Today’s Britain is a nation characterised by geographic unevenness. Between its rolling green hills and sweeping valleys, the cities of Britain play host to inter-urban competition and uneven social outcomes for citizens. In my undergraduate dissertation, titled: An exploration into how neoliberal economic policies have impacted Britain’s North – South divide in urban spaces since the 1980s, I explore how Britain’s adoption of neoliberal policies furthered existing urban inequality through an ability to ‘lock-in’ existing variation and reinforce itself by coercing urban spaces to compete against each other. I emphasise the importance of viewing neoliberalism as a dynamic and contradictory framework as opposed to a static ideology, and encourage this to be mapped onto space, with a specific focus on urban spaces in Britain. This mapping enables the evolution and perpetuation of neoliberal ideology to be unpacked, with its ever-increasing influence on the living standards of citizens being key to understanding the geographic unevenness in British society.
In my theoretical framework, I emphasise that there is ambiguity in many definitions of neoliberalism, but a general consensus of a broad, nuanced and malleable ideology, which transcends its colloquial explanation in British social discourse as a policy vehicle for slashing taxes and reducing the remit of the state. With this in mind, I propose that neoliberalism is not a static ideology, but rather consists of various tools which political leaders can deploy at their disposal to enact a policy frame, and therefore the deployment of these tools to ‘fix’ a policy problem indicates that neoliberalism is relative to time. When visualised as a long-run, dynamic framework consisting of ‘roll-back’ and ‘roll-out’ stages, the fruits of its contradictions, and in turn, longevity can be witnessed. Each new form of neoliberalism can be seen as a response to the problems its previous iteration has created, spawning, in the words of scholars Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell “mutations” of neoliberalism.
The real power in understanding the impact of these mutations, is when they are mapped onto physical space, more specifically, urban spaces, which are “embedded within a highly uncertain geoeconomic environment”. Thus neoliberalism comes to promote an orthodoxy of hyper-competition, creating what the political geographer David Harvey and others recognise as “uneven development”.
With this in mind, my analysis sought to explore the unfolding of uneven development in British cities, which since the advent of Thatcherism have become increasingly exposed to neoliberal policy prescriptions. Whilst existing research rightfully highlights the vast gulf in income and life expectancy between those in the South of England compared to the North, I aimed to show from my reading that as opposed to the North-South divide existing in a linear manner, inter-urban competition, especially in the North of England, has painted a more nuanced picture of regional inequalities. An influx of capital through ‘regeneration’ and ‘studentification’ has increased the prevalence of ‘exclusive geographies’ in cities such as Manchester and Leeds, to the detriment of local working-class citizens.
As a weapon in the war of neoliberal inter-urban competition, British cities can be increasingly seen to be adopting ‘urban entrepreneurialism’ to maximise funding against the backdrop of governmental neoliberal orthodoxy. Cities are therefore inclined to spend funds to attract investment, as opposed to spending on initiatives aimed at city citizens, allowing inequalities to be reinforced. An example of this is the BBC’s relocation from London to the North of England in 2007, which saw the City of Manchester spend over £1 million in a failed bid to host the corporation. In this sense, the layered contradictions at the heart of neoliberalism’s operation can be seen. Cities are seemingly pitted against each other to alleviate the problems that neoliberalism has itself created.
Despite this, neoliberalism has been able to perpetuate in British policy making spheres, and I highlight multiple strands of thinking behind this. Its coexistence with other ideologies such as Keynesianism, has allowed for neutralised, or stealth neoliberalism and this diluted form can be witnessed in the City of Manchester’s public-private transport partnership. In this sense, neoliberalism has been able to operate under various guises and constantly reinvent the scope of its paradigm to become a ‘crisis-response’ tool. It is able to position a mutation of itself as a response to its previous incarnation’s destruction. Therefore, the deepening of inter-urban competition due to the norm-shaping ability of neoliberalism has left urban spaces powerless in what the scholars Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore and Neil Brenner define as the ability of neoliberalism’s “contradictory creativity”. In this sense, neoliberalism is able to dominate policy making and pacify working citizens through the promise of patchy ‘roll-out’ policies. These targeted promises of local regeneration shift responsibility away from the state and transform former social movement organisations into unwitting agents in the delivery of neoliberal welfare prescriptions.
I note that there is however some hope. The work of initiatives aimed at creating ‘grounded cities’, which promote cooperation based around the need for collective provisions, should be applauded. Local examples of this include the Liverpool City Region’s focus on the cultivation of social enterprises aimed at supporting urban citizens. However, a paradigm shift among global urban policy makers is needed to enact intra-urban cooperation, rather than competition.
In the present, urban spaces are currently digesting neoliberalism’s latest global mutation, authoritarian neoliberalism, consisting of cherry-picked social policies dictated from quasi-authoritarian leaders, aimed at sweetening an increasingly commodified electorate. The prognosis is still rather bleak. Can an entirely new form of global economic governance be plucked from thin air? Or is it, perhaps, right in front of us? After all, as the famed neoliberal economist Milton Friedman once claimed, actions are only taken “depending on the ideas that are lying around”.
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Author: Josh Birrell
Josh Birrell is a recent graduate of Lancaster University, where he studied International Relations. During his undergraduate degree he developed a keen interest in the underpinnings of neoliberalism and its impact on urban spaces and global development.