Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
In an open letter, the mayors of Paris, Madrid, and Barcelona argue that urban areas should get more federal resources—because they’re the ones getting things done.
There’s a question hanging over the Habitat III conference, the big UN conference on housing and sustainable urbanism: where are the mayors? City representatives may be participating in large numbers at the confab, now being held in Quito, Ecuador. But they don’t have enough of a role in creating and shaping the New Urban Agenda that the summit will ratify.
At least, that’s the contention of an open letter published Friday by the mayors of Barcelona, Madrid, and Paris. Signed by Manuela Carmena (Madrid), Ada Colau (Barcelona), and Anne Hidalgo (Paris), the letter states that under-representing city leaders at the conference table is a major misstep, and arguably as much a symptom as cause of the problem. There is an increasing mismatch, they say, between the burdens cities carry and the funds they have to deal with them. Their solution: Spend 25 percent of state taxes at the municipal, not the national level.
As a rallying call for a greater political role for cities, the letter (available in full in Spanish here) is worth quoting at length:
Where states compete, cities cooperate. Therefore, missing out on this chance [at Habitat III] for cooperation and innovation is both a democratic deficit and a wasted opportunity. [It can] only be explained by the inertia of the past and the willingness of national governments to keep hold of their monopoly of decision on the international scale.
This urban absence at the negotiating table matters because cities have to tackle huge problems—and are often better at it than national governments.
States are finding it increasingly difficult to respond to citizens’ needs and address the present’s most challenging issues: the increase in socio-spatial inequalities, the acceleration of both climate change and of displaced populations fleeing war zones, poverty and natural disasters. By contrast, local governments are already working well on these issues, albeit with limited resources and poorly defined powers. Despite the chronic underfunding that local governments suffer from, we have amply demonstrated that we can do more with less.
National governments worldwide should acknowledge the roles cities play, the mayors continue, by allocating 25 percent of their tax revenues to municipalities and by allowing “cities to access global funding mechanisms currently restricted to nations.”
More a campaign statement than a concrete proposal as yet, a change like this would, by boosting cities’ budgets, increase the scope of the activities they can support. As things stand, for example, the City of Paris raises most of its budget from the direct taxes it is allowed to levy, plus a smaller grant from the central government (which in 2016 totaled just 9.3 percent of its revenue). Were this grant to increase (or the scope of the taxes Paris was allowed to levy widened), it could take over some areas of governance from the central state, such as disaster readiness or refugee provision, that are currently mainly the preserve of the national state. The mayors argue that, in doing so, cities could probably do a better job.
The language from the mayors—all women on the left of the political spectrum, and all Spanish citizens (Paris’ mayor Hidalgo possesses dual French/Spanish nationality)—is forthright. But do their records stand up to their claims of success where national governments founder?
For now at least—yes. The bodies running this trio of cities are considered far more effective and broadly popular than their national governments, even when both administrations come from the same party. In France, for example, President Francois Hollande’s government has been struggling since its inception and opinion polls this July placed Hollande’s approval ratings at just 19 percent, while Paris’ Mayor Hidalgo (like Hollande, a member of France’s Socialists) enjoys approval ratings of 52 percent. Hidalgo’s narrower remit may place her less in the firing line from angry voters, but her popularity comes with plenty of effective action—including numerous proposals for better housing, progress on pollution, and the creation of more pedestrian zones.
Spain’s national government, meanwhile, is lumbering towards its third general election since 2015, after the previous two polls failed to find a clear winner or thrash out a viable coalition. Against this dysfunctional backdrop, both Madrid and Barcelona have succeeded in brokering the political alliances that have eluded national politicians. Barcelona’s Colau sealed a pact between her left-leaning Barcelona En Comú faction (allied to the national Podemos party) and Spain center-left Socialist Party. She’s since piloted a host of measures to manage a previously under-regulated tourism industry, slash private-automobile access to the city with a new traffic management model, reduce public advertising, and protect historic small businesses.
Manuela Carmena, leader of Madrid’s governing Ahora Madrid faction (also allied nationally to Podemos), is likewise governing in coalition with the Socialists. But despite fractious relations between Carmena and the local leader of the right-wing Popular Party, Esperanza Aguirre (whose party narrowly came first but failed to find coalition partners), there has been a surprising level of bipartisanship in the city. Over the past year, PP representatives have sided with Carmena’s administration on 81 percent of votes, leaving the mayor’s sworn adversary Aguirre to be dubbed “Carmena’s first ally.” In stark contrast to the stalemate at national level, this has helped push forward promising action on greening the city, clamping down on pollution, and tackling municipal corruption.
You’ll notice something in common between all the policies linked to above. They involve narrower issues for which local responses are possible, such as managing congestion and pollution within the city limits. They don’t touch on equally important but wider issues such as pollution across regions, the effects of climate change, or national immigration policy.
Paris, for example, has been struggling to deal with a refugee influx (as has Germany). With limited tax-raising powers of their own, Spanish cities are hit hard by national austerity policies that have not just cut funding but led to, as the mayor’s letter puts it, a “recentralization of resources.” And altogether these cities are being given little global say on issues relating to climate change, though urban areas (which are responsible for 70 percent of greenhouse gases) are often more proactive than national governments in pushing for climate-friendly policies.
We can only speculate as to whether the three cities could indeed come up with answers on issues like these. But as they get on with the business of running things while their national governments limp and struggle, it’s hardly surprising that they think they’re up to a bigger slice of the action.