England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Has localism taken root in London?

Eight years on from the Localism Act, we took a look at how attempts to devolve power and decision-making to the neighbourhood level have progressed in London. What we found is that while some initiatives have taken root, there are still a number of barriers to overcome before local communities can consistently play a greater role in the governance of the city.

Of the community rights enshrined in the Localism Act itself, only Neighbourhood Planning could be argued to be delivering on the aspiration for community groups to exercise powers normally reserved for statutory bodies. Beyond the remit of the Act however, neighbourhoods are being engaged in local governance to varying degrees through the existing democratic structures of local authorities, and also a number of ad hoc partnerships and initiatives. Across this wide diversity of practice in the city, some key lessons have emerged for those interested in strengthening neighbourhood voice and influence. While the findings are rooted in London’s experience, they are very much applicable to wider local government.

There is a need to develop participatory and collaborative cultures

One key challenge for neighbourhood and community groups wishing to have a greater influence in their local area is the reluctance of public bodies to share power more widely. There can be a resistance to the principle, as councils frequently understand legitimacy as only arising from the ballot box. Or there might be more straightforward reasons for withholding influence, as pressured and under-resourced organisations just want to get on with the day-to-day, rather than dealing with the complexity that meaningful community involvement can bring.

On the other side of the equation, developing participatory civic culture amongst communities takes time and needs support. Just providing nominal rights without the requisite capacity building isn’t likely to work.

Meaningful involvement needs resourcing

Sharing power requires sharing resources for it to be meaningful. For example, the Community Right to Bid under the Localism Act has proven largely ineffective as community groups are unable to compete with London’s overheated property market. Even where capital costs aren’t involved, the ability for neighbourhoods to successfully organise requires resourcing.

We’ve seen examples of where the provision of significant, dedicated funding over a sufficiently long time has resulted in neighbourhood engagement in planning processes of a breadth and depth that puts most consultation exercises to shame. Making sure neighbourhood engagement is adequately resourced is also crucial to ensuring that it doesn’t remain the preserve of those communities who already have access to resources.

Processes can represent a barrier

Bureaucracy and procedure can also represent another practical barrier to neighbourhood empowerment. This can be a result of the way that legislation has been enacted. For example, to establish a parish council requires proposers to reach a defined threshold on a local petition to even be able to apply to the local authority, who will then run their own consultation process and take a decision on its establishment.

In some cases, it can work the other way. We found examples of where councils have wanted to involve communities more but were unsure how far they were allowed to hand over decision making power. Making sure there is clarity on how devolution of power can work in practice across different service areas will help ensure that it happens.

Building on these lessons could go some way to facilitating a transfer of power towards neighbourhoods and communities, and helping them to become fuller partners in shaping the city.

Joe Wills is a Senior Research at Centre for London and author of the Centre’s report, Act Local: Empowering London’s Neighbourhoods.

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