Not what it was... The Localism Bill

It's one of the longest pieces of legislation ever to complete its passage through parliament. Its hatching has taken 18 months; from its appearance as a paternal twinkle in the government's (particularly Eric Pickles') eye when it was first announced in the Queen's Speech on 24 May last year, to its imminent birth by Royal Assent later this month.

Picture of a frog

Nor has the Localism Bill passed unchanged through its various Readings, Committee and Report Stages in both Houses, and its final 'Ping Pong' (or should that be 'Wiff Waff'?) session in the House of Commons earlier this week. Some of the government's original proposals have disappeared completely, while lobbyists have scored notable victories, not least during the unusually protracted Committee Stage in the House of Lords where more than 400 amendments were considered.

NAVCA was extremely active throughout the legislative process, publishing a range of briefings and consultation responses, some of which were quoted during the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament. We also developed the Real Power For Communities website to give colleagues easy access to relevant material and enable them to show their support for localism.

Proponents of the Bill maintain that never before has a government devolved so much power to local councils and communities. Critics argue that, contrariwise, it's a 'centralism bill' that grants the Secretary of State something like 150 new powers to repeal, amend, revoke or disapply any duty on local authorities.

Their dispute was still raging across the House of Commons floor during the final stage of the Bill's passage earlier this week.

So what's changed during the Bill's development?

Local government

The 'general power of competence' will be extended to include Integrated Transport Authorities, Passenger Transport Executives, Economic Prosperity boards and Combined Authorities, all of which will be able to implement decisions that benefit their local areas without reference to central government, so long as such decisions are not prohibited by law.

A Core Cities amendment will allow the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to devolve further powers to cities at their request, without the need for additional legislation.

EU fines levied around issues such as pollution and recycling will now be referred to parliament to determine who is responsible for paying them.

The government's proposal to allow a certain proportion of local voters to trigger a local referendum on any local issue has been abandoned because of the possible cost to local councils.

While there will be referendums in 11 English cities to decide whether or not to elect a mayor, the proposal to appoint 'shadow mayors' in anticipation of the people's decision has been dropped. Similarly, the government's idea of combining the functions of elected mayor and council chief executive in one role has been withdrawn too.

Community empowerment

The provisions around Assets of Community Value (still sometimes inaccurately referred to as the 'Community Right to Buy') will ensure that community organisations can ask councils to list nominated local properties and facilities; should these community assets then be put up for sale, they will have 6 months to develop bids to buy them, despite robust lobbying from the Country Land and Business Association to have the moratorium period set at just 3 months.

NAVCA and other proponents of writing safeguards into the Community Right to Challenge for local, and locally valued, service providers were unsuccessful in our campaign. Only time will tell whether this opens the door for large - and largely unaccountable - service delivery organisations to move in and take over local public services, with little or no regard for the added value that local providers offer in terms of local and personal knowledge, experience and expertise.

Planning

The government's proposal that a Neighbourhood Plan could be drawn up by as few as three unelected local people has been amended (to put it mildly) so that it will now require a neighbourhood forum of not fewer than 21 members including local councillors. Such forums, especially where led by local businesses, will also be required to take into account social and environmental considerations; not just the promotion of local business.

There was strong opposition to a new government clause - the so-called 'cash for sprawl' proposal - that the Royal Town Planning Institute and other bodies believed would allow local planning consent to be effectively 'bought', through financial incentives including the Community Infrastructure Levy and the New Homes Bonus. A subsequent government amendment did not entirely pacify critics; again only time will tell whether the new provisions will undermine the basis on which planning decisions have traditionally been made.

Further debate on planning reforms was triggered by the consultation on the draft National Planning Policy Framework.

What does it all mean?

Well, who knows? Shall we all begin to feel empowered and motivated to take greater responsibility for the decisions that affect the places where we live, work and play? Or will it be business as usual, with few of us caring who delivers local services so long as someone does, or where other people live, work and play so long as it's not in our backyard?

The government can give us new powers, but only we can decide to exercise them - subject, of course, to the Secretary of State's approval.

Published on 11/11/2011 by Robert Beard.

Thanks, this is a really useful blog. Worrying to hear that the moves to protect locally owned services were unsuccessful, we're seeing lots of contracts awarded to large national organisations. I'm interested to know more about the Economic Prosperity Boards, got any more info on how important (or not) these might to voluntary organisations?

Comment by Isabel Livingstone on 15th November 2011 at 13:01

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