Cameron's 'localism' policies have reduced local power, say researchers

By staff writers
October 3, 2014

As UK Prime Minister David Cameron promises greater devolved powers within England and Scotland, researchers have warned that his track record on local government and the voluntary sector makes his promises in this area difficult to beileve.

A new research project, Localism Watch, examines the impact of the coalition government's 'localism' initiatives, which they say have helped to privatise local services, weaken local government and force voluntary groups to pick up the pieces.

Localism Watch has been launched by the National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA), a network of voluntary sector workers and researchers. The project is hosted online by Open Democracy.

The editor of Localism Watch, Laird Ryan, warns that 'devolution' could go the same way as 'localism' – and be used to promote outcomes that contradict its original meaning. Ryan, a co-director of NCIA, has held several senior roles in government, academia and the voluntary sector.

During his ongoing research, Ryan has found that many local councillors, charity organisers, community groups and trades unions have a limited and confused idea of what new powers they have gained or lost from recent laws that supposedly promote localism.

Officially, the Localism Act 2011 will "shift power from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils", through new community rights and planning powers.

But Ryan says that to date, few communities have successfully claimed them, due to complex and expensive bureaucracy. According to NCIA, the bigger picture under Cameron has been one in which more freedoms have been taken away than handed over.

“True localism goes against the grain of Britain’s ruling culture", argued Laird Ryan. "Whether left or right-leaning, national policies are more likely to benefit people at the centre than people at the grassroots."

Ryan and NCIA point to last year's Growth and Infrastructure Act, which curtails citizens' rights to have a say in major planning proposals such as HS2 and allows larger home extensions without planning consent.

The Infrastructure Bill, now before Parliament, will repeal long-standing laws to extinguish public rights of way and permit drilling under property without the owners' consent for fracking or oil extraction.

Ryan said, "The coalition has a pernicious tendency to manipulate the basis of the English language, using 'localism' to describe policies that centralise power and maximise corporate profits. Will 'devolution' now be used in the same way?“

He added, "Under Cameron, local communities can challenge councils to run public services, but they have lost their right to challenge proposals for nuclear proliferation, fracking or HS2. Localism Watch is aiming to do what the government can’t and won’t – reclaim localism for the people.”

The National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA) is a network of individuals and groups acting to promote the independence of the voluntary sector and civil society.

* Localism Watch is hosted by Open Democracy and can be found at https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/collections/localismwatch

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