Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Somerset County Council (L 153)

1. Introduction

1.1 Somerset County Council is pleased to contribute to the scrutiny of the Localism Bill. This paper captures the views of Somerset Members and Officers alike and offers their observations on the proposed legislation and asks that they are considered as part of the Public Committee Stage debate.

1.2 Somerset County Council welcomes the thrust of the Localism Bill and the Government’s aims to decentralise power and decision-making. However the Authority feels that the aspiration of the Bill is contradicted by its size and the 405 pages, 208 clauses, 24 schedules and at least 142 order and regulation-making powers contained within it. We are pleased that Ministers have set out an ambitious agenda for localism but feel that Bill has turned their aspiration into complex prescription which stifles innovation and is contrary to the spirit of localism itself. We ask for simplicity and less regulation and recommend that local determination be allowed to play its part.

1.3 We believe the Localism Bill in its current state ignores some of the complexity that two tier areas present. A number of its component parts such as referenda, conduct, strategic planning, housing and community assets whilst acknowledging the existence of tiers of government, has the potential for undue cost, duplication and overlap in exercising some of these very different powers.

2. Localism Bill


2.1 General Power of Competence [Clauses 1–7]

We strongly support the General Power of Competence for Councils and the flexibility and innovation this has the potential to generate. The Power will mean Somerset will be able to respond to local issues and priorities ambitiously, confident in their legal footing. There are a number of limitations and boundaries attached to the power which could limit its usefulness. We question whether all the controls are necessary?

2.2 Predetermination [Clause 13]

We accept that this clause was introduced to increase councillors’ abilities to represent the views of their constituents in decision-making processes. We also acknowledge that rules preventing councillors from being involved in decisions when they have a financial interest will remain in place. We are concerned however with this clause as there is a danger of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath-water’, as well as there being a potential conflict with the need to promote high standards of conduct. Our preferred option would be to tweak the existing predetermination arrangements to enable councillors in exceptional circumstances to be able to speak and vote on issues where they have a direct interest.

2.3 Duty to promote and maintain high standards of conduct [Clause 14 –20]

Our authority is keen to maintain high standards of conduct. We believe that these clauses need to be rethought as currently the voluntary nature, lack of local sanction and concern over ‘narrowness’ of ‘court’ options have the potential to undermine the promotion of high standards of conduct by members. We welcome local and flexible approaches to complaints investigation but the local ‘powers’ are toothless and could swallow scare resources in terms of investigations.

Also there is potential for inconsistencies between codes of conduct in two tier areas which could add confusion to adherence.


2.4 EU Fines [Clause 30 –34]

The Secretary of State has a general power to order councils to contribute to the UK’s obligations to pay a fine, if an act or omission of the council can be shown to have contributed to the fine being imposed.

These clauses are unfair, unworkable, dangerous and unconstitutional. They would require local authorities to pay parts of national fines passed down to the UK Government by the EU, despite this possibility never hav ing been suggested or consulted upon. It would be impossible for the Government to accurately and fairly judge the proportion of a fine that Som erset should be forced to pay and the budget implications are unjustifiable at a time of high risk. This proposal would also put in place an entirely new regime for the Government to impose fines on councils extra-judicially, which is fundamentally unconstitutional.



2.5 Business Rate Supplements

There is recognition that the move to make small business rate relief automatic and the specific powers to backdate rates are intended to provide important flexibilities for the sector. However we are concerned about the proposal to require a ballot for all business rate supplements - the cost of undertaking; the need for a mature partnership between councils and business which should be reflected in the new local enterprise partnership which are new and untested; ironically they feel like a denial of local freedom as it just adds unnecessary burden to local democracy. Our preferred approach is for the repatriation of rates for nationally significant infrastructure projects such as the development of the Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset.

Somerset County Council recognises that this clause is designed to benefit economic growth in an area. There are however wider issues about the localisation of business rates that are being considered. This fits more with the upcoming  review of the local government financing mechanism and the possible replacement of the 4-Block Model. Floors and ceilings are flawed and a new system of finance for the future is needed. Local Government wants to work closely with central government to avoid a system that has the potential to increase funding gaps between authorities/areas.


2.6 Duty to Hold a Referendum [Clause 39 – 55]

This new duty on councils to hold local referendums should be removed from the Bill. Whilst we accept in part a genuine intention to reinvigorate local participation and engagement we are not convinced this is the right way. Referenda are very costly, a waste of council tax payer’s money especially in times of austerity and unnecessary where local politicians exist to champion local democracy and where the results of the referendum can be non binding.

We do have concerns over the mechanics of local referendum, the prescriptive nature of the rules and the power for the Secretary of State to determine what constitutes a ‘local issue’. These are contrary to the spirit of localism and should be deleted from the bill.

2.7 Referendum relating to Council Tax Increases [Clause 56 –65]

These Clauses give the Secretary of State a number of new powers, including creating alternative notional amounts for council tax rises, decreeing any new principles to determine whether a council tax rise is excessive, and to decide when referendums are to take place. This level of centralised control over local finances is unwarranted and in opposition to the local financial freedoms promised by Ministers. It also compromises the idea of localism and local determination.

We believe that it is for local people to determine whether a proposed council tax rise is excessive. Local elections already provide the opportunity every four years for the people of Somerset to express a view as to the level of council tax.

2.8 Community right to Challenge [Clause 66–70]

This allows voluntary and community bodies, employees of a relevant authority and parish councils to bid to a local authority to run a service where they feel that it could be run better.

Community bodies, and other "relevant bodies", already have the right to bid to provide local public services. Somerset is already undertaking outsourcing programmes emphasising the centrality of community groups. We believe five clauses of legislation on this are unnecessary in a post-bureaucratic age. Powers for the Secretary of State to make any further regulations relating to this are further unnecessary and should be removed.

2.9 Community right to buy [Clause 71–88]

Somerset County Council fully supports the right for Communities to buy. However this Chapter seeks to enshrine an unduly complex series of procedures into law to regulate localism on the ground. This includes ten powers for the Secretary of State to make regulations , including on how long assets stay on the list, how owners of assets should be notified, and on what constitutes a "land of community value". These decisions should, in the spirit of localism, be made at the local level and these powers should be deleted from the Bill .

Somerset County Council also raises concern over European Legislation that states that local authorities are only allowed to transfer up to 230,000 Euros over three years. Whilst this is not contradictory it does significantly limit the value of this clause should it remain.


2.10 Abolition of Regional Strategies/ [Clause 89/90]

The Bill puts abolition into statute and revokes Regional Strategies. In the new regime the range of structures to enable a degree of strategic planning are limited to Local Economic Partnerships and the duty to co-operate in relation to planning of sustainable development [clause 90]. It is interesting that Local Enterprise Partnerships are not mentioned in the Bill. Should they given that just under 30 have already been given the go-ahead?

We support councils having maximum freedom to make spatial plans which reflect the needs and wishes of their residents. Proposed new approaches to pre-application discussion and planning enforcement are also welcome.

However there is a long list of issues in Somerset, which, by common consent, require action at a strategic level. They include the serious lack of affordable housing; an inadequate transport infrastructure associated with the A303 / A358, climate change / flooding issues associated with the Levels and Moors and balancing energy generation requirements with natural environmental considerations - to name but a few. A promised ‘National Infrastructure Plan’ could help in dealing with some of these matters, as, as yet, far from clear how the new ‘system will tackle issues larger than local ones. Clarification is urgently awaited.

We are also keen to ensure that the clarity of any new National Infrastructure plan is not caught up in detailed prescription and allows for effective strategic planning and debate at the appropriate level.

2. 11 Duty to Co-operate for Planning of Sustainable Development [Clause 90]

We are hesitant about this duty – whilst we agree with the intent to achieve sustainable development we are to be convinced of its practical application. For example with housing there needs to be a willing buyer and a willing seller without these conditions the duty is powerless - a more private sector culture is required .

Whilst we are keen on reducing prescription we ask that the contents are usefully clarified as well as explicitly cover County Councils. Clarification is also sought on the sanctions that can be applied if an authority or partner does not co-operate.

Greater flexibility for councils to react to statutory examination of their development plans and Developers being required to engage in pre-application consultations on major schemes is welcome.

February 2011