Why the Sustainable Communities Act matters

Okay, work hat semi-on again. Today is a big day as it is when the government formally invites local authorities to take part in the process outlined in the Sustainable Communities Act. The LGA are holding a conference today on the subject and 55 organisations have written to every council leader and chief executive in England urging them to opt-in to the process. Over on Lib Dem Voice, Seth Thevoz is excited. I am too.

The SCA is unique as legislation goes. It’s expected effects are nuanced and subtle. As a result it is prone to misunderstanding. So let’s start by saying what it is not: it is not a panacea. Nor will it directly result in a reversal of fifty years plus of state centralisation. Nor will it force, in a simplistic way, national government to devolve powers that local authorities request.

What it does instead is create a new form of dialogue, between council and community and between local and national government. The other thing it most definitely is not is consultation, in the commonly understood sense of the word whereby government asks for views but is then free to do whatever it likes. When local authorities draw up their own local sustainability plans, they will have to try to reach agreement with the wider community. When national government makes its formal response to the various plans and requests for new powers by local authorities, it will not be able to simply cherry pick but must try to reach agreement with the “selector” (specifically the Local Government Association). If that all sounds like empty rhetoric to you, it most certainly did not sound like empty rhetoric to the civil servants during the scrutiny of the bill, who attempted at every stage to have that very specific language removed.

The overall effect is an entirely new power dynamic, with local government, national government and the wider community interacting in a much more horizontal way. Yes, that means national government can no longer treat local government so glibly. But the reverse is equally true. After today, local government will no longer be able to complain that national government doesn’t let them do anything and won’t listen without at least exhausting the SCA process first.

Take post offices as an example. For years, the debate has essentially been a call for national government to step in an stop the shrinking of the network. Under the SCA, the debate will not be about what national government could or should be doing but what local government needs to do and what powers it needs to do it. We’ve already seen examples in places like Essex where the County Council is taking over post offices in strategic locations. But if the only way to fund that service is through council tax, it is likely to come to a shuddering halt before too long. Are there not other ways we might be able to pay for it though?

There are several other examples of the sorts of things local authorities might request as part of the process on the Unlock Democracy website. National government is likely to have big problems with a number of the proposals that come out of the process, but not with all of them. The important thing is though, if it is going to block any proposals, it will need to have strong reasons for doing so. It won’t be able to dismiss any idea out of hand.

The result will no doubt be a lot of rows. But they will be rows that would otherwise not even have started. And the nature of politics is that rows usually end up leading to compromises and creative solutions.

There are two things that I hope people end up using the Act to highlight. The first one is fiscal autonomy. In short, councils don’t have it, and need it if they are to take on significant new responsibilities. I hope this is a point that every single local authority uses the process to highlight the need and to propose solutions to it. And yes, you could theoretically use the Act to call for a certain proportion of income tax to be given directly and varied by local councils.

The second one is electoral reform. Last year’s councillors commission already proposed allowing councils the freedom to experiment with different electoral systems. Most of the arguments used against electoral reform in the House of Commons, regardless of their relative merits, simply don’t apply to local councils. Councillors already have multi-member constituencies. No Overall Control is a daily reality for a significant number of councils, and they function perfectly well. And unlikey Westminster elections, where all the major parties contest all the seats, at a local government level whole swathes of councillors are elected unopposed each year.

We don’t want a return to 1980s politics, with socialist putsches running ideologically-driven councils entirely at odds with the views of the majority of the people they are supposed to serve. At the other end of the scale, the spectre of rightwing hegemonies using the undemocratic electoral system to guarantee themselves permanent power in parish councils is equally disgraceful. The best guarantee against both of these problems is pluralist politics. We don’t need it imposed top-down; we merely need a system whereby it can be requested bottom-up. The current government already allows people to do that when it comes to introducing elected mayors (although they don’t allow it when it comes to abolishing elected mayors, natch), so it has no principled reason for not allowing it here.

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