When bottom up and top down government can rub along together

The truth is that top-down and bottom-up are already living together.

I have just come across a suggestion that our present top-down bureaucratic form of government should be replaced by “one that is open to challenge from below”.  This reminds me of how the idea of localism was corrupted by the powers-that-be into the Localism Act 2011, with its off-spring Neighbourhood Planning.

I hope this is not what is meant.

In my locality the response of the local planning authority to this seemingly bottom-up opportunity was to produce thirty-seven ‘Guidance Notes’ for parish councils, who have the power to produce Neighbourhood Development Plans.

One of which states that: “The goal for all involved in producing a Neighbourhood Development Plan is for your plan to become adopted planning policy. As such, the stages of producing the plan are set out within the Neighbourhood Planning Regulations and these will need to be met in order for your plan to progress and be successful at the examination.”

In other words neighbourhood plans must accord with the laws and plans made by higher authorities.

Moreover, they are only plans for the use of land. Formal neighbourhood planning does nothing about social problems such as an ageing population, vagrancy, pot-holes in the lanes, withdrawal of bus services and other things which may be seen locally to be more important than where to build a few houses.

The only way to enable people to decide how they want their localities to develop (in every sense) would be to withdraw those formal top-down systems which stop people, individually and collectively, doing their own things.

There are a few examples of what happens when top-down services are reduced or seen to be inadequate. In another piece I mentioned how redundant telephone boxes are being used by enterprising local people as libraries, art galleries and to house defibrillators.

This shows what can be done when there is no interference from above and there are unused ‘buildings’ available.  Another example is the emergence of local health and well-being therapists, in response to increasing frustration with the inability of the NHS to deal with health problems, often misleadingly said to be idiopathic.

Responsibility for the care of those unable to care for themselves is another example where there is a shift from public service provision to informal homecare.

A largely unseen aspect of this change from public to domestic is the withdrawal, in some areas, of town planning enforcement action to deal with so called non-conforming development. In areas where houses are spread around, some with their own land, where tidy-mindedness does not prevail, people are being accommodated in wooden buildings (which look like sheds). Four years after they have been erected, they become immune from enforcement action.

There is nothing unlawful in building a home and, when officialdom turns a blind eye to what is going on, we can see how the withdrawal of a public service (planning enforcement) can lead to bottom-up development. Whether you think this is a good thing will depend on how you view such things.

This raises an interesting question.  It seems that top-down and bottom-up can exist together. Is this a way to see the future?

The examples I have pointed out are of an emerging future which is ‘accidental’. The growth of bottom-up services may have been triggered by the decline or dislike of specific public services, but maybe it was always so. In the past, when all kinds of growth was expected and planned for, new public services were added and developed. Now the reverse is happening and can be seen as symptoms of degrowth.

There is nothing inherently wrong with degrowth or no-growth; it is when it is labelled as decline that it is seen from above as a threat.  It is not in the interest of politicians of the left or right to admit that a future of decline is possible. But if specific services were to be labelled ‘obsolescent’ and either abandoned or replaced with new kinds of sustainable bottom-up growth, this would surely be attractive politically?

Is this is what is meant by challenging bureaucracy from below?  I hope so!

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Peter Arnold says

    An interesting piece, much of which is very familiar. In my experience, the indifference of the powers that be to local issues has usually led to just those bottom-up structures and activities mentioned. It’s called by a variety of names, but community politics, community economics and community development are some of them. Another is civil society, which has produced a whole raft of interesting community-based and led initiatives to deal with local issues. And whilst it may be true that the Localism Act is a watered-down version of community-based activity, it does have practical, local outcomes such as the Neighbourhood Plan. The real problem, however, is indeed the outdated government structure in the UK which no longer serves local needs. Central government of all persuasions has never trusted local government to be sensible, practical and financially prudent. If Whitehall got rid of the idea that it always knows best what is needed on my local estate, then perhaps, just perhaps, things will change. Having been a local councillor for a number of years, I have been continually heartened by the sensible, practical and shrewd knowledge, skills and experience of ordinary people when dealing with local issues. I trusted them more often than the town hall experts, and usually, they were right and the experts were wrong. What we need is a local government system which is not simply the agent of central government, but a fully functional system in its own right. And a healthy dose of restructuring along federal lines, with the devolution of powers all round would not come amiss. Neither would promotional representation. Now, that, I think, is the beginnings of a really radical solution!

    • Barry Cooper says

      Thank you Peter.

      I suspect that no amount of re-structuring of the top-down system will get rid of the so-called professionalism which in effect runs the country day to day.

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