The Government's flagship Localism Bill will help free "local government from the shackles of central government", a Minister told MPs today as the Bill came under renewed pressure for handing Communities Secretary Eric Pickles "more than 100 extra powers".
Junior Communities minister Andrew Stunell said amendments and new clauses to the legislation tabled by the Government were each designed to improve the effectiveness of the Bill. The Localism Bill aims to devolve greater powers to neighbourhoods and councils and give local communities more control over housing and planning decisions.
Speaking during the Bill's report stage in the Commons, Mr Stunell introduced a new clause refining one of the central elements - the general power of competence. He said: "This Government is committed to the radical decentralisation of power and control from Whitehall and Westminster to local government, back to local communities and individuals. We are pushing power back down to the lowest possible level. This Bill is about shaking up the balance of power and revitalising democracy.
“It will give power to councils, it will give power to communities, it will give power to voluntary groups and power to the people. Giving local authorities the power to take decisions that are right for their areas and giving to local people the power to implement those decisions. This Government trusts local authorities to know what's best for their areas, we trust local councils to know what they are doing and we are freeing up local government from the shackles of central government. The Localism Bill does just what it says on the label."
Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Barbara Keeley queried whether the proposed extra powers granted to the Secretary of State accorded with the spirit of the Bill. She said: "On new clause 12, clearly the Minister has been talking about the limits on power and we are still very concerned about the 142 extra powers for the Secretary of State in the Bill." Mr Stunell said a local authority could choose whether or not it adopted a code of conduct for its members, but it must be under a duty to publicise whether it had revised or abolished it.
Labour former local government minister Nick Raynsford intervened, saying: "The minister is putting a completely absurd proposition to the House that the local authority is going to be under a duty to publicise a code of conduct which it may decide not to have. Will he please recognise that this is a nonsense and abolishing the requirement there should be a code of conduct in every local authority in the country is a serious retrograde step which the Government should be profoundly ashamed of."
Ms Keeley argued against the proposed level of power in the Bill for Communities Secretary Eric Pickles. Under the Bill, he would have the power to "amend, repeal, revoke or disapply" any statutory provision, she said. "Now we can keep calling that barrier-busting, but it ends up being the same swingeing power. And the difficulty for those who are opposed to this is it would leave local councils and the people who use those services at the mercy of the ideology of this Government and this Secretary of State."
Urging the Government to be "clearer about protecting the vital duties of local councils", she said ministers had suggested that the only services to be protected were libraries and child protection. Ms Keeley also called on ministers to assess the level of low pay within local authorities and their private contractors.
The Bill already includes provisions to require councils to publish a statement setting out its policy on the remuneration arrangements of its chief officers. But Labour believe the spotlight should be shone on low pay as well as high pay. Ms Keeley said that of 1.7 million employees in mainstream local government jobs, 60% of them earned less than £18,000 a year. "So the perception that the public sector is awash with fat cats is a myth and it doesn't help actually that DCLG ministers spend their time building up this myth," she said.
She also hit out at plans for "shadow mayors" which showed the Government "at its most centralising". "The Government, through this Bill, wants to order a local authority to cease its existing form of governance and start to operate a mayor and cabinet executive," she said. Ms Keeley added that ministers had "spent months denying" they were to impose such mayors. “This proposal directly contradicts what the Secretary of State said. It's further proof to me of a Government that says one thing and then does another," she said.
Lib Dem David Ward (Bradford East) spoke out against the Bill saying: "There's nothing worse than waste and I feel this is a colossal wasted opportunity to look at the whole issue of the relationship between central and local government. We have profoundly let down the democratic system by not doing so."
He claimed Westminster failed to respect local councils and councillors, and dictated to elected representatives. "Councillors are used and abused. The Treasury insists on control of finance, and without financial freedom there is no attempt at democratic freedom," he said. "The low opinion and respect this place has for local government staggers me. I am appalled by it.
"If you want an example, (look at) the outrageous frontloading of the cuts: instead of local government being seen as a partner to help us through a difficult financial crisis - partners in contributing to the deficit reduction over a period of time and asked for their help, how they would deal with that - it was imposed on them from above by a Government which claims it supports localism."
Labour's Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) welcomed moves to open up senior council staff's salaries to public scrutiny. But she added: "This constant bashing of chief executives and senior council officers that comes from ministers does a complete disservice to people who do an incredibly difficult job in councils up and down the country. These are people who may have worked their whole lives in local authorities; others may have left good, private sector jobs to come and work in the local authority."
Conservative Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) wanted voters to have the power to recall councillors if 25% of electors demanded the member's recall. He believed it would encourage transparency and accountability, calling it "a simple, obvious, no brainer" idea.
Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark outlined changes to the Bill to strengthen co-operation between bodies on regional planning decisions. He said there were "problems with the planning system that had grown up over a period of time". Mr Clark said: "It has been over the recent years too top-down, people have felt that planning is something that has been done to them rather than something in which they have had a say and a chance to influence.” This had created a "rising sense of antipathy" to the process which the Bill would help remedy by giving "greater opportunities for communities to have their say".
The Bill scraps the regional tier of planning but introduces a duty to co-operate between local bodies. Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Jack Dromey said that on localism the Government "admitted" at committee stage it had got it "badly wrong". He said the Government had committed to making changes and bringing forward 234 new clauses and amendments - "more than the entirety in the original Bill". He said: "There are some moves in the right direction...but this Bill, like the Health Bill, remains a bad Bill." Mr Dromey added that the sum total of the changes proposed was "confusion, chaos and nothing short of a car crash".