This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Speech on the General Power of Competence, delivered at the Local Government Association and National Association of Local Councils conference.
Introduction - Parishes delivering localism
I would like to congratulate you on this report.
I’ve always thought of parishes as the midwives of localism. Loving their local areas and delivering for their local people.
Not long ago I joined some of my constituents of the parish of Moreton, Bobbingworth and the Lavers. It was about ten degrees below freezing and the ground was covered with snow but the people of the parish joined together to help clear up the fields, hedgerows and roadsides. It is that kind of love for an area that parishes represent.
And in recent days we’ve seen parishes putting people first. From Allington with Boscombe Parish to Pulborough providing life saving advice and support to the young and elderly in the heat wave. While in the Duchess of Cambridge’s hometown of Bucklebury, Berkshire. They are working overtime on celebrations to mark the arrival of our new prince.
What we’ve done for parishes
Now you’ve been generous enough to say we’re on your side.
We’ve spent the past few years making sure you can get things done. We’ve made audit requirements less burdensome. Reduced costs on reporting duties imposed by Whitehall. We’re even changing the way parishes can make payments. So they can bring in modern banking methods such as electronic banking.
General Power of Competence
And with the General Power of Competence we pushed the localism boat out even further. Far more encompassing, far more comprehensive than the power of wellbeing, it turns the old system on its head.
Gone are the days when you’d have to look for legal advice to even do the simplest of things. These days you can just crack on with it.
We’re already seeing parishes reaching for this increased flexibility to defend the hard won British freedom of prayer in the council chamber. I actually brought forward the implementation of the General Power of Competence to deal with this.
And what’s so fascinating about the General Power is how it can be put to different use in different areas. We recently announced that local authorities in England may use the Power of Competence to carry out building control services outside of their local authority boundaries if they become approved inspectors. Helping improve competition in the building control sector and driving up standards at the same time.
That’s just one way of doing it. Your report highlights several completely different examples:
Sprowston in Norwich - using the Power of Competence to covert the old school into a multi-use community centre. Or Crewkerne in Somerset - taking over the running of the youth service previously provided by Somerset County Council.
And while we’ve heard concerns about the Constraints on the General Power, my view is that these worries often come from the people who haven’t yet tried it out for themselves. Because those who are taking the plunge are finding they can stop sweating about the small stuff. That what counts is an enterprising attitude not a rigid structure.
And we’ve made sure that the energetic parishes also have a number of other magic numbers up their sleeve.
Community rights let you list your local assets and bid to run services. In Peckham the community banded together to save the Ivy House pub. While the parish councillors in Sevenoaks took over the local cinema. Meanwhile, Neighbourhood Budgets show that when the different layers of local government team up they can provide a better service.
Haverhill is equipping young people with the skills that local business desperately needs
Ilfracombe in North Devon set up a ‘virtual bank’ to work out how best to spend £87 million and effectively co-commission services – from health to highways.
We’ve made more than £60 million available to support you to make the most of these new community rights.
The good folk of Slaithwaite in West Yorkshire will tell you that when community rights combine with community shares it makes the difference. It was this winning combination that saved the Green Valley Grocer from closure. It is now returning a surplus to the community.
And it’s because you’ve got the local inside track, the democratic mandate, that we want parishes to help decide what gets built and where it goes. Not the old Soviet master plan.
So neighbourhood planning gives you pride of place in the process. I thought it was interesting that you are keen to become statutory consultees. I think neighbourhood planning is far more powerful and rewarding than simply being asked to sign something off.
Soon we’ll even be extending the opportunities in the Sustainable Communities Act which has already helped negotiate 95% of current accounts to be accessible through post offices to include parishes as well.
Power has come to parishes. But we want you to follow the mantra of Spiderman’s uncle and show that with great power comes great responsibility.
That means 3 things in practice:
First, be transparent.
Don’t wait to be forced to open the door to your meetings.
If you are levying a charge on council tax bills then you are responsible to your hard working taxpayers for spending their money.
Give them the confidence and reassurance of what you are doing. Open up. It is ludicrous to see 6 elderly taxpayers escorted out of a building in Keighley. Keighley and others who refuse to let the cameras in diminish the role of councils.
Second, be creative.
Don’t assume the old certainties apply. That putting up the precept will be the answer to every case.
You mentioned that you want to remain free from capping. There are now no restrictions, there’s not been capping for a long time. If you want to increase the precept then have the confidence to hold a referendum.
I am not proposing to extend the referendum principles to town and parish councils for the moment but I do note that some town councils have a larger precept than some of the smaller districts.
The report out today shows what can be done on a shoestring, when you step beyond the boundary rope, work with local partners and pool funding.
I know parishes continue to have concerns about the localisation of council tax support.You were certainly very vocal about that when I spoke at the NALC conference last year. But I have made it very clear that the neighbourhood is the natural point to which funding should go for local authorities.
We expect authorities to work with local parish and town councils to provide certainty over their funding and we’ve written to all local authorities to point out, in no uncertain terms, their obligations.
Thirdly, I want to see you getting on with it. You got into public service because you want to make life better for your local people and your local area. Now you can. The Whitehall devil is no longer looking over your shoulder. You can now step in where parish angels feared to treat. There are no restrictions and no excuses either.
Committed parishes are already showing what’s possible when they focus on the task in hand. I’m keen to see more parishes delivering more of the same. Not long ago we celebrated Queen’s Park becoming the first parish council in London for 50 years. I don’t want this to be a one-off.
So today we’re going to do even more. Speeding up the process, lowering the threshold, so you will need fewer signatures, to get a parish off the ground.
Make no mistake this government is fighting your corner. And my hope is that in the years to come, we will see parishes coming to the fore.
Springing up left, right and centre. Seizing the power of competence and these new rights. Proudly providing the kind of royal service that we need. That will light up your great neighbourhoods, to make a difference, to make things better.