The shadow communities secretary outlined a range of proposals many slated for inclusion in the party’s forthcoming localism green paper which he claimed would lead to levels of devolution “akin to America or Western Europe”.
Mr Pickles claimed he was not convinced that the rule of ultra vires the principle that councils can only act according to prescribed laws was still necessary.
“Why shouldn’t councils have a general power of competence?” he asked at a Local Government Information Unit fringe session. “I don’t think we should be restricting what local authorities can do provided it is not unlawful to do it.”
The government granted councils a general wellbeing power in the Local Government Act 2000 . But Mr Pickles said the power was not bold enough for council lawyers to feel confident in using it. “There was supposed to be a great liberation a few years ago, but nothing much has changed,” he said.
Mark Greenburgh, head of local government at law firm Wragge & Co , said the number of restrictions and requirements to seek Whitehall consent meant councils had been reluctant to use the wellbeing power.
“Were a real power of general competence to be enacted and coupled with real financial control of the authorities’ resources, an end to capping and ring-fencing, it would be very exciting indeed,” he said. “However, I would strongly suspect that the proposal is somewhat narrower than that.”
Mr Pickles also hinted at future announcements regarding local government finance and said councils would be free to choose between the cabinet and committee forms of governance.
The Tories will no longer publish a housing and planning green paper this year. Instead, proposals developed by shadow planning minister Jacqui Lait will be included in the localism green paper to be published this month.
To encourage economic development, those councils with agreed ‘local development frameworks’ for housing or infrastructure will become “immune from appeals to planning inspectors”, Mr Pickles said.
“We are looking at ways of saying ‘if you don’t have a development policy, you suffer’,” he said. “If councils don’t put together a development plan then they will bear the consequences and get turned over by planners.”
He repeated his intention to abolish regional development agencies, but said he “agreed with the government that the real excitement is around sub-regions”.
Andy Sawford, chief executive of the LGIU, said: “This was a real insight into the direction of Conservative thinking on local government.
“The message that came across was what matters is what you do, not what structures you adopt.”