Localism Bill: Big Idea or Big Con

on Saturday, 05 February 2011. Posted in N21 Community

 



This website attempts to remain apolitical, but the debate over Localism and The Big Society is too close to the ideas behind n21online.com for the debate to be ignored. Ten days before Christmas, details of the Government’s long awaited Decentralisation & Localism Bill were published.  Localism has been described as ‘the glue that holds the coalition together’,  combining the Lib Dems long held belief in the importance of community politics with David Cameron’s Big Society concept.


For those of you who are new to the debate, the idea behind the Localism Bill is to redefine the relationship between people and the state – power to the people is one way of looking at it, but also less state control and less support. Councils will receive more powers under the Bill, although the Government will also be taking control of some services currently managed by local councils. Here are some of the interesting proposals from the Bill, which runs to 400 pages!


Central to the Localism Bill will be major reforms of the planning system, aimed at giving local councillors and local communities greater control over planning policies and approvals and it is envisaged that the change will kick start new private sector house building.  However, many commentators have suggested that this is going to lead to more local planning disputes. Whilst all the major political parties and indeed most voters agree that more affordable housing is needed, in a recent survey far fewer (50%), wanted them in their local neighbourhood. It has been suggested that the Bill will be a ‘Nimby’s Charter’, not in my back yard.


There will be Neighbourhood Plans, which will give local people new rights to shape the development of the communities in which they live, improvements and development priorities. Neighbourhood Forums will be set up, to stimulate local discussion and decision-making to inform the Neighbourhood plans.


Under the Community right to buy, communities will have powers to save local assets threatened with closure, allowing them to bid for the ownership and management of community assets.


Community ‘right to challenge’
will enable voluntary and community groups, councils and even public sector employees, to request to take over the running of any service the local authority currently delivers. This is intended to enable local communities the chance to get more involved in the delivery of public services and shape them in a way that will meet local preferences. For example, it has been suggested that some parts of country local libraries could be run not by the Council but by volunteers.


Local referendums:
Local residents will have the power to instigate, via a petition, local referendums on any local issue.

One positive outcome for local retail businesses, will be that the Bill will give local councils discretionary powers to grant business rate discounts; which hopefully will benefit our retailers along Green Lanes; many of whom have faced massive increases in their business rates over the past year.


In theory, it does seem a good idea to encourage people to be more involved in their local communities. Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government has said that he wants “every community to share in the benefits of economic growth”.  However, it is still much too early to say how successful the Bill will be in giving people more control over the communities in which they live; and whether the agenda is more about cost cutting that a genuine attempt to improve local services.


There are lots of unanswered questions. If the Bill is to give people a greater say in how their local communities are run, how is this going to be achieved?

Do most people have the time, inclination or interest in local decision making? 

How many people will get involved in the Neighbourhood Forums? How do you get people involved?

Will it be left to the stalwarts who loyally turn up at the Council’s Area Forums to lead the debate?

Is the Government going to be too reliant on voluntary groups to replace Council services as some people fear?  If so, where is the funding and man power going to come from?


As yet Enfield Council do not appear to have issued any formal statement on the Bill.


Is it pie in the sky? Or an exciting way of getting people more involved in their local area?


David Burrowes MP has added his comments to the debate:

 For far long, too much has been controlled by central Government. I was therefore pleased when the new Government pledged a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to local people in the Programme for Government. The Government highlighted that it would promote decentralisation and democratic engagement, and will end the era of top-down government by giving new powers to local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals. I am therefore pleased that the Government has laid the Localism Bill before Parliament which will be a landmark piece of legislation. It will put an end to the hoarding of power within central government and top-down control of communities, allowing local people the freedom to run their lives and neighbourhoods in their own way. The Localism Bill contains a radical package of reforms that will devolve greater power and freedoms to councils and neighbourhoods, establish powerful new rights for communities, revolutionise the planning system, and give communities control over housing decisions.

For Enfield Council, the Bill will fundamentally change its freedom to act in the interest of our local community through a new general power of competence. Rather than needing to rely on specific powers, the new power will give the Council legal reassurance and confidence to innovate, drive down costs to deliver more efficient services.

For too long constituents have complained about a lack of real power to shape our local area. Whitehall and Planning Inspectors have often gone over the heads of local peoples' concerns. The Localism Bill at last will give you the real power to challenge the Council  about local services and determine the future of our local area.

 

Paul Smith, for Enfield Liberal Democrats writes:

Localism, the idea that local people have a say in the running and provisionof services, seems on face value a great idea, but the devil's in thedetail. How many people reading this know what CAPE is, when andwhere it meets and how they contact it? It's only localism if every member of the community is able to become involved equally and easily or at least knows how to contact and influence the local body which is supposed to represent them.

Localism also requires a relinquishing of central control not just on direction, but on funding. For example PCTs are (or were) supposed to provide local direction for services, but their budgets were dictated by Whitehall.

I'm also sure we've all come across groups where a small cabal have established control, and will not share ideas or power; distribution of power can be an issue locally, as well as nationally. So if we "go local", how do we select our local "movers and shakers" and how can we hold them to account? And where does this leave our elected councillors? What role will they play in enhanced localism? 

Now localism is often paired with the Big Society but to my mind they are totally different. The Big Society seems to be a poorly defined idea that local volunteers take over public services which local or national governments decide can no longer be funded. For example the council is considering schemes whereby libraries might be "staffed" by volunteers. So while localism allows local people to direct the currently available resources, the Big Society takes these resources away, leaving volunteer groups to pick up the pieces.

And while volunteer groups are being asked to do more, Enfield Council is considering cutting the money if provides to volunteer groups by up to £300,000. This is money which these groups use to hire halls, provide tea and coffee and many small items without which they cannot function.

Volunteers provide a most valuable resource, their time, but they are not professional fund raisers - remove this money and they will not have the material resources to provide the services they provide.

So the bottom line is that local people being involved in decisions is great, but local and national government abdicating responsibility and expecting volunteers to take up the slack is not.

 

Localism has been described as 'the glue that holds the coalition together', combining the Lib Dems long held belief in the importance of community politics with David Cameron's Big Society concept.

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