The Sustainable Communities Bill: is this the most significant piece of legislation this decade?

Has your local pub closed down? Is your high street turning into a drab strip of chain stores? Has Tesco boarded up your post-office and turned in into an 'express' store? If so, then you need to know about the Sustainable Communities Bill. Mark Anslow asks if this is the most important piece of legislation since Labour came to power

“Will this Bill help me stop a Tescos being built at the bottom of my driveway?” cried a voice from the back of a packed Methodist Central Hall on Monday night. A cheer went up from the 1000-strong crowd, and the panel of MPs arranged along the front table smiled demurely.

The question came at a public rally organised by a coalition of charities on the Sustainable Communities Bill – a revolutionary piece of legislation which now faces just a final few hurdles and civil servant pen strokes before becoming law. All being well, the Bill could make it onto the statute books by July.

So what will it do? At the core of the bill is a piece of jargon: ‘double devolution’. The idea is that central government hands down power to local government (single devolution), who in turn hand it down to local people (double devolution).

At this point most people switch off. After all, the Government’s record on  ‘consulting’ with local people – and indeed nationally – is pretty appalling. Its recent review of nuclear power, finally declared unlawful by the High Court after a long legal wrangle by Greenpeace, is a case in point.

But this Bill really does seem to have the potential to make a difference.
‘The question ultimately is: do you trust local people to make decisions for themselves?’ says Steve Shaw, Campaign Organiser at LocalWorks, a key charity behind the legisation. ‘The opportunities this bill provides are very, very significant.’

Those opportunities, breathlessly articulated on the campaign’s website, are indeed significant. The opportunity to keep open the local post-office, even when Royal Mail has decided to pull the plug. The opportunity to keep the local pub, even as the landlord prepares to slide the deeds over a property developer’s desk. The opportunity to retain the local bank, even as an overseas call centre and 0845 number beckon. The opportunity to improve local public transport, even as private operators decide that the number 48 is simply not needed. And the opportunity to rejuvenate flagging local economies, teetering on the edge of a terminal decline.

How? Well, there are a number of processes. Should the Bill become law – and with the support of 400 MPs it stands a very good chance – your local council will be required to engage in a ‘participation exercise’.
‘This is not a consultation,’ stresses Shaw. ‘We’ve had plenty of those, and they don’t work. The Bill would make a local authority legally responsible for seeking out a representative response from its citizens.’
This means no more dog-eared laminated A4 sheets sellotaped to lamp-posts as a council’s idea of engaging with a local community. Instead, the local authority must communicate information on its website, in local papers, and through local community groups. The idea is that as many local people as possible contribute to the participation exercise, telling the council what is wrong, and what needs to be done. This could be keeping the post office open, or it could be installing more combined-heat-and-power generators.

The ideas from all 410 local authorities in England and Wales are then fed together to form an ‘Action Plan’ – a whole raft of ‘enabling powers’ which central government would have little power to deny, says Shaw:
‘People worry about the ‘coach and horses’ problem – that all this could happen, and then central government could drive a coach and horses through the whole thing. Under this Bill, though, anything that the Secretary of State chooses not to include in the Action Plan must be approved by Parliament.’

With an approved ‘Action Plan’, a local authority can then go about making changes in its area. That could be on planning. Or transport. Or health care. Resistance has come from Labour MP Phil Woolas, Minister for Local Government and Community Cohesion, on the grounds that this will create a ‘post-code lottery’. Shaw is indignant:
‘I get somewhat annoyed by the continual use of the term. If you devolve power to local people, of course people are going to make different decisions. That’s the nature of democracy.’

But how will a piece of legislation force a local pub to stay open, or Barclays to keep its high-street branch? Can a local authority really intervene in our supposedly ‘free market economy’ to these extents?
‘Of course,’ says Shaw. ‘The government already intervenes in the free market to the tune of billions of pounds – roughly equivalent to half our GDP. But they needn’t necessarily do this. You can’t force Barclays not to close its branch, but you could improve transport links to the town centre. You could improve local facilities to encourage footfall back on the high-street. You could also offer reduced business rates to local businesses. This would persuade Barclays to stay.’

The Bill isn’t a blank cheque to local communities. There are in-built escape clauses for a local council, which allow it veto certain requests from residents. One of these allows it to block a suggestion if two different groups contest the issue. Another allows a council to veto proposals if they are deemed financial ‘unviable’. And ultimately, central government still has a large say in what can go into the ‘Action Plan’.

On a broader level, there are also concerns that the politically apathetic British public will not be prepared to engage with the new plans. ‘Is the public ready for devolution?’ asked an embattled Phil Woolas at Monday’s rally. David Cameron, also speaking at the rally in support of the Bill, told the assembly that ‘we need a cultural change in Britain which celebrates the local much more.’ But despite the fears, Steve Shaw is confident that the public will warm to these exciting news avenues of democracy:
‘There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of legislation. But this does go a very long way towards what we a trying to achieve. The opportunities it provides to organisations like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and RSPB to lobby for improved environmental practice are very, very significant.’

And the answer to the Tesco question?
‘The answer is ‘yes’,’ explains Shaw. ‘The Bill would enable people to change planning legislation. Or give local communities the power to demand that a new supermarket must pay towards a sustainable transport scheme. Or source local. Or generate its own power. There will be a much greater incentive to act once the Bill is passed. At the moment, people can quite easily think: ‘why bother? Tesco will be built anyway.’

There is much still to be seen. The Government might still try to scupper the legislation before it is sealed. The ‘Action Plan’ might be horribly subverted. And local people might fail to realise the new opportunities being opened up to them. But at this stage, it is true to say that no more significant piece of legislation for the localisation agenda has ever seen the light of Westminster.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2007

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