How do we maintain the value of localism in the face of the cuts and public discontent?
The localism bill I have been waiting for, for a long time, was set to be revealed last month. A little late or not, I should be excited and I should feel like my hometown has just had a “big win”. Handing power back to communities definitely gets a big tick from me. Greater local decision-making, tick. More local growth, tick. New powers to help save local facilities, yes please. Increased financial autonomy, about time.
Localism is an ideology that has a lot of clout. It represents the values of community, diversity and devolved power which are gaining in public and political support. But is the localism bill actually likely to bring a genuine move towards stronger and more powerful communities at all? Will its loftiness and lack of detail cause confusion instead of action as it did with the Big Society? Will its exciting promises turn out to be unachievable because of the cuts? Will its core principles be undermined as the argument that it represents another fig-leaf for the cuts takes centre stage in the debate? Worse still, is it a fig-leaf for the cuts?
The murmurs of discontent on the blogosphere and in the media, as well as the highly publicised derision of the bill by Labour MP Chris Williamson as the NIMBY’s charter, suggest that it is not being understood as a serious move towards localism. The thousands attending the anti-cuts marches in Nottingham and Gloucester recently as well as the on-going student protests all indicate that localism and the bill itself are not really going to get much press. The fact that its publication has been delayed by “parliamentary congestion” creates a doubt that this is the good, honest move towards localism I was hoping for; it’s certainly not a priority.
If you look at the outlines of the localism bill published so far by Number 10, they’re quite clear on what is going to be abolished. They also boldly state that local government and local people will get more power and autonomy. What the bill, as published so far, is not so clear on is what systems and funding are going to be put in place to fill the void of what will be abolished or support people to make changes. Political commentator Julian Dobson highlights well quite how unhelpful local power and ‘rights’ are for communities without money or legislation to help them counteract market forces.
For localism to really work there will need to be systems and funding to support the transition. The tick list at the beginning of this article won’t be realised just because some institutional barriers and structures are taken away and because somebody says it will. The practical barriers caused by lack of time, power, energy, knowledge, money and leadership will inevitably create obstacles that will need to be addressed, even more so for the most deprived areas. The RTPI have already issued their concerns on this point and furthermore they fear that the proposed removal of regional planning systems, without investment into the skills and infrastructure needed to build new stronger ones locally, could not only prevent localism but actually impede national economic growth and recovery.
It could be that the delayed release of the bill has been caused by government ensuring that it is not an additional blank canvas, but a well thought-out proposal that actually grants local people the opportunities and the resources they need to power the changes they want. I hope so.
There is a lot of noise and discontent at the moment, and if the government wants this bill to be taken seriously, to genuinely be about – and most importantly to inspire – localism, they will have to make sure that some clear plans for implementation and support are in place. Among the public and local government there is little more energy for slashing and burning. We need guidance or support or resources, or even better all three. If the bill doesn’t have this, we are highly likely be a nation of local communities; we will be a nation of dying communities.
By Rachel Aveyard