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May 21, 2008

English Community Empowerment Bill

Last week Hazel Blears announced that the English Community Empowerment Bill will contain 3 new rights for local communities – a stronger say on spending decisions; a stronger claim on the transfer of the unclaimed assets; a right to force a debate on local issues

Emma Waddingham, Local Gov

Three new community empowerment measures to ‘right the wrongs’.

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears has outlined plans to give every citizen in England three new rights to have a greater say on local issues and help ‘right the wrongs’ in local communities.

These could range from directing more money from councils to tackle anti-social behaviour and graffiti, to taking over the running of local assets like community or leisure centres, or forcing a public debate on local issues they are concerned about.

The UK is one of the biggest petition signing countries in Europe and the World and Ministers are to harness this as a key way of giving local people more say.

Early details of a new Community Empowerment, Housing and Economic Regeneration Bill, expected later this year, were announced by the Minister. She stated this would harness ‘petition power’ and enable local people to trigger action and influence decisions on local services and issues they care about in three new key ways. These are:

· A new right to ask for a stronger say on spending decisions that affect them or their communities. This could mean for example asking councils to direct more money from multi-million pound budgets on tackling drug dealing on estates, more community wardens and facilities like more skateboard parks or youth clubs.

· A new right to ensure councils consider the sale or transfer of under-used properties, lands or parks to local community groups, co-ops and social enterprises. So a disused shopping or community centre could be handed over to local people to ensure publicly owned assets properly benefit local people rather than just being left redundant.

· A new right to force a debate on specific local issues onto the council agenda. So if local people are unhappy with the closure of a local swimming pool or the standard of local housing they can hold their council to account by forcing a debate to get action on the issue.

The Community Empowerment Bill is a key part of Prime Minister’s vision, as set out in the Draft Legislative Programme to deliver a fairer Britain and hand more power back to local people.

It is central to his new vision to devolve more power to the communities as part of ‘a reinvention of the way we govern.’ It will also help in increasing the personalisation of local services by giving people a greater say and influence on decisions.

Ahead of her speech at the recent Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) conference, Blears visited a flagship example of how communities could revive derelict sites into thriving facilities that they could own and run.

The South Bank’s social enterprise and development trust, Coin Street Community Builders, kick started by local residents in 1984 transformed a largely derelict 13 acre site back in 1984 into a now thriving mixed-use neighbourhood.

‘This is a watershed moment for communities. People will have three new rights to right wrongs they see in their community through petitioning.

These new proposals will enable people to petition their council to take over and transform underused buildings into facilities that will energise, rather than drain the community, better hold councils to account and influence local spending decisions.

‘One of Britain’s best resources is the talents of all its people. It’s time that good ideas and petitions are put to good use – not filed away and forgotten or prompt a generic ‘not-today-thank you’ response.

‘With more power, people will be more inspired to preserve, promote and be proud of their community,’ she said.

Blears also called for a stronger, more talented, and more diverse league of councillors – what she described as a ‘new generation of leaders’ of all ages and disciplines to recruit to local Councils, and for employers to release more talent from the business world into councils.