Laura Sandys is a member of the Commission on the Future of Localism and a Vice-President of Civic Voice.
My wonderful conversations with so many in Thanet when I was an MP were always tempered by comments like “What do they in London know about life here?”, “why do those people in County Hall want to do that?”, and of course “What does Brussels know about Kent?”.
Power has seemed extremely remote from the front line of life and accountability, and as one of the most centralised administrations in the world the public feel that they lack agency, power and control. ‘Take back control’: whether you voted leave or remain, it’s hard to argue that this wasn’t a hugely successful campaign slogan, and one that tapped into the mood of a great number of people.
Theresa May recognised this in her maiden speech on the steps of Downing Street; politicians of all stripes are increasingly recognising that their policy offer must address this dissatisfaction with the status quo; and, importantly, people up and down our country recognise that they have a right to a greater say over the way their lives are governed.
The Commission on the Future of Localism, on which I sat, was set up to investigate what is required to reinvigorate local democracy, after the welcome ambition of the 2011 Localism Act. The Commission was established to see what could be done to adequately respond to turbo charge greater localism.
I have long been an advocate for decision making taking place at the local level – by those who best understand the nuances and complexities of their community. It is a concept which has fallen in and out of vogue for successive governments.
The Commission – in order to quantify current day public demand for greater localised power – asked YouGov to carry out polling of the general population at the beginning of 2018. The results show that 80 per cent of people feel they have not much or no control over the important decisions that affect the country. Moreover, only three per cent of people polled said that local people currently have the most say over what happens in their local area. Yet, when asked who should have the most say the majority (57 per cent) wanted their own community (as opposed to local or national government) to be calling the shots.
The People Power report was published last month by the Commission, which is supported by Locality, the national charity supporting community organisations, and Power to Change, the independent trust supporting community businesses in England. It makes a number of proposals which aim to respond to this demand and provide practical advice on how to really embed localism within our communities.
Front and centre, it argues for a radical reframing of the way we think of power. Much of the recent localism and devolution debate has focused on calls for power to be ‘handed’ from the centre ‘downwards’ to communities. But power doesn’t belong to decision-makers to ‘give away’, and we need a localism agenda which makes the case that power starts with people. That it lies in our communities.
Therefore, new and existing devolution arrangements should be held to account by whether they truly enhance neighbourhood control and strengthen the power of community. We must steer clear of tokenistic or transactional powers for communities – sometimes wrapped in patronising “consultations” that result in piecemeal reform or hollow gestures. This is a trap in which our leaders, both local and national, must not fall.
The power of localism is huge. It has the capacity to strengthen community cohesion, offer citizens a meaningful form of civic engagement, and boost local economic resilience.
Cohesive communities are underpinned by trusting relationships between local people from different backgrounds and with different experiences of life. Localism done right can provide communities with a common cause that brings people together – in turn allowing them to get to know one another and form bonds of trust and reciprocity.
Research by Locality also shows that when local authorities work closely with community organisations and businesses in their area – to provide both goods and services – this delivers a local economic multiplier and provides communities with a real sense of ownership.
The benefits are clear. So, our localism offer must be bold. It must be at the heart of the devolution agenda. But most of all, it must start with people.