25 March 2021

Localism is the key to levelling up – here’s three ways to do it

By Dr Simon Kaye

Intuition might tell us that big problems need big, centrally-planned solutions. But the experience of the last year has demonstrated the opposite: the greater the challenge, the more important the local response becomes.

Even the best government strategy can be rendered meaningless by poor community-level implementation. The behaviours and actions needed for the biggest objectives facing the UK – getting to net zero, controlling the spread of Covid, levelling-up our regional economies – are all at a granular level, even to the point of individual households and families.

This means that power must be devolved, and our system must be decentralised. But the thought of dispersing power in this way feels terribly wrong to many of those in Westminster and Whitehall. The civil servants at the centre feel that they are totally accountable for successes and failures, and are loathe to surrender control.

Politicians have spent their careers working to achieve meaningful influence. They have ideas about how to improve lives for their constituents and the country. And so, again, it feels like anathema to MPs and ministers to reduce their leverage by devolving power.

But the fact remains that the UK – and England more specifically – is badly overcentralised. No other comparable country has chosen to concentrate power in the way that this one has. This is the hidden reef with which our ship of state so often collides. No reorganisation, or plan, or crisis response, or major national undertaking or target, can be confidently pursued with our government machinery arranged as it currently is.

The political lessons of the 2019 election and the 2016 Brexit referendum – that there are parts of this country where people’s views and quality of life have been effectively ignored by the centre – have been intensified by the pandemic, where central command-and-control has impeded our response.

Rather than collapsing back into the same old relationships, a new era of localism is needed – one that allows communities to make meaningful decisions about their own future. Here are a few initial lessons to help guide it.

Lesson one: this agenda cuts across ideological borders – so stake your claim now

Calls for a new wave of decentralisation and devolution have support across the political spectrum. In recent weeks and months, radically pro-community and anti-centralisation policy has emerged from left-wing think tanks Localis, Demos, and IPPR. But at the same time Conservative policy chair Neil O’Brien MP has voiced support for ‘smart devolution’. The Policy Exchange think tank published a radical plan to shake up neighbourhood planning through hyper-local ‘street votes’. And the Government itself commissioned a report on ‘levelling up our communities’ that recommended serious investment and legislation for localism.

The notion of something approximating ‘community power’ – when it last appeared in a major party manifesto – was of course David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ project. The idea of self-governance, of community leadership and coproduction, has been horribly damaged by this association.

By partnering it with a programme of austerity in public services – one where the people with the least felt the most of its effects, and where local government and local services were squeezed more than most – the Big Society became a by-word for the mitigation of cuts, and little more. A way of covering services on the cheap, and of passing responsibility to civil society.

There are multiple ironies here. The first is that community empowerment can indeed result in efficiencies and drive greater growth. But not if it starts with spending cuts. In many places a great deal of investment is required to equip local government for its new facilitative role, support existing civil society structures, and reknit the social fabric. None of this is a natural fit with a short-term programme of austerity.

The Big Society project implied – deliberately or otherwise – that community development could facilitate the de-funding and side-lining of councils. With that fantasy debunked localist ideas are beginning to flourish again. The left is realising that it cannot afford to throw away the place-based baby with the austerity bathwater. And the right is re-learning a language of local values, social ties, and pride in place.

Some have long been discussing the possibility of a looming political ‘realignment’. When it arrives, it will be accompanied by a debate over the size and role of the state. No party has ownership of this agenda yet – and any party could yet inadvertently be pigeonholed as the ideological home of the big, centralised state.

Lesson two: measurable efficiencies are not the sole object of policymaking

For decades, the motivating philosophy for policymaking in the UK has been the drive for efficiency. This mentality militates against localism. Bespoke, distinctive, and place-based systems will almost always appear to function in a less efficient way than the generic, bulk-bought variety. Too many functions are replicated in too many different places, too many opportunities to share resources are lost: so goes the logic.

The ‘economies of scale’ imperative also finds many reasons to overplay the importance of ‘agglomeration effects’ – the unpredictable productivity advantages of geographically clustering related functions in a system. From this perspective, designing systems at the national scale gives the best chance of achieving more affordable outcomes overall, and managing everything from Whitehall and Westminster maximises the potential for beneficial agglomeration effects. It’s a win-win.

Except when it isn’t. Economies of scale can be incredibly important, of course, but they can also make actual implementation harder.

Policing is a good example. In the USA, the consolidation of small local forces into bigger regional ones came with the best of intentions: more efficient working, more joined-up activity. Yet it also helped to contribute to the disastrous loss of confidence in many forces of which the horrific George Floyd case and its reaction is emblematic.

A tiny police department may look relatively wasteful on paper. In practice it allows for more closely embedded officers, who understand the nuances of their patch. It allows for more informed and informal interventions, so a misbehaving kid is dragged home to his parents instead of straight to jail.

In policing as in public services and government itself, consolidation and centralisation comes with risks. All the empowering, co-productive, difficult-to-track activity necessarily dries up as the scales become unworkable. Communities become alienated, transactional and dependent rather than collaborative and engaged. The costs imposed under such circumstances are harder to trace on a spreadsheet – but they are real.

Lesson three: get comfortable with local variation

This leads to another difficult lesson. Our political culture abhors the ‘postcode lottery’, and demands universality of experience. But that’s impossible to achieve – and efforts to avoid regional differences lead to the wrong kind of equality: lowest common denominator standards.

A new era of localism must start from the assumption of – indeed, by enshrining communities’ rights to create – local variation. Doing so can create a powerful engine for discovering innovative practices, uncovering genuine opportunities, and allowing each place to fly its own distinctive flag. Many of the advantages of a localised, community-led approach can only emerge if we embrace this kind of diversity, and allow places to experiment with their own priorities and approaches. This does not have to run counter to larger, national-scale objectives: in fact, it may be the only way to realise some of those objectives.

Where next?

The current government has signalled a commitment to Whitehall reform and decentralisation, with its ‘Beyond Whitehall’ programme placing parts of departments in cities around the UK. This work is pointless unless it provides a meaningful platform for connection and collaboration with localities and local government – a stepping-stone to subsidiarity. It really doesn’t matter where a civil servant’s offices are if the decisions are still being made by the same people during a team call back to London.

In any case, decentralisation is not enough. Competitive, centrally-held pots for community investment are not enough. A new era of localism must be one of the many legacies of these last few years, and the time for radical action is now.

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Dr Simon Kaye is Senior Policy Researcher at New Local.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.