Less Whitehall control and greater power at local level will result from the Royal Assent of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act. John Healey, Local Government Minister, has promised that new opportunities for local action will be in place within six months.
The Act provides a legal framework for devolutionary measures which include a statutory basis for Local Area Agreements and a provision for co-operation with local partners, a new unringfenced area based grant to provide local authorities and their partners with greater flexibility in the use of funding from central government and devolved powers to undertake community governance reviews.
The Act also strengthens the role of front line councillors and scrutiny committees and gives great power to members of the public to raise issues of concern. Councillors will be able to raise issues of local concern with overview and scrutiny committees, unless it relates to a crime and disorder issue. Where a councillor becomes aware of an issue causing concern to the community there is provision to call for a response from service providers. Service providers must say what action they will take or explain their decision not to act.
Similar powers in relation to community safety are being developed by the Home Office and they will give frontline councillors a central role in calling to account the work of agencies throughout the local area. The idea is for councillors to be the first point of contact when the public wish to raise a matter relating to community safety. Other central departments are considering introducing a similar call to action, based on the process being developed by the Home Office.
Overview and scrutiny committees will be able to co-opt other agencies, such as the police, to help consider the matter referred to them. They will have the power to produce a report or recommendations to the relevant ‘responsible authorities’. They in turn have a duty to consider them and respond.
Members of the public will be empowered by placing a duty on councillors to consider any matter raised, and to respond saying what action, if any, they will take. Where there is a failure to respond, the person who raised the issue can refer it to the executive of the council.