Opinion: Localism? They don’t know the meaning of the word!

Any Liberal Democrat will tell you he or she believes in localism. So it may be surprising that we have a ‘graveyard slot’ debate next Tuesday on what ought to be familiar territory.

What’s more, we are given to believe that the Coalition Government, despite what we always thought about the Tories, is also pursuing an aggressively localist agenda.

Up to a point, Lord Copper.

On a good day the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government does indeed talk the talk and walk the walk of devolving power. But he also has bad days. He has told councils that they should think of combining the role of Leader and Chief Executive. He has told councils not to have fortnightly collections of household waste. And he has recently written to councils to urge them to get rid of road signs.

While he does sincerely say it’s up to councils to decide issues like the shape of Local Economic Partnerships (and seems to have a better approach than Vince Cable on this), he nevertheless betrays a lack of localist mentality on a weekly basis.
The point about localism is where you start from. If you say you are devolving or giving back power, then you are still using centralist language.

We live and work in communities. This is the core of our humanity. Communities have been undermined century after century – even entirely destroyed – by centralist thinking, whether that be government policy (for instance the Enclosure Acts), the advent of the motor car or the activities of multinationals.

A true localist agenda starts from the bottom and works up: everything, both political and economic, should be determined locally unless it is clear that it is impossible to do so.

The consequences of this approach are much larger than a bit of devolution, however welcome the proposed Localism Bill may be.

It means, for example, that we need to reappraise our thinking on the European Union.

It means that Whitehall and Westminster must largely be dismantled: is there really a case for a Department of Communities and Local Government, BIS, Department for Education – at least on the scale we currently find them?

And disaffected members of communities will have to fight their battles locally and won’t any more be able to call in an MP, quango or planning inspector to bully or overrule the local decision makers.

But it also entails that councils and councillors must have the humility to understand that councils themselves can be enemies of localism, doing rather than enabling, deciding rather than empowering, prohibiting rather than allowing.

This agenda potentially challenges all of our Party’s policy thinking, including parts of the manifesto, for instance in relation to health, policing and entertainment licensing.

Some will be alarmed at the consequences. But this is a key point at which our Party will differ from the Conservatives – and even from the Coalition’s current political programme.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Liberal Eye 17th Sep '10 - 4:03pm

    Well said. As you say thinking bottom up changes everything, up to and including (and especially!) Europe.

    A useful way to think of this is in terms of managing boundaries which may be geographical or functional. The important thing is that they should be simple and transparent. Think of all those American cops and robbers movies; very often a subplot is whether the local sherrif or the Feds should take the lead in the case. Cue endless disputes (hence the plot interest) but he important point is that actually the ground rules are very simple and are understood by even the lowest ranks while the muddle we have here is understood by almost no-one – not even eminent politicians.

  • …and just what is ‘localist’ about insisting that the 12 largest cities should have a Mayor?
    That is bad enough but what is worse is that the idea appears to be that Council leaders are just appointed Mayors and a referendum held afterwards. Seems about as fair and democratic as the referendum held in the Saar in 1936!

  • @Steve Comer: I do apologise for being a pedant, but I’m afraid that’s a poorly chosen example. The Saar plebiscite was free and democratic, and the yes vote was a fair reflection of Saarlanders desire to return to German hands. A better example from the period might have been the referendum on the Austrian Anschluss.

  • Not every Lib Dem will tell you they believe in localism. I realise I’m in a minority, but I think localism is stupid. Local communities are usually completely pants at running things, and personally I like a bit of standardisation across the country I live in. Localism along the US model would mean different laws in different parts of the country, different ways of policing, different taxes… No thanks!

    Even in the coalition’s agenda, which is admittedly not as agressively localist as that, will de-centralise schooling to quite a large degree, so a child whose family moves from one area to another could find their local school teaching using a completely different system. Chopping and changing is detrimental to education – the whole point of a standardised national curriculum is to ensure consistency. You could argue that parents just shouldn’t move while their children are growing up, but I would argue that one of the whole points of having a ‘country’ is that while there will be big differences and much (welcome) diversity between different areas, you can still rely on some basic things being the same wherever in the country you go: laws, freedoms, basic services like schooling and health, and the taxes you pay / benefits you’re entitled to. Otherwise we’re just a collection of random towns that share a currency.

    I do agree that living in communities is part of the essence of humanity. I guess it just comes down to how big you see your community as being. Throughout human history the trend has tended to be towards ever larger communities – first people lived in families, then groups of families, then villages, towns and counties. Then the counties decided to band together into countries. And now some of the countries are beginning the process of joining together, as in the EU or the South American nations. Eventually (probably many decades if not centuries from now) I would expect something approaching a global government to have formed. Personally I see this trend as something to be welcomed not feared.

  • @ Catherine

    Localism does not, in my understanding, conflict with the existence of national standards which are by and large a good thing unless overdone to the point where they destroy the possibility of local initiative in response to local conditions.

    Agreed however that local government can be bad at running things (although on average probably no more so than national government). For me this is an argument that, for instance, Freedom of Information (to prevent dodgy decisions being made behind closed doors) and strictly enforced rules on declaring an interest (to prevent for instance corruption of planning) are an essential part of the mix.

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