Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by St Albans City & District Council (L 164)

I am writing to you to follow up your invitation in response to my question at the recent District Councils Network meeting at Local Government House. You requested evidence of where the rhetoric and principles of localism were not being matched by the reality, either in DCLG or across other Government Departments and policies such as health and the police.


I have therefore set out some detailed examples of what I meant in this letter, alongside some wider reflections on the way in which the decentralisation agenda and Localism Bill is playing out locally. I hope these reflections will be helpful to inform the decentralisation report I understand you will be preparing for the Prime Minister in the summer. They are written from the perspective of a coalition partner that wants to see localism and decentralisation actually succeed as a long held political objective. I would be very pleased to discuss them further with you, or you or your Ministerial colleagues would of course be very welcome to visit us here in St Albans.


St Albans is a city of strong history, identity and civic pride. As one of the five towns involved in drafting the Magna Carta, last year we celebrated 800 years of local democratic tradition. In the present day, we see our role in the Council as providing strong and inclusive leadership, engaging closely with our community and our partners, in the interests of delivering the best possible outcomes for local residents.

Over the last few months we have, like other councils, been considering how best to manage our finances following the grant settlement, which saw us lose 28% of government grant over two years. I am pleased to say that our Council has recently agreed a budget which included £2.2 million of savings, with only very limited cuts to frontline services, and a zero Council tax increase for the third year running. I was able to maintain, and in some cases increase, our support to the community and voluntary

sector, and to protect the most vulnerable, and I will be writing separately in response to your letter on this with my colleagues in the voluntary and business sectors. In addition, our budget this year involved continuing to develop our work on sustainability, arts, culture and facilities for young people, all of which are non statutory services but seen as a high priority by our residents.

We welcome the overall intention and spirit of the Localism Bill, to provide for greater freedom and flexibilities for local councils and local communities. We are already looking at areas where we could work locally with residents, community groups and parishes to support and encourage them to take up the new opportunities the Bill presents.


There are, however, some areas where we have concerns about the Bill’s provisions, as currently drafted, or where there is lack of clarity about the Government’s policy intentions.


I attach a paper which sets out some more specific issues, from the perspective of my Council. I would welcome the views of you and your officials on these points.


I would like, however, to raise three more general issues, about the overall strategic policy direction of the decentralisation agenda.


Localism in practice


As I said at the District Councils Network, the coalition Government’s commitment to localism will ultimately be judged on whether policy reality matches policy rhetoric. Many of the initial announcements, such as the ending of the Comprehensive Area Assessment and Regional Spatial Strategies, provided real evidence of the Government’s commitment.


More recently, however, the signals have not been as clear. There appear to be almost weekly announcements from DCLG on very specific things (bin collections, council newspapers, chief executives, senior officers’ salaries etc.) which – however one views their merits in policy terms - seemingly run counter to the principles of localism.


The Localism Bill, too, has 142 order and regulation making powers, giving the Secretary of State the right to determine a range of matters despite Ministers’ announcements about the ending of the culture of Government telling local authorities what to do. Earlier this month DCLG published two consultation documents, on very specific provisions in the Bill, which together numbered over 100 pages, asking questions about the minutiae of local arrangements. The critical point is not the content of the papers themselves. It is the lack of clarity on which Bill provisions the Government intends, through guidance and secondary legislation, to develop very specific criteria, and on which it will leave the interpretation and implementation in the hands of local authorities. This makes pro-active work by councils to lay the groundwork for a local approach, in advance of the passing of the Bill, very difficult.


On this, it would be very helpful if Government were to give an early indication of those areas of the Bill where it was intending to issue further consultation papers, guidance and secondary legislation over the coming months, and those where it intends to leave developing the details entirely for local discretion.


Integrated localism


The Government has, over the past few months, been actively implementing ‘decentralisation’ initiatives across a range of public services. Yet there seems to be insufficient attention given thus far to the consistency between these approaches, and the cumulative impact on places and local partners.


So, for example, very different models of governance are emerging in relation to the police, health and local government, where policy makers are taking a very different view of the importance of elected councillors (and for that matter local neighbourhoods and communities) in decision making, particularly at second tier District level, despite service delivery being increasingly integrated through the work of local partnerships. And where councillors are included in new governance structures, as in the Health and Social Care Bill, this is only at the top tier level.


Likewise, while the commitment to ending the over burdensome target regime of previous administrations has been welcome, the rhetoric has not been carried through so far in the emerging detailed policy which reflects a civil service approach derived from the previous Labour Government, not the Coalition. In particular, the message about reducing top down targets and indicators from Ministers in DCLG is not being carried out across all Government Departments. St Albans has been the District representative on the Government ‘Sector Challenge’ group set up to help Government develop a new Single Data List. It has been clear from this work that new outcomes frameworks, indicators and data requests are emerging from different Departments and their business plans which will have the tendency towards fragmentation, not integration in local service delivery, and the burden of the amount of information, indicators and returns required will therefore not be reduced. Health is a particularly acute example, where three new outcomes frameworks are being proposed covering the NHS, social care and public health. There are also examples of specific new indicators proposed nationally by Government but measuring very local processes not outcomes (in DCLG examples include the number of people involved in neighbourhood planning, or the percentage of council budgets delegated to local decision making).


In St Albans, we will of course expect to manage these issues through the Council’s role as community leader in our Local Strategic Partnership, bringing all partners from public, voluntary and private sector together to develop a consensus on the future of our place and, through our innovative work to develop a Local Services Hub, joining up front office and reception services across partners and sectors to provide a more integrated and cost effective service to residents. However, a central government policy and legislative framework which encouraged, rather than diluted, this effort would be welcome.


Democratic localism


The overall policy intention behind the Localism Bill is, as I have said, very welcome. However the Bill is in many cases very prescriptive about which ‘rights’ are being devolved to which level of government and to which type of community. A true localism would leave the decisions about what to devolve and to whom in the hands of elected local councils. This is particularly important in relation to some aspects of services such as planning, where there are very real and important local debates as to the right spatial level to make decisions and choices between competing local interests, and to support and help the most vulnerable. Some of these will rightly be made at a very local scale – at street or ward level; in others the public interest may well lie at city, district, county or sub-regional level.


March 2011


Appendix A – Specific questions on key Bill provisions


Neighbourhood orders/plans


We support the principles behind more local planning. However we are concerned that the new provisions as drafted could add extra complexity, cost and delay in the planning process. In particular, there is a risk that unelected neighbourhood forums and other groups - who the Government has set out should have a role in the planning - could be undemocratic or unrepresentative, particularly in non-parished areas, where many District councillors are already working on a neighbourhood or ward scale with communities and where a new layer of process could be seen as unnecessary bureaucracy. Any new neighbourhood structures should have formal democratic legitimacy and accountability.


We would like to see the Bill give councils the freedom to develop locally frameworks for neighbourhood planning, which recognise the role of local democratic representatives in making difficult choices and protecting the more vulnerable and less vocal. We would also like greater clarity on the level of financial assistance that will be provided to District planning authorities, as well as community and neighbourhood groups, to support local plans, appoint independent examiners and organise local referenda.


Community assets and designating areas of community value


The recently opened consultation on community assets and the right to buy puts forward a lot of areas which may be prescribed nationally (for example the Secretary of State will define ‘land of community value’ and how long assets should be kept on the list). In the sprit of localism, we would expect local councils with their local communities to set this out.


We were pleased to hear that the Government will shortly be announcing proposals for a new designation to enable communities to protect the green areas that are most important to local life. We look forward to seeing the detail of this as we recognise that it is potentially a valuable tool for our District, where our Green Belt is particularly valued by our local community and has come under undue pressure over recent years.



Council housing finance


We support in principle the return of housing rents to local council, which will, over the longer term, give councils more freedom to manage their housing stock effectively. However, the proposals which have been set out will mean that our tenants are likely to be significantly disadvantaged by the new proposals.

Under the new proposals, St Albans City & District Council has a high settlement debt allocation of £186m, and therefore a high annual interest payment (which is more than the current annual payment made to central Government), while having to meet a high investment need as we are at the peak of our housing investment cycle. Combined with the cap of new borrowing, our modelling suggests that this will lead to a significant underinvestment (to a peak of about £7 million) over the next 10 years in our housing stock, with a real risk of the return of non decency to our homes for the first time in many years.

There are localist steps open to the Government which would allow us to manage this risk. In particular, it would help if the Government would agree to:

· the removal of the debt cap at the settlement level;

· allowing councils to keep 100% of the receipts from Right to Buy sales, rather than the current 25%; and

· taking local investment needs into account when allocating the settlement rather than basing this on regional figures.



We support measures to allow local residents to express views and campaign freely on matters of important local interests and debate. But this has to be balanced by the role of local elected councillors (where voters in St Albans have the opportunity to vote three years in every four) in representing residents views. In particular our concern on referendums is in relation to the potential costs. Running a District wide poll costs up to £120K, which equates to over 1% on council tax. The introduction of our petition scheme has resulted in an average of approximately one petition per month. If the same pattern was to be repeated with referenda, costs could be potentially very significant. We would therefore like the Government to give freedom to local authorities to decide how best to develop a scheme on referendums that strikes the right balance between facilitating District wide votes on matters of key local importance and not imposing undue burdens or undermining the role of councillors.


Aspects of governance


The Government’s commitment to giving local authorities greater choice in relation to governance options is welcome. We were surprised, therefore, especially in the light of Grant Shapps’ earlier letter to local authorities, that the Government has continued to enforce previous legislation on the ‘strong leader’ model.


On pre-determination, we welcome the Government’s revisions to the rules. A particular issue for us locally has been in relation to scrutiny committees, where the current Member Code of Conduct requires previous Cabinet members who are now members of scrutiny to declare a personal and prejudicial interest in relation to matters being discussed at scrutiny where they had previously been present for a decision at Cabinet relating to the same topic, preventing them from debating and voting at scrutiny meetings on these items. This current restriction has caused us difficulties and could discourage talented members from becoming members of scrutiny committees, especially in a marginal authority such as ours where there may be relatively frequent changes of personnel on Cabinet and scrutiny. It would be helpful if the Government could confirm that this requirement will be deleted from the new list of registerable interests.


Finally, we would welcome clarity on whether some Ministerial statements (such as the abolition of Local Area Agreements) have been reflected in the legislation (at present, it appears that the scrutiny provisions still relate to duties connected to Local Area Agreements made in previous local government legislation).


Costs recovery and ‘new burdens’


The Bill will incur costs for district councils, parish councils and local community groups in meeting the new responsibilities in the Bill, and we have set out some of the main areas we have concerns. We would like reassurance that for all these areas the Government will fully evaluate what financial support individual councils and others will require, and to be clear that this will be provided as additional money on an ongoing basis to the settlement levels already announced for 2012/13.