The new White Paper on local government, Strong and Prosperous Communities, which was published on Thursday, emphasises that councils, their partners, and local communities, need to be given more power. It includes many warm words about partnership with the community and leadership but what does it mean in practice?
As outlined in an earlier story (see knowledgebase – Government revisits concept of elected mayors 22 October 2006) “Community Calls for Action” will be introduced to formalise the right of communities to raise concerns about local government matters or services. Ward councillors will act as filters to ensure the system isn’t abused and they will be able to decline spurious complaints
- Local neighbourhood management, and neighbourhood charters that set out specific service standards and priorities.
- A fund to support refurbishment of buildings where the council will transfer these to community management.
- The process to create new town and parish councils - called Neighbourhood or Community Councils - will be simplified, devolving this to local government without requiring central government involvement.
- The government will seek to rationalise arrangements to support community groups although the exact nature of the ‘rationalisation’ is unclear.
- This white paper also stresses the importance of local government leadership and proposes a range of changes to council constitutions including: -
- Legislation will change the options for executive leadership to just three: a directly elected mayor; a leader elected by the council but who must have a four year term of office; a new model of a directly elected executive with each member of the cabinet directly elected by the public.
- The mayor or leader will hold all the executive powers and will be able to decide whether and how to delegate them appointing cabinet members and allocating portfolios as he/she see fit..
- Councils will be able to move to a mayoral constitution without a referendum, but there will still be a mechanism for the public to petition for a referendum.
- Overview and scrutiny powers will be extended over key partner organisations that have been given a role in co-operating with Local Area Agreements (LAAs).
- The government will set up a review to seek ways to promote greater diversity amongst councillors and to try to identify ways to encourage more candidates to put themselves forward for election. Capacity building for councillors will be supported but will not be compulsory.
- Councils will gain powers to enact byelaws, without needing the confirmation by central government and they will be able to enforce them through fixed penalty notices.
While local government’s approach to economic development is discussed, particularly city regions, decisions are deferred pending a report feeding into the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) next year.
Specific proposals include:
- A continuing review of the need to improve regional working, particularly on regeneration and economic growth.
- Reform of Passenger Transport Authorities and Executives, to enable a more coherent approach to transport in the major cities with more council representation,
- A new development - Multi-Area Agreements (like a LAA but between several different authorities) – are proposed to support cross-boundary collaboration, and other local partnership arrangements such as boards of council leaders.
Local Strategic Partnerships
The white paper puts forward proposals to develop Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) and Local Area Agreements (LAAs). Specific proposals are:
- Councils will have a duty to prepare a Local Area Agreement in consultation with others, alongside a Sustainable Community Strategy. There will be a duty of named partners e.g. health authorities, police etc ,to co-operate in agreeing targets in the LAA.
- There will be an expectation that council leaders play a strong role in LSPs and relevant thematic partnerships.
- There will be streamlining of requirements to help integrate the development of community planning and spatial development plans, including more rigorous consultation with communities.
- The government will aim to develop more financial flexibility within LAAs, and between the four current blocks of LAAs.
The Paper sets out a new performance framework, which aims to reduce the number of national targets and more opportunities for local accountability.
Specific proposals are:
- The government will set out a single set of about two hundred national indicators for all local partners. About 35 local improvement targets will then be agreed through LAAs plus Department for Education and Skills targets in LAAs. There will then be flexibility to include additional targets specific to a local area.
- Councils will report annually on LAAs. This information will be fed to the Audit Commission and other inspectorates, and inform an annual review of the area's performance co-ordinated by the Government Office for the Region (GOR).
The need to drive efficiency in use of resources is highlighted, including new technology. Proposals include:
- Ambitious efficiency gains to be required as part of the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review.
- Ensuring administrative boundaries do not act as a barrier to service improvement and efficiency.
- Promoting business improvement techniques and greater contestability in services.
- Government will publish three-year council tax projections, and provide expert support to councils and their partners to meet efficiency challenges.
Economic Partnership Comment
This is a white paper that will probably be welcomed by most local authorities but there is no real new devolution of powers from central government to local government, beyond some simplification of performance measurement, and new freedoms to create byelaws. There is also no timetable for legislation and implementation.
Brighton & Hove Council is one of the few in the country to have the old style committee system and some political parties will not welcome the proposed move towards elected mayors or similar alternatives. The majority of the business community will welcome it with open arms but be disappointed that there is no proposed timescale for legislation to implement it.
The arrangements to require involvement of a wide range of external service providers in Community Strategies and LAAs will be welcomed if it also means more government departments e.g. Work & Pensions, being obliged to cooperate with LAAs. The genuine delivery of the freedoms and flexibilities that LAAs promised at their birth would certainly be welcomed by those involved in their formulation and delivery.
On the one hand the prospect of a Community Call for Action may well be met with alarm from council officers until the exact circumstances under which it can be invoked are made clear but on the other the rationalisation of the plethora of performance targets will be welcomed
The concept of City Regions seems to have been played down but at least is still mentioned which may mean that it is an idea that is still being bounced around the corridors of Whitehall.
The reference to “ambitious efficiency gains” can be translated into reduced budgets which for Brighton & Hove, which already gets the minimum strategic spending grant possible from central government, probably means even tougher times ahead.
Read related items on:
Local Area Agreement
Local Strategic Partnership