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In the last couple of years all the major political parties in the UK have been falling over themselves to talk up their radical credentials. Much of this is filtered through the ‘localism debate’ and ideas surrounding the decentralisation of power and influence away from Whitehall into the hands of frontline staff and local people. As my old boss, Ben Page, said at a recent local government event I attended, “we are all localists now”.

In the last couple of years all the major political parties in the UK have been falling over themselves to talk up their radical credentials. Much of this is filtered through the ‘localism debate’ and ideas surrounding the decentralisation of power and influence away from Whitehall into the hands of frontline staff and local people. As my old boss, Ben Page, said at a recent local government event I attended, “we are all localists now”.

Research being undertaken by the Citizen Power team at the RSA on ‘civic behaviour’ shows this to be a good thing if by localism we mean something like a strategy that aims to radically devolve power and resources away from central control. It is a commitment to what the great American philosopher Stanley Cavell has described as the ‘creative propensity of people to shape the substance and form of their lives’.

But localism is only radical if it becomes more than a set of principles. It needs to be an ethics of civic action. In this sense, localism embodies a radical democratic ethos that assumes significant conditional rights and responsibilities on the part of people to actively shape their lived environment. The idea of people being rewarded for community acts through a ‘community credit scheme’ or reductions to council tax are things we should actively explore as a mechanism for opening up civic action.

Localism seems to me a pragmatic problem-solving approach to some of the most acute public policy problems we are dealing with today. Generating civic behaviour in areas of low social capital, tackling entrenched anti-social behaviour in areas of multiple social deprivations and helping long-term drug addicts to overcome their dependency on Class A drugs are good examples of problems that resist simple rule-driven solutions and which require citizens to be actively engaged if interventions are to work. They need a localised approach to capacity building, citizen-led participation and long-term strategic thinking that cannot be resolved through traditional forms of behaviour change and short-termist thinking.

Our research at the RSA also shows that decision-making aimed at the local, neighbourhood level is the most effective way of building trust between citizens and citizens and public services, and strengthening social capital and civic commitment. It is the level at which place and identity are most likely to be forged. We did not need the MP expenses scandal to recognise the importance of rebuilding trust and legitimacy. General Election turn out has declined by roughly a quarter since 1950 and political party membership has been in sharp decline for the past four decades. According to a recent Ipsos MORI poll, politicians have now replaced journalists as the profession least-trusted by the British public. In fact, 82% do not trust them to tell the truth - the highest negative proportion seen for politicians in the 26-year history of that particular survey.

Both are symptoms of a decline in political legitimacy. It is not, however, a symptom of apathy. Political and civic apathy is a powerful myth that serves to legitimate the rotting infrastructure of representative democracy in the UK. Indeed, the numbers of people - particularly the young - involving themselves in pressure groups and non party political campaigns is rapidly increasing. And interestingly, new research from the US shows that levels of volunteering are thriving despite rising unemployment and economic instability.

We do not need to have read Foucault or Nietzsche or have run deliberative forums to know that consensus so often contains the perverse logic of preventing precisely what it is generated to achieve. My concern is that the political consensus regarding localism is fragile and ephemeral. The extent to which the parties are prepared to redistribute power is a test of their political strength (it is in fact weaker to hoard power). It is also a real dividing line on which to assess the commitment of the political parties and the political establishment more broadly to the virtues of localism and the ideal of citizen power it assumes. To my knowledge, none of the political parties are seriously entertaining the concept of local public services generating and determining their own revenue even within a broad framework of minimum national standards. Without this all talk of localism is superficial and deeply questionable.

Neither is localism necessarily an argument for a minimal or small state as we always hear. It is not an argument for more or less government. Small government did not create Sure Start or introduce the National Minimum Wage. It is an argument for more effective government, which means two things. First, re-thinking the very structure of the state and the relationship between central and local government in which the state acts as a support mechanism for municipalities not their overlord. Second, that public policy problems are addressed in their specificity and complexity at the level at which problem-solving is most likely to work.

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