This is a challenging Autumn Statement from a government with little room to manoeuvre and facing huge challenges. Devolution and local action needs to be seen as part of the solution to these problems and renewed efforts to empower and strengthen local democracy are now a must and vital to the future delivery of public services and successful decentralisation.
The devolution plans announced are great but this next phase of localism is by no means localist enough, nor is it bold enough. Devolution must not stop at Whitehall or county hall and NALC asks that the government’s devolution plans must include communities, neighbourhoods and local (parish and town) councils.
The announcements from the Government on infrastructure, housing and skills development spending are welcome, however we feel it is a missed opportunity to really support local communities and neighbourhoods.
Whatever happened to the big society and localism?
With austerity set to continue, with government clogged by brexit and with a growing democratic deficit, there has never been a more urgent need for communities to come together and help lead the change in local people’s lives and communities.
Yet the statement is silent on support to the voluntary and community sector and local councils. Millions of volunteers are giving their time to support their local communities including 80,000 local councillors. These contributions are just as important to social cohesion and everyday life as big business or glamorous infrastructure projects. The Government needs to factor support to these activities into its financial planning and recognise their crucial role.
If anything this year has taught us that some communities feel left behind by our national economy and politics. Supporting these communities can be part of the solution.
For example through the 2000 neighbourhood plans (90% prepared by local councils) communities are identifying local housing need and how this can be met. Where there are neighbourhood plans in place there is something like 10% more housing provided than would otherwise be the case. This statement should have offered more support to this including increasing the amount of community infrastructure levy allocated to communities to 35%. Where there is an adopted neighbourhood plan - incentivising communities to develop and provide solutions right for them.
On economic development, giving local communities a 10% share of business rates so that they can do the very practical things that are so important to local businesses – heritage, tourism, entertainment, local markets, better toilets, better streetscapes or wi-if access.
It is important that the Government rightly recognises more needs to be done on infrastructure investment to get our economy moving more in the direction we need but is it targeting all the right areas. Again here they seem to be spending on major artery roads instead of local roads, which communities desperately need. What about the potholes and basic road maintenance?
NALC supports the Government's investment into improving the digital quality of life in the country. It's good to see they recognise our arguments around the need for every part of the country to have super fast broadband and high quality mobile coverage to meet the 21st century needs of all communities.
Again local councils are taking action in these areas and must be given government support to be able to address the issues that are of local concern.
Jonathan Owen, chief executive of NALC, said: “We demand that local councils receive fairer funding and freedoms to raise the resources they need to invest in local services and facilities without necessary Government intervention. As well as freedom to precept to meet local community needs, local councils should have access to the New Homes Bonus, grants from solar and wind farms and other new ways of generating power.
“Overall this statement does not recognise the potential of local action to make a difference and contribute to the health of the democratic state as a whole.”