This week Age UK challenged speakers and audience alike at our policy seminar to think about how localism would improve the lives of older people. It’s fair to say there was an overwhelming sense of scepticism from the audience about the localism agenda. But, optimistic as ever, I think there were some glimmers of hope in the debate.
The day kicked off with Claire Cooper, Deputy Director for Community Action at the Department for Communities and Local Government, explaining how the government aims to put communities at the heart of their own destiny. The government sees their role as facilitative, ensuring the right conditions are in place to make this happen. In turn local government are going to have to be more responsive to local communities; facilitating more and delivering less. From the panel we heard the perspective of local government from Andy Sawford, LGiU and Guy Robertson, LGID and from an older people’s perspective from Belinda Wadsworth, Age UK.
The audience response was critical but constructive, as long as government is prepared to respond to these challenges. Comments generally fell into three themes:
- Engagement, engagement, engagement! There are existing challenges for engaging with older people and the need to get wider involvement, which the localism bill doesn’t answer. There was also concern that the ‘seldom heard’ would be even more excluded.
- Reassurance that the government are committed to this agenda and will support communities to take part. Many people are already doing this type of activity and will struggle to do any more. There are practical things that individuals and community organisations need to be able to take on these new responsibilities, such as legal advice and administrative support.
- Challenge to local government to ensure that they are open to responding to community views and increased involvement. This was a particular concern in light of the amount of change in local government and the pressure of spending cuts.
Even so there was recognition in the debate that decentralisation presented an opportunity. If it is done properly greater local engagement will enable older people to contribute their years of experience to their communities. People emphasised the importance this has to older people feeling valued; less isolated; and to better services.
There is a task to be done to work through the critique and recognise the opportunities. There are two big questions we need to help the government to answer. How do we make sure these new community powers get used and support people to get involved, in particular the seldom heard? How do we make sure local authorities are open to a new approach that is truly responsive to communities? Trying to find an answer to these questions will go someway to build reassurance that the localism vision is real.