An important element in the Coalition Government’s platform, the Localism Agenda is based on four main strands:
1. New freedoms and flexibility for local government;
2. New rights and powers for local communities;
3. Reform to make the planning system clearer, more democratic and more effective; and
4. Reform to ensure that decisions about housing are taken locally.
The Department for Communities and Local Government asserts that the Bill has ‘the potential to effect a significant change in national life, passing power to a local level, creating space for local authorities to lead and innovate, and giving people the opportunity to take control of decisions that matter to them’.
In general, it is difficult to argue with the goals of the Bill (although, the specifics of how they will be achieved have been challenged by several sources). However, local authorities must ensure that delivering the Localism Agenda does not have a detrimental impact upon meeting the needs of all residents. Whilst communities of place and communities of interest may sometimes coincide (ethnic/religious conclaves), local communities are diverse and often people may find that the community they feel more connected to is a geographically dispersed community of interest, e.g. LGBT community. Hence a narrow focus on meeting the needs of a local majority must not ignore the needs of a disadvantaged minority.
It is easy to recall examples of tension between the interests of local communities and those of minority groups. The proposal to construct a large mosque in east London was met by opposition from residents in Newham Council. Similarly, Basildon Council has been involved in an ongoing controversial legal battle to evict the gypsy and traveller residents of Dale Farm.
While there is no quick and easy solution to these disputes, local authorities must remain mindful of their responsibility to eliminate unlawful discrimination, advance equality of opportunity, and promote good relations between different groups of people. A myopic view of localism can easily give way to an “us against them” mentality. Local authorities must carefully balance the needs of local communities while guarding against NIMBYism.
Equality simply must not be sacrificed for localism.
Heather Cover, Equality and Diversity Management Analyst, West Lindsey District Council and Centre for Local Policy Studies, Edge Hill University