The trouble with the ‘New’ Localism

I recently attended an excellent seminar at Birkbeck, University of London discussing the emergence of the ‘new’ localism agenda in UK politics. The panel considered some interesting questions concerning the nature of the state/citizen relationship, and whilst there was predictable disparity between the views on offer, it became increasingly clear that under the Coalition government, the UK is well on a path to localism. This article discusses some of the emerging issues and considerable challenges with implementing the localism agenda.

Phillip Blond, director of the think tank ResPublica, began with the increasingly popular view that representative democracy is failing. In Blond’s opinion this has come about in part because the New Labour project of centralisation prioritised the unobtainable goal of universal provision, encouraging a non-responsive and rigid system of service supply. The answer to this in Blond’s view is to establish ‘hyper local’ institutions that can develop accountability at community level. The problem here is that the Big Society – a set of initiatives that Blond was instrumental in developing – is predicated on just such a system, and it has already failed. Blond argues that this failure is attributable to the lack of a universal platform at local level for devolving power to communities. This is no doubt because in order to provide such a platform, local government requires funding. Contrary to intuition, establishing voluntary services and social enterprises is as expensive, if not more expensive than local authorities providing services themselves.

This view was touched upon by Professor Gerry Stoker, who himself was integral in the introduction of the ‘new localism’ movement a decade ago (Corry and Stoker, 2002). Stoker believes that the movement has enjoyed a short rhetorical victory, though ultimately this has turned out to be pyrrhic. Whilst localism is currently in vogue, it is being swamped by spending cuts as the Government carries out its austerity drive. Stoker claims that ‘none of the political elite really believe in localism’ and provided reasons why that may be the case. There are two traditional arguments in favour of localism: better responsiveness (in service delivery) and increased civil engagement – but neither of these benefits are being delivered. When competences are devolved to a local level, the argument goes that authorities are better situated to respond to local needs and better equipped to meet those needs. Moreover, local government has a good spending record whilst Whitehall is fiscally irresponsible. However, the current incarnation of localism in the UK has not been able to implement flexible systems of service provision as the local government network is a hugely complicated web of agencies and regulators. This makes change in the local government arena an extremely difficult feat.

The second classic argument for localism goes that local level decision making allows citizens to become more engaged in civil society and consequently more empowered. Derived from J.S. Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government (1861) this argument has a significant history, however most evidence seems to suggest that only a very small percentage of people actually become involved when genuine opportunities for civic engagement are offered (Professor Tony Wright noted that in his community there is little interest in public initiatives unless it involves objecting to planning proposals). Ultimately people want a voice in local matters but they do not want to be enveloped into formal systems of accountability. The traditional arguments in favour of localism are not being realised and until they are demonstrably proven, the public will remain sceptical of such a significant shift toward localism in government policy.

Professor Stoker also contended that within policy circles there is a perpetual desire to create ‘the new grand narrative’ (as indeed he did in 2002). What is truly needed instead is not big ideas but evidenced based policy, systematically collated and gradually introduced. Jessica Crowe, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, mooted that the desire for grand narratives should be replaced with a culture of accountability emanating from Whitehall and out to local government. Crowe argued that presently there is no desire from Whitehall to relinquish power (as witnessed by the centrally run DWP welfare reform program), echoing Stoker’s belief that political elite is not truly behind the localist agenda.

What the true beliefs of Whitehall’s elites are is hard to fathom – what is easier to evidence is the legislation being rolled out by the government. Blond highlighted the recently enacted Social Value Act (2012) as perhaps one of the most significant pieces of Coalition legislation to date. This act requires public authorities to account for social and environmental value when choosing suppliers – instead of focusing solely on each bid’s bottom line. It is hoped these new considerations will prevent the ‘race to the bottom’ in public service delivery that many have fearfully predicted. Revealingly, this legislation has enjoyed cross-party support and has been described by the Chief Executive of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations as a ‘little gem’. Speaking in The Guardian, the minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd argued that the Social Value Act offered the opportunity for charities and social enterprises to ‘unlock a pubic services market dominated by big corporations’. The consideration of social value in local authority contracts is an important step, however it remains to be seen how social value measures up to the ever-present demand of balancing the books. Perhaps social value should be the central priority for local authorities and not simply a consideration.

In some respects the seminar’s message was a confused one: the UK is well on the road to localism, but it’s not really working. The apparent cross-party consensus (Labour released its own ‘One Nation’ version of Localism this month) suggests that there could be a genuine move away from the traditional centralised, top-down method of governance – perhaps closer to an emphasis on what Will Davies (2012) termed ‘neocommunitarianism’ in an excellent article on the possibilities of life after neo-liberalism. Localism as an agenda is by no means inevitable, but the signs are that the communitarian consensus is here to stay – the job now is making it work.


The ‘New’ Localism seminar was hosted by the Department of Politics, Birkbeck, University of London. The panel consisted of Dr Jason Edwards Jessica Crowe, Professor Gerry Stoker and Phillip Blond and was chaired by Professor Tony Wright.

References

Corry, D. and Stoker, G. (2002) New localism: refashioning the centre-local relationship, London, The New Local Government Network.

Davies, W. (2012) ‘The Emerging Neocommunitarianism’, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 83 (4), pp767-776.

By Matthew Wargent.
You can find out more about Matthew on our contributors page.

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