Devolution, Localism and Good Governance in England


In this chapter we consider some of the practical implications of the popular mood among politicians towards 'New Localism', referencing current policy debates and using data drawn from our empirical study of regional and local political, business and 3rd Sector elites.

New Localism

Decentralization to local government

The support for greater decentralisation to local government is not new in Britain. As we have seen, it can be found in the Layfield Committee Report (1976) and the Lyons Inquiry into Local Government (2007). It was the Lyons Inquiry that began to see local government as part of the political process rather than merely as administration (Grant et al., 2009). However, Central Government has continued to be very topdown (Filkin et al., 2000), so local government has tended to be viewed mainly as an agent for the delivery of Central Government policies and often increasing public alienation. At the same time, New Localism is seen as going beyond local government institutions and applying a governance approach to the local neighbourhood level. To be effective, Localism needs active participation by citizens (Aspenden and Birca, 2005) or community engagement achieved through a system of local governance, delivering optimum decentralisation and devolution of power to the most local level and underpinned by principles relating to effectiveness, accountability, participation, equity, diversification and innovation (Cory and Stoker, 2002). It requires a pluralist model of governance in which Central Government will be less directive, with local government being the community leader and mediator (Cory et al., 2004).

Localism has been endorsed by many think tanks and politicians. Writing in 2008, Griggs et al. stated that: 'We have seen how the popularity of neighbourhood approaches has grown in recent times and how these are increasingly depicted as an answer to many contemporary problems within public policy' (Griggs et al., 2008, p.50). This is the case on both the political left (Hirst, 1994) and the right (Green, 1993). At Parliamentary level, all major national political parties have in recent times advocated some form of Localism and have generated an extensive think-tank literature on it (Burwood, 2006; Barrow, Greenhalgh and Lister, 2010;
Walker, 2007; Boyle et al., 2006; Milburn, 2004). So, as Walker (2007) claims: 'We are all … localists now!' (p.5). The New Local Government network (NLGN) produced a series of very useful pamphlets outlining each political party's position (Boyle et al., 2006; Hope et al., 2006; Carmichael et al., 2007). Even so, the New Economics Foundation felt that Britain was, despite devolution, one of the most centralised states in the world (1995; 2009).

New Labour and localism

The Labour governments from 1997–2010 emphasised both devolution of power and partnership and community engagement. Labour instituted devolution of governmental authority to various levels, with degrees of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland creating elected Parliaments or Assemblies. In England, as we saw in Chapter 1, it had originally intended to devolve power to directly elected Regional Assemblies, but when this failed at a first referendum in the North East Region, it developed a degree of devolved governance to unelected Regional Assemblies serviced by Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). Public opinion surveys showed a steady decline in support for Regional Assemblies from 26 per cent in 2003 to 12 per cent in 2011 (Ormston, 2012). These unelected Assemblies were later abolished, with the intention of replacing them with sub-regional bodies based on co-operation between local authorities and business, though these never really got off the ground before the 2010 election change of government. While some of our own regional elite respondents found merit in Labour's system of regional governance, there was also much criticism in detail of the regional institutions and the government's top-down approach as detailed in Chapter 2.

At the more local level of partnership and community engagement, two mechanisms in particular were used by the Labour Government: Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) and the New Deal for Communities programme (NDC). The NDC programme was begun in 1998 to assist regeneration areas. Initially, 17 local community-led NDC partnerships were established, though this increased considerably over time. A final evaluation of the programme was produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in 2010 (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2010b). Under the Local Government Act of 2000, some localities created Area Committees. While these could be effective, Coaffee and Johnson (2004) show that they sometimes caused a wide range of tensions which needed 'pragmatic localism' to overcome, including generating greater trust between local councils and citizens, fewer targets, closer consultation with stakeholders and greater managerial discretion and flexibility. In general, our regional elite interviewees were favourably inclined towards such local initiatives, and as Geddes points out, these could offer gains 'including a greater voice for community organizations, more joined up local strategies, and improved trust within local governance networks' (Geddes, 2008, p.103)
However, tensions often arose between elected local government and nonelected community organisations or activists over notions of 'public value' (Moore, 1995). Each side holds different conceptions which they wish to publicly contest, and this has led some to argue that New Localism should be based firmly in local government 'by virtue of its electoral mandate and its responsibilities as defined in the Local Government Act 2000' (Goodwin, 2004, p.43). However, whilst local authorities were given a lead role, in practice they were not given related statutory powers (Jones, 2010), so 'in contrast to early rhetoric, there has been a recent tendency on the part of [the Labour] central government to regard local institutions as dependent mechanisms to achieve central targets and to prioritise managerialist control over local autonomy and initiative' (Geddes, 2008). Partnerships could work but tended to be dominated by centrally generated managerialist targets (Diamond, 2004).

At the same time, they didn't always work. Geddes (2008) argues that whilst in some localities 'a virtuous circle' of positive partnership working could be discerned, in others 'ineffective leadership, the limited resources and capacity of partnerships, and the unresolved issues of accountability combine in a vicious circle in which the transactional costs of partnership working outweigh the benefits.' Furthermore, while supporters of governance theory stress the positive elements of its emphasis on collective decision-making engaging with the community (Chhotray and Stoker, 2009), it is not always clear who constitutes that local community. It is one thing to call for engagement with community activists, as one of us has done in the past (Smith and Blanc, 1997), but community activists are not necessarily the same as ordinary local people (Morris and Heiss, 1975; Geddes, 2008) and may have their own agendas. One of our 3rd Sector respondents put it like this: 'There can be a lot of sloppy talk about empowering local communities and the danger of that is that it gives undue power and influence to self appointed activists who call themselves community representatives and have personal or political axes to grind and don't have roots in the communities at all.' So-called ordinary local people may be as inactive in community organisations as they are in voting in local democratic elections, and community activists may in fact have a less clear mandate within the neighbourhood than they actually claim to have.

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