I spent time recently at the European Congress of Local Governments in Krakow, Poland. The majority of delegates were from the Eastern side of Europe and this gave a fascinating slant to the conversation.
I was struck by two things. First, that discussion of the EU was overwhelmingly positive. It was seen as a vehicle for positive change in a way that wouldn’t be true in the UK, but would also be more ambivalent across much of western Europe. Second, that faith in the technocratic power of (local) government to achieve solutions was relatively undiminished.
I was invited to speak about local identity and political change. Does local identity matter? How far is it challenged by a changing and increasingly globalised world? What impact does that have on our politics and, particularly, on our local politics.
We know local connectedness matters. There is an abundance of research that shows how social capital – crudely, the extent to which people are embedded in and connected to their community – correlates with better outcomes in health, wellbeing, education and employment.
Social capital is not synonymous with local identity but many of the most important and impactful elements of social capital concern people’s relationship to, and investment in, the places they live and their relationships with other people who live in that place.
Over the last decade, there has been a growing awareness about needing to move towards a socially networked, place-based vision for public services in which the state serves an enabling function, helping people and communities fulfil their aspirations and potential rather than acting as a provider of services of last resort.
But we have struggled to turn this into effective public policy. This is exemplified by the last government’s ill-fated ‘Big Society’ initiative which recognised some core truths about the nature of social action and the limits of the state but failed to turn those insights into a meaningful policy programme.
This challenge is only going to become more pressing as we seek to expose a set of complex changes to our society, economy and environment – changes which pose challenges which cannot be solved by the state alone, but which left unchecked will send demand for state services beyond a level we can afford.
So in this sense local identity matters a great deal. It provides a connective tissue which brings people together to help each other and themselves.
Of course, the very factors which make local identity so important are precisely those which place it under so much pressure.
We live in a world which is increasingly global, connected and mobile (in every sense). This places the traditional conception of local identity – based on continuity and contiguity – under increasing strain. Even in areas where the population is relatively static, a global media and the functions of global capitalism mean they are part of a much broader global current than they would have been even a couple of decades ago.
We need to ride the waves of globalisation not seek to turn them back. There is no productive future in insularity or parochialism.
In different ways, we need both localism and cosmopolitanism, but there is a tension between them. How we manage this tension will be one of the key challenges of coming decades.
To do this successfully we need to think again about what local identity is. We need to move away from a conversation about roots and origins (though these are not unimportant) and towards a more transactional account of local identity, one that is about values, outcomes and a shared narrative of civic identity. Local identity must be about what we do and where we are going, not where we come from.
The EU referendum should give us some sense of our appetite for cosmopolitanism, while council elections will help to measure our engagement with the local.
Unfortunately, right now, discussion of both is mediated through the vortex of national politics. It’s neither local nor cosmopolitan which might be the worst of both worlds.
Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.