Sunday, 6 July 2014

W(h)ither "localism"?

There have been several pieces in the press of late about the 'big idea' of 'localism':

From today's Sunday Telegraph, an editorial and a piece on how to cope with flooding by "thinking globally but acting locally":

Using payments for ecosystems services (PES) to reduce flood risk on a national scale will require expertise from many different disciplines, from economists, planners and sociologists to engineers and ecologists. The challenge requires a co-ordinated response from government bodies including Defra, the Environment Agency, the Treasury, the Forestry Commission, and the Department for Communities and Local Government, as well as non-governmental organisations such as the National Farmers Union and Woodland Trust.

Localism is an important part of the PES picture. Communities directly affected by flooding, for example, might consider a local levy to fund investments that benefit them. Rivers do not adhere to administrative boundaries so money raised in one jurisdiction may need to be invested in another to reap the expected benefits.

The negotiations required to instigate such measures are complex, but not impossible. Coping with extreme weather will require putting a familiar concept into action: thinking globally but acting locally. We need to rethink traditional binary positions of hard-engineered defences versus soft natural flood risk management. Innovative combinations of both are required to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

Thinking globally but acting locally - Business Reporter
From austerity comes a bold, new Britain - Telegraph

From yesterday's Western Morning News, suggesting that "loosening Whitehall’s vice-like grip on power is easier said than done":

Every city should have its own Joseph Chamberlain, the 19th century reformer who transformed local government – and Birmingham – by re-imagining how local government works.

That's what Labour wants, and if they win the election it could be what we get. Possibly.

Chamberlain borrowed money to buy the local gas and water works, and used the profits to transform squalid corners of Britain's second biggest city. Lord Adonis wants councils, in cahoots with local business, to do the same.

The Labour peer and Cabinet minister under Gordon Brown was recruited by Ed Miliband to carry out a review into boosting economies outside of London. It reported last week and the Labour leader accepted much of the Adonis Review, notably proposals to let combined “super-councils” have control of local business rates.

This is where the Chamberlain bit really kicks in. Rather than councils deciding what day your bins are picked up, Labour wants them to be “regional economic powerhouses”. Bombastic stuff for the world of municipal politics.

Put simply, if councils implement policies that encourage firms to start up, expand or relocate, that area gets to keep the added tax they generate, rather than give it back to the Treasury. More money that can be spent, say, on Chamberlain-like good works. Which all sounds self-evidently like a good idea. So good, in fact, regional devolution – or “localism” to use political-ese – is already happening.

The coalition have their own Lord Adonis in the form of Michael Heseltine, or Lord Heseltine. He’s already suggested that Whitehall relinquish power and money to the regions. Coincidence or not, there is expected to be something of a red letter day for the Heseltine agenda next week. Ministers will unveil details of where the first round of a £10 billion hand-me-down to the regions to build roads and railway lines and develop skills will be thrown.

They will be called Growth Deals. The far South West is looking for a piece of the action (two major bids are in, one from Devon and Somerset, the other from Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly) and we will see for the first time whether the coalition’s idea to pit region against region (a sort of Hunger Games in suits) will bring out the best in everyone or see some regions thrive while others perish.

So what’s different? Labour say they will go further with the Heseltine principles, offering regions £30 billion – three times more – and giving them extra powers over business rates. It’s an arms race, in effect. Which begs the question: if it is such a good idea why hasn’t it been done before? If we agree that local decisions are best made by local people, these are fine words. In reality, loosening Whitehall’s vice-like grip on power is easier said than done.

Cornwall business leaders were furious when London decided it wanted to seize control of £450 million of EU regeneration money earmarked for the Duchy – despite Cornwall having autonomy over its funding for 14 years.

Therein lies the rub. For every good reason a minister has to devolve power there’s a Sir Humphrey Appleby, or a Malcolm Tucker, with three other reasons why it’s a terrible one. Maybe if more of the civil service was located in the regions they would have a more trusting view.

Why, say, is Defra – the department for farming – not based in Devon, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in Liverpool, the home of The Beatles? The desire for strong civic leadership makes a good headline when people feel disenfranchised from politics, but the establishment’s distrust of the provinces runs too deep for it to be meaningful.

WESTMINSTER INSIDER: What impact can the rise of ‘localism’ really have? | Western Morning News

From Ian Birrell in the Guardian on Friday 4 July: "It is not enough just to devolve authority from Whitehall to town halls":

... the "big society", which began with a lofty desire to transform the relationship between state and citizens by giving away power. This much-maligned idea sought to use devolution and transparency to empower individuals, driving improvements in public services that too often let down the most disadvantaged. In France, it is being pushed by a thinktank fed up with the failures of fumbling socialists; in Britain, even charities see it as a dismal failure, according to a new survey.

Although rarely mentioned, traces of the core concept can still be detected in the coalition. They can be seen in the 24 "City Deals" transferring chunks of funding and control to local communities, pioneered with a Labour mayor in Liverpool, patiently pursued by Greg Clark in the Cabinet Office and now purloined by Lord Adonis in his growth review.

The paradox is that localism must be driven from the centre. Several key Tory ideologues quit government in frustration, driven out by a stifling combination of civil service complacency, establishment arrogance and political short-termism. In truth, few politicians paid more than lip service to the idea. It is also far more attractive to people in opposition scrabbling around for policies than those wrestling with the realities of government. "We seem to want localism and Bonapartism at the same time," says one cabinet minister drily.

Now we see Labour going through similar contortions. Jon Cruddas, the thoughtful policy supremo, was intrigued when Tories in opposition began discussing ideas that dovetailed with some of his views on devolution. But a leaked conversation has revealed his fears that bold proposals to disperse power may be blocked by party leaders, contrasting the "hope and optimism from some thinkers on the left" with the ability of politicians to deliver change.

We live in a consumerist age driven by digital disruption, with constrained budgets against a backdrop of deep scepticism over politics. As Cruddas argues, the new political faultline lies between statist conservatives clinging to centralised control and liberal modernisers ready to let go. It is not enough just to devolve authority from Whitehall to town halls; on both left and right, politicians should seek power today only to give it back to the people. But which party will fully grasp this?

What happened to those lofty Tory ideals of the big society? | Ian Birrell | Comment is free | The Guardian

Also from Friday and how Warton Residents Against Poor Planning (WRAPP) - a community group near Blackpool - have made localism a central plank to their campaign on housing:

The Localism Act 2011 introduced new powers allowing parish councils to draw up neighbourhood plans to give people more control over the development of their local area.
Show of strength in housing battle - Blackpool Gazette

And from Sebastian Payne in the Spectator earlier in the week - an overview of how "all politicians love to talk up localism":

All political parties want to devolve powers to held bridge the North-South divide.

How much common ground do the political parties have on localism? As Isabel pointed out this morning, Labour and the Conservatives are engaged in an arms race to see who can out do the other on plans to devolve powers from central government. All politicians love to talk up localism — particularly in opposition, where there’s no Whitehall machine to deal with — but their dreams and slogans frequently change. This is what the three main parties have said, and currently believe, on empowering the regions:


In opposition, David Cameron put forward plans to devolve power in a more radical way than ever before. In the Conservatives’ 2010 manifesto, a section entitled ‘Make politics more local’ outlined their plans for doing this through elected mayors:

‘We will put neighbourhoods in charge of planning the way their communities develop, with incentives in favour of sustainable development. We will make it easier for everyone to get onto the housing ladder. We will give individuals and local government much more power, allow communities to take control of vital services, and give people the chance to have a powerful, elected mayor in England’s largest cities.’

The implementation of elected mayors didn’t go to plan in government. A referendum was held two years ago and only a handful of cities said yes. As I wrote in the Spectator earlier this year, it’s a shame England didn’t vote for more elected mayors. It could have been a great opportunity to give mayors much needed control over their own areas.

George Osborne is still a fan of localism, as seen in his ‘Northern powerhouse’speech last week. The Chancellor has advocated building a high speed railway between Manchester and Leeds; to help the Northern cities build better links and work together to further their interests. Through improved infrastructure, careful planning and united politicians, the Chancellor believes the north will be able to take on London.

It’s likely more devolution commitments (along these lines) will feature in the next Tory manifesto.


Andrew Adonis’ growth review released today argues for a ‘really big package’ of devolution to rebalance England’s economy. Under his proposals, £6 billion a year of transport, housing, welfare and infrastructure budgets would be devolved from central government to councils or combined authorities. Adonis has also proposed creating 100 ‘University Technical Colleges’ and giving more procurement contracts to SMEs.

Sound familiar? Labour’s proposals are along the same lines as the Tories, although arguably more radical. The cities minister Greg Clark suggested on the World at One that today’s announcement is really just Labour backing the government’s devolution plans.

This isn’t Labour’s first attempt at giving more powers to the regions — remember John Prescott’s regional assemblies? The one and only vote lead to 78 per cent of the North East saying no to his idea of an extra layer of government.

Liberal Democrats

At the party’s spring conference, a motion was carried on a policy paper which would allow cities to have ‘devolution on demand’. A council (or grouping of them) with at least one million inhabitants could apply to Whitehall for devolution. If successful, the council would be granted similar powers to Wales.

There’s one area that’s very keen on this idea: Cornwall. The Lib Dem proposals would offer ‘immediate devolution to Cornwall’, according to the Local Government Chronicle. It isn’t clear if any other councils would be interested in begging for devolution.

Briefing: The three main parties' offers on localism » Spectator Blogs

See also:
Futures Forum: "An appetite for stronger local democratic institutions"
Futures Forum: Localism: The uses and abuses of power: "No politician willingly surrenders control downwards."
Futures Forum: Relocalisation
Futures Forum: "Helping to drive and deliver many localist actions such as the community rights, the general power of competence and neighbourhood planning."
Futures Forum: Neighbourhood plans... and planning for a low-carbon economy
Futures Forum: "Promoting local economic activity, local services and facilities, social and community wellbeing and environmental protection"

No comments: