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General Power of Competence
Trowers Public Insight

General Power of Competence

The Government still bangs the drum for Localism and regardless of political complexion, most councils support the concept and actively seek to engage more and more with the local community (even if, under the guise of Localism, it has to pick up the financial and political risk from the transfer of Council Tax support). The General Power of Competence (GPC), in section 1 of the Localism Act, is the jewel in the Localism crown, giving apparently substantial powers of self-determination, free from the shackles of central prescription.

Yet clearly Localism is fine, so long as the government doesn’t disagree. We saw this when Rutland County Council gave notice that it was to sue for defamation, on the basis that the general power reversed the position in case law (in Derbyshire County Council v The Times) that a local authority could not sue for defamation. There might be some doubt about the legal proposition for this (certainly it is hard to see that the GPC does anything to reverse the proposition that a local authority is incapable of being defamed, as opposed to being capable of bringing an action), but what was interesting was the way the government jumped straight onto the case by stating that it would bring out an Order preventing the power being used in this way. Given the government’s fairly strong view that the case would not succeed, a truly localist approach would have been to leave it alone and let Rutland find out the hard way in the courts.

In a similar vein, we now have the confirmation, after many months’ of complaint by Eric Pickles about council sponsored newspapers (in his view "propaganda"), that action will be taken in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill to limit their publication. Regardless of whether strictly the Council needs to rely on the GPC to publish a local paper, the point is the same. No local determination when the government disagrees.

This has got us thinking. As with the wellbeing powers the GPC replaced, there is some doubt about the extent to which local authorities actually make use of their general powers.  We would be interested in hearing from you if your Council has already used the powers in the 12 months or so that they have been in force. We will of course treat any response in confidence. You can contact Michael Mousdale on the details above.