The Local Government Association has welcomed what it calls “the room to breathe” free from central government controls which councils have won for themselves.After extensive negotiations between the LGA and the Office for the Deputy Prime Minister a package of ‘freedoms and flexibilities’ has been launched alongside the publication of the Local Government Bill. The ODPM called it a ‘dramatic devolution of power to local government’.
The LGA chair, Sir Jeremy Beecham, said that in recent years local councils had become bogged down in a massive exercise of producing plans for central government for virtually every function they performed and far too much government funding had been ring fenced.
“Today’s announcement represents the most significant step in delivering freedoms and flexibilities to local authorities since it was promised in the local government white paper a year ago. The package for high performing councils is ambitious and will free them up to improve the services they can offer local people,” he said.
“The sigh of relief from the best performing councils must help blow away central government interference for good and allow all authorities to deliver better services based on local needs. The LGA will continue to press for the maximum freedom and flexibility to be extended to all councils.”
Under the package all councils will see a 75 per cent reduction in the number of plans they have to produce and Whitehall will loosen its financial grip by reducing the proportion of government grant that is tied to spending only on a particular purpose. The best performing councils will have almost total flexibility to decide how to spend government money and they will be granted a holiday from inspections.
Sir Jeremy added, “These measures should be seen as a pilot for other councils, and the government must press on, urgently dismantling the numerous consent regimes which constrain local decision-making.”
The Local Government Minister, Nick Raynsford, said, “Successfully devolving power and responsibility so that local people make decisions about local needs is fundamental to our aim of driving up performance standards and improving the quality of life of local people. Greater freedom for councils means more opportunities for those on the front line to shape the services their authority provides. It means local variations in services to meet the needs and preferences of communities but with the assurances of services delivered everywhere to high and improving standards.”
All councils, he said, would benefit from a reduction in red tape with the best-performing authorities being granted greater scope for innovation. “These proposals give all councils an incentive to rise to the level of the best. It is in the interests of us all that they succeed,”
Key provisions in the Bill include empowering councils to fund major improvements, such as new public buildings and infrastructure, enabling authorities and businesses to work together to solve local problems and updating council tax to ensure that local people contribute a fair share towards local public services.