- Localism and austerity:a gender perspective
A politics of redistribution and recognition is needed if women’s voluntary organisations are to survive
Women were disproportionately affected by Coalition government cuts across all forms of state provision, and yet more cuts can be expected from the new government. This article looks at the impact of the combined effect of the cuts and the localism agenda on women’s grassroots organisations, focusing in particular on what happens at the local authority level. Austerity combined with localism has jeopardised the ability of a number of organisations to provide key services to a range of women in vulnerable situations, and there is a growing concern that gender equality in the UK will be seriously affected by this process.1 In response to this, a number of resiliency strategies have been devised by community groups, but in a political climate in which the welfare state is constantly being called into question and rewritten, it is uncertain whether women’s organisations will be able to overcome the challenges they are currently facing.
The localism discourse in the political sciences is not new. The debate about the ‘hollowing out of the state’ in the 1980s evolved into the ‘governance’ debate at the end of the 1990s, and more recently morphed into the ‘localism’ debate that has captured the spatial imaginations of a number of critical geographers.2 Although the forms it takes vary in different contexts, the central feature of the localism agenda across Western capitalist countries is that state power is being increasingly [End Page 83] decentralised, and decision-making is being re-allocated at different institutional scales, ranging from the EU to local authorities (including regions, provinces and cities).
In the UK the concept of localism was first taken up and developed by Labour: decentralisation and the ‘new localism’ rhetoric was a cornerstone of the last Labour administration, which aimed at implementing a double devolution: a shift of power from the centre to local government; and a shift from local to neighbourhood level, achieved through the empowerment of local communities and new community politics. (One of the Labour reforms also included proposals relating to ‘new regionalism’, indicating that there are competing scales of decentralisation at play in localism.)
Increased decentralisation usually translates into dispersion of accountability across multiple local authorities. This was certainly a feature of the Coalition government strategy. Local authorities were placed in charge of managing a greatly reduced amount of funds, and were thus faced with the difficult choice as to whom to prioritise in the allocation of these meagre resources. Featherstone et al describe this shift as ‘austerity localism’. As they argue:
… this specific mobilisation of localism is not politically innocent. It is part of a broader repertoire of practices through which the government has constructed the local as antagonistic to the state and invoked it to restructure the public sector.3
Devolving to the local level has often been a means of simply taking the state out of provision altogether. Local begins to mean non-state provision based on voluntary organisations.4 Austerity localism has involved the dismantling of national institutions, organisational downsizing, and a range of funding cuts which go hand in hand with privatisation. As practised by the coalition government, it was a means of rolling back the public sector in accordance with the precepts of a normative, long-standing and politically conservative model of middle-class voluntarism and social responsibility.
Research confirms that austerity has significantly affected the women’s voluntary and community sector.5 Indeed cuts to public spending have acted as a catalyst for the long-term destabilisation of the sector, creating a funding crisis that is now [End Page 84] threatening a large number of women’s organisations. There is a rich literature on the unequal effects of public sector cuts on women workers, especially in terms of increased poverty, but less is known about the effects of the cuts on women’s organisations.6
The disproportionate way in which the effects of austerity localism have affected women’s organisations has relevance for recent debates among feminists about the relative merits of a politics of recognition and a politics of redistribution...