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Taking back the city

With State administrations increasingly held in the grip of financial interests and their powers curtailed by a neo-liberal EU, Francis Donohoe and Richard O’Hara ask if local government should be looked at as an arena for progressive change

Lack of affordable housing, increasingly unstable work and the running down of community services and facilities – these issues dominate the post-crisis political landscapes of Ireland’s cities.

In their attempts to combat such problems, the focus of political activists is largely on demanding change at the national level. It is at this level, we are told, that substantial amounts of funding can be sourced and that real policy adjustments with tangible effects can be introduced.

But, with an eye on developments elsewhere in Europe and in the US, some are asking if the aim is change on the ground for working class communities, should energies be concentrated at the level of local government? Among them is political activist and social geographer, Mick Byrne.

“For too long local politics has simply been used by political parties as a stepping stone to general elections”, he said, “Local elections are often played out either on national issues or on the basis of local clientelism. Meanwhile, councillors have often been acquiescent in the face of council officials who effectively call the shots on most issues. Is it time for the citizens to take back our local public institutions? Is it even possible? These are some of the questions that progressive activists need to start asking.”

Byrne has drawn inspiration from recent events in Spain. May 2015 saw electoral victories in several municipal elections in Spain of ‘citizens’ platforms’, such as Ahora Madrid (Now Madrid) and Barcelona en Comu (Barcelona in Common). These election wins were the flowering of a longer process which has seen the coming together of social activists, more established Left political groups and other civic society organisations, united in an aim of the progressive change of local institutions.

“Some have termed this movement, ‘social syndicalism’”, said Byrne, “It’s really aimed at building new relationships between people at an everyday level and social and political collectivities or communities around the key issues in contemporary cities. These issues are mainly housing, precarious work and migration.”

The development of this movement in Spain was greatly accelerated by the economic crisis but had its roots further into the mid- 2000s, when a new wave of activist social centres emerged which negotiated with city councils to gain access to space, rather than take the traditional route of occupation. This opened some activists to consider what could be achieved through greater engagement and negotiation between social movements and public institutions.

A focus on workers’ rights has also resulted in progressive change at the local level in some cities in Europe and the US. The campaign for a Living Wage for workers, one that allows a worker to attain a minimum acceptable standard of living within their community, has been the focus of UK trade union campaigns based at the city level in London and elsewhere.

It is a campaign that has had some success in Belfast. In 2014, Belfast City Councillors voted to ensure that all directly employed workers receive the Living Wage of £7.65 an hour.

According to the leader of the Sinn Féin group on Belfast City Council, Jim McVeigh, the campaign is going to be expanded and developed into one which also seeks to secure so-called “social clauses” in development projects.

“What we are trying to do along with the living wage is to introduce social clauses with city council investment projects to try to ensure that local communities see the benefit as well. The idea of a social clause means that when you invest a certain amount of money that there is a contract between Belfast City Council and the company that is doing the building to employ a certain amount of local people, to employ a number of new apprentices, among other things.”

He added: “The council has also employed an additional 400 people on a full-time basis.”

The EU has become an increasing hindrance to progressive change in our cities.

In recent years, Dublin City Council has continued to pursue a policy of privatising services where possible, with disastrous results for workers’ rights as well as operating a planning regime which takes more account of speculative business interests than the social needs of residents.

However, 2014 saw the election for the first time in the city’s history of a majority of councillors who identify themselves as being on the Left. This has increased speculation that some powers will be wrested back from council executives largely in thrall to neo-liberal ideas of urban development and service provision.

This question has become a focus of increased attention with the sudden closure of the iconic Clerys Department Store on O’Connell Street during June. The store closed within hours of a US-financed, Dublin-based consortium, Natrium, buying it from the US vulture fund, Gordon Brothers. With only 30 minutes warning, 130 direct employees lost their jobs and a further 300 employed by concessions holders in store were placed in doubt. No funds were put aside to cover redundancy entitlements by either the new owners or Gordon Brothers, who are understood to have made over €10 million profit from the sale.

In response, Dublin city councillors condemned this brazen act of “vulture capitalism” and committed to ensuring existing planning regulations for the O’Connell Street area, protecting the use of the iconic store, are adhered to.

Some councillors are also looking to the wider issue of what can be done for the North inner city shopping district of Dublin which struggles with drug use and other aspects of urban decline.

“It’s clear there needs to be more thought about how development affects not only the structural qualities of the city but the living conditions of its residents”, said Workers’ Party Dublin City Councillor, Éilis Ryan, “As with other aspects of Irish life the market has been placed at the centre of the council’s policy-making, this has to end and a approach placing people at the centre must replace it.”

One issue is what role existing community groups can have in shaping the city. In Dublin a protracted move towards competitive tendering – between both community groups and private companies – for the provision of local community development services, has been accompanied by enormous cuts in their budgets in recent years.

Ryan, who represents the North Inner City, said: “The inner city has been particularly hard hit by cuts to funding for community development; in 2015, the budget for the area was reduced by a massive 38%, compared to 11.5% nationally. This is totally out of keeping with the persistent poverty and disadvantage experienced by communities in the inner city. Whilst government planning policies hand more and more of the inner city over to private developers, the communities established in the area for generations are being left behind.”

However the political response from community groups to this onslaught has been somewhat muted, Byrne said: “The community sector in Dublin has been decimated and, while this has not produced the kind of combative response we might have hoped for, it has driven a wedge between the community sector and the state to a significant degree.”

In recent years, the Community Benefits Movement has in the United States brought trade unions, community groups and progressive politicians together into coalitions that have helped shape urban development in favour of working class communities.

These Community Benefit Agreements started in 2001, when negotiations between a coalition of community groups in Los Angeles and the private developers of the Staples Center resulted in an agreement which included a “first source” hiring plan to employ local residents, job-training programmes, public park construction, affordable housing development, and a living wage policy.

Ryan said: “An interesting aspect to some of the Community Benefits Agreements in the US is that they can be made directly between a progressive coalition and a developer. In return for a developer accepting their social responsibilities and an adherence to an agreement, the coalition assists the project. This means that such agreements can even work in cities with planning departments that refuse to engage adequately with the social needs of communities.”

She added: “The coalitions brought together to achieve these agreements have in some cases also successfully developed into political forces which challenge the neo-liberal framework which makes them necessary. The end demand must always been that urban development is the fully brought under democratic control.”

As well as intransigence from council officials, business interests and rightwing political groups, the EU has become an increasing hindrance to progressive change in our cities. In Belfast, McVeigh highlights that “around the social clauses there are some issues because of European Union competition legislation.”

How Dublin City Council officials, on the advice of the government, have interpreted such clauses has led to serious issues, according to Ryan. “Competitive tendering in the community sector was introduced ostensibly to ensure compliance with EU procurement directives,” she said, “Safeguards to ensure that, for example, we don’t end up with for profit companies running shoddy community services to save money were entirely absent from the process. However, it’s quite clear that other European countries have managed to interpret the social clauses available in such a way that they protect public services and investment.”

Despite these obstacles the growing, citizen-driven movement towards urban renewal could be an irresistible force which will impact significantly on Irish society. How this can be brought about can be assisted by looking at the electoral success of ‘citizens’ platform’ elsewhere in Europe, according to Byrne.

He said: “It’s a tricky one but the key is that they made the election be about citizens taking control of their public institutions and not voting for a ‘better’ or ‘more progressive’ party that will change the city on behalf of citizens.”

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