Are you a localist or a municipalist?
On Newsnight last week, in between Gavin Estler and his research staff being skewered by Eric Pickles, Mr Pickles got into an interesting debate with the Deputy Leader of Nottingham council.
The Deputy Leader was arguing that the council should be allowed to NOT publish details of all expenses over £500 as it was a local decision. The implication was that by Mr Pickles demanding this of local authorities he was not being particularly localist.
Indeed, this is something we on this blog have often accused my Pickles of.
The response from Mr Pickles was fascinating. He didn’t make an argument based on the importance of open data but rather said something along the lines of: ‘Localism is not about giving power to councillors; it’s about passing power straight to the people’.
In effect Mr Pickles cast the deputy leader of Nottingham council as a municipalist, someone who believes power should sits with local government, rather than a localist who believes in giving power to local people.
This provided a good sound-bite and neatly quietened the deputy leader but I am deeply curious as to what the logical end point of this philosophy will actually be.
Firstly, if Mr Pickles is a true localist then what does that make him? Fair enough that Nottingham Council should not be all powerful but surely a localist would not want any interference from central Government at all? Or does Mr Pickles see himself as something akin to the guardian of localism; acting in the ‘best interest’ of the population who seem not to know better when they go to the ballot box?
Secondly, what role does this leave for local government? If central government is the guardian of localism does that make local government the enemy of localism? Surely, it makes more sense for the local councils to be the guardians of localism as they are closer to it?
Finally, what role does this leave for representative democracy? If localism does not mean elections and representation at the local level how are the actions of local people to gain legitimacy if not through elections? Surely, Mr Pickles can’t be the guardian of all localist ideas at a local level but if local government is not to provide legitimacy or to mediate between competing ideals then who will?
This all leaves local government with a massive challenge. If Mr Pickles is to be taken at face value then localism probably will not mean more powers for local government whilst also asking it to develop a new relationship with local people. If local government fails to meet that challenge would the end point be irrelevance?