Monday, 15 August 2011

Localism in the UK

Today, Monday, Radio 4's The World at One had an interview with Michael Heseltine (one of the "best Prime ministers we never had"), who had had a role in devising the strategy for recovering from the riots that took place in British cities in the summer of 1981. Heseltine's contribution to the debate on the new riots, exactly 30 years later, was refreshing. He emphasised the local dimension. Why has the BBC not been reporting the opinions of local government leaders, apart from that of Boris Johnson? It is a sign of the way local government is not considered important in Britain. This, he implied, and I agree with him, is particular British malaise. If problem localities, that breed the conditions for disaffected people to riot,  are to be tackled, the government must change "localism" from a mere slogan into a reality. And Heseltine was very honest about how difficult that would be for a government, as, he stated, Whitehall ministers would fight tooth and nail to retain all the powers they have.

We have seen this so far in the coalition government's version of "localism". It has consisted either of saying the word "localism" and then issuing new top-down guidance to local authorities to replace older top-down guidance to them from the last government that this one does not like the flavour of, as in Eric Pickles' pointless-to-misguided town centre parking policy, or of saying the word "localism" and then actually removing powers local authorities had, as in the draft new National Planning Policy Framework,  which suggests that local authorities will no longer have the power to reject locally-unpopular developments, as there will be a new presumption in favour of all development.

Heseltine is right. Genuine localism is what we need, but it is utterly against the instincts of all British governments, who all promise it and then fail to deliver it. Will this one be different? I have my doubts. I've been a bit aggressive against the United States in my last post, but I will say that a great strength of the United States is that they have a great model of localism, powerful and permanent, because it is constitutionally-backed. England, and later, the United Kingdom, has been, since the reign of the Tudors, a highly centralised state, with no constitutional position for sub-national government at all. Local government has always been at the mercy of constant and unpredictable reorganisation, abolition, recreation, adjustment and redefinition at the hands of the Westminster government. It has never had the stability or respect that would come with a constitutional framework that defined and guaranteed its role and powers.

And as I don't see anyone in British politics (apart from perhaps a few on the left of the Lib Dems, who are far from the centre of gravity of the coalition) even suggesting that the UK should have a proper constitution that guarantees the role of sub-national levels of government, I don't really see us making much progress with localism. It's just not in our national, historic DNA. In this, as in many other of my pessimistic thoughts, I hope I am wrong.

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