Is the Sustainable Communities Act the most important legislation since 2000?

Steve Shaw discusses the importance of the Sustainable Communities Act, and asks if it is the most important piece of legislation of the past decade.

Steve Shaw is a grassroots mass mobilisation specialist. He spent four years as co-ordinator of the Local Works coalition that successfully campaigned for the Sustainable Communities Bill to become law as the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. He now co-ordinates the coalition’s promotion of the Act across the country.

The Sustainable Communities Act was born out of a grassroots movement of people. These people were concerned about the alarming rate of national decline of their communities, with pubs, post offices, shops and services closing at a disturbing pace. The full extent of this decline was documented in the new economics foundation “Ghost Town Britain” reports of 2001 and 2002.

People were just as concerned by the powerlessness they felt to do anything about this decline, as unseen market forces and distant officials thwarted any attempt at a reversal. As the Power Inquiry of 2006 demonstrated, people are interested with what is going on around them, but feel unable to influence political institutions and politicians; if they could genuinely influence decisions of governance they would.

The Act was drawn up to address these two related problems; its philosophy was that local people are the experts on their own problems and the solutions to them, but that government can act in order to achieve the changes sought.

After a massive grassroots mobilisation campaign led by the Local Works coalition the Act was passed in October 2007 with full cross-party support. It gave people the power to put proposals to government, via their local authorities, for changes that would help their communities. In 2009, under the first “round” of the Act, there was an amazing response, with 100 councils putting forward 300 proposals to government. View these here.

For the first time in our history, the Act gives people the right not just to be consulted, but to actually play a part in the final decision taken – via a process of “reaching agreement.” Some of the best examples of councils’ engagement of residents can be viewed here.

In the same way, government must “reach agreement” with an independent body set up under the Act (“the Selector”) about which proposals will be implemented. This is happening at the moment, with the results announced at Local Works’ reception in Parliament on December 15th. Soon we will see a whole raft of new innovations being implemented across the country to reverse the tide of community decline, an unprecedented event.

And we will also see the launch of the second round, when the whole process will happen all over again. The Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark, spoke in Parliament on November 16th and said:

“I regard the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 as one of the most important pieces of legislation to be enacted in the past decade.”

We agree.

• Campaign ask: Please sign up to Local Works so we can help you use the Act next year to help your community; sign up at www.localworks.org

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