The localist dream
As evidence from neighbourhood planning forums show, civic localism in the UK is uneven and flawed. But can devolution and municipal localism fare better? Susan Downer finds out
Politicians need us. Even those who call us bigoted, joke about shooting us and insist there is no such thing as society. They need us to vote, to work, to respect the rule of law and, increasingly, to get involved in our local communities.
As localism rises up the agenda, communities are becoming the places where complex social issues are solved, and citizens are being recruited to solve them.
Liam Booth-Smith, chief executive of think tank Localis, says: ‘Across the political spectrum for the last 15 years localism has been treated as the answer to a problem that politicians cannot understand: Why is economic development so uneven? Why do cycles of deprivation persist? Really complex stuff has been pushed down to a local level because very clever people have said we can’t do this from Whitehall, people nearer the problem will better understand it and have better solutions.
‘The push for localism under Labour was municipalism. Under David Cameron it was about empowering people through neighbourhood planning, free schools etc. Get the state out of the way and allow communities to take over. When you have a degree of social capital this can be effective, but in places where there is no social capital it has not happened.’
Civic localism can widen inequalities
Social capital (local connections, networks and relationships) provides the building blocks to successful localism. Those engaged in volunteering and participation are referred to as a civic core. Analysis of this group by Birmingham University found they were largely prosperous, middle aged and highly educated people living in the least deprived areas.
This unequal distribution of capacity can severely test the viability of localism. Jane Wills, a geography professor at Queen Mary University of London, looked at the experiences of three neighbourhood planning forums in different parts of the country: Exeter St James (a desirable residential area with a high student population); Highgate, a leafy well-heeled London suburb; and the poorer old industrial area of Holbeck in Leeds.
All three forums started in 2011 or 2012. Exeter developed its plan quickly and held a successful referendum in 2013. Highgate moved mountains, secured a change in the law to enable it to operate across two boroughs and produced a plan in 2015, but at the end of three years of work Holbeck still hadn’t been able to publish a draft plan.
‘What the government is really devolving
is responsibility for economic success or failure’
The story of how Maggy Meade-King, the first chair of the Highgate forum, used her skills as a former political lobbyist and community activist to win support for the plan is recounted in the research as an example of the tangible difference that social capital and a strong civic core can make to the success or failure of the localism agenda.
It stands in contrast to the experience of Holbeck where networks of residents’ associations and social groups were relatively weak and many of those involved lived outside the district. The initiative for the forum didn’t come from the Holbeck community itself but from the local authority which wanted a forum in a poorer area to balance those in richer suburban and rural parishes. The council struggled to get people interested and involved, and remained in the driving seat out of necessity, trying to ‘fill a vacuum in local civic capacity’.
And herein lies a danger. For those who most rely on public services the loss or curtailment of those services in the name of freedom, empowerment and democracy might not be matched by a corresponding increase in community initiative. A consequence of localism could therefore be widening inequalities.
If that is the case, what the government is really devolving is responsibility for economic success or failure, perhaps on the grounds that we only really find our strength and learn how to survive when we have no safety net, perhaps because their own socio-cultural inheritance is of areas with a strong civic core and that’s the way they think it is or should be; or perhaps because communities that fail will blame themselves or question the competence of local bodies rather than take issue with the core values, choices and biases built into the system.
Local infrastructure and capacity in short supply
Professor Wills believes localism can engage communities when there is something tangible at stake. ‘Neighbourhood planning has highlighted that if we put something serious on the table and give communities some genuine power, people will engage.
‘In Britain we have a proud history of setting up civic organisations to meet local needs. In the past trade unions were significant in providing a forum for working class people to learn civic skills. Where is the infrastructure for people to learn those skills now?’
Her research found no basic representative structure at neighbourhood level in three quarters of the country.
‘In rural areas there are parish councils but in urban areas there is no representative structure to engage people in local decision making. If [localism] is going to develop a head of steam there is a massive question about the institutions we have.’
The inference here is that localism can’t be a single approach or a short-term initiative, and it can’t be a means of providing public services on the cheap. It involves a building of infrastructure and capacity, outside of local authority structures.
Citizens UK is one body which aims to develop skills and leadership capacity in disadvantaged areas outside of government structures. It runs a six-day community organising training programme covering issues such as leadership, negotiation, self-interest, power, and relationship building. It organises peoples and campaigns for change on issues such as jobs, housing, pay and asylum.
Deputy director Matthew Bolton says: ‘Our methods of influencing decision making are usually outside the established consultation pathways. They usually involve large numbers of people in a local place evidencing their idea for change through a creative public event and using media coverage to get the attention and build a relationship with a decision making body. Our success in influencing things stands on how effective we are at organising people and the power of the interests that oppose us.’
The Living Wage campaign, which has led to a significant increase in remuneration for low paid workers across the UK, is the group’s biggest success to date.
The 2011 localism act gave the London mayor power over housing investment and economic development. This provided an opportunity for London Citizens (a branch of Citizens UK) to present its manifesto on affordable housing to London Mayor, Sadiq Khan. Mr Khan has agreed to 50% affordable housing targets on Greater London Authority land (35% on non GLA land) and to consult on the Living Rent policy which would see no more than one third of income spent on rent. But, says Mr Bolton, because the mayor’s powers are limited he is in no position to fully deliver local solutions.
‘When you consider the scale of the housing crisis and the power of an industry of developers who control so much of the house building in London, it is difficult to see quite how to form systemic change.’ Things get much more complicated when the role of the private sector is added into the mix.
Further dimensions to that complexity are the impact of population churn (in 10 London Boroughs 50% of the population changes every five years) and the failure of some areas to retain the most economically productive individuals.
Municipal localism on the rise
So what version of localism is on the horizon? With areas such as Greater Manchester poised to elect a new mayor, some commentators see a cooling towards Big Society localism in favour of the version of localism set out in the localism act, which centres on devolution to locally elected mayors and city deals and power to cut local business rates in order to attract business.
At least initially, this municipal localism may face some of the same issues as community localism: the quality of leadership will be crucial, much of what happens will depend on the maturity of the politics in the area and mayors and their teams will need a better understanding of the task at hand.
A spokesperson for the IPPR think tank says there is a great deal of potential for communities to hold the mayor to account. Communities have already come together to form the Greater Manchester People’s Plan looking at what the mayor should be doing and the stage is set for an almost inevitable conflict over building on green belt land. Depending on how such conflicts are handled localism could ultimately reproduce the same sense of alienation from the political system that we see at national level.
Citing a Localis report to be published in March, The Making of an Industrial Strategy, Mr Booth-Smith says the emerging localism should centre on empowering and enabling municipal bodies to deliver an industrial strategy that connects prosperous areas to less prosperous areas within their locality. Currently many areas are treading water with no real sense of purpose, nibbling on the false hope that everywhere can be prosperous while slowly dying.
For the next phase of localism to work and for economic development policy to work, national and local policymakers will have to admit something that no UK leader has ever admitted: that the goal of buoyant economic growth across every area of the country is a pipe dream.