There’s a word I’m beginning to dread and that word is ‘Localism’.
It’s the new buzzword for the coalition government and, taken at face value, it should be a good word with its connotations of power to the people. So why am I so sceptical of it?
I first came across this word 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. These would have taken away the right of those receiving a planning refusal under Delegated powers to Appeal to the 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 of the council who’d refused the original application, advised, no doubt, by the same people who’d dealt with the application. I felt this was wholly undemocratic and I expressed my views forcefully in The Daily Telegraph, supported by many others including this magazine and the RTPI (Royal Town Planning Institute).
Many Conservatives, Mark Harper amongst them, and including Grant Shapps MP, now the Minister for Housing, were all for them and Mark Harper wrote to me applauding the concept of localism and introducing me to the word for the very first time.
In the event, LMRBs didn’t go through in England & Wales, 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 and they want to revive the concept. And they’ve come up with some more wheezes to increase localism in Planning. Eric Pickles MP, the Communities Secretary, has said that local authorities can ignore Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) and that they will allow local authorities to decide their own policies for housing development and numbers. The government also plans to scrap the IPC (Infrastructure Planning Committee), which was set up by the previous 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 sees as a recipe for complete chaos.
But this is their concept of localism; of passing power back down to the people.
And 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 into the realms of a convert to National Socialism?
So I’ll tell you why I’m so against localism.
It’s because I actually believe in the original concept of Planning law. 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 people like you and me. The minute planning laws came into existence they ensured that 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 principle was always, ‘what was good for society’.
Those fundamental principles are still there but all too often they are 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 “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 house building that they see coming if this concept of localism is entrenched.
Nobody’s suggesting that planning shouldn’t be considered at local level. All are, however, concerned that the targets should be set at National level, leaving, as now, local government to decide how best they can fulfil those targets. Sometimes it’s necessary for somebody to look at the bigger picture, to decide, if you like, on the planning process for the common good.
My last four self builds were on land where the original planning applications were turned down at local level only to be approved by the independent and non local inspectorate. Talking with those involved in a professional capacity with planning in my area, they all now accept that in the end the right decision was made. But that acceptance does not and will not extend to the local people who originally objected. And if they’d had the right of a third party appeal, none of those projects would have been able to proceed.
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 parkland 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.