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Today sees the publication of Control Shift (now downloadable as a pdf file), the Conservative Party’s long-awaited green paper on local government and local democracy. It will be launched in Coventry later by David Cameron and Caroline Spelman, the shadow secretary of state for communities, local government and the regions (although it should be noted that all the spade work on this project was done by her predecessor in that role, Eric Pickles).

David Cameron has written in this morning’s Guardian about the plans, which he describes as "a fundamental shift [of power] to local people and local institutions" and a "radical decentralisation, to reach every corner of the country".

The main planks of the proposals are:

Giving more power to people over their local authorities

  • The 12 largest cities outside London will also be given the chance to vote for an elected mayor;
  • The police will be made accountable through directly elected police commissioners;
  • Power for people to instigate referendums on local issues;
  • Requiring councils to publish detailed information on expenditure by local councils – including the pay and perks of senior staff;
  • Repealing the "pre-determination" rules that prevent councillors from standing up for their constituents’ views on local issues.

Removing a tier of regional government and devolving powers back to local councils

  • Abolition of all regional planning and housing powers exercised by regional government;
  • Giving councils the power to establish their own local enterprise partnerships to take over the economic development functions of the Regional Development Agencies;
  • Scrapping the Government’s new Infrastructure Planning Commission, which it intends to use to force through Heathrow expansion.

Freeing local government from Whitehall control

  • Ending Whitehall capping powers and instead giving local
    residents the power to veto high council tax rises via local
    referendums;
  • Ending all forced unitary amalgamations of local authorities – such as those planned in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon.

Giving councils financial rewards for house-building and facilitating new business

  • Local authorities will be able to benefit financially when they
    deliver the housing that local people need and retain the financial
    benefits arising from new business activity in their areas;
  • Councils will also have discretionary power to help local businesses by levying business rate discounts.

The proposals will be music to the ears of localists in the party – although some would doubtless like even more radical moves – and they certainly represent a desire on David Cameron’s part to give more power to people and remove it from central government. His challenge is to deliver on these promises in government.

When Caroline Spelman was interviewed on the Today programme earlier, she said that “this is the time to trust in local democracy, trusting local people.” The interviewer suggested that Margaret Thatcher’s rhetoric in opposition was not dissimilar but that her actions as Prime Minister were more about centralisation. Mrs Spelman responded by saying that in the 1980s Mrs Thatcher felt the need to clamp down on "loony left" councils, but that this was not going to be the case now as the Conservatives are such a dominant force in local government.

That was indeed a question which has arisen in the past: when people make decisions over who to elect into power locally, should central government stand by if that mayor or council makes catastrophic errors or intervene on behalf of the local people? But that question would now seem redundant, under the new powers David Cameron is proposing to give people the power to demand local referendums over unpopular decisons by local authorities.

Jonathan Isaby

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