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Localism in reality

By Robert Gibbons - posted Thursday, 28 July 2011


There's great interest in moving the focus of "government" from centralised bureaucracies in British and colonial "Whitehalls", to local communities. The banner issue is "localism".

We were told that local politicians should be legitimised and able to pursue aspirational policies. They and their planners should report to communities instead of worrying what the centralists were concerned with. There was a widespread fatigue with mistaken programs which had been driven from the capitals; and a perception that communities were sapped of initiative and energy.

The UK has legislated, and in the antipodes the NSW government has promised, localism in local hospital and school management. The libertarian think tanks welcomed the opportunity for individual expression and self-driven opportunities.

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The reality was disappointing for many. The legislation remained centralised with many provisions designed to over-ride local initiatives. Reform processes were slow and cumbersome, with a hint of reluctance. The centre did not let go, it seems. The think tanks were disappointed by local expressions of racial prejudice; while several positively-minded charities prepared to provide housing for the ageing in ways endorsed by governments have been rejected by communities. The perception is that locals can sit back and say "p' off, I like it the way it is".

The essence of the problem is, I submit, that local governance's relationship to the top of the democracy's pyramid is similar to that of a teenager child and a loving dad who hands over a mobile phone and pays the bill. Tears and screams later, dad sets a few rules in place. Central governments are wary of what not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) locals can do to sensible agenda.

The obverse side of the coin is that the localists have to prove that they are worthy of the trust of their residents as well as of the centrists.

The issues are not just about "nationally significant" projects such as power stations or airports, it's often the suburban high-rise residential schemes for the aged, mosques or ethnically-based schools and road deviations to accommodate new transit schemes.

Worse than that, populist politicians can distort spending patterns by forcing through specific routes, technologies or taxation policies in favour of their minority and against the interests of the rather apathetic majority. This is seen in Sydney where the populist lord mayor's bicycle path concrete-separators are interfering with pedestrian, cyclist and residential safety to the annoyance of the state government and many communities.

NIMBYism will happen regardless of the ruling centralisation or localism. The great American economist John T. Dunlop wrote in the 1960s that "resistance to technological change is widespread in the community and not the distinctive attitude of any group …. There are certain human qualities which suggest that attitudes and responses depend, at least in part, upon whose ox is being gored".

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The real targets should be three-fold.

First, we should trust communities to grow to accept responsibility if we encourage and support them over time, so we accept that squeaky wheels will always have some prominence but "letting go" will be more effective over time than "hanging on". The community needs time to adjust.

Second, Whitehall is a relatively recent phenomenon and we need to accept that the incremental and largely accidental burdening of local politicians as government grew in size and span since the mid-1800s needs to be reversed. Local politicians should be just that, politicians. They should be allowed to represent and engage with their constituencies. They should not be quasi-engineers and town planners, lawyers and managers. They should not have to wade through mountains of paper; and similarly not be allowed to sit back and wait for the meeting agenda to arrive. Most of the complexity, corruption and conflict in local government derives from one area of activity, development control. If that is recognised, then political judgements over developments can be legitimised while "technical merit" and adjudication can go to open, accessible tribunals.

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About the Author

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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