Localism Bill


1. Introduction

1.1 Harpenden is a bustling, thriving commuter Town comprising the Town Centre and smaller shopping centres at Batford, Kinsborne Green and Southdown. There are several industrial sites within the parish boundary. The Town Council helps support the business community through a ‘keep it local’ campaign.

1.2 Harpenden’s most significant asset and its key feature is the Common which is 96.32 hectares. This includes Hatching Green, Kinsbourne Green, Bowers Parade Sensory Garden, Southdown Green and Southdown Ponds.

1.3 Harpenden Town Council, a Quality Council, was created in 1974 following local government re-organisation. It is the largest parish in the St Albans City and District Council with a population of approximately 30,000. Each Ward – North, South, East and West – is represented by four Town Councillors.

1.4 There are sixteen Town Councillors who are elected to serve a four-year term which commenced on the 3 May 2007. Each year, the Council elects from amongst its members the Town Mayor and Deputy Town Mayor.

2. Localism Bill

2.1 Harpenden Town Council welcomes the new Localism Bill. The Bill is considered as decentralising local government, providing greater opportunity for modernising and involving local people in the delivery of services that affect them. The six essential actions of the new Bill are;

· To lift the burden of bureaucracy

· To empower communities to do things their way

· To increase local control of public finance

· To diversify the supply of public services

· To open up government to public scrutiny

· To strengthen government accountability to local people

2.2 These are recognised as being important enabling actions of the Bill and are supported in that they pave the way for change. But change cannot arrive without regulation and it is necessary for Government to recognise that if there is to be implementation of these objectives then powers need to be in place to promote the six essential actions.

2.3 Local Councils are ideally positioned to support the ambition of the Coalition Government. As the tier of Government closest to the people, with elected representatives living in the community they serve, there is a real sense of localism. Local Councils are aware of the needs of their community as they share in the challenges of shaping their neighbourhood. They look forward to the opportunity of demonstrating their commitment to their Town or Parish.

3. Call for Evidence

3.1 Harpenden Town Council is an ambitious Council. It was one of the original 41 Best Value local councils which had to produce a Best Value Performance Plan and accounts in accordance with the regulations (BVACoP) as they affected principal authorities. As such the Council has an excellent understanding of the conventions as they apply to the larger Councils. However, in striving to take on responsibilities from St Albans City and District, Harpenden Town Council has often either been frustrated, ignored or flatly refused. It is the contention of the Town Council that many of the services provided by the District would be better delivered locally, be more responsive and in most cases provide better value for money both in efficiency and effectiveness.

3.2 The District Council is reluctant to devolve power to the Local Council for a number of reasons, not least of which is the erosion of its control over the Town and the decentralising of its powers, the nucleus of the Bill. The Town Council have enquired after a number of services or amenities that would be better maintained and managed locally. The District Council has resisted without providing a logical or reasoned argument. This specifically relates to two parks, Porters Hill and Rothamsted and the freehold of Lydekker Park. The Town Council have been managing this Park for many years on behalf of the District Council. It would have no financial implication to devolve the Park to Harpenden Town Council and recognise the investment the local council has made in managing this facility. Their highly charged and emotive response is that these are ‘jewels in the crown’ of the District portfolio.

3.3 Harpenden Town Council are currently negotiating a lease for the transfer of a local nature reserve. The lease is a fore runner to the actual transfer of the nature reserve in 5 – 10 years time, subject to satisfactory performance. This seems a bit onerous as the Town Council currently manages over 96 hectares of Common land. It is questioned why the District are so reluctant to transfer the land. The Localism Bill should provide the backdrop to a successful transfer with, importantly, funding following function. This is vital in all cases of devolution in order to ensure that there are no cases of double taxation and the local council is not disadvantaged.

3.4 In considering the issue of double taxation, it is recognised that all Principal Authorities receive a rate support grant, sometimes in excess of 70% of the local council tax raised. This funding assists in the cost of delivering local services. It is not known how the Government intend to deal with this aspect of financial support to Principal Authorities, but it clearly disadvantages Local Councils in delivering their services. When considering the issue of vetoing excessive council tax rises, if Local Councils do not get funding following function from the Principal Authority then there is logically going to be an increase in expenditure and therefore an increase on the council tax. This potential anomaly needs to be addressed and recognised at an early stage in the negotiating process.

3.5 It is welcome that the Bill will address the issue of predetermination. Many councillors will have provided views on campaign issues when seeking election. Councillors predisposed to a point of view are able to go into meetings and make decisions based on the facts presented to them. Often Local Councillors will have views on issues because of the local knowledge that they have. However, this does not mean they do not have the capacity to listen to and recognise alternative views or options. Predetermination has been the cause of many cases of Standards Board issues and therefore clarifying this point means Councillors will have the opportunity to better represent the community they serve.

3.6 The Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) is a positive measure to ensure that funding from developments can be directed towards the needs of the community. Its aim to compel local planning authorities to pass the Levy funds to other bodies to spend on infrastructure so that the neighbourhood from which it is raised and which is most affected by the development can benefit from it is a sensible measure. It is suggested that in Parished areas the funding should be passed to an accountable body such as the Local Council. It is an opportunity to examine local needs and if appropriate undertake a participatory budgeting exercise, of which Harpenden TC has experience.

3.7 Neighbourhood planning and more direct control by the Local Council in this matter is valued as an important aspect of empowering local people. The Local Council is well placed to develop Neighbourhood Development Orders (NDOs) within its community. Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDPs), which set out the development and land use policies for a particular area, will help liberate local residents in designing the area in which they live. Currently the Town Council are looking to provide much needed affordable homes on land released by the Secretary of State from Allotment use. The District Council have obstructed this proposal, contrary to many of their policies and strategies. It is hoped that the introduction of NDO’s and NDP’s will see this situation being directed towards a practical solution that reflects the needs of the community.

I hope that the written comments and evidence in support of the Localism Bill is of interest and assistance in your considerations.

January 2011