The Logic and Practices of Austerity Governance in Dublin
Dr Niamh Gaynor and Ms Nessa Ní Chasaide
This is the fourth in a new series of blogs on the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA) and its ESRC-funded project, Collaborative Governance Under Austerity: An Eight-Case Comparative Study, focusing on Athens, Baltimore, Barcelona, Dublin, Leicester, Melbourne, Montreal and Nantes. This blog has been cross-posted from the CURA website, where more information on the project can be found.
Dublin has often been hailed as ‘the poster child of Europe’ for its discipline and compliance in managing austerity. The Irish Finance Minister’s repeated mantra that ‘Ireland is not Greece’ serves to reinforce this image of social cohesion and stability so crucial to the attraction of foreign investment. With property prices rising once again in the city and investors returning, there is much talk these days of economic recovery and growth.
However, as my previous post highlighted, this narrative masks the more complex and variegated experiences across the city. In that post I outlined the socio-economic, administrative and political impacts of austerity throughout the city – the ‘what’ of austerity. In this post I would like to turn to the ‘how’ of this – the logic and the practices employed in governing Dublin’s communities and neighbourhoods in such challenging times.
Austerity governance in Dublin, as in many cities worldwide, is underpinned by a strong orientation to ‘the market’. This manifests in two principal ways. The first is the close relationship between property developers and city officials. As the housing crisis escalates – a 117 per cent increase in homeless children last year alone – many properties lie vacant and unused across the city with no pressure on owners to sell them on. Any proposals to tax vacant properties are reported to have met with strong resistance from council and national officials. Indeed, in a recent (January 2017) response to a parliamentary question on council powers to tax vacant sites, the Minister for Housing stressed that no tax be imposed ‘in order to help alleviate the financial burden faced by owners of vacant sites’. This is in marked contrast to Barcelona where the council introduced legislation to fine banks that keep empty houses on their books. In addition, spiralling rents are pushing many residents in the rental market out onto the streets as efforts to introduce rent controls are consistently blocked. With little or no control over housing costs, many can no longer afford to live in the city.
The second manifestation of the city’s market fetish is the adherence to market-based solutions in service provision, including housing, water and refuse. According to the long-awaited Housing Strategy, the city’s housing crisis – the product of failed public-private partnerships where developers reneged on contracts following the crash in 2008 – is to be addressed by more public private partnerships as the City Council is not permitted to build houses itself. The city’s ageing water infrastructure was to be tackled by a new company established in 2013 called ‘Irish Water’. The fiasco surrounding this – cronyism on the board, over Euro 50 million awarded in consultant fees; widespread confusion over changes to charges; widespread billing errors; and a lack of accountability for the ensuing chaos – led to a general election in early 2016 and, over a year on, it remains unclear to date how the botched water privatisation is to be resolved. It seems little or nothing has been learned from past experiences. The privatisation of waste collection across the city over the past decade, resulting in a chaotic service for residents and eroded working conditions for staff, has already offered valuable lessons on the subject of market-based approaches.
Our research has uncovered four principal practices of austerity governance. The first concerns control over information particularly and the overall narrative more generally. The dearth of systematic information available on both the impacts of the spending cuts and their spatial and sectoral breakdown has been noted by many research participants, including city councillors. Indeed, one of our respondents (a councillor) reported that his request for a breakdown on spending cuts was denied on the grounds that resources were not available to carry out this additional work. The annual council budget meeting in 2016, which we observed as part of the fieldwork, began with an announcement that the overall figure councillors were being asked to debate and vote on had now changed. The meeting collapsed into disarray as it became clear that some councillors had been appraised of this development while others had not. While these information gaps could be benignly interpreted as symptoms of a poorly organised system, the dearth of systematic socio-economic data cannot. Systematic cuts in central government funding to key research institutes from 2007 forward has left the city bereft of important socio-economic data – most particularly relating to the impacts of austerity policies in specific neighbourhoods.
The second facet of austerity governance in Dublin is the erosion of power and continued de-legitimisation of local authorities. Despite much talk of local government reform and the renewal of local accountability and democracy, the hollowing out of local government continues apace with cuts to the city council of between 20 and 25 per cent reported to affect principally services and personnel at the coalface. The result is an ageing and somewhat demoralised workforce. While recruitment is reported to have recommenced, local community based personnel report that this remains limited to more senior, centralised positions.
The third practice mirrors findings reported from Leicester in relation to the reconfiguration of civil society. The narrative and climate of austerity has accelerated the state’s process of cutting, shaping and disciplining publicly funded civil society organisations. As a number of our respondents note, the 38 per cent cuts in funding to community and voluntary sector organisations primarily affected small, community-based groups with strong linkages within their communities. Moreover, funding has become restricted to service provision and training only, and important research and advocacy functions now secure no state support. As one state official noted ‘we’re funding groups to deliver frontline services in the main, not to be there with megaphones leading…’. And, as respondents from surviving civic groups note, this has narrowed if not closed important spaces for critique and dissent within local communities.
This reconfiguration and reshaping of civil society extends to a fourth practice which aims at (re)constructing citizen-subjects as responsible, dutiful and ‘active’ citizens diligently working in a voluntary capacity within their local communities to plug the gaps arising from austerity cuts. An intolerance of public questioning and dissent has long been a feature of social life in the city. While the reasons for this are clearly complex and diverse (ranging from the historical legacy of a particularly bitter and divisive civil war in the 1920s; the strong influence of the Catholic church and its privileging of conservatism and consensus; the prevalence of clientelist politics at local levels; the lack of sharp left-right political divisions; and the relative weakness – or co-option – of the trade union movement), the homogenous branding of all activists mobilising against austerity policies as ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘violent’ has exacerbated this trend.
While the logic and practices of austerity governance in Dublin certainly resonate with those of other cities grappling with similar crises of welfarism, the various and diverse public reactions to them perhaps highlight some particularities. While the official discourse promotes images of a dutiful and compliant public, our research has uncovered a range of mechanisms of resistance – from traditional protest to innovative, social media driven acts of solidarity and support – taking place across the city. Possibly the most significant factor in these is the range and number of ‘new’ activists of all forms, together with the multiplicity of tactics and techniques they employ – many of which fall under the radar of those focusing narrowly on the more traditional model of ‘angry protestors’. Although this resistance is rooted in the city’s working classes, many of these new activists are middle class and female, reflecting both the broad-based impacts of austerity and its highly gendered nature. While much of their efforts are either misrepresented or not reported at all, they have been and continue to be highly effective. The privatisation of water services has been effectively abandoned and the housing crisis – surely a misnomer as the quality and affordability of housing in the capital has long been an issue – has become the number one political issue (notwithstanding that the various proposals and strategies to address this remain ambiguous and unclear). And although there are attempts by some left-wing parties to channel these ‘new’ activists into formal politics, our respondents report that many prefer alternative political avenues in their quest for social justice.
As Dublin’s ‘water wars’ have demonstrated, hegemonies are never victorious. They are always contested and contestable and subject to change. Pressures to reverse the severe damage of ongoing austerity policies and to build a more equitable city may well come from outside rather than inside the formal governance system.[i] Therefore, a more systematic, honest and open form of state engagement (with disaffected, yet innovative and determined citizens and communities) may well be what is needed.
[i] Austerity in Dublin is far from over. In his last budget, the Finance Minister announced that government debt is to be reduced from its current target of 74 per cent of GDP to 45 percent over the next 10 years. There is no way to achieve this other than through more austerity cuts