Whither the West Midlands 3: What sort of Localism do you want?
This blog forms the last piece relating to my recent panel appearance on 26th January 2012 as part of the Great Regional Debate hosted by the Royal Town Planning Institute. This blog responds to two questions.
How do the panel feel the ordinary local voter can better make the connection between what we do as professions and the value we bring to the sub - region so that there is a greater appreciation of local skills and the potential of localism'
The way the question is worded is interesting in that it captures the elitist position by academics and policy practitioners on the delivery of the localism agenda where the public need to change behaviour.
However, the real question should be how we as professionals can better make the link of what we do and its relevance to the concerns of local people and communities.
I believe public and private sector still adopt arrogant and patronising stances and approaches to local communities. The prevailing view is still that professionals know best and that involving public in what we do is a necessary burden and extra cost, rather than an opportunity to make better policy.
Changing this mind-set is key with significant front end investment in communities at the earliest stage in policy is a key first step.
But there are important prerequisites that will affect success.
First, the jargon and vocabulary that professionals use turn people off and increasingly alienate the public. The rhetoric and acronyms often serve to hide more than they reveal. Yes we are "intoxicated by the eloquence of our own verbosity". We need to engage the public on their terms based on clear understandings of their needs within the right spatial context.
Second, there is an implicit assumption that participation and involvement is inherently a good thing. However, this depends on how it is managed and the extent to which it builds effective and ongoing partnerships that move beyond simple tick box exercises as part of wider audit processes. So poorly managed participation can actually produce disengagement and cynicism and distrust through lack of response.
So within a localism agenda there is real potential to respond within new policy opportunity spaces. For example, the co-production of knowledge and expertise to tackle challenges in particular places where professionals and public interact positively to share knowledge and problem-solving approaches to issues identified by the communities themselves .
But working like this demands a fundamental culture change in the way we as professionals work and there is very very limited evidence that this is occurring. Indeed, for many it is a case of business as usual with the simpe accommodation of the localism rhetoric within new strategies in much the same way as sustainability was 'bolted on'.
There is also a more subtle approach in evidence behind the scenes, as it were.
At national government level we see a whole suite of public policy reforms introduced under the name of localism. Yet they have been imposed centrally (top down) rather than responding to community needs and demands (bottom up). So we see the proposed sell off of the public Forestry Estate, National Health Reforms, National Planning Framework, Elected Police Commissioners...etc. ; all imposed rather than as clearly signposted concerns by those at grass roots level.
Indeed, an important example is provided by neighbourhood plans which are widely seen and promoted as giving 'communities and local people the chance to shape their own futures'.
However, this is very far from reality. Infact, all neighbourhood plans must conform to the local development plan; they are unable to restrict new housing and they can only shape its location and propose more housing.
Here the image of government as a master puppeteer pulling the community puppet strings becomes a powerful metaphor in my mind. More worryingly, people might invest huge amounts of time in doing these plans without investing in the development plan which actually is the key document that will affect their community and quality of life.
There is a further dimension here in the polarised social geography of likely neighborhood plan production. Many will be developed in articulate middle class areas where resources and capacity are available.
However, in many deprived communities with urgent needs there will be no voice and capacity. This could therefore further reinforce social inequality rather than address it.
The last example is provided by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.
Again a centrally imposed initiative, this banana shape LEP is an example of private and public sector coming together to create a voluntary partnership to promote economic growth.
The geography is perverse within a West Midlands context and clearly reflects some political shaping. However, its creation and commitment offers fantastic potential to address the challenges of economic growth.
Yet with hardly no involvement from environment, third sector and local communities, their emerging strategy and priorities largely remain a mystery to many in the West Midlands.
In my view all this represents missed opportunities.
Localism can offer real opportunities for delivering meaningful change drawing on peoples' skills and enthusiasm.
The danger is that we get swept away by the rhetoric rather than understand that localism in its present form is actually a product of centrally imposed ideas rather than a fundamental rethink of how policy is made, where local people and communities set agendas with public and private sector support and responses enabling better decisions.
To me that is ultimately what Big Society should be about.