Posted on January 11, 2012

If localism is to succeed the centre needs to let go first.Localism is a subject close to my heart. For the past 5 years I have spent more time on it than any other subject, working with both brands and organisations to help them understand how they can be a part of and contribute to local communities in a meaningful and positive way. It’s unsurprising therefore that I have a keen interest in the Localism Bill and Big Society, both of which I support wholeheartedly – in principle if not application.

I applaud the sentiments of both but they are still triumphs of rhetoric rather than policy. If you go to the relevant page of the Communities and Local Government website, you will see the following statement:

We want to see a radical shift in the balance of power and to decentralise power as far as possible. Localism isn’t simply about giving power back to local government. This Government trusts people to take charge of their lives and we will push power downwards and outwards to the lowest possible level, including individuals, neighbourhoods, professionals and communities as well as local councils and other local institutions.

Really? There is nothing that I have yet to see from any of the local councils in my area to suggest that this is happening. Take the example of  a centuries old organisation in a village in Oxfordshire, set up to ensure that the local old folk have somewhere to go for food, company and warmth. The group is dependent on volunteers and council funding for survival. However, if and when somebody decides to offer their much needed help or services, the local council demands that they satisfy a ridiculous array of  health and safety regulations, even when it is painfully apparent that they have all of the necessary qualifications. Suffice to say, most are put off.

Likewise, many small towns and villages have had their local libraries either shut down or designated as ‘Community Libraries’, which require local volunteers to run them. As above, anyone who expresses an interest in helping out is subjected to the same morasse of health and safety requirements. Again, the result is predictable.

If the government is serious about Localism and Big Society it needs to get rid of these irritating barriers to entry and, save for funding, butt out of local affairs. Above all, it needs to consider the trade off between over zealous regulations and the greater good of the community. What’s more important – the security and comfort provided to old people by well-meaning citizens with the freedom to decide how they dispense their compassion or no help at all because there are too many hoops to jump through? Similarly, should our children have no public reading facilities on the off chance that the library can’t find Mother Teresa to run it? Of course there will be mistakes, but these will be hugely outweighed by the benefits and social progression provided by common sense.

However, common sense and, most significantly, self-determination, are not characteristics that we can associate with either national or local government in this country. Decades of a patronising nanny state culture have meant that even if local councils want to embrace localism they don’t have the ability or confidence to do so. They are run by bureaucrats and journeymen characterised by compliance and caution, created in the shadow of their national counterparts.

They only way this will change, and deliver the conditions that localism and Big Society need to truly take off, is through the recruitment of confident and autonomous decision makers at a local level accompanied by the complete, rather than rhetorical, withdrawal of central government. Sure, there’ll be teething issues and pain but, over time, our councils will find their feet and our local communities will once again provide the foundation and stability that our society needs.

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