The government has announced that 20 cities will be given greater control over spending on planning and transport.
However, there is the potential for these cities,and local areas all over the country, to gain much greater control over spending in their area if they use the Sustainable Communities Act, says pressure group Local Works, a project of political reform group Unlock Democracy.
Under the government’s plans, the cities, including Leicester, Norwich and Southampton, will be invited to submit bids for “city deals” which would allow them to decide how skills and transport funding is spent locally.
However, there is a framework already in place that allows councils to go much further than this. Under the Sustainable Communities Act, councils can request transfers of any funding and function from one public body to another, if it would help the community, says Local Works.
So councils can use the Act to ensure that some of the billions of pounds of funding that is currently spent by any government department, agency or quango is transferred to local control.
The Act has been used by over 100 councils since it was passed in 2007. A number of councils have made requests for transfers of funding or function under the Act. Windsor and Maidenhead Council, for example, put forward a proposal to take over running the local fire service that was threatened with closure, whilst Hastings Borough Council requested that Highway Authority powers be transferred to the council to improve roads in the area and Kent County Council called for control of skills and training agencies to be transferred to it.
Councils must first 'opt in' to use the Act, however. It is not compulsory for them to do so. Local Works – a coalition of over 100 national organisations including Age UK, the Woodland Trust and the Women’s Institute – is encouraging councils to take up use of the Act so that they can gain more than just the powers the government is potentially offering to 20 cities at the moment.
Local Works National Co-ordinator, Steve Shaw, commented: “Government has announced that 20 cities can bid for new powers over skills and transport funding. However, they and indeed every council in England can already go much further than this and use the Sustainable Communities Act to have the funding or function of any government body transferred to them, if it would help their community."
He added: “The Act offers a great opportunity for councils to gain new powers and funding to help tackle tough economic conditions many of them face. But they can only take advantage of these powers if they first ‘opt in’ to use the Act. We strongly encourage councils to take up this unprecedented opportunity by opting in to use the Act.”
* Local Works: http://www.localworks.org/