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Rethinking Collaboration in the Age of Austerity

This book presents the findings of a major Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) project into urban austerity governance in eight cities across the world (Athens, Baltimore, Barcelona, Melbourne, Dublin, Leicester, Montréal and Nantes). It offers comparative reflections on the myriad experiences of collaborative governance and its limitations.

An international collaborative from across the social sciences, the book discusses ways that citizens, activists and local states collaborate and come into conflict in attempting to build just cities. It examines the development of egalitarian collaborative governance strategies, provides innovative ideas and tools to extend emancipatory governance practices and shows hopeful possibilities for cities beyond austerity and neoliberalism.

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Chapter 1 focuses on how the eight cities encountered, worked with and against austerity in the period after the GEC. It begins by providing a flavour of the histories and traditions which contribute to explaining how austerity was experienced and mediated. It then turns to a discussion of Athens, Baltimore, Dublin, Leicester and Montréal, where more-or-less harsh forms of forms of austerity were implemented in the decade after GEC. It then looks at the three cities which, in different ways, provide a contrast with the story of austerity. These are Barcelona, Melbourne and Nantes. It is from these cities, primarily, that positive lessons emerge for charting governing directions beyond austerity. Chapters 2 and 3 build further on these reflections.

The eight cities are rooted in very different political systems and traditions. For example, the military coup in Greece (1967–1974) and the Francoist dictatorship in Spain (1939–1975) created highly centralized administrations characterized by repression and the suppression of civil society, which nevertheless survived underground and played crucial roles in the democratic transitions of the 1970s. In contrast, the modern welfare state elsewhere emerged much earlier, for example in Australia or in the United Kingdom after the Second World War, to prevent recurrence of the Great Depression and in response to political demands raised by the working class. While we do not analyse governance trends through the twentieth century, these examples capture something of how the scope for democratic practices, like participation, varied in the aftermath of the war.

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As the introductory chapter explained, collaboration was popularized as an idea across much of the globe in the 1990s and 2000s, including the Global South, and was considerably influenced by international actors and donor non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as ideas circulating through nation states about modernizing public governance and management. From the basis of multiple definitions and mixed practices of collaborative governance, this chapter explores trends found through the comparative study of our eight cities, in the decade after the GEC. We aim to examine the impact of austerity on localized collaborative structures of policymaking. Specifically, the chapter elaborates three dimensions where interesting comparisons and contrasts were identified: in discourse, in agency and in the spaces utilized to facilitate alliance building and joint working. Trends in discourse, agency, and spaces of collaboration after the GEC are linked to the historical events and traditions highlighted in the introductory chapter.

With the exception of Baltimore (Pill, 2020), the state played a leading role in fomenting collaborative governance discourses across the cases, though not necessarily an exclusive role. There were three cases in which the dominant discourse about governance was crafted strongly at the national level: Athens, Dublin and Leicester. All three cities had a heavily centralized mode of governance which defined local relational dynamics more compared with the other cities in this study.

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Our book details and documents the impact of austerity governance on a selection of cities. Yet for some commentators, cities and urban spaces remain the ‘new theatres of struggle’ in our contemporary condition (Hamel, 2014). This chapter critically assesses the forms of social and political resistance that emerged across the eight cities in our study. Building on themes introduced in Chapters 1 and 2, it argues that cities serve as crucibles for a diverse set of political contestations, responses and initiatives, but they exhibit differential capacities to shape their environments. Indeed, it demonstrates the complex ‘mix’ of political traditions, institutions, socio-economic structures, practices and ideological systems that come together to constitute the city as a political engine. In so doing, we draw particular attention to the shifting locus of resistance to austerity across communities and neighbourhoods. Our analysis and evaluation suggest that the future projection of cities as ‘spaces of hope’ rests on the twin challenges of ‘scaling up’ neighbourhood protests into broad and anti-systemic political projects, while reinvesting in the construction of progressive relations with the local state that open local spaces of manoeuvre to challenge national regimes of austerity.

Against this background, we turn first to our initial presentation and discussion of the eight cities, focusing on Melbourne, Barcelona and Nantes, whose distinctive characteristics provide the parameters for the analysis of all the cases. We then examine and describe the cases of Athens, Baltimore, Dublin, Leicester and Montréal, analysed here as in Chapter 1 through the lens of austerity realism.

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The reality of austerity in our eight case study cities and elsewhere has been strongly shaped by a phenomenon, long studied by geographers and recognized across the social sciences as well as by practitioners in policy making, politics and activism: social, political and institutional spaces are structured through a hierarchy of spatial scales that is not pregiven but socially constructed. Emphasizing scale in this manner confirms an intuitive assumption we make on a daily basis – when we go to work from our home, or when we go on vacation – that ‘spaces across the world differ from one another’ (Brenner, 2009: 27). What might sound trivial, is an important marker in the way we understand the world around us. How, then, does scale matter specifically? We all know the concept of scale from the ways we use a map or a measuring tape. In this colloquial usage, we presuppose that there is a natural quality to the concept: we rely on its truth as given. If you use a map for a cycling trip, and its scale tells you that one centimetre on the map represents ten kilometres, you assume that if you plan a trip represented by five centimetres on the map, it means that the distance you will travel is, in fact, 50 kilometres in reality (never mind the hills and valleys).

While this ‘natural’ understanding of scale underlies its use in this chapter, we add to it the notion that scale in social life is, for the most part, not a given but socially constructed.

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This chapter seeks to better understand how austerity governance has been experienced in the eight cities, from the perspective of the local state. As earlier chapters demonstrate, austerity governance is a real challenge for cities and local states, which can often have competing priorities and imperatives. This is because traditionally, local managers and elected politicians are more inclined than those of the upper tiers of the state to listen to and be responsive to the residents of their local constituencies, because they are closer to them. Consequently, the principles and rules in municipalities for managing public budgets are usually more responsive to social demands. However, if the democratic local state is a political unit, with at least some autonomy to enact its values and citizen preferences, it is also subject to a range of structural and contextual constraints. These include cultures and practices of neoliberal marketization and the level of resources available through transfers and taxation. In that respect, local state managers and elected representatives are caught in a difficult situation. On the one hand, they seek to respond to the needs and priorities of their constituents while, on the other, they operate within the constraints set by national priorities of neoliberal marketization and cuts to resources. This leaves them looking two ways, trying to overcome continuous contradictions, conflicts and uncertainties that arise from this difficult positioning.

In addition to these immediate and contradictory demands on local officials, questions of local state power are strongly connected with urban culture.

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Economic migration flows, accelerated by globalization, have substantially increased the cultural and ethnic diversity of Western societies with high GDP economies. As a large part of these migration flows are motivated by the aspirations of those living in the Global South, or the majority world, to improve their living conditions in more economically prosperous countries, the result in the host societies is not only a substantial increase in ethnic and cultural diversity, but also greater social challenges in accommodating difference as well as the policy challenges of addressing socio-spatial inequalities that already exist in cities. The rapid growth of inwards migration not only poses a formidable challenge from the point of view of intercultural relations, but also for the social and spatial cohesion of the destination societies. The resulting inequalities add to the racialized geographies of the early 21st century in many Western countries. The different kinds of migrants coming from the Global South – labour migrants, refugees, asylum seekers – and the places in which they concentrate, together with the local disadvantage created by histories of racism and colonialism of the last century, are amongst the most vulnerable to the dynamics of social marginalization and stigma. These dynamics have been exacerbated in many Western cities since the 2008 Global Economic Crisis (GEC) and the introduction of austerity policies discussed throughout the book.

This chapter discusses the way that (neoliberal) austerity has impacted social, racial and cultural inequalities and the ability of collaboration to support more inclusive democratic cities or resist exclusions.

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A central message emerging from the volume is that while austerity may sometimes be instrumentally rational for profit-seeking corporations and governments wanting to position their countries as low-regulation, low-cost capital havens, it is always a political choice and never a necessity. It is invariably a disaster from the standpoint of equality, solidarity and social justice, except when it runs into inventive and indomitable forces capable of subverting it. Such forces clearly do emerge. They come from the urban histories, traditions and memories of place, which catalyse new approaches throughout local states, economies and civil societies. The book shows on the one hand how damaging austerity has been in squeezing the capacity of local states to think and act outside the box of fiscal and legal constraint. On the other hand, however, it attests to the openness of the future, potentialities for change and, in certain conditions, for the privations of austerity to produce new demands, practices and solidarities. This is to suggest that the urban governance of austerity is ‘ambivalent’ (Enwright and Rossi, 2018), fraught with danger and opportunity. The coalitions, alliances and governing mechanisms created in cities make a significant difference.

As we explained in the introductory chapter and in Chapter 5, collaboration became a prominent idea in the global governance of cities, especially in the decade before the global economic crisis. States and groups of citizens and economic agents have always worked together in greater or lesser harmony, but the idea of collaborative governance gained currency as a virtue, a perceived strategy for resolving crises, mobilizing resources and potentially forging new expressions of solidarity through the crises of Fordism-Keynesianism and in response to the disorienting and fragmentary effects of neoliberalism.

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Our research concluded some time before the outbreak of COVID-19, but we suggest that many of the insights drawn from it, about austerity and collaboration, will be useful in considering ways forward from the pandemic. In the first instance, it seems clear that austerity made COVID-19 an even more iniquitous disease than it would in any case have been, with cities and urban peripheries the heart of both contagion and suffering (Biglieri, De Vidovich and Keil, 2020). The disease has unsurprisingly had a multitude of impacts on our cities, often linked to austerity. We therefore conclude further with an Afterword from the eight, including reflections on developments since the end of the research, impacts of COVID-19 and possible signs that it might be possible to ‘build back better’.

The socio-political traits of Athens are changing quickly, influenced by developments in the national economy, as well as by distinct local responses to the aftermath of the sovereign debt crisis. At the national level and after years of austerity, the long-sought balanced budget was eventually attained by the Greek state in 2017. As a result, Greece exited the bailout programme in August 2018, and has hesitantly attempted to borrow in the international bond markets. Post-bailout Greece has gained back a degree of political and financial independence, avoiding the direct in situ inspection and authorization of its policies by creditors. More permanent forms of monitoring, however, as well as austerity, are still very much in the picture.

Beyond periodic Eurozone assessment of Greece’s public finances, the country is still under ‘enhanced surveillance’ status (EU, 2017).

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The 2008–2009 Global Economic Crisis (GEC) created an opportunity, eagerly seized by many national governments and international organizations, to impose a prolonged, and widespread period of austerity. Austerity is widely recognized to have done enormous damage to social, cultural, political and economic infrastructures in cities and larger urban areas across the globe (Davies, 2021). As the GEC was also the first such crisis in what is widely considered ‘the urban age’ (Brenner and Schmid, 2015), (COVID-19 merely the latest and most intense), austerity measures were chiefly administered through municipal and regional mechanisms. A great deal has been written since the crisis, about the way austerity was experienced, governed, resisted and urbanized. This volume considers these issues anew, by reflecting on the multi-faceted and shape-shifting concept of ‘collaboration’. It draws from research funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council titled Collaborative Governance Under Austerity: An Eight Case Comparative Study, led by the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at De Montfort University in the UK City of Leicester.1 Research was conducted over three years (2015–2018) in the European cities of Athens, Barcelona, Dublin, Leicester and Nantes, North American cities of Baltimore and Montréal, and the Australian City of Greater Dandenong, part of the Greater Melbourne metropolis.

Our objective in this volume is to reflect on the theme of collaborative governance, considering this from the perspective of resisting austerity, or otherwise finding ways to circumvent or move beyond it. As a research team, we have a range of political views, but all share egalitarian sympathies articulated in the following chapters.

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