Traditionally Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have far from seen eye to eye over local government with devolving liberals and centralising conservatives taking fundamentally different approaches. However, this policy area offers a classic example of Cameron’s move to take his party towards a liberal centre-ground creating some genuine overlap in outlook where very little existed before. Large parts of the Conservative Party’s general election manifesto on devolving power could have been taken from previous Liberal Democrat policy statements and with a minister for decentralisation there’s a fighting chance that the talk will turn into reality.
So this part of the coalition document contains much that Liberal Democrats will be happy with – but with a significant financial caveat.
“Radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy” is promised for local government. Part of this vision is fleshed out in more detail with Regional Spatial Strategies being axed and powers returning to councils, more power in the planning system going to communities, the Government Office for London being abolished, more power for communities to save local services by taking them over and a general power of competence for local councils.
A mix of green policies are thrown in – protecting the Green Belt and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), measures to bring empty homes in to use and implementing the Sustainable Communities Act. Housing also gets a quartet of other pledges: more protection against bailiffs and repossession, more shared ownership scheme, easier creation of housing trusts and an encouragement to turn farm buildings into homes.
The Conservative obsession with directly elected Mayors is played out again, with referendums promised in the 12 largest English cities. At least the policy is to have referendums, rather than impose them, so the public will get to decide. On the up side, councils will be given the option to return to the committee system and the Standards Board regime gets the chop. Changes to local government in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon are also halted.
More controversial are the financial proposals because, despite the general pledge for increasing financial autonomy, the agreement also says that “we will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year”. Add to this the cuts in local government funding announced yesterday and the outlook for council finances looks very, very tight.
There is however a civil liberties bonus in this section: “We will ban the use of powers in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) by councils, unless they are signed off by a magistrate and required for stopping serious crime”.