Prologue – The bigger picture

The Localism Bill was presented by its sponsors, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Government, as a key part of a wider programme to effect  ‘a radical shift of power in the United Kingdom from the centralised state to local communities and ‘to move from Big Government to Big Society’(1:p1)

Introducing the Act in November 2011 the Government clearly stated:

We want to see a radical shift in the balance of power and to decentralise power as far as possible. Localism isn’t simply about giving power back to local government. This Government trusts people to take charge of their lives and we will push power downwards and outwards to the lowest possible level, including individuals, neighbourhoods, professionals and communities as well as local councils and other local institutions.(2)

The Act came with series of measures that are intended to ‘enact’ localism, including a series of Community Rights.

Much has been written about whether or not the measures outlined in the Act will actually achieve ‘localism’ as a ‘radical shift in power’, and exploring whether or not the main barriers will, ironically, come from  central government itself.  In ‘The World will be Your Oyster’  Professors George Jones and Professor John Stewart, conclude a series of articles on aspects of localism, by suggesting that;

The Government’s policies for localism are to be welcomed in principle but should be criticised in practice. While the Act contains a limited number of proposals for localism, they are set in a centralist framework based on the attitudes and practices dominant in the workings of central government. Centralism dominates localism in the Act, and the need for change in central government is not even recognised. Rather, centralism is entrenched by the many new powers, regulations and orders.

In addition there is a lack of clarity as to the relationship between decentralisation to local authorities and decentralisation to communities that, it is argued,  can be resolved only at local level, rather than by nationally-imposed decisions embedded in regulations. This is likely to be a site of contention over the next year or so as the implications of the Act are discussed and ways forward forged.

Again,  Professors Jones and Stewart offer their opinions:

Localism will not develop unless central government itself changes, yet there is no sign in the Act that such change is likely. It is drafted in a way that suggests the principle put forward by Nick Boles that decentralisation to communities depends on strong and independent local government has not even been recognised. Rather, the Act sees local authority relations with communities as requiring detailed controls, which far from strengthening local government would weaken it. Central government apparently knows no other way to act in local affairs than through command and control expressed in regulation, guidance and detailed prescription. If localism is to develop, central government has to learn new ways of doing things.

The ‘Bigger Picture’ provides the context within which councillors and people in communities operate and perceptions by them of the ‘things’ that will impact on progress towards understanding, interpreting and ‘delivering’ localism.

This is about anything ‘bigger’ than the elected member themselves. It includes: other people’s agendas, the wider context (political, economic, environmental), the culture of the Council, media, private sector, national agendas (including cuts), other initiatives: health, police commissioners, party politics.

An overall message that came over loud and clear suggested that there is a general confusion about how it will all pan out and mixed messages about who will have what power, to do what, when and how. Participants in the research commented:

‘Total’ confusion and uncertain of the expectations of Councils, Councillors and members of the local community

There’s so much change and a slight state of paralysis

…..mixed messages…….in spite of attempts to shed ‘unnecessary red tape’ by various means, some are concerned that it will lead to an increase in bureaucracy for local councils who will get the blame when things go wrong!

And, one group of councillors pointed out the irony that they weren’t consulted about the Locality Bill – top-down localism as they saw it!

What became apparent from our discussions is that if the principles behind ‘localism’ are to be enacted, substantial ‘cultural’ change is required – public sector mechanisms need to be set up to enable more authentic community engagement and involvement. One councillor said that as well as being risk averse, councils are not set up to work in ways that enable communities, although it is evident that some councils are rethinking how they do things and exploring new ways of working. In particular ‘silo working’ and being organised on the basis of ‘service delivery’ doesn’t translate when trying to encourage a community to develop a holistic community plan.

Overall though, there is a general feeling that there is a need for councillors to work more closely with communities, particularly at a time when there are and will be less financial resources, making it even more crucial that local people are involved in the decisions about how to allocate and maximise those resources.

And, in the light of recent ‘supermarket free for alls’ in many local towns, those we spoke to mostly felt very strongly that communities need to be protected from the ‘ravages of the private market’.  Some pointed out the dangers of the rise of both private and possibly even national voluntary sector organisations that will elbow out local interests and the implications of this for hearing local voices, particularly those that are heard less often.

It seems that there are many issues that need to be explored if the sentiments behind the Act are to become a reality and our ‘conversations’ (including interviews and focused discussions) with local councillors and people involved in both formal and informal local community based groups, certainly seem to raise more questions than answers. It’s fair to say that those we spoke to held a range of views – some seeing huge opportunities to change the landscape of our democracy and others feeling very cynical about whether there will be any change from ‘business as usual’.

What is clear though, from our primary research and other emerging commentaries is summed up in  People, Places, Power

We know the future of local government over the next few years will be shaped by two forces: a drive towards localism and the need to achieve efficiencies and cut spending in a challenging financial context…….if we are to prevent these drivers from pulling us in opposing directions we will need a fundamental shift in the way we think about local service delivery and the relationship between people, places and power.

Now have a look at what people said about how councillors see their role