21 May 2012
Councillor Robert Gordon is Leader of Hertfordshire County Council, Chairman of the County Councils Network, an LGA Deputy Chairman, Vice-Chairman of the LGA's Safer and Stronger Communities Board and Chairman of the Conservative Councillors' Association
Here in Hertfordshire we started on the localism path long before the national policy of Big Society emerged. Localism remains top of our agenda, and is playing a central role in helping us shape services.
But even now, I find localism to be much misunderstood. Perhaps the confusion is not surprising. Localism is not so much a set of rules as a set of principles, which, rightly, leaves individual authorities free to create their own paths to empowered communities. Localism, in the best localist traditions, manifests differently from area to area.
We've put a lot of energy and a lot of thought into what our particular brand of localism looks like. We don't believe that localism is about shifting functions between different public bodies; it is about changing the balance between those who govern and people.
True localism has to be built on active, participatory democracy – not merely localising the power within traditional structures of representative democracy, worthwhile though that can be.
While, inevitably, there are many strategic decisions that must remain with the council's traditional decision-making processes, our ambition is to maximise the range and significance of decisions where local flexibility of outcome can be allowed – and encouraged. So we are developing processes that give local people a real say in local decisions.
Members are at the heart of those new processes. Their role is to ensure relevant information is shared with residents to help them gain a realistic understanding of the options available and help them make considered and representative choices. Wherever the legal decision is made, it must fall to the local councillor generally to ensure that the community's view is carried through – even if the councillor would have taken a different view.
Many councils have already made budgets available to local members to spend as they see fit in their patches. Hertfordshire has allocated £100,000 to each member, £90,000 of it ring-fenced for local highways issues. While, at law, the decision remains with the council, the recommendation of the local member is invariably accepted.
In turn, as residents participate more in decision making, their choice will guide the councillor who will be personally accountable should they choose not to advocate their residents' view.
While returning power to the people may seem to reduce councillors' roles, in fact it puts them at the heart of the community. In Hertfordshire, we see our members as the 'glue' which binds our communities together. We want our councillors to be facilitators, mediators and advocates, rather than top-down ‘leaders'. Their role is not confined to council matters, but extends to anything and everything that impact on the wellbeing of their communities.
Councillors have to be indispensable parts of the social activism that binds local communities together.
31 July 2012