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That’s the way to do it! How Liberal Democrats made the running on the Localism Bill

November 10, 2011 1:05 PM
By Annette Brooke MP and Lord Graham Tope in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Annette BrookeAnnette Brooke MP and Lord (Graham) Tope are the Lib Dem Co-Chairs of the Parliamentary Policy Committee on Communities and Local Government, and Lord Graham Topeled the Lib Dem response to the Localism Bill. Here they outline what they, working with colleagues in the party and many beyond, helped achieve.

Last night the Localism Bill completed its final stage in Parliament and is set to become law when it achieves Royal Assent next week.

As Co-Chairs of the Parliamentary Policy Committee on Communities and Local Government, it has been our job over the last ten months to lead on the Bill for the party. We've helped shepherd it through both Houses of Parliament, and have led a Lib Dem team that in many ways has made the running on the Bill.

We've had strong engagement with Coalition ministers, who engaged with us constructively, particularly Greg Clark, Baroness Hanham and our very own Andrew Stunell, who was very helpful and willing to work together with us to improve the Bill considerably.

Colleagues in local government were also a constant source of help and good ideas, which never ceased to better inform our Bill team as the process went on.

Where we started from: "a good bill in theory, with several flaws in practice"

When it was first introduced, I think many Liberal Democrats would agree that it was a good bill in theory, with several flaws in practice. The fundamentals were strong Liberal Democrat principles -- devolving power back to local government and communities -- but there were a number of controversial aspects to the Bill that needed to be looked at in more detail, most notably on local governance, planning and housing.

Scrapping the Standards Board while upholding standards in public life

The abolition of the Standards Board attracted controversy. Not so much for the decision to scrap the Board itself, but around what would replace it.

There was a movement in the Lords to ensure that we had a strong and robust system for ensuring that councillors had to meet standards in public life.

With Lib Dems playing a major role, a cross-party group was successful in securing a compromise with Ministers that ensured Councils would be required to have a code of conduct, the contents decided locally, including the seven Nolan Principles on Standards in Public Life. Local Authorities will also be required to have a system in place to deal with allegations that members have breached the code, again to be decided locally.

Liberal Democrats also played a big role in the cross-party move to secure a better deal for councils on EU fines. A compromise was agreed with ministers that secured the backing of the Local Government Association, and introduced several new safeguards.

Promoting local democracy

The Mayoral provisions were another area that attracted controversy. The Coalition Agreement commits us to holding referendums in the 12 largest cities (now 11, after Leicester decided to go ahead on their own), but the proposals to introduce unelected and unaccountable Shadow Mayors, combining the role of Chief Executive with leader of the Council, attracted much opposition.

Liberal Democrats argued strongly against this, and the Government agreed to remove the provisions for Shadow Mayors. Likewise the proposals for non-binding local referendums on any issue were also removed by Liberal Democrats. Although having the laudable aim of improving democracy, in practice, they were open to hijack by extremist groups on low turnouts, and would be very expensive for local authorities, particularly at a time of economic constraint.

Housing: fixed-term tenancies and access to the Ombudsman

On Housing, Liberal Democrats were clear that the introduction of fixed-term tenancies was a major concern. We attempted to ensure that the minimum length a secure tenancy could be offered for would be five years.

We pushed ministers hard on this issue, and were able to secure a compromise, whereby the Government would write into guidance that councils would be expected to offer tenancies for a minimum of five years as standard, with two years only available in exceptional circumstances, which a council would have to set out in their housing strategy.

It should also be noted that these powers are discretionary; councils are not obligated to introduce fixed-term tenancies, something which a number of councils have already indicated they won't do.

It was felt that the introduction of the so-called democratic filter, whereby people would have to go through their local representative to access the Housing Ombudsman, would restrict access considerably. Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords worked with ministers to secure a compromise where this democratic filter was kept in place, but if the representative declined to deal with their case, or eight weeks had passed, a tenant could access the Ombudsman directly.

Another change made in the House of Lords was the removal of unnecessary burdens from smaller Fully Mutual Housing Co-operatives by excluding them from requirements under the Homes of Multiple Occupation Licensing scheme, which had been proposed by the Liberal Democrats in an amendment during the Commons Report Stage.

Planning: sustainability, retail diversity, and financial incentives

On Planning, pressure in the Commons from Liberal Democrats saw the number of people needed to instigate a Neighbourhood Forum increased from three to twenty one, whilst Liberal Democrats in the Lords helped ensure that the sustainable development duty is extended to neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood development orders.

We also secured agreement that Ministers would look again at their definition of sustainable development when reflecting on the consultation responses to the National Planning Policy Framework, an important concession.

On the retail diversity issue championed by our colleagues in Bristol and Cambridge (so much so, that our amendment in the Lords became known as the "Cambridge Amendment") there was also some progress. Ministers insisted that some of what was being asked for was already possible through Neighbourhood Plans, contained within the Bill already, but they also promised that the issue would be looked at in detail within the forthcoming publication of changes to use class orders. This is an area we intend to revisit to ensure that Ministers keep to their pledge.

Perhaps the biggest issue, though, was on financial considerations in planning, which concerned many people, not just in the party, but across the country. Liberal Democrats pushed Ministers right through from Commons to Lords on this issue. In response to our concerns, Ministers made amendments in the Lords to clarify that the clause on financial incentives does not alter either what a decision-maker should take into account, or the weight they should give to it.

We also fought the good fight on the Third Party Right of Appeal, securing two important concessions. Although Ministers were immovable in their view that this was now unnecessary with the move towards a plan-led process, they accepted additional safeguards were necessary.

Local councils will now not face costs being awarded against them if developers appeal against refusal of an application contrary to the local plan. A consultation will also be undertaken on compulsory pre-application scrutiny by the local community of developments contrary to the local plan. Both of these changes will enhance local democracy and support community participation in planning.

Where we're finishing: "a much improved Bill"

The Bill is now much improved from when it started, and will really change the way we do local government in this country, with new tools to increase participation, and give councils a greater ability to make the decisions that are right for their local area.

It has greatly benefitted from having a strong Liberal Democrat influence throughout its passage through the House, and will be a better Act in practice than it would have been without our influence. Local Government -- it's over to you.

* Annette Brooke MP and Lord (Graham) Tope are the Lib Dem Co-Chairs of the Parliamentary Policy Committee on Communities and Local Government, and led the Lib Dem response to the Localism Bill.