There may not be a snitch or muggle in sight, but I’ve rarely been as excited as I was this week when I discovered that JK Rowling’s new book was about local government. Aside from my fellow geeks at the MJ (£), it appears to have largely slipped under the radar that the fastest pre-selling book of all time, is in fact, a treatise in the current sector hot topic – localism.
I don’t know whether JK was aware when she started writing her latest chart-topper that local democracy would be so in vogue by the time of its publication, but rarely has it been more relevant. The recent vote by the people of Queen’s Park in the City of Westminster to create the first parish council in London since the 1960s is causing much excitement across the political spectrum as this recent collection of essays published by NALC highlights.
As someone working at the heart of local government, the opportunities presented by more neighbourhood decision making and community delivery are unavoidably appealing. The best practice examples of local people tackling local service delivery, such as communities taking over libraries, highlights the opportunities that could flow from empowering local communities to play a more direct role in the delivery of services and savings.
But I’m glad that my favourite childhood author has reminded me of some of the real risks that a move towards hyper local decision making could represent for our local areas.
The parish council model, whilst closer to the community in some ways, does have its flaws. As the exaggerated (or maybe not so….) characters in the book emphasise, many of the people who opt to participate in formalised hyper local decision-making, either through parish councils or local forums and consultations, are those who have the time, resource, or necessary agenda to do so. The fact that so much of the discussion around the potential for greater powers of local determination, is around typically middle class issues such as planning, bin collection and libraries, further highlights this danger. The worst possible outcome for the localism agenda would be to have the same eight people in each community making all the key decisions and reflecting this back to the area as empowerment, whilst not using any new powers to focus on wider social issues of the area and the role local groups could play in resolving them.
So what’s the answer? Well, for a start, it’s not necessary to revert to the traditional third tier of parish government to get down to the local level, as Lambeth and the ‘cooperative council’ brand are trying to prove at the moment. In our current work on the London Borough of Sutton’s Smarter Council programme, we’re going to have to think much more creatively about how to best engage the community in commissioning of local services, when not all residents have equal skills, resource or even inclination to participate in formalised local structures. Most importantly, it’s incumbent upon all of those working on supporting the development of localism to try and shake off the mental and structural shackles of historical local governance and find ways to drive community-led decision making that are appropriate for 2012.
And it might take a little bit more magic than a by-election for a parish council Casual Vacancy can offer….