The Big Society: localism and a sustainability perspective

This is a guest post from Chris Church, Director of Community Environment Associates (CEA) and Chair of the UK Low Carbon Communities Network.

It is the first half of his paper (reproduced here with his kind permission), so grab yourself a cuppa before you settle in to read. And then have a look at the concluding part of his paper.


‘Think Global, Act Local’ has been a core tenet of much environmental thinking for four decades. With that in mind new moves to localism and more community engagement should be welcomed by local sustainability and climate change organisations. But it is important that such groups look closely at what is on offer.  At present there is a degree of uncertainty.

 This short paper considers some of the key points within the ‘Big Society’ proposals and asks some questions, seeking to identify those areas of opportunity and uncertainty.


So what is the ‘Big Society’?

At the core of this seems to be a desire, made clear before the election by Cameron and others to limit the power of ‘the state’. A  presentation of the ‘ Big Society’ uses a critique by Minister Greg Clark of ‘the state’ in which he states that “It had invaded civil society - sucking everything towards it in the name of ‘stake-holding’ ”  (quite what this means is not entirely clear to me). This goes alongside Cameron’s repeated emphasis on ‘freedom’, but freedom in a just society brings its’ own responsibilities.

The expressed idea is that limiting the power or reach of the state will give more power to people, communities and ‘civil society’. The core of the ‘Big Society’ proposals are three points:

  •  “Public Sector Reform – ‘What the state can do for You’.”
  • “Community Empowerment – ‘What we can do for ourselves’”
  • “Philanthropic Action – ‘What we can do for others’”

It is further stated that  “For the Big Society to flourish, people need power.  New rights will help them reclaim that power

  • Right to buy (save) – helping communities save local facilities and services threatened with closure
  • Right to Bid – giving communities the right to bid to take over local state-run services
  • Right to Build – allowing communities to decide where to create new homes, shops, businesses and facilities where they want them and where they are needed “

With this comes the idea of “Building a responsible and free society”. This translates into four ideas:

  • “Putting communities in charge of planning”
  • “Letting people see how their money is being spent”
  • “Decentralising power as radically as possible”
  • “Meeting people’s housing aspirations”

 This leads to two key questions:

  1. How will local communities actually benefit from this shift?
  2. What will it mean for environmental issues and for sustainable development and climate change?

Will local communities benefit?

Any initial reading might suggest that the answer to this is obviously a big ‘yes’.  But there remain a number of unanswered questions and ‘grey areas’ around these ideas.

Decentralising power

It is clear from action to date by this government that much power will remain with the state. Proposed changes to the NHS and to the education system make it very clear that there are certain boundaries within which the new localism will be expected to work.  No government is likely to hand over control of foreign policy (and many other state functions) to local control.

So the question must be which powers are to be decentralised and to which level? Given the removal of most regional structures, the logical next level is local government. But if local government is to lose funds and staff will it have the resources to manage power? How does this link to the idea of more locally elected mayors with more power?

So does  “Putting communities in charge of planning” (see below) mean that power will be devolved right down to neighbourhood committees? If so, how will such groups get the information and support they need to take an informed decision?

With this comes the idea of ‘Your Square Mile’, a programme under development within the Big Society: the idea that local organisations will have increasing engagement with / control of their own locality.  Your Square Mile is under active discussion with a view to piloting. The questions may well focus on how this is resourced (purely voluntary activity?) and what power (both political and economic) these organisations will have.

Putting communities in charge of planning

This is perhaps a first sign of what is to come and a first warning note for environmental concern. Another Big Society statement is about “allowing communities to decide where to create new homes, shops, businesses and facilities where they want them and where they are needed”.

This seems to be where the Localism bill and the proposed planning reforms come together. One policy advisor linked to the BS Network put it something like this:

  • The planning bill will see much existing planning law swept away.
  • Councils will be obliged to set up more local community-based organisations (at the level of ‘area committees’ as used in some places? Parish councils?)
  • These will be expected to come up with a set of guidelines or framework as to what they would like to see happen in their area
  • Developers will negotiate primarily with these committees. Money offered by developers will go mostly to these local committees.
  • Councils will have the role of making sure that the different decisions made locally match up (e.g. roads do not suddenly end) but they would not have power to overrule.
  • If there were places where there is no local framework, then developers would have more freedom.

This is where the Your Square Mile programme becomes central.   This could be the body / organisation that would be likely to end up with local planning control. So again, more questions:

  • Is this to be some form of elected body, within or without the council?
  • Would decisions be made by committee, by  local referenda or open public meetings?
  • Or would decisions be made by those living within a certain range of a proposed development? 

Critically, how local is ‘local’?  Greg Clark’s statement above implies a negative view of ‘stakeholding’ - does this mean that non-local people (who might nevertheless have a valid view on a proposal) would be excluded?

A range of potential planning issues are immediately clear:

  • Resident groups in towns and villages are often opposed to new housing – will such groups have a veto? (and how does this match up with ‘Meeting people’s housing aspirations’?)
  • Strategic projects (such as the new high speed rail link) arouse local opposition – at what level will power be taken out of local hands?
  • Innovative projects (wind farms are just one such) are often unpopular –  again, would the power to reject rest solely with communities?
  • Unpopular sites (travellers sites, prisons, waste facilities) all need to go somewhere. Will ‘not in my backyard’ reign supreme?
  • If a local community decides for whatever reason (including financial gain) that their local green belt is affecting people’s housing aspirations (or the desire for a new supermarket), what will happen then?

Inherent in this last point is the financial issue. There have been many proven cases where members and chairs of council planning committees have been guilty of corruption.  With clearly elected officials there are at least clear legal backstops: if planning fora are open to a much wider public how will people’s personal and financial interests be transparent?

Underlying this are longer-term plans. Development plans and frameworks have played a key role in controlling development and protecting green spaces. If ‘communities’ are to be ‘in charge’  they will be setting some / all the guidelines.  How will these local frameworks link to national goals and policies?

Will local referenda or action groups be able to rewrite frameworks on a case-by-case basis?

Letting people see how their money is being spent

Again, it is hard to disagree with these words. Existing council budgets are fairly transparent to those who wish to trawl through them, while participatory budgeting has developed well in many areas over the last three years. Better clearer reporting is important as is adequate information for people to be able to make informed decisions. The Participatory Budgeting Unit (PBU - a project of the charity Church Action on Poverty) has in the past identified a number of frequent concerns:

  • Won’t the ‘loudest voices’ always win?
  • People will be too selfish to spend wisely?
  • What about the hard to reach?
  • Will people have the right information?

The PBU has helped answer these points.  The key issues are about building trust on both sides, and developing this work in a planned and structured manner. 

But with this is the idea that people can vote not just for how services are funded but for what services to fund.  This could involve voting on services for minorities, refugees, sexual health and other possibly unpopular issues. People could vote down services which they will never need and a large local community may end up controlling funding for a smaller community of interest despite having no engagement with that community.

Meeting people’s housing aspirations

It is worth noting right at the start that this focuses on ‘aspirations’ rather than ‘needs’ and as such applies to anyone in any housing. Aspirations for existing housing not to have new homes built near them might cut across aspirations of those seeking a first home. Aspirations for cheaper homes (from developers as much as residents) may limit the drive for zero-carbon homes. Aspirations for home improvements in a well-organised richer neighbourhood might drown out less amplified voices in poorer areas.  This is an issue where there are frequent disputes.   A clear and transparent process for dispute resolution will be critical. on for part 2 of Chris' paper.

(The phrases in quotation marks are from a CLG presentation entitled:  The Big Society - A Radical Agenda Turning Government Upside Down and Inside Out)

Last updated at 15:41 Wed 06/Oct/10.
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