Our Lake District village once seemed to symbolise the inevitable collapse of local communities. A hundred years ago, the parish contained cobblers, black-smiths, millers, and a dozen shops. All have gone. Twenty farms have been replaced by five. Gorse and bracken has invaded good pasture. Two hundred jobs in the quarry have become ten. There are few young families. Perhaps half the houses are second homes, standing empty much of the year. And the school – which had been there for four hundred years – has shut its doors. Local families died out and sold up, ‘off-comers’ moved in, and the names of residents today are now rarely those inscribed on the churchyard headstones.
It is a story repeated ten thousand times across Britain: the culmination of five centuries of destruction of the local. First, the reformation obliterated folk memories and festivals (you can still see the ruined West façade of Shap abbey on the edge of the parish). It continued as the industrial revolution tore millions from their farms, and filled secluded valleys with mines and mills (which have collapsed as suddenly as they emerged). And in the last two decades, we have witnessed the expansion of large corporations into every crevice of rural life. Shoppers are sucked from the high street shops into the super-markets; from small restaurants and pubs into chains Small dairy farms have been transformed into giants, milking a thousand cows, 24 hours a day. Our surrounding valleys are drowned in reservoirs, and our hills in Sitka spruce plantations. Large national charities elbow their way into our market towns, absorbing the funds which might have supported smaller and more local charities. And decades of regional development programs have not managed to stop the accelerating concentration of wealth and power in the SouthEast of England.
But if you see the dozens of heralds in our village lanes marshalling the half-marathon; or turn up at the village hall with seventy others for a lecture, you do not feel the death of community. Of the hundred people in the parish, perhaps eighty run community projects. In the last two years, the village hall has installed its own solar energy scheme – which now funds the hall; the parish council have generated income from a new recycling plant, laying out a new bicycle path, and playground; another group has completed a detailed archive based, local history; and yet another has transformed and kept open, in a small white building on the edge of the village, the oldest continuous public lending library in the North-West of England.
Much of this Cumbrian energy exists in other parts of Britain – there will be equivalents of Steve, the pedigree cattle breeder, who constructed the primary school website in Bewcastle; or of Harley, the community support officer, who spent day after day in a single estate in Wigton, listening to families, and in the process reducing anti-social behaviour by seventy per cent. The hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours put into the mountain rescue, the first responders, the Air Ambulance, and the hospice movement, has parallels throughout the country. It is an energy present in large cities, as well as villages.
But in Cumbria, as elsewhere, this is not a simple story. There are fights between people angry at change, and those angry at the failure to change, which can pit half a community against another. Issues of affordable housing, of transport, of fuel poverty, continue to bedevil all rural lives. Farmers struggle with the ideology of Natural England or the national park, dairy farmers struggle with the prices set by processors, villagers struggle to oppose wind-turbine developers. Everyone fights to make the cities, understand the implication of rural isolation for education, for roads, for health. And we ourselves find it difficult to explain or understand such apparently inevitable decline. On an average income of 16,000 pounds a year Cumbria is not a wealthy area. But the energy – and increasingly the success of our communities – is remarkable. We have had villages not only saving local pubs, but building 22 house affordable housing schemes; communities not just building cycle paths, but working out how to connect the most remote valleys to superfast broadband; not only taking over tourist information centres but taking responsibility for planning policy. We have a young dairy farmer, travelling to the Leeward islands, and making connections with fair trade banana farmers. (He has also convinced Cumbrian super-markets to take Cumbrian milk, and organised a major national ministerial conference on the dairy industry). Each of these local initiatives spring from frustration at a lack of common-sense, at the failure of government to deliver. Each community has recognised what needed to be done, how to do it more cheaply and effectively, and has succeeded.
The state must now recognise this success; must respect the knowledge, the skill, the adaptability of living communities; and must get out of the way. Officials should recognise how little they understand about the history and context of particular local communities. The state must learn in the most generous and human sense to delegate: to trust that when local communities are given responsibility, they will treasure it and flourish.
There is, of course, risk to this policy – a few communities will either do nothing, or launch fantastic, extravagant schemes, some projects will collapse – and when they do, officials and critics will rage at the lack of planning and process, and demand more central control. Money may be wasted, wheels will be reinvented. But ultimately such occasional failures should be tolerated. Local projects are important but not life-threatening – they can affect broadband access but not acute medical care: local failure is rarely fatal.
So instead of trying to manage it, ever more closely, through process and regulation, we should allow communities to flourish by removing process and regulation. And we will find that for every failure, local communities will prove a dozen times, that they can deliver a local project more flexibly, more affordably, and more intelligently than any central planner. Our genius, our human genius, perhaps our British genius, is for local activity. The smaller, particular communities, of which we are part, have always been the source not just of our identity, but also of our success. Our geology is defined by local variety. Visitors from the US or Russia, accustomed to travelling for days through a single terrain, observe how quickly Britain changes from heavy fen to limestone crag, from bleached moorland to bright barley; from houses of yellow Cotswold stone, to brick. This is reflected in a human geology. Programs and initiatives will be as powerful in Perthshire, or Norfolk, or Basildon, but each will have their own local character.
Thus, we must give local communities more power – to raise revenue, and take decisions; and ensure that they are actually democratic – that the structures are clear, and healthy, which link the representatives to their public. If we can get the new structures right (we could do worse than imitate French elected mayors), we can create something, which is not simply cheaper, or better suited to our areas, but develops those deepest energies and identities, which spring from the communal, the local, and the particular. Britain’s future over the next hundred years, will be assured, if it can learn to draw on the varied skills of its seventy million people. Localism is about just this: about liberating our separate and communal energies and imagination.