The Sustainable Communities Act
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Official Guidance Notes
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Sustainable Communities Act Local Works/Unlock Democracy Guidance Sheet No.1:
Briefing for councillors and council officers: Why local authorities should 'opt in' to the new process
There is no requirement on local authorities to 'opt in' to the process in the Sustainable Communities Act. They simply have the power to do so: it was always at the centre of the campaign for the Act that, in supporting the idea of devolving power, we did not want yet more centrally imposed duties on local authorities. The Act impacts on central government – it is about local authorities making suggestions on what they want government to do to help reverse community decline and promote sustainable communities.
So, why should local authorities get involved (as we strongly believe they should), when to do so involves setting up citizens' panels, involving all sections of the community and then trying to reach agreement with them? Is this not just one more hassle for hard-pressed officers?
There are important reasons why local authorities should 'opt in':
1. Assistance from government
Community decline is happening everywhere and local authorities are not able to prevent it on their own. They need government help. This Act gives government a legal duty 'to assist local authorities in promoting the sustainability of local communities'. So by 'opting in' local authorities are, in fact, signing up to receive that 'assistance'.
2. Power to determine that assistance
The Act also gives local authorities (and their representative body, the Local Government Association) real power to determine the nature of the assistance that they receive from government, as explained more fully in our campaign broadsheet on implementing the Act (contact us for free copies).
3. Strength in numbers
By opting in, local authorities can act in unison to put in proposals to government supported by their colleagues elsewhere. Joint suggestions by many authorities will make it even harder for the government to refuse to act on suggestions made by local authorities.
4. Transferring functions and monies from central to local control
The Act also enables local authorities and thus local authorities acting together to request the transfer of functions from government or government agencies to themselves. Because decisions on these requests must be made by the LGA and the Secretary of State trying to reach agreement (i.e. in cooperation), this can be used to regain from central government control of many powers and spending that affect local areas.
5. Access to Central Spending Accounts Information
The requirement in the Act for the government to 'open the books' will mean that local authorities will know just how much extra money they can access if they push for a transfer of functions.
6. Democratic citizen involvement
All politicians (and many local authority officers) talk a lot about lack of public involvement in democracy. The recent Power report showed that the more people think that their involvement matters, the more they are likely to get involved. The very 'hassle' required by this Act (reaching agreement with – not consulting – citizens' panels) empowers citizens. Local authorities may well consider that this is a way of increasing citizen involvement.
What if a local authority decides not to 'opt in'?
In such cases (and we hope they will be rare) local authorities and councillors will be challenged by their electorate. Local Works/Unlock Democracy supports citizen involvement, so we will ensure that the huge individual membership base of our coalition do this as is their democratic right. Citizens will likely ask a authority/councillor why? Questions that are likely to come up from communities, and what should be considered when they do come up, are:
Is there no community decline in the area?In short – the 'it won't work; it's nothing new; it's not worth the effort' is in fact a 'cynics charter' – whereby nothing new is ever tried. And that by adopting that attitude you are becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution. Either lack of involvement is a problem – and therefore worth the effort to reverse it: or it is not a problem and the current low level of public engagement in our democracy is fine and nothing to worry about. Do you really believe that? And do you think your electorate who are becoming excited by this Act and want you to use it will really believe that?
In short, Local Works/Unlock Democracy is totally sympathetic to the 'no new centrally imposed duties we want to be answerable locally not to the government' view from local authorities. However, we are not sympathetic to inaction re involving local people.
But all that said we are confident you will opt in. It is a wonderful new opportunity for you. And when you do, we will support you.
Further information and further guidance sheets These are available from Ron Bailey and Steve Shaw at Local Works/Unlock Democracy. See contact details below.
Local Works campaigning to implement the Sustainable Communities Act A project of Unlock Democracy address: Local Works, c/o Unlock Democracy, 6 Cynthia St, London N1 9JF telephone: 020 7278 4443 email: firstname.lastname@example.org website: www.localworks.org
Note – the Act ensures that the citizens' panels will be "balanced" as they must be representative of all residents in the area of a council's community
Database programming by Goldenhart© Shepton 21 Regeneration Partnership 2013