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Since 2003, Richard McCarthy has overseen the development and regeneration of neighbourhoods throughout the country. In his final few days as Director General, Richard spoke with Editor, Scott Buckler, about what has been achieved in the last eight years and what challenges lie ahead for the Government

The Government launched the Big society Agenda, aiming to put more power in people’s hands, has this initiative given the public the necessary tools to create neighbourhoods that are strong, attractive and thriving?

We have completed  the final day of the localism bill’s passage through parliament, which will now  see the bill become an act. It will hand power to communities and local groups, in particular the opportunity to develop neighbourhood plans. These will give communities and neighbourhoods the chance to really put in the detail which you cannot expect to see in local plans. But the focus remains on the relationship between a community and their local authority. It is important that constant dialogue and discussion between the communities and their councils takes place in order to help deliver significant change for the area.

I think people often misunderstand the Bill and the possibilities it can deliver.  We have had  lots of interest in the opportunity to develop neighbourhood plans to date and the demand is there.  The core of the forthcoming Act is about handing power to both local authorities and  communities to let them have more opportunities to do more for their local area.

The recent report entitled “ Leaner and Greener II: Putting buildings to work” highlighted the necessary need for the public sector to use buildings more effectively in order to save a possible £8bn, how essential is efficient building usage to the economy and communities?

We all know how empty buildings  can bring an area down,  both economically and visually. It is important that local authorities and communities can use these buildings, if the conditions are right, to create more growth and more services and improve a local area.   It is in the community’s interest for local authorities to work hard to ensure buildings that are left vacant can be brought back into use. The Localism Bill will give new opportunities  to communities that want  to acquire assets of community value so that these buildings continue to go on and provide necessary services to the community.  It is also about authorities ensuring that the issue of empty buildings is properly addressed.

The bigger picture is that the more value central government can drive from its own real estate and assets, the more communities can benefit. Central Government  can and is unlocking resources from properties and the rational use of its assets.  This means greater efficiency  for central government whilst creating opportunities for assets to be used in a more imaginative way.

How is the introduction of new powers helping local communities save facilities been received?

Extremely well.

The Localism Bill will also give people the right to hold referendums on excessive council tax rises. When the public better understand the Localism Act, I believe they will see significant advantages. What Ministers want to see is that Local Authorities are more answerable and more responsive to their communities.  It is about challenging authorities on areas of concern for communities.

Commentators and the media should be careful on rushing into kneejerk assessments about the new Act.  Some changes will be slow burning but will prove  very significant.   

With your imminent move away from the public sector, what major improvements to community life have you seen over the last 8 years and what challenges face the department in the coming years?

I think if you go around the country and visit our towns and cities they are generally in better shape. There has been significant  investment in the built environment, improvement of social housing stock, schools and hospitals. We have seen investment and economic activity throughout the country, we have seen the further development  of London and the impact of the Olympics in now clearly being felt. If you go to Manchester, Liverpool or Newcastle you can see the differences from a decade ago. The challenge now is we have less money.  We have become too reliant in some places on public investment to maintain the economy. We need to  change to a more private sector led economic story,  in particular outside London and the South-East, which becomes more sustainable and creates more opportunities for growth and employment as we move forward.

There is always going to be more to be done,  but the economic situation is clearly challenging . The Eurozone in particular is proving challenging.  The government is working  very hard to remove  barriers and get people working together more effectively. It is important to  recognise we are working in a market economy. We must not, therefore, seek  to control it but to unblock it. Some of the early Local Enterprise Partnerships are looking effective, edgy and promise growth.

I am fundamentally an optimist and I think if the government can ensure a sharp economic focus going  forward, which is vital but not at the price of a strong society, effective (and efficient)  public services or the environment.

Written by Richard McCarthy
Thursday, 10 November 2011 15:03

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