Rutland columnist discusses the meeting of the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils
On April 5, it was my pleasure to represent Leicestershire and Rutland at a meeting of the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), writes Rutland columnist Ron Simpson.
Perhaps the most interesting debate was a follow up to an earlier meeting of parish and town councillors who had come together to discuss and provide a national perspective on the Government’s Levelling Up the United Kingdom white paper.
Yes folks, many now believe that regional structures, abolished some years ago, are on their way back given the government’s announcement of Levelling up Director roles for some regions. The meeting considered how the white paper was being perceived on the ground and what the implications may be for communities and local councils.
Parish councillor perceptions were predominantly that there had been little detailed consideration of the white paper in the local media or in community discussions. Debate revealed that the Government perhaps needs to do more to get across the opportunities and positive implications for local communities provided by the levelling up agenda. However, it was noted there was more discussion taking place in other public sector organisations including principal councils.
There was general support in the discussion for the view that town and parish councils need to be better understood by policymakers as the first tier of local government and, even more importantly, the potential of the sector to deliver on some big issues facing communities and the country. Respect and engagement from all levels of government were also considered important and it was recognised that this would be made easier if local councils were more diverse, had better skills and more contested elections.
Planning and neighbourhood planning were seen as important vehicles to deliver much of the levelling up agenda and needed further consideration, which should include greater protection for community led plans. It was also felt important that the parish sector should have a seat at the decision making tables at all levels of government, most notably in the new structures being established by the white paper.
Given that the white paper had replaced the much heralded ‘devolution’ white paper, previously floated, there were concerns that devolution usually stopped at the regional, county and district level with little onward devolution to parish and town councils.
The debate also asked what the parish sector might want to campaign for, e.g. more powers or legislative change, to ensure local councils can help deliver levelling up? It was felt these should include: -
l Local councils having more of a say over the distribution of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and Section 106 monies given by developers
lNeighbourhood planning to be seen as very important and a way for the community to express what it wants. However, such plans should be taken more seriously and respected by all levels of government.
l Greater influence over housing
l Right of appeal on planning matters
l Strengthening the public standards regime including sanctions for poor behaviour by councillors
• Sufficient resources were considered as important, and not just council tax, but access to other national government funding streams such as business rates and growth funds
l More power/rights to be consulted and listened to
l Local councils should be able to take over a function/service and there should be a presumption that this would be allowed, and that funding would follow function in perpetuity
l Direct access to national funding, for example growth funds
l Greater recognition from the Government and others that the sector has an important role and should not be prevented from being able to participate in projects, bids and expressions of interest (for example the Great British Railways competition) which often stop at principal councils, leaving local areas out.
Reflecting on the National Assembly content, it reminded me just how significant a contribution to Rutland’s rural future our parish councils and parish meetings are able to make. Some, including Uppingham at the time of writing, are seeking new faces to take up the challenge. Younger community champions in particular would be welcomed. Please spread the word!