Urban Government in Europe Research Paper

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Urban governments are defined first as political arena and instrument for enhancing democracy, participation, and steering local societies and second in terms of services provision and public policy. They are back on the political agenda of Europe, not as the old medieval city, but as more autonomous political authorities within a European governance in the making. Urban governments usually are related to the nation–state in terms of democratization and legitimation of forms of territorial management.

1. Urban Government And The Making Of The Nation–State In Europe

Weber famously emphasized what he saw as the distinctive characteristics of European societies, that is, the medieval occidental city defined in terms of ‘sworn confraternisation’ based upon a fortress, a market, bourgeois associations, specific rules in terms of land ownership and tax, and sometimes courts and armies (Weber 1978). The importance of the urban government was stressed as the city developed upon the movement of medieval ‘communalisation’ (i.e., communes being formed through acquiring a charter). Cities became institutionalized associations, autonomous and autocephalous, active territorial corporation characterized by autonomy and capacity for action towards the outside (the lord, the prince, the state, the emperor, rival cities) and led by urban officials. Medieval urban governments developed democratic institutions, and commerce left its mark through the edification of monuments symbolizing this power: squares, town halls, belfries or bell-towers.

In due course, ‘voracious states’ consolidated with or against ‘obstructing cities’ (Tilly and Blockmans 1994). The making of the modern state and the coming age of the second (industrial capitalism) marked the end of the golden age and autonomy of occidental cities.

Later, in industrial cities, for instance in the UK but also in Germany, France, and Scandinavia, the scope of social problems became such that elites in urban government pioneered policy programs in housing, planning, basic elements of welfare, education (De Swaan 1988) and hygienist concerns led to the ‘Haussmanisation’ movement of city rebuilding, that is, the emergence of local public goods. Urban governments played a key role in providing basic utilities and services such as water, sewage, street lighting, and, later, gas and electricity, firemen, and transport, not to mention slaughterhouses. This development was diverse, fragmented, contested between a conservative petty bourgeoisie and the municipal socialism movement, and more consistent in the North of Europe than in the South. Most local government in Europe gained legal recognition in the second part of the nineteenth century. Gradually, a professional local bureaucracy emerged to deal with those developments. The rise of urban government was not just a local or national phenomenon. Exchanges of experiences of ideas, for instance in planning and social housing, were crucial.

Later, in most of the post-1945 period, the category ‘European urban government’ did not make much sense, and was not an issue. Within the social democratic compromise of most European states, the role of urban government was understood within the center- periphery paradigm (Meny and Wright 1985), that is, in national terms and as part of local government. Urban governments differed in Europe because each country had a different constitutional setting, different rules, different public finances systems, different political systems and traditions, and different organizations to provide services. Sometimes, variations within a country were also important (Germany or Italy).

Urban governments were understood either as a functional entity to deliver services, in particular welfare services (hence the long-lasting debate on size and amalgamation), or as a political unit. In their classic comparative research, Goldsmith and Page (1987) have suggested that local government autonomy in Europe should be analyzed in terms of autonomy through two major criteria which encompass or are closely related to other dimensions: legal status and political status).

That analysis clearly stressed the differences be-tween the welfarist northern European urban governments and the more political (sometimes clientelistic) southern European urban governments.

2. A New Pattern Of Constraints And Opportunities For European Urban Governments

These classic distinctions are now under question because a common set of pressures and opportunities (Europe, fragmentation, state reorganization, economic restructuring, social tensions) tends to blur the frontiers between existing national models of urban governments and to reinforce differences within nation–states. Several pressures for changes are put forward.

Urban governments were contested in the 1970s and 1980s by urban social movements. The bureaucratization, hierarchies, urban regeneration projects, complex and fragmented decision-making process of urban government were attacked in cities all over Europe. Conflicts entered the realm of urban politics in relation to housing, planning, large infrastructures projects, economic crisis, and cultural issues. New groups, beyond class basis, organized to raise new issues (quality of life, democracy and participation, economic development, and culture) to promote urban change against elected urban leaders. New middle classes gradually were incorporated within political parties (social democratic and green) and played an important role in many European cities to promote a new set of urban policies to deal with those issues. In the most radical cases, squatters in Amsterdam or Berlin for instance, urban government officials have learned to cooperate, to provide sources of funding, and to incorporate those groups in more looselydefined structures of governance (Mayer 2001). Preventing large social conflicts and including various groups has become the norm for urban governments.

Those movements and changing patterns of governing elites led both to structural changes and experiences in urban governments all over Europe such as the ‘free communes’ in Scandinavia. More significantly, most urban governments have initiated management reforms including neighborhood councils and the decentralization of services management, that is, new mechanisms for citizen participation in decisions despite the twofold difficulty of giving up power and budgets (uneasy for councillors) and of sustaining citizen interests in running day-to-day business. Beyond the UK, market friendly ideas associated to ‘new public management’ (Dunleavy 1994) are having an impact in urban government, in particular in the north of Europe (Baldersheim and Stahlberg 1995). Issues of citizen participation in urban governments are associated with growing issues of management efficiency in the delivery of services to customers. The restructuring of the public sector leads to increased confusion in public policies and the fragmentation of urban governments (Pierre 1998); hence the growing interests for issues of leadership, management, coordination, and governance (Borraz et al. 1994, Stoker 2000).

The fragmentation of urban government was also accelerated by the large privatization movement which is slowly making its way in western Europe. Lorrain and Stoker (1997) suggest that variation depends upon the intensity of political ambition and the public/private dimension with, for instance: (i) the UK (reform of urban government plus the privatizing of a large part of social housing, major utilities, not to mention the introduction of competitive tendering for most social services); (ii) Scandinavia where municipal public bodies are still dominant (gradual change) despite the pressure of competition; (iii) France where, in the post decentralization process, urban mayors wanted to increase their autonomy vis-a-vis the state by privatizing a large amount of services but remaining active in their regulation, and (iv) slow change in the south of Europe and in oriental Europe because of uncertain changing institutional patterns. Different models of regulations and contracts of those privatized or semiprivatized services emerge in Europe and are in competition both in Brussels and in former Eastern European cities. Large utilities firms are now competing all over Europe and beyond to provide new services.

Urban governments in Europe are also facing political pressure related both to the restructuring of the state and to questions about representative democracy and changes of political culture (Clark and Hoffman-Martinot 1998). First, there is a transnational movement to raise issues of urban democracy and accountability (King and Stoker 1996). This has translated, most importantly in Germany and in Italy, but even in the UK to a limited extent, in the direct election of urban mayors. Mayors have often gained a higher political profile in most European countries, most notably in Italy but even in small centralized countries such as Portugal, Sweden, or Finland. Second, relatively small green parties are now established in most continental countries and have an impact on urban politics. Since the mid-1980s onwards, they have pushed two kinds of issues: direct consultation (local referendum, experiences of deliberative jury) to go beyond the elected representative on major issues (for instance, the choice of public transport) and procedural democracy. They also benefited from the move against corruption in Italy, France, or Germany. Third, at a time when some urban government elites have espoused the discourse and less often the policies of urban entrepreneurialism, thus building sorts of growth coalitions, new urban social movements have appeared specifically opposing flagship urban projects supposedly crucial to enhance cities’ image. Fourth, the relative erosion of national parties’ capacity to mobilize and increase resources at the disposal of urban government, gives more prominence to the urban leaders and apparatus of parties which are, in some cases, also the aggregation of local parties. Fifth, the complexity of public policies together with the perceived needs to organize at a larger scale than old cities has led to a resurgence of attempts (‘trompe l’œil renaissance of metropolitan governments’ Lefevre 1998, p. 16) to move from urban governments to metropolitan governments for instance in Italy, Rotterdam, or London; hence the salience of the governance issue again and the role of urban governments. Sixth, the restructuring of the economy also had some direct impact on urban governments and planning. In the postwar period, most urban governments had little to do with economic development beyond planning, land, and infrastructures provision. All that was to change in the 1970s. Rising unemployment, state retreat, and gradually more firms’ internationalization have put urban governments at risk (tax, social groups, social problems). In the early 1980s, a large movement of creation of urban economic policy was noticed in particular in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, and also in the most dynamic Italian and Spanish cities, but less so in northern Europe (Judd and Parkinson 1990). Supporting firms and, above all, attracting outside capital became standard policies in most European cities; hence strengthened forms of cooperation between private interests and urban governments, but rarely American-like urban regimes or growth coalitions. Seventh, the decentralization of social policy and the European integration are also leading towards specific social and political urban rights (Garcia 1996). Differentiated patterns of political participation (elections, procedural democracy, associations) are leading towards more diverse forms of urban citizenship already obvious in the case of quasifederal states. Eighth, most European countries are still involved in some reform of the legal and tax powers of various levels of subnational government, regions here, cities there, quasifederal state or provinces. The rise of meso-government in Europe can be seen within investment figures. The share of local (but massively urban) government in the national public investment now amounts to around 50 percent in small centralized countries (Portugal, Finland) to around 60 percent (UK, Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark), or even beyond 70 percent (The Netherlands, France).

3. Conclusion: Urban Government And Governance In The European Polity In The Making

Urban governments are part of wider social and political processes such as the making of Europe or the restructuring of the economy. Urban governments in Europe reflect both well-established institutional arrangements and more strategic behaviors with the European governance.

The making of Europe goes together with a vast movement of reallocation of authority. The changing scale does not suppress the narrow legal and financial relations between urban government and nation– states but includes them within a wider set of intergovernmental relations, networks, interdependent bodies. Urban governments have to deal with an increasing amount of actors and policy tools (contracts and partnership, for instance) together with more diverse networks and actors. The making of a European polity implies not just a more complex structure of vertical intergovernmental relations but also horizontal ones. Networks of cities are flourishing in Europe, including policy best practices exchanges financed by the European Commission, or old twinning arrangements modified in multidimensional cooperation between cities in Europe. In this multilevel governance in the making, the constraints imposed by the state are often lessened, urban governments tend to get more discretion (not always) but also a different set of constraints.

The institutionalization of the European Union has also concrete implications for urban governments: access to funding for specific programs (from structural funds to the environment) goes together with the learning of norms, new methods, buzz words (partnership), accounting rules, evaluation. The gradual institutionalization of different policy domains gives more and more importance to EU rules. Urban governments, all over Europe, gradually are developing strategies to cope with those opportunities and constraints, sometimes to influence them, for instance, in the case of structural funds (Goldsmith and Klausen 1997).

Rather than looking for convergence or divergence in urban governments, one can first notice the blurring of national frontiers to identify common modes of governance in groups of cities, usually articulated in part by national patterns. What is interesting in the European case is the attempt made by urban government elites to deal with increased fragmentation, to balance the politics of growth with social issues, and to strengthen governments and processes of governance. Urban governments in most European countries have become more complex organizations, more fragmented, and to some extent, more responsive to the demands of local groups and neighborhood but also more dependent upon firms, and utility firms, in particular.

In other words, the issue of articulating urban government and urban governance in different ways is central. That attempt to bridge the gap between politics and policies and to define some collective urban interest is at heart a political process. The erosion of the nation–state does not mean the end of politics in Europe—it reappears at every floor of the multilevel government—but urban politics may be less defined in terms of domination and more in terms of coalition and institution building, or even identity formation. Cities (together with regions) have returned to the central stage of European politics and urban governments are key actors within the emerging pattern of European governance.


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