The limitations of localism

Devolving decision-making to local councils has resulted in a severe shortfall in authorised sites for Travellers and Gypsies, leaving thousands of families with no legal right of abode anywhere.  As the Institute for Race Relations noted in 2012: “A picture is emerging of isolated Gypsy and Traveller families, with little support and limited funds, up against the best legal and expert advice available, working in tandem with the machinations of local politics. Localism has put the power back into communities in one sense – the power to buy expertise and bully the powerless.” 

One response to such difficulties is the principle of subsidiarity, first developed in the nineteenth century, which holds that the state should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently. If a complex function is carried out at a local level just as effectively as on the national level, the local level should be the one to carry out the specified function. Subsidiarity assumes that people are by their nature social beings, and emphasizes the importance of small and intermediate-sized communities or institutions, like the family, the church, trade unions and other voluntary associations, as mediating structures which empower individual action and link the individual to society as a whole. But the principle of subsidiarity also allows for some decisions to be taken at regional or national (or indeed international) levels, for example in order to protect human rights or for reasons of social or economic justice.

 While localism and subsidiarity have been the declared policies of UK governments in recent years, in practice the reverse has often been the case: greater centralisation of power and control. In 2013 a group of academics from York and Manchester Universities pointed out that ‘History has been repeating itself for British governments over the last quarter century or so. They come to power committed to reducing the control of the central state and devolving decisions downwards, but once in government they are unwilling to relinquish their own powers.’