Localism & the EU: Geographies of Responsibility

DCLG have published their Policy Statement for Part 2 of the Localism Act setting out the framework for requiring local authorities to take responsibility for any fines they occur if they infringe EU law. This is the flipside of localism, if local authorities are to have more ‘rights’ then they should also have the respective ‘responsibilities’.

This framework does not apply to devolved functions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that are funded from devolved administration devolved budgets. It is an established principle of EU law that  that devolved administrations in the UK are entitled to implement Community obligations in different ways. This was confirmed in Horvath v Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2009) where the European Court of Justice held that ‘each Member State is free to allocate powers internally’ and that the constitutional system of a Member State can provide that devolved administrations are to have ‘legislative competence’ for specific functions.

This leads to a rather complicated patchwork in that responsibility is allocated both geographically and functionally. Even for local authorities in England only some aspects of decision-making are devolved, despite the general power of competence, and it is in learning which issues are allowed to be addressed locally and which are not that we understand the limits of localism in practice. In planning for example, while neighbourhood planning is a key aspect of the 2011 Localism Act, the National Planning Policy Framework (which is not mentioned in the Act) illustrates the limits to local planning. Often the dividing lines between precisely what is devolved and what is not are remarkably unclear.

One example where this may become complex is for air pollution fines. The Commission recently rejected an application to postpone the achievement of NO2 levels in ten areas (while permitting it in others). These cities and areas are Aberdeen and north-east Scotland; Belfast; Birkenhead; Brighton; Bristol; Liverpool; Preston; Sheffield; south-west England; south Wales; Swansea and Tyneside.

So, if the UK is fined for non-implementation of the 2008 Air Quality Directive would these fines be paid locally by English cities? The (local) howls of protest are already audible. For while local authorities may be the location for the air pollution, these NO2 hotspots are caused by traffic filtered into these cities by national transport infrastructure. Indeed local authorities are subject to a ‘network management duty’ under section 16 of the Traffic Management Act 2004. How do you facilitate a network and protect the air quality of a place? (There are transport interventions available of course but they are all expensive). When the Government addressed the issue of who would be responsible for air quality fines in the context of localism, the answer was rather vague:

“Part 2 of the Act will only be used in exceptional circumstances, after all the UK has never been fined for an [air quality] infraction.”

It’s still an open question then.

These very practical concerns raise academic questions about the logics of ‘geographies of responsibility’. There is clearly a tension between what the local and the ‘non-local’ should be responsible for. The term ‘geographies of responsibility’ is very familiar to geographers as the title of a well-known paper by Doreen Massey. Here she argues that if social and political responsibility has a geography then how we understand the spatial matters. In particular she adopts a relational understanding so that:

“If space is a product of practices, trajectories, interrelations, if we make space through interactions at all levels, from the (so-called) local to the (so-called) global then those spatial identities such as places, regions, nations, and the local and the global, must be forged in this relational way.”

In philosophical terms a similar engagement with autonomy and connection has been presented in a paper by Michael Sandel in his rejection of an ‘unencumbered self’:

“As bearers of rights, where rights are trumps, we think of ourselves as freely choosing, individual selves, unbound by obligations antecedent or rights, or to the agreements we make. And yet,as citizens of the procedural republic that secures these rights,we find ourselves implicated willy-nilly in a formidable array of dependencies and expectations we didnot choose and increasingly reject.”

These relational, encumbered understandings of people and places reflect the pragmatic concerns evident in questions about possible air quality fines and the limits of the ‘responsibility of localism’. In both very practical and academic senses these ideas of ‘geographies of responsibility’ raise complicated questions. If local authorities are to pay EU fines for air quality they may need more autonomy for streets and less connection to a ‘network’ in order to make truly local decisions.

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Telling the Local: Storytelling and Localism

In the Warwick Commission’s Report on Mayors, the authors emphasised the importance of being able to tell a story about a place:

‘Mayors will be powerful if they can tell a strong story on behalf of their place that creates a sense of shared endeavour amongst their communities and is attractive to external audiences including central government and inward investors’ (p. 10).

The literature on place-making is huge, with geographers in particular concerned to integrate social, economic and spatial strands and explanations. One recurring theme is the relationship between place as a site, a place that is concrete, local and territorialized and ‘relational places’ that recognise and reflect the networks and trans-scalar politics and processes that go into place-making (for one recent working of these debates see Pierce et al).

Yet there are many other places to look when answering these questions about cities and localities are constructed, connected and conceived. Geographers, political scientists and economists do not necessarily have all the best lines.

For how places are made, the connections with other places, locales, lands and kingdoms has long been the province of storytellers and it is this rich practice that a project, Localism, Narrative & Myth, funded by the AHRC is investigating. This is working with storytellers, at the all equally fabulous – but different – Beyond the Borders Festival, the Bristol Storytelling Festival and Durham Book Festival – to consider how stories of the local and local governance, in terms of kinship, ties, connections human and ecological, spiritual and political can help us understand different perspectives of ‘the local’ that the Localism Act is so busily trying to regulate (or de-regulate, or re-regulate at a different scale, all depending on your point of view).

Knitting together the stories (which will be recorded and posted here) and interviews with the storytellers with geographic and legal literatures on the local will be the work of academics working in partnership (and this is crucial) with storytellers. It’s a creative project, which aims to investigate an arts and humanities perspectives on the local, perspectives that are perhaps too often seen to be firmly located in the social sciences.

While we are working on this project, the wonderful Wiltshire Voices project is empowering locals to tell their own stories, in this case through communities of interest. Here Army wives, stroke victims and young people are telling their stories, without mediation or translation. This is part of an empowerment project, reaching out to those people who do not always engage in democratic processes, enabling their voices to be heard. These voices are recorded on film and are meant to inspire empathy and action.

This is intentional, as Steve Milton, Head of Community Governance at Wiltshire Council, explains. He asks:

‘how do we make room for sentiment, empathy and sympathy in an empirical world – a world where what matters is the stuff we can count, measure, codify, meta-analyse, evaluate and interpret in a logical, rational, scientific quest for irrefutable truths?’

What role for narrative in a world of social science?

As well as considering how we construct the local, these stories engage us with the important question of ‘the other’, inherent to the regulation of the local, which draws a boundary that includes but also excludes. While this is well recognised in the context of infrastructure and economic development, including by the Warwick Commission, the social (lyrical, narrative) construction of localism continues to require thought.

As Martin Maudsley, the super-talented lynchpin of the Bristol Storytelling Festival, has said (over coffee, in the Canteen, a very special, local site) there is an important role for storytellers here. Just as monarchs once employed court jesters to ask the awkward questions under the guise of entertainment, storytellers may tell us some uncomfortable tales about place-making and local decisions. These projects may be unusual in a political arena driven by facts and figures but they present perspectives neither academics nor policymakers should feel too comfortable to ignore.

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Ask Not What You Can Do For Localism But What Localism Can Do For You

The Warwick Commission’s has published its report on Mayors just in time to be influential in the run up to local elections. It’s a great product linking academic theory with policy. The Commission consists of key national figures (mostly political with a few, rather predictable think tanks). It clearly aims to influence the national debate rather than engaging in local politics. As an example of how academic research can have impact for limited cost (the only named researchers are two PhD students though the Commission is led by leading academics Prof Wyn Grant and Prof Keith Grint) it’s impressive.

Locating the central research question ‘what is the role of elected mayors in providing strategic leadership to cities?’ at a highly generalist, and international, level, the Report begins to engage perhaps the greatest local concern, albeit at a high level of generality.  As Newsnight put it recently in their coverage of the debate on Mayors: ‘People are being asked to vote without knowing precisely what powers a Mayor would have’. Or more simply: what would a mayor do?

The key point here is that the practice of localism, which is contextualised but exceeds the 2011 Localism Act, provides a political impetus for mayoral powers that could fundamentally change the landscape of local governance.

As the Warwick Commission notes: ‘Whilst the debate about clarity over which powers (and budgets) Whitehall will hand to cities with directly elected mayors will continue, it is also important to recognise the soft and invisible power that has often been accumulated by elected mayors that sits outside their statutory remits has been considerable. In many cases, it has led to the granting of more powers‘ (p8).

This is a hugely important point given the conventional approach to local government, which has been highly regulated and controlled. For even when basic duties of local authorities have been cast in broad, and often highly subjective, terms, supervision is still centrally imposed, with intrusive inspections and options for ‘earned’ rather than automatic autonomy (although as Rhodes, in particular, has long demonstrated, bargaining and allocation have been fundamental to the real allocation of powers).

The current political narrative suggests that this is changing. Certainly, from a legal point of view, the introduction of the general power of competence has powerful rhetorical force and applies  not only to local authorities but also to any elected Mayors. It’s worth re-writing it in these terms:

‘[A Mayor] has power to do anything that individuals generally may do’.

This could be powerful stuff.

This trend is also noticeable in the courts. Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and Lord Sumption (recently elected to the Supreme Court) have both made clear their concern that the use of judicial review overly limits the freedoms of local authorities to govern. Lord Judge was strikingly keen in his press conference last year to emphasise that judges ‘have to be careful to remember that we cannot administer the responsibilities which [local authorities] have …. We have to be careful to make sure that we stay within our proper function’.

This does seem to represent something of a sea-change. Localism as practiced, rather than as regulated. In his classic 1986 text Local Government in the Modern State, Martin Loughlin emphasised that the role of law in central-local government relations in the post-war period was one of establishing a structure for the mediation of interests in service areas (such as education, council housing and town and country planning). Central-local relations were ‘juridified’ to use Loughlin’s term, even if this did no more than provide a structure within which bargaining took place.

This rigidity certainly affected the ‘well-being power’ (s 2 of the Local Government Act 2000), the legislative precursor of the general power of competence. Its  credibility was significantly undermined after the Court of Appeal’s decision in Brent LBC v Risk Management Partners Ltd ([2009] EWCA Civ 490). This had held that the  mutual insurance vehicle set up by a group of ten councils was unlawful and damaged local authority confidence even if eventually the Supreme Court reversed the decision ([2011] 2 AC 34). Similarly, as the High Court confirmed in R (Khan) v Oxfordshire County Council ([2004] EWCA Civ 309) anything specifically and expressly prohibited under another statute cannot be done under the well-being power (or, by extension, the general power of competence) instead.

The possibility of elected mayors and the political narrative of localism combined with the general power of competence suggests not simply that the law has changed but that there is a new framing. (In academic terms, this is phenomenology as much as positivism). Ask not what you can do for localism but what localism can do for you.

The powers of mayors are not always obvious on the face of the text. These will, as the Warwick Commission explore, taking their cue from central themes in geographical and political science research, leadership, place and bureaucracy, evolve. Localism is more than a legal provision. Its practices and multiple understandings will be more powerful than any section in an Act.

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What is local? And what are ‘natural communities’?

I am off to Wiltshire today to meet with their experts on localism and community governance. As well as being simply delighted to be invited to talk to people who practice localism, I’m particularly excited to go to Wiltshire because of the ongoing efforts there to develop what some have called ‘natural communities’.

The phrase ‘natural communities’ was used in this context by the (then) Department of the Environment in their Policy Guidance to the Local Government Commission for England in 1993. The concept does not seem to have been the subject of significant analysis but seems to draw on an assumption that local governance works best if the local units of government have some resonance with people on the ground.

What’s interesting about Wiltshire is that the County Council commissioned the historian John Chandler to investigate what these ‘natural communities’ in Wiltshire might be and where their boundaries lie. He produced his report The History of Wiltshire and its Communities in 1993, which was later republished in an expanded and reworked version as A Sense of Belonging: History, Community and the New Wiltshire in 1998.

This is a very slim volume that may hide as much as it reveals (I am no historian and have very little knowledge (yet!) about Wiltshire so could not possible comment) but it represents an important acknowledgement that communities are geographically, historically and economically constructed as well as drawing on cultural, social and personal ties. This seems obviously sensible as an insight.

And yet it is striking how this (quite intellectual) process differs from the devolution of defining what is a neighbourhood forum under the Localism Act. This may well be desirable (I’m involved in a mapping localism project funded by the AHRC where we going to try to investigate this). In another sense, however, it seems that politicians today have given up on trying to define communities (with multiple definitions in the Act itself and the chat on Twitter before the Bill was published that its delay was caused in part by an inability to define what a community might be). The ‘bottom up’ approach of 21st Century neighbourhood forums and planning will ultimately still require boundaries to be drawn. Exclusionary effects can occur whatever the method used to identify and delineate the ‘local’. Drawing on ‘expert’ knowledge (Chandler was also a resident in Wiltshire) may be as good an approach as any.

This is ultimately a question of how to understand ‘the local’ and to legally call it into being, relying on delineation and maps. In a paper, I have in dreadful academic jargon called this ‘spatial juridification’. This is the process by which a locality is identified and given legal form (legibility of a sort). In this sense the local is constructed. It is not ‘natural’. And yet, I doubt that those in Wiltshire who commissioned this research would dispute the point, they were simply pragmatic and wanted to get the process underway. It’s this that I find very attractive in the approach Wiltshire took.

Certainly, in his book Chandler was not overly romantic. I’m particularly fond of the description of Calne as ‘a town of contrasts, elegant houses around its green and along its older streets, but cheek-by-jowl with nondescript modern buildings and dreary suburbs, an interminable ribbon development along the main road Eastwards as far as Quemerford, and a grassed open space where its famous bacon factory was demolished in the 1980s.’

Chandler drew boundaries around twenty ‘community areas’ as a result of his research. To do this he reviewed the geology and shape of the land, the links provided by major roads and railways, access to a local town and services, local newspapers, common interests, networks and memberships of clubs, catchment areas, patterns of travel, leisure and commuting. One of the aims was to produce a workable set of communities that could then be used for visioning and participatory exercises. This was a programme that was intended to be both top down and bottom up. Localism before the Localism Act.

The project drew praise from the Audit Commission in its 2007 report on innovation in local government, Seeing the Light: Innovation in Public ServicesThe Commission commended the use of “innovative engagement mechanisms to develop community area partnerships and plans with local citizens and the way issues raised within each community area partnership are fed into service planning and cabinet and scrutiny structures” (p. 28). Because even this sense of community identity has to have quantifable results, the Commission stated that ‘between 2000/01 and 2003/04, when these changes were implemented, Wiltshire’s customer satisfaction rose from 53 to 64 per cent at a time when there was a downward trend nationally’. This may appeal to local politicians even if a direct causal link cannot be shown.

Right, off to Trowbridge.

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What would a Mayor’s powers be?

This is perhaps the six million dollar question. It was certainly one that got a great deal of attention at the Bristol Mayor debate on Wednesday night. The answer is, nobody knows. While some political participants in the Coalition may see this as an issue of constitutionalism, raising questions of democracy and governance, others have framed localism as a means to growth. According to this way of thinking, the aim is to use localism (including the appointment of mayors) to ‘unlock’ growth in cities.

This is most clearly spelled out in the 2011 Cabinet Office document Unlocking Growth in Cities. Greg Clark the (Tory) Minister for Decentralisation (is this an oxymoron?) makes this point as a tradeoff in the introduction:

‘We want to help cities exercise their independence and take their economic destiny into their own hands. In this document we set out our offer. In exchange for local leadership, central government is prepared to pass down unprecedented control over budgets and powers in areas such as transport, housing, skills and business support. It is a wide-ranging list of topics for negotiation and it reflects the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all solution – in the coming months we will strike deals as varied as our cities themselves, tailored to the local challenges and opportunities’.

If the logic of unlocking cities is followed, then this isn’t decentralisation for decentralisation’s sake. This is decentralisation as an engine for growth. This builds on an enormous academic and economic literature, which I’ll hope to refer to in future posts.

And yet despite the force of these arguments for using cities as drivers for growth (and their links to neoliberal philosophies) localism as constructed in England does empower cities to at least partly choose their own way here. There is a remarkable flexibility about what the powers of a Mayor and the local authorities competences might be.

This is spelled out by the most symbolic provision of the 2011 Localism Act. Here Section 1 gives each local authority a ‘general power of competence’. For once the words are simple (although their interpretation may yet throw up disputes). They say:

(1) A local authority has power to do anything that individuals generally may do.

This is a statement of philosophy, of ambition as much as anything else (though at least partly negated by the fact that the Localism Act runs to over 400 pages and is one of the most complex pieces of legislation produced in a while). There is a tension between central government’s assertion that they are ‘prepared to hand down power’ and the general power of competence. In practice, however, if a mayor is in place (as this satisfies the governance ‘test’) local authorities will be pushing on an at least partially open door.

A good expression of this philosophy was provided by the (Lib Dem) Minister for Local Government Andrew Stunnell at a recent event hosted by the Local Government Information Unit in Bristol earlier this month. In his view the localism agenda presents a powerful shift in presumptions. It is up to local authorities to decide what they want to do and if they find something can’t be done because of central constraint, to ask whether this can be changed. The barrier busting team at DCLG are, apparently, there to help.

As Andrew Stunell put it at the LGIU event: ‘the interesting thing in the debate [about localism] since the publication of the Bill is that people have strange takes on it. The first six to nine months people kept asking when DCLG would produce a code of practice. This is for local authorities to do. It is like being released from 20 years in prison and coming out blinking. Localism is exactly what it says on the label’.

What would a Mayor’s powers be? They seem to be up for grabs as Andrew Stunell explained. The extent to which this can be decided solely at the local level is perhaps a bit more opaque than his analogies suggest. Localism as an engine for growth is a key driver: if localism doesn’t deliver growth or has different priorities, what then?

In short: All local authorities have a general power of competence under the Localism Act. Bristol is also one of 12 cities that may have a mayor. It is also one of the core cities where ‘bespoke’ decentralisation arrangements can be negotiated (in line with the Unlocking report) whether or not a mayor is elected. Other governance arrangements could be demonstrated to satisfy DCLG although the simplest (and clearly DCLG’s preferred route) is to have a mayor. A mayor would be a sufficient but not a necessary requirement for such further ‘passing down of powers’.

The tension between the Government’s preferred approach for a mayor but the resonating philosophy localism is beautifully illustrated in para. 2 of DCLG’s response this morning in What can a mayor do for your city: Government response to the mayoral consultation:

‘The Coalition Government is committed to creating directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities, subject to confirmatory referendums’.

Perhaps, like their use of the term Big Society, the best thing for central government to do is to never mention the term ‘mayor’ again and let cities make up their own minds.

p.s. For what they’re worth, these are my notes on the LGIU event. Andrew Stunnell’s speech is summarised at the end. LGIU – Localism Act – Over to You

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A Mayor for Bristol?

Last night’s debate about whether we should have a Mayor for Bristol was busy, energetic and felt like the start of something. The referendum whether to have a mayor will take place on local election day, May 3rd. If a city votes in favour of having a mayor at its referendum, that city will then hold an election for its first mayor on 15 November 2012.

So, Bristol, what should we do? While the event was stimulating, my tweets became quite grumpy. Bristol is a city riven by the legacy of slavery. The dispute about the naming of the ‘Merchant’s Quarter’, today Cabot Circus, touched deep and painful wounds. The audience and panel were predictable in their makeup (myself included). We were overwhelmingly white, middle class, middle-aged and often Lib-Dem.

Even amongst those attending, there was a genuine issue over incorporating female voices in the debate. Women were simply not selected to put their questions in their panel (2/47 according to one mid-session tweet, though this improved a little by the end). The physicality of the process, the recognising of familiar faces and the conventional location and format seemed to exclude even some of those who had turned up.

Bristol is, as the familiar litany tells us, home to Aardman, Concorde and the Watershed. We pride ourselves on being an innovative city, an EU Green Capital with great strengths in the creative industries, digital talents and implementing sustainability. We can take this as a challenge as much as a fact. Are there ways that we can draw on this creativity, this innovation to widen the debate, to engage a wide range of Bristolians from all communities? Can we present something of what it means to be Bristolian both in the process of choosing whether to have a Mayor and (if it happens) in the choice of Mayor him (somehow it seems likely to be him) self?

This thought is underpinned by the wonderful session organised by the ever fabulous Festival of Ideas on Daniel A Bell and Avner de Shalit’s new book The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global AgeThe central suggestion here is that a city has an ethos, which they define as ‘a set of values and outlooks that are generally acknowledged by people living in a city.’ The examples Bell and de Shalit use may seem obvious, reductive even. The claim that there might be one, single, ethos runs against pluralistic understandings in academic geography and our everyday experiences in real life. Can we really sum cities up in this way: Jerusalem (religion), New York (ambition), Oxford (learning) and so on. And yet, and yet …

Not only is Bell and de Shalit’s more subtle and engaging than a summary can present but it also seems to resonate. How is Bristol different from Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle Upon -Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield, the other cities that will also have a Mayoral referendum. Let alone Liverpool and Leicester who are already pretty much there? Might we argue that creativity, innovation and non-conformism are central to the ethos and even identity of Bristol as a city?

It’s this thought that perhaps what makes Bristol special, its ethos, even if we cannot agree or reduce it to a single word, might inspire us to have a creative, innovative and non-conformist debate about whether or not to have a Mayor. Yes, the arcane intricacies can send most of us to sleep. But the Localism Act has tapped a vein of civic pride, here as elsewhere. Bristolians are proud of their city and I suspect, can think of a huge range of creative ways to engage people in discussions about the running of their city.

We might ask Aardman to make a short summarising the debate (expensive but perhaps influential in asking for tax cuts?!); graffiti for and against (perhaps symbolising that classic Bristol ambivalence to street art); cartoons of what would Brunel say … There are far more creative people out there than me. But if, and it’s just one suggestion, the spirit of Bristol as a city is creativity, then let’s use it in the debate on the Mayor.

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