Headlines: November 14th, 2002

Local councils will have to deliver far-reaching and sometimes contradictory reform, if the public is to see the the benefits of a raft of legislation contained in the Queen’ s Speech, according to the Local Government Association.The association said the proposals would have important consequences for councils across England and Wales. UNISON, meanwhile, has condemned what it sees a two-tier approach to the provision of services.

The LGA said that on top of what is expected to be a significant Local Government Bill, laws on planning, regional assemblies, anti-social behaviour, hospital discharge, and licensing would signal a massive upheaval.

The association’s chair Sir Jeremy Beecham, said, “Practically all the good intentions that the government says lie behind the speech will need to be put into practice by local councils, not least the fight against anti-social behaviour. Across the board, councils and their staff have been put into the front line, but still with too little say over the way the struggle should be fought.”

It was more important than ever, Sir Jeremy, added, that Whitehall allowed local government to do the job that local people wanted it to do. ” We welcome the general move in that direction, but it is two steps forward and one step back. The general thrust of the Local Government Bill, to give us more freedom particularly over our financial affairs, is the way forward, but then the good work is undone by damaging proposals such as the fining of social services departments. Taking resources directly from the vulnerable and disabled to give to the sick doesn’t seem to be a sensible way for jointly planning public services.”

The Local Government Bill will give councils more freedom to decide how and where to spend on investment projects, based on what they can afford to borrow, instead of the current system where Whitehall has to give specific permission for capital spending plans. Other clauses in the Bill free up authorities’ ability to trade and set charges based on local circumstances. Councils seen as top performers under the new Comprehensive Performance Assessment scheme will be given additional powers.

The LGA is opposed to a number of the Bill’s likely provisions including plans for the government to take receipts from the sale of council homes and redistribute them across the country.

Turning to other proposed legislation, the LGA said council leaders would welcome possible new responsibility for licensing regulations. Reacting to the inclusion in the Queen’s Speech of a planning bill, Sir Jeremy said some of its proposals would be supported but councils were concerned about the loss of democratic accountability over some planning application decisions and particularly over the reduction in the role of county councils. The association is also concerned about proposals to allow new Business Development Zones to progress developments without planning consent.

On the question of regional assemblies the LGA said they must enhance democracy and local administration and not muddy it.

In its reaction to the Speech, UNISON, the public service union. said it was disappointed at the two-tier approach the Government’s plans would introduce into both the NHS and local government. Dave Prentis, the union’s General Secretary said, “We wanted to see positive proposals to raise standards across the whole of the public sector. This is the real challenge facing the government not this cherry-picking approach, which gives more to those who have most.”

He said giving more freedom to borrow to the best-performing councils would benefit only a few people and would not address issues like affordable housing which local councils needed to tackle urgently.