< The Good Councillors Guide

  1. Services and community rights
  2. Planning
  3. The parish or community-led plan
  4. Local Council Award Scheme

12    Services and community rights

We have come full circle and return to the issues raised in Part One. The best local councils want to improve the quality of life and the environment for people on their patch. Since the mid-1990s successive governments have encouraged local councils to become more active in service delivery. This section shows how your council can be dynamic and professional in delivering the goods. To achieve these aims, the local council needs strategic plans, from business plans to corporate plans or action plans.

Local councils can provide many services using their legal powers, from community centres to festivals, and allotments to buses (see Part Five for a list of powers).

Local councils can also provide services in partnership with other bodies, or as their agent. They might manage library services for the principal authority or assist a local charity to help young people. Local councils can offer funding, equipment and premises, to help others provide services.

Giving grants to organisations that run child care, services for the elderly, arts activities, pond clearance or sport can improve the quality of parish life. A modest grant often helps another body to secure further finance from other sources, such as the lottery or the European Union.

The local council can act as the first port of call (or information point) for all local services. Access to services delivered by other organisations including principal authorities and voluntary bodies could be available through an internet connected computer located with the local council. If you think your council could not possibly afford it, then ask yourself whether local people would pay a little more in council tax if they could see real benefits.

How does your council know which services to deliver or what activities to support? It consults, listens and identifies what is missing; it then agrees priorities for action and its policies begin to take shape.

The Localism Act 2011 introduced a number of new ways in which councils can act on behalf of their communities, which are collectively known as community rights.

The community right to bid gives communities a better chance to save a local asset of significance to the community, like a library, a village shop, a community centre, or a pub. A community can nominate buildings and land as an asset of community value and stop the clock on a sale of listed assets for up to 6 months. This gives local councils and other community groups the opportunity to raise finance for the bid. It takes just 21 people to nominate an asset.

A wide range of assets have been nominated from community centres, to pubs and Hastings Pier. The first asset purchased using the Community Right to Bid was the Ivy House pub in Peckham in March 2013. You should do some research to find out what support funding is available to communities considering taking over local assets.

As a local councillor and community leader you can contribute to the nomination process by identifying important community assets with the community and other representatives. You may volunteer to be one of the people to sign the nomination form and you can encourage members of the public and local groups to support the nomination and raise the profile of the nomination in the local media.

If your community is interested in managing or owning publicly owned land or buildings, you could contact your local authority to explore options for transferring these to your community at less than full market value through community asset transfer.

Under the right to reclaim land communities can apply to get underused or disused publicly owned land brought back into beneficial use. Properties directly owned by government departments and Housing Associations are exempt. Local councils and communities can ask local authorities to exercise compulsory purchase orders where they think there is scope for regeneration of disused or underused privately owned land or buildings.

Community shares help local groups to raise money to do the things they want to do in their community, from buying community shops to establishing community energy projects. The Community Shares Unit provides a support and information to investors and to communities wanting to develop share offers.

Local councils are close to their communities, so any services they run can be more easily tailored to local needs. Local councils up and down the country are already running a huge variety of public services successfully, from car parking to allotments to highway maintenance, but in the past it has always been down to the district or county council to decide whether and if to devolve services to local councils.

The community right to challenge changes this – if you feel that you could do a better job of delivering local public services than the local authority, you can use the right to challenge the authority to give you a chance to run those services. The council must consider your proposal and can only reject it on certain grounds. Your successful expressions of interest will trigger a procurement exercise for the service. A support package of £11.5m has been made available to help local organisations, including local councils, to develop their proposals.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is also encouraging local councils to engage in Neighbourhood Community Budgeting. Neighbourhood community budgets (NCBs) aim to give communities more influence and control over local public services by allowing the local community to help design neighbourhood level budgets. The Government hopes that this idea will help establish what services can be delivered at neighbourhood level and what needs to be in place to enable communities to take more control of service if they want to.

Local councils in Ilfracombe and Haverhill have led the development of NCBs in their area. DCLG would like to encourage other local councils to speak to their principal councils about how a neighbourhood community budget could operate in their area. Perhaps this kind of project is something your council might be interested in?

13    Planning

Your council’s strategic plan will help to manage change but the wider planning system deeply affects life in the community and is a vital tool for delivering benefits. Being involved in town and country (land use or spatial) planning is, for many councils, their single most important activity.

So what part does your local council play in the planning system? Local councils have a right to ask for copies of planning applications affecting their area and to express their views to the planning authority. In addition, under the Localism Act’s neighbourhood planning provisions, there are a number of ‘community rights’ that local councils can take up in addition to those described in the previous chapter. These are examined in some detail below.

Local development plans

Many local councils spend time and energy at full council or planning committee meetings, deciding what recommendations to make. While the planning authority doesn’t have to agree, it must consider the parish view before it decides to grant or refuse permission for the development.

Your council’s recommendations on a planning application should fit with statutory local development plans, otherwise they may be ignored. These include the local plan and, if available, the neighbourhood plan.

The local council needs to understand the procedures by which the planning authority makes decisions. Some decisions are made by the authority’s planning committee, while many are delegated to officers. Central to the decision making process are material considerations – issues that are, in law, material or relevant to a planning application. Such matters must be taken into account when making a recommendation on a planning application. Material considerations include:

  • development plan (including the local plan or neighbourhood plan)
  • a site’s planning history (including earlier applications)
  • accessibility
  • traffic
  • roads and parking
  • archaeology
  • a community plan or design statement (see Part One).

Your personal feelings about the application, or the applicant, are not relevant. It is the wider public interest in respect of the planning application that is important.

The planning authority is responsible for development control, where development is managed through planning applications. The local council’s local knowledge, combined with a sound understanding of the planning process, means that its views are more likely to be heard by the planning authority. As one planning officer observed; “there are those local councils who understand the system and have influence…and there are those that don’t.”

Local councils can spend hours on development control and forget that it is equally important to influence the policies of the planning authority. The most important policies are contained in the planning authority’s development plan. If your council didn’t participate when the development plan was discussed, then they may be unpleasantly surprised by its proposals.

A design statement can be a supplement to the planning authority’s policies and can influence development control. Once accepted by the planning authority it becomes a supplementary planning document (SPD). The beauty of a design statement adopted as an SPD is that the planning authority must take it into account as a material consideration when making decisions. This gives the council and its community considerable power.

Neighbourhood plans and the community right to build

Through the Localism Act 2011, the Government introduced two new ways in which local councils can influence planning in their area: the neighbourhood plan and the neighbourhood (or community) development order.

  • If approved, a neighbourhood plan becomes the development plan for the area, superseding the local plan (although it must be aligned with it). The neighbourhood plan can give your local community more say about where new homes are built and what they should look like. It can, for example, allocate land for industry and leisure or set retail and infrastructure policies.
  • Neighbourhood (or community) development orders arise from the community right to build set out in the Localism Act 2011. Local councils and community groups have the right to propose small- scale, site-specific community-led developments. This right allows communities to build new homes, shops, businesses or facilities where they want them, without going through the normal planning application route. Any project built under the community right to build is managed by the local council or community group.

To get approval for a neighbourhood plan or development order the council must:

  • work with the local planning authority
  • take expert advice to ensure that the plan or order complies with national planning policies and
  • strategic elements of the local plan
  • engage fully with all parts of the local community
  • seek approval from an independent inspector
  • gain support from at least 50% of local people voting in a referendum.

Once in place, a neighbourhood plan gives your community more control over the way in which your area develops; a neighbourhood plan becomes part of the development plan which will be used by the local planning authority when determining planning applications.

By April 2013 there were over 500 neighbourhood plans being developed across the country from Cumbria to Cornwall to Cambridgeshire. The first neighbourhood plan was approved in Upper Eden in Cumbria with 90% support from the local people who voted in the referendum.

In addition, with the introduction of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) local councils who develop neighbourhood plans are entitled to 25% of CIL receipts and can decide for themselves how to spend the money on local infrastructure. Do some research and find out whether there is any funding available to help your community.

Planning can get people very agitated and the council has a responsibility to represent the whole community – not just people with the loudest voices. The council must ensure that proper procedures are in place. You must have lawful, well-managed meetings and councillors must make sure that in planning matters they act in accordance with their council’s code of conduct.

You can download helpful and more detailed guides on planning from the Planning for Councillors website. (See Part Five).

14    The parish or community-led plan

A parish plan is a community plan and not a land use plan. It is a set of policies and an action plan for the next few years covering a much wider range of issues such as housing, the local economy and transport. It is a good idea to draw up a plan, whatever the size of your community.

The plan should be developed in consultation with the local community. Remember in Part One we suggested that parish surveys, parish maps, community conferences and design statements are ways in which your council can establish the needs and wishes of local people. Tools like these strengthen community spirit, especially if they involve all parts of the community. A council that listens knows that it has local support for actions it may take.

Once you know what you (and local people) want, you can decide how you are going to pay for it. Many councils start with the money and then decide how far it will stretch. Some councils claim that they have so little money that they can do almost nothing. Evidence clearly suggests that local taxpayers would be willing to pay more if they could see the results in terms of better local services. Ask first, and then set the budget accordingly.

Whatever your council’s approach to plan making, financial regulations say it must have a budget. The Plan creates the Budget that determines the Precept; it is good advice to follow this PBP principle. Remember, the precept is taken from the council tax. Your council should investigate other sources of funding such as grants and sponsorship to help implement its plans; on average, non-precept funding makes up one third of local council income.

This is an exciting time to be a local councillor. Plans and policies will guide you as you seek to improve the quality of life in your community. Indeed, a parish or town plan can provide the evidence you need to develop a neighbourhood plan.

15    Local Council Award Scheme

The Local Council Award Scheme was launched in January 2015, replacing the previous Quality Council Scheme. It is an accreditation scheme that helps councils confirm they have sound processes in place for good governance, community engagement and for developing their council.

The Local Council Award Scheme has been designed to celebrate the successes of the very best local councils, and to provide a framework to support all local councils to improve and develop to meet their full potential. The scheme offers councils the opportunity to show that they meet the standards set by the sector, assessed by their peers, and to put in place the conditions for continued improvement.

It is only through the sector working together, to share best practice, drive up standards and supporting those who are committed to improving their offer to their communities that individual councils and the sector as a whole will reach its full potential.

The Local Council Award Scheme has three award levels:

  • Foundation Award
    Councils achieving the Foundation Award demonstrate that they have the documentation and information in place for operating lawfully and according to standard practice, building a foundation for improvement and development.

  • Quality Award
    To achieve the Quality Award a council demonstrates that it meets all requirements for the foundation award and has additional documentation and information in place for good governance, effective community engagement and council improvement. The Quality Award also testifies that a council is eligible to use the General Power of Competence.

  • Quality Gold Award
    Councils achieving the Quality Gold Award demonstrate that they meet all requirements of the foundation and quality awards, and are at the forefront of best practice by achieving an excellent standard in community governance, community leadership and performance management.

You can find out more about the Local Council Award Scheme by contacting your county association or visiting NALCs website.

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