In May 2007 the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) approved plans to close up to 2,500 post offices. A recent report from the National Audit Office has led senior MP, Edward Leigh, to accuse the business department of running a 'sham' consultation over post office closures. The consultation period lasted only a few weeks and research showed that just 18 per cent of people knew they were being consulted. The BERR consultation on Post Offices is yet another example of Central Government taking little or no notice of citizens’ opinions or the impact of their actions on local communities.
The Sustainable Communities Act
The future of many local Post Offices may seem bleak but help could be at hand from a radical new form of bottom-up government, the Sustainable Communities Act. Amazingly the Act was not written by government, but by a coalition of charities and NGOs called Local Works. It sets up a new process where local communities and their local authorities (including county councils) can drive central government action on reversing community decline and promoting local sustainability. So it is NOT another meaningless consultation exercise.
The closure of a Post Office has a major impact on a community, isolating older and less mobile people and forcing others to make long journeys to get access to vital public services. The Sustainable Communities Act can give your community the power to make your Post Office a viable and sustainable centre for public services. But the Act can do far more than this:
How the Act Works
The Act impacts on central government. The aim of the process is to make government do more to help promote sustainable communities. ‘Sustainable communities’ is defined in that Act as having 4 categories:
1. local economies, e.g. promoting local shops, local businesses, local public services and local jobs
2. environment, e.g. promoting local renewable energy, protecting green spaces
3. social inclusion, e.g. protecting local public services and alleviating fuel poverty and food poverty
4. democratic involvement, e.g. promoting local people participating in local decision making
The Act sets up what is called a ‘double devolution’ process so that local people can drive central government action to promote sustainable communities. It gives the government a legal duty to ‘assist local authorities in promoting the sustainability of local communities’. Councils will be invited to make proposals to central government as to how it can help them promote the sustainability of local communities.
The Act specifies that local authorities cannot make suggestions to central government without involving ‘local people’. Councils must set up (or recognise if they already exist) ‘panels of representatives of local people’ – which must include people from usually under-represented groups: ethnic minorities, young people, older people, tenants etc.
Why this is NOT consultation
The new process in the Act is NOT just another meaningless consultation exercise. Local authorities must ‘reach agreement’ with proposals made by their communities via the citizens’ panels. Furthermore, government must ‘co-operate’ and ‘reach agreement’ with the Local Government Association who will represent all the proposals that are made by local authorities. This form of decision-making is new and unprecedented in law and is why the Act has real teeth.
Local Spending Reports
Under the Act government must publish local spending reports that will provide a breakdown by local area of all public spending (i.e. central and local). This ‘opening of the books’ has never been done before and is likely to generate much debate as central agencies and quangos have to show how their money is spent locally.
Communities and local authorities can use these spending reports to then argue for the transfer of specific monies and their related functions from central to local control. Once under local control these new resources and powers could be used to promote local shops, local jobs, local services like Post Offices, local food etc.
How can the Act be used to save Post Offices?
The National Federation of Sub-post masters has helped to produce a list of suggested proposals that will help save Post Offices from closure and make them commercially viable centres for local services. The suggestions below are just a few of the ideas you can put forward to your Council to save your Post Offices:
• Increase the number of central government services that post offices provide and for this to be on a face-to-face basis and to include all aspects of government information, transactions and services.
• Commit to the establishment of comprehensive banking services at post offices.
• Guarantee there will be no further closures of the 12,000 post offices left in existence.
Many Councils have already set the wheels in motion for proposals like these to save their post offices, however many more have not yet committed to using the Act and are denying their residents the power to take control over the fate of their post offices, shops, pubs and green spaces.
The deadline for submitting proposals for the first round is 31st of July, so far 117 Councils have committed to making proposals in this round. Before you and your community can use this Act, your Council must decide to use it too. You can help make this happen, so please do the following…
If your Council has not yet committed to using the Act this round:
• Please write to your councillors urging them to ‘Please resolve to use the Sustainable Communities Act by submitting proposals by 31st July 2009’. This will only take a few minutes. I have attached a sample letter which you can use.
• Please urge other people to write to their councillors too. The more letters councillors receive the better!
If your Council has committed to using the Act this round and you want to get involved:
• Please Contact your Council and ask them how you can get involved and seek representation for your community on the Citizen’s Panel.
• Submit proposals to help reverse community decline in your area and save Post Offices in your area.
Steve Shaw is campaign co-ordinator of Local Works, the national coalition that campaigned for 5 years to see the Sustainable Communities Act made law. To find out if your council has already signed up to using the Act, guides with lots of suggestions for proposals under the Act and all about the radical new ‘bottom up’ process that the Act has set up, go to their website – www.localworks.org.