From New Labour to the Big Society
Author: Hugh Atkinson

There is a widespread view that local democracy in Britain is in deep trouble and that people face a crisis of civic engagement and political participation. This book counterweighs the many negative accounts that seek to dominate the political discourse with talks on political apathy and selfish individualism. It commences with an examination of theoretical debates as to the meaning of local democracy and related concepts. The book looks at the policy agenda around local democracy in the context of the developing nature of central/local relations since 1979. It considers the available evidence on level of political participation and civic engagement by looking at eight themes. These include the state of formal politics, forms of civic engagement, community identity and the emerging world of the internet/world wide web. The book also looks at nine key aspects of the reform of local democracy over the last fifteen years, including local democracy and the New Labour reform agenda; the constitutional position of local government; and double devolution. It focuses on the so-called 'crisis of formal democracy' at the local level. The book ascertains the recent developments beyond the realm of elections, political parties and formal political institutions. It then concentrates on local services and policy attempts to widen public participation in the shaping and delivery of such services. Finally, the book discusses the concept of sustainability and regeneration strategies to build sustainable communities, both physical and social.

Abstract only
Hugh Atkinson

This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book is about local democracy, community and civic engagement in Britain. It looks at theoretical debates as to the meaning of local democracy, civic engagement and community together with a number of related concepts. The book also looks at the policy agenda around local democracy in the context of the developing nature of central/local relations since 1979. It includes the 'decline' in the role of political parties and falling voter turnout at local elections. The book concentrates on the developments beyond the realm of elections, political parties and formal political institutions. It focuses on local services and policy attempts to widen public participation in the shaping and delivery of the services. The book also focuses on the concept of sustainability and regeneration strategies to build sustainable communities, both physical and social.

in Local democracy, civic engagement and community
Hugh Atkinson

This chapter looks at various theoretical discussions about the meaning of democracy, political participation and civic engagement, social capital, community, civil society and public value. Social and political changes do not simply happen, but need an agency to drive them. For D. Beetham, the agency that best fits the bill is the political party. The social capital has the potential to shape and enhance formal political participation and broader forms of civic engagement. In the UK context, at one end of the scale the social capital might include some women's groups and groups made up of specific ethnic identities. At the other end of the scale we might include the Freemasons and golf clubs with high membership fees. Linked to the concepts of social capital and community is the idea of civil society. The discussion of public value relates directly to notions of civic engagement and community.

in Local democracy, civic engagement and community
Debates and evidence
Hugh Atkinson

This chapter considers the evidence by looking at the following eight themes. The first four themes are the state of formal politics, public attitudes to politics, broader forms of civic engagement, and involvement in political campaigning and pressure groups. Next four themes are volunteering and the role of charities, community identity and a sense of place, civic engagement and young people, and finally the emerging world of the internet/world wide web. The chapter focuses on the analysis of some of the major policies, debates and initiatives that have helped to shape the local political space over the last fifteen years. The Power Inquiry, which published its findings in 2006, was commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Trust (JRT). Its task was to look at the state of British democracy and the extent of political participation and civic engagement.

in Local democracy, civic engagement and community
An agenda for change?
Hugh Atkinson

This chapter focuses on nine key aspects of the reform of local democracy over the last fifteen years. The first three aspects are local democracy and the New Labour reform agenda; the constitutional position of local government; and double devolution. The next two aspects are the citizen engagement, neighbourhood and empowerment agenda and civic engagement, neighbourhood, empowerment and the role of elected local government. The other four aspects are partnership working; policy autonomy and the role of elected local government; creative autonomy and the need for a cultural shift; and finally the fiscal autonomy of local government. Local government can play the role of a community hub allowing local groups to contact each other, talk about experiences, support each other, and share good ideas and practices. Gateway Employment was set up to support the local community training agency, Greenwich Local Labour in Business, and the local community.

in Local democracy, civic engagement and community
Hugh Atkinson

This chapter focuses on the 'crisis of formal democracy' at the local level. It considers the decline of political parties in terms of membership, activism, resources and public regard. The chapter concentrates on the perceived problem of declining electoral turnout at the local level, together with a focus on potential remedies. It includes the introduction of proportional representation, all-postal ballots and electronic voting, together with other policy initiatives. The chapter focuses on the potential for directly elected mayors to reinvigorate local politics and democracy. The political party has the potential capacity to shape and invigorate local democracy. The chapter analyses the broader role of local authorities and councillors in shaping the agenda at the local level and supporting and facilitating civic engagement. Councillors were genuine community activists who could act as an important link between the needs and demands of local neighbourhoods and the broader responsibilities of the town hall.

in Local democracy, civic engagement and community
Hugh Atkinson

The New Localism has been fostered and encouraged by central government as part of its strategy to reinvigorate local democracy and boost civic engagement and empowerment. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Conservative governments promoted public participation in relation to the delivery and shaping of local public services. This chapter looks at the democratic developments beyond the formal realm of elections, political parties and local political institutions. It presents the analysis of three local initiatives beyond the ballot, namely citizens' panels, local referenda and participatory budgeting. The chapter focuses on the growing trend towards neighbourhood governance at the local level over the last decade, and the town and parish councils. It considers the potential of utilising technology such as high-speed community broadband, in enhancing civic engagement, building communities and developing social capital. The chapter also presents the examination of what one could term the new forms of democracy.

in Local democracy, civic engagement and community
Hugh Atkinson

This chapter focuses on local services and their impact on strengthening civic engagement and local communities. It also focuses on central government policy. The chapter presents the analysis of new approaches by local authorities to service delivery. It analyses the extent to which potential for effective civic engagement was realised by focusing on three policy areas: crime and community safety; privatisation, marketisation and the choice agenda; and finally the emerging concept of the 'big society' and localism. The chapter reviews the role of the private sector such as banks and building societies, local post offices and community pubs, and the part it plays in providing local services. It further examines the various local service initiatives that have been developed out of the social enterprise and voluntary sectors and the local community. These include credit unions and community-run shops.

in Local democracy, civic engagement and community
Hugh Atkinson

This chapter presents an analysis of the concept of sustainability, its application to local communities and what criteria have to be met if we are to achieve sustainable communities. The challenge for sustainable development lies in attaining the appropriate balance between the three components such as the environmental, the social and the economic. The chapter focuses on the key strategies at both the national and local level to regenerate local areas and communities. It also focuses on both physical and social regeneration. The chapter also presents an analysis of various local initiatives to tackle climate change, a key element of the strategy to create sustainable local communities. The issue of climate change is one that has global, national and local ramifications and encapsulates well the idea of the global to the local.

in Local democracy, civic engagement and community
Abstract only
Hugh Atkinson

This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The book presents countless examples of community organisations, social enterprises and individuals making a real difference to the shaping of local services and a major contribution to local democracy. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government does claim to have a vision in the twin concepts of the 'big society' and localism. The arrival of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in 1979 marked a period of deep uncertainty and turbulence in the world of local government. New Labour's agenda was often contradictory as an ever-increasing number of centrally driven targets cut through the notion of local autonomy. Little was conceded by way of more policy and fiscal autonomy for local government. It is true that there was great emphasis on attempts to boost local civic engagement and political participation.

in Local democracy, civic engagement and community