27 Feb 2009

Ground-breaking Sustainable Communities Act is one step closer in Stroud

This week has been a crazy round of meetings so my blog has suffered and apols but I am not going to write up all that stuff - well a little on Thursday night's Full Council in this blog entry - and probably will do blogs on the first Brook and Flood Forum meeting I set up earlier thjis week plus my day in Bath at Wessex Water - as for the rest suffice to say I've had meetings with Stroud Valleys Project and the District Council over the Eco-Renovation Open Homes event in September and met with Green District councillors a couple of times - I would love tonight to go to the Coffee House Discussion on the Severn Barrage but I've run out of puff...there are not enough hours in the day with work as well...

Greens don't support Council Tax proposals for 2009/10

Anyhow Thursday night - that was last night - seems an age ago already - it was the Council Tax setting meeting. At Full Council Green party District councillors did not support the Conservatives Council Tax proposals for 2009/10 which were passed with support of Liberal Democrat councillors. The tax proposals represent a 3.5% rise on the 2008/9 Band D.

Here is what Cllr Sarah Lunnon, Leader of the Green party group of District councillors said at the meeting: "This report does not address the urgency and responsibilities required to tackle climate change, nor do I believe the budget reflects the importance that residents in this District give to tackling climate change. We need radical action to solve today's problems not this business-as-usual approach."

Green party motion to sign up to the Sustainable Communities Act

Well it was passed with a Conservative amendment seeking further information. There was also a lot of nonsense as I think it wasn't handled well - indeed I even wonder if it wasn't a breach of the constitution as I thought if the motion proposer accepted an amendment then it went to vote without debate - I need to check - anyhow it was passed with the Tories amendment delaying it a little and calling us Greens 'irresponsible' for bringing the motion forward!! The Leader Chas Fellows even called for the motion to be withdrawn as they would look at it at next Council instead.

I have to say I am a little disappointed by that approach to democracy - after all many residents of the area have fought long and hard for this Act - indeed the Tories have had months to get their act together - 77 other Councils have already signed - and while some assurances were given by them that they were looking at this Act nothing seemed to happen - so back in November Greens put in the motion - this is the first time the motion could be heard as the last Full Council was budget setting. Anyway I understand work is now being done on it by the Council Officers so let us hope we can all get the benefit from it...although the delays will mean that there is only a small window of opportunity to get projects in this time - so if folks locally have ideas get thinking and planning now in preparation.

See Green party press release re the motion here.

I first started campaigning for this Act some 5 years ago. Many from all parties have worked hard, Our MP David Drew as a sponsor of the Bill has been instrumental in bringing this Act about along with Conservative MP Nick Hurd, Lib Dem Julia Goldsworthy and others like Green party leader Caroline Lucas.

In addition to the 77 Councils I mentioned who have already signed up some 90 national organisations from the Association of Police Officers to the Campaign for Real Ale support this. Over 300 local organisations and 1,000 Parish and Town Councils support this.

Basically this Act gives the Government a legal duty to assist Councils in promoting the sustainability of local communities. By opting in we are signing up to receive the government's assistance. It allows Council's the power to determine the nature of the assistance from Government and allows Councils to regain functioning and monies from central Government plus it increases involvement from local people. All good stuff.

Some have asked will it cost Council's officer time and money. However as I said at the Full Council meeting last night the Government have made clear 'net additional costs of new policies are covered'. They have stated publicly many times that no unfunded new burdens will be placed by Central Government on Local Government. My understanding is that in the annual settlement worked out by Government, the Local Government Assoc and Local Authorities, money must be provide by Central Government for Local Authorities to carry out this task of setting up and involving Citizens’ Panels in the Sustainable Communities Act process.

Great example of how the Act can be used

The economic downturn will have a huge impact on our local communities. Many of our local shops and businesses are being hit hard. This Act has the potential to give real powers to local people to protect and revive their areas. One example of how the Act could be used that I liked the sound of was regarding out-of-town supermarkets. As we know they don't pay non-domestic rates on their car parking spaces yet many local traders in our towns are affected by double yellow lines and parking costs. It is not a level playing field. The Act could let non domestic rates be levied on those parking spaces. We could then waiver those charges if the supermarket agreed to a stated percentage of local goods for sale. This could be an important boost for local farms and businesses creating jobs and economic activity.

There are some who question whether the Act will really be workable but many from all parties are wanting to make this work. This is the first time we have a law that empowers Councils to ask for help from Government to promote sustainable communities and requires the Government to reach an agreement.

Government Minister Phil Woolas suggests it is one of the most important Acts in the last 40 years saying he believes it will change politics - that sounds good to me!

What is meant by 'Sustainable Communities'?

The definition of sustainable communities in the Act is deliberately broad. The Act defines the promotion of sustainable communities as any of the following 4 things:
1. Environmental, e.g. promoting local renewable energy, increasing recycling and protecting green spaces
2. Local economies, e.g. promoting local shops, local businesses and local jobs
3. Social inclusion, e.g. protecting local public services and alleviating fuel poverty and food poverty
4. Democratic involvement, e.g. increasing the ways local people can participate in local decision making and promoting new ways in which people can influence what happens locally

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