How close is local?

The concept of ‘local’ is pretty hot right now. There is the upcoming launch of Talk about Local, for example, which ‘intends to train thousands of people who don’t have a voice to find a powerful online expression for their neighbourhoods’.

Then there are the various events that are springing up, with localism their focus, such as the recent ‘Belocal’, as written up by Carl Haggerty.

On top of that, there’s money too, with the Department for Communities and Local Government keen to pump money into projects that help local government provide ‘timely information to citizens‘.

I’ll profess to having a real interest in locality based projects, and a little while ago wrote about how location can be the foundation of building new communities. I’ve since moved geographically since writing that, and thinking about how this stuff can be applied to where I’m based now seems to turn up more questions than answers.

One of the problems is one of definition: just what does ‘local’ mean – and if it turns out that its meaning is different to different people, does that matter?

I live in a house on a street, in a village, within a parish, that is in a district, a parliamentary constituency and a county too. I’m also close to a city which I visit, sometimes attend meetings but am not officially connected with in any way. I work on a regular basis in London, too.

All of these areas could legitimately be described as local – yet if I were to create project based on locality I would probably have to pick at most two or three of these to focus on. Would this still be legitimate though, and would it mean alienating people for whom local means something different?

To try and refine my thinking on this, I did the only thing a sane person could do in this situation: I asked Twitter.

The responses I received were predictably diverse: based on local transport, nearby streets and local town, enough people to fill a village spread over an unspecified area, walkability, region, county, it moves with you, village, an area of less than 10,000 people, something very personal.

The answer, then, to the question of what local is must be, disappointingly, ‘it depends’. Context, as always, is king. This makes planning local based projects difficult, but it also raises questions about how local democracy functions. How much should people’s feelings about what is local to them be funnelled through structures decided by other people?

This isn’t as much of a hypothetical issue as it may at first seem – for example, the proposals to intorduce unitary authorities to areas such as Shropshire provoked howls of protest from those who felt their local politicians were being made more remote. People’s view on what is local seems to matter to them – and when you break that it pisses them off.

Councillors could help, of course. One positive outcome of the lack of people willing to put themselves forward to be local elected representatives is that we have a number of politicians who are present on two or more of the tiers of local government and can therefore provide continuity and linkage where required.

As more money and energy is spent on creating projects to enhance a sense of community based on locality, it will be increasingly important to research how people’s notions of their own ‘local’ will determine levels of interest. Getting it wrong risks alienating the very people you might want to be engaging with.

8 Responses

  1. the joy of modern free media is that you can just let people get on and define local for themselves – you no longer need to define local by the economics of advertising and van runs commercial areas(newsprint), nor electromagnetic propagation (telly and radio)

    hopefully talk about local will demonstrate this in action



  2. […] Evans kindly asked me to write a post for the Local Democracy blog. I came up with one called How Close is Local? I live in a house on a street, in a village, within a parish, that is in a district, a […]

  3. […] Dave Briggs asks ‘how close is local?’ on the Local Democracy blog, he asks a very important question about democracy. If democracy is to be the rule of the the […]

  4. Will – absolutely – although could this result in a proliferation of individual ‘local’ websites – resulting in a fragmentation of effort?

    Perhaps there is a role here in aggregating information into different packages. Geotagging could play a role here, I guess, to try and automate it.

  5. Context is everything; a pothole in the street next to the one where I live is not local to me; an airport in the next town is.

    More importantly, I don’t want to read news of every pothole in a fifty-mile radius; I do if a new airport is planned in that area.

  6. […] U.K.’s Kevin Harris blogs… Over on the Local democracy blog Dave Briggs asks, how close is local? […]

  7. […] going to post again on this topic with regard to the current fluttering around ideas of new localism in the UKs political settlement as the themes of liberty, democracy and the nature of politics in […]

  8. Until recently I represented 10 Parish Councils on Sefton MBC’s LSP for 5 years or more. As they moved towards Neighbourhood Management it became increasingly clear that these new structures will be ‘top-down’, essentially larger versions of area committees, with their inevitable revenue costs. During the process of preparing their ‘Story of Place’ as part of the LAA development it became clearer that officers and elected members failed to understand the ‘patchwork- quilt’ nature that is really the basis of so many Metropolitan Districts. Finding the space to let local people write their own stories of place is an uphill battle. Daily commuters from suburbs and the rural fringe are heavily preoccupied with other concerns, later this year I’m going to suggest that Formby Parish Council, of which I am the only independent member uses ‘participatory budgeting’ to engage residents in thinking ‘local’.

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