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Regimes of Austerity: Economic Change & the Politics of Contraction


This research examines the politics of austerity in British and North American cities as they respond to recession, recovery, fiscal uncertainty, growing economic inequality, and changing policy demands. Over the last twenty years we have witnessed growing inequality within our cities (Walks 2014), a growing list of demands that fall onto local governments, and continued fiscal pressures as the central government pursues austerity policies. 

After the 2008 financial crisis, many governments turned to austerity policies to reduce budget deficits by reducing labour costs, privatization, and reconfiguring public services (Whitfield 2014). In many cases, cities were forced to adopt austerity policies to address high levels of public indebtedness absorbed during the heady days of the subprime lending spree (Donald et al. 2014). Many cities around the world are faced with growing responsibilities and demands but without the long-term budgetary certainties that allow them to plan effectively for the long-term.

Aims & objectives

There has been a plethora of analysis of the impacts of the financial crisis and policy responses at the macro-level, but urban-level analysis has been limited (Martin, 2011; Kitson et al. 2011). This research examines the politics of fiscal contraction in British cities as they respond to the global financial crisis, rising inequality, and a changing fiscal policy landscape. To address this topic we propose the following three research objectives: 

  1. Examine how inequality and the politics around the distribution of public resources have changed at the local level in mid-sized British cities over the last twenty years.
  2. Investigate how a city’s economic, demographic and political base can shape the newer politics of austerity.
  3. Consider how economic change, inequality and the politics of redistribution inform traditional theories of urban political and economic geography.


To address these three objectives, we draw on insights from urban political economy. We propose a mixed-methods approach, using quantitative and qualitative research. The quantitative dimension will assess broader trends that may be occurring across British and North American cities, and against which we can benchmark the cities under study. The bulk of the research effort will focus on case studies of selected cities with populations between 350,000 and 500,000.

We will select cities which represent different economic and industrial histories, different institutional contexts, and different current states of economic health and social well-being. Their economies tend to be less complex than their global city counterparts making controlling for variables manageable. These cities, which are at the smaller end of the mid-sized range, are also understudied and yet the implications of our findings will have relevance to many other cities grappling with similar issues.

Broader goals

Our research will advance knowledge in the field of economic change and urban governance. Many theories of urban political economy are built around unchallenged assumptions of growth. In our study, however, while some of our case study cities have continued to experience growth; others are in decline. All of them have had to confront challenging redistribution decisions in particular economic, social and political contexts and have forged new political coalitions around the economics of austerity.


In 2018-19, the project teams finished up the six major case studies (Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Wakefield, Great Yarmouth, York and Cambridge) and are now conducting follow-up interviews about specific topics. Most of the time is now focused on writing up the results of the work. Three articles have been published (two conceptual, one macro-data) and three are in progress (mechanisms of austerity, mapping austerity, and public space and austerity).


Donald, B. and Gray, M., (2018), ‘The double crisis:  in what sense a regional problem?’ Regional Studies forthcoming.

Gray, M. and Barford, A., (2018), ‘The depths of the cuts: the uneven geography of local government austerity’ Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, forthcoming.  

Konzelmann, S. Gray, M. and Donald, B., (2016), ‘Assessing austerity.’ Cambridge Journal of Economics, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society and Contributions to Political Economy. Virtual Special Issue.  

Donald, B. and M. Gray. 2015. “Urban Policy and Governance: Austerity Urbanism” in Urbanization in a Global Context: A Readers Guide, edited by L. Peake and A. Bain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming. 

Donald, B. and Hall, H. 2015. “The Innovation challenges of a public sector city”, In M. Gertler and D. Wolfe. Social Dynamics of Economic Performance: innovation and creativity in city-regions. University of Toronto Press, forthcoming.

Barford, A. and Pickett, K. 2015. How to Build a More Equal American Society: Lessons from Successful Experiences. Solutions, 4(5), 60-71.

Donald, B., Glasmeier, A., Gray, M., and Lobao, L. 2014. Austerity in the city: economic crisis and urban service decline?. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 7 (1): 3-15.

Gray. M. 2014. “Altering the landscape: Reassessing labour’s role in Las Vegas’ Hospitality Industry” in (A. Underthun and D. Jordhaus-Lier, eds) A Hospitable World: Tourism and the Organisation of Work in Hotel Workplaces. 

Gray, M. 2014. “Educating Reeta: Reflections on Producing Narratives of Work” in (eds: Castree, N., Kitchin, R., Lawson, V., Lee, R., Paasi, A., Radcliffe, S., Withers, C.) Sage Handbook of Human Geography. London: Sage. 

Gray, M. and Defilippis, J. 2014. “Learning from Las Vegas: Unions and post-industrial urbanisation” Urban Studies.

Donald, B. and Gray, M. 2013. “The Rise of the Austerity Regime.” Working Paper No. 20-5-13, Departments of Geography, Queen’s University, 2013.

Barford, A. and Dorling, D. 2011. Inequality. In Southerton, D. et al. (Eds.) Encyclopaedia of Consumer Culture. SAGE Publications, London .

Gray, M., Kurihara, T., Hommen, L. and Feldman, J. 2007. “Networks of Exclusion: Job Segmentation and Gendered Social Networks in the Knowledge Economy” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal?, 26 (2): 144-161. doi:10.1108/02610150710732212

Working papers

Donald, B. and Gray, M., (2018) “The Double Crisis: In What Sense a Regional Problem“, CBR Working Paper 507.

Gray, M. and Barford, A., (2018) “The Depths of the Cuts: The Uneven Geography of Local Government Austerity”, CBR Working Paper 510.

Conference/Workshop papers

Gray, M.  was keynote speaker at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico and the University of Sydey (Regional Studies Association), speaking about the austerity findings in relationship to populism and Brexit. 

Media coverage

Gray, M. ‘The Great Austerity Debate’, University of Cambridge (YouTube).

Gray, M. ‘Unite the Union‘, blog on the play, Stronger Unions.

Principal investigators

Mia Gray
Betsy Donald

Research fellows

Anna Barford

Project dates



Cambridge Political Economy Society Trust and British Academy