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23 December 2010

Power to the Parish Council

A key theme for the coalition Government is a commitment to decentralise power and give much greater autonomy to local communities.  For the Conservatives this is a continuation of their General Election mantra of Big Society, while as Nick Clegg has recently claimed he sees this as simply liberalism at work.  Much of what the Government wants to do is not enacted through legislation but instead by encouraging and empowering local community groups to become more involved in taking decisions and acting on their own.

However, as the recent Decentralisation and Localism Guide makes clear, decentralising power requires the state to give up many of the responsibilities that it has accrued over the past century.  The Localism Bill, which has also just been published, is the vehicle chosen to change the relationship between central and local government, and go beyond this and change the relationship between local government and community groups.  These changes are based on the idea that a significant reason for the disconnect that exists between public and state is that the public does not have enough of a say in decisions that affect them.  By removing many of the restrictions that are placed on local government, and by handing communities a direct say the government hopes to revitalise community engagement and increase civic participation.

As a result these plans represent a considerable opportunity for churches to play an increasing role in their communities, and build on the work that most are already doing.  A key point made in the guide states that local authorities are to focus on outcomes rather than processes. The current Bill alongside further plans that will be published in 2011 aims to open up public service provision and allow charities and community groups to deliver services to a far greater extent than is currently possible. This will be done by removing the presumption that services should be provided by the local authority.  The focus on outcomes and removal of red tape should encourage organisations that have a strong track record even when their methods are different from those currently used. 

The plans are not without their critics, in particular concern has been expressed that this devolution of power is a facade for the dismantling of state provision of services.  In some areas services will no longer be provided or funded by the local authority, while in others the provision will be diversified but the funding will remain.  And alongside the publication of the Localism Bill the Government announced significant cuts to funding for local councils, so there will be less money to spend in the coming years and it is highly unlikely that the level of service provision seen in recent years will be sustainable. The Government view the diversification of public service provision as a key way to encourage innovation and respond more effectively to the specific needs of local communities.  In contrast, the Labour opposition criticised the plans as 'ringing hollow when at the same time they are cutting local government funding'.

The Bill recognises that even within a particular local authority different neighbourhoods can have very different needs.  The most significant change made in response to this is to allow the adoption of local development plans.  These plans would be voted on in a community referendum and then binding on planning decisions taken by the local authority.  It appears that the Bill envisages the revitalisation of parish councils, with these as the principal bodies accorded the power to put forward a development plan for a vote.  While some planning decisions are reserved, one notable case is the High Speed train line (HS2) currently planned, in most cases this will let communities take their own decisions. 

Further powers will be granted to local residents through a mandatory referendum if a local authority plans to increase council tax by an excessive amount.  In 12 pilot areas Mayors will become elected figures; initially the council leaders will take on these roles, and in 2012 referenda will determine whether or not local authorities decide to make these a permanent feature.  In regard to the council tax veto and elected Mayors much of the detail is not actually laid out in the Localism Bill. For example, it is not specified what the powers of elected mayors will be, nor what constitutes an excessive rise in council tax.

The referenda that are held on local development plans, elected Mayors and council tax increases are binding on the local authority.  Further referenda can also be called on any local issue if 5% of local government electors sign a petition requesting one.  However, the results of such additional votes are not binding on the local authority although they must publicise the results and their response, including reasons if they choose not to respond.

The aim of the Government's programme, in the Localism Bill and beyond, is to bring decision making closer to the public. The Bill goes further than decision making in its provision allowing community groups the right to challenge the public provision of services and the right to bid for assets that are of community value. Therefore, as well as wanting the public to be more involved in decisions, the Government clearly hope that the public will participate more in the life of their communities.