Whose Localism?

Last week at Voice ’11 I listened to a debate entitled ‘Localism: can citizens deliver a future for our neighbourhoods?’ in which chair Lucy Siegle asked the more specific question “are citizens the best people to manage the resources and services in their neighbourhoods”. A show of audience hands found a slim majority in the positive at the start, with two enthusiastic abstainers sitting behind me.

Panelists were Ed Mayo (Cooperatives UK), Jan Tallis (School Home Support), Simon Parker (New Local Government Network) and Jeremy Crook (BTEG). Their arguments can be crudely summed up as:

  • Yes, when people have the chance to come together to do something for their community, they do (Ed)
  • No, there are too many equality and access issues that mean the state has to be an arbiter (Jan)
  • Yes, centralism hasn’t worked and localism forces us to look at more innovative ways of doing things (Simon)
  • No, impact of cuts on voluntary undermines the potential of localism and the state has a role in ensuring localism is not just the preserve of the white middle class (Jeremy)

I was particularly interested in some of Simon’s comments around the need for Local Government to become as good at managing its social assets as it is a managing physical ones.  I agree that there is a very important role for local government in nurturing and supporting social action locally, and of course many councils do imaginative work and are committed to long term community development projects. Equally, these are under threat from desperate local finances, but they really do fall into the ‘can you afford not to do it?’ category.

In January a NLGN think piece set out three priorities for local government: cut costs, get finances on to a stable footing, renegotiate the social contract with communities. I would argue that the last of these needs to be considered as part of the first two, and that Localism thinking should not stop at the town hall – it should continue out into communities. This brings us back to the point about equalities and accessibility of localism.

I asked the panel whether the two ‘Noes’ felt that the acknowledged equality and access issues meant that greater localism should not be tried, and what they thought could be done to support the widest possible participation in local democratic conversations. Responses included the duty of statutory bodies to be aware of all their citizens (a duty with a small ‘d’ rather than a capital ‘D’, I think); the Equality Duty; the role of councillors to challenge and act as champions for their whole constituency; the importance of equality organisations to act as a voice on race, gender locally, and general assertions that there are ‘a suite of things that Councils can do’.

The public sector Equality Duty comes into force tomorrow. According to GEO “The requirements of the duty are essentially what any well-run organisation would want to do – to meet the needs of those who work for it and use its services.  The duty requires public authorities to have regard to the need to tackle discrimination and promote equal opportunities. When designing and delivering their services, they should consider how they can make them fair for everyone”. How this could be used by councils and social activists to encourage greater support and a broader audience for engagement activities will be really interesting stuff.

The panel also asserted that Councillors need more engagement with communities, and need to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their role in building communities. One final observation that caught my ear was the plea to link spend data with service delivery data – this will be a big challenge, but one that will have a big prize. More detailed understanding of how services are delivered and their impact will be really important in making smart spending decisions in the future.

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