Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Pitfalls of Localism - an agenda for 2011

With the Localism Bill finally sneaking onto the parliamentary agenda before the Christmas break, we can now look forward to how localism will evolve in 2011. This has become the defining principle of the Coalition Government and Pickles, Shapps et al have been wheeled out to extol the shift in power from central Government to local communities. Up until the now the Tories have been able to talk in generalities and avoid the policy detail. This has to end. References to the ‘Big Society’ and ‘Neighbourhood Planning’ have been defined more by what they are not as opposed to what they truly are. This article in The Economist excellently sets out how the direction of travel is clear but the details of the journey are both lacking and potentially unworkable.

The benefits of local empowerment are easy to describe on the election campaign trail. Faceless bureaucrats can be painted as bogey-men wasting taxpayers money and communities can save the day by making more informed decisions. But I see two problems. Firstly, how powerful can localism be without true fiscal autonomy? Cities can only make independent decisions if they raise their own taxes and then choose how to spend the money. If regional cities are to have elected Mayors then they also need greater independence from the Treasury. Cities such as Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester require the power to make decisions on economic development, including control over business rates. With the removal of Regional Development Agencies and the cuts in public sector assistance to local businesses, Local Authorities must have the tools to be bold enough in their strategy for economic development. Localism without fiscal autonomy is a bugger’s muddle.

The second problem I see is the tendency of political parties to suddenly realise the benefits of central power once in Government. Giving away power to local people is easy to support when in opposition, but when in Government politicians quickly see the pitfalls of trusting local people over central departments. One reason is that unsuccessful local policies easily rebound up to the national level. To avoid this occurring local governments are therefore kept on a tighter leash, both through centrally controlled budgets and policy. For localism to work the Government must accept the risks in devolving power. It will involve unwelcome stories of local authorities who depart from what the Tories may naturally advocate. But, and more importantly, localism could include inspiring stories of where Local Authorities have grasped independence to involve the community on how public services should be operated.

Urban planning will be a key test area and I have no doubt some Local Authorities will resist any attempt to build more homes locally. This should be expected. It therefore leaves a clear opportunity for other towns and cities to welcome new development and reap the benefits. Until now architects, planners and politicians have been weak on selling the benefits of development, in particular housing. This must change, as outlined in a recent editorial in the Architects’ Journal. Again, this will be risky and it will take time for development levels to pick up to match demand. But hopefully it will encourage some cities to gain greater individual identity and avoid the ‘urban renaissance’ path which has characterised urban redevelopment since 1997 (and excellently critiqued in this book by Owen Hatherley).

Clearly there are risks, but politicians must overcome their safety-first instincts to avoid the centralising forces once again scuppering the potential of localism and local empowerment.

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