How is Austerity Governed in Cities? Our First Reflections on International Findings

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We are pleased to launch a series of 8 further publications outlining the findings from exploratory research the 8 case study cities – Athens, Baltimore, Barcelona, Dublin, Leicester, Melbourne, Montreal, Nantes and Sydney – of the collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network. In this initial post, Professor Jonathan Davies provides an overview of the emergent findings from exploratory research across the 8 cases.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, intellectuals, policy makers and activists all became enthused by networks.  They reasoned that at a time of greater prosperity than ever before, conflicts along the lines of class, race and gender could be broken down and a social consensus sustained through trust. Networking could coordinate a public sector fragmented by new public management and foster partnerships across state, market and civil society.  For the most idealistic thinkers, it could transcend social cleavages and usher in a revitalised participatory democracy, overcoming the limitations of market competition and government hierarchies. We use the term “collaborative moment” to capture this wave of excitement about networks, which emerged in the aftermath of communism and waves of neoliberal restructuring.

Is the collaborative moment still with us? The first phase of our research explored this question in eight cities – Athens, Baltimore, Barcelona, Dublin, Leicester, Melbourne, Montreal and Nantes.  We were particularly interested in whether it influences governing philosophies and practices after the 2008 crash, a conjuncture in which many cities face degrees of austerity budgeting with public service and welfare cuts, spiralling fees and charges, privatisation, foreclosures and severe unemployment and poverty. Over the next few weeks, we will post blogs from each of the research teams telling the story of their city, so far. The following paragraphs highlight some key messages.

First, it is clear that austerity bites very unevenly in time and place.  The perceived economic and political significance of the 2008 crisis varies widely. It has far greater impact in European cities than in Baltimore, Melbourne or Montreal. And, while 2008 was a crucial moment for Athens, Barcelona, Dublin and Leicester, it was not in Nantes.  Equally, some cities have been exposed to the full force of the economic crisis and turbo-charging of austerity urbanism, while a sense of business as usual persists in others, albeit with risks and threats on the horizon. Governing strategies differ too, depending for example on local political traditions and the powers and resources (or lack thereof) invested in public institutions at the urban scale. For example, where deficit budgeting has long been strictly prohibited in UK local authorities, it was commonplace in Spain until the austerity regime prohibited it in 2011 and it still is in France.

Concerning our core question about the resonance of the “collaborative moment”, the research shows that cooperation between government, business and civil society organisations remains very important, as has always been the case.  However, the politics of collaboration bear little resemblance to the idealised model of network governance.  It is not that the idealism of network governance has disappeared altogether – it is prominent among local elites in Nantes.  The problem is that even when the ideas retain some influence, they become subsumed in state-centred practices, enmeshed in realpolitik or overtaken by political activism against austerity. For example, we found instances where activists distance themselves from dialogue with the state, questioning its relevance and purpose – notably Barcelona, Dublin and Montreal. So far, our inquiries do not suggest that the “collaborative moment” is a critical theme in the urban politics of 2016.

In the second phase of our research between now and summer 2017, we will take a step back from the immediate questions of austerity and collaboration, developing a broader focus on the urban governance of rolling welfare state crises. We ask how different social actors organise around the multiple waves of dislocation and restructuring, experienced in different ways and at different times in all our cities, since the heyday of welfarism in the 1950s and 60s.  The research will endeavour to show how some strategies and alliances succeed and others fall by the wayside, and draw lessons about the future of urban and local politics.

Jonathan Davies is Principal Investigator on the Austerity and Collaborative Governance Project, as well as Director of CURA and Professor of Critical Policy Studies at De Montfort University

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