Home Political science Devolution and Localism in England
Given that the idea of 'Localism' is shared by all major political parties and their think tanks, it is perhaps not surprising that it has proved an important strand of the present Coalition Government's approach. In one sense, New Localism is an experiment that the government cannot afford to allow to fail. Regional Governance was abolished almost overnight, its functions either abandoned, incorporated into the responsibilities of central government departments or made available to the possibility of being taken up by local initiatives. The sub-regional bodies like LEPs are dependent upon business and local authority goodwill, both in their structures and for much of their funding. There is to be no required consistency of size, structure or operation. No doubt some will be successful, but what of others, and what are the consequences of failure? Variable devolution is an interesting idea (Unlock Democracy, 2011) but one not without risk. Our preliminary conclusions are that while bottom-up Localism has a potential to radically extend participation at the community level, 'networks' emphasise stakeholder rather than citizen participation, which does raise serious issues for representative democracy – issues which are a genuine concern to Local Government. The lack of clarity about the distribution of power and responsibilities between the various levels of government and governance exhibited by some present government actions also tends to conflict with the Localism message. Arbitrary policy interventions by Central Government on specific issues undermine certainty and seriously damage both credibility and morale. Appropriate financial resource is also an issue. All three national political parties share to a greater or lesser extent a commitment to New Public Management theory (Hood, 1991), in that they aim to modernise the state and make the public sector more market oriented, and this has resulted in the outsourcing of many public services both at central and local government levels. However, for Localism to be effective, the local level has to be trusted with significant local financial and economic control. This is probably most likely to occur if localities are allowed serious revenue raising powers.
Even then, a Localism approach can only plan structural projects for the local or at best sub-regional level, and different localities will make different decisions. National infrastructure projects are the responsibility of national governments, so effective mechanisms need to be found to integrate national and local policies to the satisfaction of both parties. The same is true of economic activity. Locally driven economic development can only satisfactorily deal with local or at best subregional economies. In the absence of any regional or national economic strategy, it is likely to increase differences between local economies and so increase relative inequality between geographical regions. Some local authorities have been very effective in the past in engaging with global companies and global markets, but the absence of a clear national economic strategy risks having a deleterious effect upon abilities to engage effectively in global economic relations.
In this chapter we have pointed to some concerns about perceived contradictions within the government, its inconsistency of approach and implementation and its inability to achieve consistent levels of economic development and security of finance to support the new arrangements. Of course, the very nature of Localism suggests that top-down initiatives should begin to give way to bottom-up initiatives, but the latter take time and resources to develop and will inevitably lead to local variations in policy and practice. Devolution within England as yet appears to lack any consistent framework within which it is to be applied.
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