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Localism Bill: Third Reading

Localism Bill: Third ReadingIn our article 'Decentralisation and Localism Bill Announced' back in December, we told of the Government's plan for the Localism Bill. We said it had huge implications for the future of Local Government and the way society functions in the future.

Then in Select Evidence in February, we said the Localism Bill would shake up how Local Government interacts with people as much (or perhaps even more than) any legislation in the last 35 years. We saw it as a steam train at full power hurtling into town halls across the land, scattering all in its wake.

We gave an overview of the Bill itself, and where it was up to, back in February.

At a very broad brush level it is concerned with:

  • how local government functions, and how the community can be more empowered to take a greater role in local government
  • big changes in Planning, and,
  • some very significant changes in Housing

Within the Function of Local Government part, counterbalance has a particular interest in the potential to change from the awful Cabinet system we have now, back to the Committee system, which gives all Councillors an equal say and vote on all decisions that are made in the Council's name.

In our February article, we reported (and gave a link to) evidence that the Fylde Civic Awareness Group's submitted to the Select Committee. This was sent in support of the provision that will allow Councils to return to the Council and Committee system if they want to do so, or following a referendum if one is sparked by enough local people wanting the change themselves.

Since that time in February, a House of Commons Select Committee comprising 20 or so MPs, (including high ranking Ministers), has been sitting and debating all the clauses in the 400 page Bill, line by line, and page by page for two days every week.

In all, twenty-four monumental full day and evening sessions have been held to investigate the content of the Bill. There have been both serious and light-hearted exchanges as it has made its way through the Parliamentary scrutiny process in Committee.

And tomorrow and the following day, (Tuesday and Wednesday of this week), the Rt Hon St Eric Pickles (whose brainchild the Localism Bill is), returns to the House of Commons for its Report Stage and Third Reading.

Having exposed most of the arguments in the Bill during the Committee stage, this is where all Members of Parliament have the opportunity (should they so wish) to take up and debate the amendments that have been laid down by the opposition parties in order to change the content of the Bill.

The Bill passed through its committee stage substantially unchanged, (there were only technical amendments) but the government did agree to revisit a number of areas in the Bill (so there may be changes in these areas), including

Local Government

  • Whether the provisions for directly elected mayors in the 12 main cities should be extended to other cities.
  • Whether the term “closed mind” in the predetermination provisions should be changed
  • Whether there should be a method in place to allow alternative ways of taking part in the 'community right to challenge'.
  • How to deal with assets of community value that might straddle two local authority boundaries.

Planning

  • Whether local authorities must have an up-to-date development plan in place by the end of 2012, (after which a presumption in favour of sustainable development would apply).
  • Whether Community Infrastructure Levy payments should be available for affordable housing
  • How best to give the business community a legitimate role in neighbourhood planning
  • Whether planning law heritage protection for conservation areas and the setting of listed buildings should be maintained by neighbourhood plans.
  • Whether councils should have more freedom to sell land below the best available price for community projects
  • Whether the procedure for planning applications for major infrastructure projects of national significance could be simplified

Housing

  • How applicants for local authority housing are told that they are ineligible for an allocation.
  • The wording of the Bill concerning the creation of a demoted tenancy on termination of a flexible tenancy
  • The case for extending the guarantee of continued security of tenure where existing tenants choose to move to an affordable rent tenancy.
  • How best to address issues raised by recent legal precedent in relation to tenancy deposit schemes.

And in addition to those, we think we will see the opposition members trying to limit the power that St Eric plans to hold in reserve for himself if things go pear shaped somewhere. (Basically most of the Bill's clauses have a "but if he wants to, the Minister can override this in particular circumstances and he can make the rules about how local government has to behave" provision at the end of each section).

The Labour people see the Bill as the opposite of Localism because, they say, the Bill allows the Minister to make it up as he goes along. So to them, it is a centralising Bill.

St Eric replies that he will only do that 'in extremis'

So mostly that's what we expect the debate to be in the Report Stage.

We have a summary of the Bill's Progress, and the changes that have been discussed in Committee Stages. If anyone wants a copy please let us know and we can email it through to you.

Basically, starting shortly after 3:30 tomorrow (Tuesday 17 May) (there are some minor issues - Ministerial statements, ten minute rule bill that sort of thing first), the main Report Stage will begin. It is expected to go on to around 10:30pm on the Tuesday,

Day 2 will start just after 12:30 on Wednesday - and toward the conclusion of Day 2, the 'Third Reading' will take place.

That Third Reading is typically a formal "nod through" of the decision to approve the Bill after the intense debate of the Report Stage the day before.

And with that, it completes its Commons Stage and moves to the House of Lords for their Lordships to read and examine all the calluses in it, before they return it to the Commons where it will have a final consideration of any amendments there before it receives Royal Assent and becomes the law of the land

Any anoraks like counterbalance out there will be glued to (or recording) BBC Parliament (or watching the Parliament Channel on the Internet), where these debates will be shown live.

So far as our particular interest is concerned (i.e. returning to the Council and Committee System)  something called 'Schedule 2' of the Bill sets out what will become the new law on this matter, and the latest version (as amended in Committee) as presented to the Commons tomorrow says in effect:

Permitted forms of governance for local authorities in England:..... a local authority must operate either -

  • (a) executive arrangements,
  • (b) a committee system, or
  • (c) prescribed arrangements.

And the Committee system must conform with any provisions that apply to it if any are set out in the Bill (or St Eric's subsequent regulations).

As we reported above, the Secretary of State can also prescribe and require specific governance arrangements to be put in place - by his making regulations that say how particular local authorities must operate to discharge their functions.

So, thus far, the provisions in the Bill seem strong and unaltered.

It is still right on its timetable that was set out at the start of the Bill, and it should achieve Royal Assent in November of this year.

But we hear there are dark forces at work within Fylde that are even now trying to frustrate the opportunity the Bill presents to return to a properly democratic Committee system at Fylde.

There are plans being discussed (informally of course - so almost no one on the outside gets to hear of them) to set up a half-hearted excuse for a committee system.

We hear talk of Cabinet Members having an 'advisory committee'  that they can consult before making their decisions, or before Cabinet debates and decides what will be done.

The plan is probably to install this system (or something like it) before the new legislation is in place (which will probably be something like 12 months or so from now)

We suspect this cosmetic sideshow is being dreamed up by officers at the request of at least some in the controlling party, and it is aimed at making it look as though something has changed, when it hasn't changed at all.

We're entirely convinced the underlying aim is for Fylde to be able to say, well, we've not really settled on the one we've just changed to - and we don't want another change now,  before that has bedded-in, do we?

We serve notice here and now to anyone thinking they might go along that road. St Eric has (quite properly) made provisions for residents to petition for a local referendum on the form of governance system any Council should adopt, and that petition requires only 5% of the electorate of the area to trigger the referendum. Given the evident support (something over 50%) that exists here for a return to the Committee system, we can easily see a public petition and a subsequent public referendum returning the Committee system to Fylde.

But the Bill is about much more than the system of governance.

Saint Eric, and the Coalition are trying to open up a new era of innovation in Local Government – shaking up the environment in which councils work, and hoping something new and better will emerge.

The intention is to inject a dose of political heroin into three key philosophies that underpin local Government.

The first is an attempt to empower individuals by unbundling public services and transforming them into a series of separate marketplaces. (We're not sure how effective this will be, but that's what is envisaged)

The second area – which the Bill majors on – is empowering communities. Rather than have councils 'shaping places'  (as Tony Blair set out to achieve), this Government wants to help people shape their councils.

The Bill’s powers to force referendums on local issues, and the planning reforms and rights for community groups (who will be able to bid to save buildings or run services) are all the sort of changes that will allow us as residents to change the way Fylde BC works, and the way the Fylde is.

The third major plank is local freedom – expressed to a degree through the new power of general competence (which will let councils do anything that is not unlawful) and some flexibility around the use of business rates.

It's not exactly clear what the final shape will be, but we think that's intentional. This isn't a Government that sets out to do a Gordon Brown micro-managed 10 year plan.

Instead, their approach takes the idea of a free market approach to public services.

Rather than central planning, they want us to have greater freedom in the marketplace. They believe that innovation emerges from what we might call 'creative destruction' (i.e. what they see as failed ideas and failed ways of working have to die, so that better ones can win out).

Again we think this is something of a gamble - it could end up a horrible mess.

The principle is founded in the belief that If you change a lot of the things around in local government, then local government itself will either change, or it will become useless. Government expects it to change.

Finally, the Government's underlying logic implies that instead of having 'perfect institutions', we should focus on building up the capacity of individual residents to make a good (or big) society.

The risks of this approach are also obvious. If communities are not active enough, then the Localism Bill will have limited impact. Conversely, if the new rights are enthusiastically taken-up, they could lead to conflict between neighbourhoods that espouse different ideas (as we said back in February when we introduced the topic)

So, life in FBC isn't going to be easy anytime soon, They will be squeezed between cost reductions and increasingly empowered citizens.

Where we - as residents -  don't take up the challenge, Councils are likely to revert to the 'Nick Ridley' ideal of the 1970's - and become the Council that meets once a year to have lunch, sign all the contracts, and then go home.

Whether or not you agree with the Government’s vision, there is no denying that when the Localism Bill becomes the Localism Act, it will bring radical change to Local Government.

Dated:   16 May 2011


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