England & Wales

Andy Sawford’s Powerful Ideas lecture


This blog series is composed of Andy Sawford’s lecture in the Powerful Ideas series. The lecture looked at where localism comes from, what it means in the world we live in and, by commenting on current reforms, and laying out Andy’s ideas, set out how localism can help us meet the challenges we face now and in the future.

The first post looks at the evolution of democracy and government in the UK.


The LGiU exists to strengthen local democracy.

We believe that power should be in the hands of citizens

We are not arguing for Athenian style direct democracy or Swiss style local cantons.

I’m not looking to create American style Federalism or import models like the local French Mayor.

What I want to see is very much an evolution of the British tradition of strong local democracy

You might raise your eyebrows at that – it is fashionable to lament the lack of localism in our system

The powerful presence of the national government in our lives today means it’s easy to think it has always been there, it has always been like this.

Yet the centralisation and concentration of power in Westminster and Downing Street is a relatively young arrangement.

The current government says it wants to give power back from the centre

We are encouraged to build a Big Society.

Just think about that for a moment.

Government should come from society, should be of society and for society.

It should be society that creates government

Thomas Paine said: Governments arise either out of the people or over the people.

Society is born out of the idea that we do best when we work with others,

And when we understand our interests are shared with others

Every society of people that we know anything at all about, stretching back over millennia, have organised their relationships with each other very much at a local level, sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently

Because any collection of people has to solve what we might call “the problems of other people”.

Geoff Mulgan, in his excellent book, Good and Bad Power, identifies 5 ‘problems of other people’

1. The most pressing is the threat of violence. Murder rates in most past societies were dramatically higher than they are today. Without the rule of law, without a system of justice, without government in some form: people will use violence as one way to resolve conflicts

2. There are always conflicting interests. We may want the same land or the same goods.

3. There is the problem of exploitation and ‘freeloaders’

(for example, where a farmer knows that others will have to maintain a shared irrigation system, even if he does not)

4. Then there are what are known as ‘tragedies of the commons’ where an individual overuses scarce shared resources

5. And fifth, there are the situations where what is rational for one person becomes irrational for the community as a whole – the various prisoner’s dilemmas – If I cheat and you don’t I gain, but if we both cheat we both lose. (Game theory)

There are a thousand other ‘problems’ to resolve –

– we need to be able to communicate – so often a shared language is developed)

– we need forms of exchange – so often a common currency is developed

– we might want to agree which side of the road we are going to drive on

To solve the problems of others, societies pool resources, create community capital, and create rules

We can achieve a lot through dialogue, through voluntary arrangements, and certainly through trade, but we also need government


Our history is a story of the evolution of democracy and government:

much of it that we learn and celebrate is national – the Magna Carta, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, the 1832 Reform Act and so on.

But much of our government and democracy has developed at a local level

The English shires are one of the oldest units of local government to have survived anywhere in the Western world. The Doomsday Book (1086) shows a shire system that we could recognise today.

Our national government has traditionally been a ‘Nightwatchman’. Its concerns limited to the collection of taxes to defend the realm and keep the King’s peace, or occasionally the Queens peace

I cannot do justice to a thousand years of local government development, and let’s be honest, I’m keen not to send you to sleep

So let me fast forward you to the 19th Century, when urbanisation and industrialisation created the impetus in towns and cities for local government reform

Guilds of merchants and craftsmen came together to regulate local commercial and economic affairs.

Their practice of electing officials and providing representation and accountability to members, found there way into local government

indeed many Guildhalls became Town Halls.

Turnpike Trusts and Improvement Commissions were created,

many through Local Acts of Parliament that were council sponsored Bills, enacted by Parliament for the needs of a particular locality.

For example,

Newcastle sponsored an act of parliament that allowed them to prohibit the building of houses that did not have privies attached to them.

Councils in the Midlands originated laws to prevent cruelty to animals.

Many of these local laws became national laws over time.

Such as the powers councils sought to improve public health…

Which lead to the 1848 Public Health Act with measures to contain the spread of diseases such as cholera and tubercolosis

So the legislative process was working as I believe it should – with communities originating legislation

Over these years, a plethora of arrangements came to be in place in many areas:

from Library Commissioners,

to Commissioners of Baths and Washhouses,

to burial boards,

Inspectors of Lighting

And School Board and Boards of Guardians were separately elected, self-organised by communities,

The invention and confidence of municipalism in these years is symbolised by people like Joseph Chamberlain,

who as Leader of Birmingham Council, municipalised the gas works and the water supply,

and in London, where the county council began providing public housing –

local government was pace setting.


This first post looked at how, through the ‘problems of people’, democracy and government evolved. The next part of this series explores localisms potential to be a philosophical response to centralism and globalisation.