Localism bill could bring a spark of life to Norfolk towns and villages

The Localism Bill was introduced to House of Commons in December and is still making its way through the different stages in parliament. But with no clear idea when the bill will be passed, communities across our region have the chance to make sure they are prepared, DAVID BLACKMORE reports.

If all goes as planned by the government, the implications of the Localism Bill could be huge – with the shifting of power from central government into the hands of individuals, communities and councils around England.

The bill aims to encourage the empowered to step out of the darkness of bureaucracy to create their own utopia and have a big say in how things should be done in their area.

The government says the new rights and powers will make it easier for people to take over the amenities they love and keep them part of local life.

Social enterprises, voluntary and community groups with a bright idea for improving local services will all get a chance to change how things are done.

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The bill will also give the electorate a new way to voice their opinions on issues close to their hearts and enable residents to call local authorities to account for the careful management of taxpayers' money.

Outlining what the Localism Bill is trying to achieve, decentralisation minister Greg Clark said: 'For too long, central government has hoarded and concentrated power.

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'Trying to improve people's lives by imposing decisions, setting targets, and demanding inspections from Whitehall simply doesn't work – it creates bureaucracy.

'It leaves no room for adaptation to reflect local circumstances or innovation to deliver services more effectively and at lower cost and leaves people feeling imposed upon.

'This is the very opposite of the sense of participation and involvement on which a healthy democracy thrives and I have long believed there is a better way of doing things.

'We think that the best means of strengthening society is not for central government to try to seize all the power and responsibility for itself but to help people and their locally elected representatives to achieve their own ambitions. This is the essence of the Big Society.

'The Localism Bill sets out a series of proposals with the potential to achieve a substantial and lasting shift in power away from central government and towards local people.'

The government says the bill will reform the planning system to make it clearer, more democratic and effective by placing more influence in the hands of residents over issues that make a big difference.

The wide-ranging bill will provide appropriate support and recognition to communities who welcome new development, the government has said, and make it easier for authorities to get on with the job of working with its residents to draw up a vision for their area's future.

Councillors will also be empowered to play a full and active part in local life without fear of legal challenge.

But there are strong concerns that empowering communities to shape the look of their area through neighbourhood development plans would give rise to nimbyism.

There are concerns that the new powers would allow for an agitated few to force referenda on people who don't want them at a high cost to the taxpayer.

There are fears that businesses' growth plans could be shackled or stifled at the hands of the empowered community and that poorer areas across the region would struggle to find the money, the man-power, or even want, to unite to take up the running of local services. South-West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss has also raised her concerns that future governments may reverse the new powers and rights given out in the Localism Bill.

She asked deputy prime minister Nick Clegg last week what steps he would take to ensure that 'localism is embedded in our constitution and that future governments cannot reverse those moves'.

Ms Truss has also met senior cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin and Neil Stott, chief executive of Keystone Development Trust, to discuss innovative solutions to establishing vibrant and sustainable places incorporated with the aims of the Localism Bill.

Keystone, based in Thetford, is recognised as a leading entrepreneurial community organisation incorporating Keystone Enterprise Factory, KAVO, Meta, Cafe One, Keystone Innovation Centre, and volunteer to work scheme.

The Conservative MP added: 'I believe Keystone do a great job in Thetford. I think the Keystone model could be replicated across the whole of the UK with the local involvement approach adopted and this is what I wanted to raise with the minister.'

However you look at it, this is a bill with the potential to spark a significant change in national life, passing power to local people and communities whilst creating space for local authorities to lead and innovate. When the bill is approved by parliament, it will represent a major milestone towards throwing out the bureaucracy of previous decades and give communities the chance to create a fresh identity.

Tomorrow the EDP looks at the pro-active planning powers given to communities.

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