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July 4, 2007

Mini-democracy in the making

Hazel Blears, the new communities and local government secretary, has long been a champion of giving power to neighbourhoods, but can she persuade councils that it’s the right thing to do?

Peter Hetherington

Mini-democracy in the making


Hazel Blears, the new communities and local government secretary, has long been a champion of giving power to neighbourhoods, but can she persuade councils that it’s the right thing to do? By Peter Hetherington


The Guardian




In her meetings with Gordon Brown over the past week, Hazel Blears has become more convinced that the new prime minister is keen to shift the balance of power from Whitehall to town halls in specific areas. “I think, in the big political picture, that Gordon really, genuinely means it when he says he wants to move from the big centralist state to more local involvement, control, all of that – and that is a fantastic opportunity for local government to show what it can do,” says Blears, the new secretary of state for communities and local government.

Barely six days into her job, Blears – former public health and police minister before becoming chair of the Labour party – displays the knowledge of someone well attuned to the inner workings of town halls. After all, in an earlier life, she was a councillor in her home city – and current constituency – of Salford for eight years, as well as being a local government professional – a senior solicitor – in neighbouring authorities. So, without overstating her case, she can truthfully say: “I am absolutely steeped in local government.”


But she is under no illusions about the scale of the task ahead. “One of the things I want to do is to get more respect for what local government can do, to showcase the best – the innovative, enterprising, exciting things that local government is doing – because I do think there is still some scepticism around in government about, ‘Is local government really up to the job?'”


And is it? “I believe the best of local government absolutely is, and in many ways is in advance of central government,” Blears says. “One of the things I talked to Gordon about is the fact that, in local government, very often members have cross-cutting responsibilities, so you would have a member for older people, that kind of thing, long before we did.”


Approachable, media-savvy and well in touch with her constituency and her roots – she was born in Salford, has chaired a local regeneration partnership and inspired several leading projects – Blears’ appointment to a senior cabinet post would not have been universally popular in the sometimes staid local government establishment.


This is partly because, in a Fabian booklet four years ago, and in several subsequent interviews, she has dared to suggest that councils need not – indeed, should not – be the only repository of local governance. That booklet, Communities in Control, Public Services and Local Socialism, suggested, for instance, that the relationship between citizens and their public services should be transformed to give local people more control.


Communities rather than councils, she suggested, could own, manage, plan and benefit from public services inspired by a new citizen participation agency. “Local government is not the only force that affects our lives – there ought to be lots of different centres of democracy,” she told the Guardian in early 2004. “I don’t see local government as the monopoly of democratic power in a community.”


Asked by Society Guardian about her Fabian views, in her first interview as communities secretary, Blears insists they had moved on somewhat in that she no longer favours a national agency to encourage citizen involvement. She prefers a pooling of money devoted to encouraging local participation across departments, estimating that about £80m-£90m is spent across Whitehall annually in this sphere.


Ambitious strategy


But then owning and managing local assets is a far more ambitious strategy. Noting that her department is already undertaking pilot projects in this area, she cautions: “It’s not just transferring the asset. You then have to say: ‘How are people going to run it?’ If you get people to run a facility, you’ve then created a mini-democracy because they’ll have to have a committee, or whatever, and people will have to get involved. People are far more likely to get involved with something local that means something to them, rather than [if asked]: ‘Do you want to sit on a committee?’


“That might be their first taste. They just might want to run that park, but some of them might then say: ‘Do you know, I’d like to look at parks policy.’ Then they might want to get involved in the council. So I see every bit of public engagement to give them the incentive of taking the next step. And that is about reinvigorating local democracy.”


Blears has a track record in Salford. Around the time of the Fabian booklet, I interviewed her for a Guardian housing supplement. Her role in helping to turn around a crime-ridden, collapsing neighbourhood soon became apparent. With the area facing demolition, she approached Tom Bloxham, the boss of the developer Urban Splash, to see if his company could work a minor wonder. At first, he was not keen. “Hazel asked me on a couple of occasions to come and have a look,” he recalled at the time. “To be honest, I tried to get out of it, but she’s very persuasive.”


The result is the development of a trendy, well-publicised reinvention of the terrace house – the living room on the first floor, with loft space above – in an area renamed Chimney Pot Park, with the considerable help of the government’s regeneration agency, English Partnerships.


Ownership and control


Blears insists again that local involvement, below the town hall, is often the key to success. She says: “I come from an area where local government beavers away, so I am not anti-local government at all, but I actually think the best local government is really good at empowering local people to take more ownership and control and they’re not threatened by it.”


John Merry, the leader of Salford city council, is generally unfazed by the Blears approach and insists he certainly does not believe that the “font of all delivery and wisdom” comes from local government. He believes strongly that the role of a modern council is not only providing services but also influencing and enabling others. “We have had some good discussions [with Blears] and she’s listened very carefully where we have had disagreements,” he says. “I am really pleased she is in this new post.”


But disagreements? “She has some very interesting ideas on community ownership. My only disagreement is ownership, because you do not need to own something to control it.”


Blears’ views on engaging and empowering people will certainly collide with those in local government who believe in the primacy of the elected local council. But she insists that a “pluralist democracy” can take many forms. “There’ll be lot of different ways in which people, on a daily basis, can influence what happens to them,” she says. “And I don’t think democracy is about voting once every four years. That’s why I particularly push things like co-ops and mutual organisations.”


She notes, for instance, that some Sure Start centres, for the early years, are now run as co-ops, with local people involved in running them. “And I think, again, we’ve been quite slow on this agenda. To be honest with you, I don’t think the civil service has always understood. They understand the private sector and the public sector, but not that range of things in between – mutuals, co-ops, friendly societies, all of that. The opportunities for membership involvement in all of that are tremendous.”


But, at a higher level, is local government too timid, and not sufficiently adventurous? “It’s hard to characterise all local government as the same because there are very innovative places, so I wouldn’t say they’re all timid,” Blears says. “But I do think there’s been a sense of waiting for permission to do things. That’s central government’s responsibility as well.”


So what drives Blears politically? “I am a ‘can-do’ person,” she says. “In every area of my policy making – health, police, or whatever – I talk to people locally. I chaired my local single regeneration board for 18 months, right at the beginning of regeneration. It was one of the best things I ever did. Very challenging.”


Much of that effort went into the area of Langworthy, in her native Salford. She says: “You go there now and it’s not paradise, but we won the national Britain in Bloom competition there – an area that was completely devastated. Now I didn’t do that on my own. Ten years ago, that was a place that had torched houses, people were afraid to leave their houses. It takes painstaking work to build confidence, trust, but I am incredibly lucky to represent where I live. It’s my community. I was born in Salford. My parents live there. I try to go home every weekend.”


The Blears agenda


“What I want to do is create a chance for every person to get on – no matter where they live, and whatever their background – building communities where people want to live, work and bring up their families; giving local people more ‘say’, more power, more influence on their lives; and genuinely giving them opportunities to get involved in the decisions that affect them. My message is: together with local government, I will find practical ways of making that reality. I have been talking this language for ever, and now I have an opportunity, with local government, to turn it into a reality.”