Councils given teeth in local government shake-up

Councils will have greater powers to champion their residents’ rights without being held back by central government targets, under new plans unveiled today.

The local government white paper proposes council committees be able to summon health, education, police and transport officials to justify their actions if concerns are expressed by members of the public about a particular service.

Councillors will be able to demand action on a given problem, and councils will have new powers to introduce bylaws – and fine offenders – for problems such as drinking and anti-social behaviour, without having to ask the permission of Whitehall.

The government has also promised to slash the number of centrally-imposed targets from 1,200 to 200, which will only take account of issues of “national importance” such as social exclusion and climate change. There will be a further 35 “improvement targets”.

In addition, the Standards Board, which monitors councillors’ behaviour, will be reformed. It has been accused of “destroying democracy” by ordering councillors not to talk on some issues, such as licensing decisions, because they have a vested interest.

There are also plans to increase the number of directly-elected mayors, which ministers believe provide the kind of strong and accountable leadership that is vital if so much control is to be passed down to local government.

Local authorities will be able to choose from three different options – either they are led by a directly elected mayor, a directly elected executive or a council leader who serves a four-year term. Some leaders currently only serve a year, which can cause instability.

Communities secretary Ruth Kelly said the plans in the white paper represented a “new settlement” between local government, communities and citizens, which would give councils a stronger role in leading their local areas.

“Central government will play its part in guaranteeing minimum standards and setting overall national goals, but we will step back and allow more freedom and flexibility at the local level,” she told the House of Commons this morning.

“In exchange, we expect to see more accountability to local citizens, stronger local leadership, better and more efficient services and a readiness to support tougher intervention when things go wrong.”

The Local Government Association (LGA) welcomed the proposals as a “significant step” on local leadership, deregulation and cutting red tape, but said it would wait to see if the plans to devolve so much power materialised.

However, shadow local government secretary Caroline Spelman expressed scepticism, saying the timing of the white paper, just a month before Michael Lyons’ review into local government funding and council tax, was “extraordinary”.

“How can a white paper on local government mean anything without dealing with the finance? Function and finance are two sides of the same coin,” she said.

Ms Spelman said there was no help for people struggling to pay council tax or who wanted a say on housing developments in their area, and said empowering council leaders was a “fudge” between Tony Blair’s support for mayors and Gordon Brown’s opposition.

“It is toothless because it is a series of compromises and halfway houses,” she said, adding that any suggestion of localism was hampered by the “poisoned chalice” of the unelected regional assemblies handed down to Ms Kelly by John Prescott.

Ms Kelly refused to accept her concerns, however, saying it was “absolutely wrong” to suggest the paper did nothing for local people and insisting most people would think “it’s right” to consider the role of local government before thinking about finances.

She added: “This is a Labour view of devolution and our plans.stand in stark contrast with the legacy of neglect and cuts that we inherited from the party opposite.”