Negotiating austerity and local traditions ALISON GARDNeR AND vIvIeN LOWNDeS
Introduction Since the instigation of the Coalition government’s austerity policies in June 2010, English local government has faced a ‘perfect storm’ of radical spending cuts alongside rising demand for services (Lowndes and McCaughie 2013). Yet while there are signs of financial stress within many councils (NAO 2014: 9; The Audit Commission 2013: 46) it is striking that, to date, there has been little outward sign of crisis. On the contrary, political protest has been muted, public satisfaction remains steady (Local Government Association 2014: 10) and no local authority has – as a result of reduced budgets – yet suffered a major service failure, been declared bankrupt, or attempted to set an unbalanced budget. This chapter addresses what we call the ‘austerity puzzle’. How can we explain the apparent disconnect between the pressures on local government and its continuing capacity to act? Inspired by Bevir and Rhodes (2003, 2006), we argue that austerity policies are forcing a reconsideration of the ‘traditions’ that underpin contemporary local governance. We start by briefly reviewing research concerning austerity and local government in England. Next we develop a conceptual framework for analysing the austerity puzzle, proposing five traditions specific to local government: Civic, Collectivist, Professional, Enabling, and Communitarian traditions. We then employ our framework to analyse case study data on responses to austerity, focusing on the emergence of two hybrid reform narratives: municipal enterprise and community commissioning. We find that local actors are not only ‘interpreting’ austerity, but actively negotiating a path through its limitations, drawing on generic local government traditions and locality-specific knowledge. New and productive governance narratives and practices are emerging, but negotiations are also contested and in some cases incomplete.