Alister Scott

Alister Scott

Dr Alister Scott, Reader in Spatial Planning at Birmingham City University

Localism is a good idea in theory. However, the key lies in its implementation as part of a managed and structured process of social change and not as a quick and easy fix to save public money using voluntary action.

The often cited culture change is urgently required to maximise the impact of localism. Agencies and government need to move away from top-down approaches and respond to locally-based agendas from a carefully managed process of public involvement and the harnessing of local expertise.  In some cases this might involve waiting for local groups to ask them for advice and support rather than imposing their own ideas about what kind of community they should have.

In essence moving from expert to facilitator roles can improve the way planning is done. But to do this requires a fundamental culture change in how government and their agencies operate and also how the public are involved.  Agencies can be both elitist and arrogant believing that public involvement is dangerous and a threat to their own professional integrity, whilst many public(s) are increasingly sceptical of the perceived sham of much of so called public consultation exercises. Undoubtedly, there is too much consultation without real involvement and a feeling that there is a tick box culture apparent. Rarely do local people see how their views are feeding and influencing policy.  So whilst the rhetoric of ‘big conservations’, ‘involvement’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘listening’ resonate across the political platforms at national, local and community levels the reality is very different. What is the point of me giving my view; the council will do what they want anyway” reflects a powerful sentiment from my ongoing research that explicitly captures the distrust and alienation.  Therefore, in promoting the localism agenda as a policy imperative there has to be the mechanism that enables the rhetoric to be translated into practice and bring about the real and substantive change now required.  Mere words are not enough and can lead to a lose-lose situation of dashed expectations.

Localism redresses the balance from the way much policy has been top down and imposed on local communities, but far from the need for government and its agencies to roll back and reduce its role at national, regional and local levels, it is incumbent upon government and its agencies to change the way they work to help deliver this new agenda. This actually is far more intensive than I think the government realise and is not a cost cutting exercise as it requires significant resources to do this effectively. The governance of England from both vertical and horizontal scales is highly complex and requires significant unpacking if the full advantages and costs of particular courses of action are to be understood and assessed at the local level.

Here there is a key intersection with localism and the spatial planning agendas.  To plan for our diverse and complex society we need to work at the most appropriate scale to address particular problems using appropriate bridging mechanisms (agencies, facilitators and structures). Here the more local scales necessarily intersect with the sub-regional and regional, national, European and global scales.  Concurrently, the horizontal scales representing the different sectors operate giving complex two dimensional axes to mediate across. The key problem as I see it is that there is no clear body or persons identified to mediate across these scales. Undoubtedly, for localism to realise its true potential it has to fit within a bigger jigsaw otherwise things won’t join up.  Therefore these challenges exist.

  1. The lack of any national spatial vision dilutes a collaborative effort to achieve societal outcomes. In a world where increasingly the interconnectedness of what we do affects so much we need to work together for collective visions, otherwise we tend to work towards individual agendas and can lurch from one agenda to the next based on short term horizons rather than any long term considered view. Good planning should be about 50-100 year timeframes based on agreed outcomes (visions).
  2. The impact of one community/neighbourhood’s decisions affecting other communities up or down stream can lead to perverse or unforeseen outcomes.   Conflict can occur if no one is looking at the bigger picture. Issues of environmental and social justice could figure large here based on who can shout the loudest. In many cases traditional local power structures will prevail.
  3. The need to collaborate across scales to secure economies of scale. Sometimes problems such as flooding or regeneration require multiple scales of working.  If this is not built into the system co-ordinated approaches might be jeopardised/compromised.
  4. The cumulative impact of many local decisions could lead to wider strategic problems. Who is providing a strategic overview of the impact of many small scale decisions?  In some large urban authorities you could have over 1000 neighbourhood plans.  What are the implications of this potential chaos?
  5. Understanding the complex patterns of governance impacting upon a given area and the legislative requirements is a recipe for legal challenges.  There are many pieces of legislation that impact upon particular places.  Who is going to be advising all these neighbourhoods to ensure that they do not make inappropriate plans?
  6. The semi judicial nature of planning means that small scale plans resulting from the Big Society could be liable to judicial review or legal challenge from developers.
  7. The reliance on local voluntary action at a time when a lot of people will be concerned at securing their own jobs and responding to the cuts has not been recognised. The amount of voluntary activity declines at times of economic hardship and can by default exclude those marginalised voices simply due to other priorities.
  8. The current incentives for communities to secure financial incentives from development is likely to distort new housing and development into depressed areas regardless of environmental damage and lead to almost ‘gated’ middle class enclaves particularly in rural areas.

My concluding thought is that the idea has much to commend it but the devil lies in the detail.  At a time when cuts are the topic of the day the idea that localism is a quick money saving fix is a real concern. To do localism well requires significant investment in people and resources and then we will achieve a better society.

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Alister Scott

Alister Scott

School of Property, Construction and Planning at Birmingham City University