Taking Back Control: Empowering Local Communities

John Tizard is an independent consultant, former Director of the Centre for Public Service Partnership, and former county council leader. In the latest of our Brexit Debates series he tells us how we can decentralise government and put power in the hands of local communities. 

On 23rd June 2016 the British people voted against remaining members of one of the boldest ever international attempts to create a union of collaborative nations based on the pursuit solidarity, economic progress and peace.  This union will survive and evolve if and when and on whatever terms the UK leaves it.  Ironically the historic union that is the UK may not survive.

The motivation for those who voted to leave was complex. There were many reasons but it would seem that one strong one was a desire to “take back control” from what is perceived as a remote unaccountable set of institutions; the Council of Ministers, the Commission and even the European Parliament. One can strongly argue that these bodies are accountable and not remote but this did not seem to resonate with the experience of many people especially those who feel that they and their communities have been left behind and even abandoned. The argument for the EU as a democratic body albeit one requiring further democratisation was not made well enough over a long period not just the few months of the referendum campaign.

A second and very serious irony for the English – leaving aside devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – is that in or out of the EU they live in one of the most centralised states in the democratic world.  Successive governments have taken powers and resources from democratic local government and transferred them to Whitehall and/or non-elected quangos.  Recent policies based on English devolution and localism have only dented this all powerful trend to central control and dictate.

If the electorate wants more control this has to include a English version of subsidiarity. It has to mean the transfer of power including tax raising and policy making powers to sub-regional bodies such as the new combined local authorities, to local authorities and to communities. It has to include what has been described as double devolution – powers from Whitehall to town hall and from town hall to communities and neighbourhoods.

The current English devolution agenda is a welcome approach but it does not go far enough. Its scope has been principally focused on economic development and large scale infrastructure with some cases of health and housing being part of the mix.  The money being transferred is a small proportion of the central government financial support for local government which has been cut over the last six years.  This is not subsidiarity.

More has to be done and done quickly if those who believe they have voted to “take back control” are not to feel as disillusioned and let down by government – central and local – as they appear to have felt pre-referendum.

However, there is a real opportunity now to think about a new political settlement which devolves more to sub-regions and is accompanied by redistributive transfer of resources. These sub-regions could then devolve power and resources to communities. This type of decentralisation introduces and extends participatory democracy, which could be enabled by technology like on-line political discourse, consultation, voting and much more. Given how much people participate in media and reality television based voting and use social media all the time this is a natural extension of citizen enfranchisement.

Any further devolution should be based on locally elected councillors and mayors but this representative democracy can be supplemented and enhanced by some new direct participation.

The principle of subsidiarity should prevail and shape the approach. Some matters are best dealt with at a national level – indeed prior to the referendum at the EU level – but others can be best controlled at sub-regional, place, community or neighbourhood level.

Some of us recall the ambition to create a Europe of the regions. This was commendable and could have made citizens feel closer to their governments. Post – referendum let’s aim to create an England of empowered people and communities with effective local democratic accountability at the heart of governance.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Unlock Democracy