24 October 2011

Ah, localism. Let the local people decide rather than people far away in, oh, where shall I say … hmm, London.

I have explored before my concerns about localism and I’m raising it again because, despite naivety among its fans, I don’t believe it does what it suggests as two current items show vividly. I think localism also carries difficulties in the delivery of social justice, especially in terms of affordable housing, which is a major interest in Cornwall as elsewhere. I think awareness of the limitations and drawbacks of localism is increasing here and I expect our experience is found across England.

I see Stephen Gilbert, Libdem MP for St Austell and Newquay, extolled localism the other day in the Commons. He said: “Is not the big hope for the transformation the government are undertaking that planning will in future happen with communities, not to them, reflecting local need, not centralist tendencies?” ( Hansard 18 October 2011 column 200WH).

This takes me straight to one of the problems with localism, the scope. Who’s locality gets to decide? Which community is that?

Localism without the locals
Who should decide – or should have decided – about the county incinerator at St Dennis? The locals who live there and will be most immediately affected by it, or the unitary council, or councillors from, say, Launceston and Penzance? In what way is any decision by anyone other than the people who live in the locality of St Dennis a local decision? Is it not an incinerator imposed on them, done to them?

Is an incinerator a decision that it is inappropriate for only local people to decide, something which a larger constituency should have a say in? How do we decide which are such decisions (just calling the decisions strategic does not answer the question) and how do we decide how farflung the deciding constituency should be – the county, region, nation, the government, the EU?

Now look at the proposal to move a heliport to Rose an Grouse. Who should decide whether that goes ahead? The residents around there, who will be most affected by it, or … well, you get the idea. In what way is any decision by anyone other than the people who live in the locality of Rose an Grouse a local decision? Would that not be a decision imposed on locals by people who live elsewhere?

Truro-centric is the new London-centric
Where’s ‘elsewhere’ in such issues? It isn’t necessarily London, the regular bogey of Cornish nationalism. It could be down the road. I see in this nationalist blog a reference in a post about changes to the hospital at Penzance to the “corridors of power in Truro and London”. Earlier I looked at the debate on the ferry terminal at Penzance and the view there that decisions were making far away in Truro. Look especially at my posts Onen hag oll and Disunitary (links below) for a discussion of a new centre and new peripheries in Cornwall.

So localism often turns out to be a decision by people nearer to the relevant location than London but still by people who don’t live anywhere near that location and who are not always directly affected by their decision: anyone but the UK central government. And unitary Cornwall turns out to be disunited Cornwall.

Indeed, the controversy about centralisation-within-cornwall issue is a difficulty for nationalism. It challenges the naive view of a united Cornwall, onen hag oll, that some have. Look at some of the comments captured in those earlier posts.

Delivering social justice
I said ‘one of the problems of localism’. The other is the likelihood that the locality wherever it is will consult its own immediate interests, or perhaps rather the interests of the noisiest with the sharpest elbows, and disregard the wider interests of the community and country or even the interests of quieter, powerless people in the locality. Yet those wider localities will be expected to pay the bill for local decisions, just as the whole of Cornwall would pick up the county part of the incinerator bill or ferry bill.

I point out again that localism might mean very few affordable houses get built anywhere if locals decide. Read this report, Localism is making housing shortage worse, warns new report from the Guardian 24 June 2011.

Two years ago, during a debate in the Commons on 3 June 2009 about the relationship and distribution of powers between central and regional and local government, Peter Soulsby, the Labour MP for Leicester South, made a telling point which shattered the simplisticism of a hymn to localism. The debate begins at column 352 and I urge you to read it.

Soulsby argued reasonably that, while subsidiarity, the devolution to the local level of as much as possible, mattered, there was a tendency for local councils to reject housing plans in their areas on nimby grounds (column 357). This meant that a higher authority — in his view regional — had to tell them they must provide the housing. He added, absolutely rightly I think, that that the voices of local people seeking their first house and affordable housing “are far too easily drowned out by those who wish to oppose housing development in certain areas” (column 362). Central government had to overcome the local tendency to say no by setting housing targets “to reflect the needs of people throughout the country.”

I think Soulsby demonstrated that localism has its limits and drawbacks.

Andrew George, Libdem MP for St Ives, who initiated the debate, endeavoured to reconcile the desire to see local powers with the reality of how such powers could be used to frustrate affordable housing. He agreed that a local council failing to meet local demand for affordable housing should be subjected to “pressure” from central government, whatever “pressure” means (column 357).

Gipsy sites
George also said that he accepted there was sometimes a need for “outside intervention,” that is by central government, to ensure that gipsy and traveller sites were provided where prejudice and discrimination prevented local provision (column 362). We’re back to taking powers of decision from locals and giving them to a larger deciding constituency again. I suspect the provision of gipsy sites is a serious problem for progressives advocating localism.

Interestingly, earlier George had argued in the Western Morning News for 26 July 2007 that “The simple principle should be established that decisions which affect one community and no other should be taken in that community and not by others outside it.” I explained here why I thought that an inadequate view.

What is interesting in all this is that fairly uncritical and simplistic claims for more powers for local decision-making by local councils or local people are confronted by two egregious examples of the likely failure of localism, the provision of affordable housing and gipsy sites. I think outside direction by central or regional government is needed to secure desired ends and those ends might well not be what many local people wanted. Additionally, localism turns out to be, well, not quite as local as people thought it would be.

Localism: it’s not a simple principle and always, ask Who decides? Who should decide? Who pays? Whose voice is drowned out?

Additamentum 24 October 2011
I see the editorial of 20 October 2011 in the Cornishman, a Penzance weekly paper, writes of the local view in west Cornwall: “an insidious, creeping but increasingly inescapable feeling that Cornwall Council feels it can impose cuts in west Cornwall because we are at the tail end of the county. That because we are remote, out of sight of Truro and far from the authority’s mid-Cornwall heartland, we can be imposed upon and fobbed off …”

Some earlier posts
Onen hag oll 30 May 2011

Localising benefits 31 October 2010

Disunitary 26 October 2010

Localism again 8 September 2008