Decentralisation and the Localism Bill
Eric Pickles, in introducing the Localism Bill in December 2010, stressed the intention to give local government the freedom and powers to deliver key frontline services and make important savings (Pickles, 2010a). The main change here would be the granting of a new 'general power of competence' which would allow councils 'to innovate and drive down costs to deliver more efficient services' without requiring specific powers. This power of competence would allow councils to do things that an individual may generally do without needing to demonstrate that it would benefit the authority, its area or its inhabitants. However, it did not provide councils with powers to raise tax or set charges for mandatory services or override existing legislation (Local Government Association, 2013a). Indeed, the Act allowed the Minister to set maximum increases in Council Tax, the main source of revenue for local government, and only allowed Councils to exceed this if the
increase was successfully put to a local referendum (Department of Communities and Local Government, 2011). This was stated in the Act as 'giving communities the power to decide' (Department of Communities and Local Government, 2011). At the same time 'local people' would have 'a new right to challenge to take over services; a new right to bid to buy assets of community value such as libraries, public houses and shops; and a new right to veto excessive council tax rises through a referendum' (Pickles, 2010c). These rights were intended to allow 'local people to hold their local authorities to account and to shape their local area.' How 'local people' would obtain the resources to implement such powers
was not clear.
The Bill also proposed 'significant reform of the planning system' in that the Infrastructure Planning Commission would be replaced with a new 'democratically accountable system for major infrastructure', so that regional planning would be swept away and neighbourhood plans become the new building blocks of the planning system – at least in theory – with communities having the power to grant planning permission if a majority of electors are in favour (Department of Communities and Local Government, 2011). Local authorities would be given additional decision-making powers allowing them greater control over allocation and tenure of social housing, flexibility in their use of social housing stock, and a new national home swap scheme was to be introduced, all of which were intended to reduce waiting lists. It also proposed replacing the system of housing revenue account subsidy.
Local authorities were to be given the power to offer discretionary business rate discounts to encourage economic growth and give easier access to small business tax breaks. This mirrored the relationships to be developed in LEPs between local authority and local business at the sub-regional level. However, despite the abolition of regional governance and the reallocation of its powers in general, the Bill actually strengthened the role of the one remaining regional body
– the London Assembly – by devolving 'significant power' to it and to London borough councils while abolishing 'the plethora of agencies in London's public sector landscape' (Pickles, 2010c).
One of the main concerns of local authorities was that, whilst they would like additional powers, such powers were of limited value without the resources with which to conduct them. There was a fear that the blame for massive cuts to services would fall upon the local authorities rather than central government who were actually implementing the cuts in local authority finances.