What localism can do

Last week I promised a lovely lady on Twitter called Sue (@personatia) that I would write a blog on why localism is important, and why it has so much potential.

I’m not going to go too deeply into any one area, and my examples are – of course – limited in scope because localism is, by definition, what suits a particular area or demand. But she was concerned that the NHS reforms would lead to people in poor areas not receiving the healthcare they need (I think) and I think she is fundamentally misunderstanding why localism works. I don’t begin to pretend to understand the NHS reforms, but I have two things to say on health: firstly, that NO government is going to stop allocating funds on the basis of need (and no council raises anything more than 20 per cent of what it spends locally – the vast majority of what councils spend is from central government), and secondly that I think her fear is based on misconceptions of what these health reforms are supposed to do – they are supposed to reduce bureaucracy, free health professionals to innovate and treat their patients on the basis of need, and get patients the treatment that suits them the best wherever it comes from.

My main purpose here, though, is not to defend individual programmes, but to explain why the underlying principles are the right ones that this government should live by.

First off, I think it’s important to say that for decades, governments have centralised power and taken it further away from the people it affects, meaning that decisions are less personal and less accountable – it’s far easier to ignore personal circumstances and do blanket, impersonal, one-size-fits-all if you don’t know the people involved. I think that as the EU has extended its competencies, successive Westminster governments have seen their powers go up to the supra-national level, and so they have skimmed off powers from councils, who in turn have taken powers up from communities and thence from individuals.

I don’t think we should withdraw from the EU, but I do think a serious appraisal of what it does and doesn’t do is necessary (and we should draw lessons from the way that this government negotiated the UN into actually doing something in Libya when, in the early days, the UK seemed to have little international support for action).

Part of the reason for this is a desire to provide good services to all (I believe that most people – of whatever party – who go into politics want to do the best they can, even if they’re wrong about how to go about it); part of it is that if we pay national taxes, we have a right to expect a certain standard of services in return; and part of it is because we want life to be fair.

So, that out of the way… What is localism supposed to do? It devolves decisions as close as possible to the people they affect, allowing services to become more responsive to the desires of those people, and more accountable to them.  I’ve never hidden the fact that there are potential problems with this – what if the people with the power aren’t capable of exercising it? What if they become just another layer of martinet-like bureaucracy? Nor have I hidden the fact that decisions taken by different groups of people will have differing outcomes – what is pejoratively called a postcode lottery.

The point is, however, that with power comes responsibility. If services aren’t right, then people WILL vote out those who made the wrong decisions. And the point of postcode lotteries is that you can demand that your services change if you know that there’s something better on offer elsewhere.

I know that there are plenty of people who say, ‘But this is just a charter for the sharp-elbowed middle-classes’. And you know what? Yes, to an extent – because in shorthand, they are the people who want the best for themselves and their families and know the tricks that they need to get it. But it is only by consumer demand that services improve – and they improve for all when there are sufficient numbers of those demanding consumers. Services only become accountable when people have the right and the opportunity to move their demands elsewhere.

The most important thing about localism, though, is that it will free service providers to innovate to respond to their own consumers. Every community, area, group of people need different things. I heard recently about a village in Cumbria that decided to build some affordable housing. Sadly, in order for affordable housing to be ‘affordable’ that often means that the only economic way to build it is to build lots of it. But not in this village – they decided that they needed 22 houses. So they worked together to agree where they would go, who would build them, how much they would cost, what they would look like, and so on.

To illustrate my point about personal services – another place in Cumbria has agreed to share the burden of installing proper broadband. This costs a LOT of money – partly because farmers can (and therefore do) charge high fees to large companies to lay cables under their land. But instead, these villagers discussed with local farmers and – because they knew each other personally, and because it would bring wider community benefits –every single farmer in the area agreed to waive the fees.

The most important thing about localism is the accountability it will bring. This isn’t easy – and I think that in time, for properly responsive councils, it might be necessary to look again at election schedules and recalls and so on.

The three pillars of localism are power, responsibility and accountability. As I’ve said before, proper accountability will mean that the way local government is funded will have to be looked at at some point – though as I said above, no government will ever remove equalisation grants. I could see an argument for allowing councils to have more control over business rates, or perhaps VAT receipts – it’s a clear and transparent way for them to raise and spend money locally, and it means that councils can build an attractive offer to encourage businesses and individuals to move there.

I don’t pretend that localism is the way to resolve everything.  But for the things that make a difference to your daily life – whether that’s being able to work from home because you’ve got high-speed broadband, or actually being able to afford a home in the place you grew up, or having a great school down the road because your community has agitated for it, or having a post office that’s also a library, village shop, benefits office, GP surgery and community hall because you’ve worked together to get all the things you want in your village, or even just having a nice park down the road from your clean street because you’ve demanded it from your council – localism makes a huge difference to your daily life, and it’s something that with practice, only gets better and better as time goes by.


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