We have heard the word “Devolution” everywhere over the past six months; from Scotland’s referendum, to new financial and political powers for Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. We have also heard increasingly about groups of local activists seizing the initiative in their own communities – to re-open a local pub, to save libraries, or to win contracts to deliver services previously run by local authorities.
The temptation is to see these developments as similar responses at different scales to the same issues; scepticism of Whitehall and Westminster politics, disillusionment with ‘big’ power and big projects, and a widespread sense of traditional power seeming distant and disconnected from daily human local lives.
One reading of all this is that the big devolutionary tilt – in Scotland, and in the English city regions – now just needs to be replicated or given another shove, on a smaller scale and we’ll have achieved ‘more power to local communities’?
We are not so sure. When we meet with others involved in neighbourhood and community projects we often hear them describe their Town Hall or County Halls as feeling just as distant as Whitehall. For many people it seems that shifting power from Westminster to their own city council or local authority doesn’t lead to them feeling decisions are being taken closer to them, or that they have more control. It’s just one group of decision-makers ‘somewhere else’ being replaced by another. The headline priorities of newly empowered cities reinforce this: grand transport schemes and other infrastructure projects; steel and glass, rather than people and communities. The human element is often reduced to workforce statistics – reinforcing our concern that future ‘devolved’ decisions of re-invigorated cities will feel no more focused on local communities than Whitehall’s decisions today (see high speed rail, housing, and healthcare).
And if you study what the more ambitious local authorities are saying about getting closer to communities and neighbourhoods is it really about surrendering decision-making power and budgets to communities? In some cases it is – but more often the stated goals are about building cleverer administrative systems for tailoring services and pre-empting needs. This is smart, necessary and important if public services are to meet spiralling demand, but it is not the same as devolving power, money, and decisions to villages, estates and neighbourhoods.
Yet, almost in a parallel world across the country there is a renewed energy and enthusiasm going into community-led activities to improve or create something right where people live. We have seen this in the take-up (slow but steadily growing) of ‘community rights’ to create local plans, take over community buildings, or to bid for contracts to run local services. We have also see it in the amazing energy which has been collected and released by the Big Local programme where £1million has been offered as a catalyst for change in 150 communities. And then there are myriad examples of new organisations trying to meet pressing needs in their communities in new and imaginative ways, often using technology to turn labour-intensive tasks (like matching users to support, or distributing information) into very simple tasks.
This small and local devolution is not some kind of replica in miniature of city-regional devolution, in many cases it feels like a challenge to the culture and structure of city-regional government. So while the newly empowered cities may quickly start looking like scaled-down versions of Whiltehall, local devolution looks very different; you could even say, the polar opposite.