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Connecting Localism and Community Empowerment
A research project of the Department of Sociology.
The Connecting Localism and Community Empowerment project sought to assess the merits of the assumption that localisms brings about community empowerment through a review of the existing academic and policy literatures.
The key findings from the review point towards a lack of clarity and coherence in the literature in the usage and interpretations of the terms ‘localism’ and ‘community empowerment’. They are often defined by implication or tacitly assumed to have an accepted definition. Whilst greater localism is generally claimed to increase community empowerment, there are substantive grounds for questioning this claim, which arise from critically analysing these concepts and how they interact. These grounds highlight conditions which need to be fulfilled if localism is to realise its potential to enhance community empowerment. To understand these conditions we analysed four international case studies. We also considered two assessments of the New Labour government’s localist policies in the UK.
The case studies indicate that localism in its variants such as local government reform, decentralisation, devolution and participatory governance can be instrumental in bringing about different degrees of community empowerment, but only under certain conditions. The dominant model for community empowerment is based on increasing citizen participation in the practices of local government, rather than on independent community action. The case studies highlight four conditions under which this form of localism has a positive bearing on government efforts to increase community empowerment. These include localist initiatives that:
1. are actively pursued by different tiers of government as policy priorities in contrast to using community empowerment and localism as tokenistic additions to a centrally-driven and controlled policy;
2. involve a move away from the mere rhetoric of localism to active devolution of power to different scales of local government;
3. are supported by complementary legal and statutory frameworks to accompany the devolution of power; and
4. promote and encourage active forms of civil society to organise and engage by supporting community leadership and grass roots movements.
Moreover, our evidence indicates that both ‘localism’ and ‘community empowerment’ are ideas characterized by inherent tensions in relation to concepts such as scale, community, democracy and citizenship which the review had also critically analysed.Localism and community empowerment should not be understood in terms of isolated islands of either particular local areas or particular empowered community groups. Instead, our review has highlighted the need for policy-focussed research on the fundamentally connected nature of the communities that are involved, and the importance of engaging with this interconnected nature as part of both free civil society and governance if they are to be truly empowered. Our review suggests the following directions for future research:
• Examining the conceptual underpinnings of the terms ‘localism’ and ‘community empowerment’, together with research that uncovers the historical trajectory of the term ‘localism’ in policy and academic literature.
• Analysing the implications of diverse uses of the term ‘community’ and the scales of its practice and presence in relation to empowerment by addressing the linkages between the local, national and global through notions of social capital, wider networks and political relationships.
• Investigating the nature and constitution of the neighbourhood as the spatial expression of the local which captures to an extent the locus of many communities and is a functional site for policy targets.
• Exploring how the interplay between localist politics and wider collective movements interacts with community empowerment discourses and issues of diversity and identity within local interactions.
• Identifying the mechanisms through which the role of the state in relation to community empowerment is being changed for instance, in light of the ‘Big Society’ agenda (including the Localism Bill) in England and the Community Empowerment Bill in Scotland.
Lastly, all these research recommendations could go into addressing the bigger question about the conditions of citizenship and governance under which distinctive localist politics can flourish in the current political and economic context.