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Decentralisation and Localism Bill Announced

Decentraisation and Localism Bill AnnouncedOn 13 December at 3:30pm, the Government announced its much heralded Decentralisation and Localism Bill in Parliament

The changes this legislation will bring to the way we are governed has huge implications - both for Local Government, and for people and voluntary organisations throughout the country.

If the Bill's final wording ends up as it is now formed, (it has yet to go through Parliament's amending processes), it marks the start of a revolutionary change that will be almost as big as the 1974 Local Government re-organisation, and certainly as big as the Compulsory Competitive Tendering regime introduced by Margaret Thatcher.

At it's heart, the Bill espouses a complete reversal of direction and focus for Local Government - especially in the key services of planning and housing.

Power to determine matters locally appears likely to be returned to individuals and community groups..

Along with every democrat, counterbalance is broadly supportive of such measures.

For far too long, planning (and other) processes have been top-down in their delivery.

Government sets the tone; Region or County interpret that policy for everything within their boundaries, and set rules that smaller Councils have to follow.

Borough Councils may make their own policies, but they have to frame them within the overarching county/region and national policies.

So at the bottom of the heap, people in Fylde have 'planning' and other services imposed on them from on high.

Thus, if you live in an exceptional area - and Fylde is an exceptional area by virtue of its demographics if nothing else - we find we don't sit comfortably within policies designed for areas with a different demography, and those espousing a different culture.

What the Rt. Hon. Saint Eric Pickles and his team are doing will set that system into reverse.

The proposed legislation sounds quite innocuous.

The Decentralisation and Localism Bill.

Even its 'First Reading' in the house probably isn't as exciting as you might think. This event simply announces the Bill in Parliament; sets out its broad aims; authorises it to be printed in time for the Second Reading, and sets a date (actually 17th January 2011 in this case) for that.

End of. (As they say these days)..

There's no debate or discussion at this stage.

The description of the Bill says it is a "Bill to make provision about the functions and procedures of local and certain other authorities; to make provision about the functions of the Local Commission for Administration in England; to enable the recovery of financial sanctions imposed by the Court of Justice of the European Union on the United Kingdom from local and public authorities; to make provision about local government finance; to make provision about town and country planning, the Community Infrastructure Levy and the authorisation of nationally significant infrastructure projects; to make provision about social and other housing; to make provision about regeneration in London; and for connected purposes."

But the dust-dry parliamentary language of that description doesn't do justice to the changes it will bring.

The full wording (which is hard to read because a lot of it repeals or amends other legislation) is available for the time being on the Parliamentary website if you follow these links to the full Bill as published in  Parts1 and Part 2.  There is also a layman's guide to the aims (but not to the wording) of the Bill if you follow this link to the Guide to the Bill

Whilst the details are to be refined as the Bill progresses through Parliament, it's going to be so important to all our lives, we thought our readers would like a quick overview of the main points as we see them....

GENERAL POWER OF COMPETENCE  (Already shortened to GPC)
A new general power of competence will enable councils to do anything apart from that which is specifically prohibited by law.

This is a bigger change than it seems. Most people think Councils can do what they want now, but they can't.

At present, councils can only do what a specific law gives them permission to do (but, of course, there are a lot of wide ranging powers set out in various laws). This new power will reverse that, and let Councils innovate and do all manner of things we wouldn't expect.

There is already talk of councils offering banking facilities, mortgages and insurance. They could also start offering commercial services such as vehicle repair. In fact, the thrust of this section of the bill seems to aim at income generation by Councils to fund their activities.

AAnd likewise, Fire and Rescue Authorities are also given a general power of competence.

Whether this change will produce what we expect or want our public authorities to be doing is less than clear..

GOVERNANCE ARRANGEMENTS
This will allow Councils to revert to the former Council and committee system instead of having the present, awful, Cabinet system that has ruined so much of Local Government in the past ten years.

In our view this is one of the best aspects of the Bill.

It will give Councils back the tried and tested system that not only gives every elected councillor what by right they should have - a say and a vote on all decisions made in the name of the Council, it also gives them a 'safe' training ground for new councillors, and lets more experienced ones cut their teeth when they chair one of several committees.

PREDETERMINATION
This part removes the threat of censure from councillors who have campaigned on a particular issue. It will allow Councillors to express their views and vote on that matter without being accused of prejudice.

STANDARDS
This is the formal abolition of the Standards Board with various additional measures - including a new criminal offence of deliberately withholding or misrepresenting a personal interest. There are also duties to promote and maintain high standards of conduct and so on.

PAY ACCOUNTABILITY
The aim here is to improve accountability around how senior pay is set in local government. The theory is that by having to publish the payments made to senior staff, there will be public and other pressures to reduce it.

MISCELLANEOUS REPEALS
Three specific pieces of specific legislation are repealed. The most interesting of these removes the power to charge for rubbish collection and recycling that was envisaged by the previous government - the so called 'pay as you throw' or 'bin-tax' is to be killed off.

E.U. FINES
This bit we're much less impressed by.

It provides the power to recover funds from local and public authorities to pay any financial sanction imposed by the European Court of Justice for a failure of the UK to comply with EU treaties. We'd much rather St Eric told the ECJ to push off, and that British law will be the overriding power in this country. But (at least as yet), that's not going to happen.

NON DOMESTIC RATES
This involves an amendment to the Business Rates Supplement Act 2009 and will require any proposals that come forward to levy a supplement on business rates to be subject to a ballot.

There will also be more discretion in granting relief from 'business rates' for businesses; and to let Government itself introduce a new small-business rate relief scheme.

LOCAL REFERENDA
People, councillors and councils will be able to instigate a local referendum on any local issue.

Although non-binding, councils will be required to take the outcomes into account in decision making. The Bill says the requirement would apply:

  • where a valid petition requesting a referendum is received;
  • on a request from one or more members of the authority; or
  • where the authority itself decides to hold one.

The requirements for it to be a valid petition include that it must be signed by a minimum of 5% of the electors in the area to which the petition applies; (we can see some arguments in geography here).

Following a referendum, the authority must consider what action it proposes to take, and publish its decision and reasons for the action.

The provisions may or may not apply to parish councils - they don't at the moment, but the Secretary of State can simply make a regulation to say that they do (if he wants, or feels the need, to do so).

COUNCIL TAX
Councils, police and fire authorities that propose an increase in council tax beyond a 'ceiling' approved by Parliament will automatically face a special Council Tax Referendum of all registered voters in their area which will veto or approve the increase.

The ceiling will be set by comparing between the proposed Council Tax with that of the previous year. If a referendum rejects the 'excessive' amount, the authority must also have an alternative - more or less as last year - budget ready to be implemented .

At present it doesn't look as though this measure will apply to Parish Councils, but as with any Bill, until the final wording is the law, changes can be made during its passage through Parliament..

COMMUNITY RIGHT TO CHALLENGE   (Service Delivery)
This allows voluntary, community, social enterprises, and similar groups, together with parish councils and two or more local authority employees who are delivering a service, to challenge the authority, by an 'expression of interest' (Already shortened to 'EOI') in running that (or any) service for which the Council is responsible. Where an EOI is accepted, the authority must conduct a procurement exercise in relation to the service that could see the challengers running it if they can do so more cheaply. Services could include running children's centres, social care services or improving transport links and so on. The decision to reject an EOI, with reasons, must be notified to the proposer and published.

ASSETS OF COMMUNITY VALUE
The Bill proposes a new duty on local authorities to maintain a list of assets of community value (Including things like pubs, shops and libraries). Whether an asset is (or is not) a community asset will be determined by regulations. A parish council, or other people specified in regulations - can make nominations of assets to be included in the authority's list.

Locals will be able to place certain buildings on a "most wanted" list, and when listed assets come up for disposal (either the freehold or a long leasehold), communities will be given the chance to develop a bid and raise the capital to buy the asset on the open market.

This is designed to help local communities to save sites which are important to the community, which will contribute to tackling social need and building up resources in their neighbourhood.

The owner of the land will have a right to review the decision and a right to appeal.

A list of unsuccessful nominations, stating the reasons for the rejection, must also be maintained by the authority. The system will be managed similar to a local land charge.

PLANNING
There are several sub-sections here....

Abolition of Regional Strategies
The Bill will remove the primary legislation which sets the basis for Regional Strategies. The Cala Homes challenge to St Eric's is set to evaporate on the Royal Assent of the Bill when it becomes and Act.

Duty to co-operate
The Bill introduces a duty to cooperate to ensure that local authorities and other public bodies co-operate with each other. The duty will be a key element of proposals for strategic working once Regional Strategies are abolished.

Local Plan Reform
The Government wants to give local authorities and communities greater choice and control over planning, so there are several measures here.

For example, rural communities will be able to safeguard the future of rural villages by setting their own framework for development without being told that it does not fit with their local council's plans.

Another proposal is that Parish Councils and "neighbourhood forums" can come together to decide where new shops, offices or homes should go and what green spaces to protect . if the plan meets certain safeguards and gets 50% of support in a local referendum, it can be built without planning permission.

Yet another way will be to stop the Planning Inspectorate re-writing local plans. Planning inspectors will continue to assess local plans at a public examination, and authorities will only be able to adopt plans judged 'sound' by the inspector, but inspectors will only be able to suggest changes at the request of the local authority.

Local authorities will also have to publish up to date information direct to the public on what planning documents they are preparing, while central government powers to direct changes to local plans will be more limited.

Pre-application consultation
The Bill brings a new requirement for prospective developers to consult local communities before submitting planning applications for very large developments. The aim here is to give local people a real chance to comment on proposed developments which may have an impact on them, and to collaborate on issues such as design at an early stage, when they still have a real change to influence proposals before they are finalised. Developers will be required to have regard to any opinions raised during this consultation when deciding whether to make any changes before submitting their planning applications.

Community Infrastructure Levy
This is, in effect, a payment made by developers in exchange for permission to develop. Some see it as a bribe, others see it as making developers bear the social cost of their developments. Our readers can take their pick.

The Bill will ensure that some money from developers goes directly to the neighbourhood where developments have been built, so it can be spent on local facilities such as cycle paths or playgrounds if needed. The Bill also makes it clear that funds can be spent on the ongoing costs of infrastructure, as well as the initial costs of new infrastructure.

Planning Fees
The Bill also gives local authorities greater control over setting their charging levels for planning applications - although independent examiners will still consider whether the charging schedule is reasonable or not.

Enforcement
In order to engage in the planning system,  individuals and communities need to know that when people try to flout the system, local planning authorities have the ability to take action. Interestingly, one of the less publicised proposals in the Bill will tackle deliberately misleading planning applications and the running of retrospective planning applications and enforcement appeals simultaneously.

Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects
This follows on from the abolition of the 'Infrastructure Planning Commission' and aims to give a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects such as airports and wind farms. The Government says the current system for major infrastructure projects is unaccountable and that these decisions should be taken by Ministers, who are democratically accountable.

We think this measure will give Government more say (and probably people less say) in what happens and that's hard to square with Localism.  But we think it will rebound on them. Ministers don't like being accountable when 'Middle England' rises up against them and their party - especially in narrow-majority areas.


HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS

Home Information Packs
The Bill will officially abolish 'HIPS', the packs containing property information.

Social Housing Allocation
The bill includes measures to allow Councils to decide who goes on their housing waiting lists - (although central government will set the categories considered to have the greatest housing needs).

Social Housing Swapping
It also includes plans to make it easier for social tenants to move to other social housing, and it will introduce an internet-based "national home swap scheme" allowing tenants to see properties across England and swap with tenants looking to exchange homes. Such tenants will find it easier to move, because these transfers will no longer have to compete with those in housing need on the waiting list as they do at present.

The Government says that current arrangements for social housing encourage false expectations and long waiting lists (which currently run to almost 1.8 million households). This transfer measures will allow local authorities to set waiting list policies that are appropriate to their local area. By taking transferring tenants (who are not in housing 'need') out of the allocations rules, the Government will make it easier for them to move, (and it will be easier for landlords to manage their stock better)

Social Housing Tenancy Lengths
At present, social landlords are normally only able to grant lifetime tenancies. They will, in future, be able to offer new social housing tenants shorter, fixed-term (min 2 year) tenancies - ending the right to a council house for life, although landlords will be able to grant lifetime tenancies, (with the decision being taken based on the situation of that person at that particular point in their life). As the tenancy is given for life, the landlord of a lifetime tenancy will not be able to review the person's occupation of the property even if their circumstances subsequently change and they tenant moves out of the 'needy' category.

Mobility Out of the Social Rented Sector
The Bill seeks to help realise tenants' ownership aspirations, and through supporting 'upward mobility' it give more effective use of social rented stock. The Bill will enable housing association tenants who are also members of their landlord organisation are allowed to take up incentive schemes which help them move out of the social rented sector into owner occupation.

Social Housing Funding
The Bill also changes the financing of council housing. In future, the system will be locally run, and Councils will be able to keep rental income to spend on maintaining homes. (Which most of our readers will probably be amazed to find doesn't happen at present anyway). There is a lot of change that is buried deep in the modifications to housing funding. For example, the Bill will provide for a one-off payment from Government to each council, meaning that Councils will be able to support their housing stock and borrowings and thus fund housing from 'their own' income in future.

Social Housing Regulation
The Bill also proposes various changes to the regulatory system for social housing. These include abolishing the 'Tenant Services Authority' which will put local people in control of driving up the standards of social housing management and give the eight million or so social tenants stronger tools to hold landlords to account. There will also be a greater role for locally elected representatives in resolving problems in their area, with the residual problems escalating to the Homes and Communities Agency who will also oversee the economic regulation of landlords. This part of the Bill also makes changes to the Ombudsman for social housing complaints.

Homelessness
Changes to the "homelessness duty" will mean councils can offer people private sector accommodation instead of being obliged to offer social housing.

People homeless in a crisis need somewhere suitable to live, but do not necessarily need social housing. Under the current legislation they can insist on being provided with expensive temporary accommodation, at taxpayer's expense, until social housing becomes available.

Government says that at present, 70% of people accepted as being homeless receive an offer of social housing - which means about 20% of social lets go to the homeless, not to people on the housing waiting list - and this is to the detriment of those people on the list.

The Bill gives councils the flexibility to bring the homelessness duty to an end with an offer of suitable accommodation in the private rented sector without requiring the household's agreement.

DIRECTLY ELECTED MAYORS
Although of less relevance to Fylde, the Bill will give some areas the right to have a mayor. Following Royal Assent, the Government will make an Order that will make the council leaders of Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield into shadow mayors. Any other area that calls for a mayor will hold mayoral referendums on local Election Day in May 2012.

For areas that vote in favour, mayoral elections would then be held on local Election Day in May 2013. Mayors will be elected for four year terms and have the status and power to make their city a success, the detail of which will be further explained during the course of the parliamentary process.

We're not at all keen on the idea of directly elected Mayors, and especially of the idea of them being imposed. It flies in the face of the basic tenets of localism to impose a particular style of governance on any area. And whilst we accept that a Mayor as an executive can improve efficiency, (as can, for example, a dictator) it concentrates power in just one pair of hands, and we've seen how that can cause trouble. Power has a corrupting influence.

Not good.

But with that exception, the Decentralisation and Localism Bill has a lot to commend it.

It's not going to be all plain sailing through smooth clear-blue water in the sunshine though.

Coming with the authority for people to affect local policy, comes the responsibility of saying, for example - whether and where new homes should be built - and there will be financial incentives to encourage communities to support the building of houses. This will cause community division in some areas.

But we believe that's where debate should take place.

We firmly believe that it is the people of the area to whom local government should listen, react and respond.

We do not believe - as was set in stone under the last Government - that it's local government's job to 'lead' its community.

Anyone wanting to be led could have joined the army.

What most people want, is to be represented - for their collective views to become the voice of their area.

And that's Just what St Eric has promised

We'll be watching the progress of this bill through Parliament and keeping readers informed of its progress.

Dated:    28 December 2010


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