Devolution of power to a neighbourhood level is at the heart of Office of the Deputy Prime Minister plans to put councils in touch with their communities.
Three major policy documents unveiled by the ODPM propose a massive extension of the principle of neighbourhood governance, and the installation of directly elected mayors, possibly with more powers, in big cities (LGC, 7 January).
The government has also swung behind Electoral Commission recommendations that every council should have a four-year election cycle.
The papers - Sustainable Communities: people, places and prosperity, Vibrant Local Leadership and Why Neighbourhoods Matter - were launched at the Sustainable Communities Summit in Manchester.
People, Places and Prosperity, is part of the ODPM's five-year strategy, a statement of aims all government departments must produce. It is described by the ODPM as setting out the governance arrangements for delivering sustainable communities. Neighbourhood bodies are considered central to this.
Deputy prime minister John Prescott said: '[Neighbourhood governance] continues this process of decentralisation that we started with devolution. It is important now to take it beyond the council, working within that framework but allowing ordinary people to have more say about things that affect them.'
He insisted councils would be at the centre of any extension of neighbourhood governance: 'We want to work through local authorities so they can deliver excellent services, provide leadership for their areas and empower their communities.'
Local government minister Nick Raynsford reiterated the point: 'The crucial issue all the way through is that the councillor and the council will be at the heart of this. This isn't bypassing local government, this is ensuring local government is in touch with the local community.'
Speaking in Manchester, prime minister Tony Blair backed the idea of neighbourhood governance, praising the 'quiet revolution' brought about by voluntary groups, community support officers and neighbourhood managers. He said local people must be in charge of investment, adding: 'What I can't do is run your local street for you.'
The two remaining papers, Why Neighbourhoods Matter and Vibrant Local Leadership, form part of the 10-year vision for local government, a project to set out the sector's long-term future.
These give more detail on neighbourhood governance and political leadership respectively. Proposals include a national framework for neighbourhoods, setting out a variety of models for neighbourhood structures and identifying when and how they can act.
Any putative neighbourhood body would form a 'charter' by selecting options from this framework.
The charter would enable people to hold their council to account and gain redress if services fell below a given standard. However, rather than falling into an antagonistic relationship, the ODPM hopes councils will cultivate neighbourhood bodies, with backbench councillors taking a lead role in this.
One of the structural options in the proposed framework is for backbench councillors to act as 'mini-mayors' in their ward, with devolved budgets of around£10,000. Neighbourhood improvement districts, similar to business improvement districts, are also suggested, where money raised through a levy on an area's council tax could be used to fund a park warden or neighbourhood manager.
The government is clear it will under no circumstances impose neighbourhood bodies or mayors. However, it wants to make the former available wherever there is public demand, and make the latter more appealing, possibly by giving mayors additional powers.
For example, a mayor could take a lead role in a local strategic partnership or local area agreement. Mr Raynsford said mayors could help councils join up with agencies that extend beyond their boundaries, such as the NHS, transport and the police.
Three key documents
-- Sustainable Communities: people, places and prosperity outlines the governance arrangements needed for sustainable communities
-- Why Neighbourhoods Matter proposes neighbourhood bodies be set up wherever there is demand
-- Vibrant Local Leadership proposes new roles for backbench councillors, and argues elected mayors could be the answer for big cities.
Reaction - 'It's a step forward'
Government has given councils a central role in improving areas and we should recognise that. There's a lot to commend about these documents -
if neighbourhood charters are developed in a collaborative way, they could be valuable, and giving big cities the choice [over mayors] is good.'
Sir Bob Kerslake
Chief executive, Sheffield City Council
'Leaders in councils - and local government itself - must be empowered to make a difference. More authority for leaders, through a mayoral system or otherwise, and more leverage for the undeveloped role of the local representative has to be a step forward.'
Chief executive, Somerset CC
'The implications of neighbourhood charters would have to be carefully thought out in terms of ensuring everybody is treated equally.
Areas that are not clear, cohesive neighbourhoods could lose out to others that are better organised and can shout louder.'
Chief executive, Swindon BC