Three thoughts on the politics of Italy’s cities

Rome! Image: Bert Kaufmann/Wikimedia Commons.

In a World Cup year, most Italians talk about one thing only: the national football team. But as Italy did not qualify for this summer’s tournament, the general elections in March and their aftermath have instead been the main topic of conversation for people in cities across the peninsula.

The international media coverage has largely focused on the implications of the new populist coalition government for Europe. However, the elections and their aftermath also raise interesting questions about the changing political outlook of cities across Italy, and the challenges this poses to national policy-makers. These issues have relevance to UK politics too - and in this blog, we unpack what we think are the three main takeaways from the Italian situation.

1) In a divided country, top-down policy-making is increasingly inadequate

Like the UK, Italy also has a North-South divide. But it is the other way round: in 2016 GDP per capita in the South was 44 per cent lower than in the Centre-North area.

This economic divide has given rise to a political divide, too. For the first time in Italian politics, no party can claim to represent the whole country. This has resulted from a clear north-south split. The League – a rebranding of the old Northern League – remains the party of the economically successful North, and it continues to make lower migration and lower taxation its main priorities. The Five Star Movement is now the party of the less successful South, where unemployment and low wages are the main issues.

That the parties in power represent different economic realities could mean that the national government takes into account the different challenges that places face, which would certainly be a positive thing. But it could also mean that national policy becomes the sum of different disjointed economic policies rather than a coherent economic strategy.

We see some of the latter happening already. For example, the agreement between the two populist parties proposes both a basic income, a policy of the Five Star Movement, and a flat tax, a policy of the League. The popularity of basic income results from high unemployment in the South. As our European cities data tool illustrates, more than one in four people in cities like Catania, Naples and Palermo is out of work. And a flat tax would mostly benefit Northern Italy, with wages highest in cities such as Bolzano, Milan and Bologna. This results in an incoherent approach to national economic policy.

What this points to is the difficulty of top-down policymaking in a divided country, and the inadequacy of a one-size-fits-all approach to policy in addressing the diverse challenges that different places face. Given the extent of the UK’s political and economic divides, this is a lesson policy-makers here cannot afford to overlook.

2) But Italian cities are better placed than UK cities to overcome national political gridlock

In Britain, since the vote for Brexit, many major policy issues have been put to one side so that the government can get on with negotiations with the EU, including the city region devolution agenda. Meanwhile, the Government has also been hamstrung by its failure to secure a clear majority in 2017 general election. Both of these factors have contributed to gridlock and stasis at the national political level, and a lack of clear policy direction for the government.

In Italy, this kind of instability and gridlock at the national political level is nothing new. The peninsula has had 65 governments since 1945, averaging a change in administration every 13 months. However, unlike in the UK – where political power remains largely concentrated in Westminster – decentralisation has been an essential feature of the Italian system since the early days of the post-WWII republic, and has been enhanced since.

As a result, regions and Italian metropolitan cities have powers over, among other things, infrastructure, strategic development, schools and integrated services provision. This means that in times of national stalemate – which in the Italian case is more often than not – places are still able to take action and tailor policy to their needs.

Despite the progress made in city region devolution in the UK over recent years, urban areas across the country still lack the powers and resources they need to grow their economies. The government should use its forthcoming Devolution Framework to as an opportunity to go further on this front, with the immediate priority being to extend devolution deals to the remaining big cities in England yet to agree one.


3)  Mainstream parties should not take cities for granted

While populist parties have made gains across Italy, the centre-left and left remain mainly in charge of large cities (Milan, Naples, Palermo) with the centre-right keeping control of a few others (Genoa, Venezia). And this is also what we saw in the recent metro-mayoral elections in the UK with Labour and Conservatives winning all the posts.

But mainstream parties should not take cities for granted. Firstly, while local elections are not isolated from national politics, they can also act as referenda on the candidate or the record of incumbent mayors/councillors, making them open to outsiders. And Italy provides an example of this complex relationship between local and national politics, as well as the possibility of a political shift at the local level.

For example, after years of poor administration by both the centre-left and centre-right in Rome, political control of the city passed into the hands of the insurgent Five Star Movement in 2016. And in the most recent local elections, the League has won cities in Tuscany that for decades have been the strongholds of the centre-left.

There are two lessons here for the UK. Firstly, there is no room for complacency among mayors and other city leaders, who need to deliver on their economic agenda and make the most of their mandate to avoid the kind of backlash against mainstream parties seen in Italian cities.

Secondly, the national government needs to empower city leaders with the tools and funding they need to address the challenges their places face. This will not only be crucial for the prosperity of their cities: it will also be important in staving off the political disillusionment which was evident in the vote for Brexit.

In both Italy and the UK, the political outlook for the coming years is deeply uncertain. But what is clear is that empowered cities, which have real scope to act on the issues that matter most to their economies, have the best chance of thriving in times of national political stasis.

Italian cities are well-placed to do so, but the same is not true of UK cities. This needs to change if people and places across the country are to prosper.

Gabriele Piazza and Elena Magrini are researchers at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared. You can hear them discussing the politics of Italian cities on Skylines, the CityMetric podcast, here.

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“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.