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The Coalition Government, localism and the 'Big Society'

Whilst Labour favoured devolution to 'nations' and regions as well as localities, the emphasis of the other two national parties has been almost exclusively on Localism in England. And this became a key aspect of the 2010 Coalition Government's programme. A Conservative Party Policy Green Paper (No. 14, 2010) published immediately prior to the 2010 election made their priorities clear: abolition of all regional bodies and an emphasis instead upon 'Localism and the Big Society.' It describes an intention to promote 'decentralisation and democratic engagement' with the purpose of ending the 'era of top-down government' by giving new powers to 'local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and
individuals' (Conservative Party Policy Green Paper No. 14, 2010) and a move to encourage voluntary bodies and individual volunteers to take on responsibility for some of the functions currently performed by local government. The latter refers to what the Conservative Prime Minister calls The Big Society.

There are three key pieces of legislation involved: the Planning Act (2008), the Localism Act (2011) and the Public Bodies Act (2011):

1. The Planning Act had already been passed when the Coalition Government came to power, but it had not been implemented, and its provisions were modified in the Localism Act. It governs procedures for major infrastructure projects such as railways, motorways and power stations and came into force in 2012 along with the new Localism Act.

2. The Localism Act (2011), as we saw in Chapter 4, gave local authorities a general power of competence to do anything an individual can do which is not specifically prohibited. It also designated Council Leaders in the larger cities as 'shadow mayors' and provided for a referendum in major cities on whether or not to directly elect a Mayor in 2012, as we discussed in Chapter 5. Jones (2010), referring to the previous Labour Government's plans for directly elected mayors, points to the irony that Central Government, 'much criticised for its 'presidential' prime ministers … should urge a similar one-person rule on local government' (Jones, 2010, p.27), and, in fact, in the 10 cities that held referenda, only one – Bristol – voted for a directly elected Mayor.

The regional planning strategies for new development set out by Central Government in 2004 were abolished and replaced by Neighbourhood Development Plans allowing community organisations in the form of Neighbourhood Councils or existing Parish Councils to propose new developments which have local support. They could be set up elsewhere (in urban areas, for example) but must be authorised by local authorities and were intended to be a partnership of residents, community groups, business, institutions and local councillors – and they had to have a constitution approved by the local authority in order to take part in the planning process. Following consultation, a Neighbourhood Plan could be submitted to a local authority and then be subject to an independent examiner. The local authority may then decide to put the plan to a referendum. However, neighbourhood plans must be compatible with national policy and the strategic elements of local authority plans, as well as with EU environmental assessments, so, national and local authority policies still dominate over neighbourhood plans. The Infrastructure Planning Commission was to be responsible for decisions on national infrastructure projects, but that has now been merged into the Planning Inspectorate and its powers transferred to Government Ministers.

3. The Public Bodies Act (2011) allows Ministers to abolish, merge or transfer functions of any public body listed in the schedules of the Bill to any 'eligible person' – that is, a Minister, a company, community interest company or body of trustees –or a new corporate body created for the purpose like a CCA and
to modify the constitutional arrangements of such a body. Ministers must consult with the office holders affected, and action should be taken only if it does not prevent the exercise of rights and freedoms which those affected 'might reasonably expect to continue to exercise'.

This Coalition approach might seem to some like participatory governance at the local level, but others saw it as a threat to local democratic government. Local authorities had lost their monopoly over service provision during the Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher (1979–1990). Now, both private industry and community groups could bid directly for the provision of all public services including those currently provided by local authorities. At a time of huge cuts to their budgets, some local authorities felt they were being undermined. In practice, as one of our interviewees pointed out, legislation to protect the transfer of employment rights, especially pension rights (TUPE, 2013), militates against small local firms and especially social enterprises being able to afford to bid for services and most contracts actually went to large corporate firms.

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