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How do we put democracy back into localism?

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What if they gave us localism, and nobody came?

Localism without locals is not just a theoretical possibility - it’s what we’ve become used to over years of falling council election turnouts and declining faith in politics at local and national level. We know it’s not hard to get people motivated when their own interests are at stake, but beyond parking petitions and preservation campaigns, is there any broader civic will?

The Government thinks there is.

The risk is that pushing power out from the centre, and beyond councils, pushes it into dark corners where accountability and transparency are weak

“Localism won’t work,” Eric Pickles said in June, “if councils just take all the power off central government – power needs to go as far out as possible.” An excellent philosophy, but who is waiting out in those distant places to receive it?

The risk is that pushing power out from the centre, and beyond councils, pushes it into dark corners where accountability and transparency are weak. If few people are motivated to engage in even small-scale actions like responding to consultations or attending public meetings, power will be taken by a small number of ever-presents and activists.

Every council Chief Executive could name the local group. If localism is not to create a new squirearchy, with the same well-connected few serving on every board, commission and committee, we have to find new ways of engaging more of the busy, stressed, confused and disaffected majority.

The stakes in this game are high. If implemented in full, neighbourhood planning and community budgeting could take the shape and funding of neighbourhoods out of councils’ hands. Councils and other local public services can’t sit by and hope it doesn’t happen. They have to build the new infrastructure for democracy that these initiatives require – a long process, and one that has to have trust and openness at the centre.

How to put the democracy back into localism is one of the questions we’ll be asking at the Solace conference. How can we create better conversations with citizens? How can we bring new voices into the debate? How can we build democratic engagement that really works? How do will and other local public services need to change themselves to make democracy and localism support each other?

We’ll be working to create the answers together, learning from each other, and planning for action, in the knowledge that if we don’t take part in the battle, local government will share in the defeat.

Anthony Zacharzewski, founder, The Democratic Society

 

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