The Localism Act moves responsibility for local areas from central government to local communities. However, the legislation is not being matched with suitable budgets for local communities. Theoretical discussion and political involvement alone cannot make power and decision-making available to local people.
Consider initiatives such as My Community Rights. They are intended to give people control and allow them to exercise real power. They are only effective if they address communities as they exist and as equals. But are they doing this?
The message of localism amounts to the knowledge how do it is local knowledge. The consequence of this message is for communities to say to government ‘we’ll achieve what you want, don’t worry about how we do it’. But what do communities want?
Those working with communities need to ensure that their actions are based on informed and inclusive methods for local engagement and community participation. Importantly they need to begin with a developed understanding of the local context and of appropriate behaviour within that context. Only then will they be able to genuinely empower communities and build substantial local resilience.
This is where democracy comes in. Only in the context of genuinely democratic negotiation can community and government relationships flourish. Without some acknowledgement by government of the powers held by communities there can be no worthwhile relationship between the two. Furthermore, without the resources to take up those powers communities are as helpless as if they had none.
Supposedly this is done through elections. Here elections are seen as the people giving those elected the power to govern on their behalf. Yet turnouts at elections are low. Voter apathy has been joined by voter disgust at government practices. And traditional voting patterns and blocks can no longer be relied on by any party. So here is another reason to turn to the local, specifically to the traditions of self-help, mutualism, co-operatives, friendly societies and trade unions.
With this we see that localism is not just about the local. It is about interactions at different levels of government and communities. Nor is it about getting local people to pay for public services. It is about local people getting the public services they need. In other words for real localism we need a genuine commitment to a much more open, honest and co-operative public realm.
Community resources and services should be seen as the domain of the community themselves. They should not be regarded as the property of government. They should be there to help people help themselves. The focus needs to be on the underlying purpose rather than an easy cut or something government will do once it has balanced the books.
At the moment we do not have a localism worth the name. We do not have a society that acts as guarantor of meeting needs and creating surpluses. Rather we have a society separated from the government it creates through election. And we have communities separated from the resources that they need.