With the Localism Act approaching its first anniversary there are already signs that grassroots enthusiasm for localism is waning. The government has over-estimated communities’ ability to take charge of the localism agenda
We are now a year on from the passing of the Localism Act. Since then there have been calls for even more decentralisation, the latest of which came this week with Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles calling for more town and parish councils. So how is localism shaping up on the ground as we head towards its first anniversary?
We know that the face of regeneration and economic development has changed beyond recognition over the last few years. The discipline has been through significant upheaval with the loss of the regional development agencies, a new planning system, a new and reduced world of funding and the decrease in resource, both public and private, that goes with it. Underpinning all of these changes has been localism, the government’s desire to give power back to local communities and reign in government that, in their own words ‘has become too big, too interfering, too controlling and too bureaucratic… has undermined local democracy and individual responsibility, and stifled innovation and enterprise within public services’. Sceptics have always said that this is simply vote-winning rhetoric and a way to cut costs, but in many ways I wonder if they couldn’t be further from the truth?
So a year on from the Localism Act coming in to force, what has the impact on local communities been? In order to answer that question properly I suspect that a thesis is required and no doubt an evaluation is being prepared, but from working closely with local government and communities on a daily basis over the past year it is clear that there are growing concerns.
Something that perhaps government failed to take account of is that localism is only as good as the people who drive it and those people are getting tired. Time and time again we are faced with the same problem, parish and town councils and local community groups who desperately want to deliver, but rely on an ever decreasing pool of willing volunteers and those left standing are exhausted. Everyone knows it: in communities there are a few people who do everything and with localism they are asked to do even more.
Several times recently we have spoken with town and parish councils and local stakeholders who themselves have raised serious doubts over their own ability to undertake projects or initiatives with a lack of professional support and expertise. This concern of course comes from particularly enlightened groups who recognise their own limitations, but where this is not the case or indeed where groups ‘don’t know what they don’t know’ there are serious questions that need to be asked.
Undoubtedly there is much that local groups can and will do without the need for professional help and indeed we have seen some fantastic examples of the Big Society and localism in some of the places we are working, where groups have formed and delivered quite staggering interventions to help their town. This approach helps to unify communities and in a time when local communities should be pulling together and there are extremely limited funds and resources, this should be encouraged wherever possible. But there are limitations and both sides of the table recognise this. A number of exasperated community members have rightly noted that ‘aren’t these services the reason I pay my council tax?!’.
There is a disconnect between increasing volumes of funding being channelled through local enterprise partnerships and their ability to meaningfully engage in real local issues where the majority of projects will be delivered. Many LEPs are also tasked with big infrastructure schemes and have barely started working up an economic strategy, let alone funding programmes, but the need for local support is immediate – if not already overdue.
So, are the sceptics right? Is localism an effective vote winner and a way of cutting costs? It is impossible to tell after only one year whether this major redistribution of power is popular, successful or will lead to a reduction in costs. Localism is broadly welcomed by groups in principle but with some nervousness. Our experience is that government seems to have overestimated local communities’ ability and capacity to drive things forward. They need more support, more funding and more help both within the community and externally.
Kate Pinnock is a founding director of the economic and regeneration consultancy Ingham Pinnock Associates