The Localism Bill gives more power to “local communities”, letting “communities” run their own affairs. There’s a Community Right to Challenge. Communities will keep the proceeds of the Community Infrastructure Levy. Community, community, community. Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities, won’t stop talking about communities.
The problem is that in practice it doesn’t mean “communities”, it seems to mean something closer to “parish”, which is something quite different.
The Bill seems to suggest that the new level of power is arranged along prescriptive ward/parish-style boundaries. But that’s not how communities actually function, and would likely remove power from the majority of people who actually use and care for a place.
Urban neighbourhoods are not self-contained to any degree: what we really have is a series of communities that overlap geographically. They may be based on age, class, religion, colour, or just on a favourite pub. Although people may live next door to each other, their ideas of what constitutes their ‘neighbourhood’ might vary wildly depending on the shops, pubs, and parks they frequent, their usual walking routes, and so on.
So, for example, I view my neighbourhood as extending roughly from Columbia Road to the London Fields Lido. My neighbour might think of their community as being centred around the Shah Poran Masjid, or Hoxton Square, or Haggerston School. Our imagined place in the urban fabric is only marginally decided by where we are physically located.
There’s a meeting next week to set up a ‘Community Council’ for London Fields – the Localism Bill will promote many more such Neighbourhood Forums.
Andrew Boff (a great local Tory Assembly Member, who is helping with the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign) says that a community council in London Fields could give “residents” more influence:
“A community council can set up youth facilities (much under- resourced in London Fields), get local consent for any future road works, address a shortage of child care facilities, or set up a transition town strategy to address climate change.”
The people who use the park probably aren’t residents of the immediate area, but they are still stakeholders in the park. They are the customers of local businesses, and the life of local streets. A neighbourhood purely managed for the local residents wouldn’t necessarily cater for those who live somewhat more geographically dispersed, but are still invested in the place.
The principle of subsidiarity is a good one in theory – that decisions should be taken at the smallest, lowest competent authority. But this looks a bit too atomised, and doesn’t take into account of how people live their lives.
There’s no doubt that the existing Boroughs are too big – why should decisions be taken on a level that covers Bethnal Green, Canary Wharf, Fish Island, and Wapping? I’d suggest that the former Metropolitan Boroughs, established by the 1900 London Government Act, better contain the possibilities of human activity and communities.
So, I suppose, here begins the Shoreditch secessionist movement. More Light! More Power!