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Manuel Valls: '"Remunicipalisation" does not seem like a great idea, quite the contrary'

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  • Manuel Valls: '"Remunicipalisation" does not seem like great idea, quite the contrary'
  • The Catalonian politician bursts in the political scene of Barcelona, ready to overturn the management of one of the most important cities in Europe.

  • Photographer: Xavier Jubierre.

Manuel Valls (Barcelona, 1992) does not need much of an introduction. He is one of the best-known politicians in Spain and in France, where he was Prime Minister during the presidency of François Hollande.

He was raised in an intellectual and artistic environment, in Paris and in the neighbourhood of Horta, in Barcelona. Mr Valls joined the French Socialist Party at age 20. Since then, his career has experienced a meteoric rise, occupying top positions at all levels of the French government. He was Mayor of Évry from 2001 to 2012, Minister of Interior from 2012 to 2014, and finally led the government as Prime Minister between 2014 and 2016.

Now he returns to his city of birth, Barcelona, with the idea of becoming the next mayor of the Catalonian city known worldwide. What is his goal? He wants Barcelona to be high up there with the major cities of the world. In his project, water plays a key role.

Question: Your electoral programme wants to make Barcelona a great European capital with new city policies. What are the main policy measures you envisage?

Answer: Barcelona is bound to be a great Spanish and European capital. It is fully qualified to be such a city. But it needs a change that can free it from the problems holding it back: poor city management and the Catalonian independence movement. Without these two hindrances, we can bring back the positive energy to Barcelona, an open, secure and confident city. A creative and productive city that will build bridges to leverage the opportunities from the European Union, hosting the headquarters of European organisations and attracting European activity.

Our city has the conditions required to become a first-class technological hub, in one of the most sought-after locations to live in the whole planet. This combination is the essence of the powerful Barcelona brand. But we need to release the energy of the city. The strength of the change will be surprising.

And for this change to be more powerful, we have to tear down barriers: the perspective from which to tackle the future challenges for Barcelona concerning mobility, ecological transition, housing, economic development, etc., cannot be solely a municipal perspective, but a metropolitan one. The future will belong to the major cities of the word, and to play in that champions league, Barcelona needs to integrate its entire metropolitan area, always with the consensus and involvement of all municipalities involved. 

Environmental protection has to improve our quality of life, at the same time as it becomes a source of employment and new opportunities

Q: You have outlined the importance of the environment in your proposal for an urban model in several occasions. What actions do you include in your programme to promote a sustainable city model?

A: Yes, without a doubt, environmental management is one of five core themes of our political project for the city of Barcelona. It is one of the key drivers to build a city that is fairer and more balanced, where the ecological transition and the fight against pollution will be priority objectives.

One of the identifying traits of Barcelona is that it is a city where people are committed to fair causes. And this is a fair cause. To start with, we will have a metropolitan observatory on natural capital. The most important thing, however, is that we will base our decisions on cross-cutting criteria that consider all city policies, ensuring scientific and technical soundness, together with legitimacy and transparency. Because in this area there is a tendency towards populism, and we have to be serious about it, with policies that do not harm the citizens, quite the contrary. Environmental protection has to improve our quality of life, at the same time as it becomes a source of employment and new opportunities. We will embark on an ecological transition with boldness and thoroughness, opening a serious debate on sustainable and clean mobility, a debate on principles and on budgets. We will integrate new technologies swiftly: electric cars, autonomous cars, shared transportation, etc. And we will seek a broad agreement that consolidates alternative circulation, because we want Barcelona to really be the capital of sustainable mobility.

We will integrate this management experience in a global framework, consistent with our project, to turn Barcelona into a knowledge hub for climate change adaptation in Mediterranean cities.

Q: Water plays a key role in the structure of the city. How is water management addressed in your programme for Barcelona?

A: I am from Barcelona, and I remember what the Llobregat and Besòs rivers used to look like when I was a kid. I think the people of Barcelona are to be proud of the progress made to restore those two backbones of the city. They have evolved from being pretty much open sewers, to watercourses that convert the areas they flow through into riverside parks. This restoration policy has to be sustained because it is very positive, and there are still many challenges ahead.

A characteristic trait of Barcelona is its rainfall pattern. People are often surprised when told that in Barcelona it rains more than in London, but it is true: it rains almost 10% more, but in less than half as many days. This irregular pattern occurs because Barcelona is a Mediterranean city, and it is exacerbated by climate change, leading to long droughts and more rainfall events, of short duration but torrential in nature.

Our city is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Therefore, designing strategies to reduce that vulnerability is a priority, as well as optimising the efficiency of the system through appropriate investments to upgrade and improve the network and large metropolitan infrastructure. Fortunately, the City of Barcelona is recognised as a global leader in integrated water cycle management, and will continue to be.

Furthermore, water is a public good and access to water is a fundamental right and a basic service for citizens; water management must be based on efficiency, sustainability and quality criteria, and follow a circular economy approach to reduce the water footprint to a minimum.

I am in favour of public-private collaboration, a model that has been at the root of the best transformations in Barcelona

Q: The current city administration is vouching for the remunicipalisation of water management. What do you think about this plan?

A: The first thing we should make clear is that we have to guarantee the best service possible, with no preconceived notions, either way. You cannot be too business friendly and uncritical, but you cannot let your ideological prejudices prevail and oppose any private initiative, as the current Mayor of Barcelona does: she is against businesses.

The objective has to be good management. That is, management that ensures an excellent service is provided to citizens, whether it is public or private. Having said that, I will tell you that I am very much in favour of public-private collaboration, a model that has been at the root of the best transformations that have taken place in Barcelona in recent history.

The concept of 'remunicipalisation' you are asking me about contains three major misconceptions. The first one is that water ownership is already municipal, so the term is misleading: the public ownership of water as a public good is not in question, we are talking exclusively about management.

The second error is that it entails a very serious step backwards concerning the progress done by entrusting water management to the Área Metropolitana de Barcelona (AMB), with a clear vision of efficiency and sustainability, and greater co-responsibility of the municipalities in the metropolitan area.

And there is a third misconception, which would be promoting, from this 'centralist' view of a City of Barcelona that would act unilaterally and with no solidarity, the fragmentation of assets, know-how, and metropolitan staff in the current company. That would lead to serious disadvantages in many aspects, both for the remaining municipalities in the metropolitan area, who were not consulted about the proposal, and for the staff of the current metropolitan public-private entity.

'"Remunicipalisation" does not seem like a great idea, quite the contrary.

Q: In your opinion, what priorities should be addressed to improve the city's water services?

A: If we talk first about the management model of the city administration in general terms, I would say that the situation requires a radical change. On one hand, we have to recover management excellence, something that the Barcelona City Council was known for before it fell in the hands of populist and clearly ineffective politicians. And on the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, we have to move away from an approach based on ideological prejudices, towards an approach that focuses on finding the best solution for citizens for each problem.

The way the current city administration has set its priorities for water policy is an example of what I just said: a perfect example of how political decisions should not be made. The first step to govern is doing a proper assessment; after, you establish some objectives; then, you choose the best methods to achieve them; and of course, you should be able to evaluate the results and introduce any specific corrections. Well, if we do such an assessment, do you think that water 'remunicipalisation' is one of the priorities for the people of Barcelona? It just so happens that it is one of the services citizens value the most.

The current mayor is using 'remunicipalisation' — which in her mind is a 'nationalisation' — for partisan purposes, without an objective basis. It is difficult to accept that you can propose to the people of Barcelona something like that without outlining the timing and the costs it would entail for the City Council, that is, for all citizens. We would have to pay for the expropriation, and assuming the costs would not guarantee that we would have a better service.

Instead of solving people's actual problems, they try to create new problems. It is nonsense. There is a saying that goes: ‘if it ain't broke, don't fix it’.

So, starting from that high level of satisfaction among citizens, what we have to do is work to improve it, but maintain what we have. We have to continue to advance, for example, concerning water savings, without forgetting that our per cent of network losses is comparatively very low, and that the index of hydraulic efficiency in Barcelona is 10 points above the average for the water supplies in Catalonia.

Regarding water, and regarding the ecological transition in general, the principles for action should not be the strategy or electoral interest of the mayor to cover up her failures, but principles of efficiency, sustainability, quality and innovation.

Water management must be based on efficiency, sustainability and quality criteria, and follow a circular economy approach

Q: In this regard, which model do you think would be the best fit for the water needs of Barcelona?

A: I insist: there is no model that we can deem perfect in an abstract context, just because it is public or private. Perfection can be found, looking for the formula that works best for each specific situation. This formula has to include mechanisms to ensure the interests of consumers are protected, while at the same time, efficiency is optimised.

But we have to consider a fact, and it is that we face important investments in the water cycle, which the public sector by itself cannot assume.

Therefore, to address the current and future needs of the metropolitan area of Barcelona, while respecting and promoting the current cooperation framework, we have to maintain the regulatory and inspecting authority of the service provided by the AMB, but we have to choose the most appropriate public-private collaboration formulas, as it has been done successfully until now.

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