Last week the Department for Communities and Local Government reported that Eden in Cumbria had become the first area in the country to vote for the approval of a neighbourhood plan, setting out the community’s vision for local development. The right for a community to make such plans is set out in Section 116 and Schedule 9 of the Localism Act 2011, amending the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Eric Pickles MP considered that this was “localism in action and a fantastic result for people … who have worked hard to make sure they are in the driving seat by deciding what’s best for their community”. Indeed, the DCLG notes that the neighbourhood planning power “replaces top down regional planning” and “gives communities a new role” and a stronger voice. This post considers, however, whether the power really does this.
For many, many years incoming governments and local government departments have continuously voiced the need to decentralise to local authorities and communities, to encourage citizen participation and to put power in the hands of the people. From John Prescott in 1998 and Ruth Kelly in 2006 to Eric Pickles in 2011; recent local governmental policies, White Papers and enactments have been littered with such promises for reform and invigoration. And whilst I don’t necessarily argue that these have been wholly unsuccessful, constantly shifting reforms and policy-bases have meant that there has been no stability to local government development over the last few decades. As a result, any success there has been has not been long-lasting. For example, the 2009 Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act’s duty on local councils to respond to petitions, with the aim that local people would be more encouraged to get involved and local authorities more inclined to listen, was repealed just two years after its introduction. Only time will tell if the neighbourhood planning provision in the Localism Act 2011 will bring more long term benefits.
The crux of this issue, however, rests on the fact that there is too great a reluctance on the part of centralised authorities to ‘let go’ of local government, meaning that its policy bases shift at the whim of the changing central governmental landscape. For local government development and democracy to thrive, central government needs actually to ‘let go’ of local authorities and to engage less in the micro-management and bureaucratic guidance of local government in which it seems constantly to have been engaged in recent years. To explain, the aforementioned 2009 Act laid down precisely and meticulously those instances when local petitions could be invoked, how local people could set them up and the requirements necessary for them to be considered by local authorities; on a sub-local governmental level, New Labour’s regeneration initiatives, whilst encouraging citizen involvement in community development, laid down in detail those instances where citizens could participate and how they were to work towards local regeneration; and the Localism Act, whilst proclaiming (in Part 1, Chapter 1) that a local authority can do anything an individual can do, goes on to prescribe exactly how a local authority can act under that power. Whilst the introduction of such provisions and policies, decentralising and locally empowering, should be praised; their true democratic potential and the stable and ongoing improvement of local government development and democracy will only come, I argue, when centralised authorities let go of the reins a little. Coming back to the power in s.116 and Schedule 9 Localism Act, if community powers to make neighbourhood plans are to be successful, central government is going to have to let local communities get on with it and not overly prescribe or micro-manage the manner of the power or the way in which it operates. The Localism Act’s provision is detailed; time will tell the extent to which it really gives communities freedom to develop independently.
This constantly shifting and overly bureaucratic attitude towards local government has, I argue, also played an instrumental part in local government election turnouts. Individuals associate local political party potential with their national counterparts; and whilst various factors have contributed to wider citizen disenchantment with centralised politics, so this has been reflected at the local ballot boxes. In short, constantly changing policy and central government continuously assuming a firm hand on the local governmental tiller has given rise to voter apathy and disenchantment. Indeed, whilst last week was notable for the folk of Eden, Cumbria, the DCLG seem reluctant to draw attention to the fact that only 34% of the local population turned out to vote for the neighbourhood plan; instead seeking to praise the favourable comparison with the 19% turnout for the PCC elections. Such a low turnout is typical of local democracy and, indeed, whilst it is not the worst recorded attendance, it is far from democratically satisfactory.
What needs to happen, therefore, is that central government needs to stop over prescribing local authority powers and micro-managing the way in which such powers are used. In the US, local government is one of the most popular levels of government and its council-manager structure one of the most successful (see: W Hansell, ‘Council-manager government in the United States in the twentieth century’ (2000) JLGL 60). Reasons underlying this are that there is no constitutional protection for what the US local authorities can do or the powers that they have, meaning that there is no centralised control (see Hansell). Instead, local government in America thrives on a culture of decentralisation, empowerment and – most importantly – independence (see Hansell). Unelected council-managers, strongly accountable to elected local officials, are appointed to manage and oversee local government and local democracy in any one area (see Hansell). This system is of great interest and whilst by no means the first to explore or consider it, I argue that taking management of local governmental development and democracy away from centralised government, rife with its own political and governmental issues and pressures, and into the hands of locally appointed managers seems a particularly desirable model. Local governments would be able to develop on their own and not at the whim or on the basis of widespread, politically-motivated and constantly shifting policies; such developments would be specific to a local area and would be independently and locally implemented; and most of all – local government would be seen as an entirely different and independent entity by the people. As such, election turnouts would be less influenced by national political issues or centralised policy-drives, and based more on the performance of local managers and, through their accountability to local officials, their success in guiding the policies in a local area. Of course, the US constitutional framework is fundamentally different from our own and putting such a local governmental structure into practice would be an administrative task of grand proportions; but it makes one wonder, doesn’t it? In an age where everyone is looking upwards at the EU and the ECHR, perhaps it is time to let local governments fend for themselves and, free from centralised ties, focus on the real improvement of democracy and development at the local level; with the funds to make it happen, of course (another issue for another day).
The Localism Act and the neighbourhood planning provision that gave cause for celebrations in Cumbria last week, then, is by no means a failure. It promises decentralisation, empowerment and citizen involvement and should be praised for the manner in which it sets this out. Its song is not an entirely new one, however, and it inspires a sense of déjà vu in terms of its profile for local democratic reform. If local democracy and local government are to develop and be invigorated in the way in which so many recent governments have promised, then a change in attitude is needed. There needs to be less micro-management and less bureaucracy from centralised institutions. Local government should be local.
John Stanton is a lecturer in law at City University, London.
Suggested citation: J. Stanton ‘Localism in action? UK Const. L. Blog (14th March 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).