Something to cheer on our new councillors … “municipalism”
” … At the heart of the crisis in local politics is a deep contradiction. For 15 years at least, Westminster politicians have habitually talked up somehow reviving local government. But power has continued to be snatched from people on the ground. (Consider, for example, the story of how elected local politicians have been shoved out of any control or oversight of state education.) Meanwhile austerity has ensured that helpless local politicians are answerable for nonsensical policies authored by Westminster, just as our exit from the EU and the noise made by moronic opportunists has poisoned debate at every level.
Yet here is the fascinating thing. Despite cuts, crises and the sense that far too many councils are locked into decline, there is some cause for hope. The realisation that central government is too remote to solve a whole host of problems, and most things are best dealt with at the most local level, feels like it has become unanswerable: something highlighted not just by failures at the top (picture the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, and the point will instantly become clear), but by a host of trailblazing examples of how to do things differently.
The biggest recent news about childhood obesity came not from the Department of Health, but a programme created in Leeds. The new Labour party is setting great store by the so-called Preston model, whereby that city’s council is boosting the local economy by using its financial clout to help local business. If you want to know about the cutting edge of regeneration, it is best to talk to people who have either created local success stories or are trying to, in Manchester, Plymouth or Doncaster.
This continuing revolution, moreover, is not restricted to big places. Where I live, in the 25,000-population town of Frome, the coalition of independents in charge of the town council – who last week won all 17 of its seats, a feat they pulled off for the second time – have spent eight years encouraging sustainable transport, assisting local charities and helping to ease the realities of poverty and inequality. Among their achievements is the town’s “community fridge”, which encourages people to donate food that would otherwise be thrown away – and is now saving 90,000 items annually as well as enabling emissions savings equivalent to taking 43 cars off the road. This was not an idea authored in a central ministry: it is a classic example of an initiative that has proved successful and which now deserves to be adopted elsewhere: an opportunity for local politics to influence what happens nationally, rather than the other way round.
Across Europe and beyond, this kind of thinking is known as the new municipalism, and its lessons are obvious. If you want representatives who reflect the places they serve, we will have to pay them more. If councils are to attract and retain new people, they need not warm words but meaningful power. Many town, city and county halls are due a huge change in culture. Above all, if we are eventually going to push beyond the anger, silliness and polarisation of Brexit politics, it is obvious where we will have to start: not among grandstanding celebs and the white noise of social media, but in close proximity to the problems we need to solve, in the places where millions of us actually live.”