Power to the parish
The Government plans a major shake-up of the relationship between neighbourhoods and local authorities. Nick Loney examines a vision of community empowerment, and puts the proposals to those who stand to benefit It could be one of the big ideas of a Labour third term.
At last month’s Communities Summit in Manchester, the Government published a consultation on its plans to hand over partial control of public services to neighbourhood-based organisations
The thinking on this has been brewing for some time -area-based funding programmes such as New Deal for Communities (NDC) and the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) have been used to test ways of giving local people more influence over the way their areas are run. But now the ODPM is indicating an even greater commitment to resident empowerment. Announcing the Government’s intentions, deputy prime minister John Prescott said: ‘We want to offer new opportunities for neighbourhoods everywhere. By action at the neighbourhood level, people everywhere can make a significant difference to the quality of our public services.’
While a clear picture of the powers and responsibilities of neighbourhood-level government will only emerge when the consultation is fed into a local governance white paper due early next year, central to the plans is a new national framework for neighbourhoods. This will set out how local arrangements should be developed between local authorities, non-council service providers, community groups and businesses. The resulting neighbourhood charters will be tailored to local circumstances, but could give communities the power to control their own budgets, make legally binding demands of service providers, raise taxes and issue anti-social behaviour orders. Elected councillors would probably have overall control of budgets, but would be expected to make decisions that reflect residents’ wishes.
Some of this may be achieved by building on existing arrangements for NDC partnerships, neighbourhood management agencies and parish councils. But for other elements to work, new legislation will almost certainly be necessary.
Speaking to Regeneration & Renewal last week, local government minister Nick Raynsford emphasised that any new bodies will be expected to work in partnership with service providers -but he concedes that they will probably also require some legal teeth. ‘People need to be able to work together: you can’t create good relationships through legislation,’ he says. ‘But we may have to create new laws for these bodies to hold service providers to account. In extreme cases, they may be able to force services to be put out to tender.’
The Government is likely to maintain Raynsford’s emphasis on the importance of positive partnership working throughout the development of this policy. But beneath all the cosy talk, it will be unable to hide the fact that a serious battle is looming. If power is given to neighbourhoods, it will have to be taken away from somewhere else -and in this case, local authorities will be expected to cede ground. It is unsurprising, then, that within councils enthusiasm for the idea is thin. Matthew Warburton, head of strategy at the Local Government Association, says that creating additional bodies beneath existing councils will add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and yet will fail to improve the lives of people in neighbourhoods. ‘Local people have problems they want addressed, and if you have a problem you should go to your democratically elected local councillor,’ he says. ‘We’re all in favour of involving neighbourhoods more effectively in local democracy, but we believe that any new arrangements should be made through existing authorities and not apart from them.’
Local government is unlikely to get all its own way, however, and there is excitement in the community and voluntary sector about gaining extra powers. Rupa Sarkar, project manager at community sector alliance the Urban Forum, admits that the prospect of what she calls ‘extreme localism’ is ‘tremendously exciting’. But she warns that a great deal of work will need to be done first if the ideas are to stand any chance of success. Sarkar argues that it will take strenuous efforts if people living in struggling areas are to get involved. ‘It’s hard to excite people about going to meetings and sitting on panels. If you want to get people other than the usual suspects, you have to make the effort,’ she says. ‘Enthusiasm won’t appear out of nowhere -it will take a lot of time.’
Sustainable Communities: People Places and Prosperity can be viewed at www.regen.net/doc