Austerity Leicester: Between Revitalisation, Retrenchment and Resistance

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderProfessor Jonathan Davies reports on findings from a second round of research in Leicester carried out as part of the collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network.

Leicester is a revitalised city.  Since I began working at De Montfort University in 2011, the centre has been transformed, with new developments continuing apace. Two great unexpected dividends – the discovery in 2012 of the remains of Richard III and Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016 – gave the city a huge cultural and economic boost.  Our urban campus at DMU has contributed by growing student numbers and transforming its own environment in a way that complements and extends city centre revitalisation.  Leicester rightly prides itself on its ethnic super-diversity, and makes full use of the economic potentialities in branding the city.  As the City Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby put it in a public lecture recently, Leicester is well on the way to getting over its “collective inferiority complex”.  Economic revitalization is deeply enmeshed with this sense of an urban cultural renaissance.

The juxtaposition of revitalized Leicester with austerity is not, however, a comfortable one.  From the City’s point of view, there is not much local government can do in the current national climate than deliver the cuts, preserve services where possible and mitigate the most devastating effects of welfare reform. Development is about trying to grow quality job vacancies in the city and ensure, as far as possible, that local people are up-skilled to fill them.  Most of our respondents support this approach, though anti-austerity activists see an up-market city centre as intensifying the marginality of working class neighbourhood-dwellers, deprived of the resources to enjoy it.  But, even staunch supporters of the Mayoral strategy know that revitalisation cannot compensate the privations of austerity in full.  In my last posting, I discussed the devastating impact of welfare reform under austerity upon thousands of Leicester citizens.  Social suffering – homelessness, unemployment income poverty, malnutrition, ill-health and destitution – are indelible features of the austerity landscape.  These grim consequences have been recorded and studied in depth by other researchers, for example Hirsch, Padley and Valdez.

Our focus here is on the implications of austerity for the governance of cities.  Despite endless government rhetoric about “localism”, which started over a decade ago under New Labour, our research suggests that local governing capacity is very limited.  This is in large part to do with drastic budget cuts and the ongoing devolution of local government finance.  It is also partly to do with the enduring culture of central government meddling in local politics, reflected ironically in the chaos around so-called “devolution deals” (see Adrian Bua’s reflections elsewhere on this blog).  Continuous churn in the names, functions and territories of local institutions and offices is difficult even for politically active citizens to understand.  Fragmented, complex and unstable governing landscapes are one factor alienating people from politics. Hence, shrinking local government does not mean the state disappears.  On the contrary, if you claim benefits the state, in the guise of the local offices of the Department of Work and Pensions, controls the way you live, under threat of sanction.  Our research suggests that this overwhelming control, which affects thousands of people, can in and of itself sap civic life by stealing time and head-space.  The capacity to be neighbourly, to volunteer or engage in politics is curtailed by “workfare”.

So, the key governance problem to which we want to draw attention in this blog is how the state is reorganising itself under austerity and, in the process, disorganising elements of local civil society: the locally based voluntary and community organisations that provided citizens with a voice in the corridors of power, or a service.  To put it provocatively, the reorganisation of the state fragments local civil society in a way that compounds the injustices of austerity.  We do not have space to map processes of “disorganisation through re-organisation” in any depth here. There are many of them and they will be discussed in detail in future postings.  But, in addition to the community-sapping rigours of “workfare”, swathes of the voluntary sector have been wiped out by cuts, decimating government-civil society networks that once supported the welfare state and denying a voice to some of the communities worst affected by austerity.  Grants have mostly disappeared, while contract funding for remaining local organisations is sparse, short term, competitive and bureaucratic.   This situation has important implications for the governance of multiculturalism. The local authority used to fund several Black and Minority Ethnic umbrella organisations as a means to support inter-community dialogue and capacity building.  It stopped funding most of these organisations in 2016.  The implications of uprooting this longstanding governance model remain to be seen, but one of the de-funded organisations closed at the end of last year, leaving the communities in question without an organised voice. At the same time, vast third-sector organisations, what might be called “voluntary sector multi-nationals”, are now far more likely to mop-up government contracts, themselves set on onerous terms. “Super-majors” in voluntary sector vernacular have no connection with local people and their business practices can be as predatory as corporations.

In the worst case scenario, then, the austerity state is refitting civil society from bottom to top and hollowing it out.  Where publicly funded voluntary and community organisations, for all their flaws, had strong organic connections with local people, and were there to provide voice and support, the trajectory of austerity governance is towards a larger and more remote voluntary sector enmeshed in authoritarian workfare management, cutthroat competition and managerial bureaucracy.  Actors on the front line say that even in a future age of abundance it could take decades to rebuild what austerity has destroyed and to destroy what austerity has built in terms of this new apparatus.  So much for the “big society”.  We believe that the issues we find in Leicester are almost certainly replicated to a greater or lesser extent across the country.

What, then, of the future?  As I commented at the outset, none of our interviewees suggested that urban revitalisation is enough on its own to counter the privations of austerity, or reverse the damage done to social networks in the city.  Case studies from across the world attest to the fact that cities that rely on competitiveness and entrepreneurialism are unjust cities.  The first challenge for Leicester is to square this circle: to make renaissance, always fragile in a turbulent political economy, work for all its citizens.   The second challenge is how the city can sustain and revitalise civil society as a vibrant network of local organisations capable of mobilising citizens, providing support and voice and speaking truth to power. Despite the damage done by austerity, there is no shortage of political energy in Leicester. The defence of Belgrave Library was the best example we witnessed in our study, and the trenchant campaign to defend the Glenfield Heart Centre exemplifies the potential for unified political, trade union and community campaigning against cuts.  There is the appetite for an alternative politics in Leicester, and we find the same in greater abundance in other case studies.  In Barcelona, where anti-austerity activists run the City Council, there is even talk of a “New Municipalism”.  Such language might seem absurd in the grindingly austere British context, but if it can happen in cities that have been even more badly affected, why not here in Leicester?

Jonathan Davies is professor of Critical Policy Studies and Director of the Centre of Urban Research on Austerity at the De Montfort University

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