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Denham’s ‘transfer of power’ disappoints local government

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By David Williams

23 July 2009

Local government leaders have criticised proposals to expand councils’ scrutiny role as ‘lacking ambition’.

The plans were part of a wider reform package put out for consultation on July 21 by Communities Secretary John Denham. In Strengthening local democracy, he proposed giving councils the power of scrutiny over local services, including probation authorities, Jobcentre Plus and utility companies.

Other proposals included giving councils a leading role in tackling climate change, such as taking responsibility for local carbon budgets and establishing low-carbon economic areas.

The communities secretary trumpeted the package as ‘the biggest single transfer of power in a generation’ and claimed it would ‘change the landscape of our democracy’.

At a conference hosted by the New Local Government Network, Denham described council scrutiny as ‘the lion that had failed to roar’, and said ‘councils should be able to apply their democratic mandate to act as a champion for citizens’.

But specialists were sceptical. Local Government Association programme director Paul Raynes welcomed the move to bolster councils’ powers. But he told Public Finance: ‘The call we have been making is for something rather broader. There’s a much more ambitious wish list out there. We have called for a general power of competence for local government. Other people have called for that – it’s the Opposition’s policy now.

‘The scrutiny stuff is good – but scrutiny is not the same as bringing more spending under local government control. And it doesn’t go as far as the government has signalled it is willing to contemplate with [local spending efficiency pilot scheme] Total Place.’

Andy Sawford, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, said the reforms would be worthwhile only ‘if they had real teeth’.

He added: ‘The problem with this consultation is that Denham is approaching localism from the beginning, at the end of the government’s term.’ He questioned what could be achieved in the remaining ten months.

At the launch briefing, Sawford told Denham: ‘My heart sinks when I hear the word “consultation”.’

Denham insisted that he would move ahead quickly if responses showed a clear appetite for change.
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