The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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Reform to the Sustainable Communities Act: How participation will revolutionise politics

13th November 2013

Local Works' Zoe Stavri explains how the Sustainable Communities Act can empower the people

Parish and town councils are the closest level of governance to the local community, but have historically had less power over local issues than larger councils. There was a big shift to this last month, when Local Works achieved their latest campaign aim to extend the powers of the Sustainable Communities Act to these small local councils.

Often called “Britain’s best-kept secret”, the Sustainable Communities Act became law following a five year campaign by Local Works. The Act has set up a process where people, together with their councils, can get help from central government that would help reverse the overwhelming national trend of community decline. It rests on the philosophy that local people are experts in the solutions to local problems, but these solutions require help from central government to happen. The Act provides a mechanism by which councils work with communities, and then submit proposals for specific central government action that would help their community. Central government cannot just ignore proposals: it must go beyond mere consultation and ‘try to reach agreement’ with an independent panel.

Right now, the UK has one of the most centralised systems of governance in the democratic world. The Localism Act has not provided the powers councils needed to buck the trend, with some councillors expressing dissatisfaction and frustration. The problem of community decline continues, with local shops and pubs vanishing at an alarming rate, replaced by payday lenders and betting shops. At its heart, the Localism Act was top down: central government offered councils a set of powers that central government thought they should have. On the other hand the Sustainable Communities Act is bottom-up: it provides the mechanism for councils and local people to get what they actually want and need.

No other mechanism is as robust as the Sustainable Communities Act. Unlike writing to a minister requesting red tape be cut, a proposal under the Act has to be considered, responded to and negotiated through a dialogue. Requiring Whitehall civil servants and ministers to go through this rigmarole makes the process totally different from anything else available to local people and local government. Proposals can be submitted at any time, making the Act far stronger than simply responding to mere consultation, the agenda of which is set by the centre, not local people and councils.

The Act was passed in 2007, although it has been a long journey getting it into the shape it is in today. Councils and local people got together and submitted a first ‘round’ of some 200 proposals to government in 2008-2010. Following these there were some encouraging results, for example Sheffield City gained new powers over their local Post Offices and used these to reverse planned closures in the city and make a substantial budget saving. This was not enough, and many wanted to see the Act become an ongoing process. Local Works successfully campaigned for an amendment to the law in 2010 transformed the Act into a permanent, ongoing process, and with the addition of regulations produced in 2012, local authorities may now submit proposals at any time.

However, the ability to use the Act was still limited to the larger councils. In order to fully bring the power home, it was vital that smaller councils were also able to use the Act. We have been campaigning for the Act for the last decade. Each step of the way, all the way back to getting the Act on to the parliamentary agenda, we have been helping the grassroots to mobilise. We, along with hundreds of individuals and organisations, told the minister we wanted to see the Act extended to town and parish councils. We achieved this when the needed regulations were made by the government last month.

Rich possibilities are available to communities through the Act. Town and parish councils are already lining up proposal to put forward to help deal with problems like second home ownership and third party appeal rights in planning applications. Perhaps they can draw inspiration from some of the proposals the larger councils are in the process of submitting?

Norwich City Council and two other councils have agreed to put forward a proposal to make it harder to demolish pubs, or convert them into supermarket pr betting shops without consulting locals first. Meanwhile, over 60 councils are backing Hackney Council in proposing a new use class for betting shops which would stop proliferation and clustering on our high streets.

Engaging with the Sustainable Communities Act will revolutionise politics, bringing the power back to the people. In order for it to thrive, though, people need to participate. If you have an idea which could bring about radical change, get in touch with your council, and tell them to use the Act to make it happen.

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