Legislation: The Localism Act 2011: What Is ‘Local’ And How Do We (Legally) Construct It?


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The Localism Act 2011 (the Act) is a complex piece of legislation.' It addresses a wide range of planning, housing and local government concerns, not all of which would conventionally be understood as localist interventions. Ostensibly it implements a political logic of localism, that local decision making should be prioritised over other scales of governance. This assumption was exemplified by Eric Pickles in his introduction of the 2010 Bill into the House of Commons:

The Bill will reverse the centralist creep of decades and replace it with local control. It is a triumph for democracy over bureaucracy. It will fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country, revitalising local democracy and putting power back where it belongs, in the hands of the people.2

However, while the Act makes an explicitly political point, its provisions retain considerable national hegemony over local decision making, both in what the Act requires and in those provisions and policies that it leaves untouched. It also contains different and overlapping formulations of both what is 'local' and who is 'community'. As a result, while the political logic of localism is presented as unitary, in practice these initiatives are much more fragmented.

One reason for this is that while the Act has rhetorical force, the UK Government has not justified why the local should be preferred in dec is ion-making terms. For 'localism does not just happen'3 and simply assuming that the local is a better site of decision making (however 'better' is defined) is a 'local trap'.4 Localism is a normative claim that requires justification. Yet there was no White Paper discussing the rationale for the Act or the ideology. Similarly, the debates on the Bill contained multiple assertions of the benefits of localism and the devolution of decision-making power without concrete justification.

There is, consequently, broad agreement that the current governments definition of the term localism is 'extremely elastic' and is marked by inconsistency and incoherence.6

Such justificatory ambivalence is not new. No convincing rationale for prioritising local decision making over other scales of governance was offered by previous Labour and Conservative governments either.7 In practice the most commonplace justification for supporting localism is that local communities 'care deeply about where they live and know it better than anyone'8 with 'the local' here drawing on different, and often competing, understandings of this imagined place.9

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