Opinion: Putting the Localism Bill in a Social Liberal context

In embracing principles of The Big Society and Localism, have the Liberal Democrats being railroaded into an erosion of the public state, seemingly by accident?

The initial premise of the Localism Bill appeals greatly to Liberal Democrat in the Conservative-led Coalition. What is there about bringing power to local communities that is not to be liked?

It could be argued that the principles of the Localism Bill were in fact first proposed within the Coalition Agreement, where Page 11 states;

We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a review of local government finance

However, this is where the principles of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives begin to clash.

The Conservatives have long been renowned for their desire to reduce state control, state spending “excesses” and state interference.

In direct comparison, the principles of Social Liberalism recognize harmonisation of freedom of the individual and the integral role of the state to provide services that address social and economic issues where they arise.

With one party considering the state to be excessive and the other considering the state to be essential there are bound to be clashes in ideology.

Devolution of power clearly means different things to different parties, and it could be argued both parties felt they were achieving manifesto commitments with this statement.

However, there is been a subtle shifting in the ideology of Liberal Democrats in the role of the state in direct response to both the Coalition Agreement and the proposal surrounding localism;

We want to make it possible for local people to work together to run local services. That’s how to deliver what people actually want. We’ll stop interfering from central government and help communities protect local services

The “protection” of local services is very different from “working together to run” local services.

To consider the issue from a separate angle, it is worth examining reasoning behind the creation of the welfare state and “public” services in the first place.

One of the principles of the introduction of a public state was to remove the stigma of charity, and thereby saving all recipients of benefits, services and support any embarrassment.

The principle of local people working together to run local services will in fact contradict the role of the state in providing services to address social and economic or issues.

Social liberalism in the UK rose in the late 19th century as a response to extreme social divide in economic decline. This created the role of the welfare state and underpinned the principles of taxation to fund this, with the right of universality embedded within.

In Context

The proposals under the summary of The Localism Bill are equally as undefined as the statement in the coalition agreement:

  • for services which are used individually, this means putting power in the hands of individuals themselves
  • where services are enjoyed collectively, they should be delivered by accountable community groups
  • where the scale is too large or those using a service are too dispersed, they should be delivered by local institutions, subject to democratic checks and balances, enabled by full transparency.

Point 2 provides the bone of contention. Does this proposal engender a removal from the state, a return to the individual responsibility?

Or worse, does the proposal create a plurality of services, as is depicted in Liberal Democrats’ criticisms of the Liberating the NHS Bill?

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • We should concentrate on the reference to greater financial autonomy for local government in the Coalition Agreement. This gives us a chance to promote a policy distinct from both Labour and the Conservatives i.e. local government should be able to raise their own revenue and are accountable to their voters through local government elections. When the other two parties talk about localism they are really only talking about how services are delivered because most local government finance comes from central government. Only the liberals believe in true devolution because there is no real hand over of power if central government is still holding the purse strings.

  • Andrew Duffield 12th May '11 - 5:07pm

    Well said Jane.

    Lib Dem policy (in principle if not in practice) is for “local choice in revenue raising” – in other words, local government being able to choose from a menu of different tax options to suit local preferences. In exactly the same way, a genuinely Liberal party should support the concept of councils choosing themselves whether to stick with monopolistic central provision or competitive private / third sector supply. Best practice will out.

    The last thing we need is for state run services to be the only choice. The former USSR has been there already.

  • “The Conservatives have long been renowned for their desire to reduce state control, state spending “excesses” and state interference.

    In direct comparison, the principles of Social Liberalism recognize harmonisation of freedom of the individual and the integral role of the state to provide services that address social and economic issues where they arise. “

    Firstly, what on earth is “harmonisation of freedom of the individual”?

    Secondly, it’s quite possible to believe that the State has grown too large over recent years, and therefore that is should be reined in, and also to believe that the State is necessary to provide some services.

    Thirdly, and more pedantically, it’s bad practice to use both -ize and -ise spellings, especially right next to each other. Better to pick a spelling and stick with it.

  • The thing with the Conservative plans is that they seem to have been conceived with a big role for local government in mind (if you take the books by Jesse Norman, Nick Bowles and to a lesser extent Douglas Carswell to be the general theory behind the Big Society) but seem to be put into practice in a way that bypasses local government. It suggests though that there is an opportunity there for Liberal Democrats to bring local government back to the forefront of things and still appeal to the Conservatives broader aversion to big government.

  • Whilst financial decentralisation is no doubt important, how about political reform decentralisation? After the AV referendum, I was struck by how many people posted on websites – well, my area voted for AV – can’t we use it? And this made me think – why shouldn’t they be able to, at least for local government elections?

    I was also struck by how easily the only opposition party could be wiped out (for example, in Manchester) given that we use FPTP on three member wards in most cases.

    I would like to central government allow local governments to choose their own electoral system provided it meets certain minimum standards (which could be policed by the Electoral Commission) or alternatively selecting from a pre-determined list of widely recognised and used voting systems. Lib Dem councils would then be able to implement STV – demonstrating that our commitment to electoral reform is not, as some would suggest, a matter of political advantage but of principle.

    Of course, councils which are one party states may well prefer to keep things as they are but shouldn’t we be out there making the case that everyone benefits from an opposition?

  • There is stigma attached to being dependent on the state, and in any case, universality is not neccessarily needed to make sure people don’t have to rely on charity. I personally think we should concentrate on providing services that are needed rather than trying to implant some abstract social theory on government services that is merely cosmetic.

    You seem to be ideologically opposed to outside groups providing services simply because it reduces the role of the state. But what if those outside groups have more knowledge on running certain services than a group of councillors who would have to come up with the ideas to run the services instead.

    What is so wrong with the view of the state as an enabler as well as provider?

    ‘Has the state grown too large, or has the spending grown too large and the actual provision of services both diminished in quantifiable and qualitative terms? I would argue the latter. I am not embracing a “golden era” soap box but recognising that service quality has reduced in spite of significant spending increases which far outweigh the rise in inflation.

    I see the state as a fundemental role in a Democratic and Liberal Society but I recognise the function of the state should be to provide the best and most cost-effective service available. I do not think this is being acheived,’

    This is essentially an economic argument. Socialists believe the best way to achieve maximum quality of services is by central planning, where as economic liberals believe it would be best achieved by competition – weak services die out because no one uses them and the good services thrive. But to do that you would have to get rid of commercial sensitivity laws and other instruments that stop service users from understanding the quality of the service they’re using and if there is a better service provided elsewhere.

  • I’ve read this a couple of times now and I’m still a bit confused by what you are saying, so when in doubt – ask.

    “Point 2 provides the bone of contention”
    Why point 2 and not Point 1, which is similar?

    The basis for your arguement on point 2 seems to hinge on the NHS and (I assume) that you could end up with a postcode lottery? Or it may be because you feel that it will introduce to much “private sector” into the equation?

    If it is the former, then surely that is the price of localism as each locality will choose it’s own priorities?
    If it is the latter, then wouldn’t this need to have happened in order for the NHS to pay for the private treatment of patients to ensure that they are treated on time?

  • LondonLiberal 13th May '11 - 12:24pm

    Interesting questions, kelly.

    I know this could be seen as sacrilege, but should we be wedded to a single healthcare provider in the UK? I just fear that we’re stuck in a debate in health that pits the status quo against the USA, with little ability to rationally discuss the options in-between. By this i don’t mean privatisation, but rather different approaches to publicly funded healthcare. No one would argue that France, Germany or Holland have a ‘small state’ approach to welfare, yet they have an insurance model of healthcare, and apparently have better health outcomes than us.

    What I’d like to see is an exploration of whether that assertion is true, and what the benefits and costs of such a model might be for us. I think a royal commission, cross party, is needed to look rationally at the issue, to stop the NHS being a political football, and to at least try to settle the debate for a period of time.

  • LondonLiberal – I completely agree with you. Politically, we are stuck between the socialist view of public services ie centralised (but also the philosophy of everyone using the same service under the state logo) and all out wild west unaccountable privatisation.

    If it is possible to improve care, end unneccessary suffering and save lives, then isn’t it a moral imperative to look at other options, rather than clinging to the old model out of nostalgic reverence. We may even be able to afford decent mental health care which is currently shocking.

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