Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Local Government Yorkshire and Humber (L 43)

Background/Summary

1. Local Government Yorkshire and Humber (LGYH) is the collaborative partnership of all 22 councils, 4 police authorities, 4 fire and rescue authorities and the 2 national park authorities across Yorkshire and Humber. We therefore have a direct interest in the provisions contained in the Localism Bill.

2. A key priority of LGYH is to promote more localist, place-based approaches to the delivery of public services, which are more efficient and more responsive to the genuine needs of communities, rather than organisational priorities [1] . The role of democratic, elected local government is crucial in delivering, facilitating and mediating such approaches in an open, transparent and accountable way. As representative partnership of elected local government we work closely with the Local Government Association (LGA) on this agenda and have influenced and worked with them on their response to the Localism Bill, which we clearly support.

3. This LGYH response to the House of Commons Committee’s call for evidence makes a number of general and specific comments with respect to the provisions included within the Bill as presently drafted, which emphasise the specific issues being raised by local government in Yorkshire & Humber.

Part 1: Local Government

4. Greater clarity is needed with regard to what, in a practical sense, the ‘General Power of Competence’ (clauses 1 to 7) will provide for local authorities in the context of the limitations placed upon in within the Bill. Ensuring that the power has real, additional value is an issue that has already been raised with the Public Bill Committee by the organisations, such as the LGA, LGiU and Localis, and we would support their concerns in this regard.

5. In particular, will it permit local authorities to not undertake activities that they judge to be detrimental to their operational effectiveness or which might ultimately run counter to community well-being? In other words, will this ‘General Power’ take precedence or have primacy over other regulatory or statutory provisions that councils may need to over-ride?

6. There are examples of areas where, for instance, councils are currently restricted in the levels of fees they are able to charge for the provision of services - such as Home to School Transport - where mandatory/set fee levels do not allow for the reasonable recovery of costs incurred. Will the General Power allow for such reasonable charges to be set?

7. Similarly, most local authorities wish to adopt more flexible and innovative approaches to local advertising regulations – in particular, to be able to use electronic media rather than be restricted to local printed media. Councils are also calling for greater flexibilities around the regulations that dictate the nature of council tax bills. Again, will the ‘General Power’ allow for local authorities to adopt the flexible approaches they now need on these matters, to be both more effective and efficient?

8. It would be helpful to have issues such as the above on the Parliamentary record during the course of the Bill’s debate.

9. There are particular concerns in Yorkshire and Humber about the implications of mandatory Elected Mayors (Schedule 2). Such a model of local governance must not be imposed on communities – it must be a matter for local people to decide. It also does not appear that the Government has taken any account of areas where the electorate has already rejected an Elected Mayor model.

10. It is also not clear whether Whitehall Departments are appropriately joining up their policy ambitions in such areas. In West Yorkshire, for example, the implications of the Bill and wider Government policy are that there will be three elected City Mayors (Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield) as well as a single Elected Police Commissioner for the entire sub-region. How will all individuals balance their inevitable wishes and needs to manage community safety issues for their respective electorates? Should the Mayors appoint the Commissioner, as is the case in London? Are such issues and potential anomalies being proactively considered by Ministers?

11. This again points to the need for local solutions, based on the particular needs of places and communities. In this regard, we would call upon the Government to at least delay the implementation of these measures until such anomalous situations can be properly thought through and managed, in full partnership with the local authorities concerned.

12. On the basis, however, that a Mayoral model may be voted for by communities in some local areas (as is already the case, of course), greater clarity is needed over what additional powers Government needs to devolve down to such Elected Mayors from Central Government. There is clearly potential for such powers to encompass skills provision (perhaps even able to set differential rates of student fees), transport investment and community safety (as noted above). But if it is seen to be in the democratic interest for such powers to be at the local level then they should also be provided to existing (e.g. Leader and Cabinet) governance models. There should not be a democratic deficit in local authority areas where the community chooses not to have an Elected Mayor, in terms of councils having less power and influence over public services provision.

13. LGYH also lends its support to the general concerns raised by the majority of commentators with regard to the large number of powers within the Bill that allow for Central Government control and regulation - through statutory guidance or other forms of secondary legislation - over issues that should, in fact, have maximum local discretion.

14. One particular area where centralised control should be avoided is the proposed dictation in the area of local authority pay accountability policies (clauses 21 to 26). Matters of workforce pay must be a local matter, so that it can reflect the particular local circumstances and priorities. In this regard, councils should be accountable, ultimately, to their local electorate through the quality of services they are able to offer, rather than be accountable to the Secretary of State on the basis of centralised guidance (clause 23).

Part 2: EU fines

15. The opposition to these clauses relating to requiring local authorities to make payments with respect to EU fines (30 to 34), voiced by the LGA and others in their responses to the Bill, are supported.

Part 3: Non Domestic Rates

16. The provisions to make small business rate relief automatic are welcomed and we support the call from the LGA for Government to work very closely with local authorities on its future plans to fully localise non-domestic rates, as it will be vital for such an approach to cater for the needs of both those authorities that stand to benefit as well as those that may lose out from in financial terms. It is vital for such a policy shift to not disadvantage communities that may already be struggling to grow their local economies.

Part 4: Community Empowerment

17. LGYH would echo the concerns raised by the LGA with respect to the duty to hold a local referendum, which is directly counter to the spirit of localism the Bill is intended to promote.

18. It should be emphasised that empowering communities is a fundamental role of local government and national legislation should not assume that local authorities need to be forced into such activity through a statutory duty, complete with a host of mandatory guidance and controls.

19. It must also be noted that the ‘5% of the electorate’ rule for petitions to go to local referenda could well be a barrier for some elements of the community, despite having valid concerns. For others, however, achieving a 5% petition could be a relatively easy prospect (e.g. with the support of web-based infrastructure to promote them), even though the issues concerned could in fact be a minority concern; or simply a means of frustrating other parts of the community.

20. The call from the LGA (and others) to delete clauses 39 to 55 should, therefore, be supported.

21. In the unfortunate event, however, that the provisions remain in the Bill, the Government must agree to meet the significant costs they will inevitably incur, as the clauses would clearly be a new burden on local government. The position of Government on this matter should be set out for the Parliamentary record.

22. The clauses relating to Council Tax referendums (56 to 65 and associate Schedules) are of particular concern to local government, as they allow for Central Government to dictate what constitutes an "excessive" rate of council tax, without reference to local circumstances. These must be matters for local people to determine, rather than the Secretary of State, as what may be seen as excessive in one area will be very different in another. A ‘one size fits all’ rule, as proposed by the legislation as drafted, fails to appreciate the different levels of dependence on council tax revenue, which varies greatly from area to area. Some local authorities may be able to afford very low levels of council tax, perhaps because they stand to benefit significantly from increased business rates revenue; whereas others will rely on council tax as a principal means of financing/supporting service provision.

23. The concerns raised by the LGA and many others with regard to community right to challenge and right to buy (clauses 66-88) are also supported, as they risk increasing the bureaucracy around such matters, which should be for local councils to negotiate, in their elected democratic capacity, with their communities.

Part 5: Planning

24. Whilst generally welcomed, in terms of freeing local authorities from imposed targets and controls, there are numerous implications for councils as a result of the revocation of Regional Strategies (clause 89) - not least where Regional Strategies may be quoted directly in approved Local Development Plans or Core Strategies. There will also be numerous ‘holes’ in National Planning Guidance that currently refer to Regional Strategies as a result of revocation. These issues and their implications for developers or risks of legal challenges need to be fully explored and managed.

25. There are clear risks that the reform set out in the Bill could lead to even greater delays and uncertainties within the planning system; for example, a more "subjective" and complex approach to planning, more open to challenge. Wider provisions, such as the community right to buy and local referenda, could also be utilised to frustrate development and add to delays in the system, which would be directly counter to the Coalition Government’s objectives.

26. The wider planning concerns raised during the Bill’s public evidence sessions – e.g. those highlighted by the LGA about the Community Infrastructure Levy; and the implications of a more complex system of neighbourhood planning that could, in fact, dilute levels of representative democracy and serve to simply support those who "shout the loudest" in local communities – are also supported.

General Points and Conclusions

27. In addition to the specific issues noted above with respect to particular clauses in the Bill, the key principle for this entire localism and decentralisation agenda is for local authorities and communities to decide what models of service delivery and governance are needed. Standardised or arbitrary structures, rules or regulations must not be imposed from the centre. A system of "cherry picking", devolving some issues, but retaining other decisions within Whitehall, must be avoided.

28. The role of democratically elected and representative local councillors also needs to be fully recognised by Central Government. At present there is not a single reference to elected local councillors in the Government’s Decentralisation & Localism Bill: Essential Guide [2] , for example.

29. Good local councillors already work with communities to empower them, express their views in decision-making, as well as to balance inevitably competing views and help ensure that any ‘vocal minorities’ do not dominate genuine local needs. There is a real danger that provisions such as those around local referenda will be seen as a "default" strategy for community engagement, bypassing the role of councillors; yet this would be both expensive and ineffective, building in waste and additional costs over and above the existing system of representative democracy. The key is ongoing dialogue and engagement with communities, to provide place-based leadership, which referenda and blunt legislative tools cannot achieve.

January 2011


[1] See the LGYH statement on localism at www.lgyh.gov.uk/dnlds/Localism%20Statement.pdf

[2] www.communities.gov.uk/documents/localgovernment/pdf/1793908.pdf