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Fragility in U.K. Cities post-Brexit

The historic Brexit vote is evocative an important reality about the tension and anxiety in Europe’s cities writes Geraldine Ide Gardner. An urban analysis of the vote shows a correlation between the cities with “leave” majorities and three factors: an individual’s lack of economic opportunity, a city’s challenge in transitioning from the industrial to the knowledge economy, and a city’s vulnerability to globalization that further erodes jobs, economic vibrancy.  Overshadowed by Brexit, a crucial vote in Italy’s major cities just days prior reinforced this trend.

Here, 19 of 20 Mayoral races resulted in the election of reform candidates from the 5 Star Movement, including the first women Mayors of Rome and Turin, two of Italy’s major economic powerhouses. Their platforms were in response to local corruption and desire for civic participation, but also against the pro-Europe policies of the Renzi administration that have failed to respond to macro-economic and structural issues influenced by both EU policy and globalization.  While the drivers of these votes are decidedly complex, the outcomes are indicative of a disconnect between decision makers at the local, national, and EU level and the failure to find meaningful, multi-level governance solutions.

As widely acknowledged, the impact between EU and national level decisions play out on the city streets of Athens, Birmingham, Turin, and beyond; yet, there are weak systems of dialogue and engagement to feed the policy agendas at both levels. Some strides are being made to give localities a greater voice, such as the newly released Urban Agenda for the EU crafted under the Dutch presidency. However, on critical frontline policy issues like the refugee crisis, cities need aseat at the table — not just in crisis management, but in long term policy planning and implementation. More importantly a policy dialogue is needed around the drivers of economic opportunity and inequality, such as the employment, education, and innovation agendas.  The current agenda factored heavily in the Brexit vote.

Although 2009 was one of Britain’s worst years economically, the country as a whole grew steadily from 2009-2016, weathering the economic storms better than any other EU country outside of Germany. While positive, that growth has been far from uniform or equitable.  Britain’s income inequality has steadily increased with the U.K. ranking third in Europe behind Spain and Greece.  In terms of wealth, the richest 10 percent of households hold 45 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 50 percent own less than 10 percent of the wealth.  Across U.K. metropolitan areas, this trend is compounded spatially; concentrations of poverty within cities and a system of cities lie on spectrum related to their success in shifting from the industrial to the knowledge economy. In this context, the Brexit vote was not surprising.

So what is next for British cities? On the policy side, U.K. cities will need to double down on economic regeneration policies that tackle the growing inequality and polarization.  A recently released survey found that 60 percent of Britons identify themselves as “working class” despite many holding jobs or receiving wages that are at the managerial or professional level. This mental map of class attachment transcends where people live, their race, age, and gender; however, it is manifesting differently and will require leadership to engage, unify, and move forward with a realistic policy agenda.

In order to do so, the U.K. must ensure that devolution does not grind to a halt. The 2016 law only creates a framework for cities and metropolitan regions to claw back local decision making authority from the central government and directly elect metro mayors; the process requires complex negotiations and approvals. The finance minister, George Osbourne, has been a champion, and many analysts worry that the likely candidates to replace him will not share the same commitment to localism; more worrisome is the likelihood that Brexit negotiations will overshadow any further discussions.

U.K. leaders must lean into the challenge of confronting the racism and xenophobia that is no longer a latent undertone. The official reports and social media accounts of aggressive incidents in recent days demonstrate the fragile state of British society.  Earlier this spring mayoral elections in Bristol and London ushered in new leadership whose campaigns were underpinned by a narrative of inclusion and economic mobility. Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees’ statement following the vote re-emphasised this: “The challenge presented by Leave will not stop us from pursing our aspirations for the city – to be a prosperous, inclusive and sustainable city in which no-one is left behind.”

The Brexit crisis has come in the early days of both Rees and London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s administrations, so it is critical to watch their next moves. For the U.K., local leadership and control over policy making and budgetary decisions in the wake of disappearing EU structural funds will be critical to weathering the Brexit transition.

Geraldine Ide Gardner is the director of urban and regional policy at the German Marshall Fund. This article was first published by the GMF. More information cam be found at

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