One of the first acts of the Conservative–Lib Dem coalition that came to power in the UK in 2010 was to bring in local-government reform, in the shape of the Localism Act. This law, passed in November 2011, proposes to introduce more “localism” into the management of municipal services.  Localism, in the British political context, refers to a political ideology that encourages citizens to participate in the creation and implementation of local policies,  and which promotes the management of collective services at neighbourhood level.
The Conservatives’ stance links localism with the concept of “Big Society”, meaning the non-governmental bodies that make up civil society, including those from the private sector. In the current context of drastic public spending cuts, it falls to “Big Society” to act as a partial substitute for the state in the delivery of public services. 
This article will look more closely at two aspects of this law: the promotion of participatory planning, and the ways in which “Big Society” can be involved in the management of local services. As things stand, citizen empowerment is patchy, to say the least, and even runs a risk of restricting access to services, which is already highly variable, depending on the geographical context. In well-off rural areas, a transfer of powers to civil society appears to be broadly feasible, thus safeguarding access for as many people as possible. In urban areas, on the other hand, and London in particular, this reform seems to herald the privatisation of municipal services and the exclusion of the most underprivileged populations.
Citizen participation: incomplete and limited in scope
The Localism Act – long awaited by public bodies in favour of participatory planning – enables residents, businesses and retailers in a given area to join forces to create a “neighbourhood forum”. These forums have the power to recommend planning permission (“neighbourhood development orders” or “community right-to-build orders”) and propose local area plans (“neighbourhood plans”).
Despite these powers, the autonomy of neighbourhood forums is very much limited: first of all, their very existence must be approved by the local borough council, which can refuse the establishment of certain forums that may, for example, be considered too adversarial with regard to development projects. In London, in particular, such projects are a significant source of income for borough councils via developer contributions (Appert and Drozdz 2010); the boroughs choose their partners carefully. Furthermore, neighbourhood forums are not free to decide on the priorities established at a higher level; they are merely consulted on these priorities, which, moreover, represent constraints for these forums. 
The initiative, inspired by rural management models, has struggled to take off in the capital. Only a dozen pilot forums have so far been approved in London (out of 200 approved nationwide ). In gentrified areas (such as Bankside, Bermondsey and Kentish Town), where levels of social and cultural capital are high, as well as in wealthy neighbourhoods (e.g. Kensington, Ealing Broadway), they have been led by residents’ and retailers’ associations. By contrast, in the case of urban regeneration operations (e.g. Hackbridge), they have been set up by borough councils, making it easier to build consensus before projects get under way.
“Big Society”: can civil society take over municipal services?
The Localism Act also makes it easier for bodies other than local authorities to take charge of municipal services.  This aspect of the law has been implemented in a context of significant budget cuts, which have fallen particularly heavily on local authorities. Under Thatcher, the withdrawal of state funding was justified by a denial of the very existence of society: “[S]ociety? There is no such thing!”  Today, the Conservative Party considers that these cuts are justified because it is the responsibility of “Big Society” to manage local services. The ideology may be different, but the effects on local-authority budgets are the same.
Local responses to budget cuts depend to a large extent on the socio-economic characteristics of the populations concerned and local associations’ ability to take over threatened services. In this respect, the geographical distribution of budget cuts  has disproportionately affected areas that were already vulnerable. In well-off rural areas, cuts in operational funding have been much lower than in urban areas. And, as rural areas already benefited from an extensive network of representative structures at sub-district level  (Civil Exchange and Democratic Audit 2012), they have shown greater resilience in the face of cuts.
In London, the involvement of civil society in managing municipal services has been less marked.  The map below shows that budget cuts have been especially concentrated in areas where access to services (as measured by the deprivation index ) is already lower than in the rest of the country. In these areas, many services have already disappeared or are now run by volunteers,  with threats of further closures. 
The voluntary sector, despite being highly active in the capital, is far too fragmented and lacks experience in managing services, and is thus ill suited to take the place of cash-strapped borough councils (Travers 2011; Wills 2012). And indeed it, too, has been a victim of budget cuts. Added to this is the inherent complexity of a major metropolis, linked to mobility, social and ethnic diversity, and the economic challenges associated with transport infrastructure projects and major urban (re)development programmes. Consequently, it is not easy for the “civil society” element of “Big Society” to take charge of municipal services. This therefore opens the way to intervention from the private-sector, which sees these services as new markets to be conquered in these times of economic crisis.
An increased risk of privatised services in metropolitan areas
Without wishing to make any hasty generalisations on the as yet uncertain consequences of the application of this law, it is nonetheless likely that, in urban areas, and at the very least in London, it will encourage the development of measures similar to the BIDs (business improvement districts), initially developed in the 1970s and ’80s by business organisations in North American cities first of all, with London following suit. BIDs sought to pool private resources in order to renovate or improve the security of urban spaces for public use. For residents, this would mean additional costs for the maintenance of services in their neighbourhood, which would take the form of a tax levied locally by the service-providers. 
The specificities and complexity of the context in London raises the question of whether the conditions are truly appropriate for a wholesale transposition of practices in rural areas, where there exists a dense network of non-governmental civil institutions to back up local government. Surely metropolitan contexts call for different management methods and different democratic processes? The spectre of increased privatisation of urban services and, as a result, the transformation of user-citizens into customers, at the expense of political exclusion, is the flip side of what appears to be participation. With this reform, Londoners will ultimately benefit only from a limited involvement in urban planning decisions. Yes, they will be given greater responsibilities for running local services, but in exchange for increased abandonment (Clarke 2005).
- Appert, Manuel and Drozdz, Martine. 2010. “Conflits d’aménagement aux marges nord-est de la City de Londres”, Hérodote, vol. 137, no. 2, pp. 119–131.
- Civil Exchange and Democratic Audit. 2012. The Big Society Audit, London: Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust – Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
- Clarke, John. 2005. “New Labour’s Citizens: Activated, Empowered, Responsibilized, Abandoned?”, Critical Social Policy, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 447–463.
- Conservative Party. 2010. Open Source Planning Green Paper.
- Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). 2012. Localism Act: Neighbourhood Plans and Community Right to Build. Impact Assessment, London: DCLG.
- UK Parliament. 2011. Localism Act 2011 (c. 20), London: The Stationery Office.
- Powell, Martin. 2004. In Search of New and Old Localism, Oxford: ESPAnet Conference Proceedings.
- Travers, Tony. 2011. Engaging London’s Communities. The Big Society and Localism, London: London Councils.
- Wills, Jane. 2012. “The Geography of Community and Political Organisation in London Today”, Political Geography, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 114–126.