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Localism Bill receives second reading and committee start to take evidence - by Alice Granville

Lots of colourful bird boxes nailed to a tree.
The options stack up in the bid for community power.

The far reaching Localism Bill continues its progress through Parliament on its journey to becoming law, covering everything from increased powers for individuals and community groups to additional responsibilities for the London Mayor. Many of the wider proposals, such the power of general competence (PDF format) for local authorities and the proposed increase in the number of city mayors, are likely to affect how civil society organisations engage and work with local councils. However, it is the proposed Community Rights to Bid, Challenge, and Build which are most likely to capture civil society’s imagination.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is currently seeking views on the proposed details for the proposed Community Rights to Challenge and Buy in two new consultations. The Community Right to Challenge consultation includes options for expressions of interests; asking how long a local authority should be given to consider a proposal, and what reasons should there be for a rejection. The Community Right to Buy consultation asks for views on who should be able to nominate land or buildings for the 'most wanted list' of community assets, and whether community groups should be able to buy an asset before it goes onto the open market. Follow the links or visit the department’s website to find out more about what else is covered in the consultations and how you can respond to the proposals, the deadline for responses is 3 May 2010.

On 17 January Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP (Conservative, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) announced to the House of Commons during the Bill’s second reading that “for too long, local groups, community associations… with a good idea and a desire to make their neighbourhood a better place to live, have been ignored and left out”. Whilst Rt Hon Caroline Flint MP (Labour’s Shadow Communities Minister) and her fellow Labour MPs criticised many of the Bill’s elements and a number of its details, the aim of increasing community empowerment was generally met with approval in the House of Commons.

The proposed Right to Bid gives community groups additional time to bid to buy assets of community value on the market; while the Right to Build gives groups the chance to bring forward small new developments in the planning process. Any benefits from these assets will stay within the community, and the work of the CLG funded Asset Transfer Unit will be crucial to this part of the Bill. The government outlined that it considers these proposals to be a major improvement for communities unable to compete with large companies for property and those who are frustrated by the planning process, and saddened by the visible decline of local community hubs. However, there are concerns that many groups could struggle to pay the market price for property or raise capital for small projects, making these proposals difficult in practice.

The proposed Community Right to Challenge will give groups, employees and charities the right to express an interest in taking over a local service. Challenging a current service may be a less costly alternative to forming new services or attempting to buy community assets through the proposed Rights to Bid or Build. If passed, the Bill will ensure that local authorities must consider and respond to any viable challenges to their services. Although there are no guarantees on the outcome of a challenge, the new right is likely to encourage community groups to come forward, perhaps in partnership with others, to take over services which they feel strongly about.

Labour’s Shadow Communities Secretary doubted that the Right to Build would mean much in practice without sufficient support and resources, but reiterated her support for empowering frontline staff. In response, the Government view was summed up by Fiona Bruce MP (Conservative, Congleton) who said that “the Bill provides mechanisms for greater partnership working and…sends out a signal to residents, community groups and local businesses that their views and contributions really matter indeed.”

Despite opposition from a number of MPs, the Localism Bill passed its second reading and has now reached the Committee Stage in the House of Commons. This means a small group of MPs from all parties will be closely examining and debating the Bill’s contents in specially convened session of the Localism Bill Committee. They will also be taking evidence from a wide range of organisations who will give their views on the proposed Bill. Evidence has already been heard from speakers including the Local Government Association, Localis, Shelter, SOLACE, NCVO and ACEVO.

Many civil society organisations which benefitted from the Communitybuilders programme and other organisations running local services or providing community activities will be interested in how the Localism Bill can benefit them. Trevor Mbatha, Chief Executive of community regeneration organisation Mildmay Community Partnership (which received Communitybuilders support) recently spoke about the challenges facing organisations like his at the Regeneration through Innovation All Party Parliamentary Group (PDF format).  
To find out more about the parliamentary group email policy@thesocialinvestmentbusiness.org; for more information on the Localism Bill’s progress visit Parliament UK.

Alice Granville is a Researcher with expertise in local government, housing, vulnerable people and the environment. She has previously worked for the Audit Commission, the Environment Agency and Transport for London.

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Previous blog post on the Localism Bill

Sam Dowling, regular blogger here, wrote a blog in December on the Localism Bill. Find out what she had to say about it.

The photo on this page was used under CC license, with thanks to See-ming Lee on Flickr.