Analysis: More power to the community

The Localism Act gives charities and community groups more say over local planning, assets and services. Andy Hillier assesses the prospects and reports on one area where residents are putting their ideas into action

The Localism Act will give more power to communities
The Localism Act will give more power to communities

Edward Street in Brighton, East Sussex, is considered something of a planning disaster by local residents. In the 1950s and 1960s, Victorian shops and houses were knocked down and the road was widened to help ease traffic congestion. Now residents have to dice with speeding traffic on a dual carriageway to get across the road.

"It's not the most inspiring street in the world," says Nicola Thomas, director of Arch Angels, an architects practice located on the street. "It's not very inviting."

Two years ago, Arch Angels decided something needed to be done and consulted local residents and community groups about improving the road. Together they've come up with a plan to reduce it to a single carriageway, add lots of greenery and make it more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly.

In the past, the architecture practice and local residents would have had to convince the council to support their idea before any changes were made. But under proposals coming into force with the Localism Act on 6 April, residents and community groups will have a greater say in the planning of their neighbourhoods.

"There could be some way forward now because of the neighbourhood planning proposals in the act," says Thomas. "We already have a meeting planned with the council to discuss our proposal and there's the prospect of becoming a pilot area."

Wide-ranging legislation

The new legislation is wide-ranging. It gives new freedoms to local authorities on issues such as council tax charges and allows cities to elect their own mayors.

It also gives voluntary and community groups the right to bid for assets of community value, to challenge to run a public service in their area and to have a greater say in neighbourhood planning (see the main provisions below).

Eric Pickles Eric Pickles (right), the communities secretary, has described the act as the "biggest shift in power since the Victorian age" and says it will give communities "a greater say in local life".

Reaction to the act in the voluntary sector has, in general, been more measured. Toby Blume, chief executive of Urban Forum, a national membership organisation for community groups that has been running a series of Community Rights Made Real events about the implications of the act, agrees that the act does give communities more power. But he says this will not necessarily lead to more equitable outcomes.

"Some communities are better equipped to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented," he says. "By creating these opportunities, we risk exacerbating inequality if those who are already rich are able to take advantage and poor communities are left behind."

Limited powers

Locality, the network for community-led organisations that has played a leading role in shaping the act, is broadly supportive of the measures. But speaking at a Community Rights Made Real event in Brighton last month, Jeremy Fennell, development officer at Locality, conceded that the powers to bid for community assets were "fairly limited in some ways".

He said: "There's not a huge amount of cash attached for communities to put this into effect. Having said that, we've been lobbying for something like this for some time and, although the benefits are not as extensive as those that communities in Scotland gain in terms of a true right-to-buy provision, it's is still a huge step forward."

The 'right to challenge' aspect of the act remains particularly controversial. Under the new rules, only voluntary groups, parish councils and local authority employees are allowed to approach a local authority to express an interest in taking over the running of a public service.

But if the local authority agrees to open up the service to competition, it triggers a procurement process in which any type of organisation, including those from the private sector and big national charities, can bid to run them. Blume says concerns remain that this could open the door to private companies that are "duty bound to put the needs of shareholders before those of communities". He adds, however, that competition isn't necessarily a bad thing. "Frankly, you could argue that there's no inherent right for charities to deliver services - and we need to be open-minded about who can deliver the best services to beneficiaries," he says.

Robert BeardThe local umbrella body Navca is particularly worried about this aspect of the law. Robert Beard (right), its policy officer, says: "We have grave concerns about how this right will operate in the context of current European procurement law, which favours large national organisations at the expense of local accountability.

National providers

"Consequently, we have been arguing that the right to challenge should not admit big national providers to the process unless they are working with and through locally owned businesses or voluntary and community organisations."

The neighbourhood planning aspect of the act opens up the possibility of parish councils or neighbourhood forums setting the planning agenda in their communities. It allows them, as in the case of Edward Street, described earlier, to create their own neighbourhood plans that will ultimately determine where new houses, businesses and shops go and what they look like.

Blume says he is broadly positive about the neighbourhood planning powers because they allow the community to take action without much input from the local authority. But he says there's also a danger that the forums will be dominated by individuals or groups that might not necessarily act in the best interests of the broader community.

"It might be that we're making it easier for the sharp-elbowed in the community to keep down the voices of the more marginalised or smaller groups," he says. "It's really important that the council or local authority acts as the protector of minority groups in the free market, or else we might end up with all sorts of insidious outcomes and exacerbate inequality."


 

Main provisions of the Act Community rights to bid for assets, to seek to run services and to take the lead in planning

Community Right to Bid

The legislation gives communities the right to bid for assets of community value. Such assets could include community centres, village shops, libraries or pubs where their closure could cause lasting damage to a community.

The act allows voluntary and community organisations or parish councils to nominate an asset to be included in a 'list of assets of community value' maintained by the local authority. If the owner of a listed asset wants to sell it, this will trigger a moratorium during which the asset cannot be sold. This period is intended to allow community groups time to develop a proposal and raise money to bid for the property when it comes on the market.

There are two moratoriums. The interim one is a six-week period during which the community group must notify the local authority that it wishes to be considered as a potential bidder. The full moratorium is a six-month period during which a community group can develop a proposal and raise the money necessary to purchase the asset. There is no guarantee that the community organisation's bid for the asset will be successful and the owner still has the right to choose the best offer available.

Community Right to Challenge

The community right to challenge gives community groups, parish councils and local authority employees the right to submit an expression of interest in taking over and running a local authority service. The local authority must consider the challenge, although it can reject the application if it has good reason. If a local authority accepts the challenge, it must then run a procurement exercise in which any organisation, including a private company, can bid to take over the running of the service. However, the local authority must take into account the social, economic and environmental benefits of the bids before deciding who should be awarded the contract.

Neighbourhood Planning

The act allows local people to choose where they want new homes, shops and offices to be built, to have a say on what those new buildings look like and to grant planning permission in some instances.

In areas with a parish or town council, it will take the lead on neighbourhood planning. In other areas, local people will need to decide which organisation should lead. In both cases, the group must have at least 21 members and must be open to new members. The group will then need to decide on the boundaries of their neighbourhood area and check with the local authority that it does not overlap with other proposed neighbourhoods.

The group will then draw up a plan in consultation with local residents. Once the plan has been determined, an independent examiner will check to make sure that it meets the basic requirements. The examiner can also recommend changes.

The local council will then organise a referendum on any plan or order that meets the standards. If more than 50 per cent of people voting in the referendum support the plan or order, then the local planning authority must bring it into force. Once a neighbourhood plan is agreed, decision-makers will be obliged by law to take what it says into account when they consider proposals for development in the neighbourhood.

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