What is the Localism Act 2011?
The Act was introduced by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government as part of a huge shift in power from central Whitehall, to local public servants, and from bureaucrats to communities and individuals.
It has four key themes:
New Freedoms And Flexibilities For Local Government
New Rights And Powers For Communities And Individuals
Reform To Make The Planning System More Democratic And More Effective
Changes in Rights and Responsibilities
The Act gives communities a range of Rights and Powers in their relationship with their local authority, and also places a number of specific Responsibilities on local authorities in working and engaging with local communities. These are summarised very briefly below.
1. New freedoms and flexibility for local government
These focus on addressing local need, but on the basis of what local people want too; as outlined in the Government’s Plain English Guide to the Localism Act 2011 this would require more involvement of communities in such decisions:
Powers to be exercised at the lowest practical level - close to the people who are affected by decisions: “Local authorities ….. have genuine freedom to respond to what local people want”.
“… gives Councils more freedom to work together with others in new ways to drive down costs and increased confidence to do creative, innovative things to meet local people’s needs”.
“greater freedom over how they set up area committees, so that committees can cover wider or larger geographic areas to suit what local people want and need”.
2. New rights and powers for communities
These enable communities to directly intervene on a number of issues that could be of concern or interest to them. The key rights and powers are as follows, though it is important to note that there is a wider expectation under the Localism Act that citizens can hold a local authority to account for its actions.
COMMUNITY RIGHT TO CHALLENGE - Gives voluntary and community groups, parish councils and local authority employees the right to express an interest in taking over the running of a local authority service. (e.g. running the local library, or maybe looking after a park or playing field)
COMMUNITY RIGHT TO BID (ASSETS OF COMMUNITY VALUE) - Requires local authorities to maintain a list of assets of community value (e.g. buildings that are important to the community like a local pub, school or community centre) which have been nominated by the local community. When listed assets come up for sale or change of ownership, the fact that they are listed as assets of community value gives community groups time to develop a bid and raise the money to bid to buy the asset when it comes on the open market.
RIGHT TO APPROVE OR VETO EXCESSIVE COUNCIL TAX RISES - Previously, central government had the power to ‘cap’ council tax rises if Ministers thought local authorities proposed an excessive increase, but the Localism Act gives local communities the power to decide. If an authority proposes rises above a limit set by the Secretary of State they must be approved by local voters through a referendum to agree the case for “excessive” rises.
TRANSPARENCY OVER SENIOR COUNCIL OFFICIALS' PAY - The Localism Act requires councillors to vote on and publish a statement of policies on pay, including the salaries of senior officials as well as the lowest paid employees: this is to help local people understand how public money is being spent in their area, and to hold the Town Hall to account.
3. Reform to make planning system clearer, more democratic & more effective
Planning laws did not previously give the public enough influence over decisions that make a big difference to their lives; instead power was exercised by people not directly affected by the decisions. The Localism Act aims to make planning clearer, more democratic and more effective.
Local communities to have genuine opportunities to influence the future of the places where they live, and a new right for communities introduced to draw up a neighbourhood plan. This allows communities, residents, employees and business, to come together through a neighbourhood forum and say where new houses, businesses and shops should go – and what they should look like.
These plans can be very simple and concise, or go into considerable detail depending on what people want.
Local communities will be able to use neighbourhood planning to grant full or outline planning permission in areas where they most want to see new homes and businesses, making it easier and quicker for development to go ahead. Provided that a neighbourhood development plan or order is in line with national planning policy, with the strategic vision for the wider area set by the local authority, and with other legal requirements; local people can vote on it in a referendum.
If the plan is approved by a majority of those who vote, then the local authority must bring it into force: local planning authorities are required to provide technical advice and support as neighbourhoods draw up their proposals. This will help ensure local people can take advantage of the opportunity to exercise influence over decisions that make a big difference to their lives.
COMMUNITY RIGHT TO BUILD
As part of neighbourhood planning, the Act gives groups of local people the power to deliver developments their local community want; including new homes, businesses, shops, playgrounds or meeting halls. A community organisation, formed by members of the local community, is able to bring forward development proposals which, providing they meet minimum criteria and can demonstrate local support through a referendum, will be able to go ahead without requiring a separate traditional planning application.
The benefits of the development, such as new affordable housing or profits made from letting the homes, will stay within the community, and be managed for the benefit of the community.
REQUIREMENT TO CONSULT COMMUNITIES BEFORE SUBMITTING SOME PLANNING APPLICATIONS
To further strengthen the role of local communities in planning, the Act introduced a new requirement for developers to consult local communities before submitting planning applications for certain developments; this gives local people a chance to comment when there is still genuine scope to make changes to proposals.
REFORMING THE COMMUNITY INFRASTRUCTURE LEVY
The Community infrastructure Levy allows local government to raise funds from developers that are undertaking new building projects in their area. The reforming of the CIL in the Localism Act gives the Government power to require that some of the money raised from the levy go directly to the neighbourhoods where development takes place (and help ensure that the people who say ‘yes’ to new development feel the benefit of that decision).
Further information and resources
The Government’s Plain English Guide to the Localism Act 2011 can be found here.
Other bodies have produced guides to help encourage consistency in the interpretation of the Act including The District Councils Network.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has determined the expectations of relationships between government at all levels and communities if Localism is to achieve the range of potential benefits that are anticipated.
My Community Rights is a resource run by locality to help people and communities make the most of their rights under localism. You can find information, resources and advice on this site.
If you would like help navigating this piece of legislation, or want to use your new community super powers drop us a line. firstname.lastname@example.org