By Rob Foster @futuresinfinite
There’s no doubting that when it comes to political fashion, devolution is one of this Parliament’s essential items. Following the Scottish referendum, the much-vaunted “Northern Powerhouse” schemes & the introduction of the Cities &Local Government Devolution Bill, the recent deadline for local proposals to be submitted to DCLG saw over thirty detailed bids put forward. Cities, regions, counties & as yet unnamed combinations of local areas in England are bidding to assume greater powers & responsibilities from Whitehall. If the previous century did witness, as Taking Power Back suggests, Britain “arguably becom(ing) the most centralised country in the developed world”, then it would seem centralism’s reversal is en vogue for the 21st century.
It is fair to say, however, that when it comes to devolution& the localist agenda, Simon Parker is no arriviste. As the director of a local government think tank &frequent contributor to the debates surrounding public services & the state, Parker’s work has often been ahead of the game when analysing the challenges & prospects for local democracy. With Taking Power Back, these experiences & the opportunities presented by the devolution zeitgeist are distilled into a prospectus for a radical shift in how& why government exists, & what might (at least in part) replace it.
The book includes an examination of shifts in the structures of government power, from pre-war municipal corporations via the centralisation of the post-war settlement, through to the ideological battlegrounds of the Thatcher era & the statism of the New Labour years. The author contends that throughout these significant periods of government, the opportunities for decentralisation to more local pluralism in public services have either been squandered or purposely rejected. “Britain’s centralism”, he writes, “is ultimately a result of political ideology and managerial convenience”. The perverse outcomes arising from this centralist “hoarding” of power are vividly illustrated by Parker’s analysis of three pillars of the public sector; housing, skills & the NHS. The latter, examined under the subtitle “Why we spend more on gastric bands than on losing weight”, exposes the absurdity of how little is spent on preventative healthcare in comparison to treating illness, a situation that may only change through redesigning the system so “local places and local people take a bigger role in healthcare”.
Taking Power Back is not merely a rage against the political machine, however, & moving beyond critique of the past and present, Parker illustrates his alternative view with some exemplars of the radical approaches witnessed in recent years – some of which may be well known or even fashionable: the story of Greater Manchester’s Combined Authority; Occupy Sandy in New York; citizen-led projects in Bologna. But alongside these examples are equally compelling vignettes from less heralded sources: healthcare innovation in Greenwich; renewable energy in Woking; libraries in Colchester. These may be less glamorous or publicised, but author’s knowledge & passion for these projects is evident, & alongside generation change & the parallel crises in trust with government and business, informs Parker’s idea of “the commons”:
“Localities are the engine rooms of prosperity and well-being, something that we all have a stake in but that none of us owns. That means that we all, as citizens and as businesses, have a role to play in looking after them.”
The commons includes community assets & cooperatives, but goes beyond the vagaries of the Big Society to a philosophy characterised by mutual relationships & is defined as “the combination of a resource, the social community that manages that resource & the rules & practices they use to do so”. Taking Power Back argues that channelling these communal approaches & harnessing the opportunities for more local decision making offers the possibility of a new kind of society.
It’s important to state this is not an exercise in woolly-minded idealism, & many potential pitfalls are identified. Centralists may be reluctant to let go of power; local leaders may succumb to parochialism; such a participatory democracy & society requires a rare level of engagement & leadership. However, perhaps as a result of the current appetite for urban Mayors & the spotlight on the trailblazing example of Greater Manchester, there is little examination of how devolution might be adapted to suit the often complex social geography of more rural areas beyond the major conurbations. The big regional cities may be in the current vanguard of devolution, but non-urban areas are equally hungry for a greater say in their futures.
But Taking Power Back is not a manifesto for devolution or a political shopping list, & thus should not be criticised for failing to provide a blueprint for the future. As the author points out, “we do not know how we get from peak state to peak commonism, or we would be doing it already.” Rather, what his book does do is set out is a robust analysis of how we got to the current position, & more importantly a set of ideas for how change may be brought about. & whilst there are plenty of big ideas in this text it is also a book with a big heart: its focus is on people & communities, not theory. As Parker says, “change will not come from grand theoretical narratives”: it will come from the actions & commitment of ordinary people. Self-help & mutual aid are as vital to commonism, & thus to devolution, as any legislation or policy change from above. The key, Parker concludes, “is not to draw more lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’, but to radically expand our sense of what ‘us’ means, and then to rediscover what we can achieve together.” If the reality of devolution does reflect this pluralism & inclusivity then we may hope it’s a style (& not a fashion) that’s here to stay.
Rob Foster works as a head of policy in local government and is passionate about better futures for public services. Follow him on twitter @futuresinfinite and his regular blog is published at futuresinfinite.blogspot.co.uk