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Mutual, non-profit or public interest company? An evaluation of options for the ownership and control of water utilities

Birchall J (2002) Mutual, non-profit or public interest company? An evaluation of options for the ownership and control of water utilities. Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, 73 (2), pp. 181-213.

The purpose of this paper is to evaluate various organizational models for the ownership and control of natural monopolies - specifically the infrastructure of water and sewage provision in England and Wales. First, it summarizes recent discussion of who should own water assets in Britain. The paper notes the opportunity that has arisen for increased consumer involvement, and examines the relative merits of three models that have been suggested as alternatives: a non-profit trust or company, a public interest company, and a consumer mutual. Five criteria are suggested for evaluating the merits of each type: its ability to safeguard the interests of the most important stakeholder, the consumer; avoid the necessity for a heavy regulatory regime; incentivize management to manage efficiently but without ‘producer capture'; raise capital relatively cheaply; and resist pressures to demutualize. The paper agrees with the recent paper in this Journal by Morse (2000) that, in theory, the consumer mutual has advantages. It draws on Hansmann's work that suggests consumer ownership of water would be less costly than investor-ownership, providing there are no large conflicts of interest between different types of consumer. Hansmann's thesis is expanded to consider the likely benefits from wider member participation, and the hidden costs of not taking members into account. It then tests out whether customers would be motivated in practice to be active members, introducing a theoretical model of what motivates members of co-operatives and mutuals to participate. The conclusions are that provided managers and board members are committed to encouraging member participation, the consumer mutual model would work well. It would need only light regulation, would avoid producer capture, and would be able to raise capital fairly easily, both from money markets and from members. It would need legislation to prevent it from being demutualized at some time in the future. However, if a participatory corporate culture cannot be guaranteed, or if there is a risk of decline of participation over time, other options such as a non-profit trust or a public interest company would be less risky.

Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics: Volume 73, Issue 2

Author(s)Birchall, Johnston
Publication date30/06/2002
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