The Coalition Policies in Practice
Do local elites want localism?
Most of our interviewees, irrespective of their political persuasion, supported the principle of Localism. National government should trust local government by devolving to it greater powers. 'It is very welcome as a direction of travel' (Local Authority CEO); '[it] is generally going in the right direction' (Local Authority Economic Developer); 'The concept of Localism is something that we would obviously support because as a local authority we are very concerned to feel that we have sufficient powers and sufficient areas of responsibility that we can really impact on the lives of our communities and implement the policies of our ruling group' (Local Authority CEO). Most Local Authority Councillors and Officers are happy with the General Power of Competence, though some pointed out that these powers had, for the most part, already been given under the Local Government Act (2000), and one local politician from a Coalition Party described it as 'so woolly as to be almost meaningless.' Local decision making is seen as having the potential to produce more relevant outcomes for local communities and economies. 'Localism for me is very important. We touched on this the last time you interviewed me. I do believe [Neighbourhood Councils] are very, very, very important for the community' (Local Authority Leader). As one local businessman said: 'the previous government – and perhaps we shouldn't blame them so much as the Treasury – were output-driven NOT outcome-driven.' Another saw Localism as a means of 'bringing together partnerships that aren't necessarily bound by local authority boundaries' (local business CEO).
However, there was little enthusiasm by most for the actual practice of Localism so far. 'I support it in principle … the moves to more local powers, …
[However] … it gets named the “centralisation” bill here' (Local Authority CEO); 'The Bill is an example of the general lack of coherence in much of the policies of the Coalition' (Local Authority CEO); 'there is a lot of “mother and apple pie” in there but then when you get to the nitty gritty of what they are actually going to do and what it actually means it is either very vague – spectacularly vague in fact – or very prosaic and mundane' (local business CEO); 'It is a bit of a conundrum for central government to come and say that local authorities have the power to do X but we control your ability to do anything, and we have no policy of our own and no resources to give you to achieve what you've been asked to take responsibility for' (3rd Sector CEO); 'The approach to Localism of the present government is I think schizophrenic. It is we believe in Localism as long as you do just what we tell you' (local politician); 'I think there is a crying need for more powers to be exercised locally within a democratic structure but the Localism Bill, shortly to be an Act, doesn't actually provide for that' (3rd Sector CEO); 'We should in fact be doing things that allow us greater powers but it is relatively small fry and it is about taking responsibility for things rather than taking real power to make really strategic decisions' (local politician).
There was also general approval in principle for the idea of extending involvement of governance to a wider circle of partnerships, although some local authority politicians and CEOs pointed out that they already had effective partnerships and indeed that they 'have probably been arguing for a great deal more' (civil servant with regional responsibilities). Similarly, 'before the Localism Bill there have been a number of citizenship engagements in this neighbourhood like local partnerships, etc' (3rd Sector CEO). However, as one local government CEO said to us in regard to community rights: 'I think the first question is, “how many local communities want these rights?” I've always believed that they are not rushing to acquire them' (Local Authority CEO). The proposals were also greeted negatively by many in the voluntary sector. 'In principle it has in it levers that might improve local participation but it lacks the necessary infrastructure for citizens to engage with it … Neighbourhood planning, local economic departments, community planning, referenda; all that stuff sounds good on paper but it takes planning and knowledge and skills to apply and those knowledge and resources and skills are not broadly available … So it is a citizenship initiative but only some citizens will be able to exploit its potential' (3rd Sector CEO).
Some in the 3rd Sector had specific worries that ethnic minorities and the disadvantaged could lose out: 'The whole Localism Agenda is defined by geography. The part of the Government's “best value guidance”… to protect the voluntary sector against cuts, was one page' (3rd Sector CEO); 'it is OK to use big language like Localism … but at the end of the day it makes no difference out here. It won't make any changes. It won't change people's lives. It won't change local communities and neighbourhoods … it is very, very difficult to put that into a part and say that it is going to work' (3rd Sector CEO). And those working in Local Authorities had serious anxieties also: 'it seems … that what the Government thinks Localism is, is that the locally elected people seem to be removed from the
process. The idea is that we give stuff to people, to communities to do with what they want' (Local Authority Mayor); 'It is this idea that if you can get the local citizens to criticise the council then it takes it away from you. You know, local government are on their own while we get on with the affairs of state!' (Core City Council Leader).
Some interviewees were very cynical about the government's motivations. 'I don't think the government is really fundamentally interested in divesting itself of authority. They are just interested in being re-elected' (3rd Sector CEO); '[What] they are doing is transferring difficult decisions down to the local areas so that the local area gets the blame. They've reduced the amount of money coming to us so it is about localizing the blame' (Core City Local Authority CEO); 'My experience of Government is that I will believe that when I see it' (local politician);