Led by Eric Pickles, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has not shied away from making difficult and controversial decisions. At the forefront of the localism agenda, the department has played a leading role in seeking to empower cities, towns, and communities, as well as the private and third sector, to come up with ideas of how to make change happen. The ambition to shift power and funding away from Whitehall to the people has, at times, been anarchic.
Existing regional government and collaboration processes were rapidly overhauled by the Coalition Government. This was replaced with a new tier of strategic, collaborative working using Local Enterprise Partnerships to bring the private and public sectors together to drive the Government’s agenda forward. The loss of Regional Development Agencies and regional Government Offices received a mixed reaction, and the emergence of regional hubs for Government departments – as well as a raft of new sub-national bodies tasked with driving forward economic development – has perhaps illustrated that the Government acted too quickly in scrapping bodies without properly considering their role and purpose.
The planning system has been a central mechanism for change with the regional spatial strategies consigned to history and the National Planning Policy Framework hugely reducing the rules in an exercise which has perhaps caused more uncertainty and concern than might have been necessary.
The coming of City Mayors was also supposed to bring a renaissance for the regional cities, following the lead of London, which has greatly benefited from devolved governance and funding. Unfortunately the referenda brought indifference, with only one of the ten cities (Bristol) voting yes to an elected mayor and very low voter turnouts at the other 9 elections. Rumours about the introduction of Metro Mayors to represent the city regions could well be more popular, perhaps due to their recognition of truer economic and governable areas – and more akin to Greater London.
Overall, DCLG has perhaps been the most radical department under this Government showing a real willingness to try new ideas but also perhaps demonstrating an ideological zeal. In short, it has form for making political decisions that, with hindsight, might have been better addressing more subtly.
Progress against the Coalition Agreement
Communities & Local Government 16 / 28 = 64% Done
Pledge: We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a review of local government finance.
Status: In progress – Reforms to local government finance (including removal of ring-fencing of all main revenue grants) and the introduction of the power of General Competence for local authorities has now been achieved. However, financial autonomy for local authorities has not yet been established despite the publication of the Heseltine Review (which may yet push this forward).
Pledge: We will rapidly abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils, including giving councils new powers to stop ‘garden grabbing’.
Status: Done – The regional spatial strategies have now been abolished and local councils now have full decision-making powers on housing and planning.
Pledge: In the longer term, we will radically reform the planning system to give neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which their inhabitants live, based on the principles set out in the Conservative Party publication Open Source Planning.
Status: Done - The National Planning Policy Framework has been introduced which has indeed radically changed the planning system. Powers have been shifted to a more local level in many aspects in line with the Open Source Planning Policy Paper.
Pledge: We will abolish the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects.
Status: Done – The IPC has been abolished and major infrastructure projects now go through the Planning Inspectorate. Cynics may not see much greater pace in the process however and major projects like High Speed 2 are still taking years to get from conception to building.
Pledge: We will publish and present to Parliament a simple and consolidated national planning framework covering all forms of development and setting out national economic, environmental and social priorities.
Status: Done - The National Planning Policy Framework was published in 2012. It has certainly simplified and consolidated the planning system although not without criticism with complaints of it encouraging a lack of consistency and collaboration across local government areas.
Pledge: We will maintain the Green Belt, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and other environmental protections, and create a new designation – similar to SSSIs – to protect green areas of particular importance to local communities.
Status: Done – The National Planning Policy Framework reaffirms protection of the Green Belt, subject to certain exceptions. Local neighbourhood plans allow communities to protect their local green spaces.
Pledge: We will abolish the Government Office for London and consider the case for abolishing the remaining Government Offices.
Status: Done – All Government Offices were abolished in 2011.
Pledge: We will provide more protection against aggressive bailiffs and unreasonable charging orders, ensure that courts have the power to insist that repossession is always a last resort, and ban orders for sale on unsecured debts of less than £25,000.
Status: In progress - This was mentioned in the Mid Term Review as being on the ‘to-do’ list.
Pledge: We will explore a range of measures to bring empty homes into use.
Status: In progress – This was also mentioned in the Mid Term Review as on the ‘to-do’ list.
Pledge: We will promote shared ownership schemes and help social tenants and others to own or part-own their home.
Status: In progress – The Government has introduced the New Buy and Help to Buy (loan and guarantee) schemes and has also increased the discount for the Right to Buy scheme.
Pledge: We will promote ‘Home on the Farm’ schemes that encourage farmers to convert existing buildings into affordable housing.
Status: In progress – DCLG has encouraged progress on this but is not currently in a position to progress any further as it is within the remit of local planning authorities to give consent to such developments.
Pledge: We will create new trusts that will make it simpler for communities to provide homes for local people.
Status: In progress – No specific progress.
Pledge: We will phase out the ring-fencing of grants to local government and review the unfair Housing Revenue Account.
Status: Done – Housing revenue Account reform was completed in March 2013.
Pledge: We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities.
Status: In progress – Funding was made available to enable local government to freeze council but to date this was only applied to Band D in England between 2011/12.
Pledge: We will create directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities, subject to confirmatory referendums and full scrutiny by elected councillors.
Status: Done - Although 9 out of the 10 referenda held in May 2012 rejected Mayors – Bristol said yes and Liverpool went ahead without going to a vote.
Pledge: We will give councils a general power of competence.
Status: Done – This was granted in the Localism Act 2011.
Pledge: 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.
Status: Done – The provisions outlined in the Protections of Freedoms Act 2012 set out these powers.
Pledge: We will allow councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to.
Status: Done – Councils were granted these powers in the Localism Act 2011.
Pledge: We will abolish the Standards Board regime.
Status: Done – The national and local elements of the Standards Board were abolished in April 2012.
Pledge: We will stop the restructuring of councils in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon, and stop plans to force the regionalisation of the fire service.
Status: Done – Restructuring was stopped by way of the Local Government Act 2010.
Pledge: We will impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers.
Status: In progress – These rules were included in the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, published in March 2011.
Pledge: We will introduce new powers to help communities save local facilities and services threatened with closure, and give communities the right to bid to take over local state-run services.
Status: Done – These powers were granted in the Localism Act 2011.
Pledge: We will implement the Sustainable Communities Act, so that citizens know how taxpayers’ money is spent in their area and have a greater say over how it is spent.
Status: In progress – The Government is yet to introduce the legislation.
Pledge: We will cut local government inspection and abolish the Comprehensive Area Assessment.
Status: Done – The Government has both abolished the Comprehensive Area Assessment (completed in 2010) and identified savings of £650 million over five years following the disbanding of the Audit Commission.
Pledge: We will require continuous improvements to the energy efficiency of new housing.
Status: In progress – The Code for Sustainable Homes introduced although it is voluntary; the EU Directive on Energy Performance of Buildings has been enacted; the Green Deal also supports this objective. However, the ability to require continuous improvement is within the National Planning Policy Framework.
Pledge: We will provide incentives for local authorities to deliver sustainable development, including for new homes and businesses.
Status: Done - This falls under the National Planning Policy Framework.
Pledge - We will review the effectiveness of the raising of the stamp duty threshold for first-time buyers.
Status: Done – This was reviewed, resulting in the ending of relief in March 2012.
Pledge: We will give councillors the power to vote on large salary packages for unelected council officials.
Status: Done – These measures were included in the Localism Act 2011.