In October the Government invited Councils to 'opt in' to the Sustainable Communities Act. This piece of private member legislation offers a new means of requiring Government to respond to grass roots needs, and should be a very effective additional way of identifying and initiating action on local concerns.
I proposed a motion to South Somerset District Council in a similar vein to that offered as a template by LocalWorks - www.localworks.org - Steve Shaw generously gave his time to inform the Council about the massive backing and keen interest in the Act.
The motion, which was carried unanimously was -
That South Somerset District Council:
Having been recognised nationally as a Beacon for Community Engagement and Local Involvement
(i) believes that local authorities and their communities know best on the solutions to local problems and so should determine how to promote thriving communities; and so
(ii) supports the bottom up process in the Sustainable Communities Act designed to allow local authorities and their communities to drive the help that central government gives in reversing community decline and promoting thriving, sustainable communities;
(iii) notes that the Act became law in October 2007 with full cross party support and that this was a result of 5 year campaign run by a coalition of over 90 national citizens organisations called Local Works;
(iv) notes that the Act gives local authorities the power to
• make proposals to government on the action government must take to reverse
community decline and promote sustainable communities, and
• argue for a transfer of public money and function from central to local control;
(v) notes that the Act defines the sustainability of local communities broadly, that definition having the 4 aspects of
• the improvement of the local economy,
• protection of the environment,
• promotion of social inclusion, and
• participation in civic and political activity;
(vi) notes that the Local Works campaign give a number of reasons for why a local authority should choose to use the Act, those reasons being
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 co-operation), 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. South Somerset District Council welcomes new ways to engage with, and empower, all communities.
(vii) further notes that the new burdens procedure means that central government shall provide financial assistance to local authorities that do choose to use the Act;
(viii) resolves, when invited to by central government, to use the Act by preparing and submitting proposals on how central government can help through a mechanism to be created using the best elements of South Somerset District Council’s award winning community engagement, and enhanced as necessary to ensure the fullest community involvement consistent with the Act.
(ix) further resolves to
• to inform all of our local communities of this decision;
• to inform all Local Strategic Partnership partners of the decision
• to widely publicise the Sustainable Communities Act and SSDC’s involvement
• to write to local MPs, informing them of this decision; and
• to write to Local Works (at Local Works, c/o Unlock Democracy, 6 Cynthia St,
London N1 9JF) informing them of their resolution to use the Act.
(x) requests the Chief Executive to put the appropriate mechanisms in place as soon as possible.