Magazine article Public Finance

White Paper 'Most Radical for Generations'

Magazine article Public Finance

White Paper 'Most Radical for Generations'

Article excerpt

The long-awaited local government white paper, finally published this week, promises to slash Whitehall targets, devolve major powers to city-regions and mayors and increase public involvement in services.

Local government minister Phil Woolas told Public Finance that the proposals represented 'the most radical overhaul of local government since the health services were taken out of local authority control'.

But initial reaction from practitioners suggested the reforms would fall short of town hall expectations.

Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, chair of the Local Government Association, said the white paper was the 'first step on a long road' to genuine council freedom from Whitehall. But he called for further audacious and deep-seated reform' beginning with the relocalisation of business rates.

The two-volume white paper, published by Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly on October 26, suggests cutting Whitehall-produced local authority performance indicators from as many as 1,200 to 200.

It will also subject authorities to just 35 main local targets, including those that reflect national priorities. The LGA estimated that losing up to 1,000 performance indicators and targets could save taxpayers £2.5bn.

Woolas said the plan reflected the white paper's 'huge devolutionary direction', placing greater emphasis on internal council performance management.

'We're giving senior town hall staff what they have asked for-the ability to run their services and departments as they see fit,' he said.

Residents unhappy with local services will, as a last resort, be able to demand a community call to action,' Woolas said. Councils would then be required to show how they intended to improve services. That would give residents influence over services at neighbourhood level and 'made good' the government's 'double devolution' proposals.

Under this agenda, town halls could also create parish council-style neighbourhood bodies to manage basic services such as waste collection and streetlighting.

These bodies would have to 'meet strict community cohesion criteria', Woolas explained, so that extremists could not hijack neighbourhoods. Residents would also be able to trigger public hearings about local services under further devolution plans.

The new system will provide council Overview and scrutiny' select committees made up of backbench councillors, with statutory powers to grill local service providers, such as primary care trusts and senior police officers, over their performance, and suggest improvements.

Current town hall scrutiny committees can only assess policy, not service provision. …

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