Saturday, 11 December 2010

Local groups get right to take over services in 'big society' project

Community groups will be given the right to take over local services and vote on new housing developments under powers to be unveiled on Monday as part of the government's "big society" project. The localism bill will give parents, council employees and residents a greater chance to compete against councils and private-sector firms to run services.

The bill will create:

[A bunch of local neighbourhood Conservative groups who will decide that you will like it their way or else – Ed]

• A community right to buy local buildings. If the council decides to sell, groups will be given extra time to develop their bid to compete with property companies.

• A community right to challenge, handing the public powers to question and take over a local service. This could include children's centres, social care services or transport. If a group made a challenge the council would have to give full consideration and a response in writing.

• A community right to build, allowing homeowners to add extensions or loft conversions, or new homes to be built, as long as a simple majority in the area votes in favour.

Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, said: "This powerful series of measures [wouldn't be powerful if we were just giving them to the oi polloi] puts new rights in law for [Tories] people to protect, improve and even run important frontline services. For too long people have been powerless to intervene as vital community resources disappear." Pickles argues that many local services, from pubs to pie shops, have been closing down despite communities being willing to take them over. The bill, Pickles says, will show the "innovation and new ideas local people can bring to the table".

The proposals are more radical than when first floated in the summer. The right to build was originally to be introduced only in rural areas and would have required 75% to back developments. But many in the sector claim the changes open the door for vested interests to subvert local plebiscites by spending money to support building projects.

"Developers can distort community deliberations and decision making through financial inducements," said Neil Sinden, policy director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England. "A number of housebuilders are looking closely at how they can take advantage of local campaigns. There is a real danger the democratic underpinning of the planning system will be distorted."

The government will also announce £1bn for a New Homes Bonus, offering cash to [Conservative] councils that allow new homes to be built. Campaigners say that since the rewards are based on how much the new house will be worth, there would be greater rewards for large executive homes than for developments in poorer areas. This would promote building in the south of England, with inducements paid for by cuts in funding to deprived areas.

The National Housing Federation says it calculates that councils in the north will lose £104m a year, while those in the south will gain £342m when the scheme is fully operational.