Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Localism Bill: What is a community?

This is the first in a series looking at various aspects of the Localism Bill.

The Localism Bill introduced in this parliament aims to redefine the relationship between local authorities and communities. Reading the Guide to the Localism Bill there is a blurring of language and the word "community" is used vaguely in some instances to mean both local authorities and neighbourhood groups and more specifically in other cases. Although authorities are to be given more powers from the state, the mechanism for local groups to gain new responsibilities is principally through piecemeal leaching of power and challenge to local authorities.

New rights to build local assets, such as libraries, brings the sort of responsibility that would ordinarily be enjoyed by parish councils to less formally structured communities. But how are these groups to be made accountable? How will they be structured? What happens if people move on? Will wealthier areas take control of councils assets, leaving the council to administer the rest? Where is the benefit of forming a parish/local council if the powers are available to less formal groups?

There is a lack of direction in how the coalition government envisages "the community" that it intends to take on these new powers. The previous government was also fairly unclear about its preference for community structure, perhaps this is a continuation of that indifference and an acceptance of plurality. The Localism Bill treats some parish councils more like local authorities than community groups, allowing a veto of 'excessive' council tax precept rises and even extending the general power of competence to some.

Parish/local councils, now permitted almost anywhere in England, would seem the natural vehicle for the localism reform. However, they already suffered from a lack of powers that perhaps made them unattractive to communities. The Localism Bill, by failing to create new powers especially for these accountable groups, restricts their appeal as vehicles for community governance. This could be a missed opportunity to finally recast the parish/local council as an urban solution.