Council votes in favour of more power

By Farnham Herald in Local People

WHITEHILL Town Council has voted to give itself more power.

At the annual meeting last Monday, councillors agreed to declare general power of competence.

According to a Local Government Association paper, entitled Empowering Councils to Make a Difference, councils are currently using the power to “promote innovation in a number of areas”.

General power of competence gives councils the power to do anything that an individual generally may do, provided it is not prohibited by other legislation, as set out in the Localism Act 2011.

The Local Government Association describes the status as “the power of first resort”. “This means that when searching for a power to act, the first question you ask is whether you can use the general power of competence,” the paper adds.

“To find the answer, you ask whether an individual is normally permitted to act in the same way.

“An individual can’t impose taxes on other people so a local council can’t use the general power of competence to raise taxes.

“On the other hand, an individual could run a community shop or post office, provided they abide by relevant rules, so a local council can do likewise - can set up a company to provide a service. The general power of competence clearly permits a local council to engage in commercial activity as long as it sets up a company or co-operative society for this purpose.

“Sometimes a council can do things that an individual can’t do, such as creating byelaws, raising a precept or issuing fixed-penalty notices but it must do so using the specific original legislation. The general power of competence does not mean that the council can delegate decisions to individual councillors - this is a procedural matter that remains enshrined in law.”

The Government hopes that the power gives local councils “confidence in their legal capacity to act for their communities”.

It encourages councils to use this power to work with others in providing “cost-effective services and facilities in innovative ways to meet the needs of local people”.

The council can “lend or invest money; it can trade; it can even sell energy to the National Grid”.

If another authority has a statutory duty, then it remains its duty to provide that service (such as education, waste collection, social services) but local councils can still help out.

For example, a local council can support a school in many ways, just as an individual might. It could even help a community trust to run a local school.

Another interesting bonus is that the council can undertake activities using the power anywhere - not just within its parish.

The Local Government Association also notes that technically it is not even necessary to “worry whether the activity is for the benefit of the council, the area or the community”.

But, in practice, this might have a significant impact on votes come election season.

Whitehill Town Council meets the prescribed conditions, with a qualified clerk and more than two thirds of its seats filled, so it is eligible to declare general power of competence.

Following last week’s vote, it now has additional freedom.

Town clerk Andrea Mann said the power was “quite powerful” and will give the council the ability to “do more things without having to have a proper legal specific power”. “It basically means we can do anything that a district or county can do, as long as we’re not actually taking a service.”

Councillor Adam Carew said of the power: “It is very good that we now have it.”

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