Opinion: Henry Ford and the coalition’s ‘localism’

Brent Town Hall. Photo credit: stevecadman on FlickrFord famously commented that customers could have any colour they like as long as it’s black. It feels to me that at the moment we can have any localism we like as long as it’s blue.

Two particular events have provoked this thought. The first is that that council tax bills are about to go out and, under localism, a council cannot raise council tax significantly, including to protect services, without holding a referendum. However they can cut council tax and services without any such requirement. Furthermore, as councils have to pay for the referendum themselves, increasing council tax by a little over the limit is not financially viable. Therefore the referendum rules do not give local people more control so much as force councils to subscribe to Conservative ideas about the balance between services and taxation.

I am not in fact of favour of massively increased council tax, but I do feel that if you are going to promote localism you have to do so in a balanced manner where the council or community has equal power to decide one way as the other.

Nor is this an isolated example. Many of the powers granted under localism bill are similarly one directional – local communities have been granted greater power to push development forward for example (through the right to build) than to prevent it. This makes me feel that, in our enthusiasm to see something called localism, the Lib Dems haven’t been as rigorous as we might have been in scrutinising the specifics.

Flag_of_CornwallThe second event that provoked this thought is that this coming Wednesday is St Piran’s Day – Cornwall’s national day – following St David’s Day on Saturday. Cornwall enjoys a distinctive history and culture from the remainder of the UK, as well as a distinct and growing language, not entirely unlike Wales. The parts of the boundaries bill that would have required parts of Cornwall to share a seat with parts of Devon provoked a very strong response, and at the time I was part of a delegation that went to lobby Nick on the issue. We eventually won that argument, sort of, but only because the Lib Dems turned against the boundary changes as a response to the Tory failure to deliver on Lords reforms.

Even more importantly than that one specific issue, some years ago over 50,000 signatures were collected in favour of a Cornish Assembly – over 10% of the voting population – rather more than the threshold for a ‘local referendum on a local issue’. However devolution does not count as a ‘local issue’ and therefore, whilst Scotland and Wales enjoy the right to determine its own future, Cornwall does not.  Localism in terms of devolution apparently only extends to certain parts of the country – a cynic might say those parts where the Conservatives can’t avoid it.

I would like to see the Liberal Democrats setting out a much more clearly distinct line from the Conservatives on localism – firstly by supporting the removal of the ideological bias from the additional powers given to local councils and people, for example by requiring a referendum on any council tax rise or cuts in overall services over 5% (and providing some central funding towards the cost). Secondly by supporting the extension the right to a local referendum to cover the devolution of packages of powers – many areas may not be interested but I strongly suspect that Cornwall would be amongst those who were.

I misquoted one American in my opening line so perhaps I should conclude my misquoting another. ‘I know localism, I’ve worked with localism, localism is a great friend of mine. Senator, this isn’t localism’.


* Adam Killeya is a Lib Dem member, activist and town councillor. He has held various positions in the party including as a parliamentary candidate and agent. He is currently Regional Chair of Devon & Cornwall Lib Dems. In the real world he is Head of Sixth Form of a Secondary School in Cornwall.

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  • Matt (Bristol) 4th Mar '14 - 3:10pm

    Agree 100%, up to the point about piecemeal devolution in England – and even then, you may yet be able to argue me round.

    The Tories have started during this government to borrow LibDem language to cloak ‘reforms’ designed to do nothing but entrench their own ideological power over the whole framwork of local and national government; LibDems should work hard to avoid giving this credibility.

  • Shirley Campbell 4th Mar '14 - 6:33pm

    Isn’t localism another word for parochialism? Those of a parochial leaning are seen to shun “foreigners” be they from a neighbouring town or a neighbouring country. Localism is a creed more suited to UKIP.

    I am a Liberal by instinct and I loathe the latest “localism” rhetoric; I see “localism” as the tyranny of the “locals” over the individual citizen be he born and bred or otherwise.

    Open borders, my creed, are shunned by the “locals”, many of whom are affiliated to UKIP or the EDL.

  • Julian Dean 4th Mar '14 - 7:35pm

    I’m sorry to inform you, but here in Liverpool, the public sector council workers as well as the vast vast vast majority of the public will hold the LDP equally responsible for the obscene and irresponsible cuts in their LG grant settlement.

  • Adam – We might even campaign for Local Income Tax, based on the ability to pay. There’s an idea I believe I have heard somewhere before!

  • Localism was a nice idea that has become a joke due to the government’s desire to micro-manage the actions of local authorities – whether it is in planning, rubbish collection or parking enforcement.

  • Adam Killeya 4th Mar '14 - 11:23pm

    Matt: You’re talking about England – I was talking about Cornwall ;-). Actually I’ve never had a problem with the concept of postcode lotteries etc *provided* it is different areas deciding differently for a reason – not all areas have the same needs or the same priorities. The same applies to powers – some areas want, and can effectively utilise, more powers than other.

    Shirley: I don’t agree that localism necessarily equates to Parochialism, although certainly that can be a danger, but surely liberalism tends to subsidiarity – putting power at the lowest appropriate level? Put another way the closer services are to people the more they can respond to their needs, and avoid ‘one-size-doesn’t-fit-anybody’.

    Julian: Some people no doubt will hold the LDP, as part of the government, responsible which adds weight to my point about being more distinctive on localism, as I don’t the drive for the level of cuts is actually coming from the LDP.

    Tim & John: I tend to agree with both of you.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Mar '14 - 6:50am

    This is an excellent article and an example of the right kind of local politics. Shirley’s comment also brightened me up because we always need to reassure fears about going “too local”. I would emphasise the anti-efficiency nature of too much localism too.

    Julian Dean, a thing I like to say is “blaming the Lib Dems for going into coalition with the tories is like blaming Labour for going into opposition – it obviously isn’t what we were aiming for!”.

  • Until I read this in LDV I knew nothing of St Piran.

    Having lived in a Lomdon suburb most of my life I am ignorant of a lot of what is important in other parts. Unfortunately the UK is so centralised that it is often ignorant and prejudiced people who live in London and the South East that take all the decisions. This Coaition has got away with a hollowing out of local democracy and accountability, whist usgthe word “LOCALISM”as a fig leaf. I suppose I should not be surprised by the failure of Clegg and others to do anything to stop this. I do not get the feeling that Clegg, Laws, Alexander and others have much fellow feeling for genuine participatory Liberal local democracy. A few weeks out from crucial local elections at the end of May 2014 and they seem to be busy positioning themselves for the Westminster Tango in June 2015.

    Cornwall is very much a different place. I have no doubt that it would be better governed and be a better place to I’ve without the dead hand of Eric Pickles’ bureaucratic Toryism interfering. Pickles’ idea of Localism is to tell you how often to empty your dustbin whilst allowing fracking under your back garden and telling your council where you should park your car when shopping. A genuine Liberal approach to local democracy would be the opposite of what this Coalition has imposed on Cornwall and other parts. Communities in which people can take and use power are what are needed be that at a Cornwall wide level or within the constituent parts of Cornwal. My guess is that the needs of St Ives don’t necessarily coincide with those of Truro or Bude. The failure of Clegg and co to show any sign that they even start to comprehend such things is perhaps a sad reflection on a Westminster School education and a life split between Putney, Davos, Spain and maybe occasionally Sheffield.

  • Shirley Campbell 5th Mar '14 - 4:16pm

    Why do I like John Tilley? Well, I just do, like him, whatever!

  • Simon Banks 6th Mar '14 - 2:32pm


    Yes, local communities can be narrow and prejudiced. They can also be generous. “Good government is no substitute for self-government” (Gladstone).

    If you’re a Liberal by instinct, I’m surprised you’re hostile to the fundamentally and historically Liberal idea that decisions that cannot be left to individuals should be taken as locally as possible. Such a stress on the individual also seems to miss out the reminder by Jo Grimond that humans are social animals and the belief of community politicians that liberty and justice can be served by local community action. Yes, there must be limits on localism so that it doesn’t turn into racism, for example, but if we can only trust a benevolent nation state or the anonymous market to protect and promote liberties, there is nothing left of Liberalism.

  • Shirley Campbell 6th Mar '14 - 5:52pm

    I thank you Simon for your response and I agree that the theory of local communities determining their “fate” is a sound one. However, in practice, many communities seek to exclude anyone who is not of their kith and kin. Indeed, an individual is vulnerable in the face of the tyranny of the majority.

    I see the tyranny of the majority played out every day in North Devon, a Lib Dem stronghold, and I am dismayed. I shall explain thus:

    In the 19th century, many of our ancestors fled the rural areas and poorly paid agricultural work for more secure jobs in the London area. Fear of the “Work House” was ever present in their minds. In the 19th century, my Scottish ancestors joined the army, seemingly fleeing destitution in Scotland. My grandfather was Archibald George James Campbell, who was born in Meerut, India, the son of James Henry Campbell, a sergeant (they spelt it serjeant) in the 15th Hussars. Many wars, skirmishes and medals later, the descendants of the men who took their fate in their stride are seeking to return to their rural roots. Furthermore, we send the boys to University these days. Indeed, my late father’s lament, he was also named Archibald Campbell, and served in North Africa, Italy and Palestine, was that the pen is mightier than the sword; he was the grandson of a hussar.

    I have sought to return to my roots in the West Country (paternal grandmother Stroud, Gloucestershire; maternal great, great grandmother Tiverton, Devon). However, I have met with gross ignorance in North Devon. Localism in North Devon involves disregarding Land Registry documents and abusing anyone who seeks to enforce their land rights. I have been abused by the locals and their pals in the local constabulary. Solicitors’ letters have been ignored and ridiculed.

    I have seen, and continue to see, “localism” in action in the shire counties. Moreover, it is not safe for overseas students to venture down the local high street in my part of North Devon. Actually, it reminds me of the abject denial of civil rights visited upon black people in the deep South in the Land of the Free. Actually, I am so white that I could be mistaken for being anaemic. Oh, and good luck Baroness Lawrence in your quest for justice for your beautiful son slain by “local” thugs.

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