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2011 will be the year councillors become community champions

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Local Government Minister Grant Shapps today said that 2011 will be the year of councillor power and encouraged a new generation of community…

Local Government Minister Grant Shapps today said that 2011 will be the year of councillor power and encouraged a new generation of community champions to put their names on the ballot paper for May’s local elections.

The Minister said that the Localism Bill will help place councillors centre stage in their communities with more clout than ever before to get things done for the people they serve.

This includes freeing councillors from restrictions that prevent them from championing local issues. And today, Mr Shapps has written to every council in England to outline how the new Localism Bill will clarify these rules which are known in jargon as predetermination.

Ministers believe it is wrong that councillors can feel they are prevented from performing the very role they were elected to do because they have declared a particular view on an issue.

But predetermination rules do just that. For example, someone standing for election against a proposed new development in the area would not be able to vote on the issue once elected if that development came before the council for planning permission - or in an extreme case councillors were warned that they could not comment on a new park and ride scheme as they were car owners.

This has led to widespread confusion and concern that championing a particular issue could lead to allegations of bias - and has led some council officers to advise their councillors against discussing matters of local importance. For example:

  • Members of South Cambridgeshire District Council were warned that they may be disqualified from discussing a proposed new site for a mobile phone mast if they themselves used a mobile phone, and could not comment on a proposed new park and ride scheme if they owned a car.
  • Candidates standing for election to Reigate and Banstead Council were warned against discussing a controversial decision to close a local swimming pool and sell the land for housing, because to express a view would exclude them from voting on the issue if elected.
  • An independent councillor on Rushmoor Borough Council was prevented from voting at full council on a proposal to turn the Farnborough Aerodrome into an executive jet centre, because he had expressed his opposition to the plans during his election campaign.
  • Councillors on North Shropshire District Council were discouraged from expressing their views on plans to introduce parking charges in three local market towns until a final decision was taken, for fear that to comment before the vote could leave the council open to legal challenge. This was despite the plans to introduce parking charges provoking lively debate among local residents.

So in a letter to councillors across England, Mr Shapps today highlighted how measures in the new Localism Bill will reform the rules that have barred them from taking part in decisions where they had campaigned or expressed a predisposed view.

The Localism Bill will change the law to allow councillors to campaign on local issues and champion the needs of their residents - ending widespread and long-standing uncertainty among councillors, leaving them free to better represent their communities.

Grant Shapps said:

It is ridiculous that a community can vote for someone standing on a particular issue, only for that person to be barred from talking about it once in office. Councillors must be given the freedom to properly represent the views of their constituents.

The Localism Bill will do just that. It will clarify the predetermination rules and so put an end to uncertainty that has left councillors up and down the country confused and concerned about whether voicing an opinion on an issue of local importance will lead to charges of bias.

We are placing councillors centre stage in their communities with more clout than ever before to get things done for the people they serve. 2011 will truly be the year of councillor power. That’s why I want to encourage a new generation of community champions to put their names on the ballot paper for May’s local elections.

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