Localism – greater or inequitable choices?

IS localism meeting rural needs? Or is it hindered by apathy? Jessica Sellick investigates.

Although the era of Whitehall knows best on everything and has to deliver everything has had its day, is localism meeting the needs and aspirations of rural communities or is it hindered by apathy? Jessica Sellick investigates.

The Localism Bill received Royal Assent to become an Act in November 2011 with many of the major measures coming into force in April 2012 and more due to come into operation by summer 2012. The five main areas covered by the Act are around (1) community rights, (2) neighbourhood planning, (3) housing, (4) empowering local areas, and (5) general power of competence.

According to Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark: "The historic Localism Act is beginning to reverse more than 100 years of centralisation, returning power back to citizens, communities and local groups to manage their own affairs free from Whitehall interference. These powerful reforms are the next step in breaking up the monopoly of Whitehall over public services, giving local people with good ideas the right of initiative to do things differently." But with the genie now well and truly out of the bottle – from Your Square Mile to National Citizen Service – what are the opportunities, challenges and issues around "returning power" to communities and doing things differently? Just how far can 'localism' go?

Reflecting Coalition Government policy on handing over decision making to local bodies and away from central control has seen the dismantling of regional government (Regional Development Agencies, Government Offices) and their 'replacement' with a plethora of embryonic organisations (Local Enterprise Partnerships, Rural and Farming Networks).

Although regional bodies were far from perfect and often charged with being too bureaucratic, structured and expensive; some of the new bodies and institutions that are emerging have limited funding and resources, emerging governance and accountability arrangements and no common structure in terms of their geographical boundaries. What remains therefore is a concern about how the voice of people on-the-ground will now be heard by Government. In a rural context, the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) has acted as a voice for rural people, businesses and communities; provided evidence-based, objective advice to government; and monitored the delivery of public policies.

The CRC has looked at fundamental aspects of living and working in rural areas: from 10 Big Numbers and the State of the Countryside, to the Rural Services Data Series and Minimum Income Standard for Rural Households. Between November 2011 and January 2012, the Government consulted on the proposed abolition of the CRC. Now the responses received, together with the government response, have been published and can be found here. Subsequently, the Government has prepared a draft Order setting a date of 31 March 2013 for the CRC's formal closure, although this is subject to scrutiny by the EFRA Select Committee in the House of Commons and the Merits Committee in the House of Lords.

While the Rural Services Network remains devoted to safeguarding and improving services in rural communities, having a supporter travelling extensively around rural England and listening to people's views, hearing their hopes, fears and aspirations and reporting what is heard to the highest levels of Government is slowly being extinguished.

In practice, this means two issues could be overlooked. The first relates to a recognition of the sheer number of rural residents already actively involved in their local communities before localism was ever mentioned. Indeed, the historical trajectory of localism was plotted by Mike Kelly (North Devon Council) at a recent RSN seminar: from 'private interest' being the dominant ideology (prior to 1850) through to 'public interest' becoming the overriding paradigm (1940s-1980s) to a shift in emphasis towards partnership with the private sector. The second point is how to ensure that localism will not be solely confined to enabling the affluent voices in rural communities to manage local affairs.

This second point is further illuminated in 'The Big Society Audit 2012'. Published by the think tank 'Civil Exchange' in May 2012, it found: "a 'Big Society gap' in performance against key indicators between younger and older people, affluent and disadvantaged communities, rural and urban areas and white and ethnic minority people". Although the Audit shows that urban communities seem to have strikingly lower levels of social capital than rural communities; most notably for RSN readers, it highlights how small, local voluntary and community groups are finding it hard to compete despite the value they bring and suggests a more targeted approach is needed to reduce the gap between affluent and disadvantage urban and rural areas.

These differences between the haves and have nots also resonate in The Equality Trust's Research Digest. While it is worth remembering that it is still early days for the Localism Act, especially at a time when tackling the financial deficit remains the Government's overriding priority, this work suggests that inequality is not being addressed especially in some rural communities which have been disproportionately impacted upon by public sector funding reductions and where for some residents making ends meet and surviving remains a struggle. Is it any wonder that some rural dwellers are more than a touch apathetic towards localism? Or, in the words of Professor Mark Shucksmith, 'is our countryside becoming more and more socially exclusive, creating rich people's ghettos'?

In May 2012, The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) set up a 'Reconstructing England Inquiry' proposing that inequalities are set to worsen and to ask whether the fabric of the nation's towns, cities and countryside is fit to face the future. Drawing on the reform of the planning system announced in the Localism Act, the TCPA argues that England has many positive assets but remains a divided nation in which poverty remains entrenched and where access to economic opportunities can be restricted. The Inquiry will look at spatial planning and how to address long-term challenges around housing, infrastructure and climate change. According to the TCPA there has not been a comprehensive re-examination of the citizen's relationship with the planning regime since Skeffington in 1969, though successive governments have sought to strengthen local engagement in planning.

Despite issues around inequality – do see the 'list of achievements' Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd sent to the Guardian to counterbalance their claims – the Localism Act has kick started local action and rights that people can expect. At a macro level, Natural England has announced plans to bring localism to England's national trails. The agency has announced its intentions to put the care of 13 long-distance recreation routes into the hands of 'trail partnerships' set up to manage each of the routes. Natural England has described the move as providing "more devolved and locally responsive solutions to public service provision, so we want to ensure that our national trails deliver the optimum benefits for local communities and users while also achieving the best value for taxpayers. With public sector resources under great pressure, we must get even better value from the investment of taxpayers' money".

How such arrangements will be implemented, including how trails will be funded and maintained remains untested. At a micro level, 'Neighbourhood Challenge', a programme from NESTA and the Lottery to support community-led innovation is working with 17 communities to support idea development and provide small, catalytic investments. This includes Brixham Youth Enquiry Service in Devon which identified an unused building and worked with the community to refurbish it using local skills and new volunteers to turn it into a creative cafe and social centre.

While localism as a concept is not new, perhaps the current situation and its contradictions is best summed up by Nottingham Community and Voluntary Service: 'Localism will give more power to communities, but you've got to exert it with less staff. Open public services will give local groups more possibilities, but the contracts are so large only big contractors could possibly bid. Big Society is meant to bring greater philanthropy, but will suffer if a tax on charitable donations goes ahead'. Where next for localism?

To find out more about localism and what it means for you, the RSN and Northern Rural Network are holding an event on Tuesday 12 June at Newcastle University. The event will include presentations from Professor Mark Shucksmith (Professor of Planning in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape), Lorraine O'Donnell (Assistant Chief Executive, Durham County Council) and Robin Wiles (Newcastle under Lyme Partnership), with plenty of time for discussion. For more information and to book your place at this free event please contact Wendy Cooper by email wendy.cooper@sparse.gov.uk or telephone 01822 813693.

To 'join the debate', The Rural Insight Survey 2012 aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the opinions and experiences of rural England and its inhabitants. The Survey is undertaken annually by Rose Regeneration, the Rural Services Network (RSN) and Ruralcity Media. The 2012 Survey is your chance to voice opinions about issues which affect your daily life. The survey can be straightforwardly accessed by clicking on this link. The emerging findings include:

* More than 30% of respondents feel that services have become less accessible in their community over the last 12 months.

* 62% rate the idea of local people having greater involvement in delivering publicly funded services themselves, 11% said this was a bad idea.

* 50% of respondents feel that it is hard to live in their neighbourhood if you have a low level of wealth.

*  57% of respondents so far think that rural communities are likely overall to become less sustainable over the next year (this figure was 49.5% in the 2011 Survey).

The Localism Event and 'Rural Insight Survey' are not intended to be a call for special pleading for rural or part of an attempt to ignore rural and urban connectivities; rather they are opportunities to re-focus thinking on a distinctive rural agenda within public policy making. Now more than ever this is needed if we are to address the real issues people living and working in rural England currently face.

Rose Regeneration has delivered a series of interactive workshops on Localism for Rural Action Yorkshire, Involve Yorkshire & Humber, Pennine Prospects, Rural Community Action Nottinghamshire and Parish Councils in Lincolnshire. Rose Regeneration has worked with communities and voluntary groups to help them win resources and deliver projects.

This includes supporting Haworth, Cross Roads and Stanbury Parish Council to review the current Parish Plan and design a process for the next plan; work with Middleton-in-Teesdale Mart to build a new community facility; and assisting local authorities and community representatives in Devon to look at the feasibility of delivering public services online in small settlements. For more information about Rose Regeneration's current work on Localism, please contact Jessica by email jessica.sellick@roseregeneration.co.uk or telephone 01522 521211.


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