Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has tabled an update to Parliament on what his department has been doing during the adjournment for Party Conferences.
The Department is continuing its commitment to deliver transparent and open government. Ahead of the requirement in November for all central government departments to publish monthly details of spend over £25,000, my department has published the details of its spend over £500 for the first quarter of 2010/2011 and for 2008/2009. This follows the publication, in August, of 2009/2010 spending details.
We have been working with the Local Government Association on measures to increase transparency in councils including new guidance from the LGA detailing best practice for putting council spending and senior salary information online. Over 60 councils have already published the details of their spend over £500 ahead of their January deadline.
On 29 September my Department published for consultation a proposed new statutory Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity. The proposals are intended to stop taxpayers' money being squandered on town hall newspapers or hired lobbyists. An independent local press is an essential part of our open democracy helping local people scrutinise and hold elected councillors to account. The proposed new rules around council publicity will restrict council newspapers to four times a year. The proposed code will also guard against councils using public funds to hire lobbyists to campaign.
A copy of the proposed Code has been placed in the House of Commons Library. Subject to the consultation, I intend before the end of the year to seek Parliamentary approval to the proposed Code, after which it will come into force.
Supporting local people
When times are tough Government has a duty to treat the public fairly. The Exchequer Secretary and I confirmed on 23 September that the Government would not carry out a council tax revaluation in England during the lifetime of this Parliament. An unnecessary and expensive revaluation could lead to increased council tax bills. Taxpayers now know there will be no unexpected council tax revaluation hikes in the next five years.
A local authority breakdown of the property attribute information collected on people's homes, including number of bedrooms, patios, value significant gardens and scenic views, has also been published in the interests of transparency to make the public aware of the datasets that have been gathered under the last Government.
In addition an independent Data Protection Audit of the Valuation Office Agency's (VOA) council tax database is to be carried out to make sure people's privacy is protected when the Agency assesses properties and stores data. This is in keeping with the Coalition's desire to defend civil liberties, and to restore the rights of individuals.
On 1 October Small Business Rate relief doubled for over half a million small businesses for one year as part of the government’s emergency budget commitments to help invest in growth. This means 345,000 businesses will pay no rates at all. We have also announced a package of practical advice and training for traditional market traders, to support existing markets and help potential enterprising traders get started.
Changes to rules contained in the Mortgage Repossessions (Protection of Tenants etc) Act 2010 have increased protections for tenants who face having their home repossessed through no fault of their own. For the first time tenants will be able to attend the repossession court hearing and judges will be able to take their situation into account and delay repossessions proceedings by up to two months.
We are changing the way in which Parish Councils can make payments. Currently Parish Councils make payments through cheques that must be counter-signed by two members of the council, changes will mean that they will be able to use modern banking methods such as electronic banking. This will save time and benefit many small private companies who will get paid faster.
The Department is continuing to push power and control down away from the centre.
The announcement of plans to introduce legislation to scrap the Housing Revenue Account and replace it with a system allowing councils to keep the rents and receipts from right to buy sales that they collect was made on October 5th. This will give councils greater financial freedom to meet the housing needs of their local communities.
The Government is committed to freeing up councils and cutting red tape. We have launched a consultation setting out our plans to streamline the current three sets of regulations and orders covering tree preservation orders in England into one document. The change has the potential to save local councils more than £500,000 in administration costs each year. The new regulations will reduce paperwork, simplify the process of protecting trees and provide a fairer, more straightforward and effective system for tree preservation.
Decentralisation and pooling budgets
We have already set out plans to decentralise power to individuals, neighbourhoods, front-line professionals and local institutions:
Individuals are being put in charge of their lives through personal budgets, for example on adult social care and childcare, or choice, like which hospital to use or over who runs the police.
Community groups and neighbourhoods will be in charge of planning and responsible for delivering more and more public services. Public sector professionals will be using their judgement over how best to run services, for example with GPs in control of commissioning and heads running schools.
Local government will have a general power of competence and increased freedom to run services free from central diktat, with hundreds of targets already abolished and over £1 billion of ring-fenced funding already removed in 2010-11 – with much more to be removed through the spending review.
Moving forward, our goal is to see the public sector operate in a much more unified way to maximise the resource available to us to tackle social problems. That means getting different organisations and agencies to work together in a way that simply has not happened in the past.
We are putting in place national welfare to work and offender rehabilitation schemes, operating on a payment by results basis. But we do not just want that important support to be done by central government – local government should be involved too, putting its own funding and expertise into developing enhanced programmes to work alongside the core work that we are doing nationwide.
We will put local councils in the driving seat to join up public services, pooling resources across the public sector to tackle social problems. We want elected mayors to trail blaze such initiatives, not least since elected mayors in our cities will be embraced by the public if they have real power. So we will create the opportunity for Mayors to bring together different devolved budgets and pool them with our national payment-by-results systems. Together, Mayors will be able to help design services specifically targeted at the hardest-to-help families. They will be able to add their own budgets – social services, care, housing, health improvement – to the national programmes. This will give local communities the power to change lives, and help save money at the same time. I would expect to make a further announcement to the House in due course.