Transforming Barcelona’s Urban Model? Limits and potentials for radical change under a radical left government

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderIsmael Blanco, Yunailis Salazar and Iolanda Bianchi report on findings from a second round of research in Barcelona 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.

The multidimensional and multi-scalar crisis of 2008 has placed considerable strain on the so-called Barcelona model. As observed in the exploratory phase of our research, public-community and public-private collaboration have traditionally been fundamental characteristics of this model since the restoration of democracy. On the one hand, the City Council has promoted an active role for social and community organisations in policymaking through a myriad of formal mechanisms of citizen participation, different formulae of public-community collaboration and the community management of public facilities and spaces. On the other hand, the city’s model of governance has been complemented by different public-private partnerships for the joint management of public services, urban regeneration, tourism development, and the attraction of financial capital. These kind of collaborative arrangements have been heavily criticised for different reasons, including the tokenistic character of participatory mechanisms and the capture of key public policies by economic elites.

The exploratory phase of our research was developed in the first year of the Barcelona en Comú government, the citizen platform emerged from social movements that won the municipal elections in 2015. In that phase, we already detected a strong ambition of the new government to promote radical changes in power relations in the city. In the second phase, the key question has been the feasibility and the capacity of the new government to lead and to execute such changes in public-private and public-community relations.

In both phases of research, our respondents agreed that this is a different crisis from previous ones in the 80s and 90s in the sense that this is deemed a structural crisis with characteristics of an epochal change. In the words of one of the interviewees:

‘This crisis marks a before and after for many people, in their perception of the economic system in which we live and of the democratic system, the politics that we have lived. In the past, there had not been such emotional, ideological and almost psychological impact over the city’.

The crisis has generated three main types of political responses in the whole country, according to another respondent:

  • Separatism: a political response led by a complex and contradictory coalition between a plurality of social and political organisations in Catalonia claiming the ‘right to decide’ and the independence from the Spanish State.
  • Left radicalism: a multi-scalar and spatially variable coalition between old and new social and political subjects emerging from the anti-austerity mobilizations and the 15M movement and rooted in the municipal tradition of the alternative left.
  • Conservatism: a pro-establishment coalition between the big national parties (PP and PSOE) and Ciudadanos (a key piece to offset the emergence of Podemos).

Barcelona en Comú embodies the new, alternative radical left in the city of Barcelona. The increase in urban segregation, social inequalities and social exclusion as a result of the crisis and of austerity policies are amongst the main concerns of this political platform. Consequently, one the of the main measures taken in the first months of the Barcelona en Comú’s government has been an Emergency Plan focused on four main aspects: 1) Employment and Model of Production, 2) Basic Social Rights, 3) Public-Private Relations and 4) Regulation of the City Hall and of their members’ privileges. In this plan, the new government outlines the fundamental characteristics of a New Municipalism based on the notion of the commons as an alternative to urban neoliberalism. Citizens and social movements express high expectations on the possibilities of the new city government to reverse neoliberal policies, transforming public-private relations, and fostering the logics of the commons against the privatization and the commodification of the city.

Two factors favor the room of maneuver of the new government: first, the special powers granted by the Municipal Charter (which, for instance, allows the City Council of Barcelona to play an important role in policy fields like welfare and education); and, second, the good financial situation of the City Council, which has accumulated several surpluses despite the severity of the crisis. However, local government powers are significantly limited by different recentralisation measures adopted by the Spanish Government like the restriction to staff recruitment, as well as by the lack of key competencies in areas like tourism, employment, housing, refugees, energy and public procurement. As expressed in one of the interviews:

‘The tools are very tiny and the expectations are great. How can the City Council of a city that is globally located on the map of the relevant cities in the world, which attracts migratory flows, capital flows… how can it manage a power that it does not have? The City Council does not have the power of the city. It is a very small portion of power. In fact, even in the fight against the hardest forms of poverty, we have serious limitations. There are several elements that escape the capacity of the City Council’.

Another important factor to bear in mind when considering the limits of the new government is the lack of a wide majority in the City Council, which obliges it to reach political agreements with the opposition forces to pass such important measures as the municipal budgets. One year after the municipal elections, Barcelona and Comú reached an agreement with the Socialist Party (the party that ruled the city between 1979 and 2011) to enter the government with its 4 councillors, an agreement that generated strong contradictions between different segments of the radical left.

In spite of these limitations, the new government has implemented important measures to address the problem of mass tourism and its consequences for the quality of life for the city’s inhabitants, such as: a) the suspension of licenses to open public audience premises (pubs, restaurants, discotheques…) in the neighbourhoods with the largest number of tourists; the pass-by of the PEUAT (Special Tourist Accommodation Plan), which amongst other aspects, establishes a zero-growth policy of tourist accommodation and the re-balance of tourist accommodation all-across the city; the application of sanctions to the website Airbnb for offering illegal flats (close to 40% of its total offer in Barcelona), which are considered to have contributed – together with other causes – to the rise of rental prices and to processes of gentrification and touristification. In addition, and related to the housing problem, the City Council has imposed fines on the banks that maintain vacant dwellings after evictions.

As part of a strategy of transformation of economic power relations, the City Council has developed a Social public procurement guide that promotes new social criteria for public procurement in areas such as: social rights (i.e. gender equality, universal accessibility and recruitment of workers with disabilities); workers’ rights (i.e. fair wages and stable workforce); the promotion of a new cooperative and social economic model; and social participation. Such policy aims at expanding the range of companies able to take part in public tendering processes, diminishing the competitive advantage of big companies and promoting “sustainable and inclusive growth”. One of the recent episodes reflecting the limits of local autonomy is the attempt of the local government to include an “anti-energy poverty clause” as part of the criteria for the allocation of the City Council’ services of energy and telecomunications, a clasue that has been suspended by the Tribunal for Public Procurement of Catalonia. Other on-going measures in this field include attemps to reverse processes of privatisation of public services initiated by the former conservative government of CiU (2011-2015) through the re-municipalisation of services such as water and nurseries.

Regarding public-community relationships, the local government expresses a strong commitment with the enhancement of direct citizen participation in policymaking. The new government of Barcelona en Comú has popularised the concept of (policy) coproduction, a key notion that reflects the will to outweigh the traditional approach to citizen participation  – deemed merely informative, consultative, bureaucratised, and tokenistic. Measures adopted in this field include a series of on-going reforms in existing participative rules, structures and processes and a new regulation for the community management of public facilities and spaces. Moreover, the new government places a strong emphasis on the notion of the commons as self-governing practices complementary to public institutions.

It is too early to reach conclusions on the impact of reforms promoted by the government of Barcelona en Comú, which has ruled the city by less than 2 years. The rigidities of local bureaucracy, the lack of a solid majority, the lack of powers in key policy areas, the global scope of the economic and financial flows, as well as the strong pressures by the mass media and the economic elites, amongst other factors, impose strong limits to the autonomy of local government and to its ability to promote radical changes. The incremental (and sometimes erratic) changes that this government is promoting in fields like tourism, housing and public procurement, among others, reflect an ambitious agenda of transformation of power relations with specific and tangible results in the city’s life. Beyond the city itself, the experience of Barcelona symbolises the will and the possibility of building a counter-hegemonic political project from the bottom, with strong potential impact at national and transnational level.

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)

Yunailis Salazar holds a Degree in Political Science by the Central University of Venezuela and a Masters Degree in Social Policy and Community Action from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She is a Research Fellow at the IGOP, UAB.

Iolanda Bianchi is a PhD Student at the UAB and the Univeristy IUAV of Venice. Iolanda holds a MSc in Urban Regeneration from the University College of London. She is a Research Fellow at the IGOP, UAB.  

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