Service Transformation

23.06.17

The future of localism

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 17

There have been a lot of opportunities for democratic participation in the UK recently – a referendum, local elections, six new metro mayors and now a snap general election, all within the last 12 months, reflects Tony Armstrong, chief executive at Locality. But beyond these frequent trips to the polling station, how are the citizens of Britain really involved in shaping the decisions that affect them?

The last six years have seen big initiatives and new legislation for bringing power closer to communities. The Localism Act established an important suite of community rights, giving local people valuable recourses for saving local assets and tools for shaping local planning and development. More recently, English devolution has laid some foundations for more localised economies and public services. 

But we are a long way off transforming the way power is dispersed in this country. Devolution deals have been patchy in their engagement with communities and civil society. Turnout at last month’s mayoral elections failed to reach above 30%, perhaps evidence of its lacklustre appeal and lack of resonance with people. And the combined authority approach risks pushing decision-making further away from neighbourhoods, simply realigning the centre of power to the sub-regional level. 

The importance of community decision-making 

Community decision-making must be at the heart of devolution, not just because it is essential for building a healthier democracy, but because empowering communities unlocks their capacity to build better places from the ground up. Up until this point, devolution has tended to focus on physical infrastructure: how giving local areas more control over transport or housing can create more dynamic local economies. The new metro mayors now need to seize this moment to go further and be much more ambitious for the empowerment potential of devolution. It is by harnessing the power of our civic infrastructure – our people power – that we will deliver the inclusive growth we need. 

Before surprising us all by calling a general election, the government outlined its new Industrial Strategy, and there seems to be a growing realisation – from all the major parties – that we need to reframe and rebalance economic growth and integrate locally-led priorities. However, we have yet to see communities take centre stage. The new government will need to go further to maximise the role of neighbourhood approaches to economic resilience, invest in local community enterprise and empower communities to take on and own common assets. 

Reinvigorating local democracy 

Last month, in association with Power to Change, we established an independent commission on the Future of Localism, chaired by Lord Kerslake, to uncover what is needed to reinvigorate local democracy and empower communities. 

Localism is the key to reshaping our country post-Brexit. We need to forge a new civic settlement and turn the referendum campaign slogan ‘take back control’ into a productive conversation about how power is shared between citizen and state, and how local initiatives are empowered to thrive. 

Whilst devolution is part of this, a new vision for localism needs to be about more than devolving powers and responsibilities to local government. It needs to be about people’s sense of belonging, identity and connectedness. It needs to be reflected in the way people experience their own agency and capacity to influence and shape what happens in their local area. 

When people are involved in neighbourhood initiatives and see the value of collective action, this can help build the foundations for a more participatory democracy. Instead of democracy being something beginning and ending at the ballot box every few years, it is instead transformed through the actions and energies of our communities. 

Ultimately, I hope the commission will be able to draw on the research, ideas and experience already out there to reinvigorate the intentions of localism and bring power closer to neighbourhoods.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

To find out more about the commission and to respond to the call for evidence, visit:

W: www.locality.org.uk/our-work/policy/localism-commission

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