Sustaining communities

With the global credit crunch grabbing all the headlines, issues concerning economies on a lesser scale are easily sidelined.

But last week Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for communities and local government, invited local councils to ‘opt in’ to the Sustainable Communities Act – a groundbreaking piece of legislation that aims to give local people the power to change laws within their communities to encourage sustainable living.

The Act has been pushed from start to finish by Local Works, a coalition of 90 national organisations including the Ecologist, which has sent out a letter urging local councils to sign up to the Sustainable Communities Act – it’s a voluntary scheme, so Councils need to be persuaded that it is in their interest. Read the letter here.

The Act is at heart a bid to create true ‘bottom-up’ democracy. It commits central Government to ‘assist local authorities in promoting the sustainability of local communities.’ The Act defines sustainability as ‘encouraging the economic, social or environmental wellbeing of an area and social wellbeing is defined to include “participation in civic and political activity”.’

It would do this by offering people the chance to pitch ideas for sustainable change to their local authorities. This might include taking business rates paid by supermarkets or chain stores and using the money to incentivise small-scale local businesses, perhaps by lowering their rates. The local authorities then put these ideas to the Local Government Authority (LGA), which must receive sign-off from central Government before giving the go ahead. The team behind the Act are confident that opportunity for the Government to subvert the suggestions at this point would be limited.

In fact, this is the unique and fundamental principle of the Act: central Government has a duty to reach ‘an agreement’ with the LGA on the various suggestions by the councils. The process thus avoids confidence-sapping ‘consultations’.

Perhaps just as importantly, the Act requires that the Government publish a local breakdown of all local spending – including that made by unelected quangos such as Regional Development Agencies. If a local authority believes it could spend this money more effectively and with greater benefit and accountability to local people, then it can request that it receive the money instead.

After five years of campaigning, the Act is about to be put to the test.

Find out more here


This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2008

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