To what extent do you feel that you’re able to influence local services or what happens in your neighbourhood? I suspect the answer for most people is not enough. In fact, the research around this issue would lead many to believe that there is a need for a fundamental shift in power, influence and responsibility into the hands of communities and citizens. Yesterday Hazel Blears MP (Lab), the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, announced that is exactly what she intends to do.
It has long been my view that power can and should be devolved to a localised neighbourhood level whenever possible. Witnessing residents associations in Brackenbury, Ashcroft Square, the Peabody Estate and across the borough has convinced me that, in many cases, they would be more effective at managing some of the factors that affect their daily lives instead of the agencies currently charged with the responsibility. And, if you look at issues based groups such as the Parents Alliance for Secondary Schools, HAFCAC or H&F Friends of the Earth, then I am certain that there would be better policies and service delivery if these groups were more directly involved in the decision making process. It’s therefore encouraging that Hazel Blears is unveiling this radical new policy, which will be very attractive to the public, is in tune with Labour’s values and sets out clear differences between Labour and the Conservatives.
The proposals, titled Communities in control: real people, real power, set out the following seven points (the writing in blue indicates links to relevant local stories and web sites):
Giving local people a direct say on how budgets are spent
The Government wants every area of the country to have a 'community kitty' scheme - a pot of money that local people can decide how to spend. Local people should have a say in setting priorities for local budgets on community safety issues, the local environment, young people’s services, etc.
Local people running local assets
Community centres, youth clubs and swimming pools will be handed over to local residents if they can do a better job of running them than councils.
New rights for the public to demand action from their council
Councils will be subject to a new duty to respond to petitions. Petitions will enable local people to force an issue onto a council's agenda. With enough signatures that issue would need to be discussed by the full council committee and could be subject to a vote. This could be used to raise a diverse range of issues from providing more police to addressing dog mess.
Getting redress when things go wrong
The Government want to give the public redress for citizens when council services go wrong, establishing a review that will report in 2009.
£70m Communitybuilders fund
The Government will be investing £70m in organisations that are the backbone of their communities. This will help strong community groups acquire buildings, take a role in running local services, and become more financially self sustainable.
Chairs and Chief Executives of local public bodies - such as Councils - will face regular public hearings as part of plans to increase accountability.
Empowering young people
More needs to be done to make politics and local services relevant and open to young people. The Government will increase the number of young people who help councils and community service providers.
A new duty will be placed on local authorities to promote democracy. Local leaders will be expected to do more to help residents understand how the democratic process works and how they can get involved.
Making it easier for people to get a directly elected mayor
The Government will consult on allowing on-line petitioning as well as paper petitions to be counted towards support for a referendum for a mayor.
I know that Hazel Blears is personally committed to extending public rights and powers. These proposals, published in the White Paper, indicate that she is delivering on a promise she made, this time last year, when she first took on the Communities and Local Government brief. You can read the Government's White Paper by clicking here. I will keep you informed how these proposals progress and how they affect what happens here in Hammersmith and Fulham.