Impact of ‘austerity politics’ charted by De Montfort centre

New research initiative is thought to be the first of its kind in the UK, if not the world

December 17, 2015
Trades Union Congress (TUC) demonstrators, A Future That Works march
Source: Alamy
Where it’s at: cities are places where cuts are passed down, explains the director of De Montfort’s new centre

With George Osborne firmly ensconced in 11 Downing Street and economies around the world remaining fragile in the wake of the global financial crisis, austerity looks to be here to stay.

It seems only right, therefore, that researchers focus their efforts on the study of austerity, and the impact that it has on societies.

Enter De Montfort University’s Centre for Urban Research on Austerity, thought to be the first academic centre dedicated to the study of austerity in the UK, if not the world.

Launched last month, the centre aims to bring together academics and activists to examine the politics of austerity, and its impact in global cities.

Jonathan Davies, professor of critical policy studies at De Montfort, said that the state of global economies meant that the centre – which he directs – would be “in business” for a while to come.

“The main benefit will be to create a pole of attraction for people who want to understand how governments and societies respond to crisis and austerity,” said Professor Davies. “We want to be a vehicle for learning, knowledge exchange and comparison.”

The centre will have a global focus, and its first major project is an Economic and Social Research Council-funded examination of governance in times of austerity in eight cities across the developed world.

Among the questions being looked at by this project is one that is familiar in the UK: are we really, in the words of David Cameron, “all in this together”? But, as with much of the centre’s approach, the focus is not on the economics of austerity, but on the politics of it: have decision-makers become more remote in hard times, or more inclusive? Does the sort of community-led collaboration envisaged in ideas such as the prime minister’s “Big Society” depoliticise austerity, or actually politicise it?

But the aim is that the centre will go far beyond the immediate consequences of austerity to consider a much wider range of issues, for example, around the transformation of public services, community resilience in a time of crisis, and protests against spending cuts.

The use of the term austerity in the centre’s title, said Professor Davies, was in effect “a form of provocation”, allowing the centre to join up a whole range of related issues.

Indeed, one of the topics that the centre hopes to examine is what austerity actually means in different cultures around the world, and through time.

“We tend to think that it has quite negative connotations,” explains Professor Davies. “But, certainly, if you look back in history, it has more positive connotations, about frugality and abstinence.”

One thing that is certain is that the centre will have a focus on the urban implications of austerity, and Professor Davies said that this was a purposeful decision.

Leicester, where De Montfort is located, provides an important case study as a city that faces significant challenges, particularly around welfare spending, but also as a place where the local authority has managed to avoid a sense of crisis, said Professor Davies.

It is one of the cities being studied as part of the ESRC-funded project, alongside urban areas such as Dublin, Athens and, further afield, Baltimore and Melbourne.

“Cities are places where cuts are passed down, places of social innovation and protest, and we know from research already that the way austerity affects cities can be very different, even if the economic conditions are roughly similar,” Professor Davies said. “The intuition is that the way government and society is organised at an urban level has an impact on what happens when austerity hits.”

As well as giving a voice to those who are affected by austerity, and analysing the consequences of such policies, Professor Davies hopes that the centre’s comparative approach will allow it to have a significant impact on policy debates around the world.

“There are different circumstances and different impacts, but common challenges; I think the challenges we see of governing austerity are very similar,” he said. “They are different in degree and different in intensity, and some of the responses that we see on the ground are different, but nevertheless there are common reference points and common challenges,” he said, adding that the centre could be used as a vehicle to exchange ideas about these concerns.

In numbers

8 – the number of cities in the developed world that the centre will look at in its first major study

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Print headline: Impact of ‘austerity politics’ to be gauged in global cities

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