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.

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A local and republican 2009?

I’m never sure whether think-pieces work when the audience is on holiday. Personally, the old adage about getting a busy person to help when you need something doing can be adapted here: If you want to get people’s attention with a new idea, don’t pick a time when they are relaxing to pitch it. If it’s a good-un, it will cut through the clutter of a busy week-day.

Others don’t share my view though, and a few bloggers have clearly chosen the Christmas period to hit ‘publish’ on a few things that have been in their drafts folder for a while.

Here’s Podnosh asking why government doesn’t have reservists?

Here’s Read-Write-Web with what is (for me, anyway) a very optimistic post about re-localisation.

“In Web 1.0, these local businesses were viewed as roadkill. Everything would be ordered online and delivered by air and trucks from giant automated warehouses. Oops, lousy economics; plus increasing consumer push-back. So now Web 2.0 start-ups want to “partner” with these local businesses.”

And finally, RSA chief and former Downing St insider Matthew Taylor here outlines what he believes to be an opportunity for a new progressivism.

“This period was superseded by the long era of dominant individualism which may finally have come to an end with the credit crunch and subsequent downturn. Individualism fostered a remarkable era of innovation and freedom but was already subject to powerful critiques, especially from egalitarians emphasising growing inequality, high levels of social and individual pathology and, most of all, the dangers of climate change.”

He promises to flesh it out a good deal in 2009.