Conservative Diary

« Should Theresa May ban the Qur'an-burning pastor from entering Britain? On balance, yes. | Main | Class war on the Conservative benches »

Coalition launches its 'Power to the People' Bill

Tim Montgomerie

Graphic from BBC1's Politics Show

Screen shot 2010-12-13 at 07.16.39 We don't cover localism and local government very often on ToryDiary. We leave that to Harry Phibbs on the dedicated Local government blog but we'll make an exception today. Harry will continue to examine some of the detail in coming days.

CLARK GREG Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark has been working on the Localism Bill for much longer than since he was appointed in May. I worked alongside Greg in CCHQ in the early part of this decade. He was then head of the party's policy unit and produced a long paper called 'Total Politics'. It was an account of how too much of national life had become both politicised and centralised. Today's Bill marks a culmination of Greg's work and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles explains its ambition in an article for today's Telegraph:

"The Localism Bill is a centrepiece of what this Government is trying to do. For too long, everything has been controlled from the centre – and look where it’s got us. Uneven and unstable economic growth, frustrated public servants stuck following the rulebook to the letter and residents and community groups left without a reason to get involved. By pushing power out and letting councils and communities run their own affairs, we can restore civic pride and democratic accountability – and build a stronger, fairer Britain. It’s the end of the era of big government: laying the foundations for the Big Society."

The FT (£) sees today as a continuation of Mr Pickles' 'Bradford agenda' from twenty years ago when his controversial stewardship of that city became a symbol of the Thatcher revolution:

"Monday’s localism bill is a continuation of a crusade Mr Pickles set out on more than 20 years ago as a rising Tory star at Bradford council. Taking control of it in 1988, the then 36-year-old forced through radical cost-cutting measures as he sought to inject a little more private sector attitude into public life."

What does the Bill propose?
  • Community empowerment: Communities will get the right to veto large council tax rises; instigate referenda on local issues; provide an alternative ownership model for local services; and purchase 'listed assets' including local shops, pubs, libraries and leisure centres if they go on sale.
  • Decentralisation: Councils will acquire a 'general right of competence' so that they are free to innovate on behalf of their communities and work with other councils and agencies to common ends; councils will be able to switch from cabinet to committee governance; they will be freed from the anti-democratic Standards Board regime and in place there will be greater transparency including publication of all pay levels. All councils will be given the power to choose directly-elected mayors by local referenda, starting with Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield.
  • Planning reform: New neighbourhood plans, of the kind operating in Germany, will enable communities to choose development guidelines that will end the need for planning applications. There will also be a community right-to-build, the abolition of regional strategies, replacement of the Infrastructure Planning Commission with a democratically accountable fast-track system for major infrastructure projects and a new consultation mechanism for developers to follow before submitting applications for very large developments.
  • Social housing: Local authorities will get the freedom to set criteria for their housing lists, will be able to introduce time limited social housing tenancies and also a National Homeswap Scheme will be introduced (a 'right-to-move').
  • London: The Mayor will receive new powers over environment, housing and development.

There is another big local government story today, however, and one that might overshadow the first. Eric Pickles will publish grant numbers for 350 English councils for the next two years.

Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, tells The Times (£) that the impact will be “apocalyptic” in the first year:

“This will be the worst financial settlement for local councils since 1945 or perhaps ever. Town halls will face the certainty of significant cuts to services however they manage to improve efficiency in the medium term. Next year there will be a series of short, sharp shocks as authorities struggle with slashed budgets which will reverberate through 2012 and 2013.”

The cuts will, of course, be difficult but I hope someone is organising a mechanism to shame councils that attack frontline services without exhausting cutbacks to bureaucracy and opportunities for pooling resources. Mr Pickles, interviewed on the Today programme, said central government would still be giving local councils a reasonable settlement and it would be up to them to deliver "more for less".


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.