Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church (L 176)

Who we are?

1. The Joint Public Issues Team is an ecumenical collaboration between the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church on public issues impacting on church and society from the perspective of our Christian faith and non-conformist church traditions. We have responded to various Government consultations and Bills as part of our on-going commitment to providing a moral and faith-based perspective on public policy debates.

2. Our three denominations represent some 8337 congregations in England, Scotland and Wales comprising an estimated total of 491 000 members. Our local churches are deeply rooted in the communities they serve and our buildings and members are collectively involved in many thousands of projects aimed at enhancing well being and human flourishing of the people they serve as an expression of the love, compassion and justice of Christ in the midst of life’s contingencies.

3. In addition to the many projects of community and social engagement, we have a number of specialist ministers such as Church Related Community Workers, Deacons, Youth Workers, Chaplains and Special Category Ministers who provide pastoral care, spiritual guidance and social enrichment to various categories of people with special needs.

4. Finally, we also have long established partnerships with agencies and voluntary organisations which provide specialist services to vulnerable individuals and communities throughout the UK who both challenge and compliment the work of our churches in responding to the needs in our communities.

5. It is therefore, on the basis of our long history of rootedness in local communities and extensive experience of engagement in social and spiritual transformation that we offer the following comments on the Localism Bill based on the following core values and principles which we believe to be fundamental to human flourishing and the common good.

Core Values and Principles

6. Whilst we welcome the broad aims and provisions outlined in the Localism Bill, we believe that the desired outcome of empowered and engaged local communities working together for the common good (as outlined in the Executive Summary of the Essential Guide to the Bill) will only be achieved by a commitment to certain core moral values and principles in society.

7. These core values include those of dignity and respect accorded to human beings by virtue of them being created in the image of God and of being loved by God in the mode of attachment. We believe that this bestows great worth on each and every human being and that natural human rights inhere in the worth bestowed on human beings by that love. This includes the right not to be treated in a manner that demeans or degrades as this is to treat a person with under-respect i.e. in a way that infringes his or her inherent worth as a human being. Hence our understanding of a right as ‘a legitimate claim to the good of being treated in a certain way by persons and by those social entities capable of rational action.’ [1]

8. In claiming such rights, we are appealing to a framework of justice that lies behind or above the rights conferred by legislation and social practice. Such an appeal is based on natural rights which have peremptory force based on the fact that ‘to dishonour a natural right is to wrong someone;’ we are therefore able to employ natural rights so understood to evaluate what happens in society, including an appraisal of the presence or absence of laws and social practices conferring rights.

9. However, to counter the claims that a moral subculture of rights expresses and supports an ethos of possessive individualism, we also subscribe to the following social philosophy principles which understand humans primarily as social beings who seek fulfilment by participation in social institutions which enhance human flourishing and the common good:

i. Subsidiarity - the principle of subsidiarity holds that government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person. Subsidiarity assumes that these human persons are by their nature social beings, and emphasizes the importance of small and intermediate-sized communities or institutions, like the family, the church, and voluntary associations, as mediating structures which empower individual action and link the individual to society as a whole .

ii. Solidarity – highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights and the common path of individuals and peoples towards an ever more committed unity .

iii. Sustainability – the integration of social, environmental and economic factors in assessing the needs and well-being of existing people without compromising the ability of future generations to enjoy a similar quality of life and well-being.

iv. Social justice – this principle is based on justice both as right order and inherent rights and the obligation to be seen to be doing justice in terms of our individual and social relationships.

v. Responsibility - the above principles are advocated on the basis of responsible citizenship which holds that people are required to assume responsibility for their lives as individuals, families and communities and that such responsibility should be expressed in actions which enhance the common good, human flourishing and social cohesion.

Application to the Localism Bill

10. Provisions relating to councils

Whilst we welcome the broad provisions of the Bill related to the devolution of a general power of competence to local councils and the empowerment of voluntary and community groups to challenge local authorities over their services, we are concerned at the rapid pace at which this fundamental shift in governance in the UK is being driven by the Coalition Government. Whilst the devolution of responsibility for certain aspects of governance to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament followed a considered, phased implementation plan, the same cannot be said for the proposed devolution of a general power of competence to local councils. Coupled with the dramatic budget cuts which local councils have been forced to implement as part of the spending cuts announced by HM Treasury, the pace at which this change to the social contract is being implemented runs the very real risk of further disempowering local communities and eroding social cohesion. We base this assertion on the following reasons:

· In order for the very real benefits to communities outlined in the Localism Bill to be realised, the provisions need to be systematically presented, debated and owned by local councils and the general public. The magnitude of the changes outlined in the provisions of the Localism Bill warranted a Draft Bill and the issuing of a Green Paper by Government to allow public discussion and consultation on these provisions. Whilst consultation was offered on the social housing component of this Bill, we registered our concern that the Bill had its Second Reading debate in the Commons on the 17th January, 2011 two hours before this consultation closed (we have therefore listed the key responses of our consultation response under the provisions related to housing below).

· Secondly, we are concerned that the underlying premise of the shift to decentralisation and local community empowerment is based on a false assumption of voluntarism and social enterprise in light of the drastic job and funding cuts across the public, private and voluntary sectors. We share the fundamental concern expressed by other leaders in the voluntary sector who have pointed out that the pace and depth of the budget cuts to local councils is impacting directly on many of the services currently provided by voluntary sector organisations. Many of our churches have also reported that the cuts to funding of local community and voluntary organisations have resulted in drastic cut-backs and possible closures of many of the agencies who use our church buildings to base their services to local communities. Social enterprise requires social capital which the economic recession and ensuing spending cuts has served to severely erode.

· Thirdly, we are concerned that in light of these spending cuts there is a real possibility of increasing polarisation and conflict in communities as competition for ever-dwindling financial resources intensifies. This poses a particular threat to social cohesion in multi-ethnic and faith communities which will require additional resources in terms of conflict prevention and resolution which may ultimately cost local councils more than their budget cuts.

· Finally, we do not believe that sufficient attention has been given by Government to some of the unintended consequences of the Localism Bill. Chief among these are the consequences for those who are most vulnerable in our society and as Christians we reject current trends related to the commodification of life goods – particularly as they relate to the care and provision of essential services to the disabled, elderly, children and destitute. We are distressed to see that services to some of these members of society have already been compromised by local councils despite the guarantees by the Coalition Government that they would receive protection.

11. Provisions related to housing – we responded to the consultation on social housing and summarise our key concerns below:

· The devolution of money and power to the local community is welcome but needs to be scrutinised for local anomalies caused by national housing need, such as the one above. Additional measures at a national level may be required to avoid local areas being unfairly financially burdened or worse being incentivised to move those in acute housing need to another local area.

· Local Authorities should have a duty to ensure the views of those less able to make their voice heard are supported and enabled to do so. This should include well designed fully representative consultations and could include the appointing of volunteer or paid community advocates should a group feel this would be enable them to better present their case.

· Tennant-led mobility is to be welcomed; enforced tenant mobility is not. The Tenancy Standard should balance the power of a landlord and a responsible tenant such that this is enabled.

· Local Authorities should be incentivised to produce a mix of Affordable Rent and traditional social housing in order to provide options for the poorest. This is especially important in high rent areas. We suggest that if a rent is called "Affordable" and available only to those with demonstrable need then it should also be affordable by the Housing Benefit system.

· Local authorities should consult with tenants and with local voluntary and community organisations, including faith community representatives and organisations providing relevant non-statutory services in drawing-up their strategic tenancy policy. A good example to follow would be the composition of local authority homelessness forums.

· The key principles of the Tenancy Standard should be around responding to housing need and promoting stable families and thriving communities. Other principles should include providing security, while both landlords and tenants are mutually accountable. Equality of provision between all the protected groups as stated in the Equality Act would be essential.

· We think that the minimum fixed term for general needs social tenancies should be at least five years. The general needs social tenancy is effectively replacing the assured tenancy which was for life. A drop to a two year tenancy would be a vast jump, and would represent a major change in the aspiration and expectations for potential social tenants.

12. Provisions related to planning and regeneration – again we generally welcome the provisions in this section of the Localism Bill related to engaging communities in planning their local areas to help deliver sustainable development on the ground. However, we share the concerns raised by organisations such as Friends of the Earth related to the cost burden related to Neighbourhood Planning which is proposed to fall on local communities. This raises concerns of creating a new planning system which is not equally accessible to all communities unless they can afford to pay for qualified, impartial and reliable advice. We also support their recommendations that:

· Neighbourhood plans are of material consideration in the local planning process but are not statutory development plan documents. Being a material consideration will lower costs making NPs more accessible, and would remove the risk posed by development orders being imposed on communities, their environment and their economy.

· Right to be heard: Neighbourhood Plans must have a right to be heard in person and must be examined by the Planning Inspectorate as an independent, qualified, impartial body.

· Sustainable development (SD): The bill should uphold the legal definition in the UK SD Strategy: "The goal of sustainable development is to enable all people…to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life, without compromising the quality of life of future generations." h ttp://www.defra.gov.uk/sustainable/government/publications/ukstrategy/

documents/SecFut_complete.pdf . In addition, we recognise that the impact of climate change and loss of biodiversity are too large to be addressed by local environmental impact assessments and will need to assessed in the context of a Strategic Environmental Assessment (which will cross over a number of local authorities and specialist areas)

· Local carbon budgets: given the growing concern about the lack of progress across Government Departments on implementing the ambitious targets on carbon reduction and the transition to a low carbon economy in the UK set out in the UK Climate Change Act, we support the call for responsibility for carbon targets to be devolved to local councils together with the necessary funding for them to implement the urgent projects needed to facilitate this transition. For more information on local carbon budgets, please see the briefing produced by friends of the Earth at: http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefings/local_carbon_budgets.pdf

13. Licensing powers – as churches with a long history in campaigning against the negative social impact of gambling , we would like to propose strongly that planning authorities be given the power to consider the social impact of granting additional licenses to betting shops in a local community. At present there are very few planning or licensing powers that local authorities can exercise over betting shops. We believe that is a fundamental right for councils and residents to shape the content and character of the neighbourhoods they live in based on moral and ethical considerations. We therefore support the call by campaigning groups for local councils and communities to be empowered by allowing local authorities to::

i. Adopt cumulative impact policies as currently permitted under the Licensing Act but in relation to the concentration of gambling premises. We would propose using the same wording as in the recent licensing consultation. This will provide a council with the ability to make a judgement on what concentration of gambling outlets it feels it can bear in its own area, and to set specific geographical limits on gambling venues.

ii. Set an overall cap on the number of betting shops or gaming centres in a given area; this could be through a specifically designed zone, or congruent with a council ward, or even the whole borough. Finally, we believe that a local cap on the number of Category B2 gaming machines would be an effective way of locally regulating the type of gambling activity that is most closely linked to problem gambling.

Concluding comments

14. As churches we support the principle of devolving responsibility for decision making to the level of local communities and their authorities based on the principle of subsidairity outlined above. We believe that this does empower individuals and communities to act in to further their interests in the service of the wider good of society. However, we believe that the timing of the Localism Bill is unfortunate as it coincides with some of the most stringent and far reaching cuts to the budgets of local councils and one of the deepest recessions the UK has experienced in many years.

15. The combination of these factors will produce formidable obstacles to the realisation of the desired outcome of empowered and engaged communities working to enhance human flourishing and the common good which will require creative use of the greatly diminished resources now available from central and local government.

March 2011

[1] Wolterstorff,N, Justice- Rights and Wrongs, Princeton University Press, 2008, p. 386