Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Cambridge City Council (L 133)


Cambridge City Council supports the Coalition Government’s ambition to disperse and decentralise power - to place more emphasis on democratic engagement as a means to improve front line services and civil society. We are actively looking to shift the balance of our decision-making into local communities, to extend participation and the opportunity for local people to shape their communities, to make life better. It is at the heart of our vision for Cambridge and is something we embrace alongside our desire to be as transparent as possible and to promote fairness. It is a difficult challenge and something that we are looking to take forward.

Cambridge is a diverse and tolerant place, where people say they enjoy living and working. It is largely affluent, although some groups of people and areas do not share in its economic success, and provides a rich built and green environment, which people value. There is an active community and voluntary sector in the City, where people feel motivated to contribute to improving quality of life for all, and this is reflected in the relatively high number of people that volunteer. We want to preserve the best of Cambridge and to use our strengths to enhance the growth of the City. We also want to support those that are most vulnerable, so that everyone has a stake in our community.

In responding to the Bill, at this stage, we would like to offer constructive comments that we feel would lead to better legislation, which will help enable us achieve our shared vision for our communities. In some areas it seems that the Secretary of State is looking to micro-manage what happens locally and we feel that this is at odds with the ambition to bring about the shift from the centralised state to local communities. This response focuses on what we think are key areas of the Bill.

Key areas

1. Giving councils a general power of competence

Clauses 1 – 7 will give councils a broad General Power of Competence, allowing them to do "anything that individuals generally may do".

1.1 Cambridge City Council’s View: We welcome a broad and clear General Power of Competence that will allow us to respond to local issues and priorities, confident in our legal footing. We do not


Clause 13 will limit the cases in which charges of predetermination might apply to councillors.

1.2 Cambridge City Council’s View – We support the clarification of "predetermination", which will allow councillors to represent the views of their constituents in decision- making processes.

2. Allowing councils to choose to return to the committee system of governance and allowing for referendums for elected mayors in certain authorities

Schedule 2, Part 1, 9B permits local authorities to operate a committee system.

2.1 Cambridge City Council’s View – We believe that local leadership should be determined at the local level and not by the Secretary of State. Any m oves to consider having an elected mayor should rest in the hands of local people.

2.2 Practical example from Cambridge:

The Council has found a blend of governance that retains the best aspects of the previous committee system, involving all members in pre-decision scrutiny, and providing Executive members, who take decisions, to give clarity and accountability to local people.

3. Abolishing the Standards Board regime and the model code of conduct, and introducing local accountability and a criminal offence of deliberate failure to declare a personal interest in a matter

Giving residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue and the power to veto excessive council tax increases

3.1 Cambridge City Council’s View: We welcome the increased local accountability for the standards of conduct we have set and will look to continue ensure our local scrutiny arrangements remain as open and as accountable as possible. We are committed to transparency in the appointment and remuneration of staff and keen that any guidance issued provides flexibility to appoint and remunerate staff in a way that is locally appropriate.

Referendums on any Local Issue

Clauses 39 – 55 lay the foundations for local referendums including the percentage of petitioners required to force referendums, what issues can be covered in a referendum, how the referendum will be run and actions to be taken following a referendum.

3.2 Cambridge City Council’s View: The Council is continually consulting with residents, community groups, businesses representatives and partners about its policies and plans and to find out about the needs of communities. With our understanding of local issues we feel that we should be able to determine the process for conducting any referendum, rather than the Secretary of State. This will include: the threshold where a petition triggers referendum; deciding how and when a local referendum should be held; deciding how to publicise the referendum; who is eligible to vote; and, how votes are counted etc.

3.3 Practical example from Cambridge:

Our present petitions procedure has a low trigger threshold (500 people) that, if achieved, results in a debate at our Full Council. This has proven an appropriate tool for most community representatives who have wished to raise an issue in the past. The Council has established public speaking rights at its committees and in Open Forum sessions at the start of Area Committees, local people can raise any matters that concern them, in front of elected members.

Council Tax Referendums

Clauses 56 – 65 and Schedules 4 & 5 lay out new requirements for local authorities to hold referendums in the event that their proposed council tax increase is deemed to be excessive based on regulations from the Secretary of State.

3.4 Cambridge City Council’s View: The Council believes that it is for local people to take a view on whether a council tax rise is excessive, rather than the Secretary of State, and that referendums are not appropriate.

4. Allowing councils more discretion over business rate relief

Business Rates

Clauses 35 – 38 make changes to business rate supplements and small business relief.

4.1 Cambridge City Council’s View: We welcome changes that make small business rate relief automatic and the specific powers to cancel backdated rates, as these are important flexibilities for the sector.

4.2 Practical example from Cambridge:

In Cambridge, Mill Road offers a diversity of small shops that provide variety and interest. The local community feels that the character of this high street is being eroded by the arrival of some larger retailers and want to preserve the present mix of small businesses. Greater flexibility to set local discounts on business rates could increase the Council’s the ability to respond to local circumstances and offer support to small businesses in the area that might make the difference to their ability to continue to trade.

The small businesses in the area are not eligible for Small Business Rates Relief because they exceed the rateable threshold (£18k). Clause 36 of the Bill will widen the existing scope of s.47 (Discretionary Rate relief) but there is a cost to the authority of granting either type of discretionary relief and this would be difficult for the Council to take forward at this time.

Local business rate retention would help us to provide genuine incentives for local economic growth, through the business rates regime, so that we can offer more assistance to small businesses in certain areas and help promote sustainable high streets. We feel that this should form a part of the government’s thinking in this Bill.

5. Providing new powers to help save local facilities and services threatened with closure, and giving voluntary and community groups the right to challenge local authorities over their services.

The Community Right to Challenge

Clauses 66 – 70 will require local authorities to consider a bid made by a local relevant body (including parish councils and voluntary or community bodies) to provide a local public service and undertake a procurement exercise if appropriate.

5.1 Cambridge City Council’s View: We actively encourage community groups to take on the running of services, such as community centres, and to get involved in community life. The Council feels it is best placed to decide how the right to challenge will run locally. This will include: setting out the length of the period within which we will accept expressions of interest from relevant bodies; defining what constitutes a "relevant body" that can put a bid in under the right to challenge and how we will consider expressions of interest and the criteria for rejecting expressions. The Council will contribute a more detailed response to the as a part of the separate consultation covering this area.

The Community Right to Buy

Clauses 71 – 88 will require local authorities to maintain a list of local assets of community value as nominated by the community. Any asset on the list can only be sold after a moratorium period has passed, allowing the community sufficient time to pull together a bid to purchase the asset.

5.3 Cambridge City Council’s View –We believe that local councils should be allowed to decide on what constitutes an asset of community value, rather than central government, and that this should not be limited by narrow definitions about what is valuable to communities, as each community setting will be distinctive.

5.4 Practical example from Cambridge: The Arbury Community Association is running the Arbury Community Centre in the North of the City. The Council’s provides a beneficial rental agreement and has contributed some capital for investment in the building but the Association is independent and determines its own programme and way forward. The Association has been successful in making its activities relevant to local people and engaging a wide range of volunteers and other support. The Council has offered to sell the land to the Association but this has not been taken up, as yet.

Housing Provisions

7. Abolish the requirement to have a Home Improvement Pack

Reform the Housing Revenue Account system

Provide for a new form of flexible tenure for social housing tenants

Allow local authorities to discharge their duties to homeless people by using private rented accommodation

Give local authorities the power to limit who can apply for social housing within their areas

Abolish the Tenant Services Authority and provides for a transfer of functions to the Homes and Communities Agency

Amend the way in which a social tenant can make a complaint about their landlord

Improve the ability of social tenants to move to different areas.

Housing Finance

Clauses 140 – 147 reform the housing finance system, abolishing the housing revenue account and setting out how settlement payments will be made. They also give the Secretary of State the power to change the settlement payment in the future and to determine how much housing debt a local authority is allowed to take on.

7.1 Cambridge City Council’s View : The dismantling of the current complex, bureaucratic and inefficient housing finance system is very welcome. The abolition of the HRA should give us a clean break and the financial certainty to invest in and plan for social housing. However, the power for the Secretary of State to revisit the settlement figure in the future, and potentially increase the amount we have to pay to "buy out" of the scheme, will cause uncertainty and is likely to limit our ability to invest in social housing for the future.

7.2 The power for the Secretary of State to decide how much housing debt a council is allowed to take on introduces a new, direct control on councils’ capital finances. It ignores the success of the prudential code that has ensured that investments are affordable, prudent and sustainable.

7.3 We share the Government’s desire for the efficient and effective management of housing operations and want the powers for the Secretary of State to re-open the buy out figure and set a limited on borrowing to be dropped, and councils to be allowed to retain all receipts from Right to Buy sales.

Allocation and Management

7.4 Greater flexibility for councils and landlords on allocation and management should bring about better outcomes for existing tenants and people in need of social housing. However, we are opposed to the introduction of fixed term tenancies, other than in exceptional circumstances, because of the anxiety and insecurity likely to be caused for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, and the impact that they could have on the mix and sustainability of new and existing communities. Tenancies at ‘Affordable Rents’, in an area like Cambridge with market rents are high, are also likely to be unaffordable to many.

7.5 Practical example from Cambridge: Cambridge City has the highest average house prices in the county. Average house prices to average earnings mean that it is almost impossible for people on lower incomes to buy a property. Market rents are also high and this make it very difficult for people to afford to live and work in the City, forcing many who do take on jobs to commute long distances from outside the area. Cambridge Council has in excess of 6,000 people registered as being in Housing Need on our Choice Based Lettings Register, and is committed to increasing the supply of affordable housing. The growth sites in Cambridge and on its fringes provide an opportunity to increase a supply of affordable housing but the Government must allow the Council to do what it thinks is best for its communities and stimulate social housing markets otherwise we cannot respond to our housing need and achieve balanced and sustainable new communities.

7.6 The changes are taking place against the background of very significant changes to housing benefit rules and a very big reduction in funding for new social homes. The Council is working hard to meet the legitimate housing aspirations of all local people and it is vital that the Government allows a variety of tenure to be present within all new developments so that the homes that people want are affordable and therefore accessible to them.

7.7 Decisions such as the use of flexible tenancies, who to accept onto our Choice Based Lettings Register, and how to deal with transfer applicants should be made at a local level.

Planning and regeneration provisions

8. Abolish Regional Spatial Strategies

Abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission and return to a position where the Secretary of State takes the final decision on major infrastructure proposals of national importance

Amend the Community Infrastructure Levy, which allows councils to charge developers to pay for infrastructure. Some of the revenue will be available for the local community

Provide for neighbourhood plans, which would be approved if they received 50% of the votes cast in a referendum

Provide for neighbourhood development orders to allow communities to approve development without requiring normal planning consent

Give new housing and regeneration powers to the Greater London Authority, while abolishing the London Development Agency.

Planning Reforms

Part 5 of the Bill contains reforms to the current planning system, including abolishing regional strategies, reforming Community Infrastructure Levy arrangements, and creating a neighbourhood planning system.

8.1 Cambridge City Council’s View: We support the freedom to make spatial plans , which reflect the needs and wishes of our residents, and will be working hard with our partner local authorities to make sure we get our significant areas of growth within Cambridge and on our fringes right first time. Whilst we welcome the end to top-down targets and strategies, we also recognise the need to address certain strategic cross boundary issues.

8.2 The duty to cooperate should assist in this but the details of the duty will be important especially in terms of understanding who (other than local authorities) it applies to. The sanctions for non-cooperation will be also be key and whilst responding to consultation is important, it is equally important that the views of those responding are taken on board wherever practical. This is particularly important in relation to cross boundary issues between local authorities. Furthermore, where there are cross boundary issues or proposals, the local authorities involved should be required to consult the residents in the neighbouring local authority about those issues or proposals. For example, where an authority is proposing a site for development on the edge or close to another local authority boundary, that could impact on adjacent communities, there should be a requirement for those communities to be consulted regardless of where the district boundaries falls because of the potential impact on their quality of life.

The duty to cooperate could also usefully apply to other areas such as implementation and delivery and not just plan making. In terms of preparing development plans, the Council would welcome greater flexibility in relation to the Local Development Framework process and the ability to determine what documents are appropriate at a local level. What maybe appropriate for one local authority may not be appropriate for another.

8.3 Practical example from Cambridge: Cambridgeshire local authorities have recently agreed to a joint position that they will continue the development strategy for Cambridgeshire, established by the 2003 Structure Plan, until 2031. This recognises that enough land has been has been allocated for development to provide growth over the next 20 years and acknowledges the continuing cooperation between the planning authorities. The Council has a strong history of partnership working in relation to tackling strategic planning issues and joint plan making, including transparent decision-making.

Neighbourhood Planning

Clauses 96 – 101 and Schedules 9 – 11 set out new neighbourhood planning systems, allowing "relevant bodies", including new "neighbourhood forums to apply to their local planning authority for neighbourhood development orders, neighbourhood development plans and Community Right to Build Orders.

8.4 Cambridge City Council’s View: We support the principles behind neighbourhood planning and agree that local people should be able to shape the places where they live but believe that important decisions about the future of places should be taken by elected representatives to ensure: accountability; transparency and probity, which are subject to the safeguard of independent examination.

8.5 We would ask the Government to bring forward amendments to the Localism Bill to include a duty to promote sustainable and diverse high streets in order to ensure that local people have the legal power they need to promote the shops they want and to resist those they do not want in places they will do harm, thereby securing the future of local high streets. Vibrant high streets are important parts of neighbourhoods.

8.6 We would like to continue to work with our communities to create places where people want to live and would favour a simpler, less complex and expensive process. However, we do have some concerns as to how well this will work in practice in urban areas, as opposed to more rural areas, which already have established Parish Councils. The details will be important and this includes the definition of ‘neighbourhood areas’ along with more clarity relating to neighbourhood forums and how they will work in practice. The system needs to be straightforward and easy to administer in order for it to be effective. The relationship between the local development plan and neighbourhood plans will be important, with both being subject to extensive community engagement.

8.7 Practical example from Cambridge: The Council has set up a pilot, covering its North Area Committee, that will look to extend participation and increase the influence local people have over what happens within their communities, both in terms of the social fabric and physical environment. The preparation of a community plan, highlighting priorities for action, will be part to this new approach. Neighbourhood Planning could be integral to this local work so that we can provide a comprehensive plan showing what communities want to achieve, take advantage of amalgamated consultations and reduce consultation fatigue. It is therefore important that guidance for Neighbourhood Planning remain as flexible as possible to allow us to take advantage of local circumstances.

Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL)

Clause 94 reforms the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), detailing the role of the independent examiner in considering an authority’s charging schedule, how the CIL can be used, and creating a duty for charging authorities to pass on CIL funds when required by regulations.

8.8 Cambridge City Council’s View: We believe that CIL is important as part of a wider package of measures designed to stimulate local growth and welcome the provisions that allow some of the funds to be spent on the ongoing costs of new infrastructure as well as making provision for some of the funds to be passed to neighbourhoods.

8.9 Practical example from Cambridge: We are keen to delegate as many Council decisions as possible to our Area Committees so that local people can shape the places in which they live. The use of developer’s contributions will form a key part of creating a sustainable local infrastructure that will be robust enough to support our new communities and invest in our existing communities, so that the impacts of this growth can be mitigated. We feel that the more funds that can be utilised at a local level, through our Area Committees, the greater engagement and success will result.

February 2011