I’m still puzzling over the problem of localism. I can see all its virtues in terms of making democracy feel more meaningful and enabling decisions to be made closer to the point of impact. I’m not cynical, and I believe that people want to engage. Yet there’s something about the debate on handing cities ‘control over their own destinies’, or at least their own tax-raising powers, that makes me uneasy. The lack of local accountability mechanisms is a main blocker.
I do think localism would be good for governance. But it has to be accompanied by a conversation about how we hold together as a society. For example, there have to be means to carry out fiscal transfers from richer to poorer areas to avoid entrenching regional inequalities. Also, I’m not sure how genuinely popular a move to localism would be. The current turnout for locally elected officials such as police commissioners is poor. Although there was a widespread passion for Scottish independence, there is not (anywhere that I have seen) the evidence that localism at the level of smaller units will be a smash hit. Presumably part of the issue is citizenship education, building confidence, skills and interest in building local societies.
I’ve seen my local area convulsed in a debate about a PFI streetlighting contract between our council and a construction contractor. Some of the issues might seem small to outsiders, in which term I include the council and the contractor – but they are vividly felt by residents. It seems fair to say that even if the contract is a success in terms of the metrics the council and contractor set themselves, it is a failure in terms of public engagement. Even someone as stroppy and well-informed as me was told that information I requested about safety standards was ‘commercially confidential’. I found the feeling of being told to shut up by my Council interesting, as previously I have always had a good experience of contacting people like my MP or MEPs. I am noting it down here to remind myself of what it feels like.
So (recognising of course that anecdote is not evidence) my experience suggests that people do feel passionate about their micro-locality, and the Scots referendum suggests that people feel passionate about their national identity. But if we are to make localism a success we would need to find that spot between the micro-local and the national where people have a sense of belonging and responsibility; decisions can be made; citizens can engage, and hopefully the work of local authorities can be made more efficient with higher quality results. Digital solutions such as City Dashboards, if stepped down a level to the local authority, could be one of the tools to help create a sense both of belonging, transparency, relevance, and even socialising and fun: http://citydashboard.org/london/. And the system of effects should be monitored to see that greater localism does not entrench postcode lotteries in issues like health services.