Councils gain power to fine the public under reform package

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Councils will be allowed to introduce by-laws with fixed penalties without needing approval from Whitehall under a radical plan to reform local government published yesterday.

The number of directly elected mayors could increase and the system in place in some parts of the country where the leadership of a council can change every year may be scrapped.

The white paper "Strong and Prosperous Communities" produced yesterday by the Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly was widely welcomed because it appeared to reverse decades of legislation that has undercut the authority of councils. Although some MPs criticised the plans for not going far enough.

"Central government will play its part in guaranteeing minimum standards and setting overall national goals, but we will step back and allow more freedom and flexibility at the local level," Ms Kelly told the Commons. "In exchange, we expect to see more accountability to local citizens, stronger local leadership, better and more efficient services and a readiness to support tougher intervention."

To strengthen local council leaders, Ms Kelly announced that all local authorities will in future be run on one of three models. Either there will be a directly elected mayor, as there is in London, Hartlepool and other parts of the country, or a directly elected executive with a four-year term of office, or a council leader elected by fellow councillors for four years.

One of the most important proposals is giving local authorities the right to pass by-laws to protect public spaces, prevent litter, set aside certain areas for activities like skateboarding, or impose rules about where it is permissible to ride horses or fish. Fixed penalty notices will spare councils the time and expense of going to a magistrate's court.

Ms Kelly promised that the list of 1,200 targets and indicators imposed by the Government on councils will be pared down to 200 indicators and 35 targets. Tony Blair said: "Good local government makes a huge difference. From the moment we step outside our front door it is about how our neighbourhoods look and feel."

For the Conservatives, the shadow communities secretary Caroline Spelman said: "These localist policies are not worth the paper they are written on."

Andrew Stunell, a Liberal Democrat MP, said the public had a sense of "anger and apathy" caused by alienation from government. He added: "This White Paper is a completely wasted opportunity. There's no transfer of powers or money from Whitehall to town halls." But the Tory peer Lord Bruce-Lockhart, who chairs the Local Government Association, said the White Paper was "encouraging" and took "significant steps on local leadership, deregulation and cutting red tape".

Sylvia Brown, Chief Executive of the pressure group Action With Communities in Rural England said" We're pleased that the White Paper aims to re-invigorate local democracy."