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Empirical findings on regional autonomy and spatial justice

Authors: Cyril Blondel and Estelle Evrard (UL).

The notion of autonomy has become central for considering the articulation between democracy, public policies and local development. Adapted to the RELOCAL research interests, autonomy is the combination of the power of initiative and the power of immunity. This definition of autonomy is operational and fruitful for exploring the power within the locality to initiate and to “immunize” actions pursuing greater spatial justice. In that sense, WP7’s (Work Package 7) understanding of autonomy is also critical, questioning whether autonomy allows localities to tackle spatial injustice.

This understanding of autonomy allowed the investigation of a paradox: even though local autonomy has increased all over Europe, local democracy (i.e. effective involvement of the local population in decision-making) has not increased. This means that more locally driven forms of government of the (local development) action do not automatically produce more inclusive forms of participation in taking action and making decisions. Local development actions are structurally shaped by a dual project-based approach and a problem-solving approach which is rarely practiced as genuinely bottom-up approach. That constrains the way participation is conceived, run and effectively used by local initiatives. Participation with the local population is often understood as a legal constraint rather than as a leverage for building legitimate projects and participation of local population is limited or imposed.

                                                                                                                 Map 1: Local autonomy index in EEA countries in 2014.

Local development actions stay firmly connected in the hands of institutional actors and are often disconnected from the local population. Following interviews with local stakeholders such political strategies often produce frustration in the local population. These findings confirm the idea that “decentralization is not more democratic because it supposedly would make the political decision closer to the citizen or because it would mechanically enhance proximity” (Desage and Guéranger, 2018).

This report sheds lights on how the increased level of local autonomy is used by localities. Despite waves of decentralization, the report demonstrates that rising responsibilities have rarely come with financial means and, in some situations, without a clear mandate to act. Also, in some cases, decentralization can be reversed by state-led initiatives, or it is often incomplete. This confusion on responsibilities partly explains the weakness of solutions to local issues. Furthermore, several case study reports demonstrate that the integration of civil society organizations in the decision-making process is not an achievement per se, as it definitely raises a democracy issue. The delegation of (some) public services to local associations and NGOs should come with obligations and commitments that they serve the “general interest” or the “common good” in the same way that local authorities are supposed to. Moreover, current local autonomy strategies even increase the ecuffent of marginalisation of already peripherial territories and they have no means to face their problems alone which requires distributive justice at a larger (national and continental and probably global) scale.

Finally, participation should be understood as a way of fueling actions of local development with giving value to place knowledge, also described as vernacular or inhabitant knowledge. Involving local actors by recognizing their place knowledge – in addition to other forms of knowledge (e.g. expert, scientific) – and giving them the right to participate in decision-making processes through the entire process of idea and conception, implementation and evaluation  would allow a rethinking and reframing of the notion of legitimacy (and transparency) of local development strategy.  This understanding of place knowledge that invites a reconsideration of participation (i.e. not merely as a top-down information transfer, but rather as a horizontal partnership in the process of action) contributes effectively to feeding into the input legitimization (“government by the people”). It reinforces the legitimacy of the decision-making process and therefore the output legitimation.

Based on the results, five sets of changes needed were identified in order to use autonomization of the local action as a tool for greater spatial justice: (1) implementing a more inclusive and balanced (internal/external) government of the local action; (2) adopting a (decolonial) approach to rethink the way (local) development itself is conceived and biases involved are reflected such as perceptions of  “intervention” or “beneficiaries”; (3) adopting a more progressive instead of a solely reactive way of imagining the objectives of the local action; (4) re-articulating the local action with ambitious long-term public policy; (5) re-injecting trust, flexibility and social control to measure the impact of the action. All those points demand quite an ambitious political, fiscal and social approach for local development to become more autonomous and fairer at the same time. In our estimate the rising nationalism wave in Europe requires such an ambition of democratization, relocalization and adaption of territorial development policy.

The present report questions the possible link between local autonomy and spatial justice. It synthesizes the research conducted in the framework of RELOCAL Work Package (WP) 7, investigating how different degrees of regional autonomy can affect the outcomes and future perspectives of spatial justice as a cohesion objective”.

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