Autumn Statement: Whatever happened to the big society and localism?

24 Nov 16

Although infrastructure investment featured highly in the chancellor’s Autumn Statement, there was scant support for local projects and communities

Yesterday, the chancellor Philip Hammond unveiled an Autumn Statement from a government facing huge challenges and with little room to manoeuvre. Devolution and local action needs to be seen as part of the solution to these problems. Efforts to empower and strengthen local democracy must be renewed because they are vital to the future delivery of public services and successful decentralisation.

The devolution plans announced yesterday are positive, but this next phase of localism is by no means localist enough – nor is it bold enough. Devolution must not stop at Whitehall or county hall. The National Association of Local Councils asks that the government’s devolution plans include communities, neighbourhoods and local (parish and town) councils.

The announcements from the government on infrastructure, housing and skills development spending are welcome. However, we feel it is a missed opportunity to really support local communities and neighbourhoods.

Whatever happened to the big society and localism?

With continuing austerity, a government clogged up with Brexit preparations and a growing democratic deficit, there has never been a more urgent need for communities to come together and help lead the change in local people’s lives.

Yet the Autumn Statement made no mention of support to the voluntary and community sector and local councils. Millions of volunteers are giving their time to support their local communities including 80,000 local councillors. These contributions are just as important to social cohesion and everyday life as big business or glamorous infrastructure projects. The government needs to include support for these activities in its financial planning, recognising their crucial roles. 

If this year has taught us anything, it is that some communities feel left behind by our national economy and politics. Supporting these communities can be part of the solution.

For example, through the 2,000 neighbourhood plans currently ongoing (90% of which have been prepared by local councils), communities are identifying local housing needs and how they can be met. Where neighbourhood plans are in place, around 10% more housing is provided than would otherwise be the case.

The chancellor should have offered more support to these initiatives. For example, he could have increased the share of the community infrastructure levy allocated to communities, where there is an adopted neighbourhood plan, to 35%. This would incentivise communities to develop and provide solutions that are right for them.

Hammond could have boosted local economic development, for example, by giving local communities a 10% share of business rates. This would enable them to make the practical improvements that are so important to local businesses – heritage, tourism, entertainment, local markets, better toilets, better streetscapes and WiFi access.

The government is right to recognise that more needs to be done on infrastructure investment to get our economy moving more. But is it targeting all the right areas? Based on the chancellor’s statement, more spending seems to be going toward major artery roads instead of local roads – which communities desperately need funding for. What about the potholes and basic road maintenance?

NALC supports the government's investment into improving the digital quality of life in the country. It's good to see they recognise our arguments around the need for every part of the country to have super-fast broadband and high quality mobile coverage to meet the needs of all communities.   

Again, local councils are taking action in these areas and must be given government support to be able to address the issues that are of local concern

We demand that local councils receive fairer funding and the freedom to raise the resources they need to invest in local services and facilities without necessary government intervention. As well as freedom to precept to meet local community needs, local councils should have access to the New Homes Bonus, grants from solar and wind farms and other new methods of generating power.

Overall, the Autumn Statement does not recognise the potential of local action to make a difference and contribute to the health of the democratic state as a whole.

  • Jonathan Owen

    Jonathan Owen is the chief executive of the National Association of Local Councils

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