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A Trial Of Two Localisms

May 31, 2010

Has nationally-prescribed double devolution somehow morphed into nationally-prescribed strategic localism? Is either of them actually meaningful without fairly generous national support – whether in resources or in serious leadership?

Can the previous double devolution consultation model really transmute as now intended into genuine local self-determination? And is this proposed shift really about strategy for the future, or nostalgia for the past?

The idea behind double devolution generally appeals to us, even if the term itself does not. We like to believe that local people can and should determine the shape and direction of their lives for themselves. We want people to have ownership of decisions about their circumstances and their futures; so ‘consultation’ about almost everything communities are concerned with has become the order of the day.

And now, in the new order of things, we are asked to move beyond this towards the imperative of full localism – a position in which the central state will stand back and permit the true will of the people be determined at local level for every local area.

If only it were that easy.

Big challenges for the future
Let us put aside for now our experience, whether as local folk and or as practitioners, of consultation fatigue and disillusion. Let us forget for a moment the issues around Nimbyism and self-appointed ‘community leaders’ whose agendas may be less than inclusive. These are all important, but they are not the crux of the matter.

The real issues, challenges which we really must acknowledge and try to resolve, are these:

1. Whilst efforts have been made in recent years to distinguish the different levels at which decisions need to be made (infrastructure? regional and national; playparks? neighbourhood level), these distinctions and their significance have barely touched the consciousness of the ordinary woman or man on the street – who is rarely therefore best placed to exhibit enthusiasm for the debate

2. Current moves to downgrade the regional perspective (the Euorpean-designated NUTS2 level of administration which encompasses aggregations of 5-10 million people, the size of population reckoned to be self-sufficient for most skills and resources) won’t help progress here

3. Most people do not have a clear vision of how they would like their communities to be, let alone how they see these are interlinked with others elsewhere – that requires a knowledge of wider contexts and different possibilities which most of us have not acquired, whether we are delivering or experiencing community development

4. Nowhere does the debate about self-determination seem to acknowledge that Things Move Fast in our hugely complex, technological and environmentally endangered contemporary society. But we no longer live in a world where what worked last time will work next time.

Strategic, or just nostalgic?
There is a real danger that, in going back to localism of whatever kind, we become nostalgic rather than strategic. We will yearn for the supposed simplicities and truths of a previous age, if only because the enormity what now faces us is too difficult to cope with.

Builders will continue where they can to build standard housing, communities will continue to lobby for ‘their’ fair share, politicians will continue to claim progress, motor vehicles will continue to be the mainstay of many of our livelihoods and personal networks. The new localist scheme of things will, if we don’t resist, become a clamour for the old ‘as you were’ for most, if not all, of us.

We already know that sustainable community self-determination often requires large doses of vision and leadership; this is much more than just consultation, it’s about having the courage of your convictions and the wherewithal, in people and resources, to deliver something that will last. As we have said, not easy.

Competitive about what?
So can this same model apply to the new ‘full localism’? The danger is that it will all become not just nostalgic, but perhaps even feudal: not just city-region competing with city-region (a real enough scenario already), but local council pitted against local council, and may the noisiest and most powerful win.

Ambition and enterprise are central to any decent scheme of things for the future. The problems arise when these are put to use excessively in competition between neighbours.

Concerted effort is needed now to confront the challenges of our futures on a global as well as a local scale. If we compete locally to provide the very best solutions to these bigger challenges we will be getting somewhere. But if we compete locally only to secure the best versions of what we imagine others already have in conventional matters, things may become seriously unstuck.

Lessons for the new localism
The big picture situation has changed, and will continue to change, more rapidly than ever before. Technological and environmental issues shift by the day; but is the new politics doing the same?

I hope very much that the new ‘full localism’ will learn from its previous community consultation / double devolution model. Without shared vision and real leadership, a level playing field, and generous sharing of knowledge and ideas by everyone, the whole process can backfire really badly.

If my analysis here of future challenges has any credence, there’s a lot of work still to be done, and not just at the local level, before the new localism can become a power for good uniformly across the land.

This article was first posted on the New Start Blog on 31 May 2010.

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