The UK has become a prime case for the implementation of the ‘new governance’ of partnership between central government and civil society. This perspective has become central to New Labour policies for both local socio-economic regeneration and democratic renewal in the United Kingdom. However, limitations in its redistribution of power, its transparency in the policy-making process, including the representativeness of civil society participants, and, in the effectiveness of its outcomes have all been alleged by academic critics. These issues are explored by contrasting a robust, British case of local, participatory governance in Bristol with a quite different, and more conventional approach to democratic renewal in the Italian city of Naples. Despite similar problems of socio-economic dereliction and similar schemes of regeneration in the two cases, the Italian approach emphasized the exclusive role of a renewed constitutional democracy, while in Bristol central government agencies promoted an accentuation of local trends to participation by local civil society organizations. Applying an analytical framework composed of national policies and regulations, institutional rules and norms, and the collective ‘identity’ factors identified by social capital theory, governance changes are here treated as ‘exogenous shocks’ and/or as opportunities for choice. However, over and above differences in these institutional frameworks the key factors are shown to be the longer-standing political cultures influencing local actors and their own repertoires of action; with repertoires influenced by objective validations of previous policy choices, or economic or electoral successes. The study finds that the achievements of the ‘inclusive’, participative governance approach do not significantly exceed those of an exclusivist, ‘neo-constitutionalism’, as practised by a more autonomous local government in Naples. Thus, on this evidence, enhanced civil society engagement still requires greater freedom from central government direction.