Local Government and Localism
Local Government is one of the most resilient and flexible features of our democratic model. It exists in a fully functioning form in places as disparate as Devon and Lewisham. Despite the great criticism that local government often has to endure from ministers over inefficiency and poor practice, the expectation that severe cuts to funding can go hand in hand with a steady or improved quality of service is more realistic for local government than any other sector.
This flexibility will be greatly tested in the coming years. It would be easy for many local authorities, faced with arduous cuts to their finance and hostile ministers like Eric Pickles to deal with, to slip into an awkward and permanent retrenchment. Hawking off public services to the lowest bidder and governing themselves entirely by the balance sheet is a likely route for many local authorities. Whilst this approach might lead to increased sharing of services, and greater efficiency – to be directed only by financial prudence is not enough. Local authorities must do more.
Localism is the title given to the government’s flagship piece of legislation aimed at reforming local governance. Within the Localism Bill, currently in the House of Lords, there are plans to relax planning legislation and give powers to neighbourhood groups that exist below the county, district and parish level. There are also plans to increase the autonomy of councils by giving them a general power of competence.
The provisions of the Bill give us some idea of what Localism might mean to the coalition government; more opportunity for groups within communities to influence the policies that shape the places in which they live, and more responsibility for local authorities, are certainly a couple of these. But what localism should mean to local activists and local communities is simply local empowerment. A commitment to localism ought to stem from the belief that solutions to some of our staunchest problems can be found by establishing and improving our local institutions and relationships. Why should voter apathy, disinterest and scepticism be the priority of the major parties of central government alone? Local councils and representatives of every party must have a duty to energise democracy in their areas. As much as local government is about rubbish collection and parking restrictions, it is also about helping residents improve the quality of their lives for themselves and this gives local authorities a wide remit. Local representatives should be leading the charge for greater democratisation and influence for local people as a priority rather than complaining about financial austerity and reacting to whatever emanates from Parliament.
The rhetoric of the Big Society is promising; it seems that central government is looking to local government to oversee a transition to more active and thoughtful citizenship. Local authorities need to be inspired by this vote of confidence and also push the limits of the Big Society for the good of their communities. If people can truly be engaged in local decisions and the provision of their own services then that would be a real victory for localism. The very best councils are turning the urgency of budgetary pressures into a positive and changing their communities for the better.
In Warwickshire five libraries are share locations with local district or borough councils and act as one-stop shops. Two other libraries have recently been altered to accommodate on-site children’s centres with others providing a police enquiry service and a base for Revenue and Customs.
Sophia Looney, Director of Policy at Lambeth Council spoke to a guardian journalist last month about a scheme for young people in the borough. She said that in Lambeth, a youth service was already being delivered from the front room of a Streatham resident. The project, which [had] started because of concerns that this resident had about her son getting involved in antisocial activities, delivered results that would normally be associated with £100,000 projects. Even so, this project only costs £20,000 to run.
This example is more akin to the grassroots action and motivation that one would associate with a political campaign rather than a public service scheme. It proves that people do have the drive to provide services in their local areas, and that local solutions for problems that affect us all can be incredibly effective and efficient.
It is this – a far more energised, exciting and radical idea of the role and responsibilities of the local authority that must be the future of localism. Instead of acting as the baby brother of national representatives, local government must have a fully fledged identity that is separate from the machinations of Westminster and Whitehall.