Carmena, Colau: Mother and daughter of Spanish municipal politics

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau and Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena rode to power last year on a wave of popular discontent over Spain’s real-estate-driven financial crisis.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau talks to mayors gathered for the Second World Assembly of Local and Regional Authorities in Quito, 16 October. (Habitat III Secretariat)

QUITO, Ecuador — Human rights lawyer turned judge Manuela Carmena and firebrand anti-foreclosure activist Ada Colau are like the mother-daughter powerhouses of Spanish municipal politics.

They command the country’s two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona. Over the past four years, frustration that crystallized in what’s known as the “M-15” anti-austerity movement has turned into a potent bottom-up force at the ballot box. Last year, both women rode a wave of popular discontent with Spain’s real-estate-driven financial crisis into city hall.

Carmena, 72, was lured out of retirement at the behest of Ahora Madrid, a new political party based on participatory democratic principles. Colau, 42, defended the victims of Spain’s foreclosure crisis, an effort that catapulted her to the top of the Barcelona en Comú movement turned political party.

[See: Citizens are telling cities and national governments to cooperate]

Together, the two women make a powerful case for urban equity as they put the “right to the city” into practice with policies that prioritize residents before tourists, welcome refugees with open arms, strive to keep housing affordable and protect vulnerable citizens from market forces.

Speaking here this week at the Second World Assembly of Local and Regional Authorities on the eve of the U. N.’s Habitat III conference, they also argued that gender parity in municipal government — both among elected mayors and appointed mayoral cabinet positions — is essential. World leaders are gathered at Habitat III to adopt a new global strategy on sustainable cities, the New Urban Agenda.

On Sunday, Citiscope sat down with Carmena on the sidelines of the 10th Iberoamerican Mayors Forum in the courtyard of Quito’s San Francisco Convent. Later that day, Citiscope met up with Colau at the Casa de la Cultura Benjamín Carrión following her speech to 200 mayors and U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

[See: Mayors warn sustainable cities are impossible without their direct input]

These interviews were conducted in Spanish; they have been edited for length and clarity.

Ada Colau, mayor of Barcelona


Gregory Scruggs: What is an example of public policy or program from your mandate in Barcelona that reflects the principles of the New Urban Agenda?

Ada Colau: In the New Urban Agenda, one of the crucial issues that arises, for example, is the fight against inequality, and the social rights guarantee, and equal opportunities to have really fair and democratic cities. What does that mean? How does it translate concretely? That it is not enough to make social assistance plans, for example, subsidies; you really have to work for changing the city’s economic structure in order to effectively allow the redistribution of wealth, generated in the city, in the most equitable possible way for all citizens.

To mention a very concrete example, in Barcelona, we have adopted a very progressive and redistributive taxation policy. We have frozen taxes for 98 percent of the population, and we have slightly raised the tax rate for the wealthiest 2 percent, with the purpose of redistributing the wealth generated in the city. But that is not enough taxation, taking into consideration that we have very limited taxation competencies, due to the fact that taxation is largely decided by the state. Which is one of the things that cities ask for: to have more power in taxation, because it allows us to create more just policies.

Another example is the public acquisition of local governments. The city council of Barcelona manages 5 percent of the city’s gross domestic product. This means that we manage more than 2.5 billion euros, and that means that we work with many suppliers, with many businesses in the city. So we are changing the social clauses of public acquisition; we are changing the public acquisition policy for promoting. First, that the city’s contracts are no concentrated as a small group of large companies, which is what has happened so far; they are redistributed to small and medium-sized enterprises, which are the actual economic fabric of the city but have been discriminated against.

[See: How Barcelona and Philadelphia are turning procurement upside down]

We also tell companies that we will work with those that respect labor agreements, have sustainable environmental policies, have reconciliation policies with gender perspectives. Consequently, we’re using public acquisition policy positively to promote good practices in the economic fabric of the city.

Do you believe that Spain’s national government is ready to implement this New Urban Agenda? What are the challenges for implementation?

Unfortunately, the Spanish state has had a regressive phase in recent years. Not only has it not trusted the cities, but it has undergone a re-centralizing trend. For example, it has created a very specific law that makes cities like Barcelona, which has a surplus, not be able to contract public teachers or social workers because of the austerity policies imposed by the central government. That makes no sense in a city that has a surplus and, in fact, we have ruled that health and education are basic services, and we are making new hires.

In principle, the national government will adopt this document.

Of course.

Is that going to change anything?

Yes, of course, man. Look, we all know — and the citizens who come from human rights movements know even better — that all the rights and achievements made in all areas have always been the result of citizens’ mobilization. And, therefore, with this historical experience, we know that things do not fall from the sky; you have to work for them. It is possible that the Spanish state is now reluctant to apply and implement this urban agenda and to count on the cities; we will continue to propose the implementation proactively, but also we will work together to influence the state and the European Union. The European Union will tell the state that it has to work with the cities because it has a commitment to the urban agenda.

What lesson can other cities learn from Barcelona?

I would not give lessons to anyone … the fact is that we all have much to learn from each other. But we are happy to share many of the innovative experiences we are implementing in housing and in recovery of public space. For example, in Barcelona we have an overpopulation of cars that occupy the public space: More than half of the population mobilizes on foot, and yet cars occupy 60 percent of the public space. That is clearly a cause of spatial injustice that needs to be rectified and that also generates pollution. So we are working to regain the public space, implementing a pilot called “super islands” that consists of pacifying streets and retrieving them for public use. That is a project that has started with much interest, which requires citizen participation to succeed.

[See: Placemaking and the promise of the New Urban Agenda]

We also are working for an energy operator, because cities need to have energy autonomy and sovereignty to think about the future. We are clearly betting on renewable energy, and we want to ensure that there is a public operator that ensures access to clean and sustainable energy. Right now, we have a privatized energy oligopoly that is concentrating huge benefits in very few hands, and is causing thousands of electricity cuts to the most vulnerable citizens — thus causing energy poverty. So to address energy poverty and to address a cleaner, more sustainable and more economical energy, we promote an energy operator.

Manuela Carmena, mayor of Madrid


Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena speaks in Quito, 16 October. (Habitat III Secretariat)

Gregory Scruggs: What is an example of a public policy or programme from your administration that reflects the principles of the New Urban Agenda?

Manuela Carmena: We have a programme called MAD-RE — the first syllable is for “Madrid”, and then “RE” is from [the Spanish word for] “mother”. This programme intends to completely rehabilitate all of Madrid’s houses that are not in a good condition, working in vulnerable neighborhoods. It intends to undertake energy rehabilitation, in order to minimize electrical losses. But at the same time, it intends to rehabilitate viability: to install elevators, to make the houses more viable. It is a very important programme that affects many of the houses that we believe are not in good condition.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

What is the biggest challenge to successfully implementing the New Urban Agenda?

I think governance, especially. The implementation of the urban agenda needs governments that are decentralized effectively, that are transparent and have citizens’ participation, and that are free of any type of corruption. Currently, we have established an anti-corruption mechanism. We believe it is important that everyone establishes institutions to detect corruption — not only with the purpose of prevention and punishment, because that is the courts’ job, but also with the purpose of analyzing the circumstances in which corruption occurs and, therefore, can be avoided in future.

In your experience, is the national government an ally or an obstacle for implementation?

Well, the national government sometimes forgets a lot about the concrete problems, right? It is not an obstacle, but the way it works is more related to partisan political structures, which neglect the citizens’ interests.

Is the necessary national legislation in place to facilitate the local governments’ work on this agenda?

We have good legislation that allows us to work in many areas, though it may be necessary to review it and also work in other areas. For example, there is an issue that I think is very important: the right to asylum. The right to asylum is a state’s competency. However, we think that it should be delegated to the municipalities, because we are the ones who look after refugees, the people seeking asylum. The exercise of the state’s required bureaucracy in decentralized offices worsens the assistance that can be provided to them. This is an example of how necessary decentralization is. We can include Madrid’s citizens that we think should have that status, but we cannot do so in the case of refugees, or in the case of people looking for asylum. And that requires a solution.

[See: U. N. summit on migration crisis fails to address front-line role of cities]

One of the legacies of Habitat III is the network of connections among all cities in the world. Do you think that other cities can learn from the experience of Madrid?

Definitely, but at the same time, Madrid can learn from other cities. For me, it has been very interesting to learn, for example, about Paris — about its housing system available to the most vulnerable people. In Spain, we have very few houses, because the system is about property and not about renting, but I found it very interesting how it’s managed in Paris.

Translated by Angélica Tutasi.

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