Barcelona: Crisis Austerity and Socio-Political Change

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with Border

This post summarizes the main findings of the case study of Barcelona from the collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network, and led by Prof. Jonathan Davies. The case study was led by Ismael Blanco with help from Helena Cruz and Yunailis Salazar (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona).

The case of Barcelona is particularly interesting in the context of a study that interrogates transformations in the forms of relationship between the local state and civil society during crises. The interest of this case study lies, on one hand, in the strength of the participatory and collaborative tradition of Barcelona, which dates back to the early years of democracy (1980s). In this sense, it is interesting to analyse the extent to which this tradition constrains and conditions the possibilities of institutional change in the politics of urban governance, neutralising the effects of a crisis that has been particularly severe. On the other hand, Barcelona has become particularly important  since the local elections of May 2015, which led to the formation of a new radical-left government led by the Mayor Ada Colau, former leader of the social movement against housing evictions in Spain. In this context, Barcelona illustrates the strength of social mobilisation against austerity in Spain and the strategy of a significant part of this movement to occupy the institutional arena, generating profound changes in local and national politics. Our future research will be particularly concerned with how far a radical government can alter the power relations between the public, the private and the community sectors, enlarging the opportunities for citizens’ direct participation and overcoming the injustices of austerity.

The impacts of the crisis in the city of Barcelona have been intense in terms of unemployment, poverty and foreclosures. Such impacts have been distributed unevenly between different groups and urban areas, creating a more polarized social and spatial structure. The socio-spatial inequalities in the city have grown significantly since the outbreak of the crisis, reversing a sustained trend of inequality reduction since the 1980s. The intensity of the socio-spatial crisis stands in stark contrast with the good health of municipal public finances. The last municipal budgets of 2015, for example, closed with a surplus of 100 million euros – the textbook neoliberal budgeting strategy.  As part of the national austerity drive, Spain has witnessed as strong tendency for the  re-centralization of political power with serious consequences for both local (and regional) autonomy – for example deficit budgeting was prohibited in 2011.  However, the institutional capacity of the City Council of Barcelona remains relatively high thanks to the strength of municipal finances and the special powers conceded by the Municipal Charter of 1999. Such Charter, for example, allows the City Council of Barcelona to intervene in policy fields like housing, education and health through public consortia composed of the regional and the local government.

In analysing the role of collaborative governance in addressing the socioeconomic crisis, we must recall that participation and public-private and public-community collaboration have had a very important role in Barcelona since the 1980s. Collaborative governance in Barcelona precedes the “collaborative moment” observed in different parts of the world during the economic boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. Apart from various forms of public-private partnership such as joint ventures, structures of participation and public-community collaboration in Barcelona have been gradually built up, first under the 1986 Rules of Functioning of Districts and Citizen Participation and later under the Rules of Citizen Participation of 2003. It has contributed to developing a strong culture of inter-sectoral collaboration and a wide range of formal rules and institutions consolidated by the passage of time and the interests and habits they have generated.

Institutional path dependency in the field of collaborative governance in Barcelona is strong, as could be observed during the only period of conservative government the city has known in recent times (2011-2015). While the new government tended to be very critical of the participation model established under the leadership of the Socialist Party of Catalonia, changes in the formal architecture of participation in the city were minimal. Informal changes were more subtle, encompassing strategies such as residualisation of existing mechanisms, institutional layering  by creating mechanisms that overlap pre-existing ones , and the adoption of a  narrative influenced by neoliberalism around notions such as open government, social co-responsibility and social innovation. Some of our respondents thought that under this government there was a deep, though subtle, weakening of participation and incremental social welfare privatisation.

The 2011-2015 mandate coincided with a period of resurgence of social movements and alternative social practices in the city (and across Spain) stimulated by the outbreak of the 15M indignados movement. The 15M movement emerged spontaneously in different cities in the spring of 2011, although its origins were linked to the activity of previous movements like Real Democracy Now!, Youth Without Future, and the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages. The 15M also overlapped with a set of sectoral mobilisations (Mareas) fighting austerity in areas such as education, health and culture. The anti-austerity movement has retained great vitality in Spain, and polls indicate strong growth in the levels of interest and political participation among citizens. The de-centralized and urbanized structure of the 15M amid the growing disaffection of citizens with political and dominant economic institutions has favoured the emergence of a multitude of alternative social practices such as time banks, agro-ecological consumption cooperatives, ethical banking and urban gardens. Such practices – which experienced a strong growth since 2011 – have been particularly strong in Barcelona, ​​connecting with the cooperative and self-management traditions that existed in the city throughout the twentieth century.  A key lesson from our study is that the national anti-austerity movement is an urban movement, built in cities and neighbourhoods and rooted in longstanding urban traditions of organising and cooperation.

Barcelona en Comú – previously called Guanyem Barcelona – is an electoral alliance born in 2014 out of the confluence of anti-austerity social movements, alternative social practices, left-wing parties (such as ICV and United Left) and emerging political forces (like Podemos and Equo). The formation of this coalition stimulated a multitude of alternative candidacies at the May 2015 elections in Spain. The so-called “change candidacies” took office in 4 of the 5 largest cities in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, ​​Zaragoza and Valencia) – as well as in many other small and middle-size cities with regional importance such as La Coruna in Galicia and Cadiz in Andalusia. The case of Barcelona is especially significant, as the new Mayor Ada Colau is not only the first woman to govern this city, but had a significant political role as the leader of the main organization of the anti-housing evictions movement in Spain (La PAH).

Our exploratory research shows that the new government has a strong commitment to radical change in the model of participation and collaboration between the public, private and community sectors in the city. One of the key ideas that it intends to promote is a form of co-production linked to the ‘commons’ (that inspires the name of Barcelona en Comú) and social innovation. Under Colau, the meaning of “social innovation” has shifted from entrepreneurship and takes a more radical meaning, linked to the ambition of transforming power relationships through community action. The notion of co-production involves, according to some respondents, taking a step beyond citizen participation towards generating more horizontal relationships between public institutions and citizens, increasing citizen empowerment and enabling citizens to take over the management of goods and services.

It is still too early to assess the accomplishments and limitations of the new government, though the evidence collected in this exploratory phase points to a significant continuity in the formal structures of participation after one year – perhaps due to institutional path dependency (by which we mean the constraining influence of past decisions, practices and actions) and the minority position of the new government, which faces significant challenges in getting its agenda and financial proposals approved by the City Council.

During the next phase, we will focus on analysing changes in the relationships between local political institutions and civil society in four key areas: the formal structures of consultation and participation (like neighbourhood councils); spaces of deliberative democracy (like the participative process for the elaboration of the Municipal Action Plan); community management practices (such as community management of public urban plots and disused buildings); and policy co-production (covering both pre-existing and emerging practices). A key question is whether the new government is able to undertake radical institutional change, despite barriers such as “path dependency”, institutional resistance, corporate and neoliberal opposition and the lack of a formal majority in the council.

Dr Ismael Blanco is Lecturer at the Department of Political Science and Public Law and Research Fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Policy (IGOP) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB)

 

This entry was posted in Austerity Governance and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.