Power To The People: The Localism Bill
The long awaited localism bill is finally published today. After a week of difficulties for the coalition, it will come as welcome relief. Localism is one of the glues that hold the Government together – a firmly established principle of the Conservatives in opposition and a long standing belief of the Liberal Democrats approach to community politics for many years.
Yet the decision to coincide the publication of the Bill with the local government settlement – forced onto the Government by the busy parliamentary timetable – means that the policy pledges of the 200 clause Decentralisation & Localism Bill is likely to be overshadowed by more stories of coalition ‘cuts’. Predictably, this was Labour’s line of attack this morning, accusing the Government “of offering councils devolution while holding a gun to their head (over finance)”. Labour will look to exploit this fault line between Tory and Lib Dem councillors and their national leaders all the way through until next May’s local elections.
At the heart of the Localism Bill is an aim to redefine the relationship between the individual and the state. By rolling back central government control they will give people, communities and councillors more power. Yet, within this rhetoric lies the central dilemma of the Government’s new approach – exactly who are they empowering? Councils may receive more powers under the Bill but so will local people. They will have the powers to take over council services or challenge excessive council tax rises and planning policies through a referendum.
Much of the Bill is peppered with the blue skies thinking of the Conservative Party’s most prominent thinkers such as Oliver Letwin and Steve Hilton, who are known to have taken a great interest in the Localism Bill. They believe that it will set the foundations for the Big Society.
The Bill will also bring about major reform to the planning system. As promised in the Conservative’s Open Source Planning paper, the Infrastructure Planning Commission will be rolled into the Planning Inspectorate, regional planning will be abolished and councillors and communities given greater powers to determine planning policy and development control. A new duty on developers to undertake pre-application consultation on major applications raises the prospect of applications being rejected on the grounds of inadequate engagement. In what looks like a significant concession to the Lib Dems, neighbourhood plans will become the new building blocks of the system.
Localism is a great policy for opposition. You can complain that too few homes are being built in the wrong place, and at the wrong price. Local candidates can be encouraged to run anti-development campaigns. The problem in Government is how you square this circle of providing local choice but to deliver what is clearly needed: more affordable homes and key infrastructure. A recent survey for the New Homes Marketing Board showed that while over 80% felt Britain needed more homes, just 50% accepted more housing in their neighbourhood.
At the heart of the Government’s approach of turning NIMBY’s into YIMBY’s is the replacement of the stick of regional housing targets with the carrot of financial incentives in the form of the New Homes Bonus, payable to councils that build new homes. Government ministers hope that this incentive will be even more significant in an age of austerity when council budgets will be reduced by 25% over the next four years. Although there are no further details about an incentive for commercial development, the Bill will give local councils discretionary powers to grant business rate discounts.
The Government does not appear to have said significantly more about the process for agreeing a new National Planning Framework or the definition of what is ‘a presumption in favour of sustainable development’. Without these, the uncertainty that has dogged the planning system since May looks set to continue.
The Bill proposes a major shake-up of social housing with reforms to encourage greater private provision of council housing and a new National Homeswap scheme to make it easier for social tenants to relocate. Both could be controversial within the social liberal wing of the Liberal Democrats. Finally, the Bill will devolve more powers to the London Mayor and the London Borough’s and formalise the streamlining of the London Quango’s. It will also pave the way for referenda in 2012 on setting up directly elected mayor’s in 12 other cities.
It will be interesting to see how Labour responds to the new agenda. In Government, Labour championed regional targets and once described the New Homes Bonus as a mechanism which will “rob Peterborough to pay Poole”. These positions are likely to be early causalities of Ed Miliband’s policy review as he searches for more populist policy positions.
The rhetoric of localism is strong and hugely ambitious but can the Bill live up to the rhetoric? In a localist world some local authorities will innovate, welcome development and succeed; while poorly run authorities will perform badly, delivering poor services to their communities. This Bill institutionalises what some would call a postcode lottery for different communities.
For developers, the localism bill reinforces the trend of the past six months. Understanding the political dynamics of a local council and generating public support will be the essential ingredients of winning planning permission in the new system.
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For more information, contact Wyn Evans on 020 7025 2321.