The traditional paradigm of local development, of enhancing the development of its own area, has limitations. It is clear that it has positive effects in several areas, where local stakeholders, private and public, have understood that giving added value to local assets and to local resources can improve local areas’ situation and improving the welfare of local people.
But, actually, we have to recognise the limits of this path: multiplicity of local strategies, as many as localities and local actors with decision capacity to promote their own development, exist. And all of them supported with a sort of “optimistically localism”, adorned with drops of local egoism.
In local development localism is a risk. We are experiencing the paradox of more and more local policies in a world more and more structured in a global way. Places are still producing a sense of identity: my neighbourhood, my community, my city, my landscape… But, in this case, it can become a defensive identity, building a trench of well-known elements against the unpredictable nature of the unknown and uncontrollable.
Very often decentralisation produces ambiguous effects: for some local authorities where social exclusion is concentrated, it deals with clear problems and contradictions. On one hand, it is true that decentralisation facilitates public interventions in the territory to fight against poverty and social exclusion, but redistribution will be less effective, taking into account that it takes place in a very restricted area, usually homogeneous areas (fiscally and socially) with low resources due to weak economic basis.
We should not forget that what is true for one level could be false for another. While income inequalities tend to reduce among regions and cities within a country, they have increased at lower levels, within urban agglomerations, among neighbourhoods, where social exclusion processes are increasing.
Territorial cohesion is what ensures equalisation of public services beyond the “profitability” or “non-profitability” of each area. Public policy for territorial cohesion is what avoids those territorial inequalities (often inevitable) become territorial unfairness.
Political decentralisation processes should be established in coherence with this perspective of territorial development and spatial integration. Regrettably decentralisation is not always focused in this direction and often it is focused just in obtaining more and more “autonomy” for each area instead of enhancing more integration and more interdependence among areas.
One of the biggest expectations of decentralisation is one of the more controversial: what is good for local citizens is good for the region and then for the whole nation. Any strategy of local development will be always good for the national development. In general, the same mechanism that supports the more radical economic liberalism will play at all the territorial scales: the free pursuit of particular interests, in the framework of certain rules, places us automatically in the general interest.
Not all the development problems find real solutions in the territory. Often, we need to help local development initiatives to relocate them, to cross the limits of the administrative boundaries. That is why we need inter-regional cooperation trying to find appropriate scales and levels that facilitate development. Such cooperation deals with going beyond borders that limit and prevent development in a context of globalisation and interdependence.