Reclaiming the city

Progressive city governments in the Barcelona area have showed the world how turning back privatization is achievable at a local level. But there remain obstacles to be overcome, says Luke Stobart

‘Do you want water management to be public and involving citizen participation?’ This is one of the questions that Barcelona Town Hall (the city government) intends to ask residents in a citywide ‘multi-referendum’ this month.

Although the referendum is non-binding, the inclusion of this question is being challenged in high court appeals. Resistance is driven by business groups – including the poorly performing subsidiary of the Suez water multinational – which rightly understand that residents will likely choose full public management. Opposition parties and the media have sided with employers in what is predicted to become a ‘water war’.

The dispute shines a light on the processes currently taking place in many localities in Greater Barcelona, the rest of Catalonia and Spain. Large cities in the area have taken back public ownership and control of water (Terrassa) or have started this process (Badalona and Sabadell).

And municipalization – putting services under local control – has taken place of car-towing and parking services in Sabadell, sports facilities in Badalona, and offices for women suffering gender-based violence in Barcelona. More municipalization has been announced, including of funeral services in Barcelona with a view to making them more affordable.

The aim is to place the provision of a service under some degree of democratic control through the participation of city residents. It is an approach led by social movements, such as the ‘Water is Life’ campaign in Barcelona; but also by the municipal platforms and coalitions that took over many Town Halls in 2015 and which themselves emerged from social movements: in particular, the Indignados (15M) square occupations and a housing movement (PAH) that resists evictions by forming human chains around properties threatened by repossession.

Town Halls of Change

To understand the advance of municipalization – and its unevenness – one needs to examine the politics and evolution of these ‘Town Halls of Change’. Here I look at two city experiences: Barcelona (run by the political platform Barcelona en Comú, or Barcelona in Common in English) and adjoining Badalona – Catalonia’s third city (governed by a coalition led by Guanyem Badalona en Comú, GBeC). Both have activist mayors – ex-PAH spokesperson Ada Colau in Barcelona and Dolors Sabater in Badalona – and centre on activist groups, including the pro-independence CUP in Badalona, allied with other leftwing parties, like Podemos.

The 15M occupations of 2011 were organized through mass meetings – their distrust of mainstream politics summed up by their slogan ‘no-one represents us’. Their goal of real democracy (including people’s control of economic decision-making) was seen as achievable at the municipal scale.

Much energy was put into developing ‘ethical codes’ for representatives, which later led to the lowering of salaries for mayors and councillors. Candidates and political priorities were chosen in ‘primaries’ and assemblies – meetings in which participation was not limited to organization members, although Barcelona en Comú (BeC) also held closed meetings of organization representatives.

Arguably, the municipal platforms’ greatest accomplishment has been to actively involve thousands of residents. Large meetings in different neighbourhoods helped BeC produce a remarkably detailed electoral programme, drawing on the normally ignored knowledge and technical expertise of ‘ordinary people’. This democratic approach was one reason for the platform’s historic victory in the 2015 municipal elections – just months after its creation!

In neighbouring Badalona, the new Town Hall arranged a participatory process in which 7,800 people voted on how to spend half of the municipal budget after proposals were made online and discussed in 20 neighbourhood assemblies. Top among their choices were improving educational facilities, sewage systems and street lighting. Each were allocated half a million euros.

Badalona Town Hall arranged a participatory process in which 7,800 people voted on how to spend half of the municipal budget

The Town Halls have taken significant stands against racism. After a historically large protest in Barcelona in February last year demanding solidarity with refugees, the Colau administration led other cities to jointly denounce the low numbers of refugees being accepted by the Spanish state.

Obstacles and disobedience

However, there are also limits to their achievements. Undocumented African migrants forced to survive by street-selling counterfeit goods – suffering police repression as a consequence – believe the Town Hall is failing to fight for them and have set up their own union. In general the city’s social movements welcome the social and political transformations that have taken place but see them as limited.

For sociologist and writer Emmanuel Rodríguez, a ‘politics of gestures’ – such as the call to take in more refugees – has become ‘on too many occasions a substitute for transforming the institutions, which required committing to harder battles’.

The new municipal governments have faced more obstacles than their predecessors. As well as being minority governments and having to reach deals with other parties in order to pass policies, resistance to change has emerged from within the city apparatus. After Colau was elected mayor, municipal police chiefs resigned – sending a warning to the new administration that it should not make policing changes, which is how things have developed.

Badalona Mayor Sabater admits that the functioning of local government ‘straitjackets us… more than we previously imagined’. Her Deputy José Téllez informed me that sometimes council employees, including individuals hired through party connections by previous administrations, had to be prodded by protests in the town square to encourage them to do things differently.

The highest hurdle has been the ‘Montoro Laws’, named after the Treasury Minister who designed them, which oblige local administrations to use financial surpluses to pay off municipal debt, rather than spending them on social improvements. They also prevent councils rehiring privately hired workforces as public employees if a municipalization is implemented, encouraging workers to oppose such a change.

Téllez says Badalona ‘bent’ the law by borrowing new debt at the value of the surplus being paid off. Because this coincided with preparations for the Catalan independence referendum, which the central government tried to repress, Montoro chose not to punish the city and thereby avoided opening up a parallel conflict. Yet once Madrid took direct control of the Catalan institutions in November, it used this power to hold back five million euros owed to Badalona.

For GBeC the incident confirms that the struggle for municipal independence cannot be separated from fighting for a Catalan state. Despite Badalona having a large Spanish-migrant population that identifies little with the goal of an independent Catalan state, the platform has brought the municipal and independence projects together through ‘building the Catalan Republic neighbourhood by neighbourhood’ (in other words creating a new inclusive republic – whether independent or federated to Spain – around making local social and democratic improvements). The Town Hall has taken clear sides in favour of the referendum and against the imprisonment of Catalan ministers and activists, and has suffered legal threats and actions as a result.

Barcelona Town Hall, on the other hand, rejected the referendum’s legitimacy, even if it later called on people to participate. This disappointed many of its supporters who disobeyed Madrid and the police to make the vote happen. Because reclaiming democracy was a central plank in BeC’s platform, the organization has been weakened by its failure to defend the only vote on independence available.

Initiatives such as May’s multi-referendum on returning water to public hands and the momentum to municipalize more services could help BeC inspire the people once again. But both plans have powerful enemies and their success will probably require new acts of disobedience – both inside and outside the institutions. 

Luke Stobart is currently writing a book for Verso on recent challenges to the status quo in the Spanish state (which will be crowdfunded on