The Rise and Death of Localism
Published by Colin Wiles on Monday, September 10th, 2012 at 10:38 am
In 1873 Joseph Chamberlain was elected Mayor of Birmingham. Over the next hectic three years he purchased the gas and water companies and required every property to connect to the water supply. He set out six public parks, paved and lit the streets, cleared slums, built new roads, libraries and museums, regenerated the city centre and created an efficient public transport system. At the end of his tenure, Birmingham had been transformed.
One hundred years ago, local authorities could get things done, free from central control. How times have changed. In the post-war years local government has seen its powers to tax and spend significantly reduced. Increasingly, local authorities are seen as mere agents of Whitehall. Some local authorities have fought a rearguard action – Clay Cross councillors defied the government over rent increases in the seventies, several local authorities, including Lambeth and Derek Hatton’s Liverpool, defied the government over rate-capping in the eighties. But might is right and central government has always come out on top. As a result, local democracy has wasted away. Fewer people vote in local elections and the calibre of councillors has gone down.
The Localism Act was supposed to change all this. When the Act was passed last November Eric Pickles decribed it as:
“… an historic shift of power from Whitehall to every community to take back control of their lives. The Localism Act pulls down the Whitehall barricades so it will no longer call the shots over communities…For too long, local people were held back and ignored because Whitehall thought it knew best. That is changing for good.”
Planning Minister Greg Clark added, for good measure:
"For the best part of a hundred years Parliament has been passing laws that increase the Government's powers at the expense of people and communities. This historic Act begins to reverse a hundred years of centralisation. It puts power into the hands of citizens, community groups and local councils.”
Well here we are barely three hundred days in and the drawbridge of localism has been pulled back up into the central governement castle. Last week’s announcement by Eric Pickles contained this statement:
“The Localism Act has put the power to plan back in the hands of communities, but with this power comes responsibility: a responsibility to meet their needs for development and growth, and to deal quickly and effectively with proposals that will deliver homes, jobs and facilities.”
So it’s the same old story. Localism is conditional - you can act locally, but it has to be on our terms not yours. Mr Pickles’ statement went on to announce major changes in housing and planning policy – including the freedom to build conservatories and extensions and the end of affordable housing provision in section 106 agreements – none of which had been subject to consultation with local authorities or local communities. So it’s business as usual. Government sets the rules and local authorities dance to their tune. The relaxation on extensions and conservatories, in particular, may end up becoming the very antithesis of localism – the new rules (or lack of rules) could set neighbour against neighbour and create friction and conflict within communities.
On the face of it, the Localism Act contains many fine provisions to encourage local engagement – neighbourhood plans, assets of community value, the community right to challenge – but it remains to be seen how these provisions will be taken up by communities. I was always sceptical about some of these measures, guessing that they were more likely to be used by well-heeled, better off communities to protect themselves against development rather than the reverse. This quote about the “clued-up middle classes” from Lewisham councillor Mike Harris seems to bear this out. But, when push comes to shove, the Minister is likely to overturn localist decisions if they conflict significantly with his perception of the national interest. I’ve no big argument with that, because there comes a point when governments have to govern in the national interest and the notion that bottom-up decisions would somehow meet the nations’ needs for new homes and development is frankly misguided. It makes more sense to set national or regional targets and then allow local authorities the freedom to decide how they meet them.
Finally, let’s not forget that localism was the spawn of David Cameron’s Big Society – of which we have heard very little of late. My guess is that localism will wither on the vine, and we will hear little about it a couple of years from now.
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