“This election has clarified a lot of things. One of them is that centralist politics is broken”

Leeds Town Hall. Image: Getty.

There are some commonly made diagnoses for the place the UK finds itself in today: stagnation, regional inequality, decaying trust, political culture war, crumbling public services. Polarisation and a tired bureaucracy have chronically infected our national institutions, and even though one party now has a commanding majority, real moral authority seems to be slipping away.   

But so far no political party has seized upon the only reliable course of treatment: radical decentralisation of power, with autonomy and self-governance for communities. It’s this full transfusion, rather than a jab to keep it hobbling along, that our political body needs now.

What’s incredibly positive – and goes unnoticed – is that lots of this change is already happening. There is so much energy and ambition in the community empowerment agenda right now. Communities around the country are managing their own assets, running their own businesses, commissioning their own public services – and it’s transforming people’s lives.

But national politics has barely noticed. The political parties in this election hardly engaged with the idea of a fundamental shift of power away from the centre. And why should they? The basic fact of their influence relies on their monopoly on the national policy discussion; their longing for control of state-wide institutions and levers of power. They cannot escape the old dichotomy, bouncing endlessly back and forth from paternalist mega-statism to Wild West market fundamentalism and back again.

Their view of politics is ultimately transactional. People are customers, users, dependents, who contract with the state or with the private sector to meet their needs. Sometimes they complain. Sometimes they complain enough to push the pendulum back the other way and bring in another, different bunch of centralist administrators… and the cycle continues.

So last week we had a contest between two parties that both basically thought that pumping more money into public services is the way to make people happy. One was pretty keen on direct state ownership, one was not. Did the smaller parties offer more radicalism? Not really. And all obscured by an all-encompassing, dogmatic culture war. At the national scale this is essentially Star Wars – an ultra-simplistic fantasy world filled with self-evident heroes and moustache-twirling villains.

This polarisation can be escaped if political engagement and discussion is localised enough. Communities can try things, fail, learn, try again; find a face-to-face basis for mutual esteem and shared goals. This is rapidly becoming impossible at the scale of national politics.

National politicians must have the bravery to step away from this toxic landscape and consider the interests of their constituents. They may land on the uncomfortable truth that their own power stands in the way of the people they represent. At NLGN, we’re pushing ahead with calls for a Community Power Act – asking politicians to create the legal framework needed for communities to flourish. Through our Community Paradigm research, we are building an evidence base supported by the ground-breaking economics of Elinor Ostrom.

So whatever you feel about the election result, this is surely the moment to push forward with a completely new idea of what Westminster is for, where power really should lie, and who really has the right to take back control in the UK. We could be stronger than you think.

Simon Kaye is senior policy researcher at the New Local Government Network.


Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).