Political Promise

Local Government Reforms: Only the Beginning

In David Brownsey-Joyce on December 20, 2010 at 9:00 am

David Brownsey-Joyce takes a detailed look at the future for localism with the first reading of the Localism Bill.

The Coalition Government’s drive to devolve power to a more local level took a step further this last week with the first reading of the Localism Bill. This is aimed at driving six factors the Government believe will deliver decentralise power.

They are:

  1. Lift the burden of bureaucracy;
  2. Empower communities to do things their way;
  3. Increase local control of public finance;
  4. Diversify the supply of public services;
  5. Open up Government to public scrutiny; and
  6. Strengthen accountability to local people.

So how is a bill going to do all this? Well as always the devil is in the details and the delivery.

Lifting the burden of bureaucracy

Bye, bye, bye, regional strategies. Doing away with overarching regional strategies will allow local authorities to devise their own plans and thereby saving countless trees, having not creates countless reports on regional strategies.

Saying that, each local authority will need to develop their own strategy. In the interest of consultation this will undoubtedly be sent to various individuals, be revised and then sent out again. Sounds to me as if we are eliminating large document and creating many more smaller documents to take it’s place, maybe with all the IT shared services local authorities are planning on there will be a drive on emailing strategies rather than printing them.

The Government is putting the axe to the Standards Board, the organisation that aims to keep councillors in line. Well we do have elections, so it’s over to you dear voter, if you hear that your councillor has been naughty you need to vote them out. At the next local election which might be a fair amount of time away, but that’s ok because local authorities will be able to devise their own standards for elected representatives. Better keep the axe out, we’ll need it for those trees to create more documents.

Our elected representatives in the local community will not have to be so careful about what they say, what with the abolishing of the ‘predetermine rules’. These have apparently left some councillors in a state of confusion not knowing whether they can campaign in favour or against something without being accused of being biased. General rule of thumb, if you have an interest, you are biased, if you do not, you are not.

What with the abolishing of the Standards Board and allowing councillors to come out and say what they want, it should be interesting to see what happens.

Empower communities to do things their way

The main thing here is the ‘General Power of Competence’ which would devolve power to local authorities and allow them to run themselves however they want. The idea is that this will be to put power in the hands of those who know how to deliver services for their areas, local authorities, rather than having an extensive top-down policy base, we will see top-down policy as the exception.

That is the idea anyway and naturally local government groups have come out in favour of this power, however we only need to think of Doncaster and the way that authority was run earlier in the year; where central Government was forced to intervene in the running of the council, and we can see there are a few issues to be resolved.

Planning developments could get a shortcut through the current process if they meet specific criteria and most importantly receive over 50% support in a local referendum. If developments achieve this they will not need formal planning permission to begin construction. Major developments would be approved by ministers, as in the case of airports.

This could revolutionise developments, whether this streamlines them or holds them up would be down to the individual communities so my advice to anyone wanting to build in an area is to get a good PR firm on the case straight away.

On a side note, this bill would also result in the abolishing of Home Information Packs (HIP). Anything that gets rid of HIP is in my book a good thing.

Community right to buy, the idea is that if a local asset is threatened with closure, communities will have the right to bid for those assets and run them themselves. This idea could be rather appealing in specific cases of historic facilities that have fallen into disrepair, such as swimming pools. Of course, assets that are threatened with closure are normally that way for a reason and it would take a real effort to restore any project in that state, bring on the Big Society to rescue it.

Increase local control of public finance

Council Tax referendums; this is what everyone has been waiting for, the chance to tell local authorities what we think about council tax rates. There is a catch, automatic referendums will only occur where a local authority proposes a council tax above central government levels. So if your council says they want to increase your council tax by 6% they would need to justify it.

Not quite what we were hoping for but it’s a start, local people know what they want, if they want to pay lower tax they will tell you, if they want to pay higher tax to provide more services they will tell you.

Local authorities will be able to assist local businesses by offering them a discount on business rates. This should come in a big shatter glass that reads ‘be opened only in times of recession’.

There will also be a requirement to use a proportion of any money raised by a ‘Community Infrastructure Levy’ within the community it was raised from. I think the key word here is ‘proportion’, and I think we will learn more about that in the second reading of the bill.

Diversify the supply of public services

I think the key message on this one is to get involved, that if you do not like a service think about how you or your community can change it. The test for this was the rolling out of ‘Free Schools’. Whether this would work on a local authority basis would be an interesting question?

At the end of the day, there are only so many ways you can get involved without involving a professional service tailor made for that service, for example, waste collection. Could we see cases of communities handling their own refuse and organising community deliveries to the area refuse site.

Would these people know about the best way to handle waste, to sort it, to recycle it? I think in some cases yes and in some no. I suppose at the least it would create competition in the council’s tendering process.

Open up Government to public scrutiny

Yet more reports to be published. The main drive of opening up data from local government to public scrutiny is to have an annual report compiled and made available. This report will outline the strategy of pay for chief officers within local authorities.

The idea being that you will have a clear payment scale set out for each authority and a requirement to stick to it. Saying that, councils will be able to ignore the strategy if they can show cause and get it passed in a full council vote.

This will be added to the Government’s directive that all spending over £500 be published and tender data on all spending over £25,000.

Strengthen accountability to local people

Prepare to be bombarded by referendums. Any issue that is petitioned and has a minimum amount of interest registered, can instigate a referendum.

Whilst this may be democracy at work, one has to wonder exactly how much time the democratic unit at each local authority is going to have to deal with all of these petitions, that is, if there isn’t going to be a new department created to deal with this large volume of paperwork coming in.

Wait aren’t the coalition meant to be cutting down on paperwork, maybe I missed the memo.

The popularity contest doesn’t just end with referendums. No, we could get twelve more directly elected mayors for the following areas:

  • Birmingham;
  • Bradford;
  • Bristol;
  • Coventry;
  • Leeds;
  • Leicester;
  • Liverpool;
  • Manchester;
  • Newcastle upon Tyne;
  • Nottingham;
  • Sheffield; and
  • Wakefield.

All of these mayors would be subject to referendums (I’m starting to see a pattern here), and the current Leaders of each local authority listed would act as a Shadow Mayor once the Bill becomes law until the referendums could take place and elections held.

Leading up to the second reading

Not much can be concluded at this stage as details are now going to change, as lobbying seek to get various bits and bobs changed in their favour. At this stage all I can say is that the Coalition Government appear to really like referendums and reports.

The Conservatives must be trying to make up for their failure to get one on the EU Constitution (sorry Treaty) and are overcompensating, whilst the Liberal Democrats seem to want to sneak a lot of extra layers of work into government, through regulation.

With all things there are good and bad parts, this bill is no different and time will tell whether it will make any difference to the localism agenda. All I do know is that it will be interesting at the second reading when we get some real specific details released.

Click here to read the bill



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