All posts from: February 2011
It is now clear that the government’s radical reform agenda, is disrupting our old certainties. In the localism bill, we see an intention to unleash local government and empower local neighbourhoods, residents and community and voluntary groups to play a greater role in services and managing assets.
I recently gave evidence to the localism bill committee. My angle was that we should be disrupting the existing complex system and settlement between the centre and the local. This will achieve serendipity, a windfall of new relations, more community ownership, and an unleashing of social capital. However, I also warned of the importance of the centre and the potential of negative or even perverse outcomes.
In particular, an unfettered disruption may create more spatial differences, which will leave some localities under-served and some people and communities vulnerable. The question here is not if these negative consequences of localism will occur- they will. It’s whether they are outweighed by the positive windfalls and secondly whether the bill offers adequate protection to the very negative consequences, when they do occur.
On the first point, there is optimism from the government benches, who believe that there will be a flow of positives. Some of this, is a reflection of experiences from their own constituencies, where they see active communities who are time rich, stress free and willing to take up the right to challenge, the right to buy, and get involved in planning their neighbourhood. However, this is not the case in many other communities where worries over money or of making ends meet are the driving concern. In these communities the negative consequences may outweigh the positives.
We could well end up with a localism, which rather than empowering, will just disempower and marginalise as services become fewer, variable and the slack is not taking up by an enthused big society but by big business or big voluntary sector detached from bespoke local concerns. This scenario is very probable.
Localism must appreciate that England and its individual localities are made up of huge social and economic differences and cultures, such as variations in volunteering etc.
The government has a heady optimism over how time rich, stress free or interested people and communities are. This may be blinding them to these negative (and perhaps), unacceptable variations.
Secondly what types of safeguards is the bill interested in, as regards lessening some negative or perverse local effects? Greg Clark, the minister of state, Department for Communities and Local Government in his summing up of our evidence, ably pointed out the dangers of a pure localism. He is right. Pure localism, gives no safeguards to any negative consequences, bar the local ballot box. However, Greg Clark, was not prescriptive about what these central safeguards should be, other than, his emphasis on ‘minority communities’.
The bill needs to offer some future protection, vested in the central state and the powers of the Secretary of state and parliament. We need clarity about what areas these should cover and what differences would be unacceptable. Minority communities for sure, but for me also some safeguards which ensure that localism does not perversely create even more social and economic inequality within locations and across England as a whole. This goes to the heart of this debate about negative consequences.
The Localism Bill, needs to reflect England as it is now and its deep economic and social inequalities and cultural variations. Therefore, the bill must give due protection to those poorer and more deprived communities or just culturally different communities.
The Localism bill, in its desire to give power away is laudable and correct. However, localism in action cannot make inequality any worse and the bill must create safeguards. Decentralising power is pointless unless we get better outcomes. We must beware the potential negative consequences.
In his recent speech at the Munich security conference, Prime Minister David Cameron criticised multiculturalism and called for a “shared sense of national identity” and efforts to promote “that feeling of belonging in our communities that is key to achieving true cohesion”.
However, we know there are fewer funds available for support activities relating to diversity policy and equalities issues. In recent research by CLES, we found that cuts to Community Cohesion grants will jeopardise hard won progress on the very ‘big society’ issues such as local networks, connections and relationships, which Cameron hopes to promote. In addition, these changes will potentially undermine future economic recovery.
In two separate pieces or research work, which have taken us to Copenhagen, Blackburn and Manchester, CLES has explored ethnic diversity policy, what its future should be and, in the UK context, the impact of cuts. The work tells us a number of key things.
Firstly, it is abundantly clear that it is a false economy to not invest in policies that promote good relationships between communities. Failure to invest and fund this kind of policy hinders the development of social capital and entrepreneurialism and employment skills, and hampering economic development more generally.
Secondly, it is no good just relying oneconomic success. As proven from our work in Denmark, a focus on ethnic groups gaining employment and becoming active in the economy, does not on its own, tackle the wider issues of discrimination and lack of equality faced by certain ethnic groups.
Thirdly, this is not just a localist agenda: national policy focus and help is still required. In the UK, the days of nationally defined policy frameworks such as the Community Cohesion agenda and the Multiculturalist model that preceded it are gone. This undoubtedly presents an opportunity for local government to develop, creative and locally specific projects which foster good community relations and respect for ethnic diversity. However, a lack of central steer and lack of local funds may prove problematic for the areas with growing ethnic populations, who do not have a long history of migration and ethnic diversity policy making or where population change is rapid or unexpected.
Fourthly, the notion and drive for a Big Society will falter even more, unless it addresses barriers to participation. Our work shows that it is imperative that the government works to ensure equal access to participation in the Big Society and develops appropriate processes for monitoring diversity and equality. Neither of these points have yet been adequately addressed as part of this emerging agenda. As its stands, many groups face multiple barriers to accessing existing services, let alone having a ‘big society’ stake in delivering them.
Our work in this area makes the case thatcentral government must allocate sufficient funds to enable local government to develop policies that are effective in harnessing the opportunities of ethnic diversity and overcoming any potential challenges that can emerge from local population change. Failure to do so, runs the real risk that the climate of public sector efficiencies will result in a rise in community tensions. As such, it is crucial that local authorities retain capacity and that central government provides resources where necessary for activities that promote good community relations.