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The Local Government Association this week used its general assembly to get to grips with the dualism of new locali...
The Local Government Association this week used its general assembly to get to grips with the dualism of new localism.

Localism is currently enjoying a high profile as the Labour Party's big third-term idea.

The concept first appeared two-and-a-half years ago in a New Local Government Network pamphlet which called for councils' roles as community leaders to be recognised and for new tax-raising powers for local government.

In spirit, if not in the detail, it chimed with the interpretation of localism councils themselves are pushing for - empowered, autonomous local government.

Since then, localism has bifurcated into two rather different concepts. It is still used to mean strong local government, but the notion now gaining force in Whitehall is that public services can be made more responsive and citizens more engaged via service-specific elected representatives.

Movement on this began last year with former health secretary Alan Milburn's proposals for directly elected hospital governors - now part of the legislation going through Parliament.

More recently, directly elected primary care trusts and even police authorities have been floated (LGC, 20 June). It is a vision which bypasses councils and the LGA have dubbed it 'new centralism' and 'silo democracy'.

What the government is suggesting resembles the 19th-century system which was rationalised into single democratic bodies in the form of councils.

The proposals have also been compared to school boards. While the electorates for school boards are small and well-defined, the electorates for hospital governors are less so - everyone in the local area or who has been a patient in the last year.

Multiple local democratic bodies will almost certainly lead to low, even single-figure turnouts. With local governance already crowded with partnerships and quangos, more additions are the last thing likely to galvanise the electorate.

Of course, local democracy can take many forms, and some might argue fragmented localism is better than no localism at all. But such competing bodies are a recipe for trouble when it comes to marrying up conflicting local priorities.

The challenge for the LGA is to ensure localist reforms - whatever shape they take - are properly thought through and have a positive impact on residents' lives. The proposals currently on the table do not meet that test.

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