Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Bristol City Council (L 145)


The Localism Bill is undoubtedly the most significant piece of local government legislation of the past decade and we welcome this opportunity to make a contribution to the debate on the Government’s plans for the decentralisation of public services. The commitments in the Bill - to devolve greater power and freedoms to councils and neighbourhoods, establish powerful new rights for communities, revolutionise the planning system, and give communities more control over housing decisions – are all seen as positive developments. The authority does, however, have a number of questions and concerns about aspects of the Bill, which we have set out below. In brief, this document highlights:

· Concerns over aspects of the changes to social housing

· Concerns over aspects of the changes to the planning system

· Need for clarification of aspects of the Bill relating to Community Empowerment

· Concerns over the proposals for elected mayors and ‘shadow mayors’

· Request that consideration be given to allowing a greater diversity of funding to be made available for local government

· Seeks action to oppose measures in the Bill which financially penalise local authorities as a consequence of fines being passed down to the UK by the European Union

Context: Bristol and the sub-region

1. Bristol is the 7th largest city in England outside of London and the economic capital of The South West. The City Council administers an area of 110 square kilometres (42 square miles) and serves a resident population of 433,100 people (2009 estimate), while the city also serves the wider city region area – known as the West of England – with a population of nearly 1.1 million people.

2. Bristol is home to over 17,500 businesses and is renowned for its excellence in knowledge-intensive and creative industries. More than a third of the UK owned FTSE 100 companies have a significant presence in the Bristol area. World-class companies including Airbus in the UK, Rolls Royce, Aardman Animations, BBC, Hewlett Packard, Toshiba Research Europe, Garrad Hassan and Orange have
premises in the area.

3. The interdependent relationship, economically and structurally between the city and its surrounding sub-region has been recognised in the establishment of an interim Local Enterprise Board with a full Board for the West of England to be established over the next few months. This partnership is between business and the neighbouring authorities of Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset.


4. As of April 2010, there were some 186,262 dwellings in Bristol, of which 146,953 are owner occupied or privately rented and 39,309 are social rented (including 28,435 Council homes).

From a strategic housing viewpoint:

5. A number of the Localism Bill proposals will potentially help the authority make better use of its housing stock. The fact that these proposals are provided as powers rather than requirements is also welcomed. The authority cautiously (subject to the necessary safeguards) welcomes being able to discharge its homelessness duty to suitable private sector accommodation as we feel this gives a message to the public of equality in the allocations system. We have no objection to the more strategic and separate treatment of transfers so long as this is also underpinned with the principle of fair and equitable access for all those seeking social housing.

We do also have a number of concerns:

6. There is a risk that the new affordable rented tenure (up to 80% of market rent) will cause Housing Benefit bills to increase rather than decrease. Households taking up these tenancies will be eligible for, and many more may be drawn into, Housing Benefit. Moreover, there is no mention or link in the Localism Bill to the restriction of Local Housing Allowance (although it is acknowledged that the Welfare Reform Bill provides further information about this). Such measures mean hardship for households meeting rent shortfall, present difficulties for social and private landlords alike, and a potential reduction in supply of private sector accommodation to households in need. The decision to apply LHA single room rate to 35 year-olds could potentially lead to an increase in homelessness, and will hit single working people on low incomes as well as the single unemployed.

7. There are concerns at the speed at which the HCA is negotiating with registered providers ahead of opportunities for local authorities to engage with local people and other stakeholders to establish a Bristol (local) view on local priorities and how to make these new housing flexibilities work for the city and mitigate any negative effects. Of particular concern is the proposal to finance the Affordable Rented product in large part through the migration of social rented units to the new tenure. Some models propose up to 50% of relets. This will reduce the supply of the most affordable homes, and substitute a more expensive product, again drawing households into benefit dependency from which they may struggle to escape, with implications for the benefit bill over time

8. There are still many questions of detail about the new tenancies proposed although it is recognised that more detail will be forthcoming in the HCA prospectus for the new Affordable Housing Programme 2011-15.

From the local authority landlord viewpoint key issues are:

· The Council welcomes the commitment to reform the Housing Revenue Account, as it offers the potential for a genuinely viable future for council housing. There are some aspects of the emerging proposals the council does not support (application of a debt cap on the council housing 'business' and retention of 75% of Right To Buy receipts by central government - both of which will severely limit our ability to build badly needed new council homes; and the possibility that government will re-open the settlement in the future). However, broadly the draft buy out figures for self-financing we have received are good news for council housing in Bristol.

· Tenants felt the timetable for consultation on the housing aspects of this Bill was too short to allow genuine consultation and full understanding of the implications, plus the publication of the Localism Bill during the consultation 'suggested' many key decisions had already been taken

· In particular the timetable has not allowed wider consultation with social housing applicants and residents in the city - how does this fit with the local offer?

· There were some circumstances in which Flexible Tenancies might help make the best use of social housing.

· However there was concern about the impact of a 'means-test' to decide eligibility for a lifetime tenancy. Tenants felt most tenancies should be lifetime and certainly that should be the case for older and disabled tenants.

· There was understanding of the use of the Affordable Rent model to raise funds in the present economic climate but other (long-term, sustainable) routes to fund 'genuinely' affordable housing are needed.

· There were concerns about restricting who can apply for housing, from the landlord perspective it might restrict the best use of that housing, from a tenants' perspective it ignored the history of council housing as 'homes fit for heroes' but 'not just certain heroes'.

· There was support for separate policies for transfers especially if it helped those wishing to move to smaller properties (and freeing these properties up for bigger households).



9. We agree with the commitment to further strengthen the role of local communities in planning. However, if the requirement for pre-application consultation applies to development of over 200 residential units only, then this will relate to a very small number of applications in Bristol. As such we believe the obligation is set too high and should be related to all ‘major’ developments (10 units and above) to maximise communities engagement.

10. The Bill’s concept of council officers acting as enablers for community aspirations is welcomed, as it builds on existing practice. However, there may be potential conflicts between the government, local authority and community aspirations to see development brought forward and some communities desire to constrain development. If the presumption is ultimately in favour of development, some local communities may end up feeling no more empowered than they were before.

11. We feel the duty to co-operate formalises relationships that we already have in place locally but it is welcomed in terms of links with others such as Utility companies.

12. There is little practical impact or change in the role of the Planning Inspector in reporting on the soundness of statutory development plan documents. The Local Planning Authority will still effectively need the full support of the Planning Inspector in order to adopt LDF DPD documents – there would be no additional flexibility in reality.

13. The definition in the Bill of ‘Neighbourhood Areas’ is not clear, neither is the process by which Neighbourhood Area, Neighbourhood Forums and the area of subsequent Neighbourhood Development Plans, are to be determined. There will be potential for different communities of interest to seek responsibility for the drawing up of a NDP and it will be important that there is clarity in the role of the LPA in determining the appropriate forum, and area coverage. Greater clarity will also be required in relation to how the new arrangements will be supported and funded.

14. The Bill could provide greater clarity on the relationship between the strategic policies of the Core Strategy, and other DPD such as Area Action Plans and Site Allocation and Development Management Plans. The Bill should be specific on the need for consistency between these plans in order to ensure the delivery of the strategic aspirations of national and local planning policy.

Community Empowerment


15. The act states: ‘We want 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’. We agree with the spirit of this and the council is already doing much to facilitate community input to local services. We do however have a number of questions about how some of these proposals will work in practice.

16. We have active communities in parts of the city, but this does not apply to all and we are concerned about the areas that do not wish to, or are unable to, undertake greater community involvement (even where support is offered) particularly where there is a cumulative impact of this Bill with all the others currently progressing through Parliament.

17. In terms of the ‘Right to bid’ on an asset that the community values and that goes up for sale: the 6 month timeframe is likely to be too long for the property owner to wait to sell their assets and not long enough for the community to raise funds/gain planning consent, etc. There is also a tension between balancing community asset transfers and community interests with our need to make best value from assets. In general terms, how will a bid to take over an asset be deemed to be viable, how will the decisions be made?

Mayoral responsibilities and powers

18. A specific concern for Bristol is the proposals that relate to the directly elected mayor. In terms of mayoral responsibilities and powers we do not feel that these would be effective locally. The boundaries around Bristol are tightly drawn and we have a longstanding relationship with neighbouring authorities around key issues such as strategic planning for the sub-region. We believe that if a mayor is to be elected, it is essential that he/she should operate over the whole urban/economic area of the sub-region so that they have direct influence over strategic issues such as housing, transport, planning and waste.

19. A further concern is the proposed "Shadow mayors". We do not agree that council leaders should be made shadow mayors immediately after the Bill has passed. A Mayor should only be in place after the referendum in 2012, if the public decide that this is what they want. In the true spirit of localism, local people need to be the ones to decide. This also avoids a difficult situation where the electorate reject an elected mayor through a referendum, yet there is already an ‘imposed’ shadow mayor.

Local Government Finance

20. The Bill seems to combine its commitment to localism with an ongoing commitment to fiscal centralism. Bristol has stated in a number of responses to Government that until local government is responsible for funding itself, ‘localism’ risks being little more than an aspiration, rather than the radical, transformative project it potentially could be. The LGA, among others, have argued that it is not desirable for local government to rely on income from a single tax and many local authorities in European countries have more than one local source of income. We would urge consideration of greater diversity of funding for local government – including the progressive re-localisation of business rates (similar to German model), new fees and charges and the localisation of a portion of income tax and/or VAT. Greater direct management of European structural funding is also essential to ensure that the full potential of the funds can be exploited. Previous experience with European structural funds has highlighted the need to have greater local involvement over the development and management of the programme, ensuring that the policy fits local priorities and has greater alignment with sub-regional strategies and national funding programmes.

EU Fines

21. The proposal to give Ministers the power to fine local authorities as a consequence of fines being passed down to the UK by the European Union may pose significant challenges for the delivery of public services in the future, as set out below.

a) Real influence at European level lies with the UK Government that negotiates, and signs up to, EU laws and targets. On issues such as air quality, Government never made clear in national law (which local councils work towards) that this was related to EU law, or subject to a EU fine. This legislation would therefore completely change the nature and scope of agreements previously made between councils and national government. It is especially concerning that there has been no consultation with local government at all on this. Further clarity is sought as to whether this would be retrospectively applied to all European Directives or only to forthcoming legislation.

b) In many cases, such as with air quality, it would be impossible to accurately attribute liability for fines between countries of the UK, and then between individual English and Welsh councils. There are also numerous mitigating factors that mean that local fines would be impossible to accurately assess and fairly distribute.

c) The protection of vital public services following an exceptionally tough financial settlement is already a challenge. The possibility of the additional pressure to pay EU fines, especially when these cannot be distributed fairly, will create new financial uncertainty that makes future economic planning much more difficult. The UK is potentially facing, for example, a £300million EU fine for breaches of air quality targets. At local level this could mean a £15 annual increase on council tax bills. The legislation would also apply to any laws passed by the EU in the future.

d) It would put in place an entirely new regime for the Government to impose fines on councils extra-judicially through executive action. This is creation of new and unprecedented powers for the Government at a time when they have promised to remove financial restriction and improve the ability of local authorities to plan for their futures. We feel this should be challenged. There is a significant danger that the imposition of fines could lead to costly and unnecessary legal battles.

We hope you find these comments useful. If you wish to discuss any of these issues further, we would be happy to provide additional feedback.

February 2011