The Evolution and Chaos of Localism

I trained as an ecologist so evolution is a particular interest (along with Chaos Theory) and the evolution and chaos of Localism is proving entertaining.

The proposed amendments to the Localism Bill are now circulating informally. Those of us sad people who have been reading Hansard to keep up with the debate will be disappointed that the idea of three people in the Dog and Duck (two drunks and someone to keep the minutes) being able to create a neighbourhood forum is being consigned to the bin. The new neighbourhood forum may have to spill out on to the pavement as the proposed new minimum number of Forum members is 21. Its an odd number supposedly to prevent deadlock but as Tony Burton of Civic Voice said to me ‘did no-one hear of abstentions’.

Anyway the whole idea of minimum numbers of members is ridiculous. Forums are going to have to be representative of their neighbourhoods and they are going to have to try and represent the views of everyone in the area. In the Bermondsey neighbourhood there are about 23,000 residents so the 21 number is completely pointless (although it was about the number of people who managed to find time to come to this week’s meeting). It might even encourage factions to set up competing potential forums to force local authorities to choose between competing groups and visions.

In Bermondsey we have quickly discovered that there are some key principles for a forum in an urban area like ours. First, because it needs to represent the views of the entire community (and the engagement challenge that presents is huge), the people doing the work need to put their own personal views to one side and work altruistically for the good of the wider community. This is so important it should really be in the Bill.

Second, the membership of the forum is pretty irrelevant. There are essentially two groups of people, those doing the work of organising the plan making, and the rest of the community whose views are shaping the plan. It is entirely impractical for 23,000 people to take decisions other than through the final referendum. The solution we have come up with is to ask the ‘elders’ of the community, people nominated by the main existing community organisations like schools, churches, tenants and residents associations, business groups and so on, to be the conscience of the forum. They will elect the steering group and scrutinise their actions to ensure they are acting for the good of the wider community.

Our current draft constitution is up on www.bermondseyforum.org and all comments on the constitution and ways we can improve it will be really welcome.

In our meeting this week some fundamental questions about democratic accountability were raised and in particular the role of local coouncillors. It is becoming clear that the localism process is revealing the democratic deficit at neighbourhood level. The lack of parish councils in many urban areas mean that there is no democratic forum for governing these issues.

This also raises the question of the role of local councillors. This will be the subject of another Government amendment in response to the lobby from local politicians worried about losing power and being excluded from the process. We have some great local politicians in Bermondsey but there is definitely a danger of their involvement politicising the process and they are also conflicted on occasions when the neighbourhood forum has issues in its relationship with the council.

I’ve also spent quite a bit of time this week working to get an urban community land trust off the ground. This is exactly the sort of thing that a neighbourhood or parish council should be doing. The basic idea is that local people come together to solve their own housing problems, in this case good quality affordable housing in a well designed place, and then work together to design, deliver, govern and own the housing and place they create.

This is just one of a list of things that are probably best done at neighbourhood level and which includes managing smaller publicly owned assets like green spaces and under used land and buildings, delivering environmental retrofit, managing street clutter and furniture, dealing with minor planning applications and so on. The case for ‘parishing’ seems stronger by the day as localism evolves.

The new amendments will also seek to impose a role for business in neighbourhood planning. It was always sensible in a mixed use urban area for business to have a voice and nothing in the Bill precluded it. In Bermondsey our local BID was in the room from the start. The failure to mention business involvement in the Bill presumably reflected the Bill’s intellectually rural roots. But in the future the forum will have to reflect the balance of business and residential in a neighbourhood. This opens the way for entirely business run neighbourhood forums in say business parks and industrial estates which will itself create some significant challenges. It will be interesting to see how the challenge of having a referendum evolves in those circumstances.

One of the silliness’s of the Bill, the idea that anyone ‘who wants to live in an area’ should be able to join a forum doesn’t currently look like it’s going to be dealt with by amendment. In practical terms it is impossible to define this category. What are you going to do? Submit non residents to lie dectector tests? The purpose of course is to signal that the needs of people who will need housing in the future are important. In fact the unborn might be argued as being just as important a constituency. Given that membership of a forum can be relatively meanignless in larger areas, and that an influx of out of neighbourhood members could be positively distructive if they were say groups of millionaire property developers for example, perhaps the better drafting approach would be to rely on the need for plans to be in conformity with national planning policy guidance and local plan strategic policies as the Bill already does.

I was in Glasgow this week and localism (or the role of the community in planning) was one of the key issues raised by Green Party MSP and all round good guy Patrick Harvie. The current planning regime in Scotland (the 2006 Act) reads like a different world to those of us wading through the increasingly chaotic and evolving localism morass. A number of people in Scotland want change but I think they will wisely wait a little to see how much of a horlicks the English make of it before setting off on the journey.

So the evolution and chaos of localism continues. I must say I’m enjoying it, and while I believe in much of the localism agenda we must not get carried away. It is severely resource limited by people’s available time, energy and motivation and we will need to evolve our structures accordingly.

One Response

  1. Very interesting blog, Chris, thanks.

    I must take exception to your anti-democractic tinge about the need to minimise councillor involvement. You talk about the need for ‘local people [to] come together to solve their own housing problems, in this case good quality affordable housing in a well designed place, and then work together to design, deliver, govern and own the housing and place they create’.

    You have that already, it’s called your local council. if you don’t like it, vote them out. This is the hypocrisy at the heart of the goverment’s localist agenda – it says it’s about people making decisions for themselves but ignores the fact that they elect councillors to do that already. The further fact that you say that you will need to elect a sort of ‘steering group’ and that referenda will be a helpful back stop suggests that what you are really doing is creating, for some expense and a lot of time, another council-like structure. Why not go through your ‘great local politicians?

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