Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Local Lies

"The time has come to disperse power more widely in Britain today."

A portentous call to arms, these words rang from the Coalition Agreement signed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg back in May 2010. The Liberal Democrats especially hailed it as a declaration of intent to devolve power to communities and give back control to local people. The Tories gleefully portrayed it as a decisive step away from the centralism of the defeated labour Government, its years tarnished by control freakery and an anal obsession with targets.

Key to the process has been the Localism Bill, currently due to become law later this year. The Government has trailed this as doing away with Westminster control of what happens in our communities, especially in areas like planning and development, and putting people in charge of their local area. Local referenda on a host of subjects will be able to be called by local people.

Just last week, I took part on a panel of local election candidates debating the Local Development Framework proposed by our local Council Planning department under the Labour Government's rules on strategic planning for most of the next two decades. Tens of thousands of new homes are proposed - with several thousand on greenbelt land and more on greenfield land - even although the statistics used to forecast need are, at least, unproven. Needless to say, everyone on the panel agreed with the angry audience of some 150 local people that the local greenbelt/greenfield should be protected and the houses not built. But local people and even the local councillors would not have the final say - this would be taken instead by the full council for the district, where these people and their representatives would have only a small say and represent 3 votes out of 99.

Step forward the local Tory MP with his brilliant solution - delay the vote, delay any decision. The Government is about to do away with the old targets and although local authorities will still need to plan ahead, local people can develop their own neighbourhood plans and even hold local referenda to prevent buildings they don't want.

Sounds good. Almost too good to be true?

Indeed, it is at best a case of blatant "over-selling". Localism and the legislation enacting it, on closer inspection, turns out to be little more than a messy "pig-in-a-poke". No surprise given its provenance on the desk of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and his trusty Orc, Grant Shapps, the Housing Minister.

The Localism Bill proposes to give communities - either Parish Councils or undefined "Community Forums" - the right to establish Neighbourhood Development Plans. Under these, these groups will be able to identify where they want houses to be built and what types of houses are required - "providing the plan is in line with the strategic vision for the area set by the local authority", local people can then vote on it and if they pass it, the houses (or other types of buildings) can be constructed more quickly than under the current planning regime.

Save our fields from the Sontarans - Pickles at work
Nothing there about stopping unwanted developments. Indeed, the Bill goes further to create a "right to build" to community groups wanting to construct small developments (no definition of small, or of community groups).

And if some big developer decides they want to plop a giant housing scheme in the local area, what powers to resist will local people have?

Well, the developer will have requirement to consult with local people before submitting their plans. Consult? That's all. People can be as against it as they like, the developer can still go ahead and submit the application. And with new Government rules creating a default "yes" to development, it will be difficult to stop the process. The guidance is unclear - it does seem there may be some right for locals to demand a referendum, but the local council will only have to take its outcome into account - it will not be binding.

With the Government now offering cash-strapped councils bonuses for each new house built, and opening up a potential scandal with proposed land auctions, the momentum will be with the developers and what little new "power" local communities may have will be swept away under a thick layer of concrete and tarmac. Little wonder that, after some initial concerns, the British property Federation Chair has welcomed the Bill on the grounds that they are: by the emphasis that the Government is now placing on growth and the way in which localism is to be used as the vehicle for encouraging communities to opt, not for nimbyism, but for the sustainable development of both the homes and commercial property that our economy so desperately needs.

So much for power to the people and so much for protecting our green and pleasant land.

A grim future for the green belt?

No comments:

Post a Comment