So what is really next for localism?

By John Findlay | 19 May 2014

The concept of localism still commands cross-party support. It still seems to have the active support of the prime minister, senior ministers and shadow ministers.

There have been significant legislative changes and (tellingly at this time of fiscal constraint) new Government programmes to develop community engagement, both in the voluntary sector and for local councils.

Communities have responded well, with good and widespread take-up of these initiatives. These have built on the very extensive fabric of local activity that has been around for a long time: residents’ and tenants’ associations, civic societies, development trusts and a multitude of ‘friends of’ whatever it might be.
But somehow there doesn’t seem to be a grasp of the concept of localism and the ‘Big Society’ in the local public mind.
Why is this?
I suspect it may be that, alongside the localism agenda, there is also a pattern of regionalisation and centralisation.
In schools, for example, there is indeed more power for parents and the local community; but there is also growing central command of provision (look at academies and free schools), usually to the exclusion of traditional local education authorities.
The same is true in the health service, with some greater community involvement, but with centrally-driven reorganisation into larger and more distant health authorities; and extensive national control.
It’s happening In criminal justice too. I have served as a magistrate for 24 years. When I began we had a local court, with just 30 magistrates drawn from the local community, which dealt with all local matters (including licensing as well as criminal cases). 
It was locally focused and sensitive to the needs and views of the local community. It was local justice.
Over the years, courts and benches have been amalgamated into bigger and bigger institutions. The very local ‘petty sessional division’ has become county-wide; and for some purposes sub-regional. 
A local magistrate can now be asked to sit in courts 30 miles away, not just in another town, but in a different county, with no local knowledge or sensitivity at all.
All this may be very good for strategic organisation, with all the benefits of bulk-purchasing and resource deployment; but there has been a deeply significant loss of local engagement.
Centralists argue, in relation to all these services, that these changes mark the welcome and overdue ending of the ‘postcode lottery’.
I agree that there must never be a ‘postcode lottery’ in relation to core service standards: there must be a standard national level of proficiency for all public services. 
But there does need to be provision for local variation, driven by the local community, beyond these core standards.
This is where there is a breakdown in the public perception of localism: because, welcome though many initiatives are, they are always set against this creeping enlargement and centralisation.
And the losers in all this are local authorities. 
I have always believed in three levels of government: national, strategic local government and community governance. 
I agree with the notion that district councils are ‘too small to be effective and too large to be local’. And I recognise that the current moves towards shared administrations will become much more widespread and ultimately be the basis for, in practice, a shift to unitary principal authorities, with a much more local community tier.
But I am concerned to see the diminution of our historic institutions of local government and, in particular, the winding-down of so many of their traditional roles. 
Our big city councils and county councils are losing so much of their historic status. Our city and county councils  were the bulwarks of a proud municipal corporationism, sensitive to their communities, and with responsibility not just for the services we are familiar with them running today, but also hospitals and health services, water supply and sewerage, gas and electricity and public transport.
The fragmentation of their roles has been happening for along time; but in recent years we have seen not just the service reductions driven by cuts (and sometimes policy), but the disappearance of so many of the city- and county-wide services that communities take for granted, depend on and assume are still there.
The reality is that we are moving rapidly to world where public services are run by just two tiers: Government and local community. The latter is very welcome, but we have yet to see just how far it will extend.
The danger is that community control of so much in local service provision will in fact be lost to national government; and that local government will never be the same again.
John Findlay was chief executive for NALC - the National Association for Local Councils
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