How could a new Bill enable people to Take Back Control? Moving from slogan to solution
Polly Lord outlines what’s needed in any Take Back Control Bill to make it meaningful for communities.
Over the past few months, Labour has set out a bold vision for government, with a radical devolution agenda at its heart. They have promised to devolve powers at the first opportunity via a new Take Back Control Bill. But it’s one thing to promise to give away power in Opposition, quite another to turn a slogan into a solution. What would be in a Take Back Control Bill to make it meaningful?
The Brown Commission’s review set the constitutional scene at the end of last year for more devolved powers, more social rights, and less centrally controlled power. Then, the main act – Keir Starmer’s New Year speech – promised a new mission-led approach to Government which would take power out of its hands and into those of communities.
For the Take Back Control Bill to achieve its aim, it must rebalance power from a top heavy system of governance, towards people.
These steps reflect changes that New Local has long championed. Our research has shown the multiple benefits of community-powered approaches, from strengthened community resilience and cohesion to improved health and well-being. Our polling research also found a strong public appetite for more control. We have even argued for new laws to protect community rights.
For the Take Back Control Bill to achieve its aim, it must rebalance power from a top heavy system of governance, towards people. It would do well to draw lessons from labour law – which exists to protect the dependent party in working relationships – to reverse the flow of power. To do that, the new legal framework should have three core components:
First, there should be consideration of an overarching duty imposed on the public sector to promote, support and empower communities. Other UK nations have pioneered this. The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act) created a duty on public sector bodies to promote economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being. Scotland’s Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act enshrined community rights around participation in decision-making and land ownership and control. In a similar way, legislation will need to enshrine a shared national purpose, with local variation and interpretation encouraged. With England behind the other nations, there is at least an opportunity to learn from what has worked well.
…it’s one thing to promise to give away power in Opposition, quite another to turn a slogan into a solution.
Second, there should be better use of the principle of subsidiarity. This would see a legal test developed which sets out that a higher tier of Government would only interfere with a lower tier’s authority when the issue can’t be managed at the local level. This could be because the matter falls within the higher tier’s exclusive competence (e.g. making laws). Or it could be because of necessity (e.g. national security). Or there could be added value, such as through benefits of working to scale (e.g. tax collection). Applying this is a reversal of current thinking and would encourage departments to ask ‘what is the lowest possible level, closest to people, where decisions can be made?’
Third, there should be more use of existing legal tools to immediately shift the system logic. There’s a handy legal technique that could be more widely used in local and community-based rights – a rebuttable presumption. This assumes something to be true unless proven otherwise. In policy, it is often used through opt-outs, such as automatic enrolment in employers’ pensions schemes or inclusion on the organ donation register by default. Flipping the default position to favour communities ultimately flips who holds control.
These ideas are not particularly radical – all exist in other bodies of law and can be easily replicated. What is bold is the application of them to communities, which could enable the biggest shift of governmental power since joining the EU. Can the Take Back Control Bill fulfil the promise of its name? For now, it’s TBC.
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