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30 Jul 2010

‘Localism’ or ‘Localisation’? Defining our terms

There is often confusion within the peak oil/Transition movement about the distinction between the terms ‘localism‘ and ‘localisation‘.  On Energy Bulletin yesterday, Richard Moore’s piece, ‘The Emergence of Localism” was actually referring, I would argue, to localisation, not localism.  In the UK, in the context of the government’s Big Society agenda, the two definitely mean very different things.  Here is section from my forthcoming thesis which explores this distinction.  ‘Localism’ or ‘localisation’?  The national context.

Often, the terms ‘localism’ and ‘localisation’ are used relatively interchangeably, but it is important at this stage to note that they refer to different things.   Stoker (2007) defined ‘New Localism’ as “a strategy aimed at devolving power and resources away from central control and towards front line managers, local democratic structures and local consumers and communities, within an agreed framework of national minimum standards and policy priorities”.  For Morphet (2004:292) it is “a means of improving democratic accountability, providing a local mandate, and producing inter-agency approaches to localities”.  Localism can therefore be seen as being primarily concerned with governance, while localisation, on the other hand, is a wider, more far-reaching adjustment of economic focus from the global to the local.  Hines (2000a:27) defines localisation as “a process which reverses the trend of globalisation by discriminating in favour of the local”.  Shuman (2000:6) adds that:

“…it means nurturing locally owned businesses which use local resources sustainably, employ local workers at decent wages and serve primarily local consumers.  It means becoming more self sufficient, and less dependent on imports.  Control moves from the boardrooms of distant corporations and back to the community where it belongs”.

One might tentatively argue that localism therefore focuses on political structures, the devolution of governance, the application of subsidiarity to democracy, while localisation focuses instead on the practicalities of building more localised economies, in terms of food, energy, manufacturing and so on, which may necessarily include governance (a distinction explored in Table 6.1).

Assumptions shared by Localism and Localisation

  • Local people should have more control over local services and decision-making
  • Stronger local government and increased accountability is a good thing
  • Community ownership and the Right to Buy are important

Assumptions Not Shared by Localism and Localisation

  • Localisation is underpinned by an ethic of sustainability: this does not necessarily enter into localism
  • Localisation embodies the Proximity Principle, arguing that where money flows from and to are important, and that what can be produced locally should be consumed locally where possible: localism sees itself within the context of business-as-usual economic globalisation
  • Localism seeks to reduce the role of the state and of ‘big government’, localisation can happen within the context of stronger government, indeed it argues that addressing global issues such as climate change or resource scarcity will require strong government alongside community engagement
  • Localism seeks to transfer state assets (schools, hospitals etc.) into community ownership: localisation focuses more on control rather than ownership of those assets, and seeks to bring key local functions (food production, building development, energy generation) currently in the private sector into community ownership
  • Localisation argues for a different relationship between consumers and producers, localism has no such critique
  • Localisation seeks to increase tightness of feedbacks, so that consequences of resource use are felt closer to home (i.e. local food production): localism operates in the context of economic globalisation, with no concept of feedbacks.

Table 6.1. The assumptions shared and not shared by localism and localisation (Source: the author).

For Daly and Cobb (1994), the term subsidiarity means that “power should be located as close to people as possible in the smallest units that are feasible” (ibid:174).  For Ziman (2003:63) it means “decisions should be taken at the lowest competent level in an organisational hierarchy”.  Table 5.1 gave an indication of what subsidiarity could look like in terms of local economics, but in terms of political organisation it is a greyer area.  The term does have its doubters; as Robinson (1996:unpaginated) put it “the chief advantage of subsidiarity seems to be its capacity to mean all things to all interested parties – simultaneously”.

Others add that there is little to be gained by academic debates around subsidiarity, as it is entirely place-specific and the conclusions reached will always be contextual and dynamic (McKean 2002).  For Blond of Respublica (2010a:, the role of national government is to enable “the highest level of subsidiarity possible”.  In the context of Totnes, subsidiarity could be interpreted as referring to decision-making being brought as close as possible to the community level, the community response to the Totnes DPD discussed above offers a glimpse of what subsidiarity, in terms of planning, might look like in practice.

Localisation applies the concept of subsidiarity to economic life, as well as to the political.  While localism can perfectly well take place within a globalised growth-focused economy, a ‘business as usual’ scenario (see 2.4.3.) (hence its appeal to mainstream political parties), whereas localisation carries within it an inherent social justice and resource-focused critique of globalisation (Bailey et al. 2010, North 2010), emerging from concepts such as Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 2004), Steady State economics (Daly 1977) and Schumacher’s (1974) concept of ‘Buddhist economics’.  Localisation is a social movement and a principle for social and economic reorganisation, whereas localism is a principle for political organisation.

Although the question of what local government focused on resilience-building and Transition might look like will be explored below, a useful place to start is in considering how the national political context might best enable relocalisation.  Porritt (2008:47) argues that “the tension between centralisation and decentralisation is ever-present in terms of alternatives to the current world”.  In national politics, the concept of localism is very much in vogue at the moment (Parvin 2009).  David Cameron, as part of his ‘Big Society’ concept, has spoken of “pushing power down as far as possible” and of “a massive, radical redistribution of power” (Cameron 2009:unpaginated).

Former Labour leader Gordon Brown called for “a vibrant, reformed local democracy [rooted in] a renewed focus on the devolution of powers and responsibilities to local government” (Blears 2008:51), and the 2006 Power Inquiry called for “the introduction of institutional and cultural changes which place a new emphasis on the requirement that policy and decision-making includes rigorous and meaningful input from ordinary citizens”.

The 2008 White Paper “Communities in Control: real people, real power”, proposed the shifting of “power, influence and responsibility away from existing centres of power into the hands of local communities and individual citizens” and suggested that Participatory Budgeting (see 6.3.3) be undertaken in all local authorities by 2012.  It is worthwhile noting that the concept of localisation, with its more radical ambitions and greater perceived challenge to current-day economics, is never used at this level, rather ‘localism’, focused largely on political governance, is the term of choice.

The previous Labour government made ‘modernisation’, referring to constitutional and democratic modernisation, part of its agenda since its election in 1997.  Most obviously, it introduced Scottish and Welsh devolution, regional elected assemblies in England, a London Mayor and Assembly, but perhaps less obviously, Pratchett (2004:11) points out, it has introduced “modernisation of internal political management structure, experimentation with new electoral processes and technologies, through to exhortation for greater citizen involvement and engagement in local affairs”.  In spite of this, it has been criticised for achieving the opposite, for continuing centralisation strategies and ‘control freakery’ (Wilson 2003).  Stoker (2001:3) argues that New Labour’s approach to central-local relations can be seen as “a classic example of a hierarchist approach”.

Wilson (2003:26) is careful to distinguish between approaches and language used by New Labour, and actual results; noting “an involvement in and commitment to ‘dialogue’ and ‘partnership’, but dialogue does not necessarily convert to influence, and multi-level participation is different from multi-level governance”.  The UK, after 13 years of Labour government, is still one of the most centralised states in the Western world (Hambleton & Sweeting 2004).  Lancaster City Councillor John Whitelegg (2010 is suspicious of politicians who use the term localism.  “Britain is grossly over-centralised and I think that whenever a national politician starts talking about ‘localism’ their nose starts going into Pinnochio mode”.   For Blond (, genuine localisation “requires a political economy if it’s going to work”.  Part of this, he argues, is “local councils and local authorities having genuinely independent revenue-raising capacity, the ability to vary, for instance, the national non-domestic business rate, the ability to generate new forms of revenue and share in those new forms of revenue” (ibid), a power that can only be bestowed by national government.


Bailey, I, Hopkins, R, Wilson, G. (2010) Some things old, some things new: The spatial representations and politics of change of the peak oil relocalisation movement. Geoforum 41(4) 595-605.

Blears, H. (2008) The Decentralised State. In: Milburn et al (eds). Beyond Whitehall: a new vision for a progressive state.

Blond, P. (2010a) Personal interview

Cameron, D. (2009) A New Politics. The Guardian.  Retrieved from on 20 March 2010.

Daly, H.E, Cobb, J.B. (1994) For the Common Good: redirecting the economy toward community, the environment and a sustainable future. Boston, Beacon Press.

Daly, H.E. (1977). Steady-state Economics: The Economics of Biophysical Equilibrium and Moral Growth. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company

Hambleton, R, Sweeting, D. (2004) US-style leadership for English Local Government. Public Administration Review. 64 (:4. July/August 2004

Hines, C. (2000a) Localisation: A Global Manifesto. London, Earthscan Publishing Ltd.

McKean, M.A. (2002) Nesting institutions for complex common-pool resource systems.  In: Graham, J, Reeves, I.R, Brunkhorst, D.J. Proceedings of the 2nd International Symposium on Landscape Futures. Institute for Rural Futures: University of New England.

Meadows, D.H, Randers, J, Meadows, D.L. (2004) Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update . London, Earthscan Publishing Limited.

Morphet, J. (2004) The New Localism. Town and Country Planning.  73 (10). 291-3.

North, P. (2010a) Eco-localisation as a progressive response to peak oil and climate change – a sympathetic critique. Geoforum 41 (4) 585-594.

North, P. (2010a) Eco-localisation as a progressive response to peak oil and climate change – a sympathetic critique. Geoforum 41 (4) 585-594.

North, P. (2010b) Local Money: how to make it happen in your community. Transition Books/Green Books.

Porritt, J.  (2005) Capitalism – as if the world matters. London, Earthscan Publishing Ltd.

Pratchett, L. (2004) Local Autonomy, Local Democracy and the ‘New Localism’. Political Studies. 52 (2) 358–375

Robinson, M. (1990) Constitutional shifts in Europe and the US: learning from each other. Stanford Journal of International Law 32. 1-12.

Schumacher, E.F. (1974) Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered. London, Sphere Books.

Shuman, M.  (2000)  Going Local: creating self-reliant communities in a global age. New York, Routledge.

Stoker, G. (2001) Governance by lottery? New Labour’s strategy for reforming local and devolved institutions in Britain. Paper presented to the PSA Annual Conference April 2001.

Stoker, G. (2007) New Localism, Participation and Networked Community Governance. University of Manchester, UK / Institute for Political and Economic Governance.

Whitelegg, J.  (2010) Personal Interview.

Wilson, D. (2003) Unravelling control freakery: redefining central-local government relations. British Journal of Politics and International Relations 5:3.  August 2003. 317-346.

Ziman, J. (2003) Subsidiarity: The science of the local. In: Simms et al. Return To Scale: Alternatives to Globalisation. London, New Economics Foundation.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Duncan Law
30 Jul 10:50am

Really useful mind clearing stuff, Rob. Wilson’s distinction between dialogue and influence and participation and governance is useful. Most councils don’t get beyond expensive and pretty poor consultation.

Lambeth is pioneering the Cooperative Council. Lots of worthy generalised hot air but scared of participatory budgeting or a more horizontal approach or users designing services.

The local strategic partnership – who acknowledge that their first Sustainable Community Strategy contained no sustainability have offered to meet the Lambeth Sustainability Forum and consult with it on its final draft. We will change that.

There are many opportunities to change local government but we have to be friendly but radical. They can now hear ‘rethink the way we do everything’ in a way they couldn’t a year ago. They can believe that this is not just recession which we must ‘come through’. Changing the paradigm is on the agenda.

30 Jul 11:00am

But a lot of folk balk at using such a technical sounding word at all! With some Transition words – resilience being the most obvious one, I’ve felt the need to dig my heels in. It’s a great word, which covers a wide range of qualities – all of which are needed for it to make sense – and I think it’s worth just keeping on using it (and explaining what it means if needed) until it’s settled into more everyday useage. I get the feeling that this is really starting to happen.

‘Localisation’ on the other hand, is easy to replace in most contexts with ‘living more locally’, where it’s immediately more comprehensible and ‘normal’, conveying: this is something we already do to some extent – let’s just do more of it.

I don’t know about you in the south, but in Scotland we’re always being told that the language we use is alienating to ‘ordinary’ people. I had a great conversation with a friend who was telling me that popular movements in South America have no problem with using complex language and technical vocabulary with villagers and other ‘ordinary’ people, they just make sure that they explain their terms (and I guess make sure that these are truly useful words in the first place). And there is a fine tradition of working class intellectualism in this country as well.

Cheers from a rather sleepy Eva!

Pierre-Louis Lemercier
30 Jul 12:51pm

Very interesting.

But isn’t it that the major difference stem from the fact that one is a top down approach that tries to improve the governance and management of people and resources, while the other come from a bottom up concern. The latter will undoubtedly request , local/close, transparent development with local resources for local people.

The problem to reach the latter is that we need local people to be informed about the issues, feel responsible and concerned to a point that they want to be involved or understand/agree with the latter.

This is not easy to find here in SA mainly because majority are not being informed, claim that it is up to the Gov to show the example and have anyway short term issues that hide long term concerns.



30 Jul 3:09pm

Mmm. What does a word mean? How is it used in difference “universes of discourse”, where its meaning varies..

“Localism and localisation” ? These may be seen as social and demographic forms of “counter urbaninisation”(Search Wikipedia).

“Urbanism and urbanisation” feature in the discipline of Urban Anthropology. Anthropology has a special interest in the local, often in relation to domination from wider systems.As I understand it, “urbanism”s beliefs and social forces, whereas “urbanisation” is the the city-forming development across a landscape, region or the planet.Likewise for “localism” and “localisation”,except usually in reverse, and often as with the Degrowth and Transition movements with a bias against the globalising political economy – with the exception of the information economy.

Thus “transition towns culture” (TTC) is one kind of localism,or perhaps a radical new urbanism.

Because the “ism” exists in a contested field of ideas and ideologies, it must deal with issues of domination, legitimation, resistance and change.

The Wikipedia take on “Urban Anthropology” has a reference to the eminent urban sociologist Manual Castells, whose “political economy” approach could help inform the Transition Towns movement: We gotta know what we are dealing with in “transitionism” and “Transitionalisation”, apart from painfully big words!

Charles, Laguna Beach, CA
31 Jul 2:30am

It seems both concepts are needed. That is, both local governance and a local economy, whatever they may be called.

I believe there needs to be a lot more local autonomy, going as far as the idea of city-states, very loosely tied to the center.I am reminded of where I grew up, the island of Jersey. Fully self-governing, with local currency, taxation, education, and the potential for food self-sufficiency. Very dependent on imported fossil fuels and water-poor at peak demand, but otherwise a model that should be replicated much more widely.

10 Aug 3:14am

Interesting discussion. I’ve never seen the distinction made, but it’s clear now that you mention it. Seems a lot of serious discussion going on in the UK around this issue. We in the US could take note.

This also brings up interesting questions around localism, sustainability, and regional environmental awareness. How will such awareness vary from rural folks in the US midwest and south, as opposed to more “progressive” folks on the west and east coasts?

The people in the red states are more directly tied to the land, while, as a group, the city dwellers may very well profess more environmental awareness. Interesting questions. I couldn’t say how this would apply to the UK, but here in the US we face pretty stark cultural divides, as I’m sure you know.

Jerry Hembd
31 Aug 2:41pm

Another source to check out that for distinctions between localism and localization is the book by David Hess entitled “Localist Movements in a Global Economy: Sustainability, Justice, and Urban Development in the United States” (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009).

David MacLeod
2 Dec 8:35pm

I’m surprised to see that there is no discussion about the term ‘relocalization’ here.

If localism refers primarily to governance, and localization is a response to economic globalization, then relocalization can be defined as a response to peak oil and climate change.

As a member of a group that was part of the Post Carbon Institute’s Relocalization Network, we found the distinction to be important, especially due to the fact that we were in a community where the flagship organization of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies already existed (Sustainable Connections).

Here’s how the Relocalization Network defined the term:
“Relocalization is a strategy to build societies based on the local production of food, energy and goods, and the local development of currency, governance and culture. The main goals of Relocalization are to increase community energy security, to strengthen local economies, and to dramatically improve environmental conditions and social equity.
The Relocalization strategy developed in response to the environmental, social, political and economic impacts of global over-reliance on cheap energy. Our dependence on cheap non-renewable fossil fuel energy has produced climate change, the erosion of community, wars for oil-rich land and the instability of the global economic system.
The tagline the Relocalization Network used, to put the term into the smallest nutshell was “Reduce Consumption; Produce Locally.”

Jason Bradford wrote a greate piece on Relocalization for the Oil Drum. He characterized the idea as follows:

“The case for relocalization will be made in the context of responding sensibly to two problems facing societies right now: climate change and peak oil and gas. Both problems are a result of our dependency on fossil fuels, but some solutions to one will only exacerbate the other. This is why a new approach, that of relocalization, is necessary.
Relocalization is based on a systems approach that doesn’t solve one set of problems only to make another problem worse.

…Relocalization starts from the premise that the world is a finite place and that humanity is in a state of overshoot. Perpetual growth of the economy and the population is neither possible nor desirable. It is wise to start planning now for a world with less available energy, not more.
…While we can’t know future threats precisely, scientists do agree that creating a carbon-cycle neutral economy should be the dominant task occupying our minds. This is exactly what Relocalization aims to do.
…Relocalization advocates rebuilding more balanced local economies that emphasize securing basic needs. Local food, energy and water systems are perhaps the most critical to build. In the absence of reliable trade partners, whether from peak oil, natural disaster or political instability, a local economy that at least produces its essential goods will have a true comparative advantage.
…Instead of working to keep a system going that has no future, it calls us to develop means of livelihood that pollute as little as possible and that promote local and regional stability. Since much of our pollution results from the distances goods travel, we must shorten distances between production and consumption as much as we can.
…Relocalization recognizes the liabilities of fossil fuel dependency and promotes greater security through redevelopment of local and regional economies more or less self-reliant in terms of energy, food and water systems. Many social benefits might accrue to a relocalized society, including greater job stability, employment diversity, community cohesion, and public health.”

Since the Relocalization Network folded into Transition US, the term has fallen from use, replaced by the more easily understandable concept of community resilience, which more or less covers the same territory.