The Localism Bill published in November 2010, puts into operation the politics of the Big Society. The aim of the Bill sounds benign enough; “to devolve more powers to councils and neighbourhoods and give local communities greater control over local decisions like housing and planning.” But what are the political objectives of localism, how will it work, and who will benefit? For the left there is an additional question - can communities fighting for social justice in housing, jobs and the environment make use of the Localism Bill?
The key policy aims of the Big Society are summarised simply by the government as ‘Empowering Communities’; ‘Opening up Public Services’; and ‘Building a stronger Civic Society’. However, the politics behind these headlines are complex, combining hard-nosed political economy with conservative idealisations of the good society. At the economic level the Big Society is part of a strategy of shrinking the state, cutting public expenditure and accelerating the out-sourcing of public services. At the social level, it aims to create an idealised world where the better off help the poor; where self help, charity and philanthropy replace public services; where neighbourhoods are run like village communities and parish councils; and where ordinary people experience freedom because there is no state bearing down on them.
The Localism Bill
The Localism Bill tackles one key ingredient of the Big Society mix, the idea that the best decisions are made locally and that local communities are best placed to decide on what services they want and how to deliver them. The contradiction underlying this for the Conservatives is that markets do not want to be constrained by local rules and regulations. They prefer uniform national regulations, and as few of them as possible. One of the clearest examples of this is the housing market where developers want freedom to build where they want, not a host of local regulations, hoops and neighbourhood consultations to pass through, increasing their costs and risks.
But in spite of misgivings in business circles, the Localism Bill is going ahead, with a raft of measures aimed at changing the relationship between central government, local authorities, and local residents. The most significant are; ending the security of tenure of social housing tenants; granting a general power of competence for Local Authorities (i.e allowing councils to use their resources in any way they want within national laws and regulations)a; creating a community right to bid for local government services; a community right to develop neighbourhood plans; a community right to build under neighbourhood development orders; a community right to buy public assets; and a right to call a referendum on local issues including the level of the council tax.
The community “rights” set out in the Bill are particularly interesting because the measures tap into the frustrations of many communities with local government regulations and bureaucracies, with public consultations which often appear to have no effect, and with some public services that are unresponsive to local needs. Although this is a caricature, it goes with the grain of politics. And it also taps into the sense that New Labour efforts at revitalising poor communities (through New Deal for Communities, Housing Pathfinders, and Community Asset transfer for example) had had only limited results. And where New Labour had done good things such as encouraging community land trusts, or the community right to buy scheme for land in Scotland, it was too little too late.
Local authority powers
From the point of view of local authorities faced with the need to make massive cuts, there are advantages in being able to reduce staff by out-sourcing, and transferring the costs of running community facilities such as libraries and community centres to community groups. But where local authorities stand on localism is very far from the “village green” idealisations that lie behind some of the localism rhetoric. If there is to be more “community power” it will be strictly circumscribed. Not only is there a deep reluctance to give up power, but also a scepticism that local communities have the necessary skills, or can be trusted.
For local authorities, localism creates complications, costs and political risks. They will have to enable and manage the new community rights, including entertaining tendering from a much more diverse and fragmented range of voluntary and community providers, and helping communities draw up neighbourhood plans. And they will be under a duty to regulate, manage and scrutinise the whole process. They will be the ultimate gate-keeper and accountable body. There will be legitimate demands on them to help facilitate the process with funding and staff time. This could be a political and bureaucratic quagmire, raising expectations of community power and self help to unrealistic levels. It will also be costly. Instead of the Localism Bill reducing bureaucracy and costs and increasing “freedom” for local action, an entire swathe of new bureaucracies, regulations and financial scrutineers will be created to establish and manage the system.
Limiting Community Rights
Each Right in the Bill is carefully proscribed. The example of community rights to make neighbourhood development orders and neighbourhood plans is instructive. A neighbourhood development order can give planning permission with or without conditions for development. However, the orders must be approved first by the local authority. They do not give communities the right to act outside the Local Planning Authority. Orders can be brought forward by designated bodies - parish councils in rural areas and neighbourhood forums in other areas. However, neighbourhood forums will only be recognised if they are regarded by the local authority as representative and constitutionally valid.
Similarly, neighbourhood plans can be brought forward only by designated neighbourhood forums or parish councils and the plans cannot override existing local authority plans. Even the form and content (and documentation) of neighbourhood plans will be proscribed by the Secretary of State. Both neighbourhood orders and plans must be examined by an independent inspector and then put to a local referendum. Only if the referendum is approved (and there are lots of complications to be sorted out here), will the Orders or Neighbourhood Plans go ahead.
The right of communities to bid for community assets is similarly circumscribed. Local authorities under Labour were urged to create lists of public assets (land and buildings) that could be transferred to community groups (at market value). Under the Localism Bill, there will be a community right to bid for public assets. But as under New Labour, each local authority will decide itself what is an asset of “community value”. Local groups can seek to add public land and buildings to this list but in the end the local authority will decide whether an asset is on the list or not. The critical point of principle is that the community itself will not be able to decide which assets are of “community value”.
What is striking about these examples is the strict gate keeper role of local authorities with very little opportunity for communities to side step local councils and go to national government if they think their proposals for plans, orders, asset transfer, or tendering are opposed or obstructed by their local council. This right of appeal was an important option under previous local/central arrangements. Thus, it is likely that where community rights are exercised with the approval of the local council, they will get a fair wind; but where they do not, they will go nowhere.
An opportunity for the left?
This analysis suggests that potential (within the measures of the Localism Bill) for radical community actions that aim to change or overturn local cuts or privatisation of services or housing policies of local authorities and central government will be limited. In spite of this there may be opportunities to use the new Rights to put forward alternatives to local council or government policy, including generating local referendums and drawing up “people’s plans” for disputed land and buildings.
If local authorities actively take sides with the community against central government cuts and public service reforms, exercising community Rights might be a useful way to establish local alternatives which can challenge government policy. Given that most local authorities are currently under Conservative control in England, and local government is generally very compliant, this does not sound a likely scenario in the short term. But if Conservatives (and Liberal Democrats) lose control of councils in forthcoming local elections, and the political temperature over Coalition policies rises, this may change, although by then much of the damage to local public services will have been done – with libraries, youth facilities, and care homes sold, and public services reduced.
At present the Bill is likely to help better off communities who are organised, have their own resources and are supported by Conservative councils. It give further strength to communities opposing new housing (particularly affordable housing) in their neighbourhoods, while it will be of much less help to hard pressed communities in both urban and rural areas fighting for social justice and against cuts in services, jobs and housing. The outcome will be increased inequality and fragmentation.
Many on the left have been arguing for years that deprived communities should have more power . But for the left “more power to local communities” means grass roots community organising and action; a quite different community politics to the top down community control that the Localism Bill will bring about. The Localism Bill encourages community power but it is strictly conditional; if local initiatives conform with Tory led policies, there will be devolution of power to local communities, albeit subject to quite stringent conditions. If communities use the Rights to challenge the policies of the local authority, the authorities have the power to simply block them. However, the complexity and contradictory nature of the Bill and its inevitable variety of application from place to place and over time, means that Localism could turn out to be more of a hostage to fortune for the Tories than they imagine.