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September 12, 2012

Localism works – but only if government lets it

Despite occasional protestations to the contrary, the Coalition Government’s mantra of localism and big society has almost completely run out of steam. Certainly in the eyes of large sections of the community and voluntary sector, it has lost all credibility due to the savagery of cuts being imposed right across the board.  However, drawing on research from Europe and the US, Prof Mark Shucksmith argues that localism can still be a powerful and effective policy tool – but not if the state absents itself.


Mark Shucksmith,  Guardian, Friday 17 August 2012 

Projects in the US and across Europe show how localism can work to improve rural communities – but the policy still requires investment

Successful models of localism exist in countries across the world, while here in the UK communities and neighbourhoods have very uneven capacities to help themselves when local funding is cut. The coalition government’s localism policy calls for power to be passed from the central state to local government, and then from local councils to neighbourhoods or communities. But this call has been accompanied by a 31% cut in funding to local authorities and a 46% cut in their capital funding – leading many to ask whether the localism agenda is genuinely about encouraging local empowerment.

My research has looked at how communities in rural Britain can thrive in the face of these challenges. One way to find answers is to look to examples in other parts of the world, such as the US and Europe, where localism has been implemented very differently.

A common approach in America’s small communities is to find anything that can be a niche – or that other people don’t want. One rural area has attracted many call centres, providing local employment, because the local accent appears attractive and intelligible to callers across the US. Other regions have competed to bring in state prisons or other “toxic” activities, but these are often low-wage industries and can be damaging to rural environments.

Another good example is Seneca, already known for inspiring the film It’s a Wonderful Life. Here the community takes much of the refuse from New York City, which over the years has grown into a mountain known locally as “Mount Trashmore”. This does provide vital income and jobs for an area which would otherwise lose population, but many feel it is not an ideal solution.

In European countries, such as France or Norway, small communities may still retain a lot of power. In Røros in Norway, local people worked together when the main employer – a vast copper mine – closed down. It is now a world heritage site with a vibrant tourism economy. At a disused quarry in Sweden, local people and their national and international networks worked together to create a unique new venue for opera.

Localism takes on a different meaning altogether in countries such as Finland, Sweden and Hungary; they hold their own rural parliaments where villagers from across the country assemble and discuss important issues with ministers and civil servants. This same idea is currently under debate in Scotland, where there is a manifesto commitment to introduce a rural parliament.

Localism in these countries is not only about giving real power and responsibility to individuals and communities. It also involves governments (local and central) supporting these actions, building capacity to act and investing as an enabling state – not becoming an absent state.

Rural areas in developed countries countries will experience rapid and uneven change as the countryside, like everywhere else, is affected by globalisation, new technologies and migration. However, research shows that the ability of rural places to adapt and thrive in the context of such changes is that much greater where the people who live there can think about and influence how they change and develop, with the support of an enabling state.

Some rural communities are already doing this effectively but most communities need support to build the necessary skills, trust and institutional capacity.

Professor Mark Shucksmith is director of the Institute for Social Renewal at Newcastle University. His latest book, Rural Transformations in the US and UK, is published by Routledge.