Monday, 28 April 2014

The Myth of Localism

The best-informed decisions are those made by local people about their own communities. Unfortunately, this government’s localism agenda has shown that Orwell’s 1984 “doublespeak” (“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength”) is alive and well in 2014. Localism has come to mean the complete opposite of what had apparently been intended.

A community has the right to bid to run public services if it so wishes. However, when such a bid is made, a full-scale tendering process is triggered – allowing large and distant corporations – with armies of lawyers and accountants – to move in: how can neighbourhood groups compete? This is privatisation of local services behind the smokescreen of giving people a greater say.

A community has the right to buy assets in its neighbourhood. However, this is no more than a right to bid, the owner being entitled to reject such a bid, even if it is the best offer on the table.

And neighbourhood plans allow local people to shape their communities – so long as those communities accept the future includes building lots of new homes – with numbers dictated from on high.

The greatest scandal of localism is its use to roll back the state – shutting public services down and hoping families and charities pick up the pieces – Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ a pale echo of Thatcher’s ‘Care in the Community’. This taps into a perception that public services are often a second-best to doing it ourselves at home if we can. But as things stand, this would be the most regressive step for women possible to imagine – a return to the world before the welfare state – men went out to work and women stayed at home to look after the children, the sick and the elderly. 

Volunteering may be an answer. However, current government policies of privatisation cut right across the ethos of volunteering. People will volunteer for local charities, schools and hospitals, but are less inclined to help private providers make greater profits or reduce costs by making paid staff redundant. Privatisation undermines attempts to get more volunteers; public services run directly by the state or by voluntary organisations are more likely to attract them. 

People will volunteer, but only if the overall social framework is one of cooperation and mutual support, not one of competition and greed. “To serve is beautiful, but only if it is done with joy and a whole heart and a free mind.”

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