The Localism Bill has cleared Parliament and is on its way to Royal Assent.

There were have been changes from the original intentions on councillors’ standards, the mayoral provisions, sustainable development and financial incentives on planning, and fixed-term tenancies in social housing.

Decentralisation minister Greg Clark told the Commons: “For the best of a century, most Bills that have passed through this House have taken power from communities and councils and given more power to central Government, or in some cases to European government. This is an historic Bill, not just for the measures it contains but for what it represents. It is about striking out in a different direction. Power should be held at the lowest possible level. We want this to be the first Parliament for many years that, by the end of its Sessions, will have given power away.

“That is true for many of the Bill’s provisions—the community right to challenge; the community right to bid for assets of public value; the abolition of regional spatial strategies; the introduction of neighbourhood planning—but nowhere is it more significant than in clause 1, which deals with the general power of competence. The general power of competence changes the default position. Currently, local government exists to do the things that central Government require it to do. Clause 1 turns that default position upside down. Local government can do the things that it thinks are right, unless they are positively banned. What is not forbidden is permitted. The question for councils is not, ‘Can we do this?’ but, ‘How can we make it happen?’”

The Localism Bill has been criticised in some quarters as actually being more of a Centralism Bill, handing more power to the Secretary of State, and in others as not being radical enough – neighbourhood plans, for example, still have to conform to national policy, and cannot reject development altogether, only where it is sited.

Helen Jones, Labour MP for Warrington North, told the Commons: “[Clark] would have us believe that this is an historic Bill that returns power to the lowest level. In fact, it is not. It is a Bill about centralising power and devolving the blame…we still think this Bill is shambolic and has not been thought through.”

Annette Brooke MP and Lord (Graham) Tope, who led the Lib Dem response to the Bill, told the Lib Dem Voice website: “The Bill is now much improved from when it started, and will really change the way we do local government in this country, with new tools to increase participation, and give councils a greater ability to make the decisions that are right for their local area.”

Local Government Minister Grant Shapps particularly welcomed the new powers that let parish councils, after negotiation with district councils, offer discretionary business rates discounts for local businesses, and they will be able to better protect local shops through policies in their neighbourhood plan.

He praised ‘parish power’ and said: “The village shop, pub or post office is often the beating heart of a community. So when one is threatened with closure, often for a reason as simple as the shop owner or pub landlord retiring, I would expect the local parish council to pull out all the stops to keep it going.

“Some have done this brilliantly, but many have watched local amenities close when the power to save them was within their grasp. This is not about propping up failing businesses; it is often about providing temporary financial assistance or putting new community-run facilities in place, so vital services that people rely on are maintained.

“So if an important local business is struggling, I would urge the parish council to sit down with their community and explore every option to keep it running for the benefit of local people.”

Author's Bio: 

Roy Rowlands writes for Public Sector Executive an essential guide to public sector management offering a wide view public sector news views and opinions