Local revolution? MP calls for citizens to take responsibility

Queens Park in London is the first parish council in the capital ever. The first elections took place last week
Queens Park in London is the first parish council in the capital ever. The first elections took place last week
Alex Stevenson By

Britain needs a "constitutional re-ordering" to tackle the problem of voters' disconnect with politics, Rory Stewart has said.

The Conservative backbencher, who was recently elected to chair the Commons' defence committee, told Politics.co.uk he wanted to see elements of an American federal system established in Britain to give much more power to parish and town councils.

"I think in the end what Britain lacks desperately is public engagement in politics," he said.

"The only way one's ever going to get real democracy and get local people getting control of their own affairs is if they have control of their revenue.


"The problem with the current system is it does allow civil servants to occasionally achieve equal outcomes but it takes all the energy out of local democracy."

All three of Westminster's mainstream parties are likely to take further steps towards localism in their 2015 election manifestos, but radical promises towards significant devolution of power remain improbable.

Ukip's victory in the European elections has prompted many politicians to begin questioning the pace of change, however - potentially boosting the chances of more substantial reform packages.

"People feel increasingly distant from politics," Stewart added.

"It's irrelevant to their lives. It's being conducted by people a long way away from them.

"If one got to a situation where town and parish councils began to really engage with the public - that citizens felt part of their responsibility as a human being would be to lead their own communities - one would have the beginnings of reshaping people's sense of what politics is.

"Politics at its best is not other people taking decisions."

The latest annual Audit of Political Engagement by the Hansard Society found two-thirds of adults said they felt politicians 'don't understand the daily lives of people like me'.

Only 31% felt people like themselves could change the way the country is run by getting involved in politics.

And while 43% would like to be involved in local decision-making, only 26% felt they had some influence locally.

Some progress is being made, with 35% of the population now living in areas served by local town and parish councils.

This year saw the first ever elections to a parish council in London, following a change in legislation making it easier to set them up and extra investment helping local community groups do so.

Prospects for reform are also likely to be improved by the Scottish independence referendum, which - if defeated - is expected to be followed by a significant package of devolution which other parts of the UK could envy.

But the parties will have to balance their calls for localism with moves to retain central control to prevent nimbyism.

The Liberal Democrats, for example, have struggled to reconcile their localist impulses with other policy imperatives like housing.

Annette Brooke, whose planning policy paper was adopted at this year's spring conference, wrote: "Do Liberal Democrats have the political will to address our housing crisis?  Do we only have that will as long as the homes are not in our own backyards?

"We present our motion for debate with the belief that the answer to the first question is 'yes' and with clear proposals to enhance localism and tackle 'Nimbyism'."

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