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Ian Briggs

As the government seeks to develop measures that stimulate the economy through the relaxation of the local planning processes, should we stop for one moment and think about some pretty fundamental issues about the relationship that we, as citizens, have with the locality where we reside – issues that localism may be ignoring?

The predominant notion we have in the UK is that (with due respect to women) an ‘Englishman’s home is his castle’ – however, as the details of the 2011 Census are eagerly awaited we are aware that we have a society that is perhaps more geographically mobile than ever before – mobile through commuting to work or mobile though national or international migration. For most communities today, even those that have relatively fixed populations, the proportion of those who have been domiciled in one locality for more than one generation is shrinking. This means our emotional connectivity to place is changing – this is not to say that many localities have populations that don’t have a strong commitment to place. Rather, it implies that we see connectivity to place through economic factors more than any other. However, many communities have powerful and longstanding psychological commitments to the locality where they reside going back generations and generate fierce local loyalties that policy makers and politicians often find hard to recognise.

The concept of land ownership is not always recognised in other societies. Throughout the world there are examples of where the concept of ‘ownership’ is reversed – it is not the fact that the landowner actually has titled deed to the land where they reside but the land has ownership of the very people who reside upon it. This has been often misunderstood in places such as Australia, New Zealand and certainly parts of North America.  Where indigenous populations have been resettled there are numerous occasions where the sense of displacement is cited as the root cause for various social problems. The Native North American notion of the ‘Washee’ is not a catch all term for white North Europeans – it is a term better translated as a ‘trespasser’, as someone who this land does not recognise as within its own ownership.  This notion that the people belong to the land is more important than we have perhaps recognised – the sense of belonging to ‘place’- despite how challenging it may be to quantify or measure – is a key factor that local councillors have to account for, and a mistake that government at local and national level seem to continue to make when decisions are made that fundamentally impact upon communities.

People do have a sense of belonging to locality and this is now being demonstrated through the rather extensive and turgid consultation processes around HS2. As a resident who is impacted by this development I have been active in a number of local and regional meetings, where the debate is moving from the awareness of the economic advantages and disadvantages associated with building the railway to one of a strong sense of hurt caused by politicians’ failure to recognise the desire that many local people have to hand down the ‘belonging to the land’ from one generation to the next.

The sense of betrayal that many in the North American Native self governed communities feel is often characterised not by a sense of loss of entitlement to the land but that the land has something missing – it has lost its people and the arguments are less economic and more socially psychological and spiritual. The deprivation and social problems in many of the Native American self-governed communities is plain to see and has been overlooked for far too long by Washington.  It is only now that steps and measures are being taken that make better connectivity between these communities and the land they occupy. So, what relevance does this have for us in the UK? Perhaps, HS2 can be used as a litmus test and a broader set of parameters applied to considering its worthiness?

The tone of many of the public meetings and consultations around HS2 is starting to open this debate up – however strong the economic arguments are or are not as the case may be, the feelings of hurt and imposition by a government of a rail line is an issue that local councillors are going to be left to deal with for potentially generations to come. Government can perhaps be a ‘trespasser’ and impose things on the land and the people but where that strong link between place and people is broken other problems always seem to follow. If HS2 is to be completed then there could be major economic gains.  Whilst this is questionable to some it is indeed possible – the local building industry could be stimulated through a relaxation of local planning regulations – there could be a higher price to pay that may take time to emerge and leave us with many more problems to solve.

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Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

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