Pickles forced to defend 'more than 100 new powers' in Localism Bill
Published by 24publishing for 24dash.com in Local Government and also in Communities, Housing
Pickles warns Tories: 'General election is not in the bag'
Eric Pickles today hailed the Government's flagship Localism Bill as a "triumph for democracy over bureaucracy" but was forced to defend the number of new powers the legislation will hand to him.
The Communities Secretary said the Bill would "fundamentally shake-up" the balance of power in England and would end the "bonkers bureaucratic measures" created under Labour.
It would shift power away from Whitehall and back to individuals, communities and councils, he said.
Referring to the inclusion in the Bill of more than 100 new powers for ministers over local authorities, Mr Pickles insisted they were "entirely the norm".
And declaring to MPs that the "era of big government is over", Mr Pickles said of the Bill: "It will reverse the central creep of decades and replace it with local control.
"It is a triumph for democracy over bureaucracy. It will fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country. It will revitalise local democracy and put power back where it belongs - in the hands of the people."
The Bill creates new rights for communities to have a say over local services, veto "excessive" council tax rises and bid to buy local assets like libraries, pubs and shops.
It promises to streamline planning, improve housing provision and remove town halls from Whitehall-imposed constraints on spending decisions, and will introduce a power to create directly-elected mayors in 12 cities.
But Labour denounced the Bill as a "sham".
Shadow communities secretary Caroline Flint said: "This Bill will not revolutionise local politics, it won't empower the masses to shake up their town halls nor reinvigorate local democracy.
"Above all this is a Bill that empowers one person - the Secretary of State."
Speaking during the second reading debate in the Commons, Mr Pickles said: "Councils have been drowning in red tape and rules. They have been paralysed by a culture of centralism. Those who want to break the mould and innovate run the risk continuously of legal challenge.
"This Bill will restore town halls to their former glory."
But Labour's Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) asked: "If this is all about giving away powers from Whitehall, could you explain why in this Bill there will be 126 new powers transferred to yourself?"
Mr Pickles said: "I have politely pointed out that in previous Bills, much smaller Bills, the proportion of delegated legislation was much higher when the Labour Party was running these matters."
And he insisted: "The numbers contained within this Bill are entirely the norm, entirely the way in which our legislation has been put together and with one important difference - this is a deregulating Bill."
He went on to say that for too long individuals and organisations who had ideas for improving their local area had not been able to implement them but that would now change.
He claimed that new measures would help enable local authorities and communities to tackle the "deep housing crisis" created under Labour.
"The Localism Bill will create a much fairer and more flexible system. Councils will have the discretion to help families meet their needs in the most appropriate way."
He went on: "By pushing powers out, getting government out of the way, letting people get on with their own affairs we can build a stronger, fairer Britain.
"We can restore civic pride, rebuild democratic accountability, promote economic growth.
"We can replace big government with the big society and I commend this Bill to the House."
Caroline Flint described the Bill as a "massive missed opportunity" as it failed to give powers to local councils.
She said Mr Pickles was keen on writing to local authorities with "missives, diatribes and diktats from ministers" on everything from organising a street party for the Diamond Jubilee to the right way to celebrate Christmas.
Ms Flint said instead, the Localism Bill should have given local authorities the power to summon police chiefs to account for their force's performance or interview the boss of a utilities' company at a select committee.
The shadow communities secretary said instead it centralised authority in Whitehall, adding that it gave an "arsenal of over 100 new powers" to Mr Pickles.
She said: "This Bill really should be retitled the 'Only if I say so' Bill because if the Secretary of State doesn't like it, it ain't happening.
"Far from devolving power as we were promised, this Bill represents a massive accumulation of power in the hands of the Secretary of State."
She added: "I am sad to say that as a whole this Bill represents a massive missed opportunity.
"Reading it through, it is difficult not to be struck by the sense that for all the agonised intellectualising of the Minister of State, this Bill is little more than a rag bag of press releases from Tory HQ."
Ms Flint said Labour supported the Government's plans to allow people a greater say on planning applications and the transfer of more powers to the Greater London Authority.
Labour's Clive Betts, chairman of the cross-party Communities and Local Government Select Committee, said the Bill was a "missed opportunity" and warned that the legislation could see the end of new social housing "as we know it".
He told MPs: "I just do not see in the proposals here a coherent philosophy to tell us what localism is all about."
On the housing reforms, he added: "I'm not against different forms of tenure, they have a place.
"But if the proposals on flexible tenure are put together with the 50% cut in funding for social housing and the recognition, because that's what Government policy is as I understand it, that in future the only social houses that will be built, after the ones that are committed from the last government, will be those which are built on flexible tenure at rents related to market rent levels then effectively what this Government is doing by these proposals is ending the provision of any new social housing as we know it in this country."
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes welcomed the Bill's devolution of power but added: "We must not allow local decisions to be hijacked by a vocal minority with the quality, the education or the ability and the time to run their own campaign.
"We have really got to make sure decisions are taken on behalf of all the community, not the vested interests.
"Sometimes the nimby argument can prevail over the right argument and we have to make sure that danger is resisted."
Labour former local government minister Nick Raynsford described some of the Bill's measures as "slightly bonkers" and others as "seriously damaging".
"The housing and planning provisions in the Bill will destabilise the whole planning and housing process at a time when, above all, we need confidence and certainty to help get the new homes we need," he said.
Tory Rory Stewart (Penrith and the Border) said Labour was putting up "obstacles" to the Bill despite the party's "best instincts".
He said: "All of us on both sides of the House believe in this kind of decentralisation ... but we're obstructed by our anxieties about power, about knowledge, about legitimacy.
"Let us just remember the basic instinct - and work together on this - which is the reason why we should support this Bill is because we know that communities know more, care more, can do more, and ought to do more than distant officials, whether in Penrith or Carlisle or London or Brussels."
Labour's Joan Walley (Stoke on Trent Central) agreed with Mr Stewart that people in local government should "really care" about their neighbourhoods.
"My concern is that as wonderful as localism sounds - it sounds something like motherhood and apple pie - actually giving a competence to local councils without the resources, without the know-how, without the capacity-building that will be needed ... they won't be able to do what they set out to do," she said.
Labour former communities secretary Hazel Blears said the idea of giving power to local communities put forward by the Government had been discussed "for years and years" by Labour members.
Ms Blears told MPs she believed there was a "schism" between members of the Government who "genuinely believed in this agenda and want to make the most of the skills and talents of local people" and those coalition MPs who saw the Localism Bill as a "convenient step" to shrinking the state and slashing costs.
She asked Mr Pickles to give a "cast iron commitment" not to use the Bill simply to allow private companies to run council services or buy assets from local authorities.
Ms Blears added: "I genuinely believe what we have here is the worst of all worlds; raising people's expectations and then dashing them in a way which I think is pretty appalling.
"There are many, many reasons why we can't support the Bill. The principle is right but the way in which this Government propose to exercise it is utterly wrong. This is not community empowerment, this is community demolition."
Labour tabled an amendment stating the Bill should not be given a second reading as it handed power to Mr Pickles to direct local authorities. But it lost the vote by 332 votes to 228.
The Bill then gained its second reading by 329 votes to 227 - a government majority of 102.