WHITE PAPER WELCOMED AS ‘SIGNIFICANT STEP TOWARDS DEVOLUTION’
The future of local government has been set out in a White Paper, “Strong and Prosperous Communities”, with proposals for greater powers for councils, which will have stronger leadership but be more accountable to those they serve. Local people will have more opportunities to influence decision making and the number of targets imposed on authorities by Whitehall will be radically reduced as the Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly detailed what she called: “a new settlement with local government, communities and citizens.”
The Local Government Association described the White Paper as a significant step towards devolution. Its chairman, Sandy Bruce-Lockhart said, “The White Paper is encouraging. It takes significant steps on local leadership, deregulation and cutting red tape, reflecting the LGA’s long standing position.” Plans to give more power to communities have also been welcomed by the voluntary sector.
Ruth Kelly told the House of Commons that 1,200 current national targets and indicators would be cut to 200 indicators and just 35 targets. “Our clear, overriding principle is that the greater the powers devolved, the greater the role of strong, clear leadership,” she told MPS.
Proposals in the White Paper fall into a number of sections. Under ‘Stronger and More Stable Local Authority Leadership’ it sets out three models for strong leadership with councils being obliged to opt for a directly elected mayor, who will be an individual elected for a four year term, a directly elected executive with voters electing the authority’s cabinet or a council leader, again serving a four year term. In that model voters would elect councillors, who would then chose the leader.
Under ‘Effective, Accountable and Responsive Local Government’, there are proposals to give overview and scrutiny committees new powers with council executives and other public bodies being required to respond. Authorities would have to publicise overview and scrutiny recommendations and responses to them. There will be a short window of opportunity and invitation for a small number of councils that are keen to seek unitary status – see Abstract below. There will also be reforms to the Standards Board with a more locally-based conduct regime.
A raft of reforms come under the heading ‘Responsive Services and Empowered Communities’, including strengthening the ability of councillors to act as champions for their community. There will also be better and more timely information on the quality of local services, a review of the barriers to increasing community management and ownership of under-used community assets and steps to make it easier to set up tenant management organisations.
The power to set up parish councils will also be devolved to local government and quality parish councils will have general powers to promote and improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas as well as the right to create local byelaws and to enforce them through fixed-penalty notices. Councils will be encouraged to develop local charters setting out priorities and service standards and they will be urged to provide councillors with small budgets so they can address local issues quickly.
Ruth Kelly also set out plans to ensure the renaissance of cities would continue and that they would be able to compete globally. Proposals include promoting city development companies; reforms of Passenger Transport Authorities and Executives and freeing local authorities and partners to innovate while retaining accountability. The Secretary of State also set out a vision of local government as a leader and place-shaper with plans for a new framework for strategic leadership in local areas and the strengthening of local partnership working by requiring the local authority and named local partners to cooperate to agree priorities in Local Area Agreements.
Lord Bruce-Lockhart said the proposals reflected the growing confidence in local government and the belief that the best way to deliver the best services to local people was at local level. “What is now crucial is that the whole of central and local government efforts are concentrated on delivering the spirit of these proposals to make sure that people will see the real benefits that are being put forward in this White Paper,” he said, adding that unless departments like the Department of Health, DEFRA, the Home Office, the DfES and the Treasury were committed to turning the White Paper’s aims into reality, a number of its proposals might never be fully realised.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations welcomed the proposals to devolve power to local communities and said these represented an important step towards ‘bottom up’ policy making. It is calling on the Government to provide communities with the skills and resources they will need to help run services and governance in their local areas.