A look at what’s happening in Whitehall as 2011 draws to a close…
Over at DCLG they must be breathing a sigh of relief as the Localism Act finally made it onto the statue book. This huge Bill took the best part of a year to make it through Parliament, but will now be implemented in April 2012. Despite some fierce lobbying in the Lords (particularly from the Countryside Landowners Association) the majority of the Bill’s provisions made it through intact, with the exception of proposals to allow local people to trigger a referendum on any issue. Although the referendum result would not have been legally binding, overwhelming public opinion might have been hard for any local authority to ignore. The question of who paid for this requirement was ultimately felt to be difficult to sort out and so the provision was dropped in the Bill’s final stages. The all important next step for the Act will be the Guidance (or Secondary Legislation) that will set out more details over how things like the Community Rights will be implemented, which is expected to be published some time before April. Given the government’s preference for light touch regulation, don’t expect too much prescription or detail, but hopefully we’ll get something that communities and councils can make sense of and use.
The Office for Civil Society must also be pleased to see a number of key programmes begin to see the light of day, after considerable gestation periods. The Community Organisers programme is now fully underway, along with Community First, the Social Action Fund and the Innovation in Giving Fund. Despite the Coalition’s keenness to distinguish itself from the last government’s predilection for initiatives, there seem to be an awful lot of new programmes happening….though perhaps we ought to be pleased there’s something happening to support the sector.
Civil Society Minister, Nick Hurd, and his boss Francis Maude came in for criticism from the Public Administration Select Committee’s (PASC) report on the inquiry into Big Society. The PASC said Cabinet Office Ministers had failed to realise that people didn’t understand what Big Society was and more needed to be done to explain the idea behind the PM’s big idea. Perhaps they ought to have looked at our Big Society Essential Facts. Another of the PASC’s big ideas was that there ought to be a Big Society Minister. Quite why we need another Minister at a time when public spending is being cut is baffling. Surely, with all this devolution and localism going on, we could save a few quid by getting rid of a few, not having more? And anyway…isn’t the PM our Big Society Minister-in-Chief?
There was an outbreak of bi-partisanship in the Commons recently, in no small part due to the efforts of civil society lobbying, particularly by Social Enterprise UK. Shadow Civil Society Minister, Gareth Thomas, withdrew his amendments to (Conservative MP), Chris White’s Social Value Private Members Bill, that had jeopardized the Bill’s chance of being introduced. The Bill has now passed to the Lords where (just to reinforce the cross-party love in) Lib-Dem Peer, Lord Newby, will be taking it on through there.
DECC displayed a shocking (or perhaps illuminating) lack of understanding of how consultation is supposed to work with its handling of changes to the Feed In Tariffs (for small scale renewable energy production). Worried about the growth in this industry and the incentives the scheme offered to people adopting more sustainable energy supply, the Department launched a public consultation on plans to reduce the price offered to households selling their surplus energy. The consultation deadline? 23rd December. Date for implementing the new plans? 12th December. Hardly surprising the High Court ruled yesterday that the plans were, errm, flawed. Who’d have guessed?