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Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. 

A mad weekend dash for sun has just taken me to Naples. The city, its old historical centre, continuously inhabited long before the Roman Empire, lived up to its long-standing reputation for liveliness and chaos.

From the tiny alleys on a Roman street plan overlooked by eight or nine storeys, the abbeys built by Angevin kings, decaying masterpieces of baroque architecture, to fishmonger-restaurants with live produce and massive loins of tuna selling for €10 a kilo, and traffic that makes Rome’s resemble a sedate town in Baden-Württenberg, forty-eight hours there subject you to constant sensory bombardment.

The energy offers the thinnest of disguises of poverty we think vanished from Western Europe. The better-preserved old districts look like East Berlin; the worst reminded my companion of her childhood in Communist Albania. Prices, as well as physical conditions, reflect people’s limited purchasing power.

Below the Port’Alba (a city gate named after the Spanish viceroy notorious for his brutal suppression of the Dutch revolt) hang two nets to prevent falling masonry killing pedestrians that pass through it. The second net has been hung to catch the rocks that pierce the first one. It’s a city heavy with the pall of lost greatness, unable to pay to maintain the memory of its glorious past.

This can’t merely be attributed to the destructive effects of organised crime. Palermo, for instance is in far better shape. Rubbish collection, once a disaster, now compares favourably with that of Brussels.

The city betrays evidence of attempts to revive it through physical and cultural infrastructure. A smart new subway station adjoins the main railway terminus, though the square above it resists attempts to gentrify it with a success only matched by Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens.

A whole new commercial neighbourhood, the Centro Direzionale, replaced former warehouses with Canary-Wharf style towers. The National Archeological Museum and the art gallery in the former Bourbon Palace of Capodimonte are superb and show signs of plentiful public investment.

Rather, they show the limitations of public-spending-led regeneration that concentrates on physical capital, and present a warning of how the Government’s attempts to revive the economy in the “red wall” seats could go wrong.

At its height under the Spanish and later the Bourbons, the Neapolitan economy thrived because of its position as a political centre. The aristocracy extracted wealth from the peasants on their estates and used it to commission palaces, paintings, and other luxury goods, and for political patronage.

This stimulated a strong service-based economy that fell into decline following Italian unification. Though, as Italy’s largest port it had docks, it never had much industry.

The financial and legal services that had served the Kingdom of Two Sicilies were displaced by Milan and Rome, leaving a void as big as the decline of industry in Manchester or Sheffield. Post-war Italian governments tried repeatedly, but without success to fill it. They could reallocate resources from the north, but never managed to get a southern economy to grow on its own.

Naples also stands out as being the largest European city never to have had a home-grown governing class. It has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, Spanish and finally Bourbons, before being reluctantly integrated into modern Italy.

The Bourbons stifled the enlightenment while post-unification Italy focused its energies on the interests of the industrialising north. Anyone who has spent time in the North of England will recognise its identification as unruly, authentically peripheral and ungovernable: the ironic rejection of central authority a badge of honour that covers up the fact their city doesn’t exercise it any more.

Here’s the first trap into which infrastructure-based redevelopment falls: it is liable to be seen as charity for which its recipients, already struggling with a chip on their shoulder, are supposed to feel grateful.

In this respect Naples has much in common with the de-industrialised communities that form the “red wall”. They lack infrastructure, of course, but it is control over the means to define their own purpose that matters more. They lack the political institutions to revive themselves, not only the money to pay for it.

But to receive money is also to give up power: to the ministries in Whitehall and Rome that control the funds, and want, on behalf of the taxpayers to which they are accountable, to ensure the money is well spent (the principle applies even more strongly to the EU’s Covid rescue package, in that the taxpayers and spenders are accountable to entirely different publics).

The second is that it mistakes the results of economic regeneration for its causes. Successful attempts at revival, like Dresden’s or Manchester’s for example, involved making the places attractive for ambitious and creative people to move to.

Now, as Richard Florida and Daniel Finkelstein have observed, that the age of capital-intensive mass manufacturing is over, people don’t move to jobs, but jobs move to where the people are. This means that expanded to include schools, childcare, decent housing, good entertainment and other things that make it easier to have a good life in a town or city, matter more than glitzy new stations. Get these things right and private capital will follow.

This is not to say that depressed areas cannot benefit from financial help, but that if public spending-based revival is to work, it has to be done in a way that enhances the power of the communities into which it is invested, rather than turning them into recipients of the end result of central government cheques paid to large infrastructure companies. If not we’ll end up with a load of melancholy mini-Napleses, but without Neapolitan food, sunshine, or views of Vesuvius.

33 comments for: Garvan Walshe: Italian governments have failed to revive Naples for centuries. What are the lessons for its British equivalents?

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