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Neil McInroy

All posts from: November 2009

The local state we are in

17 November, 2009 Posted by: -

Last week David Cameron delivered the 2009 Hugo Young lecture at the Guardian and talked about the need for a ‘big society’ opposed to a swollen state and ‘big government’.  This marks out his entry into his vision for the role of the state.  Indeed, it’s a rite of passage for party leaders.  For Tony Blair, it was the ‘enabling state’, we also have had Gordon Brown referring to ‘good society’.  Furthermore, from academia we recently had Professor Lord Giddens of the LSE  given us the ‘ensuring state’ and of course my own personal favourite Herman Daly’s ‘steady state’.

However, what really interests me, and particularly in relation to the poverty theme considered by David Cameron, is the role of the local ‘state’.  What state should it be in to address poverty?  Is it also part of this ‘inhibiting’ force which fails to advance the ‘aims of reducing poverty’?  Cameron is unclear.

There is much to commend in Cameron’s speech.  I welcome his focus on poverty and inequality and the role that an enhanced society opposed to government can play. However, he is over-stating the case when he says that action on poverty is inhibited by ‘big government’ and it is specious to place this within traditional left/right political debates around big state/little state.  Poverty is just too complex, serious and pernicious in terms of its social, environmental and economic effects to play with in this way. 

More importantly, he fails to get to grips with place and the role of local government. Place is at the heart of the complexity of poverty, and place is where action must start.  Poverty is endured by people, families and communities in places, and is bound up with the failing of local economies, in terms of local investment, local wealth flows, local skills, local education and local housing.

I believe the role of the local state is fundamental in the relationship between poverty, place and local economies.  To break the systemic nature of poverty we need to look at how the failings of local economies relate to poverty. This is the work of local government.

Recently CLES have been working with a Greater Manchester Local Authority, researching poverty, worklessness and low income.  From this, the local authority is now producing an anti-poverty strategy and set of actions.  Within Local Authorities there is an all too often a disconnect between social services, welfare, housing, economic development and poverty.  Local Authorities try to take proactive leadership positions but they get bogged down in process and fettered by splintered power.  Now this may be partly a problem of a swollen central state and apparatus, in which there is not enough nimbleness and tailored solutions, but of significantly more importance and the heart of the problem is our overly lean and rigid local states. 

Neighbourhood empowerment, community engagement and social action on poverty, and a ‘big society’ will not solve poverty on its own, quite the reverse it could make it even worse –splintering activity.  Local Government has to be a fundamental part of the solution and should not be seen as mere obstacle, laden with ‘bureaucratic controls’ which need ‘removal’.  Poverty is about the local economy, places, communities, people and their lives. The new local economic assessments, as previously blogged, need to be ‘intelligence rich’ and need to make these links and Local Government must get local powers and resources which make poverty a priority. 

 The local state we are in - requires local economic thinking to start paying attention to inequality, poverty, low income and worklessness and families and communities who are suffering.  Cameron’s speech gets part of this in his praise for and call for ‘helping communities, families and individuals’ in a ‘big society’.  However real change on poverty requires coordinated place based action.  Mr Cameron - we need a brave and ‘big’ local state to do this.





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