Thursday, 19 May 2011

Localism Bill - A damp squib for Councils - more powers for Whitehall

Yesterday the Localism Bill passed through Parliament. After all the high rhetoric, the trumpet blowing of Secretary of State, the policy flagship statements - what we are left with is a damp squib that will have little effect on Local Government and hand the Secretary of State further powers.

The issue of mayors is one that affects 12 cities and is still in the balance. The Government rowing back saying local people must decide. So if all 12 decide not to have mayor then that’s the end of that.

I raised the issue of EU Fines being directly levied on Councils and not the Government. More rowing back. The primary issue here is waste. The minister announcing that if local Council's have a plan for waste then they will not face any EU fines. Every Council has a plan for waste so what a pointless, toothless clause in the legislation.

Then there are the planning changes. Currently good councils consult people and draw up plans. Local area committees have the powers to ask Council's to draw one up. Site specific or neighbourhood plans and they are included as Supplementary Planning Documents in the Local Plan.

The Localism Bill is a car crash. The Bill proposes to take away neutrality in planning decisions for members of the planning committee. Bit like courts, if you had made your mind up before hand you were removed from the committee for obvious reasons. That predetermination principle has been removed. You can oppose something and sit on the committee. It's a lobbyists charter and the worry is deep pockets may determine outcomes.

Hey, guess what. Residents can now form a local committee of 21 persons or more and ask for one. Spot the difference. The only difference to me is that Area Committees probably have 6-10 people on them including their local councillors.

The nasty side of the legislation, but again it only allows local discretion if chosen is to not give people life time tenancies in social housing thereby in years to come when they are under occupied, - there children have left home - kick them out. Hardly a policy to solve social housing need as Cameron suggested. Punitive and a disincentive to calling and making a home - your home. One you will invest in.

A further change which will provide local flexibility is the use of the Private Rented Sector for housing need. On the whole this is a bad policy because it will be an excuse to not provide decent accommodation and meet social housing need. Rather put decent people 'on their uppers', and vulnerable people in damp squalid Rackman conditions. It will increase the benefits bill and create make it more difficult to go from welfare to work.

The only upside is the flexible management of difficult and problematic families and individuals and these are too few and far between for such a heavy handed approach.

There are nuggets. Labour's powers of well being, whilst good in principle were coming under strain legally. The Localism Bill creates a General Power of Competence which puts Council's on the same footing as businesses and individuals. However well being meant a lot more such as a 'catch all' protection for the public against harmful or negative developments.

One controversial aspect of the Localism Bill is the abolition of the Standards Board. Local Councils will now self police and that is open to political abuse and corruption. Having said that the Standards Board were useless and came to the wrong decision as often as the right one. They were toothless when they needed teeth yet took bite sized chunks when they felt they could. A law unto themselves and whilst the Localism Bill is flawed on this, the Standards Board needed to go.

It won't be long before the new arrangements turn into a car crash at various Councils’ up and down the land.

The community stuff is just guff.

The community right to challenge where local people can run services. This weeks BBC programme from Preston where residents did manage Council budgets for their street showed the difficulty and unlikeliest. The idea that charities can bid for Council services or groups of workers.

This is all flawed in that they may not win the contract. They may not be sustainable and may collapse, what next for the service users? The reality is very few will take this risk because it serves little purpose.

How many public sector workers are going to break away to set up there own organisation to do the job they were already doing. Surely a well managed team is a well managed team.

Community right to bid. Another phantom idea. That The Council must keep a register of public and private assets so that residents can put their sale on hold whilst they raise the money to keep them. In reality, groups struggle to raise money. If they do they often have little problem acquiring premises, often helped by good local councils.

Whilst a positive move, how many times will this prove to be effective given the real life difficulties of charities and voluntary groups owning and running buildings. Lets be honest, they usually buy the cheapest building that no -one else wants because it is cheap and available.

Then there are local referendum. Surely a well run council is listening. In theory its more democracy and great. Except they cost a lot of money and services will have to be cut to pay for them. In practice what about the outcomes. Will the referendum be responsive to issue, or delayed to the next set of local elections which some Councils only hold every 4 years such as Lancashire. Will there be the resources to deliver the mandate? What about local referendum at street or neighbourhood level and what about the outcome having an adverse impact on other areas?

I am not against this, but again just think it has been ill informed, ill conceived and is another car crash as laid out.

And so it goes on. CIL's which will be hard to set up and are unlikely in the real world, vetoing of Council Tax rises through another expensive referendum. The weak and unspecified duty to cooperate to stop cross border Council or public body disputes and encourage co-operation which has no sanctions and is not mandated in any fixed way.

And so it goes on. None of which will have much of an impact on Hyndburn or Rossendale Borough Council's. We don't have Council Housing so the reforms of the HRA subsidy system don't matter either even though they are watered down step in the right direction for those that do. The Localism Bill did lead the belief that it would be scrapped in entirety.