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. Continue reading

Conceptual spaghetti: or why the Big Society won’t work.

It’s been over three years now since the Big Society was first launched at the Hugo Young Lecture in December 2009. Since that time there have been countless articles dissecting David Cameron’s flagship idea, and it’s fair to say that the majority of these articles have been negative. In some respects the Big Society is a blank canvas onto which various parties have projected their own fears. The lack of a clear message from Number 10 means that in some quarters it is seen as little more than a joke.

But this is a naive view: at it’s best the Big Society can be seen as an inducement for citizens to volunteer and do good, but at it’s worst it is a dangerous gamble predicated on the hope that the third sector can provide core public services. More often than not policies such as these are simply regarded in functionalist terms as indicative of cuts to public expenditure. Indeed it is now an established argument to see the Big Society as an ideological fig-leaf used to cover up the deep and destructive spending cuts currently being implemented (Corbett & Walker, 2012). An agenda it may be, but the Big Society suffers from it’s own problems too. Continue reading