Giving power to local communities – much too important to be left to Nick Clegg or Parliament

Nick Clegg in Liverpool. Photo credit: Alex FolkesLike my LDV colleague, Paul Walter, it was good to hear Nick Clegg’s announcement that he intends to give more economic powers to up to 20 cities and major towns. After all, if there’s one thing that unites Lib Dems it’s the belief in devolving power to the most local level possible.

And yet there is a grumble about the scheme that nags me: why is it that local government is having to bid to central government for “the right to decide how skills and transport funding is spent locally” or to be “allowed to borrow against future tax receipts to invest in job creation schemes”?

Such powers should already be vested in local authorities who shouldn’t have to justify to the Deputy Prime Minister or anyone else in Whitehall that they are able “to carve out their own economic destinies” — it should be assumed that’s what they will want to do. How successful they are in delivering on that promise is for their voters to judge.

But rather than simply grumble, there is something more positive that councils can do, as Unlock Democracy points out:

… there is a framework already in place that allows councils to go much further than this. Under the Sustainable Communities Act, councils can request transfers of any funding and function from one public body to another, if it would help the community. So councils can use the Act to ensure that some of the billions of pounds of funding that is currently spent by any government department, agency or QUANGO is transferred to local control.

The Act has been used by over 100 councils since it was passed in 2007. A number of councils have made requests for transfers of funding or function under the Act. Windsor and Maidenhead Council, for example, put forward a proposal to take over running the local fire service that was threatened with closure, whilst Hastings Borough Council requested that Highway Authority powers be transferred to the council to improve roads in the area and Kent County Council called for control of skills and training agencies to be transferred to it.

Councils must first “opt in” to use the Act though – it is not compulsory for them to do so. Local Works – a coalition of over 100 national organisations including Age UK, the Woodland Trust and the Women’s Institute – is encouraging councils to take up use of the Act so that they can gain more than just the powers the government is potentially offering to 20 cities at the moment.

There’s more information about this over at the Local Works website here, including how councils can make use of the Sustainable Communities Act.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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5 Comments

  • How successful they are in delivering on that promise is for their voters to judge.

    This does rather assume that the “voters” have an electoral system that is fit for the purpose.

    On decentralisation, there has been an unfortunate pattern by which increases in spending have been associated with centralisation, while decentralisation has been a vehicle for passing on cuts. I fear what the outcome will be once the Treasury have had their say.

  • Richard Shaw 30th Oct '12 - 9:07am

    @Martin

    Given that English and Welsh councils use FPTP (either in tranches, or all-up) , which is the same as at Westminster, I don’t think it is the electoral system that is the issue. Rather the problem is that local government these days is little more than a local agency for central government and Whitehall. Councils face low electoral turnout and, referring to your other comment in Paul’s thread, one-party fiefdoms because they are seen as powerless and irrelevant. By giving them more power and independence from the centre, people will see councils are more important and relevant. Turnout would inevitably rise and people would take perhaps a greater interest in why political representation on councils is so disproportionate.

    It doesn’t matter which electoral system you use if the body you’re electing is powerless.

  • >why is it that local government is having to bid to central government for “the right to decide how skills and transport funding is spent locally” or to be “allowed to borrow against future tax receipts to invest in job creation schemes”?

    Totally agree with this sentiment, the growth of Milton Keynes is a good example of what can be achieved – before these and other responsibilities were taken away.

    I wonder whether a problem with the Sustainable Communities Act is that Councils have to apply, ie. they have to positively engage and have a business-like desire to do more for their community, perhaps the default should be an opt-in forcing Councils to positively opt-out…

  • In amongst this discussion, isn’t it time we had a ‘job description’ for a councillor (come to that, for an MP too)? that would then give the councillor a remit to work to, as a starting point, as an authoritative statement of what s/he can or cannot do. This would differ from one teir to another, from one council to another, and also depend on which powers the council chooses to take up, but having served as a councillor for 20+ years all I ever had was a vague officer-written ‘councillor role’ in the constitution and the dictionary definition. I had to demarcate the job for myself, sometimes seeing what I could get away with in pursuit of what I considered my residents needed. But there was nothing against which I could self-assess or be scrutinised, that someone could challenge me that I should have done but hadn’t, or that I was the person who was empowered to do x.
    No wonder there is such a widespread and bland lack of understanding, both publicly and amongst councillors themselves, as to what they should or could be doing.
    Surely the starting point for re-establishing respect for the role, and an aspiration of people to become one, is for the role to be clarified and then remunerated accordingly.?

  • Tony Dawson 30th Oct '12 - 3:13pm

    @peter :

    “..isn’t it time we had a ‘job description’ for a councillor (come to that, for an MP too)? that would then give the councillor a remit to work to, as a starting point, as an authoritative statement of what s/he can or cannot do.”

    This would be an utter disaster of a move. A Councillor (or an MP) can do whatever (within the law!) they feel justified in doing to seek the ends which they feel their constituents want. No decent councillor needs any bureaucratically-concocted nonsense to constrict their role.

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