Why do some PPPs fail to meet objectives? Evidence from Ireland

Eoin Reeves

Governments around the world are seeking new ways of meeting the challenges of renewing and providing new infrastructure.  Factors such as disenchantment with traditional procurement methods and increasing pressures on public finances (intensified by the global economics crisis) have encouraged governments to look to public-private partnerships (PPP) for the purpose of meeting these challenges.  The use of PPP is however a recent phenomenon and the evidence on whether it achieves goals such as better value for money and speedy delivery of infrastructure is patchy.

My recent article in Local Government Studies, The Not So Good, the Bad and the Ugly:  Over Twelve Years of PPP in Irelandseeks to add to the emerging evidence on the experience with PPP by focusing on the case of Ireland.  The Irish government initially adopted PPP in an effort to meet the demands placed by rapid economic growth in the late 1990s.  Since then it has, in relative terms, become one of the world leaders in PPP procurement.  The Irish case therefore provides a valuable country-based case study of PPP procurement.

The article adopts a framework that embraces perspectives from the literature on economics and governance.  From an economic perspective the case for adopting PPP rests on the proposition that it yields positive net social returns (in other words, the benefit-cost ratio is positive).  However, governments tend to articulate the objective of PPP in terms of faster delivery of projects and value for money compared to traditional procurement.  While satisfying these criteria is indicative of a degree of success it does not necessarily ensure a positive benefit-cost ratio.  This is attributable to the fact that these criteria are too narrow and fail to include transaction costs.

PPPs also have important governance dimensions.  A key governance issue concerns contract design and framing incentives to encourage the performance of the PPP contractor.  In a PPP context the question of incentives largely centres on the allocation of risks.  Other governance issues concern the development of mechanisms that protect accountability.  Stakeholder consultation and transparency are important in this respect and the advantages of making PPP arrangements more accessible and assessable are widely recognized.

The article adopts a case-study approach and analyses three separate PPPs at the level of local government.  Two cases are drawn from the water services sector and the third case covers the PPP adopted for the regeneration of a housing estate in Dublin’s inner city.

In the three PPP cases examined, parties to the contracts grappled with the complexity/uncertainty associated with the implementation of PPP.  In each case there was little experience on the public sector side with procurement under PPP.   Both water service cases illuminated shortcomings in the early stages of procurement especially the conduct of value for money assessments (VFM).  However, in the case where the level of stakeholder consultation extended to in-depth analysis of the initial VFM assessment there were clear benefits derived from the sharing of information between stakeholders and the adoption of a co-operative approach to preparing for PPP.

The social housing case represents one of the biggest PPP contract failures in Ireland to date.  In this case, procurement was terminated following the collapse of the Irish housing market in mid-2008.  The termination of this PPP can be mainly understood in terms of the failure to adequately transfer risk to the private sector.  The (possibly) loss-leading contractor withdrew from the contract due to inability to absorb the financial risks associated with the collapse of the Irish housing market.  The contractor also pleaded an inability to assume planning risks which materialized in some contracts.  The private contractor’s behaviour in this case exemplifies how failure to adequately transfer risk can have drastic social consequences.

These cases show how policy makers and public sector managers face difficult challenges if the PPP model is to be adopted successfully.  These include framing PPP policy, organizing competitive markets for contracts, designing contracts, enforcing risk transfer and ensuring that the thread of accountability between service providers and citizens is strong.  This may be a tall order but unless these challenges are met PPP will not improve economic efficiency or social welfare.

Eoin Reeves Profile Photo (2)

Dr. Eoin Reeves is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics and Director of the Privatisation and PPP Research Group at the University of Limerick.  Eoin researches market-based reforms of the public sector and the regulation of infrastructure including privatisation, liberalisation, and different forms of private sector participation in the delivery of public services.

Councillors and their disappearing pensions

Chris Game

There’s no doubt about the domestic conversation topic of the past week: pension pots. Which for many councillors, following a budget with little good news for local government – unless you’re a pothole hoping for a makeover under the Chancellor’s ‘potholes challenge fund’ – must have felt like being kicked when already down. No tricky Lamborghini or Bugatti choice for them. Their ministerial April Fools’ Day gift is having their Local Government Pension Scheme policies terminated at the end of their current term of office, and barred to their successors.

To put it in context, only a minority will be affected, they’ve had fair warning, and it’s unlikely their constituents, should they hear of it, will be overly distressed. There is another perspective, though: the democratic one – which, by chance, is being debated in Strasbourg this week by the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities of the Council of Europe (CoE).

The Congress of the Council of Europe (not to be confused with the wholly different Council of the EU) is the representative voice of Europe’s 200,000 regions and municipalities in the 47 CoE member states. Its function is to promote local democracy, which it does in myriad ways, including writing expert monitoring and advisory reports – like that being presented in Strasbourg, on the state of local democracy in the UK.

Disappointing and worsening would fairly summarise the report’s verdict, which is particularly critical of our councils’ highly centralised grant funding, their very limited local tax base and financial discretion, and the severity of the budget cuts imposed on them through the Government’s debt reduction programme. The effect can be to leave elected councillors, “the backbone of the local government system”, unable to exercise properly their political choice of weighing the benefit of services provided against the cost to the local taxpayer or user.

Ministers, by contrast, would seemingly prefer a completely invertebrate system. As the CoE report politely put it, they prefer and promote a “part-time logic of engagement” for councillors, who should see themselves not as paid elected representatives, but as altruistic volunteers – like scout troop leaders, the comparison chosen by Conservative Chairman, Grant Shapps, in a BBC Today interview last year.

European observers’ basic difficulty with this ‘logic’ is a linguistic one. They’re used to the ‘local’ in local government meaning, well, local – as in local pub, or shops, or school, or bus stop; stuff in one’s locality or neighbourhood.

They accept the French are a bit extreme with their 36,000 communes, whose mayors and roughly half-million councillors they are currently electing, and all of which constitutionally have more powers and service responsibilities than our district councils.

But, even excluding France, their Europe is one in which the bigger countries’ most local tier of government comprises several thousand local councils, with an average population of 8,000. England has just 325 equivalent councils with an average population of 160,000, and consisting – in cases like Cornwall (population bigger than Luxembourg), and Northumberland (area the size of Trinidad and Tobago) – of what even we until recently called ‘county’, rather than ‘local’, government.

And that’s our councillor problem. Successive national governments have taken a Tescoesque approach to local authorities and their elected members.  Instead of “Pile’ em high, flog ‘em cheap”, it’s been “Make ‘em huge, and pay ‘em peanuts”.

It’s a logic that bewilders advocates of local democracy like the CoE, who would prefer local government on a recognisably local scale, but also accept that there is a choice. If you want councillors to be genuinely part-time volunteers, then the size of councils, of councillor workloads and their ward electorates has to be kept manageable by sufficient numbers of such volunteers.

But if, in the interests of what you consider to be efficiency, you want enormous councils, huge budgets, large wards and the smallest number of councillors you can get away with, then you should acknowledge the time commitment that’s inevitably involved and allow them to be paid accordingly.

Trying to have it both ways – humungous local authorities run by overstretched, parsimoniously paid part-timers – is a recipe for poor quality government and a betrayal of local democracy. For many councillors, the apparent choice is: get out and leave it to those who don’t need the money, or grab what financial compensation you legitimately can through other means, like pensions.

Ministers should recognise the phenomenon, because it’s essentially the same as they and their parliamentary colleagues do: making up what they consider their inadequate salaries by ‘stretching’ their expenses. The difference, of course, is that MPs do get salaries, of £66,400, while the average councillor’s basic annual allowance – before PAYE and National Insurance deductions – is around £7,000 and already incorporates a Public Service Discount of between 25 and 50%, in explicit recognition of the principle of council work as voluntary service.

Despite Labour’s pledge to vote against abolition in Parliament, the Blair Government’s intention, when it first proposed extending council employees’ Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) to councillors, was to restrict eligibility to those receiving Special Responsibility Allowances.

Not surprisingly, the Local Government Association (LGA) wanted the LGPS open to all councillors, arguing that any differentiation on the basis of work patterns would be both discriminatory and unhelpful to the cause of attracting and retaining councillors. But it was the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority who ruled that, for pension law purposes, all councillors should indeed be treated as employees, and therefore entitled to join the LGPS – which is what happened.

Ministers invariably label them ‘gold-plated’ or ‘taxpayer-funded’ pensions – as if councillors themselves made no contribution. They do, of course, but the package is undeniably attractive. It’s a tax-approved, career-average scheme with retirement and death benefits based on years in the scheme and average pay over those years in basic allowances and SRAs. Councillors contribute a flat-rate 6% of their current allowances, with the council paying the employer’s contribution, at a fluctuating rate averaging, according to the Government, around 22%.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) found that in 2010/11 over 4,500 or one in five UK councillors were enrolled on the LGPS – at an estimated annual cost, now quoted authoritatively by Ministers, of £7 million.

Numbers, though, aren’t really the issue.  Nor, apparently, is making any coherent case for change – the best the Government has bothered with being that allowances look a bit like a salary (a mini-salary, presumably), which could blur the distinction with paid employees, compromise councillors’ independence to represent their communities, and so have a negative effect on local democracy.

Really?  A more negative effect than gratuitously insulting and financially punishing your local democratic representatives?  Intriguing argument.

Rebalancing Britain

Martin Stott

The Scottish referendum campaign is having an interesting knock-on impact on English political debate. The position and dominance of London – the place Scots most dislike about the United Kingdom in its present form – is being looked at more critically. There have been a couple of think tank reports recently, but the debate has moved quite a way beyond the narrow audiences that these reports usually attract. That in itself is a reflection of the way the ground is shifting.

First out of the blocks was the Centre for Cities’ ‘Cities Outlook 2014’ report. The document is mainly pretty dry, though jazzes up with unusual graphics and some different takes on the issues. Basically it is saying that London has become super dominant in the UK economy, so much so that four out of five private sector jobs are created in London and that every major city outside the South East is losing young people to London with one in three 22-30 year olds ending up there. Put another way, London accounted for ten times as many private sector jobs as any other city and also saw a growth in public sector jobs as well. By contrast Bradford, Sheffield, Bristol, Southampton, Blackpool and Glasgow all saw employment shrink in both the public and private sectors.

All this is very much backed up by word done for the Core Cities group (Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield) who have initiated an Independent City Growth Commission chaired by Jim O’Neill, the Manchester born ex- Goldman Sachs Chief Executive. Their focus is on how to make Britain less focused on London in order to promote higher levels of national growth and create a less divided nation. Their plan is to issue a final report in the autumn in an attempt to set the agenda for the period leading up to the 2015 General Election. Essentially, the Core Cities interim report ‘metro growth: the UK’s economic opportunity’ argues that cities outside the South east need to be built into larger economic zones with better connections between them to create bigger markets and the kind of economies of scale for business that are to be found in London and the South East.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s Evan Davis has been busying himself on a very similar topic. His mini-series ‘Mind the gap: London vs the rest’ on BBC 2 looked at how London manages to earn more than one fifth of Britain’s income and continues to pull away in terms of growth and development while other regions still feel the sting of recession. Davis had some jolly japes in tall cranes and large diggers across London in search of the answers to his questions, but he knew that one very important answer was staring him in the face: public investment in intrastructure. Transport infrastructure investment is currently running at £5000 per person pa in London (think Cross Rail) and just £700 per person pa in the English regions.

Slightly perversely Davis took his viewers to visit the centre of his proposed new city-region-to-challenge-London: Hebden Bridge. But of course he had a point and it was that Hebden Bridge is in the centre of a huge potential city region stretching across England from Liverpool to Hull via Manchester and Leeds. Hebden Bridge is in the middle of this city region in the Pennines, rather winningly described by one of its residents as the city centre with an ‘inverted green belt’ – and places like Manchester and Leeds as its ‘suburbs’. This is far from outlandish. This part of the north of England really did challenge London for economic supremacy in the 19th century with its coal, steel and cotton as well as ports to export to the Empire.

But can it be revived as an economic counter-balance to London? That seems to depend on political will and a desire to invest in the area, especially its transport infrastructure. The Centre for Cities report makes a telling comparison. While acknowledging that the combined economies of Leeds and Manchester are just one fifth the size of London, it argues that they are unlikely to make the best of this combined scale because of ‘weak transport links’ citing ‘the distance between Leeds and Manchester is around 30% shorter than between Cambridge and London, yet the quickest train takes four minutes longer’. Jim O’Neill makes a similar point in an Observer interview about HS2, which he thinks will exacerbate the problem and simply make Birmingham a suburb of London, arguing that the money should be spent instead on creating a web of good links in the north: ‘In my judgement, for the national economy, that is way more important than improving the speed of the link from London to any of these places’.

Improving transport links in a new ‘super city’ is one dimension, but a couple of other factors are worthy of mention as well. London is the financial, political and cultural capital of the UK. This doesn’t give a lot of space for other cities to shine, unlike in say Germany with Frankfurt as its financial capital, Berlin as its political capital and Hamburg as its cultural capital. The same is true in Italy (Rome/Milan) and the USA, amongst others. Moving Whitehall and Westminster out of London would do them a power of good. If Scotland stays in the UK, the British Parliament could meet in London occasionally, but the four ‘nations’ would have Parliaments of their own in other cities.

More prosaically, the Centre for Cities report suggests that all the core cities should have access to the same policy powers as London has, i.e. strategic planning powers, powers over the budget for its transport system and police force, and a super-city wide elected assembly and directly elected mayor. A revival of regional identity and local government could yet come out of these debates, and not before time.


Martin Stott joined INLOGOV as an Associate in 2012 after a 25 year career in local government.

The impact agenda and political agency

Matthew Wood

Why should we, as political scientists, ‘bother’ with impact? My answer is that as social actors we cannot avoid ‘impacting’ on society in one way or another, just like any other profession. The question is how we should choose to influence society. As British political scientists our choices are, thankfully, quite broad. Our discipline in this country is eclectic, our research agendas are diverse. Critically, our jobs also allow us significant autonomy to shape our individual identities, practices and relations with the outside world. The crucial thing is how we choose to shape that autonomy. Put in satisfyingly theoretical terms, it’s about how we exercise our political agency. This is why impact appeals to me and why I think it should appeal to others. In this blog I’m going to suggest how we, as researchers, might think about shaping our agency despite some of the problems with the current impact agenda.

The Trouble with Impact

The trouble, as Helen Turton demonstrates, is that there are significant pressures out there that seek to shape our agency as researchers in particular ways, narrow our research agendas and stop us speaking truth to power. Paradoxically, this includes the ‘impact agenda’ itself: everything from the REF’s ‘impact case studies’ to the Lib-Con Coalition’s fetish for behavioural psychology and the suspiciously parochial ‘nudge’. When academics look at this ‘agenda’, they understandably balk about being pushed into a positivistic straight jacket. Though I have yet to come across anyone at conferences who disagrees with the idea of ‘impact’, broadly constituted, many harbour an understandable distaste towards how it is currently being implemented.

So we are faced with a struggle over how to define what we mean by impact – broad or narrow. If we interpret it narrowly, then we risk curtailing our political agency. If we interpret it broadly, then we open up a lot more opportunities. I think we should interpret impact broadly, but the question is how do we do this while still acknowledging there are problems with the existing agenda? There are, I think, two ways we can think about impact, and they involve being reflexive about a few scholarly myths about epistemology and thinking about our communication with the outside world.


Firstly, we should question the myth that ‘positivist’ research, the development of universal laws of politics that can be implemented by policymakers, is somehow the holy grail of ‘impactful’ research. While it is certainly true that policymakers like graphs, stats, and anything that makes a claim to being authoritative, they also prefer research that is easily accessible and straightforwardly communicated, rather than a set of complex regression tables and formulae. The de-funding of political science programmes in the US is evidence enough that a hermetically sealed discipline concerned with establishing causal laws of political life will not wash with a practically focused policy world.

Similarly, we should challenge the myth that post-modern or constructivist research, or theoretically-driven work, is ‘non-impactful’. This clearly isn’t the case. Just take interpretive theory, deliberative theory, postcolonialism, eurocentrism, feminism, etc. These deal with weighty real-world issues of crucial societal importance, and to deny this is to cede ground to those who would cut funding for this kind of work.

The point is we should recognise the value of the full spectrum of political research, and never seek to close down our ontological, epistemological or methodological positions because we think the public will think the findings are less ‘relevant’. The topics we research almost always have connection to relevant societal issues. Often, it’s how we talk about our research to others that matters, and this leads me to the issue of communication.

Lost in Translation?

It’s somewhat of a hackneyed cliché that academics are poor communicators, stuck in an ivory tower talking pretentious gobbledygook. We can easily take umbrage at this, but can also see it as an opportunity for reflecting and improving the language we use. My own doctoral research was on ‘depoliticisation’, a concept with a fairly scholastic lineage, and I find it useful when thinking about communicating my work to do two things.

Firstly, I remind myself that academia has specialist language for a reason. We should cherish our ability to be creative in addressing our research topics, and remember that research starting out in relative theoretical obscurity can become publicly salient. Concepts are also identified with academic career trajectories (if you ‘invent’ a concept then you get a lot of credit for it), and we should never draw an arbitrary barrier at a point where we have ‘enough concepts’ and shut a generation of researchers out from having the potential to be identified with new ideas.

However, as Matt Flinders suggests, the ‘art of translation’ is a good way of thinking about how we can get across the interesting and creative concepts and ideas we come up with to different audiences that speak different languages. So, secondly, I think about how to explain my research in a way that, say, a bus driver or a doctor would understand. This is not me trying to ‘dumb down’ but to reflexively think about how my research would be understood or interpreted by a range of different people. This, I find, is useful not only for getting my research across to the ‘outside world’ on an everyday level, or in blog posts, but also feeding back into my academic work as a fresh perspective. Crucially, if our research is better understood by different audiences, then we have a better chance of getting the insights of our research noticed.

It’s perhaps important to remember that not all the barriers to impact are of our own making. Funding streams, government agendas, etc. are all oriented towards a particular ‘impact’ agenda that is, as Helen and Katie make clear, problematic. The important thing though is that impact is on the agenda, and therefore the potential is there for us as researchers to broaden our capacities for ‘agency’, which we should celebrate and engage with. After all, I began researching Politics because I thought I could change the world for the better by helping our understanding of it. That may be stupidly naïve, but it’s what I keep coming back to.


Matt is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield Department of Politics, and Deputy Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. He is currently researching ‘everyday politics’ and solutions to political disengagement in advanced liberal democracies.

Reclaiming the impact agenda: making impact work for you

Helen Louise Turton

When encountering the ‘impact agenda’ the ease of engagement is often dependent upon your discipline and/or the type of research being conducted. Certain forms of research don’t lend themselves to be easily compatible with the requirements of the impact agenda as it is currently defined. Given the pressures placed on academics to bring in external resources and to conduct research that has ‘impact’ academics (especially early career researchers) may then find themselves in a situation where they feel the need to morph their future research in order to meet such expectations. The parameters of the current impact agenda as it currently stands have created a situation where certain forms of research could become marginalised, devalued, and ‘unpopular’ unless we, as academics, exercise our agency and become active in defining impact.

Working in the discipline of International Relations I have experienced first-hand a number of different obstacles and challenges with regards to demonstrating the’ impact’ of my research. For instance;

1) Within IR the issues and topics that we are researching are rarely of local resonance as our research is focused on the ‘international’ level. While I believe that the ‘personal is the international, and the international is the personal’ when it comes to demonstrating the impact of my research on the local level it is difficult, for I cannot claim a causal relation to areas within the UK as demanded by the Research Excellence Framework. For example, if one is researching women’s representation in Rwandan politics it is highly unlikely that such research will “contribute to the economy, society and culture within the UK” (REF, 2012).

2) IR research is often not applicable to certain audiences such as parliamentary committees for example. For instance,  I have researched the sociology of knowledge within the discipline of IR, and the chances of presenting my work to civil servants, or being called to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee, or my being asked to speak to local government forum on this topic are largely improbable.

3) IR theory is a very large subfield within the discipline; however you are part of this prominent research community meaning that your work is theoretically inclined, it is very difficult to demonstrate your impact on a non-academic community. Even though I adopt the view that theory is praxis, theory development and theoretical research is not always evidently applicable to a policy audience and not always accessible to the public.

These obstacles and challenges present us with a danger, that the drive for impact could discourage researchers from focusing on certain issues and theory. The pressures academics are facing to demonstrate their impact could result in scholars trying to make their research fit with the impact agenda by changing the direction of their research. This fear is echoed by Dr Guy Redden, he argues that the narrowly defined criteria for research impact can result in “academics eschew[ing[ worthwhile kinds of work they are good at in order to conform”. The current emphasis on impact, and the way it is becoming locked in to employment, career progression, and grant success could lead to researchers modifying their behaviours and research in order to adapt to the demands of impact. According to Dr Peter Lawrence, the drive for impact has resulted in academics focusing more on their careers and less on understanding and theorising problems.

Do the difficulties and dangers generated mean that we should abandon the impact agenda? Whilst I remain wary and critical of broader changes within academia that the impact agenda is a product of – such as the marketization of knowledge, the corporatization of the university, and the adoption of marker-like behaviours within the academy – I don’t think we should abandon the call for impact per se but we should abandon impact as it is currently defined.

As academics we have a responsibility to share our knowledge and make it readily available and we should be encouraged to publically engage, but the way impact is currently defined is incredibly narrow and tends to orientate primarily around being policy relevant (especially within IR). Rather than making our research fit the impact agenda, we should be making the impact agenda fit with our research. We should be focusing on and thinking about what we want impact to look like. We need to be developing new forums and being more imaginative in the way we approach impact. Crucially, we need to remember that we are not passive in the process, and we should be taking more control over the impact agenda, in order to broaden its definition to prevent excluding certain forms of research. In other words we need to reclaim the impact agenda and define it in our own terms.


Helen Turton is a University Teacher in International Politics and Security Studies at the University of Sheffield. Helen is also the co-convener of the British International Studies Association working group IR as a Social Science. She is currently organising a one-day workshop titled ‘The Impact of IR as a Social Science’ and will be presenting a paper on the relationship between ‘impact’ and IR Theory at the forthcoming International Studies Association’s annual convention in Toronto, March 2014.

The French local elections – and a quiet revolution?

Chris Game

This Sunday, March 23, the French will be voting in their local/municipal elections, an occasion about as different from our forthcoming local elections on May 22 as it’s possible to be. There’ll be two rounds of voting – run-off ballots next Sunday, if required – party lists with alternating male and female candidates, proportional representation, winners’ bonuses, required voter identity proof, transparent ballot boxes, no postal voting, a nearly 70% turnout, and not one directly elected maire (mayor). Above all, though, it will actually feel local.

France has 36,682 communes with an average population of 1,780, a median population of around 400, and all will be elected, en bloc, for six-year terms. That’s it. Big numbers, but not, I’d suggest, greater complexity. England, the only part of Great Britain with local elections this year, has just 325 lower-tier and unitary councils, with an average population of 163,000 – yet it takes two semi-colons just to summarise in a single sentence who’s entitled to do what on May 22.

Depending on where we live, some of us will be electing, in addition to members of the European Parliament, all councillors in 32 London boroughs, and in two unitaries and two non-metropolitan districts where there have been boundary reviews and resulting changes in council size; plus one-third of the councillors in 36 metropolitan boroughs, in 17 (of 56) unitaries, in 68 (of 201) non-metropolitan districts, and half of those in a further 7 non-metropolitan districts; plus 5 elected mayors. And we wonder why bewildered residents sometimes ring somewhere called the Institute of Local Government Studies wanting to know if they’ve got a local vote this year.

Actually, I lied a little about the straightforwardness of what I should have called the French systems – plural. With so many very small communes, the French split their municipalities into two electoral groups, the dividing line now being a population of 1,000, and roughly 20% of the total, rather than the previous 3,500.  Smaller communes will elect their 9- to 15-member councils by a single-district, multi-member plurality (first-past-the-post) system, with voters able to choose either a whole party list or candidates from more than one list. In larger communes the voter’s choice is restricted to complete party lists and seats are allocated through a proportional system, but one distorted by a 50% ‘winner’s bonus’. To ensure a working majority, the list with most votes is awarded half of the seats, with the remainder distributed proportionally among all of the lists including the winning list. In both systems the election can take up to two rounds.

The parallel existence of the two different systems offers a ready-made research design, but electoral reformers arguing that proportional systems stimulate turnout have received at best only modest support from such studies. Local turnout in both systems is consistently between 65 and 70%, confirming the phenomenon regularly found in cross-national surveys: that, to the French more than most – and certainly more than us – local politics really does matter.

In fact, the larger/smaller commune division has had a more decisive impact on attempts to redress women’s under-representation in French politics through the kinds of gender quotas that, as Catherine Durose and colleagues noted recently, are still being resisted by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties here in Britain.

In 2000, to quite widespread surprise, France became the first country to introduce an electoral gender parity law. Parties were required to present an equal number of female and male candidates on their lists for all elections conducted by systems of proportional representation – i.e. for the European Parliament, most national Senate seats, regions and larger municipalities, but not, significantly, the National Assembly.

Though the law referred to female candidates, its immediate impact on those actually elected was considerable. In 2001 women councillors in municipalities with more than 3,500 residents rose from 26% to 48%, and the number of women Senators in parity seats quadrupled.  Since then, electoral law has been tinkered with, some loopholes exploited by the parties have been closed, and, by the 2012 elections, the numbers of women National Assembly members had gradually risen to 27% (5% ahead of the UK), albeit thanks largely to that year’s sweeping Socialist victory. Furthermore, unlike his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, President François Hollande honoured his pledge to have an equal number of women and men in both the cabinet and government.

His pledge, however, had a kick in the tail: “… which is not to say that they will have the same responsibilities” – and Hollande honoured that part too. All top ministries apart from Justice went to men, and Martine Aubry, ministerial author of the 35-hour working week law (‘la loi Aubry’) and his defeated challenger for the Socialist Party nomination, was passed over as Prime Minister for a personal friend.

If, as suggested, local politics matters more in France than in many European countries, then the most important political figure in most French citizens’ lives is the executive maire/mayor of their commune. Communes may be small, but those who attempt to equate them to our parish and town councils need to remember that they are responsible, individually or jointly, for elementary school buildings and equipment, youth services, recreation and sports facilities, tourism, local urban policy and planning, water sanitation and distribution, waste management, roads and public transport, public and social housing, police, traffic and parking.

One might expect, and many suppose, the French mayoralty to be a directly elected office – but it’s not. Mayors are formally elected by their fellow councillors, although, with the various parties’ candidates for mayor heading their respective candidate lists and having already selected their proposed adjoints (equivalent to committee chairs), many municipal elections give every appearance of being what in reality they are: virtual direct mayoral elections. However, with indirect elections not covered by the parity law, there are, in contrast to the pattern of councillor representation, proportionally more women mayors of smaller communes, proportionally fewer of larger ones, and just one in the 12 largest cities – Martine Aubry in Lille.

That, however, is about to change dramatically – and I’ve no journalistic excuse for taking so long to get to what will undoubtedly be the topic of Monday morning’s headlines. But, so hyper-personalised and sickeningly sexist has the media coverage of the Paris mayoral contest become that I promised myself I’d write at least 800 words exceedingly unsensational stuff about these local elections before I mentioned it – which, if you’ve read this far, you’ll realise I’ve easily managed. And, bad news, the unsensational stuff will continue for at least another paragraph.

Like all French mayors, the mayor of Paris is also indirectly elected – though in this case by 163 of the councillors elected to the councils in the 20 arrondissements (districts) into which Paris is divided. The real battle, therefore, faced by the Conservative challenger – though you’d never guess it – is to win not a city-wide personal popularity contest ‘to become the new face of Paris’, but enough seats in the arrondissements in which the Socialist Party of the President and the current city mayor holds today a majority of the mayoralties.

The strong probability is that that battle will be decided in a run-off ballot next Sunday between the Socialist Party’s Anne Hidalgo, Spanish-born two-term deputy to the retiring mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, widely (and thankfully) known as NKM, of the Conservative opposition party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UPM), who was a minister in the Sarkozy government, spokesperson during his re-election campaign, and is mayor of the southern Parisian suburb of Longjumeau. Given the unpopularity of President Hollande and his government, the UPM could well regain most or even all of the party’s 2008 municipal losses, but still fall short of the biggest prize of all.

game 2

There are several other candidates, representing parties from the Left Front and the Ecologist/Green Party across to the Centrist Alliance and the National Front, but they go almost entirely unmentioned. There is some serious coverage of the principal candidates’ policies, but the enduring images (literally) of this campaign seem more likely to be those of ‘the Heiress vs the Harpist’.

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Hidalgo, of course, is the Heiress – ‘la dauphine’ to and protégée of Delanoë, and whose TV latex puppet on France’s version of Spitting Image is usually depicted trailing behind or agreeing with his.  The ‘aristocratic, Botticelli-haired’ NKM had the misjudgement to pose for a Paris Match photo spread, pregnant, nymph-like and with an abandoned harp in the middle of a forest, apparently proclaiming that ‘My first baby is politics’.

Despite such coverage, and whatever the outcome, an effectively all-female contest for such a major office – and one traditionally seen as a springboard to the Presidency – does constitute a sizable step in the hitherto fairly quiet revolution in the role of women in French politics, and one that should contribute to greater female representation in both national and government. An even bigger step, though, as observed by former Justice Minister and early mayoral candidate, Rachida Dati, will be when journalists stop talking altogether about candidates’ gender, and concentrate on their competence and experience.


Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.