Friday, 27 May 2011

Over-riding local views

One of the cornerstones of my own political outlook is the idea that democracy should be both as local as possible and as participatory as possible.  But one of the big stumbling blocks is “what happens if, or rather when, local people take the ‘wrong’ decision?”.  It’s when nice idealistic theory meets hard practical reality.
The UK Government has got itself into a bit of a corner on the question this week, over the establishment of a site to bury low level radioactive waste.  What makes it harder for them is that the minister who’s taken the decision is the same Communities Minister who’s trumpeting localism as a principle, and piloting the Localism Bill through parliament.
Unfortunately for the government, albeit entirely predictably, the people living in the area of the proposed tip don’t want it.  In a local referendum, 98% of them voted against it; and the local county council voted unanimously against it as well.  I suspect that most, if not all, local communities would react in similar fashion to such a proposal.
The government have, of course, relied on ‘expert advice’ that the site will not be ‘harmful’ in coming to their decision to ignore local opinion.  Well, yes; but the experts aren’t necessarily local, and decision-making on the basis of expert advice isn’t the same thing as empowering local communities.  Nor is ‘expert advice’ in itself sufficient reason to disregard local opinion.
It’s not a situation which is unique to the question of nuclear waste.  There are parallels with the protest earlier this week outside the National Assembly against the infrastructure which will be needed to transmit power from mid-Wales windfarms to the National Grid.  In both cases, the government is trying to implement a cohesive overall policy, whereas local opinion is opposed to the impact on themselves.
By stretching the point just a little, we could also draw a parallel with some EU decisions, where ‘local’ opinion – even if ‘local’ means the UK – sometimes opposes those decisions.
In every case, the larger body, I am sure, would argue that it is acting for the greater good of the whole.
In the specific, it’s clear that nuclear waste has to be disposed of somewhere, and ultimately it is the responsibility of government to identify where.  But they shouldn’t expect the waste to be welcomed with open arms, wherever they decide to put it.
The underlying quandary is one with which I’ve long struggled.  How local is local, and how much decision-making should be local?  And, for those of us who believe that power is not something which comes from the centre and can be passed down, but something which belongs to the people in the first place, on what grounds should other people ever over-ride local wishes?
The legalistic answer would be that parliament has determined which powers reside where, and parliament has given the minister the right to over-ride local opinion in this case.  My problem with that is that parliament’s right to decide is predicated on the assumption that the power belongs to parliament (on behalf of the sovereign, naturally) in the first place.
Some suggest a ‘financial’ answer, based around an input of cash into the local community from either the government or the developers so that they see some direct benefit from accepting an unwelcome proposal.  Others see that as a form of bribery.
A more honest answer is that communities sometimes have to pay a price for belonging to a greater whole; membership of a wider community has both benefits and costs.  Building a more localised society and maintaining the consent of the governed requires rather more work in spelling out that balance, and that communities accept it.  What governments generally do in practice, though, is to simply carry on regardless.
If it is to be more than a mere slogan, building a more localised and empowered network of communities requires a complete change of approach, which seeks the active participation and support of local communities rather than just using raw power.  It depends on a more informed populace as well. 
It’s about more than simply persuasion; it’s a different paradigm.  Believing that it can be achieved by passing legislation or offering cash rewards simply shows how little some politicians really understand the issue.


Welsh Agenda said...

The government's mistake was to try to locate the site in England, and a prosperous part of it a that.

No doubt in future thay will go back to putting such dangerous and undesriable sites in Wales, we may object too, but our opinions don't matter and our local and national politicians wont speak out against it because they don't want to rock the boat and sound like nashies.

Glyndo said...

Ah! John, idealistic localism meets pragmatic reality. Surely you know that you cannot depend on local opinion to decide strategic needs? We would never have anything built. Someone's got to have the nasty stuff!