Municipalism good, localism bad

Originally published on Sydenham Town Forum, 28 January, 2015

I thought I’d get the message in the subject line, to help anyone who has problems scrolling down on whatever device they are reading this on. Now to define the terms:

  • Municipalism is the delivery of services under the authority of a democratically elected body for that area, employing professional staff with attractive career paths for those who perform well.
  • Localism is the delivery of services by empowered groups of local citizens, e.g. a social enterprise, who may from time to time receive funding for qualified paid staff to help them in their work.

I’ve tried to put these as neutrally as I can, although by describing the conditions under which professional staff work according to the two models, I am already starting to explain why I prefer one to the other.

Localism, however, is the flavour of the month. The main reason why is that it helps local councils achieve the short term funding cuts which are being imposed on them. Broadly speaking, councils have two options, of which shuffling off responsibilities onto smaller local groups is one, the other being pooling the provision of services with other councils. Both happen, but the second threatens the status of local politicians, because it calls for political control at a higher level than theirs – so in London, at the level of the GLA rather than the 33 separate London Boroughs. Localism, however, offers increased scope for local politicians, as they build client bases with the help they provide for the local groups created, in their ceaseless struggle to find funding. It’s also an easy case to make, because it can be sold with fine words of praise for the valiant local volunteers who give up their time for the community, often with the suggestion that they are doing a better job that could previously be done by out of touch, faceless Town Hall bureaucrats.

Let’s not go too much into the history of this, or specific examples today, but on the first, my model is the transformation of Birmingham achieved by Joe Chamberlain in the 19th century, and on the second, just one current example is the need to develop a London wide municipally owned letting service, expanding on what is being pioneered in LB Newham, to enable the private rented sector provide decent accommodation. This was one of the points I made at last week’s Lewisham Housing Strategy consultation, but it was objected that this would take too long, and something like that needed to be done here sooner. I don’t disagree, but the need for more political oversight for the GLA needs to be made, and less for existing local boroughs.

But will turkeys vote for Christmas?

See also

Whitehall, City Hall, Localism and The Renaissance of Bogotà

In response to some comments, I followed up with this 1 February

I mentioned Joe Chamberlain, who was active in Brum in the 1870s. It was also what my Dad’s post war generation felt about their cities – in his case Manchester. You could summarise my argument as being a plea for local action to be coordinated at the level people identify with most strongly – and I’d say here, in 2015, that means London, not Sydenham, and not LB Lewisham. At some point action needs to happen locally – e.g. decisions about how much money to spend on which local parks – but at the moment, what tends to happen is that pots of money are made available via the DCLG or GLA, and local groups and Councillors do what they can to get some of it for their local projects. What is missing is any elected position for someone to advance a vision of how money should be spent across London. Boris, as Mayor of London, has some powers but not enough – and that is not meant to be a pro Boris remark. I’d say just the same if it was still Mayor Ken.

I’d also say that current thinking is moving in my direction, e.g. with the push for greater powers for Mayors, not only in London, but Manchester, Leeds and other big cities which have a degree of social and economic identity. Sydenham also has its identity, which, part thanks to this Forum, may be stronger than other parts of London, but those of us who identify with it are probably still a minority – there are many more for whom it is just the part of London where they happen to live now, and who will in due course move on. Such are particularly to be the young, living in rented accommodation, and a large part of my objection to localism, if it means pushing power down to the level of areas such as Sydenham, is that it re-enforces the marginalisation of such groups. And, if I’m right that there are other parts of London with less well developed identities compared with Sydenham, localism applied in those areas will push power even more to a small, unrepresentative minority.

And in specific response to this:

There was, and still is, obscene amounts of waste in local government. IIRC Lewisham was one of the worst offenders.

I don’t necessarily disagree, but the question is who is best placed to do something about it. For me the choices are broadly:

  1. Central government
  2. A higher level of local government, such as the GLA,
  3. the existing boroughs and local authorities or
  4. local communities

My choice is 2, which I’d justify on the basis that

  1. it still gives scope for understanding local issues,
  2. it is big enough to allow economies of scale – closely related to which is that
  3. it creates opportunities for competent and dedicated local government officers (they do exist) to have good careers, more easily sharing their experience and expertise across London; and last but not least
  4. by being at a level with which more people identify, it carries greater democratic legitimacy

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