Opposition ministers have made fresh criticisms of provisions in the Localism Bill after it started its report stage in the House of Commons.
Amendments to the bill tabled by the government include provisions to apply a “proportionality test” to the general power of competence and require councils to publish any changes made to the members’ code of conduct.
Junior communities minister Andrew Stunell said amendments and new clauses to the legislation tabled by the government were each designed to improve the effectiveness of the bill.
Mr Stunell said a local authority could choose whether or not it adopted a code of conduct for its members, but it must be under a duty to publicise whether it had revised or abolished it.
Labour’s former local government minister Nick Raynsford intervened, saying: “The minister is putting a completely absurd proposition to the House that the local authority is going to be under a duty to publicise a code of conduct which it may decide not to have.
“Will he please recognise that this is a nonsense and abolishing the requirement there should be a code of conduct in every local authority in the country is a serious retrograde step which the government should be profoundly ashamed of.”
Despite its title, the bill has been criticised by opposition members and the Local Government Association for handing a range of powers to the Secretary of State.
Shadow communities minister for Barbara Keeley queried whether the proposed extra powers granted to the Secretary of State accorded with the spirit of the bill.
She said: “On new clause 12 [relating to councils’ governance arrangements] clearly the Minister has been talking about the limits on power and we are still very concerned about the 142 extra powers for the Secretary of State in the bill.”
Mr Stunell insisted the government was “committed to the radical decentralisation of power and control from Whitehall and Westminster to local government, back to local communities and individuals”.
“We are pushing power back down to the lowest possible level. This bill is about shaking up the balance of power and revitalising democracy.
“It will give power to councils, it will give power to communities, it will give power to voluntary groups and power to the people.
“Giving local authorities the power to take decisions that are right for their areas and giving to local people the power to implement those decisions.”
He added: “This government trusts local authorities to know what’s best for their areas, we trust local councils to know what they are doing and we are freeing up local government from the shackles of central government.
“The Localism Bill does just what it says on the label.”
The main amendments being proposed are:
Duty to Cooperate (requires councils to work together on the planning issues)
- Includes a requirement to consider joint approaches and joint local plans
- Links compliance with the duty to the independent examination of local plans
- Includes a regulation making power to enable LEPs to be bodies to whom those covered by the duty will have to have regard when preparing their local plans.
- To put on the face of the Bill criteria for the designation of neighbourhood forums which would include involvement of ward councillors and businesses and
- To increase the minimum number of people on forums to 21.
- To open membership of neighbourhood forums to those living or working in a neighbourhood area, and to local councillors.
- To allow neighbourhood areas to cross local planning authority boundaries
- Allowing local planning authority and central government staff to act as independent examiners
- To Prevent damage to surroundings of a listed building or conservation areas.
- To allow the Secretary of State a powers to promote the new community rights to provide advice and assistance (including financial assistance) and to make arrangements for training and education on these issues
Incentives and planning
- To make sure local planning authorities can legitimately take into account matters relating to tariff payments such as the Community Infrastructure Levy, the New Homes Bonus and Business rates retention.
Automatic fire alarms
- To remove the ability of Fire and Rescue Authorities to charge for mobilisation to domestic premises due to persistent malfunctioning or misinstalled automatic fire alarms. The option for commercial premises will remain.
There was also number of more technical amendments needed to:
General power of competence
- To add some preconditions and limitations to the use of the powers including a proportionality test.
- To require Councils to publicise any changes a local authority makes to its members’ code of conduct - there was considerable strength of feeling expressed during Committee that this was needed. It supports our transparency agenda.
- To put the necessary tax provisions in place for the transfer of assets and any commercial activities
- To create a 21-day period where the London Assembly can vote on the Mayor’s proposals to designate a mayoral development area. The Mayor and boroughs support this amendment.
- To clarify these will reflect the fact the European Court of justice can levy ongoing fines in the UK.
- To ensure shared owners have a full repairing lease and are responsible for all repairs and maintenance
- To exempt certain council homes from the requirement that 75% of the net receipt should be surrendered to central Government should the homes be sold under the Right to Buy.
- To give The Welsh Assembly Government responsibility over Fire and Rescue Authorities