Localism shouldn’t be a drain on democracy

When the Tories introduced the localism bill it was supposedly going to lead to a new era for local democracy which would in effect hand power back to local communities.

Even some of my colleagues (not in the Conservative Party) on the LGA were hopeful that we might see some significant change.

We now know that the guise of localism has been stolen for a set of proposals that are fundamentally anti democratic and whilst there have been many criticisms of the coalition’s policies in terms of cutbacks to services and unnecessary bureaucracy I also have a belief that there is an insidious thread running through the government’s policies.

At their heart is a philosophy that actually denies democratic accountability and if we look, for example, at the education and NHS reforms we see that they have much in common.

They are ostensibly about re-empowering the professionals, and in the first instance no one would disagree with this as a principle. However, the problems begin when decisions cannot be challenged or effectively scrutinised.

As a councillor it is already difficult to explain to people that you have no direct power over a multitude of organisations, but this will increasingly get worse in the future as I will also have to explain that there is nothing I can do about the local school or health facilities. The nature of these reforms is to take us backwards to an era where people are told to be grateful for what they are given and that they have little or no influence over the decisions that have been made for them.

It is a short journey from this position to the Tory view of what the Big Society is about. It starts with an assumption that the state should shrink and continues with a presumption in favour of services being provided for a community rather than by a community.

I am a strong advocate of the involvement of the voluntary sector, but on the basis of a contractual relationship with the democratic state. I am not a supporter of organisations being parachuted into communities and providing services without any real links to the people on the ground. It is why so many community activists feel uneasy about the idea that a self-defined organisation can be brought in to run services.

The common thread in the coalition government’s policies I strongly believe amounts to the de-democratisation of local communities. Let us take some obvious examples from the last four months; the government’s announcement that councils would not be able to collect fines for fly-tipping and other abuses is hardly the high point of coalition policy.

Secondly, the announcement that local councils cutting voluntary sector grants would be subject to central scrutiny may in the short term please the voluntary sector, but in the long term as local authorities avoid engagement with the sector it will backfire at their expense.

Next month the face of local government is likely to be transformed, admittedly to a large extent because of the unrest in relation to national issues. What I would like to do in the my next article, rather than picking holes in the coalition government’s anti democratic policies, is to suggest ways to renew our commitment to localism.


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