Revolution begins at home: the coalition’s localism agenda

“Localism, Localism, Localism” is the rallying cry, well rallying wisecrack, of the figure implementing the coalition’s new local government strategy and, my oh my, what a figure it is. If the coalition is a love-in threatening to turn sour, like a hastily arranged shotgun marriage, then Eric Pickles is the uncle noisily elbowing his way to the front of the buffet queue.

While Pickles doesn’t fit (or even fit in) the mould of the identikit, slim and Southern, public-school boys that dominate the coalition, that may be a distinct advantage.  A brusque, working class Northerner with solid Labour credentials from way back, with a background in the humdrum world of local politics (no hedge fund manager or PR consultant he) he’s been picked as the perfect Tory candidate to usher in this great local government revolution. And revolutionary fervour is nothing new to Eric who, as a school boy, could be found running round with Das Kapital under his arm and inciting his fellow classmates at Keighley Grammar to throw off their chains. Then one day it all changed: the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and Comrade Eric put away his little red book and joined the Conservative Party.

So what can we expect from this impending local government revolution? Are we to see Eric return to his revolutionary roots to let a thousand flowers of democratic devolution and citizen empowerment bloom? Or is he relishing the opportunity to finally achieve his dream of “destroying municipal socialism forever” and finally laying the ghost of dear old great granddaddy to rest.

What is clear is that the politics below the national level is going to experience a major reorganization with potentially far reaching consequences.

The architecture of Labour’s regional government experiment will be dismantled, with government offices and Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) both increasingly looking like they’ll be taking their place alongside regional assemblies and regional ministers in that great quango bonfire in the sky. Even if the northern RDA’s remain on a voluntary basis under St Nick of Halham’s protection, and ask the steel workers of Sheffield or nurses of Hartlepool how that’s worked out so far, their functions will be stripped with the focus firmly on promoting private sector growth, none of this reducing inequalities malarkey.

To fill the void left by demise of regional government, the Coalition has promised to reinvigorate local politics by: devolving greater power to local authorities, including greater control over local spending priorities; removing much of current central government inspection regime; and setting out hazy plans to give local communities a greater say in how services are delivered, including the right to “take over local state run services.” However, in the context of the most server public spending cuts in a generation how much freedom will councils actually have to shape a local, democratically driven agenda?

Already it is the treasury dominating the shape of local government reform, with £1.2 billion of the £6 billion in announced cuts coming from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) budget, and the freeze on council tax increases for the next year undermines the talk of greater financial autonomy.

In practice it seems local councils will have the freedom to carry out the coalition program of cuts and the Big Society agenda of public service reform. However these two policies may not be easily sit together, as the Free School reforms; where local authorities will lose their ability to shape education policy in the interests of the community in the name of consumer choice, demonstrate.

The shape of DCLG cuts is also a worrying trend that belies Boy George’s “We’re all in this together” message. By raiding £446m from area-based grants, the funding targeted at areas with the highest levels of deprivation, the DCLG is placing a disproportionate burden on those communities least able to bear it.

These are the communities that were largely excluded from the benefits of the previous decade of economic growth, that have already been hit hardest by the recession, that already have the highest levels of poverty and highest rates of unemployment. They are the people and communities that need the greatest protection from the affects of cuts. But they are not protected. Instead, they are the most vulnerable. These areas, more likely to be Northern and Labour, areas where the Conservatives don’t have to worry about a middle-class backlash because funding for supported living has been cut, or unemployment continues to rise because the Working Neighbourhoods Fund is slashed.

This risks repeating the mistakes of the 1980’s, beginning another cycle of Cameron’s broken Britain, but still, it’s better that than telling Tory shires that they’ve got to reduce bin collections to twice a month, then Eric really would have a revolution on his hands.

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