Abstract and Keywords
This article evaluates the nature and significance of the localist turn, set in a theoretical and historical context. It explains two salient contradictions in New Labour's localism: its simultaneous appeals to market entrepreneurialism and conservative communitarianism and the fact that despite the rhetoric of localism, political centralism has increased. It first addresses the normative foundations of localism and centralism. It then explores how different conceptions of power have affected the study of localism. The emergence of contemporary localism is considered, before proceeding to examine the New Labour approach since 1997. The final section explains the Blair Paradox in terms of contradictions within neoliberalism. It is shown that if the coercive strategies of dissident movements are to be effective locally in the long term, they will have to assert themselves on the national and perhaps the international stages in an attempt to replace neoliberal capitalism.
We must ceaselessly remember that the monistic theory of the state was born in an age of crisis and that each period of its revivification has synchronised with some momentous event which has signalised a change in the distribution of political power.
(Laski 1919: 563)
Political power in Britain is ‘ruthlessly centralised’ (Travers 2007). The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty means that, formally, local government exists on sufferance and it is not entirely fanciful to suggest that it could be abolished. Nicholas Ridley (1998), as Secretary of State for the Environment, aspired to a world of residual local authorities meeting once per year to award service contracts to business. While promising ‘an enhanced role and new powers’ for compliant authorities, newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that local government must ‘deliver the policies for which this government was elected’, or he would ‘have to look to other partners to take on your role’ (1998: 22). Both perspectives reflect the nadir or the ‘immiseration’ of British local government at the end of the twentieth century (White 2005: 76).
However, recent years have seen a change of tone. Ministers argue that government cannot micro‐manage local politics. Then Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Ruth Kelly, wrote in her preface to the 2006 Local Government White Paper that improvements to public services since 1997 had been ‘driven largely from the centre’. However, ‘we must have the courage at the centre to let go’ because the country faces challenges that are too complex for ‘all solutions to be imposed’ (DCLG 2006: 4). This devolution‐ ary Zeitgeist makes the ‘new localism’ a pertinent theme in contemporary political analysis.
This chapter assesses the nature and significance of the localist turn, set in a theoretical and historical context. It explains two salient contradictions in New Labour's localism: its simultaneous appeals to market entrepreneurialism and conservative communitarianism and the fact that despite the rhetoric of localism, political centralism has increased (see Davies 2008). This trend exemplifies the ‘Blair Paradox’. How is it, asks Flinders (2005: 87), that a government ostensibly committed to devolving power can ‘be seen, at the same time, as having a strong centralizing and controlling approach to governing’? The answer suggested here is that both anomalies arise from the contradictions of neoliberal governance (Harvey 2005). The coincidence of liberalism and communitarianism and localist rhetoric and centralizing practice is therefore no coincidence. Each entails the other. This argument contrasts with the perspective on localism developed by Gerry Stoker (2002; 2004), which depicts governing as a chaotic, somewhat fragile process, replete with tensions and is sceptical towards structure‐centred explanation.
The first part of the chapter focuses on conceptual issues. It begins by considering the normative foundations of localism and centralism. It then looks at how different conceptions of power have influenced the study of localism. The second part of the chapter then explores the emergence of contemporary localism, before proceeding to examine the New Labour approach since 1997. The final section explains the Blair Paradox in terms of contradictions within neoliberalism.
22.2 Why Localism?
Like much contemporary political thought, localism of a kind can be traced back to Aristotle who, in Crick's words, argued that: ‘if a tyrant was to be secure, he must destroy all intermediary groups, because however unpolitical they were, it was participation in such social groups that created mutual trust between individuals, without which any opposition to tyranny … is futile’ (2002: 497). Later, Alexis de Tocqueville (1994: 61) also argued that liberty demands the presence of intermediate groups, including municipal institutions, which ‘constitute the strength of free nations’. These ideas inspired nineteenth‐century liberal municipalists who preached (p. 406) Britain's civic gospel (see further below). Localist principles were also salient among the foundations of modern British conservatism. According to Edmund Burke:
… we begin our public affections in our families …We pass on to our neighborhoods, and our habitual provincial connection. These are inns and resting places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by the sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill. (Cited in Carlson 2006: 1)
It was ‘through this natural chain of loyalties, resting on spontaneous, organic units tied to place, that the good society emerged’ (ibid.). For Burke, social institutions must be built from the bottom up and thus, famously, the ‘small platoon’ must be the ‘pillar of the state’ (Crick 2002: 497). Gordon Brown often associates himself with these conservative ideas (e.g. 2000):
There is a strong case for saying that in the age of enlightenment, Britain invented the modern idea of civic society …eventually incorporating what Edmund Burke defined as little platoons … ideas we would today recognise as being at the heart not only of the voluntary sector but of a strong society. Call it community, call it civic patriotism, call it the giving age, or call it the new active citizenship, call it the great British society—it is Britain becoming Britain again.
Writing in the centre‐left journal Renewal, Davies and Crabtree express misgivings about the appropriation of conservative communitarianism to the extent, they suggest, that Labour and Conservative policies ‘often look spookily similar’ (2004: 42). However, as argued below, the way that New Labour performs the synthesis draws attention to the limits of contemporary localism and the central contradiction explored in this chapter: while appealing to bottom‐up conceptions of community and locality, New Labour practises authoritarian centralism, as did its Conservative predecessors (Gamble 1994).
The persistence of centralism has prompted scholars to revisit the case for localism. Chandler (2008: 358) develops an ethical justification premised on the notion that ‘as individuals should be free to follow their beliefs, provided these do not harm others, then communities with self regarding interests should also be free to pursue their ideas’. He concludes that such a justification would ‘establish a much clearer rationale for determining the structure and functions of differing tiers of community within and including the state’ (2008: 370). In prescriptive vein, Copus (2006) suggests a new constitutional settlement to enshrine the powers of local government. His model of a federalized UK based on strong local government is thought provoking. These developments are welcome, but require elucidation, not least in confronting the opposing case for centralism.
The case for centralized authority can be sourced to Plato's Republic and his conception of the ideal city‐state governed by philosophers. Platonic thinking may be reflected in what John Stewart (2000: 95–6) calls the ‘elite contempt’ for local government with which he charges Blair, Thatcher, and forebears back to Mill, who despite asserting the importance of local government, commented: (p. 407)
The local representative bodies and their officers are almost certain to be of a much lower grade of intelligence and knowledge than Parliament and the national executive (and) they are watched by, and accountable to, an inferior public opinion.
(1975: 375; cited in Chandler 2008: 360)
In contrast, journalist David Walker makes a principled case for the strong centre, arguing that ‘the case against devolving powers and responsibilities rests on a profound commitment and its name is equity’. He warns that the price of greater local autonomy would be ‘inequality, under provision and capriciousness’ (2002: 5). The condition of municipal socialism, he claims, is ‘strong, redistributive central government’ (2002: 7). He further argues that countries ‘notable for their focus upon grants equalisation … their strong social democratic heritage and remarkably fair distributions’ include Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden (2002: 8). Only national governments have the capacity to regulate markets, or direct resources from rich to poor (2002: 9). Walker presents contemporary localism as the conceit of socialists who, uneasy with New Labour, find themselves occupying the terrain of the right. He urges socialists to re‐embrace centralism, nevertheless conceding that target‐based performance management has gone too far.
Walker's argument has merit, up to a point. It is true, for example, that the typical localist, unlike advocates of states' rights in the USA, would stop well short of allowing localities to expel immigrants or abolish business taxes. However, he inexplicably dismisses the proposition that centralized decisions on tax are compatible with devolved decisions on spending. He argues: ‘At this point in the argument some localists turn round and demand a grants system that somehow combines equity at the national level with freedom for local or regional spenders’, asserting that ‘True devolution must mean devolving decisions on tax as well as spend’ (Walker 2002: 21). From the perspective of de Tocqueville or Burke, this might be true; but from a socialist perspective, it confuses state accountability with public accountability. Walker overlooks, for example, the fact that Denmark is not only more equitable than Britain, but also one of the most decentralized systems in Europe (Mouritzen 2007). The Danish system is not immune from criticism; but here, equalization and decentralization coexist. So, why is it not plausible that the centre should redistribute resources between individuals and places and that, simultaneously, accountability for the requisite share should reside locally where citizen‐taxpayers can hold an elected local authority accountable?
A socialist case for localism might therefore begin with three propositions. First, neoliberalizing centralism undermines both equality and liberty. Second, the centralized procurement of resources under a progressive government is compatible with devolved decisions on spending. Third, there is no prima‐facie reason to believe that local representatives are not as competent to make political decisions about localities as are national representatives to make decisions about countries. Nevertheless, the practical challenge for localists of any political disposition remains: how can meaningful devolution occur in political conditions that seem to auger further neoliberal centralism?
(p. 408) 22.3 Studying Localism: Perspectives on Power
One of the difficulties inherent in evaluating New Labour's localist credentials lies in establishing a common mode of assessment. A perspective on political power, although not always explicit, invariably lies at the heart of contemporary debates. These debates are partly about what individual scholars think the relationship is, and should be, between centre and locality; but they are also inherently methodological in that when trying to ascertain what the relationship is, scholars make distinctive assumptions about power: essentially, whether the greater problem is the mobilization and coordination of fragmented governing resources, or domination.
In UK political science, Rhodes's (1997) view that governance by network is pervasive has gained the ‘semblance of orthodoxy’, constituting what Marinetto calls the ‘Anglo‐governance school’ (2003: 593). Network governance entails negotiated, ‘non‐hierarchical exchanges between systems of governing at different institutional levels’ (Pierre and Stoker 2002: 30) in a world characterized by growing complexity and interdependence between many actors. Taking this heterarchical view of fragmented power draws attention to the contingently assembled and fragile nature of governing capacity, or ‘power to’ (Stone 1989). It demands that attention be paid to resource mobilization, coalition building, and leadership, key themes in the New Labour agenda. It tends to promote a generative model of political interaction, where constructive efforts can be mobilized towards a putative common, or public, interest. This outlook does not deny the persistence of power inequalities and competing interests but in some hands, it resonates with Talcott Parsons's (1963) conception of power as a positive sum game, where the total amount of power in society is increased by cooperation, predicated on a tacit foundational consensus.
Similar assumptions underpin the government's emphasis on building cross‐sector partnerships comprising the public, market, voluntary, and community sectors. For Blair, there are now ‘all sorts of players on the local pitch jostling for position where previously the council was the main game in town’ (1998: 10), necessitating a partnership approach. The condition for effective partnership is that ideological conflicts are subordinated and that all parties focus on the problem of mobilizing and coordinating resources in pursuit of agreed objectives, in the process overcoming public service fragmentation.
However, this approach is criticized by scholars who argue that concentrating on resource mobilization and coordination elides a central problem, reflected in contemporary central‐local relations: power and wealth, have become more concentrated, not less (e.g. Harvey 2005). For Skelcher, Mathur, and Smith (2005: 586) ‘technical expertise is privileged’ in local governing networks ‘and decisions proceed through a rational process little impacted by the political world’. Davies (2007: 787) concludes that local governance is subject to a process of ‘creeping managerialism’, where both local political autonomy and community voices are increasingly sacrificed to top‐down, technocratic modes of service delivery. (p. 409) Underpinning these studies is a more or less overt concern with power as domination (Lukes 1974).
This debate, essentially a structure–agency controversy, resonates with that over urban regime theory and the politics of its leading international proponent, Clarence Stone (1989). Stone's central claim, simply, is that local politics matters. Like the Anglo‐governance school, he argues that localities are politically differentiated, governing resources are dispersed, and therefore studying the production and execution of local governance is of profound importance. However, Stone's critics argue that socio‐economic structures play a stronger role in determining local politics than he allows, particularly in the context of continuing socio‐economic polarization (Imbroscio 2003).
The dilemma is, as Stone puts it (2004: 39), whether one studies systems and the reproduction of local institutions within them, or the ways in which localities generate different governing capabilities. One way of resolving the dilemma is to dissolve the analytical distinction between ‘power to’ and ‘power over’. Stone himself points to such a solution, when he asserts that ‘power to’ ‘spills over into a kind of domination’ (1989: 229). Practically, this means focusing on the conditions in which localities mobilize and coordinate governing resources. If partnership generates new governing capacity, to what ends is it deployed, for whom, and at the expense of what alternative interests, agendas, and capacities? Questions posed this way put ‘power over’ at the centre of the inquiry, but in a manner requiring local research and without denying the possibility of local differentiation.
The argument developed below is that ‘power over’ is deeply entwined in ‘new localist’ attempts to mobilize governing resources in the UK. However, asserting this does not entail the claim that central governments, or for that matter global capital, exercise perfect, unmediated control over local politics. On the contrary, it is argued that while local authorities are politically quiescent, the fact that they are often unable to deliver in accordance with central government objectives signifies a failure of neoliberalism, for which the UK government has vainly attempted to compensate with further centralizing measures. The discussion now turns to the politics of contemporary localism, set briefly in its historical context.
22.4 Old Localism(s)
What White (2005: 79) calls ‘very old localism indeed’ (also Powell 2004) originated in the nineteenth century with the proliferation of undemocratic single‐purpose statutory authorities. However, as Stewart (2000) demonstrates, nineteenth‐century localism was visionary. The ‘civic gospel’ in Birmingham was proclaimed by the Reverend George Dawson (cited in Stewart 2000: 28). Municipalism, he proclaimed, would lead to: (p. 410)
the discovery that perhaps a strong and able Town Council might do almost as much to improve the conditions of life in the town as Parliament itself. I have called it a ‘discovery’, for it had all the freshness and charm—it created all the enthusiasm—of a good discovery. One of its first effects was to invest the Council with a new attractiveness and dignity … The speakers, instead of discussing small questions of administration and of economy, dwelt with growing enthusiasm on what a great and prosperous town like Birmingham might do for its people. They spoke of sweeping away streets in which it was not possible to live a healthy and decent life … of providing gardens and parks and music; or erecting baths and free libraries, an art gallery and a museum … Sometimes an adventurous orator would excite his audience by dwelling on the glories of Florence … in the middle ages, and suggest that Birmingham, too, might become the home of a noble literature and art.
This inspiring passage, drawing inspiration from de Tocqueville's liberal municipal‐ ism, heralded the rebirth of social optimism amidst the squalor of Victorian England. It calls local government to action, demanding political debate on a grand scale. In today's inestimably wealthier society, it remains a benchmark against which to compare and contrast the scope and ambition of contemporary localism. At the same time, it is important to understand that the civic doctrine remained ‘illusory’: precisely because of the ‘special political rights’ accorded to property then (Palmowski 2002: 381), and forcefully asserted now under neoliberalism.
Historians disagree about the origins of contemporary centralism, but it probably has multiple sources. Some scholars argue that the poor law of 1834 was of ‘seminal importance’ in ‘establishing the principle of state regulation over the locality’ or alternatively that Lloyd George's social reforms unleashed an unprecedented level of central involvement in local politics (Palmowski 2002: 383). However, White's (2005) story of the decline of local democracy pinpoints 1930 to 1948 as the heyday of localism. He argues that ‘Whole spheres of public life were owned and managed locally that are now seen as entirely the province of national government or the private sector’ (2005: 75), including most education services, control of the emergency services, electricity production, and health. White argues that the present era of centralization commenced in the late 1940s with the development of the welfare state, but gained fresh impetus with the neoliberal ascendancy after the mid‐1970s. Certainly, the period between 1945 and 1979 appears ‘localist’ by comparison with today. Local government was relatively free to spend and provided public services directly to citizens as part of the post‐war welfare state. Thus, the following discussion of contemporary localism situates it in the analysis of centralizing trends since the 1970s.
22.5 The Origins of Twenty‐first Century Localism
The concept of ‘new localism’ emerged in political science in the late 1980s and early 1990s alongside the ‘new urban politics’ (Goetz and Clarke 1993) in the USA and (p. 411) the post‐Thatcher localist turn in the UK. US scholars at the time were beginning to grapple with the challenge posed to localities by economic globalization and the perceived hyper‐mobility of capital. The literatures of the 1980s and 1990s depicted increased capital mobility as forcing cities to adopt ever more entrepreneurial policies (Hall and Hubbard 1996). The concern for American urbanists was what, if anything, localities might do to protect redistributionist goals, given the pressure on cities (aggravated by anti‐collectivist national governments) to indulge the appetites of footloose capital.
In the UK, however, the soubriquet ‘new localism’ was closely linked to the study of central–local relations. It emerged in the early 1990s in response to a thaw following the political battles of the 1980s, around municipal socialism. In 1984, the UK government introduced rate capping to control local spending. Some councils, notably Lambeth, Liverpool, and Sheffield, resisted (Boddy and Fudge 1984). However, by 1986, the short‐lived movement was defeated and bastions of the left, like the Greater London Council, were on the way to abolition. For the remainder of the 1980s, local government was excluded from key decisions, notably about development. Thus, the concerns of the ‘new urban politics’ spread to Britain but by different means. Whereas in the USA most city governments were disposed to pursue market‐led growth anyway (Imbroscio 2003), a prominent minority in the UK had to be forced. Throughout the 1980s, the Tories tried to create an entrepreneurial culture in local government: by allowing unemployment to rise, rate capping, compulsory competitive tendering for public services, and giving business a substantial say in local development. Lawless (1994: 1304) argued that the late 1980s represented the ‘high tide of anti‐collectivism towards the cities’.
However, by 1990, the government was calling for a ‘spirit of co‐operation, of partnership’ between central and local government and business (Lawless 1994: 1304). This policy shift was based partly on the government's confidence that it had quelled the resistance of Labour local authorities. At the same time, the marginalization of local government was also being criticized and business‐led development perceived to be failing within the Tory party itself (Le Gales and Mawson 1995: 222). The overthrow of Mrs Thatcher and her replacement by John Major as PM in November 1990 created the space for a change of direction. Major reappointed Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, his second tenure there. Heseltine instigated a ‘partnership’ approach with local government. In 1991, he introduced City Challenge, a regeneration programme calling on local authorities and others to form partnerships and bid for funding in competition with other partnerships. This approach, symbolizing the outbreak of peace between central and local government, was called ‘new localism’ by Murray Stewart (1994) and Stuart Wilks‐Heeg (1996). However, Wilks‐Heeg noted that while it partially rehabilitated local government, the new localism did so ‘within a highly competitive and managerialist framework over which central government retains considerable control’ (1996: 1271). Contributors to the 1992–7 ESRC Local Governance Programme took similar views (Stoker 1999; 2000). Their findings pointed to the emergence not of the autonomous governing networks heralded by Rhodes, but the perpetuation of hierarchical modes of governance. Morgan, Rees, and Garmise (1999: 196) memorably (p. 412) dismissed the notion that governance is increasingly about horizontal networks as a ‘fatal conceit’.
22.6 New Labour's New Localism
The new localist turn occurred when, arguably, local government was at its lowest ebb since universal suffrage. White argues that now, ‘English local government seems largely residual and exiguous to the central state machine’ (2005: 76). Today's local government is beholden to the centre for some 75 per cent of its revenues (DCLG 2007 a: 3) and has limited control over the remaining 25 per cent raised through the Council Tax. As Ruth Kelly's foreword to the 2006 White Paper conceded, New Labour continued the centralizing trend. The White Paper acknowledged that 80 per cent of local government reporting was to the centre, only 20 per cent to local citizens (DCLG 2006: 117). To ensure that local authorities prioritized national targets, New Labour established an elaborate system of audit and inspection. The Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) framework, established in 2002, ranked local authorities from ‘poor’ to ‘excellent’. Depending on its ranking, a local authority could expect more or less coercive intervention by agents of the centre. The ‘best’ authorities would receive what the government called ‘earned autonomy’. Attaining ‘excellence’ would entitle them to ‘freedoms and flexibilities’. However, exemptions from reporting and planning obligations were few and offered little by way of political freedom (Ellison and Ellison 2006: 34). Reform seemed to connote slower centralization, not devolution. The watchword of the day, ‘earned autonomy’, was of a piece with the centralizing dynamic of the time. Ultimately, the very concept implied central control, turning the authority's attention away from meeting the needs of local citizens towards meeting the demands of government (Lowndes 2002: 140).
However, Ruth Kelly argued that there had been ‘good reason’ for New Labour's top‐down approach (DCLG 2006: 4):
In 1997 this Government, after decades of under‐investment, inherited public services and institutions which were not always fit for purpose. We responded with massive investment and by setting a strong direction nationally. Combined with the hard work and commitment of local government and others, this has led to radical improvements. But, for these improvements to continue, we must have the courage at the centre to let go.
This passage contains several messages. First, reflecting ‘elite contempt’, it says that in 1997 local government was anachronistic and could not be trusted to ‘modernize’ public services. Second, it hints at the government's view that a critical, information rich, and individualized public will not tolerate high public spending without commensurate improvements in performance. Third, it suggests that centralism has (p. 413) worked, but has had its day. Local government is now fit for purpose and can be trusted, indeed must be trusted, to drive improvement.
Stoker argues that New Labour now faces a choice between two modes of multilevel governance. The first, constrained discretion, entails localized management of a political agenda set by the centre (2005: 166), as happens now. The second model, advocated by Stoker, sees local government as a strategic community leader with considerable autonomy in determining goals and speaking for communities (2005: 162). Local government should be trusted with fomenting debate, encouraging the development of shared aspirations and ensuring that resources are mobilized and coordinated to achieve them. This approach is not unlike the ‘coordinative’ role with which Sharpe (1970: 166) tasked local government: ‘coherently adjusting public services and linking them to local knowledge and a participatory environment— which could not be fulfilled simply by out‐stationed field agencies’. Stoker's (2004: 117) definition of the new localism reflects this vision. It is ‘a strategy aimed at devolving power and resources away from central control and towards front‐line managers, local democratic structures and local consumers and communities, within an agreed framework of national minimum standards and policy priorities’.
However, despite its recency, the concept of ‘new localism’ remains fluid, depicted variously in the language of ‘earned autonomy’ and ‘constrained discretion’ (Stoker 2004: 5) and more recently ‘double devolution’ and ‘place‐shaping’. ‘Double devolution’ was favoured during David Miliband's brief tenure as Secretary of State at DCLG. He commented (Miliband 2006):
I call it ‘double devolution’—not just devolution that takes power from central government and gives it to local government, but power that goes from local government down to local people, providing a critical role for individuals and neighbourhoods, often through the voluntary sector.
For Miliband, the new localism was less about the relationship between central and local government than that between government and citizens called upon to play an active role in shaping the future. As Alan Milburn (2006) commented, writing in the Guardian on the same day as Miliband's above‐quoted speech, the government must ‘redistribute power so that responsibility for meeting the challenge of economic, demographic, environmental, social and cultural change is shared between citizens, states and communities’ (emphasis added). This double‐edged comment highlights a perennial question about civil renewal. How far is it about community empowerment (enabling) or social engineering (domination)? It is argued below that in facing the contradictions posed by neoliberal strategy, the UK government has deployed a coercive variant of conservative communitarianism, but with limited effect.
After the appointment of Ruth Kelly in May 2006, ‘place‐shaping’ superseded ‘double devolution’, forming the conceptual spine of Sir Michael Lyons' inquiry into the structure and functions of local government. For Lyons (2007: 3), place‐shaping is about community leadership, entailing a ‘wider strategic role for local government’ making ‘creative use of powers and influence to promote the general well‐being of a community and its citizens’.
These discursive manoeuvres, occurring over a short timescale, may be significant. They are suggestive of a government constantly adapting rhetoric and policy in response to events, but in doing so attempting to navigate a consistent political course. New Labour's three local government white papers lend support to this interpretation. Each reveals the paradox of a government pledging decentralization, but continuing to centralize. To illustrate, the discussion draws on Davies (2008).
22.7 Rhetoric and Reality: Three Local Government White Papers
In 1997, New Labour proclaimed a new era for local government. It announced a central–local partnership and established an institution of that name under the ‘Framework for Partnership’ agreement. The first White Paper (DETR 1998), warning local government to rise to the challenge of modernization, nevertheless adopted the tone of partnership. The Local Government Association welcomed it as a move away from ‘a centralised and over‐prescriptive approach’. Even Blair's notorious (above‐ quoted) threat to sweep aside recalcitrant local authorities did not quell optimism that the revival of local government was imminent. With the publication of a second White Paper (DTLR 2001), however, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Stephen Byers, conceded that centralizing trends had persisted. His mea culpa reiterated the pledge made in 1998:
I want to tackle the trend towards excessive central prescription and interference, which dominated central local relations in the 1980s and 90s. We are reversing that approach. The White Paper marks a pronounced step away from centralisation. …It is truly about local government. It is a significant shift away from local administration. Based on a belief that we don't need to control everything, and a recognition that local authorities are often in the best position to respond to local needs and aspirations. (DTLR 2001 b)
Reviewing this second New Labour White Paper, however, Lowndes detected the opposite: the intensification of managerialism at the expense of local democracy, artfully disguised in democratic language (2002: 144) and constituting a ‘new centralism’ (2002: 136). If anything, the government's second term was more centralizing than the first, with the imposition of performance management mechanisms like CPA and the seeming subordination of ‘community led’ partnerships to intensive audit and micro‐management. As Wright et al. put it in a scathing evaluation of the New Deal for Communities regeneration programme (2006: 347), ‘if NDC is a communityled programme, it is community led in the sense that government decides how the community will be involved, why they will be involved, what they will do and how they will do it’. Such is the tenor of many commentaries about partnership (e.g. Skelcher, Mathur, and Smith 2005; Geddes 2006).
In this light, Kelly's introduction to the 2006 Local Government White Paper, quoted above, provokes a sense of déjà vu and the content of the paper suggests that it is no more devolutionary than its predecessors were. The first striking feature is the proselytizing tone, suffused in a breathless ‘change’ narrative, interpolated with exhortations on unexceptional local authorities to catch up with ‘the best’, who are ‘already’ doing it in response to what the government has ‘already’ done. Reflecting the government's globalization mania, it comments excitedly ‘the world has moved on apace. The speed of change, often driven by global forces, can be startling … ’ (DCLG 2006: 154). Or, ‘such is the pace of change that we cannot afford to be complacent’ (2006: 25). In response, ‘the best’ local authorities are ‘already’ delivering transformed services, but ‘we need to increase the pace of change’ (2006: 26). The trade‐off for fewer national targets is that ‘the pace of public service improvements will quicken’ (2006: 117) and local government will be judged on the ‘pace of improvement’ (2006: 126). Thus, the world is changing, people are changing, and local government needs to change, emulating ‘the best’ in the sector, which is ‘already’ changing but must nevertheless change again, change faster, and change continuously. The demand for increasingly frantic ‘change’ is a prima‐facie case of control‐freakery.
The direction of ‘change’ is, in turn, heavily prescribed. Public services must be further ‘personalized’ in an ever‐wider ‘partnership’ with the private sector. Councils:
will have to challenge traditional methods of delivery, root out waste, keep all council activity under review and work with other public bodies to share assets, systems, data, skills and knowledge more effectively. … Ambitious efficiency gains will therefore be required as part of the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review. (DCLG 2006: 12)
Personalization or ‘choice’ is another controversial feature of government policy. Advocates contend that it is a vehicle to deliver the services that ‘modern consumers expect and demand’ (DCLG 2006: 22). Critics, however, see it as a synonym for destructive competition between public services. They argue that like empowerment ‘personalization’ is a synonym for ‘responsibility’ because it demands active engagement by citizens, who will be judged if their choices do not deliver the requisite outcomes (Clarke 2005). Personalization, improvement, and efficiency are also predicates of competitiveness. Local authorities, expected to ‘drive down costs’ as a matter of course (DCLG 2006: 135), are urged to create new markets and expose new areas of work to ‘competition and contestability’ (2006: 121/135). This proselytizing tone sets the neoliberal agenda in stone. It offers no space for political difference or dissidence, central criteria of political freedom.
The government's response to the modest reforms proposed by the Lyons Inquiry (2007) further illustrates its reluctance to localize. It dismissed cautiously progressive proposals to extend council tax bandings together with the long awaited property revaluation. Lyons' recommendation that council tax capping should be abolished was also dismissed. Local Government Minister at the time, Phil Woolas, argued that the government ‘does not consider that its powers to cap council tax increases necessarily need to be seen as weakening the freedom and accountability of local government to its electorate’ (DCLG 2007 b). Yet, capping is a powerful (p. 416) emblem of the neoliberal centralizing tradition and together with New Labour's fetish for markets, perhaps the most potent symbol of continuity with the Thatcher era. Control over local spending is, as Travers (2007) argued, an issue of constitutional importance, one upon which the political autonomy of local government depends.
Thus, while local political and managerial leaders may be equipped with a wider range of instruments for mobilizing governing resources, the political direction and institutional mechanisms for local governance have been further prescribed by the three white papers. The new localism is predicated not on any commitment to enhanced local democracy, or local political autonomy (Pratchett 2004), but on the acknowledgement that central political and managerial control have limited effectiveness. Greater flexibility is about enhancing reflexive management; the ability of local actors to select from myriad creative governing responses of their own making in response to local circumstances, but commensurate with the neoliberal agenda. These are the politics of ‘constrained discretion’, the common thread running through episodic developments in the government's agenda.
22.8 Understanding the Blair Paradox
The trends depicted above have led some scholars to impute a lack of coherence to the government's approach. Early on, for example, Sullivan identified the tensions between ideas such as community leadership, improved public management, and building social capital (2001: 1), noting that different localities used them in a variable mix (2001: 20–1). Stoker sees manoeuvres and inconsistencies as characteristic of the inability of central government to exercise effective control over local authorities, try as it might. He argues that New Labour's strategy follows from its fatalistic world‐ view, seeing all systems as capricious (Stoker 2002: 419). ‘[A]t the top of New Labour there is a widespread but not universal culture of paranoia that sees enemies all around’ (2002: 432). Fatalism anticipates governance failure. Thus, stymied by the rubber levers of power and recognizing that the prospect of effective control is limited, New Labour devised a lottery approach to policy to shake up and create uncertainty among local authorities unwilling or incapable of adapting to the modernization agenda. This strategy, ‘incoherence with a purpose’, created instability and the impression of ‘control‐freakery gone mad’ (Stoker 2004: 74–5). Although the time has come to move beyond this approach, the upside was that uncertainty generated space and impetus for local innovation (Stoker 2004: 69).
To a degree, Stoker's perspective chimes with this account. The lottery approach could explain, for example, rapid changes in governmental discourses of localism. It also suggests reasons why a government with limited effective power continuously churns out top‐down initiatives in an almost desperate attempt to reinvigorate local government. However, the approach developed here differs in two particulars. First, (p. 417) it argues that the capriciousness inherent in contemporary local governance is the consequence not of complexity and differentiation, but of contradictions integral to the neoliberal strategy pursued by New Labour. Second, apparent tensions in government policy, specifically those between individualism and communitarianism and centralism and localism, arise from the attempt to manage the effects of these contradictions. Hence, it is possible to make sense of the new localism as an instance of the Blair Paradox, through a unifying explanation centered on the dysfunctionality of neoliberalism.
The distinctive characteristic of actually existing neoliberalism is the unintended synthesis of liberalism and authoritarianism (Harvey 2005). The basic principle of economic liberalism is that economic dynamism is possible only in relatively unfettered markets, regulated by minimal states. However, extending the market has caused a ‘paradoxical’ increase in state intervention (Jessop 2002: 454). Apologists, says Jes‐ sop, claim that after a brief transitional period, the state will retreat to the light‐touch supervisory role. Jessop rejects this argument asserting that the strong state is, in fact, the precondition of the ‘free’ economy (see also Gamble 1994).
Thus, neoliberalism is liberalism gone wrong. However, why should centralization be the necessary unintended consequence of liberalization? First, liberalizing governments are faced with the continuing, if weakening, legacy of post‐war ‘welfarism’, still significantly embedded in the public and professional consciousness despite the thirty‐year long neoliberal assault (e.g. Park et al. 2003). Technocratic managerialism, attempting to place local policy beyond politics (Skelcher, Mathur, and Smith 2005), is one response to this continuing challenge (see also Geddes 2006). Second, they have to manage the polarizing and exclusionary effects of liberalization marked, for example, by ever‐increasing inequality and concomitant upward pressure on public expenditure (e.g. Dorling et al. 2007). As Harvey (2005) put it, the social instability generated by neoliberalization is thoroughly dysfunctional for economic growth and profitability. The rollback of socialist aspirations has not opened the door to the spontaneous regeneration of a responsible, entrepreneurial citizenry; on the contrary, it has created fractured, damaged, and unhappy societies. Third, neoliberal doctrine demands that greater value be extracted from every public pound, placing downward pressure on expenditure but requiring robust management to deter free riders, driving it up again.
Each of these factors predicts centralization. To maintain social cohesion, liberalizing states have turned to coercive mechanisms and unifying doctrines of community and active citizenship which, in the case of New Labour, encompass appeals to individual responsibility, family, community, and nation. In its attempt to reinvent community, New Labour has imported Burke's vision of ‘small platoons’ in corrupted form, as an authoritarian injunction upon citizens ripped from their moorings by casino capitalism. In the Burkean view, communities of this kind are ‘artificial collectives’, denuding small platoons of their vitality and thus making governmental intervention inherently self‐defeating (Saunders 1993: 78). This approach portends what Lupton and Fuller (2007) call the ‘new disempowerment’ of communities, achieved through a ‘deep substratum of coerced co‐operations and collaborations’ (p. 418) (Harvey 2000: 181). Thus, neoliberalism is repressive, ‘denying the very freedoms that it is supposed to uphold’ (Harvey 2005: 69).
In this context, the instability caused by simultaneous depoliticizing, economizing, liberalizing, and remoralizing creates frantic demand for constant ‘change’ and ‘improvement’ alongside attempts to clamp down on costs. It explains simultaneously the breathless and moralistic tone of the White Paper, the proliferation of top‐down initiatives, and attempts to generate the reflexive, creative governance envisioned in the new localism. It also explains rapid shifts in localist discourse and apparent tensions between different goods; first ‘constrained discretion’ and performance, then ‘double devolution’ and responsible communities, and now ‘place‐shaping’ and strong leadership to enforce ‘community cohesion’. This strategy is indeed philosophically incoherent. However, it is minimally incoherent in that it poses less of a direct challenge to market individualism than, say, major tax hikes upon income and wealth to fund redistribution.
Thus, political centralization is a corollary of New Labour politics, no less than it was for Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives and is likely to remain so until the political economy of the UK is transformed. It is the unwanted but indispensable governmental response to social instability unleashed by deregulation, the extension of the market realm, rising inequality, and the consequent ‘decline of the public’ (Marquand 2004). This contradiction has manifested in the new localism from the outset and there is no reason to think that it will soon be resolved.
Hazel Blears (2008), current Secretary of State at DCLG, recognizes that control‐ freakery is a hard habit to break:
I want to make sure that whenever we're confronting a new problem …I want to think about what mechanisms we can put in place to make sure that our first reaction isn't new regulation, but to ask how we can learn from, and work with, town halls and their partners.
Blears is sincere. However, should mechanisms be introduced, they would probably be ineffective. New Labour's commitment to capitalist globalization, and the consequences thereof, generates tensions and contradictions apparent in the government's evolving and adaptable approach to localism. In the face of localist rhetoric, ongoing centralization is the government's response to the antinomies of liberalization. The imposition of conservative communitarianism, one instance of ongoing centralization, attempts to enhance public adaptability in a manner minimally compromising to the free market agenda. To the extent that citizens remain wayward, either because of the centrifugal effects of liberalization, or because of their political intransigence, (p. 419) it is likely that the juxtaposition of political centralization and localist rhetoric will continue. Clarke and Newman (2007: 754) discovered that citizens tend to reject the consumerist assumptions driving the government's personalization agenda and conclude that ‘passive dissent’ of this kind matters for New Labour. The New Labour project demands that citizens and communities be active and entrepreneurial, asserting that no ‘modern’ nation can thrive without them. Unless the citizenry is effectively ‘remoralized’ (Etzioni 1997), capable of adapting spontaneously to the vicissitudes of the risk society, then further liberalization will lead to further social instability, followed by further centralization. Elsewhere, I describe this scenario as New Labour's ‘dialectical bind’ (Davies 2005: 327). Localism remains a neoliberal conceit.
This analysis suggests that it is possible, by conceptualizing ‘localism’ as a problem in political economy, to develop an overarching explanation for the apparent political incoherence in New Labour politics, thus offering a solution to the Blair Paradox. However, the discussion poses significant research questions for scholars of localism. First, how much localism of what kind is appropriate in pursuit of what political ends? Scholars might do well to rethink this question in light of Dawson's civic gospel, but remember why it failed. Under what political circumstances, then, might modern localists aspire to such a vision, if it is appropriate? However, the second and pivotal question is from where the necessary political agency will come. The essence of the argument is that localism is incompatible with neoliberalism, specifically with the New Labour variant. This problem takes us back to the question of whether and when distinctive local politics are feasible. Stone himself (2004: 39) acknowledged that the challenge facing regime theorists is to demonstrate that any progressive regimes ‘can maintain viability within the current international political economy’. Progressive localists must demonstrate, in other words, what localities can contribute to challenging neoliberalism. If it is true that centralization is, paradoxically, a symptom of the failure of control, then how might localities take advantage of that in order to construct alternative modes of governing? There is significant opposition to the neoliberal agenda at the local scale, suggesting that nascent alternatives may be found in dissident politics. Yet, to be minimally effective, dissidents would have to be able to exercise ‘power over’ to the extent necessary for maintaining effective barriers against neoliberal state intervention. The fate of municipal socialism in the 1980s suggests that such an approach in one locality, or even a significant number of localities, would not be effective for long. Thus, if the coercive strategies of dissident movements are to be effective locally in the long term, they will have to assert themselves on the national and perhaps the international stages in an attempt to replace neoliberal capitalism.
This analysis, finally, suggests that the conundrum of localism will continue to tax us across the descriptive, explanatory, and normative domains. How much localism do we actually have, of what kind, and why? What form of localism is appropriate? What are the barriers to localism? Under what contemporary circumstances, if any, does it flourish? There is sufficient scope in these questions to occupy enthusiastic scholars, practitioners, and activists for many years. Studying localism throws up myriad challenges; but it is richly rewarding to those who do it.
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Many thanks to Professor David Wilson, colleagues at the Local Government Centre at Warwick, my lead editor Matt Flinders, and anonymous referees for excellent advice on earlier drafts.