UK: The Local Government White Paper - Strong and Prosperous Communities

Last Updated: 30 November 2006
Article by Nicholas Dobson

Life never stops for a second - always on the move. And it tends to overtake those who don't keep pace. Local government is no exception. Change has been profound in recent years with a range of social, demographic, technological and environmental transformations. So the local government framework has to keep up if local authorities are to provide the leadership their stakeholders have a right to expect. Cue the Local Government White Paper: Strong and Prosperous Communities (the Paper) which premiered on 26 October 2006. Not cheap at Ł32.50, but you can pick up a free copy on DCLG's website (http://www.communities.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1503999).

Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in his Preface styled local government as 'a vital part of our democracy' providing 'leadership for local areas and communities; democratic accountability for a wide range of public services' and 'the key to effective partnership working at local level'. The White Paper, according to Mr. Blair, builds on 'the fantastic job' done by 'the best local authorities' over the last ten years in serving their communities. However, the Paper isn't a slim read. Published in two volumes, the first (171 pages) covers the key themes and the second (59 pages) exemplifies how the 'proposals will apply to major local public service areas and cross-cutting issues'.

Executive government is to be changed. In a radical step, all local authority executive powers will be vested in the council leader who will be responsible for deciding how these powers should be discharged. This will certainly bring the personal qualities of leaders into sharp relief. There will also be three choices of leadership model: a directly elected mayor, a directly elected executive of councillors, or a leader elected by fellow councillors 'with a clear four year mandate'. Councils will continue to be able through their constitutions to specify the circumstances in which indirectly elected leaders might be removed during their four year term.

The core Best Value regime will remain, although the requirement to prepare annual Best Value Performance Plans and conduct Best Value Reviews will be removed and the Government intends to issue 'one piece of revised guidance' to strengthen 'the key principles of best value'. And members of the public who are dissatisfied with their authority's response to a question raised will be able to ask their local councillor to take the matter up on their behalf as a 'Community Call for Action'.

The Government intends to 'reinforce the strategic leadership role of local government' by: requiring local authorities to prepare their Local Area Agreement (LAA) in consultation with others; making clear Government's expectations that local authority leaders will play a leading role on Local Strategic Partnerships and that local authority executive portfolio holders will 'play a key role on relevant thematic partnerships'. There will also be a new duty for the local authority and specified partners (see paragraph 5.27 of the Paper) to co-operate in agreeing the LAA targets.

There will be a 'radical simplification' of the performance framework, encompassing 35 priorities for each area, tailored to local needs through the LAA. Performance indicators will be substantially reduced to a 'single set of about 200 outcome based indicators covering all important national priorities'. The 'P' will be taken out of the CPA in favour of the new CAA: Comprehensive Area Assessment. The Paper indicates that this will be 'a more proportionate risk-based regime which will cut bureaucracy and allow more targeted support or intervention when things go wrong'. Whilst the Best Value 4Cs (challenge, compare, consult and compete) get only one name-check (at paragraph 6.29 to highlight the fact that the challenge and compete elements 'have been least well or widely applied'), nevertheless 4C strands are evident (together with the '5th C - collaboration), in the Paper, for example in the Executive Summary:

'In order to deliver the transformed services and value for money that communities want, councils will have to challenge traditional methods of delivery, root out waste, keep all council activity under review and work with other public bodies to share assets, systems, data, skills and knowledge more effectively.'

Given the prevailing theme of community empowerment, it is not surprising that the Government intends to enhance the role of parishes. It intends therefore to extend the power of well-being to all parish and town councils which satisfy criteria based on the Quality Parish scheme (see the DEFRA document: The Quality Parish and Town Council Scheme - http://www.defra.gov.uk/rural/quality_parishes/guidance/default.htm). The power to create parishes will also be devolved to district and unitary authorities with the presumption that local authorities will be expected to grant communities' requests to set up new parish councils unless there are good reasons not to. There will also be a presumption that existing parish councils are not to be abolished against the wishes of local people. The Government also intends to allow parishes to have a wider range of alternative names.

The Secretary of State's role in confirming byelaws is to be ended and councils are also to be allowed to enforce byelaws through fixed penalty notices. The Government also intends to 'devolve most aspects of the conduct regime to local authorities with a streamlined Standards Board refocused as a light touch regulator'. There will be a 'clearer, simpler and more proportionate code of conduct for local authority members and a new code for employees.'

The Government proposes to seek legislation 'at the earliest opportunity with a view to having the key building blocks of our reforms in place as soon as possible'. The proposed measures include:

  • Amendments to the Best Value regime to require relevant authorities to secure the participation of local people and to remove the annual performance plan and best value review requirements.
  • The Community Call for Action
  • Devolving the power to create new parishes from the Secretary of State and the Electoral Commission to district and unitary authorities and also to allow parishes to adopt alternative names. The well-being power will be made available to 'Quality Parish Councils'. Parish councils will also be able to be formed in London.
  • Changes to Executive Government, to the Conduct regime and to byelaws.
  • Legislation to 'amend Audit Commission powers, functions and governance arrangements to reflect the new inspection agenda'.
  • Enabling councils in two-tier areas to seek unitary status with improved models of working for continuing two-tier authorities.

So a broad range of proposals covering some key themes affecting local leadership and governance. However, as always, the Devil rides out in the detail, and authorities will be keen to see the manner in which this will add flesh to the bones laid out in the Paper. They will be similarly interested in seeing how Sir Michael Lyons' final report to Ministers in December 2006 fits with the Paper. At this stage, Sir Michael describes the Paper as a 'welcome step forward' and indicates that he 'will reflect on the reforms it puts in place, as well as the important questions that remain, including how local government should best be funded' in making his final report. Both local government and individual tax payers will await this final report with considerable interest.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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