Making sense of localism for academics and activists

One issue I’m exploring in this work on People Powered Change is how we might help bridge the communications gap between what policy people and researchers talk about at conferences, and what information and conversations may be useful to local groups. That seems particularly significant when the topic is community action.
I’ve a hunch it is a big gap, so I was interested when James Derounian got in touch about a conference on Localism, because James is a principal lecturer at the University of Gloucester who has also been a rural community worker. He was presenting at the conference on Big Society, which  I think has faded as a call to community action, but it still a policy framework.
I asked James if he would guest blog a piece here, and let me have his slides for upload, which he kindly did – see below. There are some really interesting story lines which I hope to follow up later – particularly around neighbourhood plans.
I then pushed James a bit more, and asked him what he would say, conversationally, in non-academic/policy terms, to someone in a group who asked “after going to the conference, what is localism and what does it mean for my neighbourhood?”
Here’s James’s slides, his community-friendly summary, and report. I’ll now see if I can get a contribution from someone working on neighbourhood plans or asset transfer, and hopefully spark further conversation. Meanwhile a big thank you to James, who is definitely a gap-bridger, further demonstrated by enthusiastic contributions over on Our Society

“The conference showed how the word ‘localism’ is vaguely and variously thrown about……rather like the term ‘sustainability’. So a speaker working in Manchester believed that his work across the city demonstrated ‘localism’……
There are two sides to the localism ‘coin’: First, central government is saying that it will give power to local councils and communities to make decisions; but in fact a lot of this seems to be centralism masquerading as localism; just take the Neighbourhood Plan idea – these DIY community plans will only be able to approve the same or more development than that set down by the district-borough-unitary councils. So localism is heavily constrained.
On the other hand there are real opportunities for communities to develop their own neighbourhood/community plans, and take over assets. Here’s where you can get more help: On Neighbourhood Planning = PlanningAid tel: 020 3206 1880 email:; and if you are thinking of taking over a local asset try the Asset Transfer Unit
James Derounian’s conference report
I wonder whether it’s particular to academics, or if it’s just a truism about conferences? The Regional Studies Association conference I attended in Manchester, 3 November – “Localism: sufficient and fit for purpose?” – had a familiar mix of thought-provoking presentations, plus useful networking, interspersed with the inane and unearthly! At the less edifying end of the spectrum there was one speaker who, in explaining a straightforward point, insisted on prefacing it with “it’s what I call”! Not to mention another gem earnestly communicated as “consumption cleavages”….the mind boggles!
So what pearls of wisdom were gleaned? The Town & Country Planning Association representative was refreshingly direct, referring to the localism agenda as a “vomit of policies”; and he foresaw that “the disappointment and resentment of failed Neighbourhood Plans will be massive.” Meanwhile Tim Brown, from De Montfort University, pointed to the “top down role of government in approving Local Enterprise Partnerships and their board membership”. This theme of localism as centralism in disguise was a running theme. Prof Mike Raco from UCL, raised the interesting possibility, related to the conference title: how to assure localism “sufficient and fit for purpose”, of landed estates – like those of the Dukes of Westminster and Northumberland – being transferred (back) to communities…in order to foster Big Society ventures and make them happen.
There were sessions on localism and the environment and sub-national manifestations of localism. In addition there were international contributions about Ireland, Italy, Poland, Finland, Poland and Brazil. In my own presentation I asked the question ‘Big Society: BIG Deal or big deal?’ I tried to strip away some of the obscuring language to see Big Society for what it (ideally) is: Encouraging communities towards self-determination. I also raised issues like – do we spectate as far as localism is concerned or engage? Regardless of the Localism Act I believe that communities need to make localism their own. How can they do this? For example by assuming a community right to support – whereby parish councils & local charities finance initiatives addressing community needs. Similarly a community right to plan – this would put the onus on the community as to whether or not to pursue a Community Led Plan, which may (or may not) incorporate a statutory Neighbourhood Plan.
I also pointed to the ‘bad and ugly’: For example the very real concern that the gap between haves and have nots is inexorably widening: “for he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath” (Mark’s Gospel). This picks up on a theme in the wonderfully titled article ‘Community participation in development: nine plagues and twelve commandments’ (2000 page 45), in which the authors argue that the “main aim of community participation programmes is less about improving conditions for the poor or to modifying forms of decision-making, than maintaining existing power relations in society and ensuring the silence of the poor.” Ouch.
It would seem that the Big Society house is being constructed whilst – simultaneously – the foundations are undermined by cuts. As time goes by it is interesting to see the way in which the toxic/tainted brand – Big Society – seems to be giving way to a revival of EF Schumacher’s 1973 credo Small is Beautiful. In which he argued that the “best aid to give is intellectual aid, a gift of useful knowledge. A gift of knowledge is infinitely preferable to a gift of material things.” A variant on the community development slogan “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. But then – as a teacher – I would approve of this!

  1. James Derounian

    Can I also commend what I term (!) “Strategic Opportunism”…….that is putting yourself in the place and way of likely useful links to take forward projects etc.
    So 1 example = attending a conference, like yesterday’s on ‘localism’in Manchester….which puts you in the way of a load of other like-minded/interested people; can also of course be virtual…being ‘present’ on certain blogs, tweets, www etc…

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