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What now for Localism?

So the Tories have been returned with an overall majority to govern us for another five years. What does this mean for local democracy?

A super-quango is born

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): Local government in England is neither local, government nor representative.  Local authorities are ruled from above by central government departments and major quangos.  At last, with the granting of royal assent for the the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency - a merger of the former Housing Corporation and English Partnerships - the shape of effective regional and local governance is now clear. It sets the seal on a troika of power that is accountable, though imperfectly, only upwards: this new super-quango, regional development agencies and the government's regional offices will now rule between them.  Yes, there is provision for deals with the larger local authorities - some of them with populations of over a million - but the real power rests with the regional quango state.

Fiddling with local government won't restore trust

Suzy Dean (London, Manifesto Club): Local government has recently been given the arduous task of leading the way towards “more active citizenship, empowered communities, and ultimately, the revival of democracy.” A White Paper, expected early this summer, will explain how. In the long run it is hoped that citizen involvement at the local level will lead to an increase in public confidence in the services and institutions delivering them.

The way in which local government has been rebranded the solution for broader political problems such as disengagement and lack of trust in political institutions, sets the scheme up for a fall.

There has been an understandable attempt by politicians to find out what the public are thinking. When there are high levels of apathy and widespread mistrust in the political system, it is not surprising that political elites want to know what will make people want to engage with them. So far, this has proved unsuccessful at the national level of politics where despite endless opinions polling and citizens’ juries on almost every aspect of policy, there seems to be little that really inspires people to vote, let alone join a party. Following this lack of success throughout central government, local government has taken on the challenge, on the basis that the public may be more interested in their local area.

There are a number of indications that local politics will not be able to renew a sense of faith in politics.

Local Matters X: The rise of the local party

OurKingdom is running a short series of posts looking at various aspects of local government - you can read the series in full here.

Richard Berry (London, Knowledge Politics): Stuart Weir began this series with a piece lamenting the over-centralisation of the British state, and an anonymous poster responding to this made the argument that local government itself is acquiescent with this situation. I believe the analysis of why local authorities do not make more vociferous demands for autonomy has to take into account the party origins of most local politicians.

Local Matters IX: Optimism will get you everywhere

OurKingdom is running a short series of posts looking at various aspects of local government - you can read the series in full here.

Amelia Cookson (London, Local Government Information Unit): Though it goes against every grain of my being, I think that it might be true: things really are getting better. Well, maybe not with the economy. And the climate might be a write-off. But for the first time in a long time, local government is on the up.

Cameron at the Butchers

Selina O'Grady (London, author): A letter from the council, a future Prime Minister and the absurdity of officialdom all made for an unusually political moment in my habitually social visits to the shops last weekend. I used to pine a bit for the Starbucks, delicatessens and boutiques full of taps, tiles and Victorian board games that the more fashionable bits of Kensington acquired. Here, we have Tastebuds for colesterol breakfasting, Dar al Hijab for Muslim fashions, Mick and John at Allen Foster Butchers, supplier of Quality Meats and Navneet Kishore at the newsagent/post office.

Local Matters VI: We need a green localisation

OurKingdom is running a short series of posts looking at various aspects of local government - you can read the series in full here.

Rupert Read (Norwich, The Green Party): Right now, I'm spending a lot of my time on the stump. In a week's time, we'll know the results of this year's local elections; a good time to reflect, then, on the prospects for local government in Britain.

Local Matters V: How public partnerships are wrecking local democracy

OurKingdom is running a short series of posts looking at various aspects of local government - you can read the series in full here.

George Jones (London, LSE): Public Partnerships are the Government's fashionable mechanism for delivering local public services. They come in various shapes and sizes: between local authorities and other public bodies, with the private sector and with the voluntary or independent sector. And they have proliferated. Researchers in 2002 found at least 5,500 local partnerships, spending £4.3 billion a year, with 75,000 partnership board members. There must be far more today.

Local Matters IV: Scotland's local solution to a global crisis

OurKingdom is running a short series of posts looking at various aspects of local government - you can read the series in full here.

Mike Small (Fife, Bella Caledonia): We are obsessed by food. We should be - because we have a serious problem. As Raj Patel points out in his new book "Stuffed and Starved" unless you are a corporate food executive, the food system isn't working for you.

Local Matters II: Mulgan for people power

This is the guest editorial of the current issue of Ethos on local government. Ethos is a journal of the Serco group. It's also part of a short series of posts OurKingdom is running looking at various aspects of local government - you can read the series in full here.

Local pride in local colours

Peter Facey (Fowlmere, Unlock Democracy): A couple of years ago I was driving through rural Ireland, where houses and telegraph poles flew their county colours. The only county in England that has traditionally flown its own flag is Cornwall. And yes, before someone tells me, I know that for many Cornish Cornwall isn't just a county, but a nation in its own right. Even where I now live in Cambridgeshire you find cars with the flag of St. Piran on them.

Local Matters I: The iron rule of the central executive

This is the first in a short series of posts OurKingdom will be running in April looking at various aspects of local government.

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): Four months ago, on December 12 2007, a major constitutional bargain was struck which attracted no attention then and has largely been ignored since. I refer to the concordat on central-local government that the government signed with the Local Government Association (LGA) and that was trailed in the Governance of Britain green paper. But government departments and ministers have not lost their enthusiasm for interfering in local government affairs and, so far as I know, the LGA and local authorities scarcely ever raise its presence in their defence.

London: democracy in action

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I have just come back from one of the most extraordinary political meetings I've ever been to in a long life of such events. It was the Mayoral hustings put on by London Citizens in the Methodist Central Hall, packed with well over 2,000 people. Neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party was mentioned by name and may just as well not have existed. The Lib-Dems and the Greens were named by their candidates but that was a sign of their marginality. The organisers put on a fantastic demonstration of politics from below, roll-calling the dozens of local organisations, schools, churches and faith communities that combined in what was both very London yet also drew upon American style populist organising and trade union solidarity. There was singing, there was a highly professional display of human causes unfolded with dignity and enjoyment. It felt genuinely representative. More on this I'm sure.

Vote Match 08

Jon Bright (London, OK): Any Londoners out there unsure of where to cast their vote in the upcoming elections might want to check out "Vote Match 08" - a new website launched by Unlock Democracy and the Dutch Instituut voor Publiek en Politiek. The tool poses a range of policy based questions, then asks you to select which areas are of most importance for you, before fixing you up with a politician to suit your needs. The candidates themselves have already answered the same set of questions, so you'll be getting someone who thinks like you on the issues you feel strongly about (hopefully). To my slight disappointment, I was paired off with Boris Johnson, who I am not exactly a massive fan of. But it's nice to know we're not so different after all. Who will you end up with?

May elections could establish the colour of Britain's fourth party

Rupert Read (Norwich, The Green Party): Local election campaigning kicked off this week - what will it mean for the UK's fourth party?

A lot of focus will inevitably be on the situation in London. The London Mayoral race is hotting up. At the top, it is closely-contested by Ken Livingstone of Labour and Boris Johnson of the Conservatives. But the election system used for Mayor of London means that voters can pick as their first preference whoever they want, and transfer their vote tactically using their second preference vote. The Lib Dems are polling poorly, and are likely to drop below their score in '04 - the Green Party candidate (Sian Berry), on the other hand, is charismatic and dynamic, and it may well be that it is the Green Party that profits from the AV system. Sian Berry will quite probably get the highest-votes ever received by Mayoral candidates for the Green Party in a mayoral race.

Personality driven media will never cover real politics

CoSERG (Cornwall): In January a CoSERG member was approached by a television company making a programme for ITV on the change to unitary local government in Cornwall. The programme researcher explained that the programme would be about the costs of the transition; was it costing more than the County Council had predicted, as forecast by the opponents of unitary local government? A fair question; but we asked whether they also intended to include the issues of the loss of democratic accountability, devolution to Cornwall or local community empowerment. They weren't - these issues had "already been covered." Moreover, it became clear that our TV person had not even heard of the soon to be unlamented South West Regional Assembly.

The row over Ken

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Had a coffee with Martin Bright this morning. He is very angry with me for signing the Compass letter in support of Livingstone and made his feelings known in his blog. Meanwhile Sunder Katwala who heads up the Fabians has written his, longer version, of why I signed, like me he rejects the letter's Compass statement's criticism of journalists on the left (aka in this instance Martin Bright) who criticise Ken. I've put my case. We also talked about the drink issue and my distinction between politicians taking whatever they need to stiffen their nerves - but not to tolerate drug use that incapacitates them or makes them feel sorry for themselves. More important, perhaps, Martin and I agree that even if elected Ken may not last the course of another four years. Who should replace him? Not an ex-Cabinet minister. Please! The political establishment (and I include media reporters in this) still do not understand what is happening with devolution. London demands a different kind of politics. It is an executive post not a ministerial one. A point I've made before. It should be a stepping stone to national politics not a consolation prize. Livingstone has made the impact he has, not because he was an MP or is a "maverick" as Sunder describes him, but because he was formed by running the GLC. It was there that he came to the view that in executive terms one looks for "the best person for the job anywhere in the world and pay them accordingly". Eyebrows have been raised at my suggestion that a better left candidate would have been Neal Lawson. Should Sunder be drafted? The position needs someone with executive abilities and a political will to mobilise a wide range of constituencies outside the usual party routines.

You've been Quango'd!, NLGN

Stuart Weir reviews You've been Quango'd! Mapping power across the regions by Chris Leslie and Owen Dallison, NLGN.

A new NLGN report calls for quangos to be more representative.

150 years later - another speakers' corner

Peter Bradley (Nottingham, Speakers' Corner Trust): Last Friday Nottingham became the first city in the UK to adopt a Speakers' Corner since an Act of Parliament paved the way for the original in London's Hyde Park almost 150 years ago. It's first of what Speakers' Corner Trust hopes will become a national network of locally-run initiatives promoting public debate and active citizenship.

Don't mention the war (on terror)

Jon Bright (London, OK): One of the aspects of the global war on terror which, as it were, would have been funny if it wasn't so tragic, was the often repeated desire to "win hearts and minds": often repeated by people who seemed to be going out of their way to do exactly the opposite. Forward Thinking's new report on "Forgotten Voices", which investigates the opinions of young Muslims through conversations with their peers, exposes the extent of the damage - and the rather worrying level of concern Muslim youth feel about their lives and their prospects. It reveals both that a "great majority" of them felt "British", and yet also felt isolated within their society - fearful of their prospects of educational and professional development.

The year ahead: local opportunities for rural Britain

Jill Grieve (London, The Countryside Alliance): 2008 could be a big year for rural Britain. A host of bills and important landmarks await:

6th February - the winners of the Countryside Alliance's third annual Best Rural Retailer competition will be announced - check for regional winners. The competition seeks to celebrate rural Britain through the retailers who work so hard to keep their communities together.

Can we create a new national belonging? by Ben Rogers and Rick Muir, ippr

Jon Bright reviews: The Power of Belonging: Identity, citizenship and community cohesion by Ben Rogers and Rick Muir of ippr.

Ben Rogers and Rick Muir examine our nation's collective identities - what might be lost as they change or thin out, and what could be done to stregthen them.

Three new quangos continue assault on local democracy

Laura Sandys (South Thanet, Conservative Party Candidate): I am very concerned about a raft of new laws before Parliament which will take away power from local people. Here in East Kent a host of unelected planning quangos will be imposed on us. The upshot could be unsustainable development, overriding local opinion and harming the local environment.

Primary Selection, MMCs, and the end of quangocracy

Jonathan Bryant (Brighton & Hove, Direct Democracy): Conor Burns argued recently on about the need for the Conservative Party to embrace limited reform of our First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, primarily due to its in-built bias against the Tories. Whilst this is undoubtedly true at the current point in time, Direct Democracy believe that the real problem which urgently needs addressing is not so much to do with the regional vagaries of FPTP, but that the current electoral system - with so many safe seats and one party fiefdoms - does not produce a parliament capable and willing to hold the executive to account. We need a system that produces a genuine legislature, not cheerleaders for the current or future government. Therefore, any proposed reforms should proceed on this basis.

Please no, not government charters

Anthony Barnett (London, OK):  According to this morning's ePolitix alert our Community Secretary (where did that title come from!) Hazel Blears is going to tell the New Local Government Network that everything is improved by the participation of local people and that,

 "Charters or so-called 'community contracts' will help councils, police and health authorities and local people to work together in tackling the issues that matter, improving their local neighbourhoods and improve public satisfaction."

Where localism should exist

Jonathan Bryant (Brighton & Hove, Direct Democracy): Colin Baker sets out a direct challenge below - what does "localism" actually mean in practice? For Direct Democracy, the answer is quite simple: the whole essence of localism is that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the people they affect. Therefore, the ideal unit of governance is the smallest practicable unit.Take, for example, education. When it comes to choosing a school, the smallest unit is the individual (the parent or the sixth-former). When it comes to how the school operates - admissions policy, uniform policy, holiday dates, religious instruction, curriculum etc - the unit is the school. When it comes to financing the system, the unit is the county or city. The only role of the national government is to specify the outcome. In other words, to say: "By the time you leave school, we expect you to be able to do the following things". As to how to get there, over to schools themselves.

Constable Control

Jon Bright (London, OK): Richard Brunstrom, chief constable of North Wales police, has provoked a very predictable round of headlines and self-important screaming by outlining again his support for the legalisation of drugs. Hard to pick my favourite of the cynical, misleading rebuttals - though David Davis' must be close:

If you strike the attitudes taken by this particular chief constable, if you thoughtlessly downgrade cannabis, if you treat dangerous drugs as 'no worse than aspirin', you make a gift to the drug dealers and criminals who are destroying the lives of so many young people

Britain's flourishing culture of diversification and decentralisation

Jon Bright (London, OK): This blog in the Progressive is a little old now, but still worth a comment on. Dan McCurry argues that there is a contrast at the heart of the EU - between a culture of 'centralisation' and a culture of 'diversification' (for which we might read localism). The thing that struck me instantly was that he thinks it's the British who are committed localists. He gives the example of recycling:

A vision of the localist revolution

Colin Baker (New Forest): This word "localism" is all very fine but, I suspect none of you could tell me what it actually is! Is it a region; a county; a district / borough; a parish or what? How about having new "City Counties" (CC) with new enlarged "Parish" communities and forgetting the rest? Current county boundaries were out of date three decades back. Current Parish structure tends to be too small for anything serious to happen. City Counties could decide for themselves how many parishes they wanted and how big to make them. (For information on how the administrative geography of England currently works see here).

Cameron's localism and the post-bureaucratic age

Jonathan Bryant (Brighton & Hove, Direct Democracy): The October Google Zeitgeist Conference in California was a particularly apposite occasion for David Cameron to set out a vision described recently by Steve Richards in The Independent as "potentially revolutionary in its implications, one that could at the very least transform the political culture in Britain". Mr Cameron's prediction that as a society we are on the cusp of a new ‘post-bureaucratic' age may not have caused intakes of breath in the nation's pubs and bars. But as more details emerge of what this new philosophy actually encapsulates, it is becoming clearer that his vision does indeed sum up the zeitgeist.

MPs spend too much time on constituency duties

Andrew Blick (London, Democratic Audit): I am a naughty boy. I have upset Iain Dale with my suggestion that too much parliamentary time is wasted on the long vacations that MPs enjoy. Iain says that my post is "ridiculous" and suggests that I surely know that MPs will be spending lots of this time on constituency duties. I am sure they are. But this is part of the point that I am trying to make. MPs spend far too much time on "constituency duties" which is of course a way of shoring up the advantages of incumbency and blocking off challenges. As a result, not enough parliamentary time is spent on their prime duty of holding the executive to account. If we need parliamentary social workers, attached presumably to local MPs, then let's have them.

Building a culture of participation

Jon Bright (London, OK): involve launched their pamphlet 'Participation Nation' yesterday at a panel event with Matthew Taylor, Shaun Bayley and Hazel Blears. It was nice to hear someone from Labour reaffirm a commitment to localism and participation after so many strong statements by the Conservatives on this.

Central government strangled local democracy long ago

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of current debates on democracy is that intelligent and committed people still talk about local government as though it still exists. Even council members themselves, as represented on the Councillors Commission, make this mistake. They have just produced a report for the DCLG (a newspeak creation that combines in one Department two non-entities, "community" and "local government") on how to encourage able people to serve on their local authorities. The commission chaired by Jane Roberts, who was a successful Labour leader in Camden, does a decent job of re-arranging the deck chairs on a ship that has long since sunk.

The central vs the local

Jon Bright (London, OK): It is, I suppose, a cliché to call Labour addicted to centralisation. The big, clunking, Stalinist hand of state socialism is an easy way to caricature Brown, but he's certainly a bit more nuanced than that.

Vivienne Westwood is also pretty easy to caricature - as a self-obsessed faux intellectual trying to moan about the state of the world having already made her money. Her new manifesto - "Active Resistance" - cries out for such a generalisation. I haven't read it myself - yet - but, watching her introduce it on Newsnight Review the other day, she certainly said one thing I agreed with: in politics 'left' and 'right' means nothing any more.

People and Participation

Alice Casey (London, involve): It is becoming clear that in facing the urgent challenges of issues as complex and deep rooted as public health provision, climate change, community cohesion and terrorism, top down government alone is not equipped to deliver an effective solution. There is growing agreement that progress on such issues can only be made through the willing participation of empowered individuals and communities as in formulating and implementing new solutions. Connecting people more closely, more meaningfully and more effectively with the institutions that serve them has never been more important than in today's Britain.

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