by Graeme Henderson
Localism has emerged as the poster boy of new policy ideas. For instance, the recent Heseltine review, a report on UK competitiveness, could easily be misread as a report on localism. Following similar themes, the publication of IPPR North’s northern economic futures commission final report this coming week will set out how devolving more power to the north of England could help it prosper. All of the main political parties are cautiously warming to localism and its benefits. The caution is understandable as it effectively means national government rendering itself less powerful. However, for those of on the left, the problem is more fundamental: simply put, is localism merely a byword for the dreaded postcode lottery? This is an unfair assessment of localism, yet it is one which is still persuasive on the left.
It is time for us to view the left as the natural home of localism. Localism, after all, means bringing power closer to the people, empowering communities and, when done right, more meaningful democratic accountability. There are several reasons why the left should embrace localism. If you’re still sceptical, keep on reading.
1. We already have a postcode lottery, let’s at least make it accountable
What is important is that local areas receive a fair proportion of public funding, not that funding is delivered (or even raised) centrally. Identifiable public spending per head, excluding social protection, is £6,647 in London, but only £5,385 in the north east. For Yorkshire and the Humber the figure is just £4,841, and yet studies have shown that the higher level of public expenditure received by London does not correspond to objective measures of need.
The regional disparities are even starker for transport infrastructure spending. Failing to adequately invest in vast swathes of the country affects the poor and disadvantaged most. Research shows that the high-skilled labour pool is far more mobile than those with lower skill levels. The most able or those with financial backing can move to wherever the jobs are. If London hoovers up the lion’s share of talent – people educated across the UK – and also public and inward investment, the regions suffer. Such extreme centralisation focused on London and the South East can only result in long-term damage to the national economy. Localism can help give local people a voice when their areas are being overlooked, and by extension, rather than hindering equal opportunities, it can help to ensure that people get the same chances, wherever they happen to live..
2. Different areas have different needs
Recent OECD research argues that different places need to place different emphases on different drivers of growth. The notion of an “average region” is meaningless with the growth challenges leading regions face being very different from comparatively lagging regions. For regions in the north of England, skills and infrastructure are the most important factors, whereas for places like London, levels of innovation activity are more significant for driving growth. Moreover, local people are far better qualified to understand the detail of local issues and potential local solutions.
3. Politics is distant and many are disenfranchised
Making politics more local can help counteract this. Devolving more powers, resources and responsibility to a sub-national level can mean that local political representatives can do more than just listen to local’s concerns: they can also address them. New Labour was accused of side-lining housing issues. Housing is an obvious area to devolve to a local level, with most councillors patently aware of the importance of housing issues to their communities. Stronger representation at a sub-national level can also ensure better local input into central government, leading to central government being held to account more effectively and its policies better accounting for local issues.
4. The world is now global and local
The poles of power are shifting, and national governments now have much less control not only of foreign policy, but also of home affairs. National government is no longer always the best level at which to control policy and its delivery. While many issues do not lend themselves to devolution (such as monetary policy, redistribution and foreign policy), there is a need for the state to be more nimble. An active industrial strategy, for instance, will have a far better chance of raising skill levels and living standards if it better understands, and is tailored to reflect, the strengths and weakness of individual regions and localities. However, the current practice of increasingly commissioning private firms to do publicly funded work often is the worst of both worlds – losing the accountability of the public sector while not gaining the benefits of competition seen in much of the private sector. Devolving to sub-national levels of government rather than private contractors could be much more democratic and effective.
5. There are different kinds of localism
Localism is also a vote winner for the right. The left should be making the case that localism on the right’s terms will mean regionalised pay, devolving responsibility without power and a tool to shrink the state. We must ensure localism is fair localism and is used to empower localities, not leave them to sink or swim.
The left likes its campaigning and community organising to be grassroots-led, and it likes its policy platforms and blogs to be too. We should embrace the idea of bringing government closer to the people, both on grounds of politics and principle. “Respect, empower, include” is a good philosophy for campaigning. It could be an even better one for governing.
Graeme Henderson is a research fellow at IPPR north.