Monday, 13 December 2010

Localism & more

Today the Coalition, so we are informed, released the Localism Bill yet despite searches* on Parliament's website and that of the Department of Communities and Local Government the closest I have come is this webpage, which only refers to an essential guidance paper which can be found here.

According to the Guardian:
"Councils will have a "general power of competence", allowing them to do anything not specifically banned. Fire authorities will get a similar power

• Councils will be allowed to return to the committee structure if they want.

• Councillors will be able to engage in normal political activities without being liable to legal challenge when they take decisions on the grounds they have a closed mind. Ministers want to clarify the law on this because the current rules have led to some councillors being discouraged from speaking on certain issues.

• The Standards Board for England will be abolished.

• Local Government Ombudsman rulings will become binding.

• Councils will have to publish a senior pay policy statement. If councils want to ignore it, there will have to be a vote at full council.

• Councils will lose the power to charge for bin collections.

• The duty on councils to promote greater involvement in local democracy will be abolished. Ministers think this is "an unnecessary burden" on councils.

• The government will be given the power to recover money from councils if they incur fines by breaking EU law.

• Councils will be given the power to instigate referendums. They will be non-binding.

• Voters will be given the power to veto excessive council tax increases. Any increase above a ceiling set by the communities secretary will have to be approved in a referendum.

• Community groups will have a "right to challenge", meaning they can apply to run local services.

• Communities will be given the right to buy certain community assets. Councils will keep a list of valued assets and, if they are put up for sale, communities will be given time to raise the money to buy them.

• The planning inspectorate will lose the right to rewrite local plans.

• Neighbourhoods will be given the right to permit development in their areas without the need for planning applications.

• Developers planning large schemes will have to consult the community before submitting a planning application.

• The infrastructure planning commission will be abolished. Instead there will be a new fast-track process for approving major infrastructure projects.

• Councils will be able to decide who qualifies for their housing waiting list.

• Councils will be allowed to offer short-term council house tenancies.

• A national homeswap scheme for social housing tenants will be set up.

• The law requiring home information packs will be abolished. (It has already been suspended.)"
On the DCLG newsroom page there is a comment by Eric Pickles which states:
"It is the centrepiece of what this Government is trying to do to fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country. For too long, everything has been controlled from the centre - and look where it's got us. Central government has kept local government on a tight leash, strangling the life out of councils in the belief that bureaucrats know best. By getting out of the way and letting councils and communities run their own affairs we can restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth - and build a stronger, fairer Britain. It's the end of the era of big government: laying the foundations for the Big Society."
On the same 'newsroom' page Greg Clark, Decentralisation Minister, states:
"This Bill will provide the enduring legislative foundation for a new, decentralised Britain, where power is returned to the people to which it belongs. We believe that communities should have the freedom to manage their own affairs in their way, and be empowered, not suppressed, by Government....."
Digressing slightly - and regular readers will know how I like a little digress now and again - this localism bill is a clever move by the Coalition. Whilst some councils may welcome the added responsibility, others will no doubt be petrified, their having hung on the teat of central government largesse to cure their ills. The resultant period will, I prophesy, contain a great deal of passing the buck: councils blaming poor services because of the cuts and central government blaming poor management by councils - and we all know who is going to be caught in the middle of such a slanging-match!

Not being able to find a copy of the actual bill, I am reliant on the Guardian and their summary quoted above. If this summary is accurate - and there is no reason why it should not be, albeit it is the Guardian, then some initial criticisms can be made.

1. Councils will be allowed to return to the committee structure if they want - as against the 'cabinet' system brought in by John Prescott. I highlight the phrase "if they want", in which I take to mean the "they" refers to councillors. Should not this decision be one that the electorate make? Bearing in mind the nepotism that is in existence in West Oxfordshire in respect of Conservative candidates for wards and appointments to the cabinet, it is highly unlikely cabinet members will vote to lose their additional salaries, nor ordinary councillors agreeing to this.

2.The duty on councils to promote greater involvement in local democracy will be abolished as Ministers believe this to be "an unnecessary burden" on councils. If it is the avowed intention to devolve power to communities, is this not a contradiction?

3. Councils will be given the power to instigate referendums which will be non-binding. The power to instigate a referendum should lie with the people, not the council and, in any event, if any referendum is "non-binding" what is the point of the referendum in the first place?

4. Voters will be given the power to veto excessive council tax increases which are above a ceiling set by the communities secretary and will have to be approved in a referendum - but will this referendum be "binding" or not (point 3)

With the abolition of the Standards Board for England this should mean that councils operate with much less bureaucracy - they will, for example, not be forced to employ Diversity or Gay, Lesbian, even Transgender Officers. I doubt whether Wm Hill would offer very good odds on people like those being made redundant or councils making those positions redundant. If it did happen, methinks there may be a few court cases arising under, say, human rights grievances. On the subject of these 'non-jobs' this is an extremely interesting source of information as it lists council staff benefit from private health insurance, mortgage subsidies, living allowances and large redundancy payments.

Pickles and Clark make much in the quoted statements above about communities being able to run their own affairs and that power is being returned to the people to which it belongs, in the belief that communities should have the freedom to manage their own affairs in their way; yet it is obvious that this is not the case as central government still controls the purse strings and still decides what powers local communities may have. If Pickles really did wish to devolve power he would allow councils fiscal control of their budgets, by allowing them to raise funds by means of a local tax - be that based on sales or land values.

During his appearance in the Commons today, Pickles made much of the savings that councils have achieved through the sharing of Chief Executives, front and back office staff etc. Cynic that I am, this I believe is no more than bringing in - quietly and through the back door, hoping that no-one will notice - the beginnings of the implementation of the EU's NUTS programme for regional government and would also be the beginning of Multi Area Agreements (MAAs) about which I posted on 4th January 2009.

Digressing once again, but to a certain extent still on the theme of devolving power, the Coalition - and Cameron in particular - made much of the 'one in - one out' rule where regulations are concerned. It would appear however that for every regulation that has been abolished, two have been introduced. My thanks then to the Spectator, from whom I have nicked the following table:

In the context of  'net gain', obviously Pickles is a clear winner. In his zeal to devolve power it is odd that he is a member of a government that is wedded to membership of an organisation that most definitely does not believe in devolving power!

*Update: the bill has at last appeared on the Parliament website here.

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