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Department of Geography


Regimes of Austerity: Economic Change and the Politics of ContractionProject dates: 2015-2018.


Menu anti-crisis

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, 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 350,000-500,000.

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. This project will initially focus on the UK cities, but we have funding to extend the project to cities in the US and Canada.

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.

This project is funded with the generous support of the Cambridge Political Economy Society Trust, The British Academy, and the Canada-UK Foundation.


  • Gray, M., Gardner, J. and Moser, K. 2020. Understanding low-income debt in a high-income country. (Gardner, Gray, Moser eds). Debt and Austerity Implications of the Financial Crisis, Edward Elgar. 352pp. doi:10.4337/9781839104350
  • Gray, M. 2020. Debt begets debt: public and private debt in austerity Britain. (Gardener, Gray, and Moser, eds). Debt and Austerity Implications of the Financial Crisis, Edward Elgar. 352pp. doi:10.4337/9781839104350
  • 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, v. 11, p.541-563. doi:10.1093/cjres/rsy01
  • Lobao, L., Gray, M., Cox, K. and Kitson, M., 2018. The shrinking state? Understanding the assault on the public sector. Cambridge Journal of Regions Economy and Society, v. 11, p.389-408. doi:10.1093/cjres/rsy026
  • Konzelmann, S.J., Gray, M. and Donald, B., 2016. Assessing austerity. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 38(4).
  • Donald, B. and M. Gray. 2016. “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., 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. and B. Donald. 2013. “The Rise of the Austerity Regime.” Working Paper No. 20-5-13, Departments of Geography, Queen’s University, 2013.
  • Gray, M. and Defilippis, J. 2014. “Learning from Las Vegas: Unions and post-industrial urbanisation” Urban Studies.
  • 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