Giving power to local communities – much too important to be left to Nick Clegg or Parliament

by Stephen Tall on October 29, 2012

Nick Clegg in Liverpool. Photo credit: Alex FolkesLike my LDV colleague, Paul Walter, it was good to hear Nick Clegg’s announcement that he intends to give more economic powers to up to 20 cities and major towns. After all, if there’s one thing that unites Lib Dems it’s the belief in devolving power to the most local level possible.

And yet there is a grumble about the scheme that nags me: why is it that local government is having to bid to central government for “the right to decide how skills and transport funding is spent locally” or to be “allowed to borrow against future tax receipts to invest in job creation schemes”?

Such powers should already be vested in local authorities who shouldn’t have to justify to the Deputy Prime Minister or anyone else in Whitehall that they are able “to carve out their own economic destinies” — it should be assumed that’s what they will want to do. How successful they are in delivering on that promise is for their voters to judge.

But rather than simply grumble, there is something more positive that councils can do, as Unlock Democracy points out:

… there is a framework already in place that allows councils to go much further than this. Under the Sustainable Communities Act, councils can request transfers of any funding and function from one public body to another, if it would help the community. So councils can use the Act to ensure that some of the billions of pounds of funding that is currently spent by any government department, agency or QUANGO is transferred to local control.

The Act has been used by over 100 councils since it was passed in 2007. A number of councils have made requests for transfers of funding or function under the Act. Windsor and Maidenhead Council, for example, put forward a proposal to take over running the local fire service that was threatened with closure, whilst Hastings Borough Council requested that Highway Authority powers be transferred to the council to improve roads in the area and Kent County Council called for control of skills and training agencies to be transferred to it.

Councils must first “opt in” to use the Act though – it is not compulsory for them to do so. Local Works – a coalition of over 100 national organisations including Age UK, the Woodland Trust and the Women’s Institute – is encouraging councils to take up use of the Act so that they can gain more than just the powers the government is potentially offering to 20 cities at the moment.

There’s more information about this over at the Local Works website here, including how councils can make use of the Sustainable Communities Act.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.