Although showing signs of having been put together at speed (the explanatory notes only became available yesterday) Eric Pickles clearly has retained clout within the cabinet, as he has resisted the pressure that would have arisen within his department for them to be watered down. Some of the provisions are pleasingly radical, and others less so. This is the kind of Bill that can only be introduced comfortably in the first year or two of office.
Powers of local authorities
In my article on the Royal Prerogative I explored the difference between the powers of a natural person on the one hand, which includes the Crown, which in summary allow an ordinary person or the government to do anything not explicitly or impliedly prohibited by the common law or statutory provision, and the powers of a creature of statute such as local authorities on the other hand, which are limited to doing the things which statutory provision has authorised them to do (whether explicitly or implicitly).
Under the Bill, local authorities will be given power "to do anything that individuals generally may do": they would therefore acquire at law similar powers to those of the Crown.
This is subject to certain caveats, including one relating to "overlapping" powers. If the local authority has power to do something apart from these new powers, the exercise of which is subject to conditions, then the new power cannot be exercised except in accordance with those conditions. In that respect, it is a re-enactment of the rule applying to the exercise of the natural powers of the Crown set out in Attorney General v De Keyser's Royal Hotel  AC 508 and explored in Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council and Others) v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government  EWCA Civ 148.
This is a very substantial new power for local authorities. It makes them first-rank public authorities on a par constitutionally with government departments.
However, just as the broad powers of the Crown are in practice limited by the requirement that government departments may only spend what is appropriated to them from the consolidated fund by an Appropriation Act or some other consolidated fund Act, so local authorities can only spend what they are given or can raise, and this brings us to referenda.
Local authorities, and their cousins the police and fire authorities, will still be subject to government control of expenditure, but in a marginally more hands-off way than in the past. Governments may still set council tax ceilings, but these can be exceeded by the local authority on a referendum of all registered voters in the authority's area.
The key issue here is the extent to which the government will set unnaturally low ceilings with a view to driving down local authority spending through local voter reluctance. The fact that, under the Bill, expenditure which exceeds the ceiling is described as "excessive" expenditure rather than a more neutral expression such as "locally determined" expenditure (or even "supplementary" expenditure) perhaps gives the game away here: that the driver is expenditure reduction rather than an interesting experiment in practical local democracy.
Referenda also feature in another proposal. Any local elector can petition the local authority for a local referendum to be held on anything relevant to its functions, provided that it is signed by 5% of the local electorate (or a higher precentage stipulated by the Secretary of State) or submitted by a councillor. If the local authority then decides that the referendum should be held, it must take place between two and twelve months after the receipt of the petition. The local authority does not have to implement the result of the referendum (it is not binding), but it must consider it and give its reasons for the decision it makes in response to the referendum.
There is a further referendum-based idea, under which development to be carried out for, say, rural housing and community facilities can be carried out, without planning permission from the local authority, if it is mandated by a vote of more than 50% of the local residents on a referendum.
Abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission
I was never a great fan of the Infrastructure Planning Commission. From time to time the issue is raised by those lawyers who are not strong on the need for democratic accountability in decision making within a law-based society, whether the pre-IPC regime was consistent with article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 6 provides that "In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law."
When the ECHR was drawn up, the original drafters would I suspect have been surprised at the idea that this applied to planning decisions, but the jurisprudence of the European Court has held that the right to develop land as an attribute of the ownership of that land falls within the category of a civil right. Lawyers being lawyers, English jurisprudence has also managed to persuade itself that because Secretaries of State set national planning policy, they cannot of themselves be an "independent and impartial tribunal" in determining how their policy applies to particular cases. (That is in my view a serious logical error, but that issue is now beyond recall.)
The early Labour government was rather more sound about this than its successors, and they stood their ground in a series of cases comprised in R v Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions ex p Holding & Barnes plc  UKHL 23 and the other conjoined appeals known collectively as "the Alconbury appeals". Their Lordships came to the rescue against the legal technocrats, drawing on other jurisprudence of the European Court to the effect that in determining whether the requirements of article 6 of the Convention are met it is necessary to look at the whole of the process, and that it is not necessary that a court or some other independent body should be available to consider the matter afresh by way of a rehearing on an appeal on the merits. It was held that the then current principles of judicial review, coupled with the rules of natural justice as applying to the fact-finding processes of public inquiry, were sufficient to meet the requirements of the Convention.
Some of the gut thinking behind this view is illustrated in the words of Lord Nolan who said -
"In the relatively small and populous island which we occupy, the decisions made by the Secretary of State will often have acute social, economic and environmental implications. A degree of central control is essential to the orderly use and development of town and country planning ... to substitute for the Secretary of State an independent and impartial body with no central electoral accountability would not only be a recipe for chaos: it would be profoundly undemocratic".Similarly, Lord Clyde said –
"One possible solution which is proposed is that in the cases where at present the Secretary of State is himself the decision maker, the cases for the most part which are likely to give rise to issues of widespread or even national concern, which may well have a wide impact on the lives of many and involve major issues of policy, the decision should be removed from the Minister, who is answerable to Parliament, to an independent body, answerable to no-one. That would be a somewhat startling proposition and it would be surprising if the convention which is rooted in the ideas of democracy and the rule of law should lead to such a result".I was therefore somewhat surprised and disappointed when the later Gordon Brown administration set up just such a body to determine major infrastructure projects in England.
I am glad to say that the Tory government is of the Nolan/Clyde persuasion. Where you have a decision for, say, the major redevelopment of a town centre which will impact the lives of its inhabitants for the next 30 or 40 years, or a major new high speed railway line likely to be used for many years ahead, in my view it is quite wrong that such decisions should be taken under some dry forensic process by a body of people not answerable to the voter, or to anyone else for that matter. So full marks to Pickles on this one.
There are numerous other provisions in the Bill, including some dealing with the right of local groups to take over defunct community assets, the security of tenure of public sector tenants, the abolition of regional housing targets and the abolition of home information packs (HIPs) on house sales. One remaining initiative which may have a beneficial impact is the proposal for the introduction of executive mayors, on the Mayor of London model (albeit with less powers), for the cities of Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield. There would be referenda on this in each of the cities concerned in 2012.
I hope these executive mayor referenda succeed. Such a collection of "English Barons" may have a moderating effect on subsequent attempts to claw back some of this local divesting of power.
As to what I would like to see in the future? As mentioned above, I would like to see local council tax accountability used not just as a means of driving down expenditure, with pejorative references to excessive expenditure measured against government targets, but have this transmuted into a form of local tax devolution. I would also like to see the powers of the new directly-elected mayors extended so as to be comparable to, and indeed go beyond, those currently held by the Mayor of London. However, that may be for the reforming zeal of a different government before the deadening hand of a number of years in office has taken its hold. The problem with this hopeful thinking is that such devolution in England is likely to be beyond the stomach of any incoming Labour government, so I am likely to be disappointed.
The separate government proposals for elected Police Commissioners (not in the Bill) contains within it a similar idea: bringing local accountability to decision making affecting areas of life in a community not at present adequately subject to such accountability. (The proposition put forward by some present and former chief constables, that the way law breaking is dealt with in a local community is a special operational matter that only a trained chief constable acting in accordance with his professional training can decide, is in my view wrong.)