The Community Level
Even within cities there can be markedly different communities existing side by side with people clearly identifying with the very local rather than the city itself. One 3rd Sector interviewee named a number of specific suburbs with high proportions of ethnic minority inhabitants within his city, saying that 'these are distinctive communities.' Communities were also seen to differ by the age of population and the degree to which they were settled into their careers. 'Older people strongly identify by neighbourhood but younger people don't' (local politician). Someone else explained this as follows: 'Neighbourhoods are identified with more strongly
by those who have lived in them longest. Young people may be renting houses and expect to move on'. However, he went on to add that 'a couple of places in this city are still really villages and they have a strong sense of identity' (local politician).
A similar phenomenon was noted in the rural areas. 'There are towns with their own distinctive identity and areas with their own distinctive identity' (Local Authority CEO). 'There are real proper personalities to towns' (local businessman). Indeed, [local identity] 'goes right down to individual villages. In mining areas it matters which side you were on in the miners' strike' (Regional Government Office CEO).
Engagement, Identity and Local Institutions
New Localism originated as the Labour Government's attempt to devolve power and resources away from central control and towards levels of governance with which it was thought the general public could identify – front-line managers, local democratic structures, local consumers and communities (Corry and Stoker, 2002; Corry et al., 2004). At the same time there was a shift in thinking towards communal activity at the local level and the need to create structures which would stimulate local democracy at the local and neighbourhood level so that it becomes more than a system of occasional voting or an imperfect method of selecting who governs, but something integrated into one's way of life (Cm 7427, 2008). Unfortunately, most of our interviewees could remember very little about the content of this particular White Paper. 'What was it about?' asked one normally well informed local businessman involved at regional level. 'Sounds awful stuff!' said a Local Authority CEO, 'to be honest, I didn't read it.' Another took an even more jaundiced view: 'Was that the duty to consult or something like that? Well, we'll disappear up our own backsides if we aren't careful!' (Regional Director). The subsequent Sustainable Communities Act (2007) and Amendment (2009) were also received with little enthusiasm. 'Conceptually, it is a good piece of legislation but it is weak and inadequate and nobody takes any notice of it' (national/regional politician).
Nevertheless, many were keen to develop better means of engagement with their local communities. 'Local engagement is fundamental to what the city is' (Regional Director). Of course, the 3rd Sector were particularly keen, because their ability to influence depends upon it: 'I sincerely believe that Britain's future depends on people in the localities taking responsibility for what happens in communities in terms of services, tax, etc.' (3rd Sector CEO); 'Local engagement is my priority … all voluntary organisations … and strong links with the ethnic business community' (3rd Sector CEO). Some representing regional organisations and local politics thought the same. 'I would like to see a much more radical reform which would try and devolve services down to local levels' (Regional Minister); 'One of the very strong messages … has been around local engagement
in decision making. Several had made serious attempts to do so' (Regional
Government Office CEO).
Cities were keen to do this through various types of ward and neighbourhood councils. 'There are ward committees made up of Councillors for the ward. A monthly note goes out to invite people to meet their local councillors with small amounts of money available to each ward'(Local Authority CEO). 'Neighbourhood Councils include local councillors, officers, directors of services, health and social care and the public … Each Neighbourhood Council will have to produce a master plan for its own area … it has cross party support' (local politician). Good examples were referred to at county, district, parish, right down to village level. 'In some cases it has literally been down to local householders.'
One Regional Government Office gave us an example of 'rural housing where we are trying to manage the dilemma between rural communities who don't want more housing in their area because it will spoil the nature of the village but at the same time those same communities want to be sure that there is affordable housing for their own families, children and grandchildren to be able to live in the area'. Another good example used was coastal erosion, where decisions had to be made as to which communities it was economical to save and which not. 'If you are making decisions around some of the areas that are threatened … and you have to make a big decision about how far does one seek to protect the coasts as they currently are? … It is people's houses!' (Regional Government Office CEO). So, 'some really powerful work [has been done] on getting local communities involved in that decision so that … people understand why we are doing it that way and what the trade offs are … When you take them through it you can try to get them to think what the consequences are of preserving things as they are and the cost, which might be several hundred million pounds and might only preserve 10 or so houses. Is that a sensible decision to take and what is the trade off?' However, others recognised that while community groups might exist at this very low level of democracy, they tended to be short lived. 'As an issue arises a small group of people will be very active for a short period of time … but usually they are disbanded once the issue has moved on' (Local Authority CEO), so while they might be highly democratic and activist, they did not necessarily form a stable platform from which local institutions could easily operate.