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Rory Stewart: "We know that communities know and care more, and that they can and ought to do more than distant officials in Penrith, Carlisle, London or Brussels"

By Tim Montgomerie

Highlights from yesterday's Commons debate on the Localism Bill.

Rory Stewart summarised why localism works: "This is a strange time and place because all hon. Members believe in that decentralisation, whether we call it localism, hyper-localism or double hyper-localism, but we are obstructed by our anxieties about power, knowledge and legitimacy. Let us remember the basic instinct and work together. We should support the Bill because we know that communities know and care more, and that they can and ought to do more than distant officials in Penrith, Carlisle, London or Brussels."

Stewart Jackson on new powers for local governments to act more freely: "The big society is about empowering local people to make decisions at local level. It should be seen not as lots of disparate, discrete initiatives at local level, but within the context of the Bill's provisions. I see the general power of competence, for example, as a key unlocking a huge amount of progressive development by local authorities. The New Local Government Network specifically praised the general power of competence and said: "This represents both a significant philosophical shift towards local democracy and a practical transfer of power to the local level." That is something that Labour never did in its 13 years of power, although it promised to do so in its 1997 manifesto. The other important issue-unfortunately, one cannot look in detail at the 406 pages of the Bill and its 201 clauses and 24 schedules in five minutes-is whether it is permissive, as opposed to prescriptive, as an approach to local government? On any objective test it is an extremely permissive piece of legislation. The general power of competence will give local authorities autonomy by unlocking accelerated development zones, tax increment financing, asset-backed vehicles and real estate investment trusts."

Mr Jackson also highlighted the economic advantages of decentralisation: "An econometric study in Germany found that Government efficiency increased in direct proportion to decentralisation and could drive it up by up to 10%. That would release in this country the equivalent of £70 billion. The Spanish institute of fiscal studies found that fiscal decentralisation could boost growth in the economy by 0.5%. The Bill speaks to that concern. If Opposition Members ask me whether we are going far enough in fiscal autonomy and decentralisation, the answer is no, but the Bill is a bigger and better start than what went on before."

Martin Vickers recommended that there be many more elected mayors: "I strongly support the moves towards the introduction of elected mayors, but why only 12? If, as stated, the Government consider elected mayors to provide strong leadership and improved clarity in municipal decision making and to enhance the prestige of their cities, why limit the number to 12, and why only for cities? ...Why are the provincial towns not being given the opportunity to have an elected mayor? Local councillors are not generally enthusiastic about elected mayors, as that is seen to risk breaking up the cosy arrangements that exist, particularly if there are two strong parties in an authority."

Fiona Bruce welcomes the right-to-buy community assets and also local referenda powers: "I spent six years as a local councillor before arriving in this House, during which I was amazed to discover such things as the fact that the local area plan contained approximately 40 targets, but only seven of them were locally determined-the rest were centrally set. Those were six years during which I witnessed continual frustration on the part of community groups, who had much to offer but struggled to have their voice heard. One such group runs The Oaks community centre in my former ward of Penketh. The group converted a school into an excellent all-age community centre, which is popular and in daily use, but it has told me that it has struggled to obtain even the tiniest degree of public funding or support, while two other local authority community halls in the same ward have languished under-used and largely unloved-expensive capital resources, the poor use of which a community right-to-buy bid, provided for in the Bill, could have addressed. I recall residents feeling almost a sense of grief when their historic primary school building was demolished in order to be replaced by a modern box. A local referendum, the power for which is provided in the Bill, could well have allowed those residents to have their voice heard. As it was, a local petition against the demolition, signed by thousands of residents, was all too easily dismissed, and, as if to add insult to injury, as a local councillor I was unable to vote on the issue because I had previously spoken to some of the residents about how to make their voice heard. The revision in the Bill of the rule on pre-determination is much needed."

Alok Sharma argues that local empowerment on planning need not stop housebuilding: "Under the previous Conservative Government between 1979 and 1996, an average of 171,000 homes were built every year across England. By contrast, under Labour, with its top-down approach and targets, an average of only 145,000 homes were built each year between 1997 and 2009. The problem with the current planning system is that it is not seen to be fair to local communities. It seeks to drown out their voices rather than to amplify them. Despite the clear wishes of local communities and local councils, the local view is that developers eventually ram through inappropriate developments on appeal."

Zac Goldsmith welcomes the Localism Bill's potential to help smaller shops: "Small shops define communities; as they die off and are replaced by bland multiples and empty premises, communities themselves begin to erode. The Bill will help councils to buck those trends. Simplifying small business rate relief and giving local authorities powers to provide business rate discounts will clearly help, but as we move towards democratic decision making and new neighbourhood plans, I hope that local people and elected councillors will be able to decide for themselves how their high streets look, and not simply be forced to yield before every Tesco application. For many people, that will be the test for this Bill."

Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark MP's summing up:

"The track record of local government in recent years certainly bears comparison with the track record of central Government, at least under the previous Administration, so it is absolutely right that we should give local government these powers and trust it. Of course we should give help to the most vulnerable communities to ensure that they can take advantage of the powers, just as everyone else can. However, the argument that people in local communities are so mean-minded that they will exercise their powers only in a way that Opposition Members have described as nimbyish, or that people who love their communities, and want to bring up their children and see them prosper in their areas are not capable of having the interests of their communities at heart is a bleak reflection on the Opposition's world view. It is not a view that we share. The Bill will put our politics on a different course. It will bring an end to the history of using power to take more power. It will give power to councils, power to communities, power to voluntary groups and power to the people, in the knowledge that the more powerful the people are, the stronger our society is."


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