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Local Government highlights from the party conferences Janet Sillett Party conferences are short on detail and

high on sound bites can we learn anything new? They are also focused on the major national and global economic issues (and on the party leaders) local government hardly gets a mention, except in numerous fringe meetings. And the conferences are largely set pieces and not decision making (the Liberal Democrat conference is still perhaps less of a set piece?). There were a few new announcements from the coalition partners (and some recycled ones) which will be covered here. But the tone and themes of the conferences can underline the priorities ahead for government and opposition and point to the future political battlegrounds. This briefing lists and comments on the main announcements relevant to local government and highlights key themes.

Liberal Democrats
The communities and local government minister, Andrew Stunell announced that there is to be a consultation on allowing local authorities to increase council tax for homes that have been empty for more than two years through an Empty Homes Premium, to act as a nudge to get landlords to bring them back into use, and where they do not, it will provide an extra revenue stream for local authorities to plough back into bringing more homes back into use. This seems to be a new policy it is interesting that recently Eric Pickles relaxed the empty homes laws to reduce council powers to take over empty homes to protect civil liberties. The government will work with local authorities to identify areas where effective homesteading schemes could happen. Stunell said that homesteading where empty homes are brought back into use through self-renovation has proven successful both internationally, for instance, in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and also in the UK, such as in Benwell in Newcastle. Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander announced that the rate charged by the Public Works Loan Board would be reduced for councils leaving the housing revenue account (HRA) subsidy system. This reduction would lead to an extra 100 million each year for councils to invest in housing, he said. Authorities that currently provide a subsidy to the Treasury through rents will be required, at the point of the one-off adjustment, to buy out of the current system. It is this borrowing, for around 135 authorities, which could be as much as 13 billion, that will be subject to the lower interest rate in the New Year. The level of the reduced rate has not yet been confirmed. Andrew Stunell focused on housing in his conference speech but at a fringe meeting where the LGiU chief executive, Andy Sawford, also spoke, he said that the Localism Bill would alter how local and national government worked together and also how local government and citizens

operated in tandem. He reassured the audience that once the Bill was made law the process would become easier. The framework for the future, he added, would look very different. He called for dynamic relationships between the users of services, service deliverers and central government. It was vital that local authorities communicated with national government about the policies that affected them. He did not feel, however, that community budgets went far enough and that they were not moving fast enough. Mr Stunell added that it was vital that over the next 18 months that localism was bedded down so it became commonplace. This would mean by the next general election, other parties will be unable to undo localism. There was, predictably, much discussion of the health reforms though mainly at fringe meetings and at the health question and answer session. There was not a formal motion on the conference floor. It is clear that there is still concern about the health and social care bill. Paul Burstow stressed that the health secretary would have to retain legal and political accountability for the NHS. He also said that he expects further changes to be made to the bill in the Lords.

Predictably, most of the media attention was focused on Ed Milibands speech. It certainly set out the main conference theme around responsibility and rebuilding a society in which the decent majority are heard: To the schools not doing enough I say: Lift your ambition, lift your sights. Say to the very brightest children at every school: if you get the grades, you'll get a place. And it's not just in our schools that I want to change the values that get rewarded. It's right across society. The new bargain must demand responsibility from all. Take social housing. When we have a housing shortage, choices have to be made. Do we treat the person who contributes to their community the same as the person who doesn't? My answer is no. Our first duty should be to help the person who shows responsibility. And I say every council should recognise the contribution that people are making. David Cameron likes to talk tough on welfare, but do you know who the big losers are from his changes? Time and again it's those who work hard, who try to get on. This part of the speech (heavily trailed before) received much comment. Did it mean councils should favour prospective tenants who are in work? This interpretation was played down by Labour later .

Council tax freeze The council tax freeze in England is to be extended for a further year for 2012-13. This will cost 805 million. Further details have been published here Ministers have said that the money has been found due to underspending across Whitehall. It was the third announcement in recent weeks from ministers of extra spending due to an underspend elsewhere, with the 500 million capital investment fund, and the extra 250 million for the bins. Labour said that it is a recycled announcement because the Tories promised a two-year freeze in council tax at their conference in 2008 and the coalition agreement says: We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities. What will the new subsidy mean for councils? Many will welcome the additional money and it is likely that most or every council will take it up again. However, the 2.5 per cent subsidy is well below inflation and councils are facing massive funding pressures. Council tax makes up only a proportion of a councils budget (from 20 per cent to 50 per cent) so the additional money provides much less than a 2.5 per cent budget increase. It is also not clear whether this subsidy will continue last year there was money provided for four years to protect the council tax base, but this time there was no announcement that the money would be recurring. If it is not, councils could be facing a big gap in the following year - each local authority will need to raise council tax by 2.5 per cent to get back to where they are this year (filling the 800 million gap left by this money not being recurring). To provide an increase in the budget would require a tax increase above 2.5 per cent. Other announcements There is to be 250 million available to encourage councils to reintroduce weekly bin collections. The Weekly Collections Support Scheme will support weekly collections and enable councils to invest in schemes and projects that will benefit the environment including through raising recycling rates. In the coming months councils will be invited to submit innovative bids for funding. Councils will be able to bid individually or in consortiums, and with the private sector where that increases value for money and authorities, will be able to bid for a mix of revenue and capital funding.

There has been much debate already over this announcement if there is additional money available, is this the priority for spending it; will this harm or enhance recycling; how localist is it; what about those councils that still have a weekly collection? The government will increase the discounts offered to council house tenants to buy their homes and would also release land it owns to be used to build homes. The cash raised

by an increase in council house sales, most of which will be retained by the Treasury, will be used to build 100,000 homes that will then be rented out. David Cameron said that this would create 200,000 jobs in the construction industry, adding that the release of government land for house building would create a similar number of homes and jobs. More details here. Details of the precise level of discount increase will be provided by the government's housing strategy, which will be published later this autumn. Eric Pickles in a conference speech that was light on content (his announcements had been briefed on before the speech) did reflect the reality that some Conservative activists and councillors are still clearly concerned about the proposed planning reforms. He insisted that the government would strengthen the green belt and that plans are now being drawn up in a separate document to protect the green belt from being concreted over. Linking planning reform to growth and jobs was also a theme in David Camerons speech. Housing minister, Grant Shapps and localism minister Greg Clark implied that the government was working on transition arrangements that would give councils a grace period to prepare local development plans. This would allow them extra time before the controversial presumption in favour of sustainable development - which will apply where a local plan does not exist or is out of date - could come into force. Communities and Local Government said that the consultation was still ongoing - but admitted that transitional agreements were something which was out there and had been discussed.

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