Note of Better Way London cell 2: 22 February 2018 on ‘local is better than national’

We considered our proposition ‘local is better than national’.  From a historical perspective, we don’t seem to be winning this argument: we have a highly centralised political and administrative system in this country, and although we have had champions of localism over the last two hundred years or more, it seems that most people put up with ever greater centralisation and seem to accept that the alternative would be worse.  Why is that? Why have attempts to push localism so often failed?

One answer we feel is that the case for localism has simply not been well made. The virtues of localism are often assumed but rarely explained, let alone evidenced.  For example, Locality’s recent Commission of the Future of Localism report has much to say about the ‘what’ (‘radical action to strengthen our local institutions; devolve tangible power resources and control to communities; ensure equality in community participation; and deliver change in local government behaviour and practice to enable local initiatives to thrive’) but says much less about the ‘why’,  and without a convincing message about why localism matters we are unlikely to get very far with any of the actions proposed. We could construct a better case, for example, showing why some national problems cannot be overcome without a much greater emphasis on local action (homelessness for example), and demonstrating that the current model is failing in that respect (very little of the work of homelessness charities is community based).

Another reason for the failure of successive localism agendas is that local government is widely regarded as low quality, ineffective, bad value for money, resistant to change, self-serving and even corrupt.  While there seems to be little evidence that these kinds of problems are worse in local government than in central government, nevertheless there is clearly a problem here – a system can’t be said to be legitimate if people don’t have confidence in it, and many people simply don’t have confidence in political and administrative localism.  In recent times, local authorities have lost power and resources,  and low voter turnout reduces legitimacy, eg for local mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners.

Moreover it is evident that relationships at local level are often dysfunctional, and especially between local councils and independent community action. Some local authorities tell a localism story but never really ‘let go’. Even ‘co-operative councils’ have a tendency to define and impose models of community engagement which they feel able to manage, and block attempts to develop more independent action (an example of one co-operative council’s resistance to neighbourhood planning was given). 

On the other hand we also know that independent community action can be badly flawed.  It can be driven by narrow vested interests, exhibiting the worst forms of ‘nimbyism’ and producing local division, resentment, and injustice.  The idea that local people always know best is no more convincing than the idea that the council always knows best.   

And it is also true that local is not always better than national. One example is the situation for gypsies and travellers, whose representative body has told us that since decisions on traveller sites have devolved to local level it has been much harder to get agreement to new ones. A healthier balance might be what we are seeking rather than one or the other.

So what can be done to overcome these problems and build confidence in favour of a shift towards localism?  We considered the following:

·        Greater powers might produce better quality

A local income tax, and more substantial responsibilities at a local level, could be expected to produce improvements in the quality of people attracted to stand for election and to work in local institutions. This would probably need to be accompanied some form of quality mechanism capable of stimulating creative and effective practice and minimising poor practice, perhaps a ‘community Ofsted’ (but bearing in mind our ‘principles are better than targets’ proposition).

·        Communities could organise themselves better and civil society needs to stand up for their interests. 

For localism to thrive communities need to be better organised and stand up for their interests.  This means local institutions, including voluntary agencies, doing far more to build contact and credibility with local people over time. It is also important to recognise that contest is an inevitable and necessary part of democracy, and especially where democratic institutions are weak, and creates energy. Voice is important.  Geographical communities and communities of interest need to organise themselves, through associational activity, self-help groups, campaigning groups, community organising, and the like – because otherwise they will always be pushed around by those in political power, locally and nationally. New models for doing this may be needed, and one interesting example was mentioned: the Stroud Investigates model of community-based investigative journalism.

·        Facilitation skills for democratic participation can be improved

Cassie Robinson from Doteveryone has described the lack of capacity and confidence among councillors and officers in both scrutiny roles and in championing change. Perhaps it is time for civil society to step up and where we do have good facilitation and community development skills, to be more proactive and generous about sharing them with colleagues in local government.  One idea to broaden political representation and voice was a concept of ‘jury service’.

·        Could benign dictatorship be part of the way forward?

The imposition of powerful elected mayors in local authorities and city regions, as a price of devolution deals, is highly problematic. We felt that they give the appearance that things are being dealt with better but in fact they mimic the problems of centralisation, further alienating people from everyday democratic engagement and community life. And yet when we look at the French system, where local mayors have a great deal of power, there do seem to be benefits – at least it is clear to everyone who is ‘in charge’.  But perhaps one difference is that French mayors are more accessible to ordinary people and therefore more personally accountable.

·        Social change can emerge from place-based action

Social change of national significance can sometimes be driven at local levels. Often this involves a combination of different types of people and organisations, the outspoken types to shake things up and the quiet types to win credibility. But not all local activism will be progressive – the tendency toward exclusion of minority groups can be acute at local level. So measures to build cohesion and solidarity and overcome prejudice will be needed, and sometimes these will need to operate beyond the local levels.

We recognise that localism is as much a challenge for the third sector as it is for the state.  Over time, the concentration of power at national level has been influential in how the third sector has developed, encouraging gravitation away from local and towards national, accentuating a professionalisation of the sector, and an undervaluing of community-based action and the skills that are best suited to that. Reversing this will be painful, but could also help many third sector organisations rediscover their purpose. 

We also recognise that for some things to improve the answer will not come from local action but from national co-ordination: for example across the whole refugee and migrant sector, there are only six people paid to do communication work and this means that voices remain localised and are not heard in national policy and public debates.  Moreover, in some cases we need to organise things beyond national borders, and work internationally (reducing problems created by economic migration, tackling climate change, learning from international practice, and so on).  Perhaps our proposition should be reframed, and what we should ultimately be striving for is a shift away from the national, wherever possible, towards the local on the one hand and the international on the other.

We accept that localism – as with any system - is imperfect, and if we feel there will be gains from a shift in favour of localism, not least because that should allow human relationships to come more to the fore in public life and in the work of civil society, we should be realistic about what we will have to put up with, as a price worth paying.