A spectre is haunting Whitehall – the spectre of new localism. But rather than form an alliance to exorcise it, the forces of old Whitehall appear instead to have rallied to its cause. Something truly odd is afoot in SW1.
As with other ‘-isms’ that have gone before, new localism runs a real risk of becoming all things to all people – or at least all ministers and political parties. But it really is an idea of its time.
And those politicians who are driving it forward recognise that democratic politics – be it voting, active participation or mere interest – is more likely to enthuse the public when the focus of debate relates to their highly local concerns. When politics and policy become tangible, public engagement follows as sure as night follows day.
New localism, as conceived by the New Local Government Network, is essentially about devolving power and resources away from central government control and towards frontline managers, local democratic structures and local communities, within – and here’s the key – a framework of national minimum standards. It is not about a local free-for-all. Underpinning the ‘national framework’ is a desire to prevent more maverick administrations from alienating sections of the population.
A strong centre remains the best bulwark against both parochialism and political abuse.
New localism is also a way to ensure better service delivery, through having local institutions that are more responsive to local demands and circumstances, and can join up properly.
Such governance arrangements allow for both speedier delivery and speedier identification of system failure. The siren voices of centralism who accuse new localists of being anti-progress for putting diversity above the more wholesome pursuit of uniform service provision, are yet to explain how their monoliths will guarantee better dividends in terms of equity. They have also failed to answer NLGN’s original rebuttal that many states in western Europe manage to combine a commitment to greater equity with greater decentralisation.
What new localism is not is the undermining of local authorities through the creation of silos of accountability in other areas of public service provision. Yes, we should welcome moves to delegate decisions downwards on local healthcare and policing. But we must also ensure that the different elected boards that have been proposed ‘join up’ – with one another, with already existing councils and with a whole range of non-elected local bodies.
Nor is new localism about replacing local government with something bright and shiny at the sub-local level. Yes, local authorities should devolve power and resources down to their communities or wards, but this is not about calling for the abolition of the UK’s town halls. On the contrary, such institutions are a necessary tool for providing strategic leadership in an increasingly localised society – a position NLGN made clear in a recent report on the key role local government must play in ensuring schooling and community regeneration go hand in hand.
In providing the rationale for building a more devolved civic infrastructure capable of delivering more locally defined, tailored and accountable public services, new localism has within it the potential to revive public interest in politics. This is not to say it offers a direct route to increased voter turnout, but rather to restate – again – the well-trodden argument that making policy tangible to people is the only true way of guaranteeing their greater engagement. And who knows – they may even begin to believe in the same spectre haunting Whitehall.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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