Chris White writes: New Year challenges for localists

Andrew Stunell told Lib Dem Voice in December: ‘The Localism Bill presents a lot of positive news for local government.’

I don’t demur from that but there is much we need to challenge in this Bill.

Take for instance the much vaunted General Power of Competence. If you open Volume 1 of the Bill (yes, it is that long) you will find that the Secretary of State ‘may by order make provision preventing local authorities from doing, in exercise of the general power, anything which is specified, or is of a description specified, in the order.’

Basically the Secretary of State can, if he feels like it, restrict the General Power in any way at all, subject only to the feather light scrutiny given by parliament to ministerial orders. Given that this same Secretary of State has just ordered councils (on no authority whatever) to reduce car parking charges, the clause as drafted means that there is no General Power of Competence at all.

Take again the plans over governance. The Bill would allow the Secretary of State to direct a local authority to hold a referendum. Any true localist will see that this is a centralising power: it must be for local communities to make these decisions without ministerial interference. In particular, the ability of the Secretary of State (apparently in 12 English cities chosen by the Government) to designate a council leader a shadow mayor and trigger a mayoral referendum is central intervention far greater than seen under Labour.

It gets worse. If the UK is fined by the EU for a breach of EU Law and the Secretary of State considers that the breach was caused by the local authority, then he can order the council to contribute towards the fine. This might seem fair enough but the problem is the amount of discretion in the minister’s hands: essentially the clause creates a system of extra-judicial fines imposed by executive order, the sort of thing that some our ancestors fought against in the Civil War.

Then there is planning. Inevitably, the Government would wish to implement the thinking behind the Tory policy paper ‘Open Source Planning’. The measures are complex and expose a clear danger that planning policy will be transferred from elected bodies to self-appointed groups.

This does not mean that it is wrong to push powers out to communities: but there must be safeguards, not least over the sorts of bodies which can be designated ‘neighbourhood forums’. There are many good residents’ associations – but equally there are many which are wholly unrepresentative middle-class clubs, desperate to ensure that an area remains free from the blot of social housing or modern development.

Happily parish councils receive recognition and protection under the Bill as currently drafted. Liberals invented parish councils. Perhaps the sensible solution is to ensure that all areas have community councils in which all local people – not merely the idle or the eager – have a stake.

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6 Comments

  • “Given that this same Secretary of State has just ordered councils (on no authority whatever) to reduce car parking charges, the clause as drafted means that there is no General Power of Competence at all.”

    Quite right, in fact this is another Tory plan to abdicate blame onto local authorities. They gave councils the ability to reduce parking charges (good) at the same time as front loading the same authorities budget cuts (bad).

    Other issues such as encouraging Councils to “share” executives and staff is not localising but regionalising. Most of us at some time have had someone who provides us services “merge” with another company for efficiency reasons. The result in usually a drop in service and lowering of standards.

    The Tories have never truly believed in devolved power, like Labour in their book it means keeping control but passing blame and unpopular decisions. Even if these are not the intended reasons for the measures, what happens when Labour return to power, or a pure Tory administration. Then the Secretary of State would have free rein…

  • Tony Greaves 4th Jan '11 - 10:35pm

    The first problem about the Localism Bill is its silly name. Localism may be a slogan or it may be a movement but it is not a sensible description of legislation.

    It’s 400 pages long. We expect to get in in the Lords around May when we will spend many “happy” hours scrutinising large amounts of detail that the Commons has not bothered to look at properly. It might take us a long time.

    Tony Greaves

  • Andrew Suffield 5th Jan '11 - 7:51am

    (This comment is something I’ve said several times before about other pieces of legislation)

    Somebody with access to the drafting process of legislation, in both this government and the previous one, has been going around and inserting clauses in random bills which say, in one form or another, “The Secretary of State may invent and enforce any additional rules or legislation that they like”. They are continually popping up in all sorts of places.

    To date, every one of them has been thrown out in committee, but new ones keep on appearing. I have to wonder if this is an attempt at seizing power by attrition (hoping that someday people will be too tired to notice and remove it).

    I want to find out who it is that keeps doing this.

  • Andrew S: my guess, civil servants, just trying to be helpful.

    Agree with Chris, including about parish councils.

    And any bill that is 400 pages long shouldn’t really be one bill.

  • Rob Sheffield 8th Jan '11 - 3:36am

    The Planning and devolution proposals are currently implied- they are implied as no details have yet been published about how it will all work!

    But as currently implied they are a potential disaster for all the reasons set out above.

    We absolutely need neighbourhood councils- which can be parishes where they exist and new urban parishes that currently do not have them. These PC/URC’s should have greater powers than they currently do including planning powers. But they can’t just be voluntary clubs i.e. some staff that work for the DC or CC need to be supporting them/ or even working for them full time.

    With self-appointed/ self-defined ‘stakeholders’/ ‘residents’ groups the actual community does not have real power or influence or the ability to hold decision-making to account. It will- in most cases unfortunately- end up being the diktat of “decisions are made by those who turn up” axiom. Or rather those who have the time/ or can be bothered to turn up. This has the real potential to be totally tyrannical and unrepresentative!

    The key is that the neighbourhood/ community councils are elected, that they have real power and that they have staff.

    My party was on the way to developing this (see the NLGN debates o ‘new localism’ in 2004-2005 and the ‘communities in control’ paper). But then the centralising clunking fist took over…

    Currently the Localism bill has no proposals at all for elected neighbourhood/ sub-district level government i.e. for real localism.

    Hopefully you LD’s will force the coalition to install this rather than let the clunking fist that is Eric Pickles do his worst.

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