Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Turn on a Torrent of Local Power; as the Localism Bill Receives Its Second Reading, Council Leaders Highlight How Devolution Can Cut Costs and Deliver Better Services, Writes Sarah Richardson

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Turn on a Torrent of Local Power; as the Localism Bill Receives Its Second Reading, Council Leaders Highlight How Devolution Can Cut Costs and Deliver Better Services, Writes Sarah Richardson

Article excerpt

Byline: Sarah Richardson

ALANDMARK bill that heralds a ground-breaking shift in power to councils and communities overturning decades of central government control receives its second reading in the House of Commons today.

The Localism Bill, which proposes to give London boroughs and their residents greater freedom to develop tailor-made solutions to any local challenges, will have wide-ranging impact on housing and planning policy in particular. It has been backed by London Councils, the think-tank and lobbying organisation that promotes London's 33 councils and also runs a number of pan-London services.

Many of the proposals in the Localism Bill echo the calls made by the capital's local authorities to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (CLG) Eric Pickles last autumn. These include devolving powers for making crucial decisions from quangos and central government to local councils and the Mayor of London, and the consolidation of mayoral strategies.

Boroughs and Mayor Boris Johnson have already agreed ways of working together which accord with the Government's devolutionary aims. Now London Councils is urging Whitehall to ensure that none of its proposals present any obstacles to these joint agreements being put into practice.

Jules Pipe, mayor of Hackney and chairman of London Councils, says: "London's local government has a history of demonstrating its ambition and capacity for taking on new powers to help improve the quality of life for residents. While continuing to argue for that devolution to go further, we will take these proposals forward positively with the mayor and our own local communities to ensure we secure the best outcome for Londoners."

For councils the Localism Bill will fundamentally change their freedom to act in the interest of their communities through a new general power of competence. Rather than needing to rely on specific powers, the new power will give councils the legal reassurance and confidence to innovate and drive down costs to deliver more efficient services.

According to Pickles the Bill will herald a new era of people power.

"It is the centrepiece of what this Government is trying to do to fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country," he says. "For too long, everything has been controlled from the centre -- and look where it's got us. Central government has kept local government on a tight leash, strangling the life out of councils in the belief that bureaucrats know best.

"By getting out of the way and letting councils and communities run their own affairs we can restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth -- and build a stronger, fairer Britain. It's the end of the era of big government: laying the foundations for the Big Society."

Decentralisation minister Greg Clark, who served as a Westminster City councillor before he was elected to Parliament, is the architect of the Bill.

"We believe that communities should have the freedom to manage their own affairs in their way, and be empowered, not suppressed by government," he says. "The Bill will enact new rights allowing local people to shape and influence the places where they live, revolutionising the planning process by passing power down to those who know best about their neighbourhoods."

In Barnet, the council has already undertaken radical reforms designed to devolve power down to communities and individuals but also deliver improved services at a lower cost.

Mike Freer, who was leader of Barnet council until December 2009 and is now the Conservative MP for Finchley and Golders Green, argues that budget reductions mean local authorities cannot simply absorb greater powers from the centre without making significant reforms themselves.

"The new government has set itself the challenge of reducing budgets while improving the quality of services," he says. …

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