The Localism Act ten years on



In my house, ‘levelling up’ is best understood as meaning advancing from one level or skill or power to another. Especially by my eldest who like many twelve-year-olds loves gaming online with his cousins and friends. Shouting at the screen also seems to be part of the gaming experience, although I can’t recall Pacman, Space Invaders or Daley Thompson’s Decathlon being quite that intense.

Back in the physical world, the rest of us are trying to understand what ‘levelling up’ means as a government priority. Although as slogans go, levelling up is likely to be interpreted as meaning different things to different people. See community empowerment, double devolution, the big society and localism, for example.

Yet the latter term has withstood the test of time since being a principle underpinning the Coalition Government in 2010. Largely because the then communities secretary, Eric Pickles MP, repeated the word localism three times everywhere he went and in every speech. But also because the commitment to decentralise power was enshrined in law through the Localism Act, which has its tenth anniversary on 15 November.

An anniversary which prompts a reflection on what this legislation aimed to achieve, which key elements affecting local (parish and town) councils worked well or less well and also, what next.

Alert students in the clerking class will already know the Act comprised four pillars containing many measures affecting local councils.

New freedoms and flexibilities for local government included a general power of competence for councils, the introduction of directly elected mayors and the abolition of the Standards Board as part of a ‘bonfire of the quangos’.

New rights and powers for communities and individuals comprised a series of ‘community rights’ to challenge and take over services, to protect and bid for assets of community value, and to approve or veto excessive council tax rises.

Reforms to make the planning system more democratic and effective meant abolishing regional strategies, introducing neighbourhood planning, a community right to build, and a neighbourhood share of the Community Infrastructure Levy.

And finally, reform to ensure decisions about housing were taken locally covered social housing allocations, tenure, and homelessness.

Overall, the Localism Act was surely a welcome boost to the concept of community power and gave communities new tools and opportunities to reinvigorate and improve their areas. But as the Future of Localism report – which NALC contributed to and supports much of its findings – pointed in 2018, fostering localism is a marathon, not a sprint. The Act merely fired the starting gun instead of being the finishing line and the government didn’t have the legs, nor the money due to their austerity programme, to see the race through over the long term.

Neighbourhood planning has undoubtedly been the most successful initiative, with over 1,000 neighbourhood plans having successfully passed the referendum. Local councils can take a lot of credit for this having led the majority of plans through the challenging process. Tens of millions of pounds of government funding and support has also helped, but let’s not forget councils provided significant investment themselves, in time as well as money. But it’s not all positive though as NALC’s ‘Where next for neighbourhood planning’ report shows. This is why it’s encouraging the government appears keen to be heeding our calls for neighbourhood plans to be given more protection and weight – all eyes on the forthcoming planning bill.

Intended as a new ‘power to innovate’ for local government, the general power of competence built on the power of well-being introduced by the Labour government, but with reduced criteria for local councils to use it. Research by the Local Government Association suggests it hasn’t been widely taken up or used and several limitations identified. The time has now surely come to remove the criteria and any barriers, coupled with a focus on gathering and sharing examples of how it is being used to inspire others.

One of NALC’s key lobbying priorities has been to ensure local councils are not required under the Act to hold a referendum on rises in their small share of council tax. Year on year we’ve successfully made the case this regime should not be extended to local councils and should be a decision for them. This needs to stay at the top of the sector financial asks of the government.

Take-up of the suite of community rights appears fairly limited, not only due to the availability of community resources and capacity, but also the behaviour and attitude of principal councils. All despite extensive investment by the government in the My Community Rights advice and support service. So, more promotion and publicity is needed, plus changes like a first right of refusal to purchase assets of community value and an extension of the moratorium period. The right to challenge also needs an overhaul to make it easier for local councils to take over a principal council service or responsibility. More and better data is also needed to track and measure the use of the rights and their impact, as also advocated by the Centre for Public Impact.

One of the most significant parts of the Act was abolishing the Standards Board for a lighter touch standards regime, replacing the statutory model code with a requirement to adopt a code consistent with the Nolan Principles, and the removal of sanctions. Since then, NALC and SLCC have consistently pressed for the system to be strengthened, but despite securing support from an inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the government are yet to take any action. This is why it was right earlier this year for NALC and SLCC to set up and invest in the Civility and Respect Project Working Group to drive forward the sector’s work to improve standards of behaviour and governance.

So where next? Well, some of the ideas above would help reinvigorate the Localism Act. But what is also needed is for everyone who believes in the power of communities to help themselves and tackle the challenges they face, to keep making the case for more localism as part of the levelling up agenda. And boosting parish power will surely help communities build back better. 

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