Why the draft Community Empowerment Bill is important

An article I contributed to by our Chairman, Councillor Michael Chater on empowerment and the draft Community Empowerment Bill, which was first published in LGCplus on 12 February:

In the current economic climate the actions of local government are even more important to the lives of our citizens and communities than ever. How our communities are supported and governed and services delivered is a challenging task.

In a recent speech the prime minister was clear about this challenge: “The downturn is absolutely the wrong moment to turn our back on devolution. Rather, it is right that we maintain our commitment to greater power in the hands of local people – alongside greater local accountability”, he said.

“Local authorities and council leaders will no longer be responsible solely for the delivery of a limited range of services, but actually responsible for shaping the place in which they live and for helping their community to get through these difficult times and to emerge stronger.”

It is exactly at this very local level that community democracy can, and already is, delivering for communities. While the bureaucratic structure of local government is acknowledged as being remote from people, in over 8,500 communities up and down the country, parish and town (local) councils are a central part of the fabric of the community and are responding to their distinct and differing needs. Decisions on a range of issues specific to local people are made here as locally as anywhere in the world. They are based on the strength of the views of local people and help people feel that local government is relevant to them and their lives.

This critical role for local councils is recognized by all three main political parties who continuously voice support for our grass-roots local democracy in England. Such recognition has rightly been acknowledged in policy and legislation in recent years, including the rural white paper in 2000, the Clean Neighbourhoods Act 2005 and the Local Government Act 2007. However, last year’s community empowerment white paper could fail to deliver some aspirations to empower local communities in both rural and urban areas.

There is recent much-needed funding from government to support our work which will take forward shared aspirations, including encouraging the creation of new local councils, the Quality Parishes Scheme , participatory budgeting and a new census of local councillors. As new legislation is required to promote local democracy and economic development, including the use of petitions, we have welcomed the Local Democracy Bill.

However this bill must be strengthened further through the legislative process to properly allow for local councils to be informed, consulted and involved in the functions of key public authorities and also to contribute to local economic strategies.

This leaves the draft Community Empowerment Bill, yet to see the light of day, as the key vehicle to take forward other important elements of the white paper, in particular the right of appeal regarding the abolition or creation of local councils. The exciting prospect of people wanting a new local council in their community has raised eyebrows and comes in for criticism. But only by giving local people a real voice and say over the way services are provided will communities feel connected to their governance and democracy.

The key principle must be to empower communities, not restrict the democratic process. People and communities should not be constrained by those already in positions of power taking the view that an extension of democracy may be a good thing but that some communities just aren’t ready for it. The draft Community Empowerment Bill needs to be brought forward as soon as possible, ensuring local people and communities are given the chance.

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