Monday, 13 December 2010

Wither localism - initial thoughts on the Bill


Although the Bill won't be published until later this afternoon, the Government has released an essential guide to the Bill. These notes are drawn from that guide and are accompanied by my commentary. My focus is on the "community rights" elements of the Bill rather than on the local government reform elements such as the (welcome) abolition of the Standards Board for England, transparency requirements and elected mayors. One observation on transparency however is that local councils may begin to pass some of these requirements on to suppliers and partners. Certainly organisations contracting with local government should be prepared for new rules on disclosure and transparency.

The "community rights" elements are:

1. A Community Right to Buy - as ever the devil will be in the detail. However, this is expected to give local communities the 'right' to take over local assets (presumably subject to finances) threatened with closure. It is clear that this extends to private assets such as pubs, shops and post offices as well as public assets such as halls, libraries and youth centres.

2. A Community Right to Challenge - again the details of this will be important but its essence is to provide the same community right for revenue funded services as the "Community Right to Buy" grants for assets. The proposals seem quite limited at present - it isn't clear whether a community will have the right to take over a service or whether the right is limited to "challenge" (meaning the Council can simply ignore the community!)

3. A Community Right to Build - allowing communities that meet certain criteria (including capacity to deliver and a significant level of local support for proposals) to avoid planning requirements. Linked to the New Homes Bonus, the Community Infrastructure Levy and existing s106 provisions, this 'right' could present a real opportunity for developers, housing associations and local authorities to partner with parish councils or community groups to deliver new housing. The clash of NIMBY and BANANA instincts with real incentives to improve local facilities will be interesting to watch (and could prove politically explosive in some places)

4. Local referendums - again we can expect there to be significant strings attached to these proposals (and we should worry a little that the possibility exists for proposition 13 type outcomes - which may cheer ardent taxcutters but could handicap local councils). However, with the granting of a General Power of Competence to local authorities - jokes about which are likely to be legion - the scope for community-driven policy initiatives is a real opportunity

5. Neighbourhood Plans - probably the most controversial element of the Bill, we can expect the planning industry (and probably the large developers) to oppose these proposals. It will be very interesting to see what type of place takes up the opportunity and whether any local councils see this plus the power to vary business rates and 'tax increment financing' as the chance to create a 'freeport' environment with relaxed planning and lower taxes. Not sure this is what Eric Pickles would expect but it could prove an exciting option for some communities.

These are just initial thoughts and need to be seen in the wider context - not least the impact of this year's local government settlement on council net budgets. However, the changes should help create greater initiative and creativity in local government as well as within different communities which can only be a good thing.


No comments: