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Empirical findings from case studies on regional autonomy and spatial justice

Abstract : The notion of autonomy has become central for considering the articulation between democracy, public policies and local development. The present report questions the possible link between local autonomy and spatial justice. It synthesises 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” (Grant Agreement RELOCAL, p. 23). Our understanding of autonomy takes its roots in the reference definition provided by Clark (1984): the conjugation of two specific powers: “initiation and immunity” in local stakeholders’ hands. Adapted to the RELOCAL research interests, autonomy is the combination of the power of initiative, i.e. capacity of the locality to accomplish tasks serving its own interests and that of its population, and the power of immunity, i.e. the effective possibility for a local authority, to act without oversight by higher levels. These two faces of autonomy refer to the “two faces of democratic self-determination” as defined by Scharpf (1999): “government by the people” and “government for the people”. This definition of autonomy is operational and fruitful for exploring the power within the locality to initiate and to “immunise” actions pursuing greater spatial justice. In that sense, WP7’s understanding of autonomy is also critical, questioning whether autonomy allows localities to tackle spatial injustice. Firstly, our understanding of autonomy allowed us to investigate 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. 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. That constrains the way participation is conceived, run and effectively used. Participation with the local population is often understood as a legal constraint rather than as a leverage for building legitimate projects. The disconnection between the local development action and the local population before, during and after the action’s implementation takes different forms, varying between discrediting, oversight and symbolic manipulation. All those political strategies produce mainly frustration in the local population and tends to confirm the idea that “decentralisation 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). Secondly, the report sheds lights on how the increased level of local autonomy is used by localities. The general progress of autonomy is visible at the local level in most of the European countries. A closer look demonstrates that the capacity of localities to organise themselves depends to a large extent on the competence of their leaders (e.g. dynamism, openness, capacity to implement adequate measures given the circumstances). Leadership skills nowadays tend to involve proactivity and adaptability to change, rather than commanding. The legitimacy of local institutions to act appears to be embedded in proximity, openness and transparency. Despite waves of decentralisation, 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, decentralisation 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. Thirdly, several case study reports demonstrate that the integration of civil society organisations in the decision-making process is not an achievement per se, as it definitely raises a democracy issue. This transfer of responsibility should not come without a certain guarantee that they would not use the action only or mainly for their own benefit. 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. Dedicated research would be necessary to address the circumstances of the outsourcing to the third sector. Fourthly and substantially, certain marginal and peripheral territories cannot simply be abandoned, as their very situation does not allow them to face their problems alone and requires distributive justice at a larger (national and continental and probably global) scale. Finally, participation should be understood as a way of fuelling actions of local development with place knowledge. Recognising place knowledge (sometimes named vernacular or inhabitant knowledge) in complementarity to other forms of knowledge (e.g. expert, scientific) and giving it the right to be represented in decision-making processes through adequate participation processes 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 move, but rather as a horizontal partnership in the process of action) contributes effectively to feeding into the input legitimisation (“government by the people”). It reinforces the legitimacy of the decision-making process and therefore the output legitimation (“government for the people”).
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Cyril Blondel, Estelle Evrard. Empirical findings from case studies on regional autonomy and spatial justice. [Research Report] European Commission, Directorate General For Research & Innovation Innovation for Growth (I4G); Université du Luxembourg; University of Eastern Finland. 2020. ⟨halshs-02560323⟩

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