Nearly seven years ago the Localism Act 2011 promised a ‘fundamental shift of power’ away from Westminster and towards communities. When I was permanent secretary at the then Department for Communities and Local Government, I never doubted that this aspiration was a sincere one from ministers. It built on an emerging political consensus that the scale and complexity of our social challenges are so great, they are unlikely to be effectively addressed from SW1.
But the landscape for localism was a gruelling one, as the Act was implemented alongside a deep austerity programme, squeezing local government finances and hollowing out much of our community infrastructure. And while the Community Rights have brought new powers for communities – to save local buildings and get involved in local planning – these have not been enough to fundamentally change the balance of control in our neighbourhoods.
Ultimately, the transformational potential of localism – to tackle disadvantage, rebalance our economy, and revitalise democracy – is still waiting to be fully unleashed.
This week the key findings from the Commission on the Future of Localism, which I chair, have been published. The Commission was established by Locality, the national charity supporting community organisations, in partnership with Power to Change, the independent trust supporting community businesses in England. Over the past nine months we have been gathering evidence from community groups, local leaders and policy experts. We’ve been exploring what’s needed to inject renewed motivation into the localism agenda and unlock the power of community across the country.
The ‘devolution revolution’ has brought welcome commitment from central government to empower local government, reshape public services around place, and rebalance our economy away from London and the South East. But there has been little attention to strengthening our neighbourhood institutions. The lack of transparency in the process of deal making between the Treasury and local authorities, and questions over long-term accountability and scrutiny which have been flagged by the National Audit Office, show that devolution risks reinforcing the disconnection that people feel with the political system. Indeed, in polling carried out by YouGov and commissioned for the launch of our report, we found that 71% of people are unaware of devolution – and the metro-mayoral elections last May saw turnout of as low as 21% in some areas.
We need a renewed commitment to put localism at the heart of our national debate. Perhaps the vote to leave the EU provides the impetus for this – with the repatriation of powers from Brussels flowing from Westminster to local areas. The ‘take back control’ rallying cry of the referendum campaign certainly spoke to the disconnection and frustrations people felt over the way our political system works.
But polling commissioned for our report finds that 70% of the British public believe that Brexit will give them either the same, or even less control over the decisions that affect their local neighbourhood or community. Of course they might be wrong. But as the Brexit negotiations are set to continue for years to come, the awakening of control and power in our neighbourhoods which may or may not follow might be years in the making.
We need to urgently address the disaffection and disengagement people feel with the way our political system currently works. With 80% of people currently feeling little or no control over the decisions that affect our country, a renewed commitment to localism offers us the chance to change this. But it needs to be much more than a political project concerned with decentralising decision-making.
Localism needs to be embedded in the culture of our neighbourhoods – as people see the change they can achieve together with their neighbours, so power and agency is built. Involvement in community action can strengthen feelings of community cohesion, generate a greater sense of local pride and purpose, and improve wellbeing.
Our Commission therefore is calling for an approach to localism which focuses as much on the relationships and capacity for participation within our communities, as it does on the formal mechanisms, powers and governance structures required.
We make specific calls on government to give communities more weighty powers, such as a new Community Right to Buy to enable communities to take ownership of important local spaces, and a new ‘services partnership power’ to prioritise co-design in local services. But ultimately it is to local leaders and communities we look to implement the change we need. We need local government to work in partnership with their communities, by embracing community-led solutions, devolving budgets, supporting community ownership of assets, and providing the conditions for local action to thrive.
One of the most resonant themes to me from the evidence we heard through our Commission, is that people and local leaders should not need to wait from ‘permission from above’ to get things done in their neighbourhoods. The spirit of direct action remains powerful: and communities must claim it.
Lord Kerslake is chair of the Commission on the Future of Localism