Alison Gardner

Post-doctoral research fellow with extensive experience in local governance and public policy.

Research interests

I am currently leading the University of Nottingham’s initiative on ‘slavery-free communities’, working with statutory, private and voluntary sector partners to develop strong local policy responses to modern slavery.

My PhD, from the University of Nottingham, examined responses to austerity in English local governance between 2010 and 2015. Although surface-level stability had been maintained in local services, local political ‘traditions’ were under coming pressure as a result of spending cuts, and seemingly minor incremental changes had the longer-term potential to transform local governance.

Ongoing research interests include the implications of the Conservatives’ ‘devolution revolution’ for local governance, the use of collaborative and asset-based research methodologies, and exploring connections between institutional and interpretive models of change.

Publications

Lowndes V. and Gardner, A (2016) ‘Local government under the Conservatives: Super-Austerity, Devolution and the ‘Smarter State’’. Local Government Studies

The Conservatives show a new assertiveness in relation to restructuring the local state, promoting devolution as a strategy to stimulate economic growth, based on greater sub-regional autonomy and increased competitiveness across and between English localities.

‘Combined authorities’ have the opportunity to champion local identities and acquire new economic development powers from Whitehall, but devolution may also be a strategy to decentralise austerity, shifting responsibility to the local level for deeper cuts and inevitable service reductions. Local government confronts ‘super-austerity’, where new cuts come on top of previous ones, compounding original impacts and creating dangerous (and unevenly spread) multiplier effects.

The emerging patchwork of ‘devolution deals’ challenges the redistributive assumptions of the grant regime and could leave disadvantaged areas at particular risk of failure. ‘Metro mayors’ are intended to provide visible and accountable leadership; but roles for locally elected councillors, and prospects for community and citizen engagement, remain unclear. The public has yet to be adequately engaged in what is in danger of becoming a technocratic transfer of power.

Gardner, A and Lowndes V. (2016). ‘Negotiating Austerity and Local Traditions’ in M. Bevir and M. Rhodes (eds) Rethinking Governance: Ruling, Rationalities and Resistance, (pp.125-143). London: Routledge

English local government has faced a ‘perfect storm’ of radical spending cuts alongside rising demands for services, and yet has retained a surprising degree of resilience. This chapter addresses the ‘austerity puzzle’; how can we explain the apparent disconnect between the pressures on local government and its apparent capacity to act? Inspired by Bevir and Rhodes (2003, 2006) we argue that austerity policies are forcing a reconsideration of the ‘traditions’ that underpin contemporary local governance, with actors actively negotiating paths through austerity by drawing on local government traditions and locality-specific knowledge. New and productive narratives are emerging, but other negotiations remain incomplete or contested.

Blog posts

October 2017 “How the home of Robin Hood is trying to free itself of modern slavery”

A year after the police chief in Nottinghamshire committed to making the county and the city of Nottingham free from slavery, a group of the region’s businesses, churches and charities have pledged to help make this a reality.

There are estimated to be between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of modern slavery and human trafficking across the UK. We don’t yet fully understand how those cases are distributed around the country, but it is clear that official figures for arrests and referrals to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the government’s support framework for victims, currently only scrape the surface. In Nottinghamshire, police data shows there were 33 referrals to the NRM in 2016-17, more than double the referrals in 2015-16.

In July 2016, UK Prime Minister Theresa May promised to ‘flex the muscle of all parts of the UK Government’ in eradicating modern slavery. Yet whilst her government seeks to ‘get a real grip’ on policy at a national level, there has been minimal focus in the UK on the potential contribution of local public services, places and communities.

This is an omission, because modern slavery is frequently encountered and addressed at a local level. Moreover, local politics and services can play a critical role in creating an environment that is resistant to slavery, through promoting civic leadership, influencing local economies, combining regulation and enforcement, utilising public procurement, raising awareness, and co-ordinating essential services for the support of survivors. In the UK’s context of austerity and public service retrenchment, co-production of services in concert with communities and the voluntary sector also has an increasingly significant place in effective service delivery.

November 2016 “The real deal: Negotiating from a position of power”

To make devolution a success Westminster must recognise a confident and powerful local government sector as an opportunity, not a threat.

February 2016 “Local governance under the Conservatives: devolution, austerity and the ‘smarter state’”

Anyone following the news over the last nine months might be forgiven for thinking that the UK’s relationship with austerity had taken a rollercoaster ride. In June 2015, George Osborne told central government departments to plan for 25-40% spending cuts, citing his aim for the UK to become ‘a country that lives within its means’. His ‘fiscal charter’ signalled a departure from a historic reliance on government borrowing financed through economic growth, towards an aspiration to consistently deliver a budget surplus from 2019-20 onwards.

May 2015 “Devolution, austerity and community leadership in English local government”

The ‘Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill’ published at the end of May 2015 provided the cornerstone for the new government’s flagship decentralisation agenda. Yet as Professor Robin Hambleton has recently argued, rather than granting increased power to local government, the bill’s focus on a new layer of sub-regional, combined authorities will actually move power further away from local communities. This problem has potential to be exacerbated by the erosion of local authorities’ ‘community leadership’ role, due to financial pressures associated with austerity.

December 2014 “Don’t hold your breath for the devolution revolution”

The Smith Commission’s recommendations towards ‘devo-max’ for Scotland have dragged the question of English devolution out of Whitehall’s cupboard of forgotten political options and thrust it blinking into the political spotlight. English local authorities have seized this opportunity to lobby Parliament to move beyond the Westminster-centric debate of ‘English votes for English laws’ and decentralise key powers and funding streams to local authorities.

November 2013 “Spot the Difference”

“Public service cuts – did we notice?” asked BBC News back in October, publishing the results of a recent ICM Poll. The item parallels a commonly circulated argument that the unprecedented 28% cuts to local government’s central grant have been delivered without significantly impacting local services. Can this really be true?

Teaching

My teaching interests span public administration, politics and international relations. I have taught seminar groups at Masters level for Public Management, and at undergraduate level on ‘Understanding Global Politics’, ‘Governing Cities’ and ‘British Political History since 1945’.

I am also an experienced facilitator with skills in designing and leading collaborative and participative workshops for local authorities and their partner organisations.

Career History

Prior to starting my PhD I worked in policy, performance, and consultancy-based roles for local authorities, the Civil Service, the Improvement and Development Agency for Local Government (IDeA) and the Local Government Association.