What is Municipal Socialism in the 21st Century?

We are delighted to publish this short video, produced by Stir to Action, explaining the aims, politics and policies of contemporary Municipal Socialism. It was produced based on discussions at our recent Municipal Socialism in the 21st Century Conference (programme below).

 

09:30 – Registration and Welcome

10:00 – Setting the Scene (Jonathan Davies and Miguel Robles Duran)

10:30 – 12:15: Resistance and transformation: State, Commons and Class

Paul O’Brien (Association for Public Service Excellence): Community Wealth Building: Towards a New Municipalism

Simon Parker (Redbridge Borough Council): Limits and potentialities of municipal socialism: the case of Redbridge.

Hannah Gardiner (Shared Assets): Reframing Public Land

Dan Durrant (University College London): The Potential and Limits of Time Credits

Joe Beswick (New Economics Foundation): Municipal Housing and Municipal Socialism

12:15 – 13:00: Lunch

13:00 – 14:45: The Feminisation of Urban Power and Resistance

Liliana Almanza (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain): The organising power of women in outsourced worker struggles

Irantzu Varela (Activist/journalist from Bilbao): 8-M and its aftermath

Hilary Wainwright (Transnational Institute/Red Pepper): Feminism and the deepening of Local Democracy

14:45 – 15:15: Coffee

15:15 – 17:00: Whither Municipal socialism in the 21st Century?

Neil Barnett (Leeds Beckett University): Lessons from British Municipal Socialism

Bertie Russell (University of Sheffield): A Counter-History of Municipalism

Mike Geddes (University of Warwick): Implications of Radical Localism in Latin America

Frances Northrop and Adrian Bua (New Economics Foundation): What can a think tank do to advance Municipal Socialism?

17:00 – 17:15: Closing Discussion

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The Haringey Development Vehicle – a Triumph of Local Democracy against Gentrification

Following the resignation of Claire Kober, the beleaguered Labour leader of Haringey Council, the controversial Haringey Development Vehicle – or HDV – looks set to be dead and buried. But was the anti-HDV campaign really propelled by the so-called “hard-left”, or was it local residents taking a stand in their community? DMU postgraduate student Ryan Farrell’s blog on this issue is based on his essay written for the “Democratising Urban Spaces” module, as part of his MA in Politics at DMU.

The halting of the Haringey Development Vehicle was a triumph of local democracy and accountability by local residents against a council that doggedly pursued a public-private partnership with an international property developer. The Labour-led council in the North London Borough of Haringey was planning to form a joint venture with Lend Lease that would have involved privatising vast swaths of public property – including municipal assets like libraries and schools – and transferring it into a £2bn private fund. The council boasted of the creation of a new town centre, 5,000 new homes, and thousands of jobs for local residents over a 15-20 year period. So why, then, were local residents so overwhelmingly against the proposals?

There is no doubt that London is in the grip of a major housing crisis, and one that needs to be dealt with fast; it has economic impacts, such as decreased productivity, as well as social ones, like rising poverty, inequality, homelessness and rough sleeping. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has said that City Hall needs to build 66,000 homes a year in order to deal with the needs of London’s housing crisis, with 65% of these needing to be affordable. Across England, the number of rough sleepers has more than doubled since the Conservative-led coalition came into power in 2010, rising year on year. Official government data shows that rough sleeping across England has risen for the past six years in a row. In London, the pattern has been the same – there were 3,975 people sleeping rough in 2010-11, and more than 8,000 in 2015-16. Clearly, then, something radical needs to be done.

The term “regeneration” is a particularly emotive one, and is often seen as merely a coded way of saying “gentrification”. That is, redeveloping land and pricing residents out of communities. But few urban regeneration projects in recent years have attracted the level of attention the Haringey Development Vehicle has. The London Borough of Haringey has a population of approximately 270,000, and is highly socio-economically diverse. Highgate in the West of the borough is one of the city’s most affluent areas, while conversely, Tottenham, located in the East, is increasingly deprived. It was here that the 2011 riots were sparked, after local Tottenham resident Mark Duggan was shot dead by police.

The council had a sound case for swift, decisive action, with a social housing waiting list exceeding 9,000, and first-time buyers struggling to get on the property ladder, with modest one bed properties selling for upwards of £400,000. The then-leader of the council, Claire Kober, spoke of the challenge to “find new and different ways to generate income” back in late 2014. Tensions have been fraught between the Labour-led Haringey council and the Parliamentary Labour Party, including from the area’s two MPs, David Lammy and Catherine West. In an open letter, the two local members of parliament citied concerns regarding the affordability of the home that the HDV project will offer, and the lack of transparency and consultation with local residents. Seen as a dig at the proposed scheme, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the 2017 party conference alluded to “forced gentrification and social cleansing”. Local residents and business owners set up the Stop HDV project to raise awareness of the council’s plans, in an effort to mobilise opposition to the scheme.

The HDV scheme is now all but defeated. Haringey’s Labour Manifesto pledged to stop the controversial scheme, and a final decision will be taken in July. The push back against an unpopular “regeneration” scheme has been labelled as a “systematic takeover” by the “hard left” – but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, it was local people who stopped the redevelopment project, not a select few with political agendas. Residents from all – and no – parties participated in demonstrations, lobbied their local MPs, and voiced their concerns to local councillors. Crowdfunded by local residents, 73-year-old resident Gordon Peters requested a judicial review into the HDV – which was subsequently won by the council. The council persevered, even when its own scrutiny committee advised the scheme be halted. Claire Kober resigned from her position as leader of the council in February, amid claims of sexism and bullying.

After sustained action on a local level by the residents of Haringey, including the borough’s two constituency Labour parties, the two local Labour MPs, the grassroots campaign group Momentum, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and people who had never been involved in politics in their lives, the HDV scheme now looks doomed to fail. Councillors who supported the scheme were either deselected by local party members and replaced with anti-HDV candidates, or pulled out after the first round of voting. The right-wing media attempted to frame this as a “purge”, but it was anything but; this was democracy in action. After the recent local elections on May 3rd, the council is still Labour-run, although the borough elected three new Lib Dem candidates, surely reflecting the anger towards the HDV scheme. Claire Kober, the council’s former leader, now works as Director of Housing at Pinnacle, a property management firm.

So what implications, then, does the HDV phenomenon have for democratising urban spaces, and if public-private partnerships aren’t the solution to the capital’s burgeoning housing crisis, what is? One approach that truly involves local residents is community land trusts. In 2015, the NHS announced the sale of two-thirds of land – 7.1 hectares –  from the site of the St Ann’s Hospital in Haringey. Planning permission was granted for 470 homes, with 14% “affordable” (defined as 80% of market value); none were designated for social tenants. The St Ann’s Redevelopment Trust (StART), a community land trust that pre-dates the HDV debacle, was set up by local residents to fight the plans. The 360-strong membership meet regularly to discuss the priorities, which reach far beyond the call for genuinely affordable housing – StART also want to maintain the natural environmental beauty of the area, and ensure the continuation of mental health services on the site. The best hope, StART believed, was to persuade the Greater London Authority (GLA) to purchase the land, keeping it in public ownership and ensuring any homes built are genuinely affordable. StART’s negotiations were a triumphant success, with Mayor Sadiq Khan purchasing the site, using the new £250 million Land Fund for the first time. The deal will see up to 800 new homes built, with at least 50% being affordable – a significant increase on the existing planning permission for the site. Revenue raised from selling the land to housing associations, councils and community land trusts will be reinvested into the Land Fund to purchase further sites in London. StART’s membership is growing, and the trust is aiming to raise £50 million in order to maximise the number of genuinely affordable homes. The potential of community land trusts and community-led development is endless, and as demonstrated by StART, extends far beyond the issue of housing.

Ryan Farrell is a postgraduate student studying for an MA in Politics at DMU, where he also completed an undergraduate degree in History and Politics. His academic interests include trade unionism and grassroots labour movements, Marxism, environmentalism and nationalism.

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The 2018 Mexican presidential results: between Lula, Messi and the Bolivarian Revolution

In today’s post Dr. Valeria Guarneros-Mesa reflects on the recent electoral victory in Mexico of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. She argues that ‘AMLO’s’ victory is an important win for the Latin American left that is likely to follow a Lula-style “progressive neoliberal” agenda, rather than a revolutionary “Chavista-Bolivarian” one. Valeria also points to some of the likely frailties of AMLO’s project to redistribute wealth and battle corruption, such as the institutional embeddedness of corruption and deep-seated tendencies to “caudillista” leadership. She argues that the best hope for counter-acting these is for MORENA (the coalition led by AMLO) to maintain and strengthen ties with civil society and critical social movements.

By 10:30pm of 1 July 2018, preliminary electoral results started to indicate that Andrés Manuel López Obrador was the winner of the Mexican presidential election. AMLO, the candidate for the Together We Will Make Histoty coalition (composed of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), Social Encounter Party, and the Labour Party) won with almost 53% of the votes, while obtaining a majority in Congress and the Senate. Commentators have underlined the results as a historical moment for Mexican politics and its electoral democracy. The results caused moments of exhilaration and joy for a majority of the population and revived hope in Latin America’s left. But for many others, this was a moment of anguish, disappointment and concern as they envisaged the challenges that a fragmented and violent Mexico will bring, accompanied by the unfounded fear by liberal-conservatives that Mexico will become another Venezuela, another dictatorship.

The immediate comments, after the preliminary results were published, underlined the effectiveness of the electoral democratic institutions in so far as the incumbent party, PRI, and the other traditional parties, PAN and PRD, were recognising their loss and congratulating AMLO for his victory. AMLO’s presence in Mexico City’s Zocalo late that evening was accompanied by words of gratitude that were emotive and fulfilling people’s hope. AMLO’s reiteration that his government was to be ruled by three principles: ‘not lying, not stealing and not betraying the people’ seem to mark a clear distinction against the political corrupt oligarchy of the PRI, PAN and PRD. These warm words, however, did not reassure people who experienced political violence during the day of the election in cities of Jalisco and Puebla States.

AMLO is unlikely to follow Chavismo’s Bolivarian Revolution of the 21st Century. Instead, it is more likely that he follows the steps of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, through redistribution of wealth, while maintaining a ‘progressive’ neoliberal economic approach that promotes global trade and finance with regards to commodities.

Two elements provide an indication to make this a credible argument (but see Financial Times for a contrary view). The first is the fact that the core of the old oligarchy that supported Salinismo began to support AMLO’s candidacy few weeks before the elections. Salinismo (1988-1994) was the presidential period in which neoliberal economic polices reached their peak and when NAFTA was signed.

These new alliances indicate that AMLO obtained their support in exchange of continuation with neoliberalism and to counter the threats that NAFTA’s dissolution cast upon the country’s current economy. His book ‘La salida’ also shows cosmetic modifications to the wave of privatisations in the education and energy sectors introduced in the post-2012 years.

The second is AMLO’s attachment to the corrupt machinery that has permeated Mexican politics. Several individuals supporting his campaign have had records of embezzlement, hence the likely assumption that these common and corrupt practices will begin to infiltrate the good intentions that AMLO’s persona insists to tackle.

The lack of transparency in selecting MORENA’s candidates for several political local posts has been one of the main criticisms against AMLO’s inability to break with clientelism and co-optation. On the one hand, this forms part of the tactics the mafia’s political system relies on and; on the other hand, it breaks with any channels of communication held with social movements that gave birth to MORENA, let alone with those that sit more on the radical spectrum of the Left and which are key to bring into account AMLO’s government and other political and economic institutions.

Civil society and its activism have been considered the main axis to counter the continuation of neoliberal politics and corruption. However, progressive critics sustain that civil society is not ready to scrutinise government. Social movements have used different repertoires of action that include fighting the Mexican state (i.e. Zapatismo and its legacies), collaborating and negotiating with it (clientelism and co-optation) and, more recently, recurring to socio-legal action to sue the state abuses against human rights of indigenous and other marginalised communities.

However, mobilisations’ multiple repertoires of action to counter the state in intermittent ways are not including mechanisms of scrutiny and oversight that the political system requires to minimise impunity, beyond the state’s own reforms to its judicial and prosecution systems. Although this type of experience from civil society is not inexistent (for example, Artículo 19 or Instituto de Acción Ciudadana para la Justicia y Democracia), it is quite fragmented and too small to counter the great machinery of state corruption.

AMLO’s administration will encounter another challenge with regards to its leadership. As all good charismatic leaders in Latin America, the figure of a single, strong ‘caudillo’ is a formula that all political leaders instinctively pursue. This has been observed from Simon Bolivar fighting Spanish colonialism, to Fidel Castro’s communism and Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution. AMLO will be no different, especially as his leadership derives from this same understanding. The problem is that this type of leadership suffers from the Lionel Messi curse of overperformance, observed in the 2018 World Cup match Argentina vs Croatia, where the latter won by 3-0 as the whole Argentine team was relying on Messi to score.

If MORENA and its coalition are to be able to transcend, a cadre of multiple leaders must be prepared to relay AMLO. It is precisely this lack of shared leadership that has led ‘pink tide’ front-runners Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales to organise referenda to make constitutional changes that allow presidential re-elections and prolong their periods in office. Centralisation of power, while a new successor is appointed, is likely to become a tactic to which AMLO may recur to if his admnistation is not watched closely.

Finally, if AMLO’s administration is to transcend, it is because it is not left alone, the internationalisation of what is happening at the grassroots level, within and against the state, must be recognised. His administration has not only to maintain open and transparent channels of communication with social movements, civil society groups and ordinary citizens and build a shared leadership; but also, initiatives that prompt these grassroots to contribute to the broader ‘transnational social class’ -which has aimed to challenge decisions that tend to benefit the traditional neoliberal oligarchy -shall be encouraged by his administration.

If his coalition is genuinely wanting to become a motor of historical transformation, as opposed to just ‘the left of the institutionalised right’, relationships with other international Left parties, which have been more genuine to include grassroots and establish links with social movements, (i.e. Corbynism and DiEM25) have  to be consolidated, alongside the emblematic Latin American spaces created by the World Social Forum and Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas-People’s Trade Agreement. A recognition and acceptance of international groups’ criticisms against the state’s human rights abuses and violence, must be included in his government plans, which unfortunately have been a moot topic in AMLO’s campaign.

Valeria Guarneros-Meza is Reader in Politics and Public Policy, De Montfort University and a CURA member.

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Municipal What? Reflections on #municipalsocialism in the 21st century

Dr Bertie Russell – research associate at the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute and contributor to our recent Municipal Socialism conference – offers some core reflections on the role of municipalist political strategies for the 21st Century. Central to his argument is a need to develop a more nuanced understanding of political scale, decenter our conception of the state, and develop a counter-history of municipalism that learns from the wealth of international examples outside of the UK. This piece was originally published on the Realising Just Cities website.

The “Municipal Socialism in the 21st Century” conference – hosted at De Montfort University by the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA) – offered a much-needed starting point for bringing together academics, trade-unions, party organizers and progressive think-tanks to consider the role of urban politics in transformative social change. That Labour’s “Community Wealth Building Unit” held their meeting immediately after the conference suggests that these discussions are not taking place in an academic vacuum, and may increasingly come to play a role in defining contemporary socialist strategy in the UK.

As we move forward, we should perhaps take Miguel Robles Durán’s opening demand for “an anti-capitalist provocation of what a city can do” as our common point of orientation, a reminder that we must remain committed yet critical in the development of political strategies of scale. With this said, here are some quick reflections on the importance of this conference, and why it may come to mark a starting point for addressing some of the most pressing political questions of the Left.

  1. This needed to happen

The last five years has witnessed a global renaissance in transformative urban politics. From the emergence of the movement-party Ciudad Futura in Argentina to the territorially grounded political strategies in Jackson, MI, we are witnessing a wave of political experimentation that wagers on the municipality becoming a privileged site for left organizing. These initiatives are collectively challenging many of our inherited assumptions about the role of the state in socialist organising, antiquated distinctions between the private and the public, and unhelpful binaries between ‘local’ and ‘global’.

Meanwhile, Corbyn’s announcement of the ‘return of municipal socialism’ has built on the successes of Preston’s community wealth building approach, leading to Labour establishing a community wealth building unit. A raft of articles and policy papers have started to appear calling for the municipalisation of services and utilities such as water and telecommunications, whilst some local labour groups have begun to release manifestos that claim to put ‘municipal socialism at its heart’.

There is a wealth of critical thought that needs to be brought to bear in developing an “anti-capitalist provocation of what a city can do”, not least critical geographic insights on the politics of scale, and the incredibly rich ‘state debate’ that occurred throughout the 1970-80s. These insights, coupled with richer and more nuanced understanding of these movements, are essential if we are to avoid falling into a reductive localism that limits the potential of ’municipal socialism’ to redistributive service delivery. The new municipalist movements are demonstrating that practice is currently developing faster than theory, and we’re in a privileged position to collectively develop our theoretical understandings of what 21st century socialist organizing can look like.

  1. Municipalism ≠ municipal socialism ≠ municipal enterprise

The conference was mired by a fundamental slippage in terminology, that led to many of the discussions and contributions working (or not working) across purposes. Furthermore, some of the terms themselves are contested – not least municipal socialism – with different historical accounts and differing emphases. To offer some clarity:

Municipal Enterprise

At it’s simplest, municipal enterprise refers to businesses that are owned by local governments. There is nothing inherently ‘socialist’ about municipal enterprise. Nonetheless, it’s feasible that certain forms of municipalist enterprise could have a central role in developing a municipalist strategy.

A number of attendees suggested that Nottingham’s Robin Hood Energy would be a good example of this; a municipally owned not-for-profit that looks to reduce fuel costs by not having to provide returns for shareholders. Whilst we should welcome enterprises that reduce consumer costs and provide some degree of decision-making to local authorities, it remains a significant stretch of the imagination to equate this with a socialist project.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for certain types of municipal enterprise within a transformative political program, but we need to ask what precisely is providing the ‘transformative’ potential? Examples such as Wolfhagen’s public-common energy partnership point in this direction, illustrating an innovative form of co-ownership and distributed governance that puts real democratic decision making in the hands of a citizen-consumer-owner cooperative. Cases such as this have the potential to transform our consciousness, with citizens developing new capacities as collaborative decision-makers, and thus playing a role in a larger project of systemic change.

Municipal Socialism

Rather than referring to a particular theory of social change, municipal socialism is more often used as shorthand for a series of actually-existing historical periods. This is usually presented as an overwhelmingly UK-centric history, commonly beginning with the gas-and-water ‘socialism’ of the mid-19th century and ends with the experiments of 1980s Britain. This history is often in danger of falling back into identifying these historical periods as ‘socialist’ due to the presence of municipal enterprise – especially so when we reach back into the 19th Century.

We ought to recall that Joseph Chamberlain, the archetypal mayor of mid-19th Century municipal gas-and-water socialism, believed that the municipality “ought not to intrude where private initiative could already handle the provision of a social good”. Whichever way you choose to frame your understanding of socialism, it probably ought exclude such perspectives.

Furthermore, there are significant differences of experience within certain historical periods. As Hilary Wainwright looked to stress in her contribution, there were many involved in London’s GLC in the 1980s who put a priority on trying to develop a prefigurative and transformative set of practices. This is quite different to a dominant history which paints the projects of the 1980s as being defined by high-levels of local-state spending and periods of direct confrontation with the Thatcher government.

Ultimately, ‘municipal socialism’ has become a form of shorthand to describe periods of heightened redistributive municipal enterprise. Meanwhile, the UK-centric reading of municipal socialism also closes the door on political experiments elsewhere in the world – some of which were introduced by Mike Geddes – many of which may be more closely aligned with what we could call a ‘municipal socialist strategy’. Such reductive readings of history both exclude strategic considerations of how any of this might fit into socialist strategy, whilst simultaneously foreclosing many of the more prefigurative political experiments that also occurred during these periods.

Municipalism

Municipalism should be used to refer to theories of social change that recognize the potential of the municipal scale as a strategically key site for organizing. There is no single theory of ‘municipalism’ – not least because there are a breadth of people within contemporary municipalist movements that are actively experimenting and building theory-in-movement.

There are nonetheless historical precedents for municipalist theory, not least Murray Bookchin, whose concept of Libertarian Municipalism saw the ‘immediate goal is to reopen a public sphere in flat opposition to statism, one that allows for maximum democracy in the literal sense of the term, and to create in embryonic form the institutions that can give power to a people generally’. Such a position looks to challenge the existing form of the local state, instead positing these institutions as something to be transformed within a broader political agenda.

Whilst I’d wager that many of the participants in the contemporary ‘new municipalist’ movements are likely to agree with such a statement, these movements are not following a predetermined program or strategy – they’re not “Bookchin-ists”. Whilst activists may now be turning to Bookchin and others for inspiration, new theories of ‘municipalism’ are being built through the experiences of these contemporary movements, such that we can see action and theory being produced in tandem.

Given this, it’s not only reasonable – but arguably quite likely – that municipalist perspectives may come to argue that historical periods of municipal socialism actually had very little to do with a ‘municipalist’ theory of change. Furthermore, a municipalist perspective may identify and emphasize different historical examples – from the participatory processes of Montevideo in the late-1980s to the Italian municipalism in the early 20th century – whist looking for different phenomena from within those periods we’ve come to refer to as ‘municipal socialist’.

  1. “The question is not what the local state can do, but what can we do to the local state?”

A fundamental but largely unspoken distinction lay at the heart of this conference, although it was only drawn out in the last session. As Mike Geddes summarised succinctly “the question is not what the local state can do, but what can we do to the local state?”.

This question has profound implications for how we are thinking about municipalist politics. Asking ‘what can the local state do’ tends to reify existing institutions, limiting our spectrum of consideration to the different functions that the existing state-form can undertake. It also understands political agency as resting conclusively with state officials – whether they be elected or civil servants – mistakenly interpreting ‘the state’ as having some form of omnipotence. In a brief nod to the theoretical progressions of the state debate, we should already be beyond thinking of the state as a ‘thing’ that can simply be seized and wielded as a tool of revolutionary change – not least local state institutions.

On other hand, asking ‘what can we do to the local state’ approaches the institutions of the local state as a problem, as a set of social relationships that are part of capitalism itself. Asking “what can we do to the local state?” starts with provocation that we need to fundamentally look to challenge the form of the local state, upsetting its strategic position within the broader reproduction of capitalist social relations. The central concern thus becomes challenging the very form of the state, placing an emphasis on distributing power throughout society and meaningfully de-centering both ownership and decision-making. Furthermore, it demands us to consider who the “we” is that can “do” something to the institutions of the local state, providing a much wider field of social contestation.

So long as we fail to collectively recognize this clear distinction, we will be unable to succinctly think through what it would mean to develop municipalist strategies that function both in, against and beyond the state. We’ll also fail in our attempts to understand contemporary municipalist initiatives if we focus solely on the policies that local authorities such as Barcelona or Naples have implemented, rather than the broader strategy of transformation within which these policies fall.

  1. Where does community wealth building fit?

If there was one more slippage that was threatening to occur – not only within the conference, but potentially within Labour’s community wealth building unit – it was the equation of ‘community wealth building’ with contemporary municipalist strategy. This is not to pass comment on the work that has taken place within Preston or Cleveland, which may well find its place within a broader municipalist theory of change. But there are two questions that need to be raised here:

1) What precisely is it about a community wealth building approach that qualifies it as part of a municipal socialist – let alone municipalist – strategy? How precisely does this sow the seeds for broader transformative change? This is undoubtedly a complex question, yet this is all the more reason not to rest on assumptions (much as we shouldn’t assume that municipal enterprise is somehow socialist).

2) How do we ensure that we don’t come to fetishize community wealth building to the point that it is taken as synonymous with municipalism? There appears a distinct danger of collapsing our focus on to a single approach, at the cost of ignoring the much wider spectrum of progressive municipal initiatives that should also be pursued as part of a transformative strategy.

How we approach, evaluate and extend innovations such as community wealth building will largely be informed by some of the broader strategic considerations outlined above. It may fit within a strategy of developing a common asset-base as part of the development of a broader counter-hegemonic project – similar to how the Jackson-Kush plan positions the role of the solidarity economy – or it may be reduced to a local government budget fix, assessed as a ‘success’ due to an increase in regional GVA.

  1. Onwards

For all these challenges, we have to be thankful that CURA had facilitated a space where these questions could be raised. We remain at the beginning of developing political strategies that are fit for a 21st Century Socialism, where questions of scale and the state remain absolutely central to moving forward. We should look to take these discussions forward and build a clearer understanding of if – and how – municipalist strategies could develop, and what that means for those consumed within the leftward push of Labour. How we balance the ‘realism’ of existing political arrangements with the potential prefigurative power of municipalism is unknown. Thankfully there are dozens of municipalist initiatives out there asking themselves the same question.

Dr Bertie Russell is a research associate at the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute. His research interests are in participatory democracy; transformational forms of coproduction; the organisation of the commons and post-capitalist transition; and the rise of new forms of urban internationalism. You can find some of his musings here.

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Devolution, Inclusive Growth and Local Skills Strategies

In today’s blog, CURA’s Jonathan Payne argues that the devolution agenda in England has so far been driven by a neo-liberal “growth first” approach that eschews consideration of the challenges presented by inclusive growth. He argues for an inclusive growth approach that is more sensitive to the quality of employment and the lower end of the labour market, and he specifically considers the role that local skills strategies might play in such a policy agenda.

Since 2010, UK governments have promised to empower local communities to drive growth as part of the devolution agenda for England. This has seen the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), bringing together local authorities and members of the local business community, along with ‘City Deals’, ‘Growth Deals’ and ‘Devolution Deals’, brokered between central and local government. The question is what kind of growth and for whom? The emerging discourse of ‘inclusive growth’ reflects concerns over poverty and inequality, and the general idea that everyone should benefit. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has spoken of building an economy that ‘works for everyone’ and of spreading the benefits of growth across all parts of the UK. Against the backdrop of weak productivity, ‘industrial strategy’ is being promoted, with the aim of creating good high-value jobs, while the National Living Wage for the over-25s supplements the Government’s welfare-to-work agenda and its commitment to ‘make work pay’.

Inclusive growth is a hot topic, with an All-Party Parliamentary Group looking at the issue, and the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission, Manchester University’s Inclusive Growth Analysis Unit, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, amongst others, producing reports. The term remains, however, a contested one. A key distinction is between a neo-liberal, growth-first approach which seeks to create more jobs and connect more people, including marginalised groups, to the labour market, and a growth-shaping agenda which goes further by developing more and better jobs. Importantly, the latter puts the spotlight on job quality and includes the lower end of the labour market, an approach favoured by, amongst others, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

This is vital because nationally government policy remains firmly wedded to the growth-first approach. Industrial strategies since 2010 have been about sexy, elite sectors and technologies which employ only a tiny fraction of the working population, and have had little to say about the ordinary economy where most people work. Here, one in five UK workers are in low wage jobs and one in eight are ‘working poor’. Many of these jobs are low skill and insecure. While the National Living Wage is welcome, it remains age-restricted and is not a living wage. Progression out of low wage work also remains problematic, with only one in six managing to permanently escape after ten years. Government worships at the shrine of a ‘flexible’ labour market, which gives the green light to employers looking to compete through low wages and poorly designed jobs, ‘zero’ or short-hour contracts and other forms of ‘labour flexibility’, problems which extend far beyond the ‘gig’ economy. With the UK’s low paying sectors a major contributor to our productivity gap with European competitors, there are glaring policy tensions. Austerity also squeezes wages and corrodes investment, while welfare cuts and a punitive regime of conditionality and sanctions applied to those on benefits suck money out of deprived communities and are designed to drive people into any job.

Locally, there are real challenges in fronting up to inclusive growth. Funding for local growth has been cut from £11.2 billion between 2006/6-2009/10 to £6.2 billion between 2010/11 to 2014/15. Local authorities have experienced cuts of 40%. LEPs have limited resources and staffing. Devolution is top-down, limited and uneven, with a crazy paving of devolved powers and responsibilities, which threatens to worsen already stark regional disparities in one of the most centralised countries in the western world. There are concerns that central government is off-loading responsibility for spending cuts, uneven development and deep-rooted structural problems in our economy and labour market. Secret deals, brokered behind closed doors between central and local elites, can mean that questions of ‘what kind of growth and for whom?’ and the lower end of the labour market do not get a look in.

This is not to suggest that local actors have their hands tied when it comes inclusive growth. There are certainly things they can do to directly address low quality employment, whether it be local authorities ‘leading by example’, using public procurement to lever improvements in private-sector contractors, enlisting the support of local ‘anchor institutions’, such as universities and hospitals, or campaigning for employers to sign up to voluntary Living Wage Compacts. Preston’s experiment with Community Wealth Buildingis one approach, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Local Skills Strategies and Inclusive Growth

Another issue worthy of attention is the role of local skills strategies in all of this. At national level, skills have been the policy lever of first and last resort for addressing international competitiveness, productivity and social inclusion over the last 35 years. We know skills have a role to play in productivity and better jobs and in helping people to access work and progress in their lives. But research also tells us that skills have to be used in the workplace if they are to add to productivity. Equipping people with education and training can help some individuals to get better work but it cannot magic away low-skill, low-pay, insecure and dead-end jobs which still have to be done by someone. Neither should we think Robotics and Artificial Intelligence will ride to the rescue or that they will eat all the jobs. The ‘skills problem’ is not just one of too few people with the right skills (weak/misdirected skills supply), it is one of too many jobs which are not effectively using the skills and capabilities of many of those already in them (weak employer demand and poor utilisation).

Skills figure prominently in the devolution agenda, including a number of City Deals and are often an area where devolution deals have requested more influence. We also have the planned devolution of the post-19 adult education budget to Combined Authorities/LEPs by 2018-19, the most visible element of skills devolution to date. However, cuts to adult skills funding leave a massively reduced budget of £1.5 billion across England, much of which is already committed to meeting statutory learning entitlements. Schools and 16-19 funding remain a fiefdom of the Department of Education. Apprenticeships are nationally funded and administered through the Apprenticeship Levy, with government having set a target of 3 million new starts by 2020. Schools and Further Education Colleges both operate in competitive markets for learners, and are subject to centralised accountability mechanisms in the form of ‘high stakes’ national inspections. The ability of local actors to exert influence over the local skills system looks to be pretty limited.

The danger is that local skills strategies focus simply on boosting qualification stocks, addressing skills gaps and shortages, and equipping young people and the unemployed with the ‘right’ skills and attitudes for work, against the backdrop of massively reduced funding. As Ewart Keep has persuasively argued, locally we could see mini-versions of the same skills-supply, target-driven agenda, an approach that nationally has done little to address problems of weak employer demand and poor utilisation over several decades with much bigger volumes of public funding. As the OECD/ILO have also argued, if local skills strategies are to contribute to national productivity and inclusive growth they need to go beyond traditional skills supply measures and address employer demand and utilisation. They call for a major re-think of the ‘skills problem’ which would involve integrating skills into broader initiatives around economic development and business improvement, and working with employers to address issues of product market strategy, work organisation and job design, and the way people are managed. A key challenge is firms bedded down on the ‘low road’, competing on the basis of price, with low wages and low skill job design.

This raises interesting questions for local skills strategies in England at a time when Government is asking Combined Authorities and LEPs to bring forward ‘local industrial strategies’. How far will local growth strategies address low paying sectors? Will we see skills integrated with economic development and business improvement initiatives in ways that do not neglect the lower end of the labour market? Do local actors have the resources, capacity and expertise available to do any of this and can they think differently about the ‘skills problem’? How much progress can be made locally in terms of raising employer demand for, and use of, skills in the context of a weakly regulated labour market and shareholder-driven economy? On this latter point, we will only really know if we try. I have recently been carrying out research, funded by CURA, that has probed these issues in the Midlands, focusing on local actors’ understandings of the ‘skills problem’ and approaches to addressing it. The main finding is that local skills strategies are struggling to move beyond a narrow supply-driven agenda and develop a more integrated approach which fronts up to the challenges presented by low skill, low wage jobs. However, these are still early days. What is clear is that a focus on the ‘whole economy’ and the quality of jobs must be at the heart of inclusive growth agendas.

Jonathan Payne is a core member of CURA and Professor of Work, Employment and Skills at the Department of Politics, People and Place at De Montfort University.

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Conference Registration Open: Municipal Socialism in the 21st Century

With the rise of “new municipalisms” across the world, the launch of the #FearlessCities movement in Barcelona last year, and the recent renewal of commitments to “municipal socialism” by the UK Labour Party, it is timely to consider what municipal socialist ideas, practices and projects can contribute to struggles for justice in the 21st century.

The Centre for Urban Research on Austerity is hosting a one-day conference to discuss these issues at De Montfort University on Wednesday 27th June.  Please see the draft programme below. If you have any queries or requirements, please contact Adrian Bua at Adrian.bua@dmu.ac.uk.

Attendance is free and open to all, though we can only cover expenses for speakers.  Please register for the conference at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/municipal-socialism-in-the-21st-century-tickets-45438001285?ref=estw.

Find the conference programme below. We look forward to welcoming you on 27th June.

09:30 – Registration and Welcome

10:00 – Setting the Scene (Jonathan Davies and Miguel Robles Duran)

10:30 – 12:15: Resistance and transformation: State, Commons and Class

Paul O’Brien (Association for Public Service Excellence): Community Wealth Building: Towards a New Municipalism

Simon Parker (Redbridge Borough Council): Limits and potentialities of municipal socialism: the case of Redbridge.

Hannah Gardiner (Shared Assets): Reframing Public Land

Dan Durrant (University College London): The Potential and Limits of Time Credits

Joe Beswick (New Economics Foundation): Municipal Housing and Municipal Socialism

12:15 – 13:00: Lunch

13:00 – 14:45: The Feminisation of Urban Power and Resistance

Liliana Almanza (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain): The organising power of women in outsourced worker struggles

Irantzu Varela (Activist/journalist from Bilbao): 8-M and its aftermath

Hilary Wainwright (Transnational Institute/Red Pepper): Feminism and the deepening of Local Democracy

14:45 – 15:15: Coffee

15:15 – 17:00: Whither Municipal socialism in the 21st Century?

Neil Barnett (Leeds Beckett University): Lessons from British Municipal Socialism

Bertie Russell (University of Sheffield): A Counter-History of Municipalism

Mike Geddes (University of Warwick): Implications of Radical Localism in Latin America

Frances Northrop and Adrian Bua (New Economics Foundation): What can a think tank do to advance Municipal Socialism?

17:00 – 17:15: Closing Discussion

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PhD Study Opportunities at CURA

The Centre for Urban Research on Austerity is looking for prospective PhDs students interested in developing innovative, interdisciplinary research projects in any field of the arts and humanities that relate to our established areas of expertise in urban governance, identity and resistance.

People interested in developing research related to the topics listed below are encouraged to contact Valeria Guarneros as soon as possible: valeria.guarneros@dmu.ac.uk

  1. Role of arts/culture in urban governance
  2. Culture of resistance and labour struggles
  3. Life histories in popular local struggles
  4. Arts/culture and service provision
  5. Collective identities and political participation.

Opportunities for PhD scholarships are available.

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Austerity and Food Poverty: the vicious circle of obesity, ill-health and deprivation

In today’s post Hillary Shaw and Julia Shaw consider the links between poverty, poor diet and ill health.  In the UK, escalating food, fuel and housing costs, stagnating incomes and poor employment prospects have realised a fateful and catastrophic convergence of problems, which all serve to compound and amplify each other. Increasing social inequalities have, in turn, evidenced the rising incidence of obesity and diabetes, fuelled by nutritional poverty. In the broader context of austerity and welfare reforms, it is suggested that the urban food question – specifically in relation to accessing foods essential to a healthy diet – becomes a priority on the political agenda. The authors describe the particular challenges this poses, and argue that more comprehensive policy solutions that go beyond focussing on individual behaviour, to include regulating industry as well as creating positive food environments, are necessary.

When Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister 1979-1990, advocated a return to ‘Victorian values’; she probably did not mean the return of ‘Victorian’ diseases we are now seeing, such as gout and rickets which are closely linked to diet. Gout is caused by excess consumption of fatty food and alcohol; rickets is caused by lack of vitamin D which we get from sunlight and from oily foods, eggs and fortified breakfast cereals. Today, children in deprived areas are going to school without having had breakfast; some even return home to no supper. They may even arrive at school with lunchboxes containing cold chicken nuggets, stale toast, or last night’s leftover chips, so that in deprived areas (e.g., Lanarkshire, Scotland) there is a need for programmes such as ‘Food-365’, an initiative to provide school lunches all year round to alleviate ‘holiday hunger’ amongst the most vulnerable. The ‘health premium’ – the excess cost of eating well either in terms of money, time or knowledge acquisition – has never gone away, and rising inequality in the early 21st century has brought back the old 19th century diseases of dietary poverty. However hunger, poverty and poor diet are now commonly associated with carrying excess weight rather than being underweight.

Once the poor and malnourished were thinner than the rich; yet in modern times, uniquely, they are heavier and more likely to be obese. At age 11, the poorest British children are, on average, 2 kg heavier than those of the wealthiest families, which is the exact opposite of the figures in 1946. At the extremes of obesity the gap is even larger, with the most obese 10% from the poor weighing 4.6 kg more, on average, than the 10% most obese from the wealthy. The same reversal has occurred in developing countries. In Brazil low-income women in 1997 were 40% more likely to be obese than underweight, whereas in 1975 they were four times more likely to be underweight than obese. Once, you had to be wealthy to afford to be obese; now we have an abundance of sugary junk foods and cheap fatty meat, and you increasingly need to be wealthy to be slim.

In Victorian Britain, poor people did die of starvation. At best, undernourished children would suffer physical stunting and mental retardation. So, has the situation improved now the poor are over-consuming calories rather than under-consuming them? Perhaps not, for four reasons. Firstly, obesity stigmatises the poor whereas the sight of a starving person, especially a child, excites sympathy, provokes action and public philanthropy. Our mental attitude has not caught up with our modern socio-economic food situation, and we tend to associate obesity with self-indulgence and laziness. Secondly, obesity is harder to reverse than emaciation; our calorie-hoarding biology, inherited from prehistoric days when food could be scarce for long periods, means we are very efficient at gaining weight and strongly biologically resistant to losing it. Thirdly, obesity creates long-term health problems which cascade on from one another. Excess weight precipitates cardiovascular problems and arthritis; fat can promote cancer, and above all, type 2 diabetes is a major cause of blindness and amputations. These are all chronic and expensive conditions, and may lead to the poor being accused of consuming excess health resources and money, as if they wanted to be obese and ill, and it is their fault they are not eating healthily. Naturally the concept of the health premium is seldom mentioned here. Fourthly, obesity keeps poor people poor. Obese adults are “less likely to be hired, are lower paid, have fewer opportunities and are often outright bullied in the workplace”. This especially applies to women, who already suffer the consequences of the gender pay gap, and who also have higher expectations of ‘appearance’ placed upon them by society. Accordingly, this adds multiple reinforcing layers of prejudice and discrimination to the poverty and obesity issue.

The ‘obesity prejudice’ begins early in life, with overweight children being bullied and achieving less at school; again this may mean they attain lower qualifications and, as adults,  earn less and remain poor. In turn, the cycle of poverty means they tend to produce poor children who similarly eat unhealthily and gain excess weight. This is one crucial way in which poverty can transmit itself down the generations. Obesity also propagates poverty through sleep apnoea, causing daytime exhaustion and lower productivity. Obese schoolchildren often miss lessons as they take time off for associated medical conditions such as intensive dental treatment, and obese adults miss work days for a range of illnesses associated with poor nutrition, as noted above.

Society tends to put the burden of reversing obesity largely back on the individual; exercise more, get fitness apps, learn cooking skills, read the food labels. There is no current policy initiative aimed at stopping supermarkets from selling unhealthy foods. A sugar tax has been recently imposed, which raises costs to the consumer, but the government is not using this tax revenue to reduce the costs of healthy foods; for example, a negative VAT rate on fresh produce. Schools have restarted cookery lessons, but there is no educational provision for adults with advice on easy, cheap and healthy eating at the places where they can be easily accessed, for instance, jobcentres, food banks, citizens’ advice bureaux, housing associations or GP surgeries in deprived areas. There is also a tendency to promote a revolutionary rather than evolutionary approach to diet, as typified by Jamie Oliver’s initiative in Rotherham, straight from ‘Turkey Twizzlers’ to gourmet vegetables. This may be interesting, and even informative, for more affluent families who can afford to experiment, waste food, spend time on learning new cooking techniques, and drive to shops which sell these novel foods.

For less wealthy families, and certainly the poorest, a gradualist approach may be preferable; by, for example, introducing leafy green vegetables into ready meals, making healthier sandwiches, adding fresh fruit to processed puddings, and replacing fizzy drinks with fruit juices. A major problem is that truly breaking the vicious circle of obesity, ill-health and deprivation takes far longer than the customary five-year lifetime of a government. A climate of austerity and squeezing the already poor creates financial returns much faster. Although entrenched vicious circles such as the seemingly never-ending cycle of poverty are hard to break, and even though social returns often only materialise –as Ivan Illich almost said – ‘at the speed of a bicycle’, nevertheless social returns bring true longer-lasting benefits for all.

Julia J.A. Shaw is Professor of Social Justice and Interdisciplinary Legal Studies, as well as a member of CURA at De Montfort University.

Hillary J. Shaw is the author of many journal articles, book chapters and commissioned reports in the general areas of economics, geography, politics and the sociology of food consumption and obesity – particularly in relation to the dynamics and evolution of the food desert phenomenon within the wider context of austerity. His book The Consuming Geographies of Food: Diet, Food Deserts and Obesity (Routledge, 2014) explicates the development of the current global food system and explores how sustainable and accessible political and economic structures for feeding the future global population of ten billion can be achieved. He is currently completing a further monograph, Corporate Social Responsibility and the Global Food Chain (Routledge, forthcoming 2019) which explores corporate social responsibility in relation to government policy and the food retailing industry.

 

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First Annual Lecture – Professor Miguel Robles-Durán – The Dialectics of Parallel Urbanization: Cohabitation Strategies and the Politics of Scale

CURA is delighted to announce our first annual lecture, with Professor Miguel Robles-Duran (New School, New York City) on “The Dialectics of Parallel Urbanization: Cohabitation Strategies and the Politics of Scale”, from 18:00 to 19:30 on the 26th June at De Montfort University, in Leicester.

Miguel Robles-Durán is Associate Professor of Urbanism and member of the Parsons School of Design Graduate Urban Council in New York. He is a Senior fellow at “Civic City”, a post-graduate design/research program based at the Haute École d’Art et de Design (HEAD) Geneva, Switzerland and is a current fellow at the Montalvo Arts Center Sally & Don Lucas Artists Residency Program in Saratoga, California.  In 2008, Robles-Durán co-founded Cohabitation Strategies (CohStra), an international nonprofit cooperative for socio-spatial research and development based in Rotterdam and New York City, which focuses on conditions of urban decline, inequality and segregation within the contemporary city. Parallel to his work with CohStra, Robles-Durán’s direct engagement with urban social movements and institutions has led him to become acting Judge at the International Tribunal of Evictions, advisor to The Right to the City Alliance, the International Alliance of Inhabitants and co-directed with the Marxist geographer David Harvey the National Strategy Center for the Right to the Territory (CENEDET) in the Republic of Ecuador.

Venue:

De Montfort University, Leicester (venue to be confirmed)

Tuesday 26th June 2018, 18:00 – 19:30.

Booking:

This event is open to all.  To book your free place(s) for this event, please register at https://bit.ly/2FaeLsD

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Time exchange and reciprocity in the co-production of public services

In today’s blog, Daniel Durrant discusses a paper based on research conducted as part of an evaluation of the Cambridgeshire Time Credits Project which the Cambridge Centre for Planning and Housing Research were commissioned to do. Time Credits are a form of community currency. The particular model discussed in the paper was promoted widely by Spice – an entrepreneurial and rapidly expanding social enterprise.

Time Credits were developed in South Wales having attracted considerable support from the Welsh Assembly and nationally from the Department of Health. The model stresses its origins in the work of Kennedy era policy adviser, Edgar Cahn on Time Banking, with volunteers able to earn a credit for an hour’s voluntary work which they can either exchange for an hour’s reciprocal work or as is more common for an hour’s worth of services from a ‘corporate spend partner’ usually a local gym or cinema.

Cambridgeshire County Council has commissioned Spice to roll out their Time Credits programme in the county with initial trials in Wisbech. A geographically isolated and relatively deprived corner of an otherwise affluent County with an economy focused on agricultural production and the low skilled, insecure and often migrant labour associated with it. The Council’s commitment to the programme and the notions of reciprocity and ‘co-production’ imbedded within the model is both ideological and explicitly financial given the 60 percent reduction in budget they face in the decade 2010-2020. It is the tensions between the rhetoric and reality of co-production identified through the ethnographic component of the evaluation that this paper explores.

Academic interest in reciprocal exchange has a long heritage in the social sciences going back to Marcel Mauss’ work of gift exchange. David Graeber (2001) contrasts this ‘open’ reciprocity, implying a relationship of permanent mutual commitment, to the ‘closed’ balancing of accounts that occurs within a money transaction. It has also been identified as one of the internal logics of co-production in its current form in UK policy making (Glynos and Speed, 2012) seen in recent Coalition policy such as the Big Society. The concept, as applied to UK policy, is a fuzzy one containing a whole range of aspirations from the ‘transformational’ alternative forms of economic activity and democratic renewal to the more prosaic service improvement through dialogue with users.

Our findings were that on a personal level, for many the experience did indeed have a transformational element with considerable success in attracting what we describe as ‘non-traditional’ volunteers. Furthermore, we found clear evidence that the physical and mental health benefits associated with volunteering were present and that the programme was giving people and crucially families on low incomes access to physical and leisure activities often denied them by a punitive welfare regime.

The concept of co-production promoted by Spice, however, had very little resonance amongst the volunteers or the community organisations administering the programme. First, for volunteers there was very little reciprocal exchange with Time Credits generally spent with the corporate spend partners and valued as such. These interactions were much closer to closed monetary exchanges. Second, in terms of shifting the balance of power between the recipients and providers of welfare services, there was some evidence that Time Credits were a useful tool for skilled community workers. Yet with austerity reducing the number of these workers and increasing the workloads of the remainder there is little evidence that volunteers, earning Time Credits, can replace this capacity.

This led us to the conclusion that the form of co-production was what Glynos and Speed describe as ‘additive’ in that the users of a service are clearly involved in the delivery of a model that supplements existing provision. In this case the addition is set against the withdrawal of services and resources. We believe this calls into question the rhetoric of reciprocity within the entrepreneurial, contract driven model of time exchange pursued by Spice. It may fit neatly with local government priorities to reduce welfare expenditure, yet we found very little evidence of the more ‘transformative’ aspects of co-production. This suggests that in the absence of wider economic shifts there are limits to the extent to which the model can fill the gap in services left by austerity policies or on its own address the deed rooted problems faced by communities in places such as Wisbech.

Daniel Durrant is now a Lecturer in Infrastructure Planning at UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning where he takes (and encourages students to take) a broad view of infrastructure, that includes physical infrastructures, emerging technologies on the way to becoming infrastructures and institutional and includes ethical frameworks as infrastructures. The paper discussed in this blog draws on research into civil society and the infrastructures it produces. It was conducted whilst he was working at The Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research with former colleague Dr Gemma Burgess who is a Senior Researcher there.

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