There’s a word I’m beginning to dread and that word is ‘localism’. It’s the coalition Government’s new buzzword and, taken at face value, it should be a positive one with its connotations of power to the people. So, why am I so sceptical?
I first stumbled across localism when I crossed swords with my local MP Mark Harper (Conservative) over his support for Local Member Review Boards (LMRBs), which the then Labour Government was proposing to introduce. Other Conservatives, including Grant Shapps MP – now the Minister for Housing – were also in favour.
These Boards would have taken away the right of those receiving a planning refusal, under delegated powers, to appeal to an independent planning inspectorate. Instead, it was envisaged that those receiving such a refusal should only have the right of appeal to a committee of locally elected members. In other words, by those who may have lobbied against the original application — advised, no doubt, by the same people who’d dealt with the application. I felt this was wholly undemocratic and expressed my views – supported by many, including H&R and the RTPI (Royal Town Planning Institute) – forcefully in The Daily Telegraph.
In any event, LMRBs didn’t go through in England and Wales under the Labour Government — although the poor old Scots had them foisted upon them (a bit like the Poll Tax).
Now the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are in power they want to revive the concept of LMRBs. And they’ve come up with further wheezes to increase localism in planning. Eric Pickles MP, Secretary for Communities and Local Government, has stated that local authorities can ignore Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS). Local authorities can now decide their own policies for housing development and numbers. The Government has also confirmed its plans to scrap the IPC (Infrastructure Planning Commission), which was set up by the Labour Government to deal with major infrastructure planning applications. Most worryingly of all, they talk of a third-party right of appeal — which anybody and everybody I’ve ever spoken to feels is a recipe for complete chaos.
But should we embrace the concept of localism; of passing power back down to the grass roots? Surely allowing local people to decide the destiny of their own environment must be right? So how, as a democrat, can I possibly object? And surely to do so puts me in the realms of a convert to national socialism? I’ll tell you why I’m so against localism: it’s because I actually believe in the original concept of planning laws. Before the advent of planning laws in this country, land was only ever developed for the benefit of those who owned it — and the people who owned it were, as sure as hell, not ordinary folk like you and I, but the wealthy and/or blue-blooded. The minute planning laws came into existence, land was only ever developed for the common good. If that resulted in an enhancement of value that benefited the individual, then so well and good. If it upset others, then that was unfortunate. But the overriding aim was for the good of society.
Those fundamental principles are still there but all too often subverted by the interests of a vociferous minority, who see planning laws as a means of preserving their own property values. The whole culture of planning at local level is largely negative — building new houses is never a vote winner. Teeth are gnashed about the lack of affordable housing but still “we don’t want them around here”. Local planning is a cauldron of self-interest, and most of the pundits and writers for publications involved in planning deplore the stagnation in housebuilding that they see coming if this concept of localism is entrenched.
Nobody’s suggesting that planning shouldn’t be considered at local level. Targets should be set at national level, leaving local authorities – as they had previously done – to decide how best to fulfil those targets in their areas. Sometimes it’s necessary for somebody to look at the bigger picture; to decide on the planning process for the common good.
The planning applications for my last four self-builds were all turned down at local level, only to be approved by an independent inspectorate. Talking with those involved in planning in a professional capacity in my area, they all now accept that in the end the right decisions were made. But that acceptance does not – and is unlikely to ever extend – to the local people who objected. And if they’d had the right of a third-party appeal, not one of those projects would have been able to proceed. Cameron’s ‘localism’ of planning is bad news for self-build plans.
It pains me to write some of this. My words, even though I strongly adhere to their principles, grate with me. But the plain fact of the matter is that there are some things you can’t trust to localism. And I know that to be true, for if there was a proposal to develop the land I overlook, I’d probably be the first to put my own self-interest and the preservation of my property values first.
But would that be for the common good? I don’t think so.