So, what is the “general power of competence” that, at the sweep of a minister’s pen, can banish the courts from interfering with local authority affairs and bring religious harmony to our land? UK Communities Secretary Eric Pickles brandished his pen to sign into law ahead of schedule provisions of the Localism Act 2011 to deal with the Bideford Town Council prayers row. They give councils in England “general powers of competence”, powers that allow them “the same power to act that an individual generally has”. The idea is to free them to offer services in innovative ways. But Pickles has a wider agenda: to keep “unaccountable judges” out of politics.
Hitherto local authority powers have been constrained by Acts of Parliament – they could do what was laid out in those Acts (particularly the Local Government Act 1972) and no more.
As a result, according to a Communities Department introduction to the new Act: “Sometimes councils are wary of doing something new – even if they think it might be a good idea – because they are not sure whether they are allowed to in law, and are concerned about the possibility of being challenged in the courts.The Government has turned this assumption upside down. Instead of being able to act only where the law says they can, local authorities will be freed to do anything – provided they do not break other laws.”