GORDON Brown’s new Government was last night accused of a rapid return to “spin” as plans to hand voters new powers over local public spending descended into farce.
A row erupted after new Communities Secretary Hazel Blears announced that 10 areas, including Newcastle and Sunderland, had been chosen to test ways to better involve people in how taxpayers’ cash is spent in their neighbourhoods.
She said the proposals were not about organising a local “tea party”, but were a radical change allowing voters to decide their own priorities, be they play areas, youth facilities or traffic calming, through local debates, neighbourhood votes and public meetings.
Her Whitehall department said tens of millions of pounds was being transferred to “community kitties” with the goal for every neighbourhood to have control of such a pot within five years under plans pioneered in Brazil.
But it later emerged that the kitties were being funded from existing budgets, and authorities in Newcastle and Sunderland already have schemes under way to give residents a bigger say.
Newcastle City Council was not even told it was a pilot: the only correspondence was a letter a few weeks ago asking for information.
Deputy leader David Faulkner said the announcement had the “feel of spin”.
The Liberal Democrat said that had the Government been serious it would have provided extra cash on top of the council’s £150,000 a year – which is split between young people and groups in the West End of Newcastle.
Hexham Tory MP Peter Atkinson said: “It seems like the good old Labour Party doing spinning and re-announcing. If it isn’t genuinely new money, then I think people will say nothing has changed.
“So Gordon Brown’s promise of a new type of Government will have fallen at the first fence.”
He also warned: “If you make it too small, it will become a group dominated by those who shout the loudest and have some particular axe to grind.”
North-East minister Nick Brown hit out at Lib Dem-led Newcastle council, saying: “The Liberal councillors are a pretty hopeless crew.”
The Communities Department said officials had made a mistake in not telling Newcastle in time, and there was no new funding because the scheme was about involving residents more.
Councils had done work on a small-scale but the pilot projects would extend it.
Mrs Blears said: “This Government is delivering a real shift in power to town halls, and ensuring town halls pass this on to local communities.”