Austerity Urbanism – Scotland Style?

In today’s post Annette Hastings discusses ‘austerity urbanism’ in the Scottish context.

It’s hard to counter the view that contemporary austerity is being realised to a large extent in and through what is happening in cities. Jamie Peck developed the ‘austerity urbanism’ thesis to explain the dimensions and significance of austerity in US cities. He argued – in a nutshell – that in the US some of the worst impacts of austerity were targeted on city governments and that, by targeting cities, austerity was effectively being targeted on the most vulnerable. Recent research suggests that the thesis developed for the US, holds for England. It confirms that the unprecedented cuts to local government budgets have impacted most heavily on poor cities. It also suggests that despite the intention of many city governments to shelter the poor and marginalised from the worst effects of austerity cuts, that cuts were beginning to harm the services relied on these groups – such as housing, social care, social work and advice services. The work also showed that it was poorer people and places that suffered more when cuts were made to the ‘universal’ services used by the broader population such as libraries, leisure centres and street cleansing.

But does austerity urbanism hold in Scotland? To the same degree? In the same kind of ways? Anti-austerity rhetoric and a sense of resistance is palpable in Scotland. It comes from politicians, from urban managers, from the mainstream media and from citizens and civil society. But does this lead to a distinctive austerity urbanism – Scotland style?  Some differences do stand out.

The Scottish Government has had less of a tendency than its Westminster counterpart to try to protect some public services while sacrificing others to the worst of austerity cuts. So whereas in England, local government has been subjected to much higher rates of cut than some other services such as Health, giving flesh to the austerity urbanism thesis, in Scotland cuts have been shared more equally across public services. While Scottish councils have experienced  big reductions in what they have to spend on key services – an 11% real terms reduction between 2011 and 2015  (which equates to about £100 per head of population) –  this is not as severe a picture as in England, where the reduction was on average about twice as big. However, this sense of protection in Scottish local government relative to England has now come to an end, with a much more severe local government settlement in place for the current financial year – with Glasgow City Council, for example,  facing a real terms cut of over £63million, and Edinburgh and other urban councils implementing cuts of £30million and more.

The targeting of poor cities for grant cuts has not been as stark in Scotland as in England either. Poorer councils have lost a little bit more than better off ones and, like England, there is a post-industrial and urban skew to cuts, but in Scotland these patterns are more to do with population loss than the policy design. It is important to note though that historically in Scotland, the deprivation premium built into the local government finance system to compensate more disadvantaged councils for higher levels of need was historically less generous in Scotland than in England. That situation has been reversed since the onset of austerity.

But despite these differences, it is also clear is that austerity in Scotland has been harsher than it needed to be. Since 1999, the Scottish Parliament has had the power to vary the rate of income tax by 3p in the pound – a power which has never been used despite the anti-austerity rhetoric of successive Scottish Governments. Moreover, a new Scottish Rate of Income Tax has been in place since April 2016, giving the Scottish Parliament even more capacity to vary levels of income tax. In early 2016, the SNP Government proposed (and had agreed) a Budget in which a clear commitment not to vary income tax levels was made, a position maintained in their Party’s manifesto in the recent May 2016 Scottish Parliamentary elections.  And the ‘winners’ of these elections, the SNP alongside a resurgent Scottish Conservative Party, stood alone amongst mainstream parties during the election campaign in that they did not argue for increased personal tax rates to ‘pay for public services’ . This would suggest that it is not only in Scottish polity that the desire to counter austerity agendas with increased taxation is controversial, but that this agenda is also controversial with the Scottish public.

So yes, we can perhaps detect some ‘Scottish style’ aspects of austerity urbanism, but the extent to which these differences are durable and more than rhetorical is debatable.

Annette Hastings is Professor of Urban Studies at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow

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