With the recent publication of the Localism Bill and the release of information about cuts to funding from central government, local authorities and local communities now have a clearer idea of what the future looks like. It’s hardly news to say that many will not like what they see, and that the poorest areas are facing the largest cuts. But it is perhaps worth dwelling on the impact that the combination of these two developments might have on communities in different parts of England.
Ironically, councils with the most deprived residents seem to be facing the deepest cuts precisely because their residents are the least affluent. They receive less council tax than local authorities with more affluent residents, which means that not only are they more reliant on funding from central government (which is what is being cut), but also that they are not eligible for so much subsidy from central government to compensate for the coming freeze in council tax payments. As a result, inner-city councils such as Tower Hamlets and Southwark in London are facing cuts that are twice the size of the national average, and larger still than in many affluent areas.
There is plenty to suggest that the empowering effect of the Localism Bill will be weakest in the very areas where cuts are to be deepest. If this is the case, the effect of the Bill is likely to be to widen the gap between communities, not narrow it.
The effects of these cuts might be mitigated by the provisions of the Localism Bill, much of which seems to focus on releasing councils from the control of central government, and releasing local people from the control of their council. Basically, councils will have greater flexibility to spend their (reduced) budgets as they see fit, and local people will have more power to take on services themselves, buy up local buildings, exert greater control over planning decisions and so on.
In theory, this double removal of red tape and restriction might soften the impact of the cuts on the local services people receive, and perhaps allow communities facing more stringent cuts to narrow the gap between themselves and those in areas where cuts are to be lighter. But I think there is plenty to suggest that in practice the opposite will happen, and that the empowering effect of the Bill will be weakest in the very areas where cuts are to be deepest. If this is the case, the effect of the Bill is likely to be to widen the gap between communities, not narrow it.
I’m guessing that people are most likely to take advantage (if that's the right way to put it) of the extra power offered by the Localism Bill if they are a) part of a strong community and feel it will be worth making the effort on behalf of others, and b) used to taking the initiative and getting involved in council-type issues, and know how to go about this.
I’m also guessing that these kinds of communities and people are more likely to be found in affluent areas than deprived areas.
Evidence for this comes not least from the RSA’s Connected Communities project, which is looking at social networks and access to power in New Cross Gate (a multiply deprived area in Lewisham, right next door to Southwark and Tower Hamlets). Social network analysis has revealed that large numbers of people in the area not only feel that they have no direct access to sources of local power and influence, they also do not know anyone else who might be able to put them in contact with such sources. A quarter of the people interviewed effectively felt unable to change things locally, either directly or indirectly. The analysis also shows the extent of social isolation in the area and the sparseness of local connections more generally.
All this suggests that many people in New Cross Gate are not used to getting involved, do not know how they can access power and are unlikely to feel it will be worthwhile trying. Contrast this with well-publicised middle class efforts to set up free schools and the well-known phenomenon of the pushy middle classes getting better services because they know how to 'use the system' and make themselves heard. These are the people who appear to be most able to use the provisions of the Localism Bill to mitigate the effects of the cuts – and they tend to live in more affluent areas which will be less seriously affected in the first place. By comparison, the residents of Tower Hamlets and New Cross Gate are in for a double whammy of deeper cuts that they can do less about.
The Connected Communities project is looking at ways to reduce social isolation and improve access to power in New Cross Gate and elsewhere; it seems that the events of the past few days have made this more important than ever.