Social Mixing and the London East Village: Exclusion, Habitus and Belonging in a Post-Olympics Neighbourhood

Dr. Piero Corcillo

This research is based on fieldwork conducted in the London 2012 Athletes’ Village – now East Village – in Stratford (a Newham Borough’s district located in East London). The thesis argues that various processes, practices and actors come together to produce an environment that prioritises and valorises the perceptions and preferences of white middle-class individuals. East Village, which was presented as a key element of the Olympic Legacy objective “Homes for All”, is a space that actively reproduces the exclusion of working-class and BAME individuals who make up the majority of Stratford and Newham population. Therefore, the intentions of social mixing are not met in practice.

 

The Landlords

In 2009, Triathlon Homes (TH) – a consortium between East Thames, Southern housing Group housing associations, and developer First Base – purchased 1,379 flats that were set to be affordable and social housing. In 2011, Qatari Royal family’s sovereign fund Qatari Diar, and British developer Delancey (QDD) purchased the remaining 1,439 properties, together with the public and retail space, as well as the freehold. QDD have set up Get Living London (GLL) as their housing management arm to let their luxury apartments on the Private Rented Sector. 

TH is a private provider. Nevertheless, it was able to obtain a £110 million public grant from the UK government’s Home and Community Agency (HCA), and purchase socially rented apartments at the East Village. 675 of TH’s properties are available for social rent, while the remaining 704 are a mix of so-called affordable housing: shared ownership and intermediate market rent. Shelter charity and authors such as Paul Watt and Penny Bernstock have raised concerns about the effective affordability of these properties, which are not affordable for East London low to middle-income households. Concerns have emerged even with respect to social rent. In fact, TH’s social housing allocation policy is to prioritise in-work applicants and disabled people. TH also reserves the right to reject an application for affordability reasons, if a prospective tenant has got insufficient financial means to afford the rent and service charge. Triathlon also reserves the right to terminate a tenancy for antisocial behaviour. A private entity such as TH acts like a judge that questions prospective tenants about their financial capacity, entitlements and attitudes to demonstrate their fit in the neighbourhood. The result is that the most marginal applicants are rejected.

When a new social tenancy starts, the combination between rent and service charge is capped at the maximum social rent level allowable by the HCA. However, after the first year, rent and service charge increase annually, such that social rent levels become higher than what is prescribed by the HCA for registered landlords in receipt of public grants. Being privately owned, TH’s social housing units become subject to market logics, and they are no longer a form of welfare support for those who experience housing need.

 

 Tenure Mix, Security and Design

Despite policy-makers claims, there is a sense that a real mix of tenures within East Village was not a genuine part of the plan, given that QDD and TH blocks are separated. Moreover, socially rented flats tend to be concentrated in different blocks. Even in the buildings where there is a mix of shared ownership, intermediate rent and social housing, the various tenures are often located in different floors, and socially rented flats tend to be concentrated on the lower levels. One is therefore left with the impression that the aim was to set the tenure distribution in a way that kept the most affluent residents separated from the least affluent ones. Such a separation has not facilitated social interaction between neighbours with different socio-economic backgrounds. On the contrary, it has fostered the identification of “us”, the hardworking and well behaving home owners, and “them”, the lazy and unruly social renters; with housing tenure becoming a synonymous of class and ethnic divisions. While Triathlon claims that it would be “near impossible” to know which flat is for social housing and which one is not, the residents know very well where social housing is. “The people who live downstairs” to point to social renters’ “antisocial behaviour” was a recurrent expression in the interviews with shared owners. 

East Village’s design has been elaborated in collaboration with Secured by Design, a police initiative that specialises in security features and crime prevention projects. The various plots are equipped with secured entry doors and gates.

 

 

East Village’s Secured Doors and Gates

–(Source: Piero Corcillo)

Moreover, the landlords have set up the East Village Management Company (EVML), which operates 24/7 CCTV, and employs security guards to patrol the public ground. Building gated communities serves the need to capture and defend social space, especially when white middle-class enclaves like East Village are built near lower-end areas. This vicinity fosters fear of crime and Mixophobia, which, according to Bauman means anxiety and discomfort about diversity.

EVML employs private security to protect residents from real and perceived external threats. However, the security also “protects” them from each other. The East Villagers are encouraged to refer to EVML if there is an issue with some neighbours. This could be viewed as an interference with the private sphere of interpersonal relationships. However, affluent residents approve this policy and they are happy to minimise contact with the neighbours, especially with social renters.

 

Residential Space and Lifestyle

The spatial dimension of Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory suggests that the Habitus of white middle-class individuals influences their residential trajectory. As Michaels Benson has attested, they look for neighbourhoods congruent with their lifestyle, preferences and perceptions. QDD’s branding strategy is to stimulate affluent home seekers’ pre-existing dispositions. Words and photos representing local parks, gardens, waterscapes and local shops are very frequent in their advertising material. The area is branded as a green island that offers a healthy retreat from the chaos of London.

The Village’s environment requires high levels of maintenance. QDD understands the importance of living near nature and in an aesthetically pleasing environment for the white middle classes. They reproduce glimpses of wildlife, and EVML employs gardeners and streetcleaners to work on a daily basis to maintain the East Village public realm on a high standard of aesthetically pleasing, tidy and clean space. Contact with nature becomes a product for visual consumption. Residents interiorise the landlord’s branding strategy. The idea of East Village as a holiday place, a retreat from the stress of urban life is a recurrent theme in the interviews.

 

East Village Greenery

(Source: Piero Corcillo)                                                                                      

Moreover, with an awareness of the importance that local sport classes and events, such as markets and outdoor cinemas, have for affluent individuals, QDD organises these activities as part of the complete East Village package that they offer. Residents are not permitted to organise events independently. Everything that happens in the neighbourhood’s public realm must be planned and supervised by QDD. When events take place, seldom they foster active participation or interactions between neighbours. Yet, they convey a sense of belonging and localness. 

 

East Village Events

(Source: Piero Corcillo)                                                                                      

However, the processes described above, happen in contrast to an outside world – the Stratford area and its residents. The residents’ narratives of belonging draw clear socio-spatial boundaries between the cleanliness, vibrancy and beautiful landscapes of East Village, and the dirt, disorder and ugliness of the wider Stratford area. A sense of Mixophobia emerges in relation to the “other” that lives in Stratford.  Residents highlight that East Village has a totally different atmosphere from the rest of East London. These feelings demonstrate the fallacy of the promise to deliver an Olympic Legacy “for the direct benefit of everyone who lives there” as the London 2012 bidding team claimed. Even the presence of Stratford children in the Chobham Academy – the East Village public primary and secondary school – generates animosity. They are held responsible for the problems that the East Village children experience at school.

 

The Retail Infrastructure

For middle-class individuals, artisanal products and locally-produced goods have a high cultural value. The East Villagers describe the shops in the neighbourhood as independent, in the sense that there are no chains. They are tailor-made for young, white middle-class residents. The shops are mostly food-based and they are there to complete the environment that the greenery and aesthetics of community have created, and that is intentionally cultivated by GLL on behalf of QDD. In reality, these shops are not independent. They are purposely selected to comply with QDD’s aspirations for the area.

The retail infrastructure becomes a symbol of the middle-class character of the place. The shop keepers act as social and cultural entrepreneurs. When I spent time in one of the Village’s cafés, I saw the managers and staff systematically building relationships with customers. They offer free bread to new customers, so that they come back, they talk to them, and babysit their children. This goes beyond the average staff-customer relationship. However, this is another product for the consumption of an idea of community that QDD offers.

The working-class and BAME residents who do not possess sufficient amounts of economic and cultural capital to afford and frequent the East Village shops are alienated from their middle classed and westernised eateries and atmosphere. QDD pushes back ethnically diverse and low-cost shops, by requiring unaffordable financial conditions to those who would like to open them. They are deemed to threaten public order and the place’s respectability. The affluent East Villagers develop a sense of moral ownership over the neighbourhood’s retail infrastructure. The healthy food restaurants and trendy shops belong “here”, in the Village; downscale shops and unhealthy restaurants as well as their BAME and working-class customers – belong “over there” in the Stratford area.

Despite being unable to afford the prices, several social renters agree with the landlord and their affluent neighbours. They become unconsciously complicit with the unequal power relations, norms and values that become hegemonic in the area, and perceive them as fair and just; a process that Pierre Bourdieu describes as symbolic violence. They claim that East Village is meant to be an upper-class area of Stratford, where they feel privileged to live. Again, this goes to the heart of the Olympic promise. The residents experience the neighbourhood as something very different from what was supposed to be: a 50-50 affordable-private, socially mixed development. Particularly damning is the fact that QDD and TH allowed the East Village’s community café – arguably the only place designed to be truly inclusive of all socio-ethnic groups in the space – to be shut down due to lack of funds to keep it running.

 

Policy implications

Despite the presence of many master-planned communities in London, seldom can we observe this level of micromanagement. QDD captures part of the sovereignty that public authorities exercise over urban space, and uses its authority to tell residents how to behave, as well as deciding who belongs and who does not. A state that aims at delivering socially mixed neighbourhoods and affordable housing through mega-events and partnerships with large housing corporations legitimises instead the logics of social inequalities. 



The Urban Political Economy of ‘Austerity Islamophobia’

In this post, Dr Ben Whitham (De Montfort University) and Dr Nadya Ali (University of Sussex) discuss their article ‘Racial Capitalism, Islamophobia, and Austerity’, recently published in International Political Sociology (available in online early-view here). The primary research underpinning the article was funded by CURA grants from 2017-2019.

“A guy called my wife a letterbox, because she wears the Niqab”

Research participant, May 2018

“[I]t is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like

letter boxes … If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with her face obscured I

should feel fully entitled … to ask her to remove it”

Former UK Foreign Secretary and Mayor of London (now Prime Minister) Boris Johnson,

August 2018

“And a bunch of drunks came by and start shouting at my wife, calling her a ninja,

calling her the “n”-word, calling her—they’re both “n”-words, but the other “n”-word”

Research participant, May 2018

Person A: “Look at all the little ninjas, getting it at the minute!” Person B: “That’s

what happens when they don’t pay their rent!” All: [laughter]

Unidentified men narrating the video of a Grenfell Tower effigy-burning, November

2018

Over the last few years, we have been engaged in a research project exploring ‘The Intersectional Politics of Austerity and Islamophobia’ in London, with generous support from the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA) at DMU. We had previously collaborated on an analysis of media and political discourse involved in the construction of a so-called ‘Muslim Problem’ in the UK, highlighting the role of ‘ideological fantasies’ in the multi-faceted demonisation of British Muslims, and how this has exceeded the narrower framings of ‘securitisation’ and ‘suspect communities’ theses. In that research, we touched upon the political-economic dimensions of contemporary Islamophobia – a subject CURA’s funding allowed us to explore more fully. In this blog we present an outline of our approach and findings.

Aims and approach of the project

The aim of our CURA project was to further explore and understand how Islamophobia might be understood through the lens of political economy. Our primary research consisted of interviews and a focus group with Muslim participants resident in and around East London. The three boroughs that we initially focused on to recruit participants – Newham, Tower Hamlets, and Waltham Forest – had some of the highest proportions of Muslim residents at the last census, but also high levels of poverty. Research suggests that cities in general, and deprived London boroughs like these in particular, were subject to some of the deepest impacts from the austerity policies that followed the global financial crisis. Drastic cuts to local public services tend to have more severe effects on racially minoritised and lower-income individuals and families, since they are more likely to rely on these services and infrastructures in everyday life. Our aim was to understand the relationship between two dominant trends of the 2010s – the political economy of austerity, and the rising tide of Islamophobia – in the urban context of East London.

We also stated at the outset of the project that the purpose and ethics of exploring lived experiences of Islamophobia and austerity must be not only to increase academic knowledge or understanding of intersectional inequalities, but also to ‘give more of a voice’ to the socially marginalised survivors of abuse and discrimination who would be sharing their (often traumatic) stories with us. During the course of the research, we were able to address this in part by feeding into the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims’ inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia. Like most of the academic submissions to the inquiry, ours pressed especially hard for any definition to state that Islamophobia is a form of racism, rather than simply ‘religious discrimination’, discussed here. The inquiry’s final report defined Islamophobia as ‘a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness’, and cited the evidence we had submitted based on findings from our primary and secondary research. The definition was subsequently voted on and adopted by a wide range of public institutions and organisations, from all major political parties in Westminster and the devolved assemblies of Scotland and Wales (with the notable exception of the governing Westminster Conservatives, though their Scottish counterparts did adopt the definition), to local authorities from London to Manchester, and universities, to name but a few. 

Racial capitalism and the disentitlements of austerity

In our recently published article, ‘Racial Capitalism, Islamophobia, and Austerity’, we situate the findings from our primary research in a theoretical and historical field structured by the concepts of intersectionality and racial capitalism. Influenced by the pioneering work of scholars including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cedric J. Robinson, Robbie Shilliam, Gargi Bhattacharya, Salman Sayyid, and others, we sought to explore lived experiences of Islamophobia in terms of the ways in which they intersect with the policies and politics of austerity, and post-crash Western capitalism. Specifically, the work of these scholars allowed us to understand recent trends in Islamophobia in the UK, and the wider ‘West’, as rooted in much older historical practices of racialisation and racialised ‘disentitlement’ that are central to the development of capitalism. We argue that the rising tide of Islamophobia is not merely a consequence or epiphenomenon of the political economy of austerity, but rather is constitutive of it, with the violent targeting and disentitlement of British Muslims being a central feature of austerity in practice. 

Our findings: everyday Islamophobia, austerity gentrification, and gendered racist violence

The key findings from our primary research are presented in the article as tripartite. First, we note that Islamophobia is often experienced and articulated through the same ‘everyday’ social planes as austerity. Participants spoke of harassment on public transport, of profiling by agents of the state, and of everyday journeys through urban political economy that are marred by Islamophobic racism, in both structural and direct forms. One participant spoke about the pervasive nature of Islamophobia, “Now … it’s like a part of life, you know, as sad as it sounds. It’s just, OK, I’m going to anticipate it in my journey. It’s not like a conscious thing, it’s just, OK, it might happen today.” 

Second, we found that the process of ‘austerity gentrification’ has affected Muslims in particular ways, with our London-based participants noting that the trend for house prices and rents to rise in highly diverse boroughs in East London was pushing Muslims to the outskirts of the city, and beyond, where they felt an intensification of Islamophobic violence. As one participant noted, “We moved out because we couldn’t afford to live in that borough anymore. We were priced out, you know, rents were unaffordable. So since I’ve moved into this new borough I’ve, like I said, on the street I’ve been spat at, I’ve been called a fucking terrorist, a man and a woman barged me in the shopping centre when I was with my kids and called me a terrorist.” The ‘whitening’  (and increasingly middle-class make-up) of formerly diverse inner-London boroughs through austerity gentrification made for experiences of increased exclusion and marginalisation.

Third, and finally, we explored the anti-Black and gendered nature of Islamophobic abuse our participants experienced, and the specific targeting of Muslim women who were with their children. Dehumanising colonial and postcolonial discourses that urban colonised / diasporic populations were / are responsible for ‘breeding’ feeds into a narrative that Muslim families take more than their ‘fair share’ of national resources, at the expense of more ‘deserving’ white Britons. As one participant said, “Because we sisters, it’s the women that get the flak for it … the sister that’s going to school or going to the shopping center with a couple of kids, and mothers…You’ve got young children that could possibly—and do, and have—suffered mental health issues, as a result of watching their mothers being abused, whether it’s verbal, children pick up—they have a sixth sense.” The type of Islamophobic abuse experienced by participants was coextensive with whether they were racialised as Black and Muslim, Brown and Muslim, or White and Muslim. 

In addition to these three core findings, our research participants also highlighted the ways in which elite political discourse emanating from Westminster and from the UK’s media was directly implicated in their everyday experiences of anti-Muslim racism, and including the austerity framing of Islamophobia as an economic imperative.

We hope to be able to further develop this research through an exploration of the connections between the political economy of Islamophobia and the ‘libidinal economies’ of the same. That is to say, through future research we want to better understand, and challenge, the range of narratives that have centred Muslims, ‘Muslimness’, and Islam in explanations of social antagonisms, and have mobilised the psychosocial forces of desire, fantasy, and enjoyment, to do so.

The full article ‘Racial Capitalism, Islamophobia, and Austerity’ is available here.

Muslim Women’s Political Participation in France and Belgium: Ever Shrinking Spaces

Muslim Women’s Political Participation in France and Belgium: Ever Shrinking Spaces.

Dr. Amina Easat-Daas

Macron and his government’s recent crackdowns on Muslimness in France signal the further shrinkage of viable spaces for the public and visible presence of Muslimness in the nation. In early October 2020 Macron outlined plans to legislate prevention of ‘Islamist separatism’, but for many this recalled the French colonialist project the ‘code de l’indigénat’, which regulated the indigenous Muslim populations and in particular the nature of Islam in the colonies. Macron’s speech was soon followed by murder of French schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, which sparked national (and arguably international) debate around Charlie Hebdo, the freedom of speech, and the place of Muslimness in France. As is often the case in French politics, such debates took place with a distinct absence of Muslim voice and representation.

In late October 2020 controversy continued further with the French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin’s calls for the dissolution of prominent Muslim organisations in France. Among these were the humanitarian organisation, BarakaCity and the Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France – the Counter Islamophobia Collective in France, an awareness and advocacy group who are among, if not the principal actor in combatting Islamophobia in France. French political officials appeared somewhat oblivious to the fact that the call to dissolve these French Muslim organisations without any substantiated evidence to legitimise the action clearly contradicted the 1901 French Freedom of Association law, which guarantees French citizens the right to engage and even develop their own associative politics. On the other hand, perhaps this move underlines the extent to which the French political elite do not see French Muslims as French citizens and as such French Muslims remain the perpetual incomplete citizen.

This clear example of the shrinking of spaces for political participation by and representation of French Muslims is not the only measure that limits the presence of Muslimness in France. For example, the implementation of the 2004 Loi Stasi limits the presence ‘ostentatious faith symbols’ in French schools and the 2010 Loi anti-niqab (Burka ban) These legislative measures disproportionately impact gendered Muslimness in France and are framed on the grounds of an arguably ‘falsified’ laïcité (French secularism).

Similar narratives are increasingly evoked in Belgium, a nation which officially recognises and supports faith groups, including Islam. In June 2020, the Belgian Constitutional Court ruled to implement a ban on philosophical, political and religious symbols in higher education on the grounds of ‘neutrality’. This ban was met with strong condemnation, particularly by Belgian Muslim women since they would be disproportionately impacted by the measure. On 5th July 2020 thousands assembled in Brussels to protest the ban, bearing placards with slogans such as “Stop telling women what to do with their bodies”, “I cover my hair not my brain” and “Belgium your Islamophobia is showing.” Given its federal constitution, the ban has since been overturned in Wallonia, but remains in place in Flanders. Such limitations in Belgium and in neighbouring France limit both the short-term educational engagement opportunities for Muslim women in the two cases, but also limit these women’s future engagement and insertion into society. This exclusion disadvantages Muslim women but also perpetuates their outsider status and the perception of their being unassimilable.

Against this backdrop of distinct Islamophobia, and particularly gendered Islamophobia in France and Belgium, my recently published book, entitled “Muslim Women’s Political Participation in France and Belgium” examines the nature of participation in politics – across a range of levels from supranational, national regional, local politics and grassroots activism by self-identified Muslim women in the two cases. Statistical evidence by Sinno (2009) points to Belgium having proportionally the highest rates of Muslim political representation in the West, but conversely this proportionally lowest in France.

My book is based on data derived from semi-structured interviews with Muslim women who participate in politics in France and francophone Belgium. The analysis of this data was divided into three principal sections; firstly the examination of the factors that motivated Muslim women to participate in politics, secondly the nature of the opportunities encountered by the women in France and Belgium and finally, the study examines the reported barriers to participation in politics experienced by French and Belgian Muslim women.

Muslim women’s expressed motivations to participate in politics were as diverse as the interviewees themselves. In France, primary Participate in politics was shaped by key catalysts in political sphere of France. For example the 2002 presidential second round run off run off which saw Jacques Chirac pitted against the far-right party presidential candidate, Jean Marine Le Pen, respondents in the study sample felt motivated by these events and their strong anti-racist ideals to become engaged in politics, this was very much reflective of the French culture of protest. Although post-data collection, the events described above are similarly likely to have motivated Muslim women in France and Belgium to become active in politics. For example, in discussion of the state regulation of Islam, an interviewee stated: “When I hear ‘French Islam’ it makes me cringe a little or [if I hear about the] Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, the thing that Nicolas Sarkozy created with the [Grande] Mosquée de Paris etc. He created it to regulate Muslims…” In sum, the consistent need to defend and fight for one’s right to exist as a French or Belgian Muslim and to practice one’s own interpretation of Islam is a key catalyst in motivating Muslim women’s political participation.

Additionally, further motivators included their hybrid Muslim and European identities and the central emphasis on social justice apparent in the two, for example the women cited being compelled by local rates of homelessness, racialised police brutality or sustainability among other issues. However, particularly in France, the women noted that they could not publicly express that Islamic values around social justice had inspired their activism and doing so would constitute career suicide.

Opportunities to participate in politics in the two cases was shaped by the political opportunity structures in each country. In short, in spite of legislated gender parity measures the majoritarian French political opportunity limited Muslim women’s participation in representative politics, thus following the pattern of reduced minority representation as typically seen in majoritarian systems. Contrastingly, the proportional system in Belgium coupled with compulsory voting and legislated parity measures, lent itself to increased political representation by Muslim women. However Muslim women’s participation in Belgian party politics was not straightforward, often Muslim women were sought out by parties, as one respondent notes “Political parties approach me [to be a candidate], in spite of the fact that I am a woman, in spite of my headscarf, they [political parties] still approach me.” However once these women have been elected to office, they begin to face issues, as this interviewee points out: “Oh yes, there are loads of examples, there are loads of political parties that invite Muslim women who wear the headscarf to stand as candidates and they let them whilst maintaining their headscarf. But, when the time comes for her to assume her political responsibilities, to carry out her role, they will say yes, but without the headscarf.” The book discusses the way in which Muslim women fulfil gender parity requirements, can serve to secure the ethnic vote and present an outward image of diversity in the party, but regrettably face barriers once in office.

Barriers to Muslim women’s political participation were numerous and diverse in both cases. Like women globally, Muslim women faced barriers to participation stemming from their gendered roles in society, including homemaking for example. Similarly, women reported a lack of time being a key limiting factor in their politics. Specific to their Muslimness, the weaponization of laïcité and neutrality posed a significant barrier to Muslim women’s political participation. For example, regarding the headscarf in French politics, this interviewee notes: “You will never see a headscarf wearing women in the National Assembly. It is now impossible. Even among the most progressive parties … the headscarf halts political participation.”

Against a backdrop of growing political discourse and legislation surrounding their gendered Muslimness and Islam more generally in the two cases, Muslim women’s political participation in France and Belgium is both central to their citizenship, a means of contesting their ‘otherisation’ and foregrounding their voices in the political and social arenas, but as the findings presented in book highlight, the road is long but not impossible.

To read more, you can purchase Dr Amina Easat-Daas’ book Muslim Women’s Political Participation in France and Belgium here.

CURA invites expressions of interest from outstanding prospective PhD students

The Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA) invites expressions of interest from outstanding prospective PhD students, who would like to apply with us for an AHRC Midland 4 Cities PhD Scholarship. We welcome applications from students developing innovative, interdisciplinary and internationally relevant research ideas, which intersect area-based and urban studies, humanities, arts and culture. Potential themes include but are not limited to arts and urban politics, urban cultures, the creative and social value of cities and urban political-economic narratives. Given the competitiveness of this scheme, applicants should have both a first class honours degree and a masters degree with distinction (or international equivalent).

In the first instance, prospective applicants are invited to submit an outline proposal of around 750 words, outlining the project and explaining its fit with both CURA and the Midlands 4 Cities scheme. Successful candidates will be invited to develop the outline proposal for a full application. The outline proposal should include the following:

– Overview of project and research questions

– Explanation of intellectual positioning, originality and M4C relevance

– Likely research methodology and methods,

– Brief explanation of why you want to study with CURA and your preferred supervisor(s)

The outline proposal should be submitted, with a CV, to the CURA Institute Head of Research Students, Dr Mercè Cortina Oriol at merce.cortina-oriol@dmu.ac.uk by Monday 2nd November. Further information about the Midlands 4 Cities Doctoral Training Programme, including eligibility and timelines, can be found at https://www.dmu.ac.uk/research/midlands4cities-dtp/m4c.aspx.

For more information about CURA, our 2020-21 research brochure can be downloaded from here.

Please email Dr Mercè Cortina Oriol if you have any queries.

Governance-driven democratisation and democracy-driven governance: democratic radicalization and co-optation in the case of Barcelona

The participatory and deliberative democratic ideals that underpin participatory governance have gained much popularity with the media and political elites, with illustrious cases such as recent citizen assemblies in Ireland, the UKand France grabbing headlines. These so-called “invited spaces”, because they are generally top-down and opened by public agencies, have been criticised for sanitising and de-politicising participation. Indeed, right at a time when their numbers are growing, the space for meaningful citizen input is paradoxically constrained by technocratic decision-making and the related rise of authoritarian populism. However, the past decade has also witnessed a global expansion of calls for more transformative democratic participation, driven by anti-austerity movements, from Occupy to the Indignados, climate protests such as Extinction Rebellion, or movements for race equality such as Black Lives Matter.

In our paper, recently published open access in EJPR, we focus on changes in participatory governance in the city of Barcelona, whose recent history has included a significant shift from a top-down approach to participatory governance towards attempts to institutionalise more radical and bottom up forms of participation. Inspired by the demands of social movements following the 2008 financial crash and a period of punitive austerity measures, political actors associated with radical municipalist politics have attempted to reclaim and reinvent participatory governance since coming to city office in May 2015. In the paper we explore how these changes were implemented. We move beyond a static and dichotomous understanding of top-down and bottom-up participation and instead we document their dynamic relationship as part of broader processes of political and institutional change.

From governance-driven democratisation to democracy-driven governance

Our paper begins by conceptualising two forms of participatory governance: Mark Warren’s  “governance-driven democratization” and our own concept of “democracy-driven governance”. While it might sound like a tongue-twister, we believe that this distinction is important to capture recent developments in participatory governance. Warren’s governance-driven democratisation describes elite-led participation, which aims to respond to the crisis of trust plaguing representative institutions and help public agencies reach better decisions to increasingly complex issues, while defusing possible conflicts arising from such decisions. Democracy-driven governance, on the other hand, reflects social movement-led participatory governance, which reclaims the spaces of governance-driven democratisation and transforms them into something that can respond to bottom-up demands.

These two concepts are neither fixed nor mutually exclusive. Building on past work that has categorised spaces of participation and begun to theorise their fluidity, we set out to examine more precisely how governance-driven democratisation and democracy-driven governance emerge, develop and interact through a longitudinal analysis of governance changes in Barcelona from the 1980s to the present. We do this in three steps:

· First, we define the shared and divergent characteristics of both concepts. They are both forms of softly institutionalised citizen participation, or what we call routinised participation, but they differ in the reach and scope of the participatory governance they envisage. Governance-driven democratisation seeks to preserve and improve existing institutions by incorporating participation. Democracy-driven governance also seeks institutional improvement but draws much of its inspiration from the prefigurative and effervescent forms of bottom-up democracy that we see when social movements challenge existing arrangements.

· Second, we move beyond presenting a dichotomy by theorising that both forms exist in a dynamic relationship with each other. It is well established in the participatory governance literature that just as “claimed” spacescan close through assimilation, top-down spaces can open “new fields of power” and new opportunities of democratisation. We theorise that regime change, from governance-driven democratisation to democracy-driven governance, can occur at “tipping-points” whereby external shocks, or crises, interact with agential variables such as political leadership and institutional and structural variables such as political and economic context and associational density.

· Third, we put some empirical meat on the bones of this theoretical discussion, through a longitudinal analysis of changes in participatory governance in Barcelona.

The case of Barcelona

Following the democratic transition from Fascism in the 1970s, Barcelona’s participatory governance institutions developed into something closely resembling governance-driven democratisation. Over the 1980s and 1990s, a centre-left leadership oversaw a relatively successful process of post-industrial conversion into a tourism and service-based economy. The participatory infrastructure that had developed as a reaction to Franco’s regime was made functional to this growth model, with opposition placated trough incorporating actors from neighbourhood assemblies. Counter-hegemonic spaces began to flourish where social movements collaborated with critical public servants to develop alternative regeneration models. In what is clearly characteristic of a kind of coexistence and interaction between governance-driven democratisation and democracy-driven governance, Ismael Blanco foresaw that this “alternative network” could prefigure a more radical future approach to urban governance.   

The 2008 financial crash and the ensuing period of austerity marked the tipping point that shifted the governance trajectory. Social movements such as the Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH) and the Indignados emerged nationally, and in Barcelona they led to the formation of the “movement-party” Barcelona en Comú (BeC) which won the 2015 Municipal elections on an ambitious platform, developed through direct forms of citizen participation and calling for social change and the rollback of neoliberalism. Once in government, the new administration embarked on an ambitious reform programme that ranged from public service re-municipalisation to the promotion of co-operative enterprises. Its policy agenda continued to be informed by citizens and social movements, through interlinked online and offline channels of participatory governance that built on and transformed the pre-existing participation infrastructure.

What can we learn from this case?

BeC’s attempts at institutional change faced fierce opposition from a “pro-status quo coalition”, with influence over, and allies in local and national media as well as within the machinery of government. The limited regulatory powers of the City council constrained capacity for radical reforms, and this highlights the importance of democratic decentralisation to enable local projects for democratic deepening.

One of the major strategies followed by BeC to maintain momentum behind its reform agenda was the continued mobilisation of social movement allies. While important tensions arose as policy delivery failed to live up fully to expectations, empirical research highlights that critical social movements continue to see BeC as an ally, though maintaining their contentious capacity. But the stability of these alliances is by no means guaranteed.

We chose Barcelona as a paradigmatic case of the kinds of processes we want to theorise, but we think that the concept of democracy-driven governance travels just as well to contexts that are not as directly linked to the material fallout from capitalist crises. During the COVID pandemic, we witnessed an outpouring of bottom-up social action, not least through autonomous mutual support networks, providing a stark contrast with the more visible centralisation of power as governments entered crisis management. Will the post-Covid-19 world also generate opportunities for transition towards more radical democratisation? Given the connection between COVID and environmental destruction, might we expect calls for democracy-driven governance to arise from environmentalist groups? Further research into the conditions of emergence of democracy-driven governance might also help us to develop understanding of its resilience in the face of constraints and co-optative pressures.

Dr. Adrian Bua is Lecturer in Urban politics at De Montfort University
Dr. Sonia Bussu is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at Manchester Metropolitan University

After the “Age of Austerity”: From COVID-19 to a New “Social Contract”? 

This article comments on findings from a survey of 1,151 respondents undertaken during July/August 2020 by the Institute for Applied Economics and Social Value (IAESV) and Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA) at De Montfort University, Leicester. It explores a notable theme in the survey, the desire for a new programme of government with a more progressive, egalitarian and democratic character than the UK has seen perhaps for decades, and certainly since the global financial crisis of 2008-9. Whilst there has for some years been evidence of such a trend in public opinion, alongside a shift towards socially conservative values (also captured in the survey), the experience of the pandemic appears to have amplified the public appetite for change.

Asked whether government should return to business as usual, or introduce a new programme, 81.4% thought there should be a new programme of government. We then posed a succession of questions about what should happen in future, and what public governance priorities should be. Asked whether we should be placing a greater priority on socialism or free market capitalism, respondents were ambivalent. They were also ambivalent about the extent to which austerity had contributed to Britain’s lack of preparedness for COVID-19, with many neutral on the question and only a slight bias towards the view that it had been harmful. Nevertheless, there was pronounced support for a raft of measures that diverge from the austere public policy priorities of recent years.    

Spending in the Pandemic: We identified overwhelming public support for the increase in public spending in response to COVID-19 (88.9%), with further majority support for continuing higher spending for as long as the virus is a threat. There was less clarity about whether higher spending should continue longer-term regardless of whether the virus remains a threat. However, there was considerable support for increasing taxes on wealth and high incomes, along with a desire for greater social equality.   

Forward Priorities: As to what Britain’s national priorities should be in the coming decade, driving economic growth and funding world class public services topped the list, especially more funding for the NHS. Greater equality was a high or medium priority for a large majority, so too preparing for future crises – perhaps unsurprisingly given the pessimism also expressed about long-term prospects for the UK and the world. Tackling climate change was a high priority, though support for government investment in a “green new deal” was not as high as this level of concern might have suggested. Asked about how views had changed since the pandemic, respondents indicated that they were more in favour of NHS investment, infrastructure spending, higher taxes and spending than they had been beforehand. 

Work and Workers: A significant majority indicated that all workers should be paid a decent living wage and investing in job quality was a priority. Respondents saw class inequality as a significant problem and held positive views about essential and key workers, indicating that improved pay and conditions should be a priority for this group. Views towards overseas workers accessing free health care were positive, and a significant percentage of respondents indicated they had gained a new appreciation for the role of foreign workers during the pandemic. Perhaps surprisingly, a majority reported that they were more in favour of government spending on welfare and benefits than before, with nearly 50% saying they favoured payments regardless of individual need.   

Given common demographic and political biases in surveys, the findings should be treated with a degree of caution. Nevertheless, it is clear enough that there is no appetite for a return to austerity, and that there is an appetite for a new political-economic order. Politicians and commentators have tried to capture this sentiment, summoning the ghost of Roosevelt and the New Deal, while the Financial Times, fearful of rising alienation and social fracture, calls for a new “social contract”. The survey tacitly supports the view expressed by Dominic Cummings, that a majority would happily fleece the bankers and invest the money in the NHS, while also supporting socially conservative policies. 

However, for a Conservative Party long wedded to preaching the evils of big government, tax and spend, the public demand for economic progressivism is likely to be extremely divisive, unlike the social conservative impulses with which many of its MPs and members in any case sympathise. However, as the Conservatives at least gesture to a more expansive role for the state in “levelling up”, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is left with a puzzle about how to position itself. How can it plausibly oppose an agenda that it also espouses, albeit in a different form? What distinctive political ground can a party committed to moderating its post-Corbyn offer plausibly claim? How does Labour fight to reclaim the progressivist ground that it used to own?  If Boris Johnson is the unlikely face of a 21st century “New Deal”, does it oblige Labour to try and set out its own distinctive view of what this could mean under a Starmer government? Perhaps Labour strategists believe the party is better off keeping its counsel in the hope that a tired and lacklustre PM, heading a fractious party in a terrible public health and economic crisis, will eventually be hoist on his own petard. Electoral success for any party in the near future will depend on the ability to shape, challenge and respond to a new political conjuncture, crystallising at a most extraordinary point in the UK’s history. 

Professor Jonathan Davies

Professor Edward Cartwright

Dr Arianna Giovannini

Dr Jonathan Rose