Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - First Report


Memorandum by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

  The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) welcomes this opportunity to present evidence. The RSPB is Europe's largest wildlife charity with over one million members. We manage one of the largest conservation estates in the UK—147 nature reserves, covering more than 100,000 hectares.

  The RSPB believes that the Government's proposals provide a great opportunity to achieve modern local government which can deliver social and environmental benefits. We are actively working with local authorities and other partners to help achieve this. The primary focus of this submission concerns the draft bill's proposals for the reform of the political structures of local government and the belief that, if they are to fulfil their objectives, then they cannot be separated from the proposed duty on local authorities to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas.


  The Government set out its proposals for the reform of local government in its White Paper Modern Local Government—In touch with the people in summer 1997. This includes Labour's manifesto commitment to introduce a "well-being" duty to apply to all local authorities. This would, the White Paper said:

    —  "enshrine in law the role of the council as the elected leader of their local community with a responsibility for the well-being and sustainable development of its area";

    —  provide "an overarching framework for local government" within which "councils must perform all their existing functions"; and

    —  be underpinned by discretionary power, enabling councils to take steps to promote the well-being of their areas.

  2.  This confirms and reinvigorates community leadership as the prime function of modern local government and as such should be the main driver for how local authorities organise themselves. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the Government's objectives for structural and political reform can be achieved unless they are set in the context of community leadership. It is therefore surprising and disappointing that the Government has decided not to include the new duty in its draft Organisation and Standards Bill in Local leadership, local choice[12]. The Bill should be expanded to include the proposed new duty and the accompanying enabling powers.

  3.  The duty for local authorities could follow the model adopted for the Greater London Authority[13]. This establishes the General Power of the Authority as furthering the economic, social and environmental well-being of Greater London, that in exercising its powers it shall promote sustainable development. This gives a strong strategic lead and effectively integrates sustainable development objectives across all the Local Authority's operations—the very essence of sustainable development.


  The RSPB warmly welcomes the proposed duty. We believe that local government has a crucial role to play in delivering sustainable development and that the proposed duty is vital to fulfilling this role. The maintenance and enhancement of biodiversity (literally the variety of life on earth) is a key test of sustainable development. Therefore, this duty could do much to promote and further local authority biodiversity conservation, in addition to fostering improved resource management, addressing social exclusion, etc. Indeed, the lack of access for some communities to greenspace, nature and quietness is itself one element of social exclusion.

  5.  The duty will provide Local Authorities (LAs) with a clear signal that they must deliver sustainable development for their communities and take an integrated approach to the provision and effects of all their services. Some local authorities are already leading the way, but many are failing to grasp the opportunity and continuing with "business as usual"—hence the need for a duty.

  6.  Likewise, the proposed discretionary power that will enable, "councils to take steps which in their view will promote the well-being of their area"[14] would provide a positive tool for innovative LAs to further the sustainable development of their communities. It would encourage best practice which could be followed by those LAs that have yet to enthusiastically embrace this role.[15] If the non-respondents to the survey also have yet to make a commitment to an LA21, then the figure could be as high as one third. This despite Tony Blair's target that LA21 strategies should be in place in all LAs by the year 2000. This illustrates that even where a target has been set by the Prime Minister, a significant minority of LAs look set to fail to meet the necessary standard. The need for a legislative stick to encourage action is clear. A duty would help LAs take this target more seriously and to give LA21 the necessary political and resource backing.

  7.  The need for a statutory basis for the duty is clear. A recent survey of local authority LA21 activity (Autumn 1998), by the (then) Local Government Management Board (now the Improvement and Development Agency), found that, of the 77 per cent of LAs which responded, over 17 per cent have yet to make a commitment to produce an LA21


  The proposals contained within the White Paper cover a wide range of areas including community leadership, political leadership, local democracy, ethics and finance, which together form an inter-related package for the modernisation of local government. Clearly the pressures on parliamentary business prevent the whole package being taken forward at the same time. However, there is a strong case that changing the political management cannot work properly if it is divorced from the well being duty.

   9.  For example, the proposals for structural reform as set out in the draft Organisation and Standard Bill include a far reaching agenda of cultural change for councillors and officers which will require new skills and ways of working to be developed. These make little sense if they are divorced from the intended overall purpose of modern local government—to take the lead in developing a clear sense of direction for their communities and building partnerships to ensure a better quality of life and environment for their areas.


  In the debate on the "Best Value Bill" in the House of Lords (10 May 1999), Lord Whitty stated:

    Sustainable development "is probably the most significant challenge to the current generation of politicians . . . . We expect authorities to give expression to those principles, primarily through the process of community planning . . . (the) new duty will place sustainable development at the centre of community planning, and in that arena we remain committed to bringing forward such legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows"[16].

  11.  Lord Whitty's statement appears to indicate a significant narrowing of the application of the duty from all LA functions and activities to solely that of, the so far ill defined, community planning. This contrasts to the White Paper which stated the duty "will provide an overall framework within which councils must perform all their existing functions". This will then include "a requirement for councils to secure the development of a comprehensive strategy for promoting the well-being of their area"[17] ie a community plan. It is quite clear that the Government's original intention was that the community plan lie within a framework of an all encompassing duty on LAs to deliver sustainable development, not that the community plan itself become the framework.

  12.  The Government's proposals on community planning are welcomed. They offer a potentially valuable new tool which could open up the opportunity for individual communities to translate sustainable development to the specific needs of their local areas and find ways of implementing it. The duty, however, is about providing over-arching strategic direction. It therefore needs to apply more widely than to just the community planning process. For example, it is not clear how a sustainable development duty which relates only to community planning will interact and be binding upon Best Value.

  13.  As Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer stated during the Best Value Bill debate in the Lords, "unless it (the duty) is included as a fundamental duty on local authorities, I feel that it will always be the poor relation when conflicts arise as to where their (LAs') first duty should lie"[18].


  The most appropriate place to introduce the proposed duty is as part of a revised Organisation and Standards Bill. This would mean that community leadership and sustainable development really are placed at the heart of decision making, providing the vital over-arching framework and direction for the process of modernising local government.

29 June 1999

12   The draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill appears as an Annex in HM Government (1999) Local leadership, local choice, Stationery Office, London. Back

13   HM Government (1998) Greater London Authority Bill, Stationery Office, London. Back

14   DETR (1998) Modern Local Government-In touch with the people, (para 8.11), Stationery Office, London. Back

15   Morris, J (1999) Chasing the millennium deadline: is Local Agenda 21 on target? in EG Local Environment News, Vol 5, No 4 April 1999, Environment Resource and Information Centre, University of Westminster, London. Back

16   Official Report of the House of Lords (10 May 1999) Local Government Bill, column CWH 26. Back

17   DETR (1998), para 8.12. Back

18   Ibid., column CWH 27. Back

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Prepared 11 August 1999