Localism Bill

By natwei_lngozg on 7 June 2011
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                Source: Hansard My Lords, I start by declaring an interest as a voluntary adviser to the Community Foundation Network, a movement that seeks to improve society in the UK through philanthropy. I thank the Minister for sponsoring the Bill and for introducing it in such a listening manner-a Bill in which there is plenty to welcome as well as to discuss. The Bill is an incredibly significant piece of legislation in that it sets out some of the key foundations for the big society, enabling a major shift by decentralising power and strengthening local initiative. In doing so, it creates a tangible empowerment of communities and neighbourhood groups. While community empowerment is only one ingredient in the big society recipe, alongside public service reform and encouragement of social action, it is a very important one. As those of us who have worked closely on local issues will be only too aware, for too long many communities have seen their hopes and ideas frustrated by an overly bureaucratic system or felt powerless against overbearing third parties, whether public, private or voluntary, which for whatever reason have, often unintentionally, overridden the wishes of local people. This Bill and the big society itself are an attempt to redress that state of affairs, bring balance and help rebuild trust between those who have power and those who are subject to it. This Bill will bring together many provisions to eliminate some of the hurdles in local government planning and housing that make people feel powerless and apathetic. I want to highlight a few in particular and outline some areas that will need to be handled with care. I eagerly greet the creation of a range of local community rights contained in this Bill: the right to challenge and propose alternative providers for local services; the right to buy or express an interest in assets of local importance to communities; the right to build much-needed housing or other small-scale community-owned infrastructure. Each of those has the power to transform communities, whether they are inner-city ones frustrated by the housing management provided to them as social tenants, suburban residents who want to save their pub, post office or library and turn it into a multi-use sustainable hub, owned and frequented by the community, or rural communities that I have visited that have wanted to create housing for their young people who are otherwise having to leave for the city because they could not afford to buy locally. I also welcome the release of local authorities from Whitehall control by granting them the power of competence and the reforms of their governance, such as in the option of having city mayors or returning to the committee system, as well as a means to introduce direct democracy through various referenda. The key principle here is to provide flexibility, to move away from one-size-fits-all Whitehall control and, ultimately, to put more power into people’s hands. These reforms will give local authorities real discretion to work innovatively and redesign their public services around their own local circumstances, in line with the wishes of those they serve. That is essential if we are to have a more responsive, efficient and accountable local service in future. The provision for neighbourhoods, either as parishes or local forums, to create their own development plans will also produce a much-needed culture change in how communities interact with planning authorities. Rather than having an adversarial and expensive system where every little change needs to be argued over, the community is incentivised to come together to shape its own neighbourhood for the long term. In places such as Seattle, that has led to innovative solutions such as the community proposing creating much-needed housing over the local library and enhancing the character and community ties successfully within neighbourhoods. As someone who has lived privately in social housing environments previously, I also welcome the measures designed to remove a number of unfair and bureaucratic barriers faced by existing and prospective social tenants. Waiting lists are too long and currently can force many people to live in a limbo-like state and in poor quality environments for years. It is unfair that so many will wait while others are given higher priority over them, sometimes for temporary economic or other reasons, in ways that can even destroy social ties between family members who rightly wish to live close to each other. Carefully thought through measures to make social housing tenancies more flexible and to widen the range of housing stock that people are provided with-subject to minimum standards, to include private rental options-are critical, in my view, to improving the lives of thousands of low-income citizens. Reforms to have more web-enabled swapping of homes and to strengthen housing association accountability are also welcome. We need more associations that are both responsive to tenants and can think out of the box when finances are tight. However, like most good things, none of the new opportunities outlined in the Bill for communities and local authorities comes without some risk, which will need careful management at all levels. First, it is imperative that the new rights are designed to balance the need for due process without unnecessarily increasing bureaucracy. If the process is made too complex and given too many layers and tick boxes, there is a possibility that the new rights’ full potential is never realised and that people will frankly not bother, especially in more deprived areas. To this end, I welcome measures being introduced by departments and various civil society groups to help communities have the capacity to take up their rights. Secondly, just as central government releases powers now, local authorities must also be incentivised to devolve their own powers and not hoard them, to fulfil themselves the principle of subsidiarity. If localism is really to work, it is crucial that councils understand that same aspiration within their own communities and take steps to meet it. The popular pendulum may otherwise swing back over time to central control, as it did in the 1980s, after the failure of overweening municipalism. The referenda and other direct accountability measures are therefore key to holding local authority power in check, even as central oversight is partly reduced. Thirdly, it must be acknowledged that neighbourhood plans are big documents and likely to take 18 to 24 months to produce. Due to the considerable consequences of the plans, it is also crucial that they are designed properly. While local authorities have a duty to provide support and advice it will be vital that, on top of that, community groups have access to specialists and toolkits-provided by the likes of the Prince’s Foundation and others-to ensure that every community that wants to will be able to produce a worthwhile and workable plan. The changes to social housing also need to be implemented with care. Others, I am sure, will pick up on that. When you have a country facing a chronic shortage of such a scarce resource as housing, there is always a risk of abuse. Poor decision-making can arise when those allocating housing are under pressure. Yes, we will need checks and balances and we will need to make changes in a phased manner, but the overriding issue here is a general lack of housing, which other measures in the Bill and the flexibility that it creates over social housing management should help to address. We must also understand that at times in this process, Whitehall may need still to play a role since healthy localism does not happen overnight. We will also need to watch carefully how different reforms take shape and gradually amend guidance and regulations as we go along. It will not be perfect straight away and control must be released carefully. Finally, we must watch our temptation not to share power because we fear extreme groups taking over locally-that age-old tension between our desire for security versus our yearning for freedom. In my experience, such a blanket reaction is uncalled for. Instead of withdrawing, we should always push for the greater participation of those in the mainstream and those on the edge to drown out the extreme voices who would otherwise hold sway. The more we water them down out of fear, the more we will perpetuate the apathy engendered by bureaucracy and monopolistic abuse of local power, which have been so damaging to our country, democracy and public life. On the other hand, the more transparent, muscular and representative we make these reforms, the more likely that citizens of all kinds will participate as they realise that they have teeth. Let us therefore work together to make these reforms work on behalf of the millions of citizens who will benefit from them locally and enable them to help us to build the big society.]]>