Is the new government radical or localist enough, and does the Cities & Local Government Bill devolve power to people and communities outside of the big cities?
The story so far is no they are not, and the bill doesn’t, although it is good news for Greater Manchester and other well-organised large cities.
The government has an opportunity, through the bill and in other ways, to match measures at the strategic level with action to support the local level; power to the cities, yes, but power to the parishes too.
England’s 9,000 parish and town councils are the backbone of local democracy, giving people a voice and structure for taking action, and increasingly delivering more services to improve their area, in particular gulping up discretionary services as austerity bites in the rest of local government.
A good start was made during the past parliament to give people, communities and parish councils more power through the Localism Act. It’s not a perfect set of tools to put people more in the driving seat, but a new set of tools in the box all the same.
Neighbourhood planning, community rights, making it easier to set up parishes, barrier-busting and removing red tape; these are all decentralisation measures moving in the right direction.
Now over a month into the job, the government has a fantastic chance to build on some of the foundations laid over the past five years and to truly empower the localist powerhouse that is the parish council movement.
So how can the bill be strengthened?
Well, it should speed up the opportunity for communities in cities to have neighbourhood democracy for one. Requiring councils to conduct a community governance review within two years of the act coming into force would give the opportunity to local people to decide if they want more of a say over public services and how their money is spent.
Another measure would be to improve the relationships of parishes with combined authorities and new mayors, via involvement in overview and scrutiny committees. While many principal councils try to ensure there are effective relations between the tiers there is more work to be done. Given £10m in council tax support funding is not being passed on to parishes and, and that improvement is needed about dialogue on taking on discretionary services like toilets, libraries, grass cutting or youth projects, we must do more to encourage and promote effective engagement between councils.
There are other devolutionary steps outside of the bill which could strengthen local democracy such as creating more parishes; providing fairer funding, including a share of business rate for parishes; and review of the Localism Act and the general power of competence.
Justin Griggs, head of policy and development, the National Association of Local Councils