The Dale Farm eviction is the ugly side of localism

Both central and local government are failing in their roles as a guarantors of minority rights.

The Dale Farm case reminds us of the limitations of unadulterated localism. For the eighty families of Dale Farm about to be forcibly evicted in the coming days, the 'deadening' hand of the central state might be a welcome reprieve from the whip hand of the local.

Localism is buzzword of the political age, summing up the zeitgeist in no more than four syllables. The government, in its unending quest to free local authorities from control of the things they don't care about, has allowed unprincipled local authorities to abandon the people they don't care about, with equal vim.

The Traveller community, long a target for legitimated discrimination, has felt the full force of this bonfire of regulation. Evidence submitted to the CLG Select Committee enquiry into abolishing regional strategies suggests that the removal of a strategic approach to Gypsy and Traveller accommodation provision will result in lower pitch allocations. The consequence of this could be an increase in Gypsy and Traveller unauthorised sites which are estimated to cost local authorities approximately £18m a year in eviction costs alone. Moreover, clauses 91, 92 and 93 of the new local authorities bill states that Local Planning Authorities (LPAS) will no longer be required to submit their local development schemes to the Secretary of State (91), that LPAs will no longer have to implement inspectors' recommendations (92) and that LPAs will no longer be required to send their annual reports to the Secretary of State.

These changes promise to make a bad situation even worse. According to the Commission for Racial Equality more than 90 per cent of traveller planning applications are initially rejected compared to 20 per cent overall. Local authorities have clearly failed this community that only numbers between 15,000 and 30,000 people. IPPR research proposed a sensible solution seven years ago, including the treatment of permanent and transit sites as social housing and the establishment of a special purpose registered social landlord to run them. But to add insult to injury, last year's emergency budget removed the modest £30 million in place to support the establishment and development of traveller sites.

In the current situation both central and local government are failing in their roles as a guarantors of minority rights. There are just 3,729 caravans on unauthorised sites in the whole of England with a further 13,708 caravans on council and private sites. In 2009, the Human Rights Commission estimated that 'the entire Gypsy and Traveller population could be legally accommodated if as little as one square mile of land were allocated for sites in England.'

For the more unscrupulous and cash-strapped local authorities the pressure from established residents is often great, as we've seen this week in Basildon, where over 85 per cent support the council's actions. Vanessa Redgrave and the Bishop of York are all very well and good but they are a poor substitute for proper legislative oversight, ensuring that a council can't abuse a group with little political power. So where does this leave localism?

IPPR North research proposed a framework of efficiency and effectiveness to enable tough decisions about service provision to be made. Based on the principle of subsidiarity, where it appears local authorities are unable to take decisions in the interests of the wider good, such matters need to be resolved at a more strategic level. In the absence of regions this may well now need to be nationally. But we also argue for a set of 'national minimum outcomes' - some simple statements made by central government (unlike targets mind) against which local service providers can be held accountable. Such sophistications may run against the unfettered localism promulgated by the government but in this case we need to balance localism with fairness.

Lewis Goodall is Researcher at IPPR North

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.