This is a version of a talk I gave on Kingston Green Radio yesterday as part of a ‘Transition Hour’ series with a theme of ‘Less is More’. My subject was ‘less national government, more local power’. It’s a bit of a ramble through a fair few issues rather than a tight argument (thus more than a few links to Wikipedia) but thought I would post it up. Thank you to Sam, Jean and all at Kingston Green Radio for the opportunity!

Hi, I’m Majeed Neky from Transition Town Kingston. Thank you to Sam and Jean and Kingston Green Radio for giving me a spot on this show today to talk about my favourite subject and one that I’m starting to obsess about a bit. That subject is local democracy and in keeping with the ‘less is more’ theme of the TTK slots, I want to talk about what could be achieved socially, environmentally and economically if we had less central government and more local power.

A bit about me – I helped found Transition Town Kingston in 2008 and have been involved since, taking a bit of a step back at the moment partly to write my dissertation for my Masters in Planning at Kingston University. I work for Living Streets, a campaigning charity that campaigns for better and more pedestrian-friendly streets and neighbourhoods. We’ve just launched a campaign called Neighbourhood Heroes that’s about giving communities more power to keep essential shops and services within walking distance.

Both work and study are involving me quite a lot in thinking about localism, as it’s a hot topic at the moment. The Government is proposing a major shakeup in the way that planning and local government work, within the broader framework of the much-heralded ‘Big Society’. The main thing to watch is the Localism Bill, which has almost finished going through the House of Commons and after that will go through the House of Lords for debate and scrutiny. I’ll say a bit more later on about some of the measures in the Bill and what they might mean for Kingston, and for groups who are concerned about environmental issues.

But firstly, how does local democracy relate to Transition Towns? Well, the way I see it is that Transition is about resilience – doing more for ourselves so that we’re stronger as a community to work around trends such as a lack of fossil fuels, higher fuel prices etc. So not just relying on big corporate energy but starting to produce our own at the community level and reducing our demand, through things like the HomeZone community solar project. Not just relying on global financial structures but trying out a few other systems for exchanging resources, such as Kingston’s own Local Exchange Trading Scheme, KUTLETS. A town that’s not just relying on big corporate food but starting to put together its own solutions, some of which you’ve been hearing about during this series from people like Cath, who coordinates the Parkfields Community Garden; Anna, who runs the Kingston Orchard Project, and Stephanie, who manages the From The Ground Up veg box scheme.

I think that the need to be resilient applies just as much to our social and intellectual resources as it does to physical and environmental ones. If communities don’t have the systems and skills they need to govern themselves, it’ll be difficult to make use of the rest of the rich tapestry of resources within the community. The Transition Handbook’s definition of resilience says that three things are needed for a resilient system: diversity, modularity, and tightness of feedbacks. Diversity in this case can be related to the value of having a network of different organisations capable of community leadership, rather than just one. Modularity is about how effectively the different parts of that system are able to reorganise if something changes – so if power is distributed, a political crisis in one place won’t stop things happening anywhere else. And tightness of feedbacks is about being able to see, quickly and clearly, the consequences of our actions: the more localised the political system, the easier it is to analyse a situation and make policy in an informed way.

So what exactly do we mean by localism?

The crucial principle is the principle of subsidiarity, which essentially says that a decision should be made at the lowest possible level. It’s most often talked about in relation to the EU, as it’s included in some of the founding treaties. The EU is supposed to operate according to the principle of subsidiarity, which means it should only be doing things that can’t be done as well by its member states. Whether or not it actually does is a matter for debate!

But subsidiarity is a good principle to apply within a country as well. Consider everyday situations like being at work. Maybe somebody more senior than you makes a decision on an area that you consider your speciality, and you know that it isn’t as good as the decision you would have made, because you knew more about what was needed in the situation. It’s the same with government. Central government isn’t going to know as much about an area and its needs as a councillor or council officer from that area – and in turn, a council officer often isn’t going to know as much as a resident who’s lived there all their life. A related principle – more of a soundbite really – is the idea that there should be ‘no decision about me, without me’. People should be involved in the decisions that affect them and their area.

Recognising that the principle is a sound one, governments have been talking for years about giving communities more power. Yet we remain, on most measures, one of the most centralized countries in Europe. What’s gone wrong?

The first thing is the size of our administrative units. The average local authority in England typically represents over 150,000 people. Of course this is divided up into wards of several thousand people each, but these are essentially just for voting: the actual decisions are made at the level of the whole council. Parish and town councils do exist below this, but only in some places, and they have very limited powers. Kingston’s system of ‘neighbourhoods’ does help bring decisions closer to the public, but a neighbourhood still covers tens of thousands of people. Compare this to almost any European country, where the vast majority of the population live in political areas which are a factor of ten or twenty times smaller than our council areas. The sheer size of jurisdictions make local government more remote from the interests of the people it serves, and make it more difficult and less rewarding for people to get meaningfully involved in local democratic processes. Even if it’s not the fully participatory democracy that we might want, in most places in Europe, you’ll at least know someone who knows someone who’s on the local council. Here, that’s not the case.

Secondly, there is a lack of freedom. How many times, when you hear people moaning about the Council or read a local paper, do you notice people commenting along the lines of ‘Why can’t they just… etc.’ Well, in the UK local authorities are forbidden by law to do anything which is not expressly permitted by Parliament. In France the Mayor and council of the smallest commune have much the same powers as the authorities in Paris. Local councils here have to apply to the Secretary of State to do anything out of the ordinary, even if their citizens want it. Again the effect is to create distance between local government and the people it serves, as people don’t understand the constraints that local government is under, and local government gets frustrated because people don’t understand.

The most significant constraint, thirdly, is that there is no freedom for money to be raised, spent and allocated at the local level. Again, councils are forbidden to raise any taxes not specifically permitted by Parliament. The bulk of money spent by local government comes from central government, and much of it is allocated for specific purposes. This severely limits the ability of local government to respond to both the concerns and the aspirations of its citizens.

This means that councils are left with archaic, unfair and unpopular systems of collecting money, such as council tax. As this accounts for only a small proportion of council revenues – the bulk being fixed by central government – a small increase in local spending has to be funded by a large increase in council tax, making it even more unpopular. Even worse, local government is just the tax collector for some taxes, such as business rates. The rates are set by the national government, collected by councils and sent back to central government, from where they are redistributed around the country by a fiendishly complicated formula. The rates that businesses pay thus have almost no relation to the services or support they receive from the council, causing resentment between councils and businesses. Until recently, a similar thing happened with rents from council housing.

People who want to see local government finance more localised are sometimes painted as being reckless, wanting to remove checks and balances that are there for a reason, and sometimes as being in favour of extra taxes above and beyond what people already have to pay. On the contrary, though, there are three huge reasons why we need a more localised system.

Firstly, it is fundamental to true democracy. Not that many people vote in council elections – the average turnout was just 41% between 1979 and 1996, according to the Local Government Association. Those of us who do vote in council elections might be under the impression that we are the main influence on how our services are run and how our council tax is spent. In reality the lack of financial flexibility, combined with the huge number of statutory duties on local government, means that we have very little influence on what our councils do. One of the most famous phrases that came from the American Revolution was ‘No taxation without representation.’ In the UK we have the opposite problem – representation with very little control over taxation. Localising finance wouldn’t be about adding to taxes – it would be about shifting the tax burden from the national to the local level. Ideally we should be paying national taxes for national expenditures – like foreign policy, defence, justice and nationally important physical and virtual infrastructure – and local taxes for everything else, holding the national Government responsible for what we pay it to do, and the same with the local.

Secondly, it’s wrong to say that moving towards more local financial power would lead to waste. A huge amount of waste is currently created by having decisions made up in Whitehall and second-guessed at local level. I was astounded to learn recently that this Parliament has marked the first time that staff in some central government departments have had to undergo interviews for their own posts, while Kingston Council has been forced into massive restructuring about three times in the last ten years alone and doesn’t have much fat left to trim!

More importantly, though, local control of finance is the simplest way to get people to take ownership of local decisions and get involved in making tough choices. In the last two years, seeing which way the wind was blowing, a lot of councils have been running consultations, asking people what they wouldn’t mind having cut. The answer, unsurprisingly, was nothing. Everyone valued the services they used most – so collectively, there was no service that could be cut without inconveniencing, impoverishing or otherwise hurting some section of society. Localising budgets would give people the freedom, but also the responsibility, to get together and prioritise what they most needed, rather than passing on these tough choices to the Council and then complaining about the results. Crucially, though, if a community couldn’t afford to run a service, and they decided it was essential, they would be able to consider new ways of funding it. Unlike in Whitehall, in these circumstances it’s unlikely that anything the community saw as ‘waste’ would be allowed to survive for very long.

Thirdly, the way in which authorities raise and spend money isn’t just about finding enough to run services – it’s also about setting up incentives to help push an area in the right direction. This would make a clear difference to the environmental agenda. If councils were able to levy a local tax on polluting activities or high energy usage, for example, it could reduce carbon emissions and improve air and water quality as well as being able to fund more activities or cut taxes elsewhere – perhaps cutting business rates, so that businesses who stayed in the area and provided jobs whilst improving their environmental performance would see an overall tax cut. Similar examples could apply to waste generation and water usage.

Another really topical example locally is about plastic bags. The Richmond and Kingston based Greener upon Thames – where Marilyn Mason, who you heard earlier in the week on the subject of transport, is a trustee – is campaigning for a plastic bag free Kingston, London and UK, concentrating at the moment on campaigning for the 2012 Olympics to be plastic bag free. According to the group, over 17 billion plastic bags are handed out in Britain every year, and used for an average of just 12 minutes each before disposal.

I was having a discussion with Marilyn the other day and we both thought that under the current system, ridiculously, the campaign probably has more chance of getting a nationwide ban on plastic bags than it does of achieving this just in the Kingston area. Councils have no power to set a bag tax or to influence supermarkets not to use them. Again, control of business rates would be crucial to give the council a basis on which to negotiate. Giving money off taxes is a powerful positive incentive, and it’s not all about tax and spend. Maybe a community could enter a profit sharing arrangement for a local renewable energy facility, channelling money back into the area to be allocated by local people. More freedom would stimulate people’s creativity in the way they think about local funding and help to break down a culture that sometimes focuses on what we can’t do, rather than what we can.

There has been a great deal of thought and experiment that has gone into the problem of how to get communities to come together and make decisions. Neighbourhood forums, where councillors come along and help present issues to the community. Participatory budgeting sessions where local residents come along and vote on how to spend a pot of money on their area, sometimes just a few thousand pounds which would make some inroads into getting the pavements fixed or the trees pruned, but not much else. Boards of community representatives who influence the local partnership. But a lot of people don’t get involved. Maybe they think there’s no point, because they’ve been involved in consultations before and not seen any change. Maybe they’re too busy and have other things to worry about. Maybe they just don’t think they’re the sort of people who should get involved in these things – because it almost always is the same sorts of people who turn up.

I don’t have all the answers but I argue that it’s the most pressing problem that’s facing this country, and also that it’s chicken and egg. Do you realistically have a chance of getting people involved in an institution which is large, remote, tied down and unable to finance most initiatives beyond its statutory responsibilities? Instead, establish smaller administrative units, give them the freedom to do anything that isn’t illegal, and see what happens.

This is a massive cultural shift as well as a constitutional one, and is massively easier said than done, as the Government is finding out at the moment. The key document, the Localism Bill, is a mammoth document with over 30 provisions on different subjects, from holding referendums to create more elected mayors in cities to abolishing the regional planning strategies that were established under Labour and best known for imposing rigid targets for the number of houses that regions had to build. There are some key points though that communities should know about.

The Government has carried out a few quick measures to address parts of what I’ve been discussing. A ban on councils being able to generate and sell energy has also been lifted, and the situation of councils having to return council housing rents to government to redistribute them is being ended. ‘Ring fences’ around grants to local authorities have been removed across departments – for example, the Department for Transport has consolidated 26 funding streams down to 4, giving councils a lot more flexibility in how they spend the money. This creates room for meaningful community involvement, because less of the money available has been pre-allocated to a particular expenditure.

The Localism Bill aims to build on this by giving councils a ‘general power of competence’. This is billed as giving them the freedom to do anything that isn’t illegal. However, governments are like software programmers – they have a tendency to build in a back door to a system that enables them to keep control. So whilst the fear of courts challenging councils for overstepping their remit is gone, the Secretary of State is now able to veto a council’s actions as a last resort. Hopefully councils will not be too afraid of this safeguard and will still do some innovative and useful things.

A full review of local government finance is supposed to report later in the year. However, the start of the review was delayed, reportedly by wrangling in government between Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles. Clegg wants councils to have far more financial flexibility along the lines that I’ve been talking about, while Pickles wants to confine the review largely to reforming business rates and avoid opening the can of worms that is reforming council tax. Looking at the fine detail, again there are disappointments. Though there will now be local referendums to enable local people to veto ‘excessive’ council tax rises, it will still be for the Secretary of State to decide what ‘excessive’ means. It has also been hinted that though local councils will be able to retain business rates, avoiding the hassle and expense of seeing them redistributed and allowing some councils to fund themselves without any central government funding at all, they will not actually be allowed to set or vary the rates locally, almost completely undermining the new power and ruling out many of the ways that I mentioned before in which councils and communities could help shape their local areas for the better.

The elements that have captured most mainstream media attention are the idea of ‘Neighbourhood Planning’ and the associated community rights to buy and to build. Under the proposals, a parish or town council would be able to prepare a neighbourhood plan, at whatever level of detail suits them, that sets out aspirations and conditions for development in a small local area, such as a council ward or even smaller. Subject to this passing a professional inspector and getting a majority of votes in a local referendum, it becomes official local planning policy and has to be taken into account when planning decisions are being made in the area. Alongside the neighbourhood plan, neighbourhood development orders can be created, which allow some types of development to be permitted at neighbourhood level with minimal involvement from the full Council. Similarly, the Community Right to Build allows development supported by the community to proceed with minimal planning control if it receives a large majority in a referendum.

Amidst concerns that this would be a ‘NIMBY’s charter’, it was announced that neighbourhood plans would have to conform with wider local plans in terms of things like the number of houses to be built – a neighbourhood could plump for more housing, but not less. A new incentive called the New Homes Bonus has also been announced, whereby the Government will match the council tax for six years on every additional home that is built or brought back into use. The Community Infrastructure Levy, which allows councils to set out a scale of charges for developers to contribute towards infrastructure costs caused by new development, will also be partly allocated to community groups.

Most urban areas don’t have parish councils. Here, community groups of at least 20 members will be allowed to apply for designation as ‘neighbourhood forums’ which would then have the same plan making powers. There are a lot of community groups and residents associations in Kingston who might be interested to do this and it could be a good chance to push particular agendas – for example, by stating higher than normal sustainability standards for housing insulation or the ease of getting around a neighbourhood by sustainable transport.

Whilst it’s an opportunity, though, there are dangers. Though it still has to pass a referendum, a community group drawing up a neighbourhood plan hasn’t been elected and doesn’t necessarily represent the whole community, or have the resources to consult them properly. Local authorities will be obliged to help with technical expertise and resources, but it’s unclear what form this might actually take. There is a danger that the perception of ‘us and them’ won’t break down, it’s just that the people who are regarded as ‘them’ will be sitting in a church hall or a pub somewhere, rather than in the Guildhall – more accessible, but just as seemingly intimidating to someone unsure of themselves but wanting to get involved.

The ‘community right to buy’, which allows local people to nominate any local buildings and land for a list of ‘assets of community value’ and then allows community groups extra time to put together a bid for any of these if they come up for sale, is a useful measure but a far cry from the mechanisms available in Scotland, where community groups have the right of first refusal on assets being sold. The ‘community right to challenge’, however, is potentially a far more worrying provision. Under this right, community groups with a proven local connection will be able to submit an expression of interest to run any Council service, specifying how they would do it better. But if that expression of interest is not accepted, the group won’t necessarily get to run the service – it will be put out to tender in accordance with procurement law, allowing large private companies to come in and bid. With a better formal track record and more chance of achieving economies of scale, there’s every chance that for many services, they will succeed. The debate can be had over the effects on efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery, but it’s of dubious value for local democracy. Consultation is still open for people to express their views.

I haven’t even touched on the changes to education and health, which are being branded as part of the same agenda but which again are fraught with difficulty. But it is clear that this agenda, whilst promising, is watered down in places and lacks safeguards in others, and does not go anything like far enough to give genuine power to communities and revitalize grassroots democracy. Until local governance is on a much smaller scale and has the freedom it needs, there will always be an element of ‘us and them’ about it. At the crux of it, that’s what we need to change. To reduce mistrust but also to accept responsibility for our areas, we should work towards there being no ‘us and them’ in local government, but only ‘us’.

I wanted to finish with a poem by the American poet Carl Sandburg, simply called Government.

The Government — I heard about the Government and
I went out to find it. I said I would look closely at
it when I saw it.
Then I saw a policeman dragging a drunken man to
the callaboose. It was the Government in action.
I saw a ward alderman slip into an office one morning
and talk with a judge. Later in the day the judge
dismissed a case against a pickpocket who was a
live ward worker for the alderman. Again I saw
this was the Government, doing things.
I saw militiamen level their rifles at a crowd of
workingmen who were trying to get other workingmen
to stay away from a shop where there was a strike
on. Government in action.
Everywhere I saw that Government is a thing made of
men, that Government has blood and bones, it is
many mouths whispering into many ears, sending
telegrams, aiming rifles, writing orders, saying
“yes” and “no.”
Government dies as the men who form it die and are laid
away in their graves and the new Government that
comes after is human, made of heartbeats of blood,
ambitions, lusts, and money running through it all,
money paid and money taken, and money covered
up and spoken of with hushed voices.
A Government is just as secret and mysterious and sensitive
as any human sinner carrying a load of germs,
traditions and corpuscles handed down from
fathers and mothers away back.

So – people of Kingston – let’s give the Government back to the people.

Thanks for listening.