The long-awaited Royal Assent for the Localism Bill was received on Tuesday afternoon, paving the way for a radically new planning regime to be introduced.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles called it the "biggest transfer of power in a generation, releasing councils and communities from the grip of central government."
Among the changes are the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies and the introduction of neighbourhood plans led by communities and business groups in non-governmental neighbourhood forums .
So far only a dozen neighbourhood forums have been set up in the North West under the DCLG pilot programme.
The Department for Communities & Local Government's own summary describes the key measures in the Act as follows, in the department's words:
- Introducing a new general power of competence, giving councils unprecedented freedom to work together to improve services and drive down costs. Councils are now free to do anything – provided they do not break other laws
- Opening the door for the transfer of power to our major cities to develop their areas, improve local services, and boost their local economies
- Ending the ineffective system for overseeing the behaviour of councillors by abolishing the Standards Board
- Clarifying the rules on predetermination in order to free up councillors to express their opinions on issues of local importance without the fear of legal challenge
- Enabling councils to return to the committee system of governance, if they wish, regardless of their size. Centrally set rules interfering in how councils set up their own affairs are being scrapped
- Giving councils greater control over business rates. Councils will have the power to offer business rate discounts, which could help attract firms, investment and jobs. The Act cancels unfair back-dated business rates, which threatened to cripple key businesses. It stops plans to impose a business rate supplement on firms if a simple majority of those affected do not give their consent, and simplifies the process for claiming small business rate relief
- Introducing new planning enforcement rules, giving councils the ability to take action against people who deliberately conceal unauthorised development
- Increasing powers for councils to remove illegal advertisements and graffiti and prevent fly-posting, and giving planning authorities stronger powers to tackle abuses of the planning system
- Reforming homelessness legislation to enable councils to provide good quality private rented homes where appropriate, freeing up social homes for people in need on the waiting list
- Allowing councils to keep the rent they collect and use it locally to maintain social homes through the abolition of the housing revenue account
- Passing greater powers over housing and regeneration to local democratically elected representatives in London.
DCLG said there were also key measures to increase the power of local communities, these include:
- Introducing a new Right to Bid, which will give residents the opportunity to take over treasured local assets like shops and pubs and keep them part of local life
- Introducing a new Right to Challenge, making it much easier for local groups with good ideas to put them forward and drive improvements in local services
- Consigning Bin Taxes to the dustbin of history, by removing the ability of councils to charge families for overfilling their bin and to introduce extra tariffs for taking away household waste
- Increasing transparency on local pay, by requiring councils to publish the salaries of senior officials working in local authorities, enabling local people to understand how public money is being spent in their area
- Giving communities the right to veto excess council tax rises. Previously only central government had the power to 'cap' increases
- Introducing a new right to draw up a neighbourhood plan, giving local people a real voice to say where they think new houses, businesses and shops should go- and what they should look like
- Enabling communities to bring forward proposals for development they want – such as homes, shops, playgrounds or meeting halls, through the Community Right to Build
- Freeing home sellers and buyers from red tape through the abolition of Home Information Packs. The Act removes HIPs once and for all from the statute books
- Enabling people to swap their social home, for example because they wish to move jobs. Anational home swap schemewill give access to details of all other tenants who may be a match
- Giving social tenants stronger toolsto hold their landlords to account. Landlords will be expected to support tenant panels – or similar bodies – so tenants can carefully examine the services being offered. The Tenant Services Authority will be abolished
- Requiring developers to consult local communities before submitting certain applications. This gives people a chance to comment while there is still scope to make changes
- Ending decision making by unaccountable officials on important infrastructure projects such as train lines and power stations. The Act abolishes the Infrastructure Planning Commission, and restores responsibility for taking decisions to elected, accountable Ministers.
DCLG also published a plain English guide to the Localism Bill here www.communities.gov.uk/publications/localgovernment/localismplainenglishupdate.
Many of the measures are expected to be in place by April 2012.