Localism is a global issue
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Localism is the proactive administrative, economic and societal
empowerment of places and their people.
Across the world it is a force that battles against the natural
centralist instincts of national governments.
Some societies are comfortable with federal structures that allow
degrees of local independence. Others, more
centrally directed, are far less tolerant of local deviation. At this time the UK is rapidly discovering
that greater localism is a key to future international prosperity.
This shift towards stronger, more-empowered, local leadership has many
champions across the political spectrum – and they are supported by many public
and private actors.
Opposing these champions are the massed ranks of established national
forces and major utilities. They worry
that fragmentation leads to a loss of control and a slide towards fiscal indiscipline. Trust and experience in a common cultural
adherence are key issues – defining a sense of identity.
But, while the shift has been debated for years as an issue in domestic
politics, it is international trade that drives the more recent place-making emphasis. Localism is a global issue.
At this time when the UK national government is entangled in
disentanglement from the European Union, central policy developers (with their
dependence on macro-economic approximations) are painfully aware that their
science is largely based on the aggregation of many local economic communities
each with diverse needs and priorities.
Onto this stage now enter the long-promised metro-mayors and cities
emboldened by new concerns for life after Brexit. Add in some fracturing of old political
orders and the scene is set for a considered reordering of governmental
structure - or possibly opportunistic power plays.
At its best Localism is about people and places. The people comprise residents, visitors and
commuting employees. Businesses may create
jobs, pay local property taxes and have expectations of local infrastructures
but their employees, often commuting from far and wide, have no local
democratic voice where they work.
Heavily dependent on the redistribution of national taxation, Local
Authorities are reduced to insignificant branch agencies with occasional
competitive battles to adjust some funding formula that rarely reflects local
priorities. Some places are sufficiently enlightened to
spend public money predominantly with local suppliers - thus investing in
greater local money circulation before it is syphoned away to big brands and
Local levers of power are minimal and this frustrates local leaders
whose citizens expect them to promote local economic and social well-being. Woe betide, however, those places that fall
markedly below common (nation-wide) expectations and risk outraged complaints
of 'Post-Code Lotteries' and Daily Mail headlines.
Yet we know that some places are more successful that others. Some places seem to attract inward investment
in ways that others do not. Some seem able
to retain and employ their young people whilst others see only a drift away
from home. Some places have a track
record in creating new type of employment but others never recover from the
demise of old industries. Some seem
destined to be losers and never manage to catch the funding streams.
But we also know why some fail where others do not. Some attribute the differences to location,
weather, historical accidents, insensitive policies or outmoded formulaic
funding rules. Some places have been
over dependent on outmoded industries and have not seen far enough ahead to
plan a different future. But, most of
all, the performance variations come down to the quality of locally collaborative
This much was recognised by Lord Heseltine's Local Enterprise
Partnerships - bodies that were, alas, quickly dominated by big-brand placemen
- public or private. Fostering
collaborative and constructive local leadership takes years - way longer than
electoral cycles. And it demands a real
understanding of local ecosystems.
All that was known and understood way before creation of the European
Union. Pre-dating that by several
hundred years, cities across northern Europe created the Hanseatic League - a
trusted trading network that enabled deep relationships, economic growth and
The Hanseatic League still has echoes in modern times; embedded in an
airline name and in the Business Hanse
- an active
network of enterprises seeking deeper cross border trade. UK cities, mostly facing the North Sea, very
clearly understood that confident trading needed much more than a simple market
- it demanded trust and whole community support. And building on those formative experiences
the 'new' place-based strategists can understand why some communities succeed
where other decline.
And this is is
why, instead of just puzzling over raw economic data and demographics,
successful communities are now being assessed on the deeper quality of local programmes
that cut across the top-down sector silos.
Creating and sustaining a range of these initiatives requires long-term
dedication and a spirit of willing community collaboration - from schools to
hospitals, from transport providers to colleges and universities and, vitally,
full engagement with really local small business ventures. Hence the recent calls for greater recognition
of local business/community responsibilities.
All that, of course, would be helped by a central government that saw
its role as an enabler, nurturing local differentiation, instead of a state
supervisor determined to scold any local experiment that falls a little short
of the lowest common denominators of cost-constrained public services.
All this we know from the evidence of hundreds of places around the
world that have defied expectations and breathed new life into their
communities. And that is why, building
beyond the Smart' technological enthusiasms of major cities, we are now seeing
recognition of a newly empowered breed of 'Intelligent Communities'. Some achieve this because,
simply, "we've had enough" and others through inspired local leadership - but, crucially, all are making a
name for themselves on the global stage.
It's a puzzle for sure when we have an abundance of 'fairly average'
national economic data but very little local data granularity to enlighten
aspiring city leaders.
So when the central 'industrial strategists' scratch their heads and our
political classes try to imagine how to recover from natural disasters or
self-inflicted wounds, this time, we'd hope, the old sectorial orders must be
refashioned - supplemented and overlaid with place-based and inclusive, locally-led,
economic and societal nutrients.
Tolerance and flexibility for their encouragement from the top down will
(or should) seek accommodation with local homegrown energies.
This article was written as a discussion paper for the Global Summit Steering Group 2018.