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Local Government: Public Participation

Volume 488: debated on Monday 23 February 2009

To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what recent steps the Government has taken to improve facilities for local community use. (257703)

The “Communities in Control” White Paper set out the Government’s aim to increase the number of people engaged in the running and ownership of local services and assets. More widely, the Department for Communities and Local Government has a range of policies and programmes designed to improve and increase the use of facilities for community use. These include:

£70 million Communitybuilders programme which will strengthen the resilience of a range of new and existing multi-purpose community-led organisations. These organisations provide facilities for community activities, local services and the development of community enterprise to take place.

We have established an Asset Transfer Unit, operational from January 2009, building on the work of the Advancing Assets for Communities programme, led by the Development Trust Association (DTA) and its partners.

A commitment to working with and promoting the role of social enterprises (businesses with primarily social or environmental objectives) which play a key role in empowering local communities through activities such as managing and supporting community owned assets.

In addition to this, the Office of the Third Sector run a number of programmes which can be used to increase the use of community facilities including:

Grass-roots Grants: £130 million providing small amounts of money to enable grass-roots groups to thrive and direct their energies to the particular challenges they see in their local community.

Futurebuilders: an innovative programme which provides loan and grant-based finance to support third sector organisations develop their delivery of public services.

To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what recent steps the Government has taken to promote community empowerment. (257706)

The White Paper “Communities in control: real people, real power”, which was published in July 2008, was the first major government policy statement on transferring power to citizens and communities, giving people more control and influence over decisions in their local areas and promoting vibrant local democracy. These ideas should be seen as essential for public agencies, the third sector and communities in responding to the challenges of the economic downturn.

Current work on implementing the White Paper and promoting community empowerment includes:

Participatory budgeting (PB): involves local people in making decisions on the spending from public budgets. We have rolled out a national strategy setting out how the Government will achieve their ambition for PB to be used in all local authority areas by 2012. There are currently 34 pilot areas, covering a wide variety of different areas. PB exercises have so far engaged local people on spending for activities such as local environmental issues, community facilities, parks and play areas, road safety measures, and anti-crime measures.

The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill: currently being debated in Parliament includes:

a new duty on local councils to promote democracy—putting local authorities at the forefront of the drive to reconnect people with public and political decision-making. The duty will ensure all sections of their community understands how the council works, who makes the decisions on their behalf in their neighbourhood, and how they can get involved if they wish to;

new rights for the citizen to have more information and influence over the local decisions;

new powers to hold politicians and officials to account;

a new duty on local councils to respond to petitions.

Asset Transfer Unit: The White Paper set out the Government’s aim to increase the number of people engaged in the running and ownership of local services and assets. The “Asset Transfer Unit” opened for business in January 2009, and over the course of the year, it will:

create an interactive web-based resource detailing sources of support for organisations engaging in asset transfer;

deliver an England-wide information, advice and referral service on asset transfer to both community organisations and local authorities and other statutory bodies;

implement up to 38 local authority asset transfer projects, supported by a capital investment of £30 million from the Office of the Third Sector;

develop and introduce model asset transfer strategies in a number of local authority areas across England;

promote and refine the use of community shares and bonds issues as methods of tapping new sources of community investment and involvement in local projects.

Take Part: In order for more people to be able to participate in local decision- making, they need to have a better understanding of how local services are managed and local democracy operates. We are launching the “Take Part local pathfinder programme” to support people and encourage them to have the confidence to speak up and get involved.

18 pathfinders will be announced during 2009. They will operate as partnerships between local authorities and other key organisations, such as third sector bodies and educational institutions. The first eight pathfinders will offer tailored support (through learning and community leadership programmes etc.) to at least 3,400 people during 2009. More general support will also be given to the wider community, through the use of Take Part websites and other communications methods (such as newsletters) produced by the pathfinder partners and disseminated throughout the local authority area.

Communitybuilders: is a £70 million investment fund, run jointly with the Office of the Third Sector, to strengthen the sustainability of multi-purpose inclusive community-led organisations operating at the neighbourhood level. We are currently in the process of tendering for a national partner organisation to deliver the fund on the Government’s behalf. The national partner will use their skills and expertise to identify and fund projects through an open and transparent process.

The national partner will be announced and the programme will become open to applications in spring 2009.

Empowerment Fund: The Government are seeking to create an ever stronger partnership with the third sector, both nationally and locally, in the design, development and delivery of policy making to help build cohesive, empowered and active communities. The “Empowerment Fund”, launched last year by Communities and Local Government, will strengthen national infrastructure and intermediary bodies, who can translate key proposals into practical action and support for frontline organisations.

The Empowerment Fund will provide £7.5 million to support organisations operating across the country assist local communities to take forward key themes of the White Paper. It will:

be open to partnership applications with an eligible lead;

have a more flexible allowance on the Department's financial contribution;

give added weight to those working with excluded groups across all themes.

The closing date for receiving applications was 6 January 2009. We have received 157 applications and are currently working through the evaluation process, aiming to announce the successful organisations in March.

The Fund will begin in April 2009 and will last until March 2012.

Youth Advisers: Young people are being placed at the heart of government policy formulation. A panel of nine young people—recruited from the national pool of young advisors—act as youth advisors to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, giving a young person’s perspective as policies are developed and implemented. These young advisors are the Secretary of State’s eyes and ears on issues that affect them the most, from the housing offer for young people and the impact of the economic downturn, to their role in community cohesion and the Olympics legacy.

To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what steps the Government has taken to encourage participation in local democracy. (257707)

The Electoral Administration Act 2006 requires local electoral officers to take appropriate steps to increase participation in the electoral process, the costs of which may be reimbursed by the Secretary of State. The intention is to encourage electoral officers to pursue activities aimed at increasing awareness of and involvement in the democratic process.

The White Paper “Communities in Control” set out additional actions including a new duty on local councils to promote democracy. This has the aim of making citizens more aware of the democratic process including who makes decisions about local services; how to influence and take part in making those decisions; and how to stand for civic roles, such as councillor, school governor or magistrate.

Government are also supporting a range of programmes to enable and encourage a wider range of people to become involved in local democracy, including the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Women Councillors Taskforce and the Take Part programme.