Localism and decentralisation must be part of a much wider political reform agenda

Decentralisation and localism have become the “motherhood and apple pie” of British politics, with all main parties (to varying degrees) committed to furthering the scope and power of local, municipal and regional government. But how does this link up with change at the national level? John Tizard argues that democracy can be  re-invented and renewed if localism is pursued as a key element of a wider package of reforms. 

Manchester, home of decentralisation? (David Jones, CC BY NC SA 2.0)

the North West, bridge to decentralisation? (David Jones, CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Localism, devolution and decentralisation are currently key buzz words right across Whitehall and town halls throughout the country. Now whilst it is very important that these words evolve into effective policy (and do so for places beyond the major cities and city regions), it is, in my view, equally important that the move upwards to local government does not stop at the town or county hall but extends even further, up to communities and neighbourhoods.

I use the term ‘up’, because I believe that the triangle needs to be inverted, with the people and their communities at the pinnacle rather than Whitehall and Westminster being always regarded as supreme. This change in mind-set and perspective is necessary if the high-level policy rhetoric is ever going to translate, successfully, into democratic renewal.

There is much debate to be had about the nature, extent and detail of proposed and future decentralisation and devolution initiatives. This debate is urgent and has to be inclusive. I am clear, however, that it also has to be part of a wider and more comprehensive debate about our political system, including the electoral system and much else.

The reality is that there remains a deep cynicism and mistrust (if not too often dis-engagement) with politics at all levels, politicians, and the whole political process itself. In particular, participation in elections is lamentably low. Accordingly, if localism is going to be genuinely based on greater local control and accountability, it has to be accompanied by wider political reform.

As a starting point, I propose that the debate could address amongst other matters:

  • consideration of proportional representative electoral systems for local and national elections
  • the adoption of primaries to select parliamentary and council candidates; and party leaders
  • the introduction of the right to vote for all 16 and 17 year olds
  • the best ways of ensuring that politics and political systems are taught and debated in schools for learners of all stages and ages
  • the revision of the means of voting in elections and referenda, including the times of poll opening and introducing on-line voting, etc.
  • even consideration the merits, disadvantages and risks of some form of compulsory voting
  • stronger measures for the recall of MPs, mayors and councillors
  • the introduction of more participatory processes and decision making (not simply consultative processes, important as they are) – at national but even more so at community/neighbourhood, local, place and sub-regional levels
  • the means of extending democratic control and influence over the commissioning and delivery of public services and local public sector budget allocations; the pooling of local public service budgets to secure greater efficiency, effectiveness, control and accountability; and how there can be greater transparency and accountability of the use of public money, public service commissioning and delivery, and policy making and decisions
  • widening local democratic influence, scrutiny and accountability of all commissioners, policy makers and providers of all publicly funded public services, including schools and academies
  • the extension of participatory budgeting and decision making
  • the enhancement of the role and coverage of parish, town and community councils – much could be learnt from the “Flatpack Democracy” movement
  • and the urgent the application of technology, including social media to support a revolution in participation and access

This list of issues is not comprehensive or exhaustive. However, if debated, they would seriously open up and widen the current discussion about the role of government, local government, place and citizenship.

A consequence of such a debate is likely to trigger further discussions about the reform of political parties and their structures, membership, procedures and behaviours. It will also likely trigger parallel discussions on the role of the active community sector, social action, and the role and contribution of wider civil society to political debate and governance.

It would also (and to my great relief) move us on from a structural debate, which probably is of little interest to the majority of the electorate and taxpayers. No serious change can or should be enacted without their understanding, authorisation and active involvement.

The potential rewards for the debate that I am suggesting are enormous and hugely worthwhile. And if achieved, we can re-invent and renew democratic life in a more vibrant and decentralised country.

Note: this piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post and is reposted with permission. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

e41c4c7ecf3ac431b0378818164c35fdJohn Tizard is an independent strategic advisor and commentator on public policy and services. He is a former council leader and was director of the Centre for Public Service Partnerships.

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