New Politics and Public Services - Localism or Lottery?

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On the eve of the Conservative Party conference, Speakers’ Corner Trust is publishing (on Friday 1 October) an online debate on the merits of localism, one of the Government’s most cherished priorities and cornerstone of its vision for the Big Society.

Putting the case for localism, Ben Lucas, Director of the 2020 Public Services Trust, argues that despite living in one of the world’s most centralised countries, we are a more unequal society than many with more decentralised systems of government and service delivery. Citing recent evidence that people in poorer communities have a considerably lower life expectancy than their wealthier neighbours, he says that “it’s clear that the circumstances into which people are born rather than the way services are commissioned is the real lottery which shapes quality of health and life expectation.”

He points out that until the second half of the twentieth century, centralism played a relatively modest role in the development of our public services, the origins of which owe more to nineteenth century municipalism than to central government.

He concludes that “this is a moment ripe for change...Out of the recession and public expenditure cuts should come a new deal with our major cities and counties, in which they take much greater control over services in their area, enabling collaborative commissioning and the merging of services to better achieve locally agreed social outcomes… It’s time to…embrace a new politics of bottom up democratic participation and social citizenship.”

But Dr Phil Parvin, politics lecturer at Loughborough University and a former director at the Hansard Society, argues that localism concentrates power in the hands of self-interested minorities and makes national priorities difficult to deliver. He asks “how does the government expect to meet its renewable energy target if local communities are in charge of planning decisions? Many renewable energy projects have already been vigorously and often successfully opposed by local communities who not want their neighbourhoods cluttered with windfarms, fields of solar panels or nuclear power stations. So which is more important, localism or renewable energy?” He argues that “democracy is not just about always getting what you want and there is nothing undemocratic about requiring that people bear the costs of wider, democratically formed policy.”

Dr Parvin is also critical of localism’s apparent rejection of ‘expertise’, warning that “the idea that local policing priorities should be set by local communities via elected police chiefs rests on the idea that ‘the people’ know enough about policing to determine policy. But they often will not: policing, like teaching and a range of other activities is complex, difficult, and best done by specialists who are not in danger of losing their jobs if they do something which works but is unpopular with the community.

He concludes that "localism identifies a problem in British democracy but provides the wrong solution... [which] could lead to an impoverishment of the decision-making process...and an unnecessary and unhelpful tension between central and local priorities. [It could also] weaken the ability of those charged with making difficult decisions about public services to stand up to local people rather
than slavishly do whatever they demand."

A preview of the full debate can be accessed at

When published the debate will be at

For further information, please contact

  • Ben Lucas, Director of the 2020 Public Services Trust, on 07836 379076
  • Dr Phil Parvin, Lecturer in Politics at Loughborough University, on 07799 621069
  • Peter Bradley, Director, Speakers' Corner Trust, on 07801 105260


Notes for Editors

The debate on New Politics and Public Services - Localism or Lottery? is the fifth in the Forum for Debate series published online by Speakers’ Corner Trust to provide protagonists on either side of an issue with an opportunity to set out well-considered, rational arguments as a means of stimulating a broader public debate. The British Library guides viewers of the debate to further sources of information on the topic.

Speakers’ Corner Trust is a registered charity which promotes free expression, public debate and active citizenship. Its approach is based on the belief that association between citizens and the free, face-to-face exchange of ideas, information and opinions - with each other as well as with the decisiontakers among them - is a key to rebuilding trust and participation in Britain’s civil society and
developing vibrant civil institutions and robust rights in emerging democracies.

For further information about Speakers’ Corner Trust, please visit

Ben Lucas is the Director of the 2020 Public Services Trust. He was formerly Head of Research and Communications at the construction trade union UCATT, before becoming Jack Straw’s adviser. The 2020 Public Services Trust is a new independent think tank and registered charity, based at the RSA. The Trust exists to stimulate deeper understanding of the challenges facing public services in the medium term. Through research, inquiry and discourse, it aims to develop rigorous and practical solutions, capable of sustaining support across all political parties.

Dr Phil Parvin is a Lecturer in Politics in the Politics, History & International Relations Department at Loughborough University and a former director at the Hansard Society. Until last year, he was a research fellow at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity Hall. He has also held positions at the London School of Economics, Queen Mary University of London and the University of California, Berkeley. His first book Karl Popper, on the philosopher’s social and political thought, was published in June by Continuum.

The British Library holds one of the world’s greatest collections and provides a trusted source of content which opens minds, solves problems and encourages debate.

Media Enquiries

For media enquiries please contact:

Ashish Prashar
Stakeholder & Communications Manager
+44 (0)7775 501 839

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