Barcelona reorganises public services in the people's interest Remunicipalisation movement in Spain

Spain maybe on the edge of a remunicipalisation renaissance, with all the relevant legal, financial and technical issues attracting surprisingly intense interest throughout the state. These trends in Spain provide inspiring examples for other countries too, in Europe and worldwide. On 1st December Barcelona City Council organised a remarkable conference on the topic.


Article by

David Hall

The greatest impetus for the change came in 2015 with the electoral success of new political groups in the two largest cities. Barcelona City Council is now controlled by the group Barcelona en Comú, and Madrid City Council by the Ahora Madrid group. Both groups include the new left political party Podemos, along with regional, local and green parties and long-standing campaigns. Similar political groupings are winning power in many smaller  towns and districts, too.

A number of common features emerged during the day’s discussion. The first was that the new groups are approaching the question of remunicipalisation systematically, based on explicit criteria. Secondly, public service workers are at the centre of the new policies – even though the parties and groups have no formal connection to the established trade unions. Thirdly, the process is being conducted with a high level of professionalism  - legal, financial, and technical.

Both Barcelona and Madrid have drawn up systematic criteria to decide how to manage public services. These included economic and political criteria,  including: whether a service is an essential core public service, requiring permanent, stable and high quality provision, using municipal premises; the potential for improving cost efficiency, and avoid being trapped by long-term contracts; the strategic need for the municipality to have its own capacity and expertise, and to improve its own control of, and accountability for, services; whether the service involves people’s rights, personal contact with citizens, or confidential public or personal data; whether the service is a de facto monopoly, and whether it requires exceptional levels of investment, or exceptional demands on workers’ time.  The process is not based on a simple ‘pendulum’ reaction, but an intensive analysis of how public service provision affects public interests.

These criteria reflect some of the reasons for remunicipalisation observed in Germany and other countries, including reclaiming effective capacity and control of a service, and the issue of cost efficiency.  Other Spanish municipalities told the conference that cost savings were a key issue: the city council of Valladolid (pop. 309,000) found that outsourced street cleaning cost 71% more than direct provision by council employees; the Catalan district of Castelldefels (pop 63,000) reduced the annual cost of refuse collection to €5.5million by remunicipalisation, saving nearly €3 million compared with the cost of €8.4million under the private contractor.

The impact is most visible with the large utility services, especially water, refuse collection and energy.  Barcelona has decided to institute a municipal water service to replace the corporate business of Aguas de Barcelona, which has run the city’s water for a century, though without a formal contract. Many other town and districts in Spain have, or plan to, remunicipalise their water services, despite stubborn resistance from the private companies  - for example in Terrassa (pop 215,000), where a 70 year contract expired at the end of 2016.  Other services are also being brought back inhouse, including, in Barcelona, nursery schools, women’s refuges, advisory services for women: 86 jobs in total.

The direct employment of public service workers is inevitably central, for a number of reasons. The central reason for re-municipalisation is to re-establish the capacity of a city council to carry out those services, which requires direct employment of the workers with the necessary professional and practical skills. This enables the city council to work with a group of people dedicated to public services, and so manage, develop, and change these services in the public interest.  Ending the privatised contracts means that those employed by private companies need to be transferred to employment by the municipality.

So Barcelona has formulated a detailed formal human resources policy as part of the process. The city has an explicit target to employ 1,900 extra people by 2018, half of which are new jobs. In the first half of 2017, there will be an extra 400 jobs, 260 of which will be in social services, to improve the quality.

Although provision through direct employment is the central system, Barcelona is also open to developing different forms of working with community organisations and co-ops.  Both Barcelona and Madrid are also committed to introducing social and environmental conditions into contracts where work continues to be outsourced, partly to fulfil the general public objective of improving conditions for all workers involved in public services, and partly to improve the local economy and local environment as a whole.

Negotiations between the new council leadership and the unions over the transformation  have not been easy, despite the fact that the new groups are strongly committed to providing decent pay and conditions.  Experience in France and Germany has already shown that trade unions and workers do not always welcome remunicipalisation, because it creates uncertainty for workers, disrupts existing relations between unions and the private companies, and places new demands on the unions to protect workers conditions while, politically, supporting public services.  In Spain there is a further factor, because the new political groups, such as Podemos, do not have formal relationships with the trade unions – which have been traditionally associated with the Socialist Party, or the United Left. Despite these frictions, the conference provided a 1 hour session for presentations by all three of the union federations: UGT, CCOO, and CGT, as a way of demonstrating the importance of workers’ conditions.

The policies go far beyond simple principles into the meticulous detail of how public services can be transformed.  The new political groups are paying meticulous attention to all the legal, financial and technical issues involved in such a major restructuring. The conference was jointly organised with the professional Association of Secretaries, Comptrollers and Treasurers of Catalonia (CSITAL), and included presentations from the director of legal services for the city, and by the president of CSITAL on the economic and accounting issues, including all the provisions of Spanish and Catalan law relevant to the question of compensation.  In Madrid, senior municipal officials have found it difficult to adjust to the new politics. They claimed that including a clause on labour conditions into municipal contracts was not legally permissible – a claim which was simply wrong. The elected councillors of the Ahora Madrid group have addressed the problem by agreeing a rota whereby, each week, one of them will be responsible for talking with the senior officials about such issues.

These trends in Spain provide inspiring examples of great relevance in other countries too, in Europe and worldwide.

Resources: Les jornades de remunicipalització posen les bases per a la millora dels serveis públics 02/12/2016. Includes links to presentations. English version: The remunicipalisation meeting establishes the basis for improving public services improving public services


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