You may have read Steve Baker MP write about the Localism Bill going through the Commons in last week’s paper. It may well resurrect the true notion of true local democracy but will it make your community stronger? It is a shame that Big Society became a big idea in a time of bust rather than boom. It might have worked so much better four years ago. Now it faces an uphill struggle.
Often, the terms ‘localism’ and ‘localisation’ are used interchangeably, but they refer to different things. Localism refers to a decentralising of political decision-making and is primarily concerned with governance. Localisation, is a wider, more far-reaching adjustment of economic focus from the global to the local. Localism focuses on political structures, the devolution of governance, the application of subsidiarity to democracy Localisation focuses instead on the practicalities of building more localised economies, in terms of food, energy, manufacturing and so on, which may necessarily include governance. The Big Society promotes localism, but as it is currently configured, will only promote localisation by accident, or if communities take the lead and push for that agenda.
Communities will gain three rights under the Big Society – to buy, to bid and to build. The right to buy will enable communities to save local facilities and services threatened with closure, the right to bid will be a right to take over local state-run services and that to build will be a right to decide on planning issues.
All of this thinking is linked to government promotion of localism and new found fiduciary responsibility. But it brings both threats, weaknesses and opportunities. The former includes a strong likelihood that more locally driven agendas could ignore wider societal goals such as acting on fuel poverty & energy security. Further, there appears to be an assumption that if you make powers available to people they will have the time and the finances to use them. Since most of the population is under the yoke of a high tax system and need every spare moment earning, just to keep up with inflation, then we are not yet in a good place for this revolution to take seed. This is not the eighteenth century.
It’s not clear what will fill the gap beyond an expectation of communities doing these things for themselves with support from civil society organisations. The UK now has a legally binding obligation to meet greenhouse gas emission targets as well as the economic imperative to meet the challenge of peak oil. The planning system could be used to massively support that. However decisions are now being left to a more local level. In the face of a widespread inclination to short-termism and in the face of other, more immediate concerns, that is deeply concerning. These security issues, from a Transition perspective, are best tackled by an empowered, active community supported by national frameworks and infrastructures.
Whilst we welcome the Localism Bill it is a job half-done. To work in building a devolved and empowered community it needs to be wed to the 2008 Sustainable Communities Act. Such a force would be a force for good. We would like so much for this to work too. Is Steve angry enough to make this work against near impossible odds? We are here to help, but the impossible takes longer. What is freedom without responsibility?