The country has spoken. And one thing’s for sure, there will be lots of attempts to understand why so many people voted to leave the EU last Thursday.
A combination of sometimes contradictory opinions and explanations have been cited to explain the different levels of support between young and old, urban and rural, middle class and working class, London and England, England/Wales and Scotland/Northern Ireland. Yet this is too complex an issue to simply be explained by failures in immigration and macro-economic policy and compounded by an out-of-touch political elite. Explaining local popular opinion in such simplistic terms is to fail to understand, or take into account, the local context. And this is important if we are to move things forwards constructively.
This is in part about people’s relationships to place. Place has been steadily eroded from both policy and the political structure. People voted in part against the perceived irrelevance of Brussels because it’s seen as distant, unconnected and unaccountable yet with a pervasive influence. Even in places that have been net beneficiaries of EU funding such as Cornwall, Wales and Sunderland. The next most distant element of the political hierarchy is Westminster. National government has been subjected to criticisms of being too big, too unconnected from real people, too much of a closed shop of political classes living and making policy in the London ‘bubble'. Across England, from Cornwall to Cumbria, Norfolk to Northumberland, London is as distant and seemingly irrelevant to day-to-day life as Brussels.
This is compounded by a lack of local power to change things for the better. Subsidiarity as a principle states that wherever possible decisions should be taken at the level that is closest to people. National government, particularly since 2010, has gradually yet systematically stripped away the powers of local government, undermined local democratic accountability and obfuscated responsibilities between different parts of the public sector. Powers have been transferred to new tiers of sub-regional government without any public dialogue and the relationships between combined and local authorities have been subject to both central bullying tactics and local territorial, party and parochial political forces.
While the public sector wonders how it is to navigate all of this for the benefit of local people, accountability slips upwards to central Government or into the ether altogether. This has been driven by ideology, implemented under the cloak of austerity and window-dressed with policies such as Police and Crime Commissioners, free schools, health and well-being boards, devolution deals and localisation of business rates. But not that many people really care enough to vote in PCC elections. Devolution deals have been set up within a straight-jacket of enhanced accountability to Whitehall and transfer of risk to local areas. How will localisation of business rates help those areas most in need in support because they are low growth areas? And how relevant are health and well-being boards in reality?
A common factor in all these is that they are policies implemented at geographies too large and remote to be meaningful for people as they go about their everyday lives. They’re urban unitary policy solutions being implemented at pace in urban unitary settings. But in the large, mainly rural swathes of England, where countryside, villages and towns coexist in three-tier local government, these policies are 'bent to fit’ being at best inadequate to the local context. This remoteness ignores the very local concerns that play out in local places with clear local identities. No wonder rural England and Wales voted leave. There is no sense of local agency. No feeling of being able to act in your own interests and take control of the issues that really matter to your life, to your family, your neighbours, in your village or town.
There is danger in a post-Brexit UK that power is consolidated in Westminster not devolved from it, adding to this sense of disenfranchisement. The feeling of a lack of control and no power to change things for the better is perhaps the most damning indictment that something has be done differently. We are at a point in time where we need new thinking, a new paradigm to change things for the better. In chaos and change lies opportunity, and whatever the fall-out from this vote, we need now to focus on the possibilities. Can we understand what is likely to make people feel more in control on their lives and their communities? How can we support people to take back power and how do those in power find ways to truly devolve it? Or will there be the usual political inquest followed by lots of nice words but no action that amount to all sizzle and no sausage?
Even without the referendum it wouldn't have been enough to just renegotiate our settlement with Europe. We also need to renegotiate our settlement with Whitehall. People and places needs to be put back in this debate and take centre-stage if we are to find the range of solutions required to take this country forward positively and constructively.
Places need to be at the heart of public policy, public services and local politics in order to make them more relevant and more accountable. Only then might we see a renewal in local civic pride and local democracy, giving people back more control over their lives, based on this new settlement with Whitehall. One which cuts the ties between national and local administration. One which truly devolves power and decision-making to the lowest possible level. One which sets local people and places free to respond creatively to their own circumstances, their own needs, their local vision for the future. Only then will people feel empowered. This is what the RSA call the Power to Create. It’s a simple yet important idea, but it’s one that is perhaps more relevant and more needed than ever.