Power to the people? The renewed importance of localism in England today

In her new book Locating Localism: Statecraft, citizenship and democracy academic and today’s guest blogger Jane Wills, takes a thorough look at the history and geography of the British state, its internal divisions of political power and the emergence of localism as a new form of statecraft. In the aftermath of the EU referendum and the rapid appointment of Theresa May as Prime Minister Wills explains why now more than ever the localism debate needs to be brought to the fore….

Jane Wills

Jane Wills, Queen Mary, University of London

In her speech on the steps of Downing Street on 13th July 2016, our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, promised to govern in the interests of the whole country, staking her tent on the middle ground.  In committing to govern in the interests of the many not the few she promised to “do everything we can to give you more control over your lives”.

This call for ‘control’ played large in the EU referendum as well. The leave campaigners argued that it was time to ‘take back control’ and now Theresa May is promising to ‘give us control’. There are few details about what this control will look like but in many ways the language is in keeping with debates that were already well underway.

This language is generally a short-hand for more complex debates about changing the relationship between citizens and the state, increasing the opportunities for people to exercise choice in their lives, and ensuring people having the power to shape the development of their local communities. This is the language of localism and it reverberates in relation to developments at the national and city-regional scales, as well in relation to changes in neighbourhoods and communities.

Locating Localism

Increasing numbers of commentators, politicians and citizens now recognise the dangers of the growing gap between the people and those who purport to represent them. Some of the key players in the Labour governments after 1997, in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government after 2010 as well as in the current regime, had committed themselves to increased devolution and localism as a result.

Indeed, the opening words of the Coalition agreement for government declared that: ‘the days of big Government are over; that centralization and top-down control have proved a failure’.

They pitched localism as a way to reverse ‘successive waves of centralisation [that] have pushed Westminster politics and Whitehall bureaucracy into aspects of public life that once belonged to local people and communities’ (Cameron and Clegg, 2010, 4). Since the Conservatives won their parliamentary majority in 2015, they have executed ambitious devolution deals with a number of cities and counties, with Manchester leading the way.

The referendum result should give greater impetus to this policy shift.

Genuine powers

While localism has, thus far, largely been a top-down project to decentralise political power towards local institutions and local people, through my research I found it works best when people are given genuine powers to shape what happens in their neighbourhood.

Most obviously demonstrated by the new rights to neighbourhood planning implemented in the Localism Act (2011) whereby people have statutory powers to engage in planning, the shift in power relations explains why this has worked much better than previous efforts to engage and consult that left all the power in the hands of the state.

However, the emerging landscape of localist policy making and practice has exposed the need to pay much greater attention to the civic infrastructure that exists to bring together the diversity of people and organisations in any neighbourhood.

In my new book Locating Localism: Statecraft, citizenship and democracy I report on research conducted into four different forms of localism (neighbourhood community budgets, a cooperative council, neighbourhood planning and community organising). Unexpectedly, all of them exposed the need to have a fully representative neighbourhood forum that was able to reflect local opinion, to mediate with local power-brokers (the state and corporate interests) and to mount any necessary challenges to the status quo.

As such, the research endorses the campaign being developed by the National Association for Local Councils (NALC, 2015) and it echoes earlier calls made by Michael Young and others, to set up meaningful community councils in un-parished urban areas in England (Baker and Young, 1971).

Pioneering

While NALC report that some 250 new councils have been founded since the turn of the century, national reforms could make it easier to set up a council, and once secured, to make it more enticing to get more involved. Locating Localism looks at the pioneering work of Queen’s Park Community Council in West London, and argues much more could be done to support new work at this scale. There is also scope to learn lessons from areas where local people have put together a non-partisan slate based on a shared desire to improve the operation and impact of the existing local council (MacFadyen, 2014; see also, http://www.indie-town.uk/).

In towns like Frome in Somerset, local democracy has been revitalised by residents organising themselves to stand on non-partisan platforms in order to secure control of the council. Groups like Independents for Frome are using the structures of representative democracy to galvanise the local community and get things done. Taking control of existing structures is one way to do it but in most parts of the country, people need to organise themselves to create the civic structures through which they might then be able to act, and they will need government support in this work.

A Localist Future?

There is a danger that the machinations to remove ourselves from the EU will overshadow the imperative of addressing the pressing questions about political geography that actually underpinned the referendum result. It is clear that people do care about politics but many of them don’t feel well-represented by their politicians and they don’t feel they are heard. Localist statecraft is a way to address this political gap, to bring political decision making closer to local people, to give them a genuine say in what happens in their neighbourhood and to allow them to play a part in good government. If Theresa May is to give us more control over our lives then we can usefully learn the lessons of efforts to promote localist statecraft and citizenship in the past.

My research suggests that localism requires giving people genuine powers to act to ensure there is something significant at stake in engaging. It also highlights the need for a new wave of institution building at the neighbourhood scale such that people are able to engage. In some places, resource will be needed to help organise people to build such institutions and to foster activity at the neighbourhood scale. There is still a lot of work to be done.

References
Baker, J. and Young, M. (1971) The Hornsey plan: A role for neighbourhood councils in the new local government. London: Association for Neighbourhood Councils
Cameron, D. and Clegg, N. (2010) Foreward in The Coalition: Our programme for Government. London: Cabinet Office and HM Government
MacFadyen, P. (2014) Flatpack democracy: A DIY guide to creating independent politics. Bath: Eco-logic Books
NALC (National Association of Local Councils) (2015) Devo-local: A white paper for empowering and strengthening local democracy. London: NALC

Locating localism [FC]Locating Localism: Statecraft, citizenship and democracy by Jane Wills can be purchased here from the Policy Press website for special 20% discounted price £19.99.

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