Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government
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New legislation to help build stronger communities

New legislation to help build stronger communities

COMMUNITIES AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT News Release (302) issued by COI News Distribution Service. 5 December 2008

The Government today (5 December) published wide-ranging legislation that will give local people new rights to shape local services and give greater responsibility to local authorities to promote economic development helping communities respond to local challenges.

Strong communities will help the country come through the economic challenges we face. And, Communities Secretary Hazel Blears is clear that we need to unlock the potential of local people and involve them in shaping their services and communities. Re-invigorating and strengthening local democracy is key.

She believes that the new Bill will offer people and communities those opportunities - underpinning the Government's commitment to doing all it can to help people, businesses and communities through the current economic hardships and to prepare effectively for economic recovery.

At the heart of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill is:

* a new duty on local councils to promote democracy - putting local authorities at the forefront of the drive to reconnect people with public and political decision-making. The duty will ensure all sections of their community understands how the council works, who makes the decisions on their behalf in their neighbourhood, and how they can get involved if they wish to

* new rights for the citizen to have more information and influence over the local decisions

* new powers to hold politicians and officials to account

* a new duty on local councils to respond to petitions

As well as strengthening local democracy the Bill addresses economic development. To make sure that all areas are making plans for recovery from the economic slowdown and taking action to support businesses and boost jobs and skills:

* there will be new regional strategies in each of the English Regions to bring together economic and spatial planning

* a new duty on local authorities to assess the economic conditions of their area

* further powers for councils to work together to promote economic development and regeneration

The Bill also improves current legislation on commercial contracts to provide a fairer system for construction companies and improve cash flow - especially important for small and medium construction companies.

Hazel Blears said:

"The new Bill will give every neighbourhood, city and region the opportunity to unlock the potential and the talent of its people. It will give local authorities more power and freedom to respond to local needs - and through stronger engagement and consultation with their communities they will be able to do this more effectively.

"The current economic downturn is having a huge impact on our communities. This Bill sets out the framework for every level of government to address the economic issues facing their areas in a coordinated and effective way, and plan for sustainable economic growth in every region of the country."

Key measures are:

* Duty to promote democracy - this supports evidence that local authorities who actively involve people in decision-making benefit from higher public satisfaction. The duty will ensure councils raise awareness of their work and services so people can find out and understand how decisions about services that affect are made, how to make their voice heard and how to stand for a civic role.

* Duty on local authorities to respond to petitions - a recent YouGov survey found that 90% of people think councils should take account of petitions - even though LGA survey showed less than a third of councils guarantee a response. The new duty will require councils to respond to petitions - improving transparency in local decision-making and the extent to which citizens feel able to influence local decisions.

* Extending the duty to involve - growing evidence highlights that involving citizens in the local decisions and services affecting them is an effective way of driving up the performance of public services. This duty already applying to best value local authorities from April 2009 is being extended to partner authorities to give citizen's and communities more opportunities to have a meaningful say.

* Providing funding for a National Tenant Voice - to ensure tenants' views are central to decision-making processes.

* Strengthening overview and scrutiny - growing evidence suggests the number of scrutiny officers is decreasing as the range of work carried out by overview and scrutiny committees is increasing. Proposals plan to boost capacity and raise awareness of overview and scrutiny through the creation of a scrutiny officer and broadening the scope of what joint overview and scrutiny committees can consider.

* Making the Boundary Committee for England and independent body and separate from the Electoral Commission - implements Committee on Standards in Public Life recommendations to ensure the Electoral Commission's integrity and public confidence. Legislating for a separate Boundary Committee will establish a strong national body that is impartial, independent and solely focused on overseeing boundary changes (electoral, administrative and structural) in England.

* Duty on local authorities to undertake an economic assessment of their area - to ensure that authorities have the right evidence to make informed decisions about promoting economic development

* New Regional Strategy for each English region (except London) - these new strategies will bring together and integrate economic and spatial planning in each region. They will be developed in by the Regional Development Agency in partnership with a new local authority Leaders' Board.

* New powers to create 'Economic Prosperity Boards' - to give local authorities the ability to create corporate bodies at sub-regional level to promote economic development

* Allow creation of multi area agreements (MAAs) with statutory duties - these will provide a further option for local authorities to work together on economic development by allowing MAAs to be put on a similar statutory footing to Local Area Agreements.

* Amendments to Part 2 of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 - to improve cash flow and the referral of disputes to adjudication under construction contracts.

The Bill is the next step in transforming communities and public services - by implementing policies set out in Communities in Control White Paper, published by Hazel Blears in the summer, and in the Government's Review of Sub-National Economic Development and Regeneration (SNR).

Background

1. The duties relating to the promotion of democracy, the duty on local authorities to respond to local petitions, the extension of the duty to involve and the strengthening overview & scrutiny provisions were outlined in of Communities in control: real people, real powering in July 2008: http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/communities/communitiesincontrol

2. The introduction of the local authority economic assessment duty, regional strategies, Economic Prosperity Boards and MAAs with duties were initially discussed in the Review of Sub-National Economic Development and Regeneration (the SNR), published July 2007. The bill provisions follow a public consultation on the SNR and the Government's response, published on the 25 November 2008: http://www.communities.gov.uk/news/corporate/1073664

3. The Bill will be available at http://services.parliament.uk/bills/

4. The Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on 4th December 2008.

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