Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Localism Bill: What is a community?

This is the first in a series looking at various aspects of the Localism Bill.

The Localism Bill introduced in this parliament aims to redefine the relationship between local authorities and communities. Reading the Guide to the Localism Bill there is a blurring of language and the word "community" is used vaguely in some instances to mean both local authorities and neighbourhood groups and more specifically in other cases. Although authorities are to be given more powers from the state, the mechanism for local groups to gain new responsibilities is principally through piecemeal leaching of power and challenge to local authorities.

New rights to build local assets, such as libraries, brings the sort of responsibility that would ordinarily be enjoyed by parish councils to less formally structured communities. But how are these groups to be made accountable? How will they be structured? What happens if people move on? Will wealthier areas take control of councils assets, leaving the council to administer the rest? Where is the benefit of forming a parish/local council if the powers are available to less formal groups?

There is a lack of direction in how the coalition government envisages "the community" that it intends to take on these new powers. The previous government was also fairly unclear about its preference for community structure, perhaps this is a continuation of that indifference and an acceptance of plurality. The Localism Bill treats some parish councils more like local authorities than community groups, allowing a veto of 'excessive' council tax precept rises and even extending the general power of competence to some.

Parish/local councils, now permitted almost anywhere in England, would seem the natural vehicle for the localism reform. However, they already suffered from a lack of powers that perhaps made them unattractive to communities. The Localism Bill, by failing to create new powers especially for these accountable groups, restricts their appeal as vehicles for community governance. This could be a missed opportunity to finally recast the parish/local council as an urban solution.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Consensus on local councils in London

Ahead of the Localism Bill introduced in December, confirmation came that the coalition government supports the creation of local councils within Greater London. There appear to be communities in Kilburn, Wapping, the South Bank and Queen's Park that are interested in forming a council, as well as the idea mooted for one in Thamesmead earlier this year. One note of caution, the council proposed for Kilburn, that would cross borough boundaries would not be possible under current legislation. This was also identified as a potential problem for the Thamesmead council.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Case studies required: Where in London will be first to form a local council?

One of the things I would really like to find for my research is a community that wants to form a local council in London. The Local Government and Rating Act 1997 provides a mechanism for an area to petition their local authority to set up a local council. 10% of electors in the proposed area must sign the petition. The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 extends this right to Greater London. With the advent of the "Big Society" I would expect this to be encouraged further.

The intention of the 2007 extension to London was that an urban community such as a housing estate might take up the powers to improve their area. As it is little publicised, I expect it is far more likely that an exclusive inner city enclave might be aware of the opportunity and investigate it futher. There are also places on the London fringe, such as Harefield, North Ockendon or Biggin Hill that have a degree of "separateness" that would make having independent administration attractive, in a similar way to communities on the other side of the Greater London boundary.

The petition is passed to the local authority for consideration and they have a duty to ensure it is a coherent proposal and that it would not adversely affect the rest of their area. The local council can choose to call itself a town, village, parish, neighbourhood or community. The only area so far I have heard this mooted for is Thamesmead in 2009, although this highlighted the problem that local councils cannot cross borough boundaries and Thamesmead is rudely split between Bexley and Greenwich. I'd love to hear about any other communities in London that are considering taking up these powers.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Modernising the local council institution

One of the reasons parish council adoption in London has been slow is because the institution itself is somewhat archaic and the benefits of setting up a council are quickly outweighed by the bureaucracy. The Department for Communities and Local Government has announced changes to the Local Government Act 1894, which is the primary legislation for parish councils.

Parish councils will now be allowed to spend their combined £340million using electronic transfers instead of cheques. Although this is a very small change, it is hopefully indicative of further measures which will make the benefits of setting up parish councils outweigh any perceived disadvantages.

Monday, 19 July 2010

London in maps: population peaks

The London story is one of migration. Not just migration from overseas, but within the UK and especially within London itself. The population of Greater London was in decline from 1939, and only started to pick up again after 1981. However, the population peaks for each borough tell a story in themselves of people moving outwards, deserting the inner core and, come the 1960s and 1970s, leaving London altogether.

The population peaks for each London borough

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Big local government: 100 years of history

There is an idea that local government in the past was small and local, responsive to ideas because of tightly drawn boundaries. The figures at first glance bear this out. In 1900 there were 152 local authorities in the area that is now Greater London. By 1950 there were 85 and now we have 32. The City of London itself, like the River Thames, has remained constant.

There was a mean average of 42,000 people per local government area in 1900, which increased to 94,000 in 1950 and now we have around 230,000 per London borough. So the figures suggest that there is a nice narrative about our local democracy getting more remote as the number of authorities reduced. That is until we look at the detail. In 1900 there were two authorities with populations of over 300,000 from a group of 23 that had populations of over 100,000. In 1950 there were six authorities with populations over 200,000 from a group of 31 over with populations over 100,000.

At the other end of the spectrum in 1900 there are 21 authorities with populations under 1,000. Imagine the ratio of population to councillors. This particular anomaly had been cleared up in the 1930s and the minimum had risen to 10,000. Still, a range of 10,000-300,000 indicates a significant lack of consistency in the experience of local democracy in London. Islington had a staggering population of 334,981 in 1900, followed by Lambeth with 301,895 and West Ham with 267,358. Shifts in population from inner to outer London caused Wandsworth to top the population leader board in 1950 with 330,493, followed by Croydon with 249,870 and Islington, with 235,632, was driven into third place.

This data tells me that the histories of the communities in London in terms of the relationship to ‘big’ or ‘small’ local government does not necessarily follow the linear narrative of increasing scale the total figures suggest. Some areas have no real tradition of truly local statutory democracy and I would like to know if less formal community leadership has stepped in to fill the void.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The growing distance from local democracy

One of the things I am looking at right now is how, through the process of improving efficiency by making areas for local government bigger, people have become more and more distant from their local democratic representation.

Take the example of the London Borough of Croydon. In 1900 there were four local authorities covering the area, three parish councils and a borough council. I should make it clear they didn’t have parity of status, or provide the same services and there was a terrific imbalance between their populations. In fact the arrangement was more an accident of history than of any purposeful design. However, it meant that in 1900 Coulsdon (population 42,753) had its own governance separate from Sanderstead (20,940) and Croydon (190,684).


By 1935 there were only two local authorities covering the same area and in 1965 there is one. This change meant that the population of the smallest council area Coulsdon residents elected local representation to increased by 175% from 1900 to 1935 and 440% from 1935 to 1965. In this context it is perhaps easy to understand why these amalgamations were often opposed locally, and why community groups such as the Old Coulsdon Residents' Association (1936) were set up.

What I hope to find out is what the experience of being made more distant from local democracy was like and what other effects this had.

Friday, 15 January 2010

If I knew then what I know now…

If you are considering doing a PhD here is the advice I would give myself a year or so ago: start early. It is tougher than you might think to organise funding and a supervisor at the same institution. If you are doing a masters degree now, you need to be sorting out the PhD proposal and funding before you start your masters research proposal.

The first thing you should do is chew the ears off the relevant research staff at your university. They will tell you where the best places and people are for your area of interest. You need to be very open minded about what they tell you and when they suggest Prof X at some university in the outer reaches of northern England, don’t immediately dismiss it. Follow up every opportunity, to see where it goes.

Academics are a funny bunch with a weird network structure. Some have direct connections with each other, but others only know of each other through reading published papers. If you follow up the suggestion of Prof X you may find that he isn’t interested in your research but knows someone closer to home that is. This really is one resource I found in abundance. Academics know it is tough to find supervisors and more often than not are happy to point you in the right direction.

If you don’t have access to academics to help you face to face, you need to get started by trawling through university websites. This can be quite painful as academic websites are disorganised. What I found was the best way to search was to use the “ site: “ operator in Google search with the website domain of the university. For example, when searching for social science supervisors at LSE I used “social science” supervisor professor

Don’t be blinded by funding. There is no point applying where there is money available if you do not fit in with the research area specified. No amount of bending the truth will make your research into recycling in the Paris suburbs sound like it is related to health outcomes amongst the rural poor. You will either be found out in interview of you will waste your time applying. Otherwise you might find that you end up doing research that isn't your own and doesn’t really interest you.

Have a research proposal of no more than 200 words ready and a paragraph that succinctly summarises it. Send the paragraph, not the proposal to the contacts you uncover. If they want more they will let you know and it gives you the opportunity to monitor for feedback and incorporate it into your proposal. Don’t bother with anything longer at this stage as you will need to rewrite and expand your proposal for every application anyway later.

Focus on the research council funding. It is your best chance at getting your fees paid. Funding is released around December and then throughout the following year. There is usually a really short period from when it is announced to the deadline. You can use to get alerts as funding in your area becomes available. The research council websites are really complex and it is worth asking your potential supervisor or the course administrator for help.

Finally, don’t just accept a supervisor because they are prepared to work with you. Evaluate their interest in your research. Think about what they are like as a person and how likely you are to still be getting on well in three, four or five years’ time. It is easy to focus on funding, but a well funded PhD with a disinterested supervisor won’t be that much fun at all.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Organised research: the geeky solution

Aside from the sheer amount of reading to be done, one of the most troubling aspects of extended research is how to organise your notes. An annotated bibliography is the standard written way to list all your sources with a concise critical analysis of no more than a paragraph per source. I’m still at the identifying sources stage, making links between authors and concepts, so although I can make a start on this, I need something more flexible to organise my ideas. I think I’ve worked out it is essential to use technology in some way.

So, I’m trying something extremely geeky. I’ve downloaded and installed MediaWiki and have been using that. Installation took me around 30 minutes. It was much faster than I expected with fewer problems than anticipated. It requires SQL which I had already installed for some other project and PHP which was easy enough to get hold of. If these things sound alien, don’t worry you don’t actually have to do anything much beyond following a few instructions to install them.

So what is a wiki? Essentially it is a group of webpages that are very easy to edit. The key factor is hyperlinking is incredibly easy. If I want to link to the page on William Robson I just enclose his name with [[ ]], like this: [[William Robson]]. If that page does not exist yet I follow the link that is created and start typing; zero setup required. On the Robson page I can then link to each of his works, create notes and summaries; and crucially, keep track of where the source is available should I need it again.

One of my main resources will be the LSE Library at which I thankfully have alumni borrowing rights. Unfortunately at other libraries, such as the British Library, I will have to make all my notes onsite. They also have draconian rules about what you can take into the building itself – no pens for example – so I will be able to log in to my server at home via a laptop and update the relevant pages from there. The benefits of being able to access all my notes anywhere are also obvious. No excuse for not making use of all available time!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

> Enter the title here <

Although at an early stage, I'm steadily moving towards the detailed proposal that is required six months into my programme. In the meantime, I need to put a document together for the next meeting with my supervisor to summarise where I am at. I have identified some large chunks of research I want to do and have an over-arching idea of what I want to achieve. As I start to put my document together, I realise that it really needs a title.

A title would help me out when I’m describing to others what my research is about. I don’t need to pick the final set-in-stone title of my thesis now, but a working title would help me focus my mind, convey to my supervisor and others where this is going, and fill a blank space on the page.

Interestingly, I am finding it quite difficult to come up with something concise and catchy that summarises my research. I had no trouble identifying resources I will use or planning research I will undertake, but distilling it all into a title is proving troublesome. I think it is because my goals are still fairly vague and I feel like don’t want to commit myself to one path.

The vague “Community leadership in London” is my first instinct or perhaps the more stuffy “Parish councils in Greater London”. Ideally I would like to make it a question, but I am possibly getting ahead of myself. Although I have a good idea I have not decided exactly what my research questions will be. That said, it is a working title and doesn’t commit me to anything so I think I am going to opt for both, using one as a subtitle, maybe after a little word-tinkering.