Fyson on ... the wasted opportunities for well-being power to bring culture change to local authorities

There is a plaintive tone to the latest evaluation of councils' use of the well-being power granted by the Local Government Act 2000.

Intended as a means of encouraging them to think broadly about their goals, the term "well-being" seems to have been widely used without regard to the power and the DCLG concludes that the experience has been a "good illustration of how policy implementation can confound expectation".

Because local authorities could traditionally only do those things that were authorised by statutory powers, duties and functions, their broader and innovatory roles were suffering unwanted restriction. The well-being power was introduced to allow them to do anything they consider suitable to promote the economic, social or environmental health of their area, unless they are explicitly forbidden by other legislation from doing so.

This wide-ranging right to act outside the traditional service remit made it easy to take responsibility for preparing a sustainable community strategy and convening a local strategic partnership to prepare measures to implement it. Since 2003, councils have also been able to charge for discretionary services, including those they have opted to provide under the power. Local area agreements followed.

The well-being power allows authorities to act on priorities identified with partners and their citizens. But despite their freedom to spend, enter partnerships, set up companies, exercise functions for other bodies and provide staff and services, the power is little known beyond senior officials and lawyers, who are generally cautious about using it. Much better awareness is needed among cabinet members, elected representatives, senior managers, strategic officers and the voluntary sector generally.

The DCLG research reports with thinly veiled exasperation on the key role of local authority lawyers, who exhibit little expectation that others should know about the power, leading to a "risk of opportunities being lost". It is very clear from the range of case reports cited that local authority environment and place-shaping policy is a prime area for practical use of the measure, which links very well with the drive for culture change in the world of planning.

The report suggests that evidence from other countries that have made a similar statutory amendment shows that cultural and contextual change in local government will stimulate widespread use of the power. But it will only happen if local authority legal officers can overcome their caution and tendency to act as bellwethers leading their council flocks away from innovation.

- Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

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