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Councils 'should be at heart of Localism Bill'

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By David Williams

22 November 2010

Local government experts have called for councils to be placed at the centre of the forthcoming Localism Bill, amid concerns that the legislation could by-pass local democracy in favour of ‘communities’.

The government’s long-awaited Localism and Decentralisation Bill was originally scheduled to be released today. However it has since been delayed, and is now expected to be published in early December. It is likely to set out a range of measures including a General Power of Competence for councils, a new financial arrangement for local authority housing and new rights for citizens to instigate referendums and run services themselves.

Ahead of the launch, Ed Cox, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research North, has challenged ministers to give councils the power to raise half of their revenue themselves – currently, 80% of comes from central government grants.

In a paper released today, the think-tank outlines a set of principles that it says should form the heart of the bill, including a ‘formal constitutional settlement’ between central and local government.

Five foundations for real localism also calls for minimum service standards to be set by central government, with more local flexibility over how these are met, and powers devolved to the ‘lowest feasible level’.

Cox told Public Finance: ‘The government isn’t going far enough – what’s happening is councils are having the axe handed down to them. The GPC is welcome, but is limited by a lack of financial autonomy.’

He added that the coalition’s plans to allow communities to take over services, set up schools or control local planning were ideologically driven.

Jonathan Carr-West, a director at the Local Government Information Unit, said he hoped the bill would clarify the legal definition of a ‘community’, as their legal right to bid for services is to be enshrined in law.

Carr-West said it was a ‘concern’ that the government’s take on localism could lead to power leapfrogging councils in favour of grassroots groups. ‘Only local government can provide a democratic mandate and accountability, and can ensure public money is spent effectively.’

He added that the GPC should ‘be as robust as possible’, warning that it could become meaningless if there were too many exceptions, or if councils were not confident in it.

James Hulme, communications director of the New Local Government Network, said: ‘There seems be a difference between what the government describes as “localism” and what the government thinks councils should control.’

He noted that ministers had been ‘prescriptive’ around ‘minutiae’ issues such as bin collections or council publications, and hoped the Localism Bill would introduce a ‘more fair and balanced approach to local decision-making’.

Communities minister Bob Neill said the IPPR was 'living in cloud-cuckoo land if they think the public would back new local property taxes and the accompanying intrusive and expensive revaluation'.

He added: 'The new government is already giving councils greater control over their spending by freeing up £7bn of ring-fenced funding. We are also committed to the local retention of business rates which will make local authorities far less dependent on Whitehall funding.'