Headlines: June 5th, 2006

An independent think tank is calling on the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to withdraw the code of practice on local authority publicity to reflect the role councillors play as community leaders. The Local Government Information Unit has made the plea in an open letter to Ruth Kelly.The LGIU is arguing that the limitations currently placed on councils mean they may be unable to tackle effectively racism and other forms of extremism that arise locally. It wants to see the code replaced with local government-based guidelines on how modern local authorities can use communications proactively in dealing with controversial issues.

Hilary Kitchin, Policy Officer at the Unit, said under the current regulations councils are not confident enough when dealing with the impact of the Far Right on community relations. “The Local Government Act 2000 changed the culture and expanded the role of local authorities, but more needs to be done to ensure that community leadership is fully realised in practice,” Hilary Kitchin said. Specifically, she added, councils needed tobe able to act to improve or promote the well-being of their communities but this had not yet been fully realised in practice.

In the letter to Ruth Kelly she writes, “Government may not be aware that the code of recommended practice on local authority publicity acts as a constraint on both elected members and officers in speaking out on the wider range of issues that now fall within the ambit of local governance. The constraints are of particular significance when authorities need to tackle racism and other forms of extremism that arise locally, and have the potential to undermine good community relations. Other examples of authorities having been restricted in their ability to explain topical issues include the recent regional referendums and related votes on local government reorganisation.”

The letter goes on to stress that role of councils and of senior elected members and officers has changed, but that current regulation on local authority publicity fails to reflect that. The LGIU wants the Government to use the opportunity of the proposed White Paper on Local Government to deal with the issue as one measure to improve the responsiveness and accountability of authorities to their communities.