The Big Society: localism and a sustainability perspective part 2

This is part 2 of Chris Church's discussion paper (read the first half here).

Transparent and fair decision-making

 

The Big Society talks of

Making local decisions a normal part of everyday life, giving people more say, choice and ownership of their local facilities and services. 

Some people will want this, but equally others with busy lives may simply want services that work and deliver.

If this programme is to deliver fairness and environmental quality, and ensure that local action plays its part in meeting national targets (on carbon reduction as well as other social issues) then good local decision-making processes will be crucial. To date key local decisions have mostly been made through ‘representative democracy’ - we vote for representatives (councillors) who then take decisions. The alternative ‘participative democracy’ can be faster, more exciting and an important way of taking new issues forward. It is at the centre of all local voluntary action.

But participative democracy is always at risk of domination by those with more time, skills, information and resources than others.  One of the ideas that has emerged from some people in Big Society meetings is how local community groups don’t represent them or their interests, or indeed that they’ve never heard of such groups.  Does this mean that a long-standing local organisation will have less say than a one-off public meeting fired up by a single issue?

If participative democracy is to become the norm, then with that needs to come guarantees of fairness, transparency of information and personal interest, and support for processes that offer genuine engagement to the whole community. The role of external pressures must also be assessed.

Experience in the USA has shown very clearly how national media campaigns can transform local decision-making processes by bombarding them with poorly-informed and partisan viewpoints .

Urban and rural perspectives

Much of what has been said about the Big Society seems to make good sense when applied to a small town. Talk of power for parish councils and of local people running their local pub or delivering ‘meals on wheels’ to neighbours appears to focus very much on smaller communities. It is rather less obvious how this would operate in a crowded inner-London borough of 250,000, surrounded by other equally dense and diverse boroughs.  Council boundaries are often arbitrary, running down the centre of residential streets.

What does ‘local’ mean in this context, or indeed in larger cities such as Leeds or Birmingham?  Urban populations are much more transitory: people in London move on average about once every three years. People may have little engagement with their neighbourhood and find much more engagement with their local faith or cultural community.  How would such communities play a role in discussing housing aspirations and who is ‘local’ if they end up in dispute with another organisation?

There are many very strong examples of civil society action in inner-city areas: Tower Hamlets has pioneered participatory budgeting. But this work has been supported through capacity-building measures and a recognition that there is no one single ‘local voice’.

The environmental perspective

One of the key roles for any government is to take a longer view and to take difficult decisions.  Nowhere is this truer than on key environmental issues such as climate change and transport. The UK has taken a world lead by passing the Climate Act and work on the Carbon Reduction Commitment and local targets has started to turn the big picture into local action.  But as with planning issues above, long-term issues may be derailed by short-term interests.  To put the question at its’ simplest, how will central government react if local communities refuse to support and commitment to or expenditure on climate and carbon reduction work? Similar questions could be posed on many other issues.

Managing local services

Central to all this is the idea that local people will manage and / or own local services and facilities. This is a hugely popular idea and the experience of asset transfer to date has been very positive. But the experience of social enterprises running local services has not been entirely satisfactory.  Community businesses have come forward to run such services and done a good job (doorstep recycling is one example) only to find themselves losing the contract when it comes up for renewal to a large multi-national.

It is hard to imagine that any government would rig the market to ensure that a local social enterprise will deliver local services indefinitely. And even with the extra social benefits delivered by such enterprises there is no absolute guarantee that they are the most effective deliverer. There will always be new niches to explore for such social entrepreneurs, but there appears to be a significant likelihood, based on current evidence, is that many services taken on by local people will end up in share-holder controlled companies unless there is specific action to prevent this.

Moving forward

No-one active in civil society would argue against giving local people more power. But if that power is to be exercised wisely and fairly, then there will need to be the skills and resources within every community for that to happen.

Any move to localism needs to be a carefully planned process. It needs to answer the questions set out above and above all be clear on some key issues:

  • What measures will be put in place to ensure that local decision-making is fair and equitable and not dominated by those with the time, capacity and confidence to participate or by external bodies?
  • How far will there be processes to prevent and tackle corruption and financial self-interest in local planning?
  • How will long-term global priorities and targets on issues such as climate change be integrated into local decision-making?
  • At what level and how will ‘local’ decision-making take place, and will this be decided locally or nationally, and how will it vary in urban and rural areas?
  • If a simple majority of ‘local people’ controls funding decisions, what support will there be for the needs and aspirations of vulnerable and excluded minorities?

It may be that, alongside waiting for answers to these questions, the voluntary and community sector organisations at the heart of civil society should seek to develop their own solutions to these and other outstanding issues. 

(The phrases in quotation marks are from a CLG presentation entitled:  The Big Society - A Radical Agenda Turning Government Upside Down and Inside Out).

Last updated at 14:51 Fri 26/Nov/10.
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