Holding back our market towns

THE ability of market towns to solve rural problems must not be compromised.

The ability of market town partnerships to solve rural problems must not be compromised, argues Gordon Morris.

Morris: Localism is heralded by politicians of all partiesPartnership working and devolution have been in the news and political air for years now (not to forget double devolution, of course, although not so much is heard about that these days).

The notion of local people, volunteers, council officers, community workers and politicians working together to meet common, locally-identified needs, in which the local and professional knowledge of the participants is combined, and used to inform and influence spending decisions, is a powerful one.

Some form of "localism" has long been heralded by politicians from all parties. There must be less centralisation and more democracy at the “grass roots” level, they say.

This so-called "bottom-up" approach is behind a host of initiatives, including single regeneration budgets, LEADER programmes, parish plans, rural transport partnerships, rural renaissance schemes, the Beacon Towns programme and gateway stations. The list goes on.

These jargon-heavy mantras and many-headed programmes come and go, as do the organisations responsible for them.

But the ability of market town partnerships to help solve locally identified problems of rurality, and to contribute to policy development, has been compromised by changes in organisational and governance structures, programmes, and policy priorities.

Stable, long-term support for market town partnerships is necessary if they are to continue to address well-known, persistent problems of rurality in ways that reflect local needs.

If government commitment to localism is to be more than rhetoric, policy makers must recognise the need for structural stability, a consistent approach, and programmes appropriate for partnerships, the members of which are often lay volunteers.

Will the rhetoric ever be matched by reality; will the good intentions translate into real local power?

The theory is certainly recognised by politicians of all main parties.

Hazel Blears, Simon Hughes, and David Cameron have all made supportive speeches and, as Paul Boeteng noted in 2001, community self-help needs support from outside if it is to flourish.

But somehow, something gets lost in the translation between intention and implementation.

There seems to be an inherent tension between government and governance, where the former is about structure, and the latter about action.

In the context of what remains of the Market Town Initiative, the government, as a responsible and controlling mechanism, appears to be destined to be in constant opposition to governance.

Essentially, it appears to be an enabling mechanism only able to work effectively via a partnership of committed members, and with the powers needed to enable it to implement its plans.

Without these, partnerships can become demoralised and ineffective, as the realisation dawns that their influence is limited.

The bureaucratic world partnerships are forced to work with is complicated and changing, their freedom to act is restricted, and progress is, despite the rhetoric, ultimately in the hands of others.

If this is to change, politicians must decide how much real power and influence they are prepared to cede, and then cede it. This is not an easy thing for politicians to do.

It goes against the grain for those who have power to give it away.

Loss of power means loss of control, and, therefore, increased risk politically. Yet, if power is retained centrally (or even regionally), problems of bureaucracy, targets, and micro-management quickly become apparent.

There is a dilemma here – and like all dilemmas, both answers appear to be unfavourable. One can almost hear Sir Humphrey murmur gently: "Might I suggest a further consultation, Minister?"

Gordon Morris is is a freelance writer and researcher, a trustee of Action for Market Towns and a PhD student at the University of Exeter.

This opinion article is based on a paper he gave at the 2008 Rural Futures Conference, a full version of which can be downloaded here.

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