That’s the way to do it! How Liberal Democrats made the running on the Localism Bill

Annette Brooke MP and Lord (Graham) Tope are the Lib Dem Co-Chairs of the Parliamentary Policy Committee on Communities and Local Government, and led the Lib Dem response to the Localism Bill. Here they outline what they, working with colleagues in the party and many beyond, helped achieve.

Last night the Localism Bill completed its final stage in Parliament and is set to become law when it achieves Royal Assent next week.

As Co-Chairs of the Parliamentary Policy Committee on Communities and Local Government, it has been our job over the last ten months to lead on the Bill for the party. We’ve helped shepherd it through both Houses of Parliament, and have led a Lib Dem team that in many ways has made the running on the Bill.

We’ve had strong engagement with Coalition ministers, who engaged with us constructively, particularly Greg Clark, Baroness Hanham and our very own Andrew Stunell, who was very helpful and willing to work together with us to improve the Bill considerably.

Colleagues in local government were also a constant source of help and good ideas, which never ceased to better inform our Bill team as the process went on.

Where we started from: “a good bill in theory, with several flaws in practice”

When it was first introduced, I think many Liberal Democrats would agree that it was a good bill in theory, with several flaws in practice. The fundamentals were strong Liberal Democrat principles -– devolving power back to local government and communities -– but there were a number of controversial aspects to the Bill that needed to be looked at in more detail, most notably on local governance, planning and housing.

Scrapping the Standards Board while upholding standards in public life

The abolition of the Standards Board attracted controversy. Not so much for the decision to scrap the Board itself, but around what would replace it.

There was a movement in the Lords to ensure that we had a strong and robust system for ensuring that councillors had to meet standards in public life.

With Lib Dems playing a major role, a cross-party group was successful in securing a compromise with Ministers that ensured Councils would be required to have a code of conduct, the contents decided locally, including the seven Nolan Principles on Standards in Public Life. Local Authorities will also be required to have a system in place to deal with allegations that members have breached the code, again to be decided locally.

Liberal Democrats also played a big role in the cross-party move to secure a better deal for councils on EU fines. A compromise was agreed with ministers that secured the backing of the Local Government Association, and introduced several new safeguards.

Promoting local democracy

The Mayoral provisions were another area that attracted controversy. The Coalition Agreement commits us to holding referendums in the 12 largest cities (now 11, after Leicester decided to go ahead on their own), but the proposals to introduce unelected and unaccountable Shadow Mayors, combining the role of Chief Executive with leader of the Council, attracted much opposition.

Liberal Democrats argued strongly against this, and the Government agreed to remove the provisions for Shadow Mayors. Likewise the proposals for non-binding local referendums on any issue were also removed by Liberal Democrats. Although having the laudable aim of improving democracy, in practice, they were open to hijack by extremist groups on low turnouts, and would be very expensive for local authorities, particularly at a time of economic constraint.

Housing: fixed-term tenancies and access to the Ombudsman

On Housing, Liberal Democrats were clear that the introduction of fixed-term tenancies was a major concern. We attempted to ensure that the minimum length a secure tenancy could be offered for would be five years.

We pushed ministers hard on this issue, and were able to secure a compromise, whereby the Government would write into guidance that councils would be expected to offer tenancies for a minimum of five years as standard, with two years only available in exceptional circumstances, which a council would have to set out in their housing strategy.

It should also be noted that these powers are discretionary; councils are not obligated to introduce fixed-term tenancies, something which a number of councils have already indicated they won’t do.

It was felt that the introduction of the so-called democratic filter, whereby people would have to go through their local representative to access the Housing Ombudsman, would restrict access considerably. Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords worked with ministers to secure a compromise where this democratic filter was kept in place, but if the representative declined to deal with their case, or eight weeks had passed, a tenant could access the Ombudsman directly.

Another change made in the House of Lords was the removal of unnecessary burdens from smaller Fully Mutual Housing Co-operatives by excluding them from requirements under the Homes of Multiple Occupation Licensing scheme, which had been proposed by the Liberal Democrats in an amendment during the Commons Report Stage.

Planning: sustainability, retail diversity, and financial incentives

On Planning, pressure in the Commons from Liberal Democrats saw the number of people needed to instigate a Neighbourhood Forum increased from three to twenty one, whilst Liberal Democrats in the Lords helped ensure that the sustainable development duty is extended to neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood development orders.

We also secured agreement that Ministers would look again at their definition of sustainable development when reflecting on the consultation responses to the National Planning Policy Framework, an important concession.

On the retail diversity issue championed by our colleagues in Bristol and Cambridge (so much so, that our amendment in the Lords became known as the “Cambridge Amendment”) there was also some progress. Ministers insisted that some of what was being asked for was already possible through Neighbourhood Plans, contained within the Bill already, but they also promised that the issue would be looked at in detail within the forthcoming publication of changes to use class orders. This is an area we intend to revisit to ensure that Ministers keep to their pledge.

Perhaps the biggest issue, though, was on financial considerations in planning, which concerned many people, not just in the party, but across the country. Liberal Democrats pushed Ministers right through from Commons to Lords on this issue. In response to our concerns, Ministers made amendments in the Lords to clarify that the clause on financial incentives does not alter either what a decision-maker should take into account, or the weight they should give to it.

We also fought the good fight on the Third Party Right of Appeal, securing two important concessions. Although Ministers were immovable in their view that this was now unnecessary with the move towards a plan-led process, they accepted additional safeguards were necessary.

Local councils will now not face costs being awarded against them if developers appeal against refusal of an application contrary to the local plan. A consultation will also be undertaken on compulsory pre-application scrutiny by the local community of developments contrary to the local plan. Both of these changes will enhance local democracy and support community participation in planning.

Where we’re finishing: “a much improved Bill”

The Bill is now much improved from when it started, and will really change the way we do local government in this country, with new tools to increase participation, and give councils a greater ability to make the decisions that are right for their local area.

It has greatly benefitted from having a strong Liberal Democrat influence throughout its passage through the House, and will be a better Act in practice than it would have been without our influence. Local Government -– it’s over to you.

* Annette Brooke MP and Lord (Graham) Tope are the Lib Dem Co-Chairs of the Parliamentary Policy Committee on Communities and Local Government, and led the Lib Dem response to the Localism Bill.

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13 Comments

  • Tony Dawson 9th Nov '11 - 1:54pm

    I am concerned that this bill is being used as a smokescreen for more expensive Tory rubbish such as making each local council waste resources working up a Separate Council Tax Benefit scheme which will confuse poorer residents who move house (mainly private tenants) and also act as a smokescreen for a reduction in the benefit available. Government’s responsibility will be shelved onto councillors. What a cunning (and rather evil) plan. Benefits should be determined nationally and arguably should all be included in a unitary tax/benefit system. Why administration of Housing and Council Tax Benefits were ever hived off to local government is beyond me.

  • A shame that the National standards framework has been abolished. It did much to standardise sanctions for serious cases. We have cases locally where orders made to apologise and carry out certain actions have been ignored deliberately, and very little seems to be done. Do I also understand that it is still the case that Councillors cannot be barred from public office at all by the new mechanisms? That is a scandal, and seems to be against all current trends at other levels eg Parliamentary. NOT a good day’s work, I’m afraid.

  • Tony Dawson 9th Nov '11 - 3:45pm

    “A shame that the National standards framework has been abolished”

    They seemed like a somewhat incompetent (or at best inconsistent) bunch, frankly. I recall one case of a councillor who appeared absolutely ‘bang to rights’ but they let her off at the pre-hearing stage, effectively because she said she was not doing what she was doing in her role as a councillor. Let us say that not many would agree with her on this but somehow the Standards Board did not query the matter. Then there have been other hideous cases which have been ‘found’ against the councillors in circumstances which make Lib Dems squirm. I am not sure that this National Standards Board really knew what standards were.

  • Tony Greaves 9th Nov '11 - 5:52pm

    I think the changes we got in the Lords are more than these headline issues!

    On Standards, we enthusiastically supported abolishing the dreadful Standards Board for England and its tyrannical and incompetent regime, and we did not want to go back to a regime where some Councils themselves could use draconian local standards powers to shut up and suspend councillors who dared to criticise the ruling mob. But the government initially wanted to replace the old regime with effectively nothing.

    What we wanted to see was a uniform national code (put together by local government not the Secretary of State); that having a local standards system should be compulsory and published; that there should be an appeals system external to the local authority making a decision; and that it should include parish councils. We did not achieve all of this but what we have got is a compromise that may work. If not it will have to be looked at again. (The essence of the compromise was actually thrashed out at a curious informal meeting in the Lords between the Minister and half a dozen present and former Liberal Democrat Councillors including several former Council leaders, and then used as the basis for discussion with other Lords from around of the House).

    By the way the localisation of Council Tax Benefit is not in the Localism Act.

    Tony Greaves

  • “the dreadful Standards Board for England and its tyrannical and incompetent regime”

    Marginally OTT, perhaps, Tony? Like any disciplinary or “standards” system, many of those criticised and sanctioned are angry about their treatment, and that of course, includes members of political parties (surely not the Lib Dems??)
    This has led over the years to the disgruntled in our party among others calling loudly for abolition. Now, I would be stupid to say every judgment has been right, and none of us could say with any certainty on that, and many judgments are open to opinion, but the Standards regime took on board criticisms, in (I think) 2009. We would be rightly angry if employees had a disciplinary system which was not unified throughout and criticise it for unfairness. In this case, if a national system were limited to appeals it would be even more discouraging to local people fighting local mafias. There must be a national system to deal with endemic bullying, government by clique, persistent “minor” corruption, local media in back pocket of local developers, politicians etc.

    I am sorry, in my experience, elections every few years is not strong enough to stand up to these problems, and there does need to be a unified disciplinary system that takes politicians at all levels to task. Apart from anything, electors are often not privy to all the facts, or implications for people, and therefore vote without total understanding, enabling the guilty to get away with it again. This has been shown starkly at national level in the last couple of years (and still many have “got away with it”). We seem to have forgotten the hard lessons at local level. For a party that has always supported the rule of law as a way of making a fairer society, this has been a sad day. I am sure your party proposals would have been rather better than the ones finally agreed, Tony, but much better would have been leaving the current framework, with review built in to make sure things were not going askew.

  • Tony Greaves 10th Nov '11 - 12:06pm

    Not over the top at all. There is a long list of awful decisions. We are well rid.

    Tony Greaves

  • Tony Dawson 10th Nov '11 - 5:49pm

    Referenda, Dr MacPherson, other than on major constitutional issues, are the tools of demagogues. Non-binding ones are expensive distractions. We have representative democracy in this country, which is hampered by the electoral system (making it hard but not impossible for new parties to emerge) but still effective if you care to use it. Referenda are also irresponsible. (made up example: 90 per cent of the people say that the Council MUST build a new bridge over the Thames at Richmond – but do not say what has to be cut to pay for its construction.) The Coalition Agreement contained a number of rather stupid elements tolerated in order to give us a government which can stop our economy going down the plughole. Your example is one such.

  • Tony Greaves 11th Nov '11 - 8:43pm

    I am quite proud that it was a string of 18 consecutive amendments which I moved that got rid of this dangerous and expensive nonsense. Referendums have no place in a local representative and participatory democracy. I am just sorry that we could not get rid of those that remain in the Localism Act.

    Tony Greaves

  • David Claughton 15th Nov '11 - 11:24am

    Personally I’m all for greater participation by the public in government both at the local and national level, but referenda seems to me to be a very blunt tool for the job. All a referendum would do is tell you what people currently think – it cannot tell you why they feel that way and there is no opportunity to engage them in discussion about the underlying issues.

    Public forums in town halls and the like are better, but relatively few people have the time or are prepared to make the effort to attend.

    As I have suggested before, in the age of internet forums and social networking, there is a much better way. The age when most people’s access to their MP or councillor was limited to sending them a letter is, or should be, long past. There is something qualitively different about engaging in an open discussion where people can not only put their views to their representative, but they can discuss amongst themselves, defend their viewpoints, be made aware of the flaws in their arguments and come to a consensus about the best way forward on an particular issue.

    I realise that many MPs and councillors are starting to make use of likes of twitter and facebook these days – this can only be a good thing. Currently this seems to be done on a somewhat informal basis, but it needs to be promoted as the preferred method of engaging with one’s representatives. All discussions done over these platforms are or can be archived and the public and media (both old and new) should be making it clear that our representatives should be abiding by any consensus reached in such public discussions, or be able to publically justify why the are not doing so.

  • Cllr Peter Chegwyn 20th Nov '11 - 1:28am

    I have read and re-read everything I can find relating to the (welcome) abolition of the Standards Board and its (less welcome) replacement with some form of locally-decided Standards regime and Code of Conduct. Nowhere can I find any information as to what powers will be available to local authorities who judge that one of their members has broken their new Code of Conduct.

    Can Graham T, Tony G or anyone else please clarify and confirm that under the new provisions local authorities will NOT be able to suspend or disqualify any member they feel has broken the Code of Conduct. The Localism Act states that authorities can take action against members considered to have broken the Code of Conduct but it does not appear to state what the action that can be taken is.

    If any authority IS able to suspend or disqualify elected members from office then I fear we will have abolished a national Standards Board in favour of some 300 local Standards Boards… and I fear also that less scrupulous Tory and Labour authorities will use their majorities to take disciplinary action against Lib. Dem. councillors who they dislike or whose effective campaigning they wish to disrupt.

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