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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