England & Wales Communities and society

Riots and localism


It’s probably still too soon for enough perspective to make a truly balanced judgement on the causes of and responses to this week’s rioting.

Predictably, we are beginning to see the emergence of familiar unhelpful polarisations in the media and political response to these events: on the one hand an “authoritarian” response that sees it as an issue of simple criminality, on the other a “liberal” reaction that stresses the socio-economic and political alienation of the people involved. Each critiques the other, for ignoring the complexity of underlying causes, or for excusing or justifying acts of violent criminality.

There are a few noble exceptions such as this piece by Mary Riddell in the Telegraph that attempts to bridge the gap between these two positions

Wherever one sits on this spectrum, however, one thing is strikingly clear: the solution to either sort of problem must take place at a local level. Neither robust, proactive policing nor addressing social exclusion can be mandated through central strategies, both must be informed by local context, flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions and delivered in collaboration with local communities.

So while councils face much of the immediate bill for clearing up after the rioting, they will also have to deal with the long term challenge of providing the local leadership that prevents such outrages reoccurring.

Simon Jenkins touches on this in a thought provoking piece in today’s Guardian. He argues that local leadership is essential for peacefully managing complex urban communities and bemoans the “nationalisation” of the response to the riots.

At LGiU we would utterly reject Jenkins’ assertion that such leadership does not already exist or that council leaders are “mere agents, factotums, of central government.” that does a grave disservice to the local leaders of all parties and none who we see providing on the ground local leadership for their communities every day.

We would however agree with his conclusion that “there is no substitute for proper, open, responsive democracy at any tier of government.” It’s more vital than ever that we allow that to take place at local level.

At the same time the recent riots raise difficult questions for localists about who and what a local community is. We have seen some striking examples of community spirit as local people mobilised first to protect and then to clean up their neighbourhoods. Nonetheless, the most dispiriting aspect of the last few days has been the readiness of local people to direct violence upon the fabric of their own communities, communities with which they clearly feel little identification. The wound that this inflicts upon our collective sense of belonging may linger long after the physical scars of the rioting have faded.

If anyone doubted the urgency and importance of building community capacity, inclusiveness and resilience in tough times, events this week have surely dispelled them. We need to ensure both that all our citizens feel they have a valuable stake in their local community and that the wider community is sufficiently flexible and robust to survive occasional failures in this process. Central government can’t do that. It’s a task for local leaders of all types but one for which our elected local politicians have a unique mandate.