Opinion: Real localism – it could surprise us all

Everyone’s talking about Localism now – we’ve even got a Government Act. Yet when that very Act gives the Secretary of State 126 new powers over local government, you have to wonder if we all mean the same thing.

Liberal Democrats have been advocating devolution, double devolution and subsidiarity for many years. But central government continues to tighten its throttlehold over local authorities with little trust in local politicians and local communities and their ability to do what’s best for local people. London boroughs receive 74% of their income through central government grants, compared to 31% for New York, 18% for Paris and 8% for Tokyo. Whitehall gives and Whitehall takes away.

What does this mean for people and communities and local politicians? A growing sense of frustration and disempowerment. Falling turnouts in local elections. Disengagement with local decision-making. What’s the point in making the effort to campaign on local issues if a Government Minister can ignore the majority view and decide on a whim.

Just recently over 98% of local people in Sutton indicated their preference for one of our best local secondary schools to sponsor and support a struggling primary school. Even though that school is formally recognised by the DfE as a sponsor, the Minister decided in favour of the Harris Federation – with no right of appeal. The wishes of local parents, residents, Councillors and the Council’s education department – all irrelevant.

The clumsy, top down, one-size-fits-all Whitehall approach to government has to change. And it will change, and change dramatically, because of one stark fact – there isn’t enough money to carry on as before.

The only way to kick-start the economy is to give local government and local communities the powers and the ability to raise finance to invest in local infrastructure and local housing. The only way to ensure that our youngsters are learning the skills that will ensure they find jobs is to devolve further education funding and allow local government to work with local businesses to match jobs and skills.

We have to stop concentrating on fixing failure and start to prevent it happening in the first place. Only local councils can work efficiently with the local health service, voluntary sector, police and business sectors to find tailor-made local solutions to local issues such as integrating health and social care, tackling local unemployment and deprivation, and reducing antisocial behaviour.

The key to this is trust. Trust in local government and trust in local communities to do what is best for their local area. If you want people to trust you, you have to start by trusting them and treating them as adults.

So let’s start with a real bone of contention for local people. Let’s abolish the Bristol-based Planning Inspectorate and allow local areas to set up properly constituted and trained Appeal Panels, made up of local people who understand the strategic planning and housing needs of their area and are able to have a proper dialogue with residents about the future of the place where they live.

Let’s show we are serious about localism and local decision-making. Let’s trust local people to act as responsible adults and make decisions that balance the needs of the vulnerable and the aspirations of the many. Let’s accept that Birmingham and Berwick and Bude and Bexley are different and need different solutions. Let’s shift the balance of power away from Whitehall and watch as local people come up with radical and imaginative solutions to build resilient communities based on fairness, equalities and pride in their areas, enabling everyone to get on in life.

Real localism – it could surprise us all.

This piece appears as part of a collection of essays on the future of local government collated by the New Local Government Network.

* Councillor Ruth Dombey OBE is the Leader of the London Borough of Sutton and the Liberal Democrat Deputy Group Leader at the Local Government Association. The LGA is a politically-led, cross-party organisation that works on behalf of 415 councils to ensure local government has a strong, credible voice with national government.

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One Comment

  • The principles here are excellent but where I live the Tory Council is working hard to hand the working of local decisions to private companies located outside the area. It’s supposed to save the council money. When did private companies set themselves up to save money? They will cut services and take the profits made from short-changing. The residents are fighting to keep the remaining council workers as employees of the council. You must have heard of “One Barnet” as it is a prime example of destroying localism. Lib Dems are against this foolish idea but where is the law to stop it happening over an ever-widening area of England? Localism needs more careful thought than giving destructive powers to councils.

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