An edited version of this blog first appeared in LGC shortly after the Brexit vote.
Some of the trends that we celebrate as localist – taking decisions closer to the people they affect, uniting people within the bubble of their place, creating effective but smaller groups of people – these trends of fragmentation seem similar to the trends which created the unconnected echo chambers of the powerful, and of the dispossessed, which have yielded a vote to leave the EU. The debate and its outcome tells us that we need more connectedness between our communities as well as within them. Hartlepool needs to connect to Harrow, Boston to Belfast.
How can we learn the lessons from that as we continue to work on an empowered localist future for local government’s places? Some starting thoughts:
Tone. Even as we rightly ensure that our places have the powers and resources they need, and argue that case, we should not accidentally undermine the proper authority of the next level of government up. Rhetoric about Whitehall (or the County Council, the District council, the LEP or the EU) “not understanding us” is helpful when it is focused on issues where they really need to understand us, but not helpful as general mood music. Can our rightful demands for devolution be tempered by respectful acknowledgement of that which ought to be retained at that higher level, that serves us best there?
Representation. In my multiple and active networks, the people who are the most connected, least surprised by an outcome that shocked the “establishment”, are local councillors. How can we more systematically hear them when they are telling us things we don’t want to hear, and how can we show people that they have that insight? The LGA takes big positions on policy issues with national spokespeople, might it also find ways of sharing community insights from front-line councillors? The non-partisan “doorstep report”?
Connection. Each layer of government has an opportunity to make helpful connections for the layers of government “beneath” – should we do even more to connect people? I wonder about the role of social media and how that can adapt – how often did we hear “virtually everyone I know votes the same way as me”? How do we create spaces for diverse geographically-dispersed groups to come together? Should we have inter-UK-regional “twinning”, as some schools do now? Perhaps connect the St Albans Parent Support Group with the one in St Austell? If not this, then what?
We should ensure that we are creating an inclusive open localism that lies within a nested set of “Russian dolls” of connectedness rather than an exclusive narrowing in to people like us.