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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496