Decentralisation, Localism and Values

The Decentralisation and Localism Bill will be published this afternoon. It is likely to contain the following proposals:

  • Directly elected Mayors for 12 cities subject to successful referendums. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill also proposes elected Police Commissioners.
  • General Power of competence for local government. This is a long overdue reform that has been promised by governments in the past, but not been implemented to bring the UK in line with local government in the rest of Europe.
  • Abolition of many central government permissions – another welcome announcement
  • Community takeover of assets – this is covered in more detail below
  • Abolition of regional spatial strategies and Localised planning policy for defined neighbourhoods balanced by more incentives to build more homes through a Community Infrastructure Levy – also covered later
  • Require public bodies to publish online the job titles of every member of staff and the salaries and expenses of senior officials.
  • From 2011, all local authorities obliged to publish all spending over £500 online.
  • Give residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue and the power to veto excessive council tax increases through a referendum
  • Scrapping of regional development agencies and creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships
  • Abolition of the Standards Board Regime and ending “Pre-determination Rules” preventing Councillors from having to declare any public campaigning as an interest on a matter
  • Home Information Pack formally scrapped
  • Social Housing reforms including tenancy changes – likely to be controversial
  • Abolition of housing revenue account subsidy system

Whilst this is a significant set of changes, it is not a complete freeing of local government. Their finances are still subject to a subsequent review. In the meantime DCLG will retain reserved powers over any changes to local government taxation.

Some of the most important aspects are the new “rights” which local communities will have:

  • Community Right to Buy. Local groups will have a legal right to nominate any vital community asset including local shops, pubs, libraries and leisure centres to be recorded on a ‘most wanted’ list by the local council. If a listed asset goes on the open market, its sale will be delayed triggering a ‘community countdown’ that will give people time to prepare their business plan and raise the funds they need to bid.
  • Community Right to Challenge. This gives community or voluntary sector groups, as well as parish councils and council employees delivering the service, new powers to challenge and take over a local service. Under the new law, councils must respond to this challenge and consider the positive impact the proposal could have on the community. If the proposal is turned down the council must publish the reasons for this. This new right puts voluntary and charity groups in a powerful position when it comes to running public services and has the potential to open up new revenue streams for them.
  • Community Planning. Housing Residents will also be able to apply for new homes to be built locally if they believe there is a shortage of affordable housing or families need to be attracted into the area. Building schemes supported by more than 50 per cent of voters in a referendum would get the go-ahead – rather than the 75 per cent previously proposed by the Government. The scheme will operate in all types of community, and not just rural areas.

Will this lead to everyone exercising their new rights? Almost certainly no.

You may be aware of the “Right to Buy” from the early 80’s in which millions exercised their right. In the late 80’s a “Right to Repair” was brought in for some tenants, yet that has been used far less.

The values of people are likely to mean they some people are more motivated to take a more active approach to change things, whilst some see then more as a defensive right to be exercised to save an existing facility. A good example of the latter is the Sun Newspaper’s reporting of this from a safety and security point of view.

If these rights are to be effective across all communities, they need to be communicated effectively, with the right messages to the right audiences as well as measures to strengthen social networks and increase local social capital. The danger at this stage is that Local Government might not have the inclination, whilst the voluntary sector may not yet have the experience.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer at The Campaign Company.


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