Cllr Ged Martin is a councillor on Ribble Valley Borough Council and the Deputy Chairman (Political Campaigning) of Ribble Valley Conservative Association.
Local Government reorganisation by stealth, under the cover of devolution – which is allegedly about the transfer of powers and resources from central government to local people, communities, and businesses, as enshrined in The Localism Act of 2011 – is an administrative sleight of hand. The fallacy of political prestidigitation is that once your audience sees how you carry out the trick, then you will never be able to do it again, and no-one will want to come to the show because they have seen it all before. If large scale local government reorganisation is carried out under the guise of delivering devolution, this threatens to sully the reputation of the Secretary of State responsible for guiding the White Paper through Parliament, in the same way that has tarred the historical reputation of Peter Walker.
This would be like the Labour Party abandoning its historical relationship with the trade unions. In the Conservatives case, it would be the equivalent of cutting off their right leg.
Identity is now at the very core of political debate – but for many people it is local identity. A significant distrust of politicians and institutions has grown up in this country fuelled by a sense among large numbers of the general public that they no longer have a voice in the national and in this case the local conversation. Really big decisions affecting people’s lives like the proposed creation of unitary authorities (this has already been mentioned in east Lancashire which has sparked a petition signed by 14 per cent of the total voting population of the Ribble Valley in days of the petition being launched) require active public consultation, not decisions forced upon them.
A new localism – a new local identity based on a sense of place – citizens’ unique experiences of their place in the particular environments where they live and work has emerged and is growing stronger. This “new localism” has been strengthened by the same economic and cultural forces that brought about the current populist movement, particularly evident during the EU referendum and during the period of Parliamentary stalemate which followed. It is just as powerfully felt in Conservative voting rural areas as it is in the formerly Labour voting urban areas in Red Wall Constituencies.
Place identity concerns the meaning and significance of places for their inhabitants and users, and how these meanings contribute to individuals’ conceptualizations of self. It also relates to the context of history (statues and historical reference points – buildings and monuments) and the politics of representation are important to those who live in particular areas – in some cases most of their adult lives. Being familiar is to approve, to admire, to respect, and in some cases to show love and affection for the place where you reside.
When you meet strangers on holiday and they ask you where you live, likely as not, you will communicate a powerful emotive attachment and not a little pride in where you live.
When that sense of identity is threatened by what appears like arbitrary re-organisation, the likely reaction is a feeling of dislocation and loss of identity. The phenomenon which we call ‘local loss’ – the fear of hyper local change, the challenge to local identity is much stronger amongst the Conservative Voting older generation but also amongst non-university educated workers whose employment has been secured within local networks and who are likely to work for local businesses who presence is familiar to and recognised by members of their peer to peer networks across towns and villages, particularly in rural areas.
Disruption of such networks will not be regarded as a progressive act, likely to shake-up levels of government to overcome perceived decision-making inertia. Instead the loss of local benchmarks and reference points is likely to lead to confused policy-making.
In the short-term, this will lead to kind of the preferencing and privileging of areas thought to be the reason for abandoning the policy in the first place. The public reaction is likely to be marked by extreme electoral dislocation with a public backlash against even more remote and inaccessible power structures than county councils represented in the first place.
We could potentially be looking at the inauguration of an era of populist and unpredictable politics at the local level which will be far more difficult and uncertain to control than the simplification of government structures envisaged. Imagine a raft of councils with Nigel Farage-type populist leaders in the Derek Hatton or Ken Livingstone mode and central Government reaction when such authorities use their independence to implement devolved powers it really doesn’t like.
Forced reorganisation means that some districts will lose out at the expense of others within the new frameworks. Will more deprived areas lose out to more high growth and prosperous areas? Or will the less well performing areas hold back the high growth areas using them as “cash cows” to resolve their problems of social deprivation including burgeoning social care budgets?
The problem with top-down re-organisation including forced re-organisation of district councils is that someone gets excluded paradoxically by being included in a community they don’t want to be part of. In sociological speak, that perpetuate oppression by creating segregated spaces for marginalized communities, in this case marginalised affluent communities being bled dry by deprived communities to solve their long-term social care problems.
Feelings of security and freedom enable community transformation. As soon as this local identity is challenged we are in trouble. This goes beyond emotional bonds between person and place. This is the origins of the psychology of distrust and we all saw the incredibly powerful impact of what happened during Brexit and the election of Trump. Political elites take note.
Re-organise local government boundaries without meaningful public consultation at your peril.