Councils demand tangible progress on devolution

16 Nov 06
Town hall leaders are demanding that devolution must underpin the Bills of the next parliamentary session, as the prime minister used the last Queen's Speech of his tenure to outline a far-reaching programme of legislation.

17 November 2006

Town hall leaders are demanding that devolution must underpin the Bills of the next parliamentary session, as the prime minister used the last Queen's Speech of his tenure to outline a far-reaching programme of legislation.

The Local Government Association said the 29 Bills announced during the state opening of Parliament on November 15 offered 'important opportunities' for all Whitehall departments to prove they were serious about devolving power to local and regional levels.

Paul Coen, the LGA's chief executive, told Public Finance that the sector expected concrete progress on devolution to make a reality of the principles outlined in last month's local government white paper.

'The missing piece of the jigsaw so far is the solid evidence of devolution of powers that will allow councils to work with their partners locally,' he said. 'We are now looking for a substantial commitment from central government departments to the partnership approach.'

The LGA expects Local Area Agreements to be the mechanism by which these new relationships are cemented and service standards are set, Coen added. It is calling for a duty on local bodies to participate in LAAs to be written into a number of Bills, including those covering further education and the management of offenders.

'The Queen's Speech is one of a series of important opportunities to devolve national and regional powers to our cities, towns and counties. The local government Bill alone will not deliver devolution,' its briefing document says. 'By the end of this parliamentary session, the public will expect to see tangible progress.'

The call comes amid concerns that the long-awaited report from Sir Michael Lyons on the future of local government will not be made public. While Lyons is due to submit his report to ministers in December, there is still no timetable for its publication.

Coen told PF: 'Everyone would expect ministers to publish it as soon as possible. Obviously they will need time to consider it, but we would like them to publish the report early on and then consider its conclusions.'

As expected, the 2006/07 parliamentary session will be dominated by legislation focusing on security and law-and-order issues, with six Home Office Bills intended to reform the criminal justice system, tackle organised crime and crack down on antisocial behaviour.

The fight against climate change also featured prominently. Ministers pledged new laws to slash carbon dioxide emissions, while a draft transport Bill, giving councils the power to introduce local road-pricing schemes to tackle congestion and cut CO2 emissions, was also pledged.

Other Bills included legislation to make the Office for National Statistics independent; to introduce a national system of free bus travel; and to give the mayor of London a range of new powers.

Alongside pledges on specific pieces of legislation, the speech contained the by-now customary vow that there would be no let-up in the direction or pace of the government's reforms, aimed at modernising public services.

Unsurprisingly, public sector union leaders expressed their annoyance. Dave Prentis, general secretary of the largest public sector union, Unison, said: 'We welcome the continued concentration on the public services and the commitment to the founding principles of the NHS, but the reliance on the use of markets to improve quality is fundamentally flawed.'

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, warned against 'blind' reliance on the private sector to deliver government objectives.

'The restated commitment to public service reform in the Queen's Speech must not be code for unbridled privatisation and job losses,' he said.

'[The government] has to recognise that it needs the staff with the resources to deliver publicly run public services.'

The 29 Bills for the coming Parliamentary session include:

  • new powers for police and probation services to combat serious and organised crime and antisocial behaviour
  • providing for reform of local government
  • cutting CO2 emissions by 60% by 2050
  • reforming the welfare system and replacing incapacity benefit
  • replacing the Child Support Agency
  • long-term reform of pensions
  • tackling road congestion
  • reforming the planning system


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