Urban Futures Salford Manchester. Research in the City

Turn Up the Volume: Local Action in an Era of Localism

Event: Local Action in an Era of Localism
Venue: The Open University, Milton Keynes
Date: 7th March 2013
Organisers: Dr Eleanor Jupp, Research Associate, Health and Social Care

Local Action in an Era of Localism brought together researchers with an interest in urban and social policy to discuss the idea of localism and what it means for political voice and agency in disadvantaged local communities. The key questions were:

  • How far does ‘localism’ express a real set of changes to practices of urban and social policy governance, and how can the (apparently contradictory) politics of localism best be understood?
  • What does the government’s ‘localism’ agenda mean in practice in localities of different scales, and to different actors (e.g., voluntary and community sector, private sector, local government)?
  • How does the context of welfare cuts and austerity interact with experiences of localism, both for local government and for those in disadvantaged communities?
  • How should researchers in academia and elsewhere respond to policy paradigms such as ‘localism’?

The current policy of localism claims to mark a decisive shift from ‘managing’ or ‘governmentalising’ deprived neighbourhoods to allowing local people to use and develop their capacities to work out responses themselves, with each other and across communities, with or without the help of local authorities.   However, as speaker after speaker demonstrated, it is ideologically flawed and politically biased. 

Rooted in the traditional anti-state, laissez-faire conservatism of the 1950s and 1960s and in a ‘rural imaginary’ of the uniquely English community, localism is ill-suited to the complex geography of urban areas - the patchwork of places with trans-local issues and connections and overlapping scales of activity - and ignores significant differences between 'rich' and 'poor' neighbourhoods, including the capacity of activists to engage in community activity.  In expanding and closing down spaces of power for local communities, it favours ‘richer’ areas, which have the human, social and economic capital to engage pro-actively and systematically in grassroots organisation and to interact with local authorities, while undermining poorer areas, where community organisation is still generally dependent on local authorities. 

Rooted in the traditional anti-state, laissez-faire conservatism of the 1950s and 1960s and in a ‘rural imaginary’ of the uniquely English community, localism is ill-suited to the complex geography of urban areas and ignores significant differences between 'rich' and 'poor' neighbourhoods

The shift in the balance of power at a local level from poor to rich areas is made worst by cuts in government spending, which reduce the capacity of 'poorer' communities at a time of increasing demand for voluntary actions and leave them reliant on the often conflicting agendas of third and private sector organisations.  For example, while local authorities remain committed to the pursuit of justice and  neighbourhood renewal, the loss of resources is changing the way they work with communities.  Rather than reach out to and enable sustained community improvement through informal engagement, they prioritise and back 'winners' and 'fix' problems through formal engagement.  This represents a significant change in the capacity of poor communities to respond to local issues.  By making it difficult for local authorities to support deprived neighbourhoods, cuts in public spending are also forcing them into a relationship with the private sector and a reliance on philanthropists.  And, by giving more power to churches, which exist as islands of social capital in many areas, they leave them vulnerable to controversial agendas. 

But all is not lost.  Localism is also, and quite ironically, stimulating demand for social activism in and across poor neighbourhoods, including transformative 'community organisation', shifting the balance of community activism from women-centred organising at a local level to overt resistance at a broader scale.  While this shift in power is controversial, it opens up the amusing prospect of the government being hoisted by its own petard.  Perhaps Saul Alinsky isn't turning in his grave, after all.[1]

The implications are clear.  Researchers with an interest in the welfare of disadvantaged neighbourhoods should continue to explore these questions and to provide deprived neighbourhoods with much needed capacity, capacity to make the most of the current system and capacity to change the system, pro-actively.


[1] Taylor, M. (2011) “Community Organising And The Big Society: Is Saul Alinsky Turning In His Grave?” Voluntary Sector Review 2(2): 257-264

The Speakers were:

  • Nick Clarke (Southampton University) and Allan Cochrane (Open University) 'Geographies and Politics of Localism'
  • Joe Painter (Durham University) 'Localism, urbanism and nostalgia'
  • Janet Newman (Open University) 'Working the spaces of localism'
  • Joe Penny (New Economics Foundation) 'The New Austerity  and the Big Society‘
  • Ellie Jupp (Open University) 'Making sense of  fragments: localism and neighbourhood activism‘
  • Sue Brownill (Oxford Brookes University) 'Neighbourhood Planning and Localism‘,
  • Catherine Durose (Birmingham University) 'Neighbourhood working in austerity: where now for front-line work with communities?'
  • Liz Richardson (Manchester University) 'Managing risk and accountability in localism’

The workshop was supported by OpenSpace Research Centre and Centre for Citizenship, Communities and Identities (Families, Relationships and Communities Programme) at the Open University. Learn more about the research programme at: Families, Relationships and Communities

"Turn Up the Volume" is a learning log of debates and events around Greater Manchester. It forms part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform’s aspiration to raise the visibility of alternative forms of sustainable urbanism, see Turn Up the Volume.

Visit the main Platform site