The coalition government’s two flagship policy edifices are localism and the big society. They are, of course, closely intertwined, although it’s notable that David Cameron describes his mission in politics as being to make the big society, rather than localism, a success. While attempts to define the concept of the big society are tricky – if not impossible – the prime minister has given us some idea of what success ought to look like. For instance, he has promised that the big society “will redistribute power from central government to ordinary citizens”, and “will foster a culture of volunteerism”.
There are at least two obvious challenges in selling this to the public. First, even the slickest of salesmen knows that you need to have an easily definable concept, yet there are as many definitions for the big society as there are pundits. Second, if you’re going to attempt to redefine the relationship between the state and the citizen, it’s unfortunate that it coincides with the most severe programme of local cuts in living memory. At best, it’s seen as a distraction – the modern equivalent of bread and circuses – and at worst as a cover for spending cuts.
The prime minister is insistent that the big society is not “just another government programme”, but without further definition the concept is destined for regular relaunch throughout this Parliament. After all, how do you judge the success or failure of a concept with which the public, and many of your own backbenchers, struggle? There’s too deep an irony at the heart of the big society. It claims to be the mechanism by which power will be returned to people at community level, yet is the ultimate example of a top-down, artificial construct. Big society screams Westminster village, rather than Middle England.
Localism, by contrast, has an awful lot more going for it. Where the big society is seen by many as a cover for spending cuts, some of the provisions of the Localism Bill aim to make local authorities more accountable for the way public money is spent. For example, it proposes an automatic referendum trigger to approve increases in council tax beyond the ceiling set by government, and seeks to make the setting of senior pay in local authorities more transparent.
Redefining what is best done locally will require legislation – an aspiration is simply not enough. The challenge for central government is getting local government, particularly Labour councils, to execute the coalition’s programme. The context is made all the worse for the coalition by the fact that parties in opposition nationally tend to win more seats in local elections than governing parties.
To demonstrate the darkening mood in local government, we tested opinion among councillors across England and Wales. This is the audience that has just not been taken into account in terms of the national desire to see big society, whatever it means, rolled out. Yet it shows that even one in four Conservative councillors think power will shift from local government to the centre during this Parliament, and the only unity between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at local level is about reducing council staff numbers.
If local authorities are likely to struggle in the wake of spending cuts, what does the Localism Bill offer by way of positive powers to allow local groups to set up their own services, and to propose new developments?
The “community right to challenge” is the most promising of the Bill’s provisions. It’s impossible to poll with any accuracy on it, since the proof of such measures is always in the number of actual bids or expressions of interest forthcoming. However, if we take the example of free schools as an indicator, albeit an imperfect one, the government should be encouraged: at the last count, it has received 258 free school applications.
On the other hand, some of the measures intended to stimulate local development are supremely optimistic. Prominent among them is the ability of local communities to propose development which, if it meets certain safeguards and get 50 per cent of support in a local referendum, can be built without planning permission. To demonstrate how unlikely this is, around one in four Brits has opposed a planning application, while the proportion who have ever supported one is far lower, at around one in twenty. From a developer perspective, too, this part of the Localism Bill is regarded as potty.
Where the big society is doomed to successive relaunches with diminishing impact, the Localism Bill will go some way in redefining the way citizens relate to their local authorities. If it means voluntary groups can, and do, bid for local contracts, it will have succeeded in delivering some of the big society’s objectives. Without the Bill, the big society is suspiciously devoid of content.
Andrew Hawkins is chairman of ComRes