Looking forward to a localist future

Back in 2005, when I started the Mind the Gap campaign, an ever increasing void had developed between elected representatives and the electors themselves. The gap could be seen in a number of different ways – for example, through increased voter apathy and a sense that decision making was being made by a political elite distant from their communities.

Working people had also begun to believe that their elected representatives were not doing enough to improve their lives.  So not only did people develop a sense that they could not make changes in their own communities – but they often had a perception of mistrust against those who could. This explains why a tipping point was reached in the previous parliament, which led to a number of reforms, changes in attitudes and the unprecedented election of over 230 new MPs last May.

In areas across the UK, people have seen their communities struggle and suffer in recent times. In rural communities, people have seen their local services, such as pubs and post offices, often disappear. Inner city areas have at times been neglected, leading to them becoming run down and in need of regeneration. And while these problems were continuing, council tax continued to rise, which often seemed unfair to people given that improvements in local services were not always forthcoming.

The important question is: who is best placed to change these communities for the better? I believe that often the answer is the communities themselves. Citizen action can make a significant difference to local areas, but first people must be given the means to do so. I think we are now reaching that point.

An important step in this process has been the removal of regional government plans, structures, and bodies. Many of these, such as regional assemblies, regional development agencies, and regional spatial strategies, were unaccountable, overly bureaucratic and unwanted. It needs to be remembered that communities are of varying shapes and sizes, so a centralised approach is rarely going to meet the specific localised needs of a given area. A bottom-up approach to joint working across these communities is something which I have long advocated, and we are now moving towards this approach.

Of course, challenges still remain, many of which are problems symptomatic of a highly centralised country. Indeed, during my time as chief executive of Localis, a report we produced in 2009 noted that ‘it is a given that England is among the most centralised – if not the most centralised – of advanced industrial countries’. For instance, local people in the UK still have little say over the money being raised and how it is spent in their local communities.

The localism bill – which is now in committee stage in the House of Commons – will address many of the concerns, including over planning and housing. But perhaps in the future even more can be done to build on these reforms. Over the next few columns I will be offering ideas of how we could go about doing so.



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