Local authorities must be freed from excessive Government control and handed new powers to help them make a real difference to the communities they serve, the leader of Birmingham City Council demanded last night.

 Mike Whitby, speaking ahead of the expected launch tomorrow of a White Paper on local government, said Midland councils were "having the life strangled out of them" by Whitehall regulation.

Urging Local Government Minister Ruth Kelly to be radical, Coun Whitby (Con Harborne) added: "We have one simple message for the Government: give us our freedom and we will deliver."

He said the effectiveness of the White Paper would be judged by five tests. They were:

Formal Government recognition of city regions, with detailed plans setting out how a West Midlands city region would work.

Devolution of powers and resources for transportation, economic development, skills, housing and planning to locally elected representatives in the city region.

Specific proposals for reducing the burden of regulation and inspection on councils and more freedom to make decisions locally about how council taxpayers' money is spent.

A stronger role for local councillors. New responsibilities for councillors and a clear role in taking decisions on behalf of their communities.

A stronger leadership role for Birmingham City Council in bringing together Government agencies and giving strategic leadership across the public sector.

Coun Whitby said he hoped the White Paper would give clear support to the city region proposals worked up by Birmingham and seven other West Midlands councils.

He said: "More effective local government cannot be delivered within the current confused and unaccountable system which forces officers and councillors to look upwards to Whitehall rather than outwards to the people we represent.

"We look forward to our city region proposals being recognised as a way forward with no central blueprints, such as elected mayors being imposed by Government.

"We want to see clear first steps in the devolution of resources and decision-making on transport, economic development, skills, training, planning and housing to be accountable to city region leaders".

Birmingham City Council spent more than #1 million and 1,000 working days on Government inspections last year, a process that Coun Whitby believes is unnecessary and counter-productive.

The White Paper is expected to confirm Government support for the process of double devolution – the transfer of powers from Whitehall to town halls, and from town halls to local communities.

Birmingham has already embarked on the devolution route, having established ten constituency committees where local councillors share budgets totalling #100 million and are responsible for delivering community-based services.

Councils will be studying the White Paper for any proposals to increase the number of elected mayors.

It is thought likely the White Paper may also contain proposals to strengthen the powers enjoyed by council leaders.


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