Queens Speech frustrates council leaders

14 Nov 02
Tony Blair's big political ideas for the next 12 months have drawn immediate criticism following their unveiling at the state opening of Parliament this week.

15 November 2002

Local government leaders described the package of measures, outlined in the Queen's Speech on November 13, as representing 'two steps forward and one step back'.

Sir Jeremy Beecham, chair of the Local Government Association, expressed his frustration that the proposed legislation would in some instances help authorities, but in others hinder them.

'The different pieces of legislation do not yet add up to a coherent philosophy, so councils will have to deliver the changes while being pulled in different directions,' he said.

'If the Local Government Bill is generally good, the tendency for Whitehall to interfere unnecessarily is bad, while the fining of social services departments is a downright ugly scar on the face of co-operation between partner organisations.'

As expected, the Local Government Bill heralds the introduction of the prudential borrowing system, which allows councils to determine how much debt they can sustain to fund capital projects.

This is based on a code developed by CIPFA. Policy and technical director Vernon Soare said it would give authorities more financial autonomy and 'holds significant potential for service improvement for the public'.

The Bill will also give authorities powers to sell their expertise to other organisations and charge users for discretionary services. But it is also likely to include plans to pool receipts from council house sales, which the LGA opposes.

Plans in the Bill to give high-performing councils additional freedoms and flexibilities drew fire from Unison, the largest local government union.

Heather Wakefield, its national secretary, attacked the Comprehensive Performance Assessments that will decide which authorities will qualify.

'Unison is critical of the system by which councils are judged to be succeeding or failing. We are not convinced that it is based on fair and accurate criteria,' she said.

Overall, the Queen's Speech contained few surprises. As expected, the heart of it was devoted to far-reaching reforms of the criminal justice system.

Other measures included a widely trailed Referendum Bill to pave the way for directly elected regional assemblies. George Morran, chair of the Campaign for the English Regions, said this was a victory for democracy. 'With elected assemblies the quango state will be reined in and made answerable to people in the regions.'

The anticipated Bill on planning, to speed up the approval of major infrastructure schemes and limit the role of county councils, was included. So was legislation on waste and emissions, which will limit the use of landfill sites and set up an allowance trading system between authorities.

Authorities will also be given control of the licensing system and have powers to grant longer opening hours to pubs and bars.


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