Hazel Blears has promised to make 2008 a year of ambition with multi-area agreements (MAAs) the key to securing new powers for councils.
In an exclusive interview with LGC, the communities and local government secretary urged the 13 MAA pilot area partnerships to this year exhaust their existing freedoms as they pursue regeneration goals, forcing her to grant them an armoury of new powers.
She called on councils to “come up with very ambitious plans and then tell [her] what are the three things stopping them doing even more”.
“I want them to explore every bit of power they have now and, if there is one thing where they say ‘if you changed that then we could do something really good’, then I’ll need to come back to them and see what we can do,” she said.
Flo Clucas (Lib Dem), executive member for economic development on Liverpool City Council, said she would like to see greater powers to use compulsory purchase orders for regeneration projects. Greater flexibilities to use funding streams and more powers to change the rules governing benefits would help to fight worklessness, she said.
Ms Blears also signalled frustration at the slow pace of community engagement. She described the timescale of her goal of all councils running participatory budgeting programmes within five years as being “too long” and pledged to have 100 authorities doing so by the end of 2008.
She insisted her role this year will be to play “the corporate centre”, ensuring that both Whitehall and local government meet their goals through the new performance framework. However, a damning report from the communities and local government select committee highlighted the scale of the challenge.
“The department needs urgently to tackle persistent concerns about its ability to... influence its strategic partners,” it says. “Negotiation, brokering and persuasion are not the traditional levers of a Whitehall delivery department.”
However, Ms Blears may have an influential ally. LGC understands prime minister Gordon Brown played a larger than expected role in the drafting of the central/local concordat signed just before Christmas (LGC, 20 December).
Leaders of the Local Government Association’s political groups were also told to be more ambitious in what they asked for by Mr Brown at a Downing Street meeting. “He was encouraging us to be more radical, which is good news. The constitutional review is taking place and we have to play to that agenda,” said Labour group leader Sir Jeremy Beecham.
Mr Brown is known to be keen to see greater local accountability for public services, which led to the inclusion of a line in the concordat referring to health and police services. This week his first speech on the NHS as prime minister called for greater “accountability of primary care trusts and of the commissioning decisions they make on behalf of their local communities”.