Cross Keys Swing Bridge, Sutton Bridge, Lincolnshire



Sept 27 2011


Questions you should be asking...

Q: Why should we be interested in the proceedings of our Parish Council?

A: It is especially important now because the Coalition government is promoting something they call 'Localism' which is supposed to mean that power now resides in the people, that's you and us. We don't have to be elected to exercise such power. Our decisions count.

Q: So what power will you exercise tomorrow? What decisions about local matters would you like to make and see implemented. For example, if fifty or sixty people want a new football/cricket Pavilion in Memorial Park that's a large enough body of people to have their needs met. The snag is that across the country Parish Councils do not necessarily accurately represent the people who are supposed to have elected them (see 'Parish Council Politics Nationally'). Unless a Parish Council is squeaky clean do we, the people, really have any chance of exercising our new powers? What power do we actually have?

What does the idea of Localism consist of?

Behind the concept of 'Localism' is the idea in the 'Coalition Agreement' of May 2010 that 'the time has come to disperse power more widely in Britain today...' The Agreement suggests that '...for too long, central government has hoarded and concentrated power. Trying to improve people's lives by imposing decisions, setting targets and demanding inspections from Whitehall simply doesn't work. It creates bureaucracy. It leaves no room for adaptation to reflect local circumstances or innovation to deliver services more effectively and at lower cost. And it leaves people feeling 'done to' and imposed upon - the very opposite of the sense of participation and involvement on which a healthy democracy thrives...'

The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP asserts that the point of 'Localism' ' to help people and their locally elected representatives to achieve their own ambitions. This is the essence of the [so-called] Big Society...'

He goes on: 'The Localism Bill, published in December 2010, sets out a series of proposals with the potential to achieve a substantial and lasting shift in power away from central government and towards local people. They include: new freedoms and flexibilities for local government; new rights and powers for communities and individuals; reform to make the planning system more democratic and more effective, and reform to ensure that decisions about housing are taken locally...'

He hopes ' see a debate in the wider country—among councils, community groups, volunteers, social activists and many more people—about how they can seize the opportunities this historic Bill represents, and use the rights and freedoms it offers to make a difference in their community.

Let's take them at their word:

• exactly how can we seize the opportunities this Bill represents?

• how precisely can we use the rights and freedoms it offers to make a difference in our community?

Get on to your Parish Council NOW!

This is important... because the Government is proposing what they call New freedoms and flexibility for local government ...

The Report (Department for Communities and Local Government (Crown Copyright, June 2011 ISBN: 978 1 4098 3003 0) says 'Local government plays a crucial role in the life of the nation. It is directly responsible for important public services, from street lighting, to social care, to libraries and leisure centres. It makes sure that other services work together effectively for the good of the community. And with councillors elected by and accountable to local people, local government provides democratic leadership...'

Q: Are you feeling that you're receiving 'democratic leadership'? Are you being led in a democratic way? What would that be like? What would have to happen for you to get that?

'The Government is committed to passing new powers and freedoms to town halls. We think that power should be exercised at the lowest practical level—close to the people who are affected by decisions, rather than distant from them. Local authorities can do their job best when they have genuine freedom to respond to what local people want, not what they are told to do by central government. In challenging financial times, this freedom is more important than ever, enabling local authorities to innovate and deliver better value for taxpayers' money...'

How can a Parish Council ensure that it knows what local people want? For example, what genuine consultation will take place if/when the proposal for a gasifier/incinerator on the Wingland wasteland ever takes off?

Here are some of the proposals:-

• The Government thinks that instead of being able to act only where the law says they can, local authorities should be free to do anything - provided they do not break other laws.

• The new, general power will give councils more freedom to work together with others in new ways to drive down costs. It will give them increased confidence to do creative, innovative things to meet local people's needs.

• Standards Boards, which were put in place to ensure that local authorities abide by a Code of Conduct, are to be abolished on the grounds that the people who elect them have the right to expect the highest standards of behaviour and much time and money is wasted because it is 'too easy for people to put forward ill-founded complaints about councillors' conduct'. Lengthy debates about petty complaints or deliberately harmful accusations can undermine people's faith in local democracy and put them off standing for public office.

It seems to have been easy for a so-called Standards Board to write off complaints as frivolous anyway.

• There can still be a Code of Conduct and it will become a criminal offence for councillors to deliberately withhold or misrepresent a personal interest. This means that councils will not be obliged to spend time and money investigating trivial complaints, while councillors involved in corruption and misconduct will face appropriately serious sanctions. This will provide a more effective safeguard against unacceptable behaviour.

Who will judge offending councillors? Who will mount a legal challenge? Who decides what is 'frivolous'? How will offences come to light? How will councillors now be challenged—when, for example, they display disrespect towards the public and other councillors?

• In some cases councillors have been warned off doing such things as campaigning, talking with constituents, or publicly expressing views on local issues, for fear of being accused of bias or facing legal challenge.

• The Localism Bill will make it clear that it is proper for councillors to play an active part in local discussions, and that they should not be liable to legal challenge as a result. This will help them better represent their constituents and enrich local democratic debate. People can elect their councillor confident in the knowledge that they will be able to act on the issues they care about and have campaigned on.

How can the electorate be equally confident that councillors are always acting on their behalf and not out of some vested interest or in response to a strong pressure group?

• Directly elected mayors... The Localism Bill will give more cities the opportunity to decide whether they want a mayor. The advantages might be visible local leadership, strengthening of economic growth, and boosting democratic engagement.

• Localism will support people who look out for their neighbours, who take pride in their street and get involved—from the retired teacher who volunteers in the village shop once a month, to the social entrepreneur who runs the nursery full time. Until now, however, many people have found that their good ideas have been overlooked and they have little opportunity to get on and tackle problems in the way they want.

• The aim is to pass significant new rights direct to communities and individuals, making it easier for them to get things done and achieve their ambitions for the place where they live.

• The Report suggests that the best councils are constantly on the look out for new and better ways to design and deliver services. Many recognise the potential of social enterprises and community groups to provide high-quality services at good value, and deliver services with and through them. In some places, however, voluntary and community groups who have bright ideas find that they do not get a proper hearing. The Localism Bill will give these groups, parish councils and local authority employees the right to express an interest in taking over the running of a local authority service.

• Community groups should be able to take over local amenities that have been threatened with sale or closure without hassle. It is proposed that communities have the opportunity to nominate for possible inclusion the assets that are most important to them. When assets listed by a Local Authority come up for sale or change of ownership, community groups will have time to develop a bid and raise the money to buy the asset when it comes on the open market. This will help local communities keep much-loved sites in public use and part of local life.

What price the Community Centre?

• The Localism Bill will give local people the power to initiate local referendums on local issues that are important to them. Local authorities and other public bodies will be required to take the outcome of referendums into account and consider what steps, if any, they will take to give effect to the result.

• Right to approve or veto excessive council tax rises

• The Localism Bill will give local communities the power to decide on proposed increases in council tax. The Secretary of State will determine a limit for council tax increases which has to be approved by the House of Commons. If an authority proposes to raise taxes above this limit they will have to hold a referendum to get approval for this from local voters who will be asked to approve or to veto the rise.

• The current planning system does not give members of the public enough influence over decisions that make a big difference to their lives. The Localism Bill intends reform to make the planning system clearer, more democratic and more effective.

• Too often, power is exercised by people who are not directly affected by decisions. that people often resent when they are foisted on them. The result is a confrontational and adversarial system where many applications end up being fought over.

What difference will this make in practice? How will a local community fight a planning proposal? For instance, at its meeting on 23rd August 2011 your Parish Council resolved to move into closed session for discussion of an item called 'Strategic Land Availability Assessment' on the grounds of confidentiality. How can individuals in a community possibly exercise control when a Parish Council draws up plans of a strategic nature in secret? Is your back garden under threat from possible planning proposals? Is this something that will be 'foisted' on you? Secret sessions breed suspicion. This is particularly ironic considering that the abolition of 'Regional strategies' (which set out where new development needed to take place in each part of the country) is intended to give local communities more say in planning so they 'don't feel put upon and are more likely to welcome new development' as the report says. The intention is that individuals 'have a real sense that the planning system is working for them...'

• The Bill will introduce a new right for communities to draw up a 'neighbourhood development plan'. Instead of local people being told what to do, the Government thinks that local communities should have genuine opportunities to influence the future of the places where they live. Neighbourhood planning will allow communities to come together through a local parish council or neighbourhood forum and say where they think new houses, businesses and shops should go—and what they should look like.

• The Secretary of State has already written to local authorities to tell them that the Government intends to abolish regional strategies. The Localism Bill will fulfil this intention, and get rid of the law that requires regional strategies.

• Provided a neighbourhood development plan is in line with national planning policy, with the strategic vision for the wider area set by the local authority, and with other legal requirements, local people will be able to vote on it in a referendum. If the plan is approved by a majority, then the local authority will bring it into force.

• To further strengthen the role of local communities in planning, the Bill will introduce a new requirement for developers to consult local communities before submitting planning applications for very large developments. This will give local people a chance to comment when there is still genuine scope to make changes to proposals.

• The Localism Bill proposes changes to the Community Infrastructure Levy which developers have to pay when they build new houses, businesses or shops to make it more flexible to allow the money raised to be spent on maintaining infrastructure, as well as building new infrastructure. It will give local authorities greater freedom in setting the rate that developers should pay in different areas. Extra money available from the new homes bonus could provide new roundabouts and traffic calming measures to make a development more acceptable.

And here's the catch of course:-

• Not all planning decisions can, or should, be made at a neighbourhood or local level. In many cases there are very strong reasons for neighbouring local authorities, or groups of authorities, to work together on planning issues in the interests of all their local residents.

• Some planning decisions are so important to our overall economy and society that they can only be taken at a national level. These include decisions on nationally significant infrastructure projects such as major train lines and power stations. These important decisions should be taken by Government ministers, who are democratically accountable to the public.

• The Localism Bill proposes reforms that will mean more decisions about housing are taken locally, and make the system fairer and more effective.

The overall effect of the Bill is intended to

• encourage a new generation of powerful leaders with the potential to raise the profile of English cities, strengthen local democracy and boost economic growth.

• make it easier for local people to take over the amenities they love and keep them part of local life

• ensure that local social enterprises, volunteers and community groups with a bright idea for improving local services get a chance to change how things are done

• give people a new way to voice their opinions on any local issue close to their heart

• enable local residents to call local authorities to account for the careful management of taxpayers' money

• make the planning system clearer, more democratic and more effective

• place significantly more influence in the hands of local people over issues that make a big difference to their lives

• provide appropriate support and recognition to communities who welcome new development

• reduce red tape, making it easier for authorities to get on with the job of working with local people to draw up a vision for their area's future

• reinforce the democratic nature of the planning system—passing power from bodies not directly answerable to the public, to democratically accountable ministers

• pass power to a local level, creating space for local authorities to lead and innovate, and giving people the opportunity to take control of decisions that matter to them.

• ensure planning decisions are made by people who are democratically accountable and through genuine collaboration with local people

• liberate the natural desire of local communities to become more prosperous. The notion that communities choose decline and reject prosperity is perverse, wrong-headed and not based on evidence. Evidence from the UK and overseas shows that local communities need the right mixture of powers, incentives and accountability to maximise their prosperity.

One has to wonder what difference any of this will make to the way we live our lives... Do we have the 'new generation of powerful leaders' capable of bringing any of this about? Who did you vote for?

You can find updates about various consultations about the use of the powers in the Localism Bill and about the Department for Communities and Local Government's wider work, at the address below:

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