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Outrage: The UK’s Localism Bill is a betrayal that will centralise power and undermine local communities

An analysis of the new UK Localism Bill indicates it could have dire unintended consequences

This year’s James Stirling Memorial Lecture on the City at the London School of Economics was delivered as the Localism Bill was being discussed in the UK Parliament. The event provided an alarming analysis of the bill, which will profoundly impact on the running and funding of cities, by someone uniquely qualified to dissect it.

The speaker, Harvard Law School Professor Gerald Frug, was introduced by Richard Sennett as having virtually invented many aspects of current urban law.

Entitled The Architecture of Governance, the talk recognised that all forms of governance are designed; that of urban governance influencing not only how cities develop, but also the everyday lives of all of us. Crucial to such design is the division of power between different levels of government.

Purporting to empower local government, the Localism Bill will undermine it, falsely assuming that decentralisation requires no change to central government or its powers to overrule local decision-making.

Indeed the bill invests the Secretary of State with astounding powers, to be exercised without any statutory criteria, over all aspects of local governance, whose ‘general power of competence’ comes without financing, or the power to raise revenue.

Moreover the bill’s abolition of regional planning bodies fails to recognise that issues that concern cities are not only local to a city but might arise from conflict between cities, and also extend upward, even to the global level.

However, besides local government being constrained from above, the bill will also constrain it from below. The bill proposes extensive use of referenda, about anything that five per cent of the citizens petition for.

Typically, as California confirms, this is for more services and lower taxes, a recipe for fiscal disaster. Indeed, Frug described the bill as the ‘Californiazation’ of the UK. Referenda are typically badly drafted by special interest groups and difficult to implement. And the process allows for no debate, negotiation and refinement of proposals.

Another major constraint from below is ‘the community right to challenge’, whereby groups can take over the provision of services from the local authority. The Localism Bill wrests decisions about such privatisation from the local authority and places them with a process initiated by petition and controlled by the Secretary of State.

Although Frug did not discuss this, the consequence will surely be that services from which easy profits can be made will be privatised, leaving the cash-strapped local authority to provide the rest.

These are likely to be gobbled up by big corporations, as opposed to the local community groups of prime minister David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ myth. This is not entrepreneurship, which generates new forms of wealth, but the plundering of established forms of wealth.

Unimpressed by the Localism Bill and its division of powers between levels of government, Frug contrasted these with the vision enshrined in the South African Constitution with different ‘spheres’, not levels, of government, each of which is ‘distinctive, interdependent and interrelated’.

This important part of the talk can not be summarised easily and readers are encouraged to study the full text, which is available here.

Although Frug highlighted many of the bill’s shortcomings, he did not speculate on its underlying intentions. The claim to empower local governance appears to be mere camouflage for devolving downward the blame for the Coalition’s cuts and responsibility for not financing local services.

The immediate impetus might be the cuts, but the longer term one is unproved dogma. And the bill extends yet further the Thatcherite neoliberal project. If that, as Harold Macmillan protested, initially sold off the family silver (what were public utilities), the Localism Bill disposes of the last of the doorknobs and plumbing, leaving the state as an eviscerated shell - the carcass left by the corporate vultures.

This is the climax of a process of transferring the wealth of the nation and its citizens to a limited number of individuals, the private sector and its disengaged shareholders - the antithesis of localism.

The James Stirling Memorial Lecture on the City is co-organised by the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

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