The Independent View: The General Power of Competence – Is the sky the limit?

As the Localism Bill moves into Report stage in the Lords, local authorities are getting ever closer to gaining their much discussed General Power of Competence (GPoC).

For Lib Dems the passage of the Localism Bill is an interesting moment. Many, one suspects, might echo the views of former Lib Dem LGA leader Cllr Richard Kemp who in January blogged his ‘support [for] about 80% of the Bill, like[d] the direction but have concerns about the deliverability of 15% of the Bill, and actively detest 5% of it.’

Though Kemp’s reservations were reserved for the provisions concerning elected mayors, Lib Dems have also offered qualified rebukes of the GPoC. Giving authorities – county, district, even parish – ‘the power to do anything that individuals generally may do’ goes some distance towards fulfilling the party’s manifesto pledge to ‘radically decentralise politics so that local people have the powers… to deliver what they want for their communities.’ Yet question marks remain – particularly over the role of the Secretary of State.

As David Ward MP told the House of Commons committee in the Spring, whilst ‘we are all on the localism train and want to move in that direction… we are dependent on a Secretary of State who may or may not be friendly towards localism or local authorities.‘ Eric Pickles and his successors retain the power to amend the GPoC under Clause 5 of the Localism Bill, and Lib Dems (together with Labour peers) in the Lords have made much of this. Lord Greaves moved an (unsuccessful) amendment to state at the beginning of the Bill that its purpose is to promote a political culture based upon subsidiarity, i.e. giving power to lowest possible democratic rung, and Lord Tope argued for a central government stance of “We recommend that this is the best way to do it, but do it how you think best in your area.” GPoC then, can only become a General power if central government will retain an appropriate distance, and be perceived as such, from the powers exercised at the local level. A massive change in mindset is therefore required – both from councillors (of all parties) being given the new powers, and ministers ceding them. Buy in needs to be as much mental, as legislative.

At the same time, this need for an evolution in thought applies to local as well as central government. Council leaders such as Keith House (Eastleigh Borough Council) have long pointed out that ‘local government cries out for Whitehall to let go and create freedoms. Yet local government itself fails to pass power on down to local communities and neighbourhoods.’ Parish councils are included within the GPoC clause and, particularly with regard to neighbourhood planning, are set to grow in importance. How far parishisation occurs in the near future will be an interesting phenomenon to keep an eye on.

Having long argued for a general power, many Lib Dems will be eager to see the policy through to a successful conclusion. Though, in the immediate term, only 2 Lib Dem-controlled London Boroughs, 10 District councils, and the unitary authority of Portsmouth will be able to exercise the new power to its fullest (parish councils aside), the provisions within the Localism Bill open up a range of opportunities going forward. Greater trading powers and increased financial flexibilities are set to be devolved as the bill becomes law, yet it remains to be seen how far councils will use them, and be supported from the centre in doing so.

Lib Dems, with appropriate checks and balances, have fought hard for the localisation of power, have taken their place in a coalition which wears its localism on its sleeve, and have a minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government. The party, then, has bought into the theory of the general power, but will it buy into the practice? What, indeed, will this practice be? The debate continues.

Andrew Stunell MP, Cllr Richard Kemp and Cllr Keith House will all appear at Localis’ Liberal Democrat Conference Fringe Event – ‘General Power of Competence: Is the sky the limit?’ – on Saturday 17 September, 18.15, at the Mint Hotel, Birmingham (in association with BLP Managed Legal Service). All very much welcome to attend.

See our website for more details.

Richard Carr is a Research Fellow at Localis.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.

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