Labour's proposals for publicly owned energy networks were published last week. As these plans develop, our General Secretary Claire McCarthy puts forward the case for further widening ownership and democratising the sector.

Worker by an electricity pylon

Labour has published in some detail their plans for public ownership. There is much here to welcome – electing workers to boards, for example, is something we have long called for, and we’re pleased to see this included in proposals for the new national and regional energy agencies.

As these plans for the energy sector develop, the Co-operative Party believes that there is need for the inclusion of more ambitious ideas to further broaden ownership and democratise the sector.

The option for the municipalisation of grids, through new Municipal Energy Agencies is welcome and follows the German example of towns like Wolfhagen and Hamberg, and the hundreds of other towns and cities that have municipalised their local grids. But in Germany, their energy transition goes further: beyond town halls, communities can and are organising to take back direct, democratic control.

Whether it’s the village of Schönau who created a co-operative to run their local grid, or the residents of Berlin who have formed Bürgerennergie Berlin, a co-operative seeking to partner with the city council to take back the grid from Vattenfall, German communities are coming together to take on the private network operators.

The popularity (and, when the right policies were in place, the huge success) of community energy is proof of the demand and ability within our communities to have a stake and a say in their energy. An enabling policy environment for community energy would not simply mean that this renewable energy generation would be ‘restricted to more privileged communities’ but spread right around the country on both residential and workplaces as it is in many other countries. I have seen the appetite for schemes in many communities and, have for example,had the pleasure of working with organisations such as Repowering who have successfully launched Solar PV schemes in areas such as Hackney and Brixton.

One of the many barriers to the further development of community energy is the inability to directly supply energy to the communities who generate it – which Labour’s proposals on Local Energy Communities would help to resolve. By selling renewable energy to the community who generated it rather than to private energy companies via private grids, local communities can play an even more active role in tackling fuel poverty and accelerating the green energy transition.

We believe that the full benefits of public ownership can only be realised through democratic, accountable and inclusive models. The lack of elected consumer representation on boards at both a national and regional level in Labour’s proposals is a missed opportunity. The strength of democratic public ownership, as set out in our ‘21st Century Public Ownership’ report published last year, is mandate and accountability created by electing those citizens who rely on services to have a say in how they are run. Their voice and insight would be a source of innovation, long-termism and a protection against future re-privatisation.

Labour highlights the important work that the National Policy Forum is continuing to do in this area, with their ongoing consultation on democratic public ownership. We continue to champion within the NPF an energy system (and more broadly in sectors including water) which gives real voice, in the running of services and in critical decisions about issues like investment priorities and executive remuneration, to those who rely on them and who work within them. To help me make the case for a democratic, accountable energy system, you can take part in this consultation too.