used when when the political context requires enacting measures which are unlikely to gain consensus. One example of this is the recently-approved urban planning system that obliges large private developers to allocate 30% of their new property developments to public housing. While the local government has provided the technical know-how to develop an appropriate legislation, social movements for housing have mobilised public opinion and exerted sufficient political pressure to break partisan logics.

The third is a relationship of appropriation. This is when movements use institutional participation tools to achieve their own goals. Worth a mention are the attempts of the municipalities for change to create new channels of direct democracy – non-existent until now – to promote the decisive participation of citizens in city affairs. This is the case of the water remunicipalisation referendum advocated by the Movement for Public and Democratic Water. This was a wake-up call for the economic and political powers of the city which, feeling their profits were under threat, made every attempt to prevent the referendum from being held even though it was approved through an established procedure set out in the new Participation Regulations.

The fourth and last type is a relationship of co-responsibility. One example is the creation of the Citizen’s Heritage for Community Use and Management of Public Goods [4] programme. This programme was promoted jointly by the local government and entities in charge of managing municipal facilities, and its objective is to create new and innovative frameworks to manage public resources, including public buildings, urban orchards, public space and other social services, with the involvement of both citizens and institutions.

This programme should consolidate and improve the community management of local services, legalise the transfer of municipal heritage to local non-profit communities, support services set up by citizen initiatives to democratise the management of municipal services. It should also review public management models for basic services such as water and energy to include the participation of users and integrate mechanisms of democratic control. [5]

The Citizen’s Heritage programme includes the development of a public property census – currently non-existent – to create a catalogue of land parcels and buildings that could be managed by communities. It also includes the Community Balance. [6] The Balance is a new self-evaluation tool that analyses non-commodified parameters such as social co-responsibility, democratic management, citizen participation, orientation towards human needs, commitment to community and social return.

One successful outcome of the Programme is Can Batlló. An agreement was signed, transferring more than 13,000 square metres of land for a period of 50 years to the self-managed community and local space of Can Batlló. This is the first operation of its kind in Spain and most certainly in Europe, where concession for private use has been used for a social non-profit project. Can Batlló is effectively offering the city a social and non-commodified return through its project of community, social and cultural development.

These relationships can help us imagine different approaches to a new urban governance allowing for the sharing of responsibilities and the establishment of mechanisms to monitor, balance and control public management within a framework based on a public-community relationship.

Social autonomy and public function: an equation that is possible

Some final considerations. We have seen how contemporary cities are confronted with three processes. First, a process of neoliberalisation, whereby cities and their public action are aligned with private interests, as is the case of water management in Barcelona. Next we have a process of “subsidiarisation”, whereby local governments must respond to more social demands, but without jurisdiction and are subject to sanctions and controls from supra-local political and financial powers. This is for instance the case for housing policies. And thirdly, a process of democratisation, whereby urban movements and local communities defend different forms of collective management and social rights and may forge alliances with local public authorities to try and consolidate them, such as the Citizen’s Heritage programme. These three interconnected and conflicting processes are happening at the same time. The type of city we live in depends on the strength, the alliances and the strategy of the different actors that take part in each of these processes. Up until now, the public-private hegemony has prevailed, with local-global oligarchies driving neoliberalisation, imposing subsidiarisation and trying to keep a leash on democratisation.

Measuring our ability to reverse expropriation processes through municipalism and by defending and protecting the commons is by no means a simple undertaking. The solution can only be found by following in the footsteps of the historic struggles that have driven social transformation processes.

Experience shows us that there is currently some wiggle room in the legislation that can help democratise municipal regulations, as demonstrated in the case of Can Batlló. However, it is also clear that established powers will do all they can to prevent this from happening, as in the case of the referendum on water management. It is essential to consolidate a public-community relationship framework that will build a new urban governance for the management of common resources by continuing to promote direct democracy mechanisms that allow citizens to play a role in municipal management and activate mechanisms for the redistribution, control and transparency of public resources and services.

To sum up, transformative and democratic municipalism brings about a radical change that requires a new way of creating and being a public institution, which enables combining spaces of social autonomy with the public-state function. This autonomy gives communities the power to put emancipatory policies into practice, through the support of local authorities. Without this democratic radicalism that extends the boundaries of public-community co-operation, and a supra-municipal perspective that connects with other local realities, it will be difficult to construct a municipalism that moves towards transformative policies and creates institutions of the commons.

By Laia Forné

Laia Forné (@LaLaieta_), urban sociologist, is a founding member of La Hidra Cooperativa. Specialised in issues of urban planning, democracy and common goods, always from the feminist perspective. She has worked on these issues as an activist, participating in different urban movements of the city; as a consultant; and recently as an advisor to Barcelona City Council in the Participation Department.

Translated from the Spanish.

Illustration: Eduardo Luzzatti

Photos: Sylvia Fredriksson CC BY; Barcelona En Comú CC BY-SA; Smart Citizens CC BY-SA; Ajuntament Barcelona CC BY-SA

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[1Moreno Martínez, R. and Forné Aguirre, L. (2019) “Bienes comunes y municipalismo. Pasado y presente de una conquista popular”. Ciudades democráticas.

[2Urban Lease Act (LAU): a State Act passed in 1994 that regulates the private rental market. It has been amended on many occasions, with the last amendment in 2013. The 2013 reform gave rise to increasing market liberalisation and has benefited large real estate firms. More information is available here.

[3Public and Democratic Water Movement: a movement initiated by citizens to guarantee public, democratic water management in the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona. In 2018 the Movement collected more than 25,000 signatures supporting a referendum on water management in Barcelona.

[4Citizen’s Heritage for the community use and management of public property (2016): Programme promoted by the Department of Participation of Barcelona since 2016.

[5Department of Participation and Territory (2019), “Citizen’s Heritage Strategic Plan 2019-2023”, Barcelona City Council.

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