Tuesday 29 August 2023

On New Municipalism


Written by Dr Paul Overend 

Across the world there has been a growing interest in the possibilities of New Municipalism in the 21st century, with a growing network of progressive ‘Fearless Cities’ (founded in Barcelona En ComĂș in 2017). 

This interest in New Municipalism emerges from reflections on how the city can evolve from being a place of protest and resistance against neoliberal capitalism, as was seen in the Occupymovement that followed the 2007-8 economic crash, to develop greater self-organization and resilience to market vulnerabilities. (See David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (2012); Steve Rushton (Ed), Rebel Cities: Radical Municipalism (2018).) Informed and influenced by the work of a range of political and social theorists from Peter Kropotkin (Mutual Aid, 1902) to Murray Bookchin (Libertarian Municipalism, 1991), New Municipalism explores feminising politics, participatory democracy and participatory budgeting, while incorporating other progressive concerns, such as employment practices and environmentalism. 

In the UK there has been a desire to shift power from an overly-centralised state. In 1997, the UK government signed the, European Charter of Local Self Government (adopted by the Council of Europe in 1985, and in force from 1988) and the Local Government Act 2000   gave powers to local authorities to promote economic, social and environmental well-being within their boundaries, while extending the possibility of locally elected mayors. 

In Scotland, Green MSP Andy Wightman's 2014 report ‘Renewing Local Democracy’ explored revitalising local government in Scotland. And in 2022, a Labour Commission on the UK Future, chaired by Gordon Brown, produced a report ANew Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy’ which commends further devolution in the UK (among other reforms, such as the House of Lords) incorporating a democratic principal of subsidiarity. If adopted by the next government, this will offer further opportunities for local politics. 

Municipal socialism is not new in the UK: It was variously seen in the Sheffield City Council led by David Blunkett in the 1980s, and the Greater London Council (GLC). (The treasurer of the GLC at one time was John McDonnell, later the Labour shadow chancellor of Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour). New Municipalism differs, in seeking greater democratic participation, for example, but with a wider range of community ownership explored, though not excluding in-house Council ownership. 

A good example of what can be achieved can be seen from the so called Preston Modelof Community Wealth Building. (See Matthew Brown and Rhian E. Jones, Paint Your Town Red (2021) and https://www.preston.gov.uk/communitywealthbuilding) Preston council draws on work on Community Wealth Building by The Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES). Community Wealth Building involves ideas of local and progressive procurement policies, including fair employment, support of co-operatives and social enterprises, and insourcing (with council ownership), for example, initially led by existing local Anchor Institutionsprocurement policies. 

The success in reinvesting into the local economy and improving employment opportunities and pay, and bringing about social benefits, shows what can be done by refiguring the local economy, rather than being dependent on inward investment, by economically extractivecompanies. Wales and Scotland have incorporated some ideas of community wealth building in national politics. And Jamie Driscoll, for example, seeks to incorporate such a model for his mayoral candidacy manifesto. 

The renewal of local government and increasing subsidiarity give cause for hope for a Green Left municipalist movement renewing politics and local economics from the grass roots. It is likely that the current Parliamentary Labour Party will still seek to retain centralised party control (so Jamie Driscoll has been blocked from being the Labour mayoral candidate, for example). The Green Party has been more successful in local politics, with the election of councillors more likely than the election of MPs, given the given current FPTP electoral system. 

But New Municipalism works by building consensual politics across the political parties, and with local institutions and social enterprises, and the local public and community interest groups. The Green Party might be well placed to leaverage political opinion in municipal councils and communities, working with other seeking to advance a green left approach.

Dr Paul Overend has been a priest and educator, most recently working in Lincoln. He is a member of the Green Party of England and Wales, and a new supporter of Green Left, as well as being a member of the Faithworkers Branch of Unite. Having moved to Norwich, he is currently seeking secular work.