Through my involvement with Transition Town Kingston, I came across a really interesting piece of legislation that has also raised some interest here at The Campaign Company.
The Sustainable Communities Act aims to give more power to local councils and to local people (‘double devolution’) to help people make their communities more economically, socially, environmentally and democratically ‘sustainable’. The remit of the Act is deliberately defined broadly, making it a significant opportunity for the devolution of power to local communities.
The Act allows councils who ‘opt in’ to suggest new powers – including the ability to levy new taxes and institute subsidies – to the Government. A short list is drawn up by the Local Government Association from the proposals made by councils around the country, and the Government must respond to this short list with a view to instituting as many of the suggestions as possible, and justifying why any suggestions have been rejected. Proposals just have to be things that the Government can do and is not currently doing, which will advance the broad definition of sustainability.
Examples of potential new powers for councils include the ability to give rate relief to local businesses and social enterprises, the power to tax behaviours that damage the local or global environment and the possibility of removing obstacles to enterprise that exist in previous legislation, such as the various legal difficulties of establishing ‘feed-in’ electricity tariffs to encourage local generation of renewable energy.
The crux of the Act is that this process of making proposals must be carried out in collaboration with ‘panels of representatives of local people’ who must include people from under-represented groups – a perfect opportunity to consult beyond the usual suspects. Rather than the consultation being just another procedural stage that has to be completed, both sides have a duty to work together and reach an agreement.
The Act is interesting in legislative terms. Originating as a Private Members’ Bill. During the course of its passage, it gained all-party support and can now be seen, in some senses, as the flagship of the Government’s new local democracy agenda – being the first act to be passed and implemented that draws on councils’ new ‘duty to involve’ and the much-feted principle of ‘double devolution’.
But in democratic terms, the Act could be even more interesting. The provisions for new local powers are underpinned by a radical provision for ‘opening the books’. For the first time, central government will have to publish accounts stating how much public money is spent in an area (by anyone – whether the council or a QUANGO), what it is spent on and which agency holds the budget. This clearly leads into proposals being made to the Secretary of State to transfer control of existing budgets to councils – bringing the money under democratic control.
The potential for stimulating local participation, encouraging people to become councillors, improving the sustainability and resilience of local communities is evident. But there are two crucial links that need to be forged and maintained – between councils and central government, and between communities and councils.
Communities will need to be convinced that this is more than another consultation exercise. This links to the need to improve knowledge and perceptions of local councils – a particular problem in economically deprived areas, but by no means confined to them. Councillors, officers and local people will need to be proactive in examining each others’ perceptions of how their town, borough and country actually run.
Meanwhile, these are uncertain times for governments to make promises, and there is particular concern from councils and activists around the need for new money to help councils carry out new functions – something that has been hinted at in various quarters, including the legislation, but never made completely clear.
There is a lot of engagement work to be done – recruiting the citizens’ panels and ensuring that their input is genuine and democratic, but also dispelling myths, promoting participation and advertising new powers that have been won.
The Sustainable Communities Act could be one of the most radical laws we have seen under this government, and TCC will be watching with interest.
For more information on the Sustainable Communities Act, and resources for making sure it is implemented in your community, see www.localworks.org
There is a public meeting on the Act in Parliament on the 10th of February, which should be a good opportunity to learn more and ask questions.
This Blog was written by Majeed Neky. He worked as a project officer for The Campaign Company.
For more information on any issues raised in this blog, feel free to contact The Campaign Company