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