Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Limits Of Localism

"This government is committed to localism and greater local decision-making in planning", said Eric Pickles in March 2013. Recent figures from Planning Magazine though show that he subsequently went on to approve almost as many major housing proposals between April and December 2013 (21) as he did in the entire three year period between April 2010 and March 2013 (26).

In the North West alone Mr Pickles approved 1,760 homes of the 1,963 that he considered (90%) in that nine month period last year.

How can this be so? Why is the great champion of localism, the man who saw off the ‘top down, regional strategies’ and the ‘centrally imposed building targets’ now commanding so much from his Whitehall bunker?

Well as the Conservatives soon discovered, and their current Labour shadows are illustrating, localism is the policy of opposition. It is the policy both of opposition Governments, and, more often than not, localism manifests itself as opposition to development from residents in the immediate vicinity.

The tangle that planners are likely to remember this Government for (and the lesson that Labour have either not yet learned or are choosing to ignore…) is that it sold, and continues to sell, 'local decision-making', when it should have sold 'local decision-making provided that you have a Local Plan that meets objectively assessed housing need and makes provision for a five year supply'.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with how the planning system should operate, but the planning system I see is different to the vision that Mr Pickles paints for his constituents. A local plan identifies a Borough-wide requirement and the quantum to be directed to individual settlements, but whether or not that requirement comes from a regional strategy or an Inspector’s definition of objectively-assessed need it is wrong to suggest that there is local control over this process.

For as long as we have a plan-led system, therefore, any government commitment to localism needs to be qualified by the fact that development will, to one extent or another, have to be imposed upon communities. Where local plans are not in place, and Mr Pickles has said that only 65% of planning authorities will have a plan come April, the current presumption in favour of sustainable development makes it more likely that planning applications will be allowed at appeal.

Where there is local control is in the less vaunted, and consequently much under-utilised, provision for Neighbourhood Plans, which can guide that quantum of development to the most appropriate sites with a settlement and allow communities to maximise the benefits from it. Their introduction does provide greater local decision-making in planning, but, fundamentally, this control is about where development occurs not whether development occurs. Whilst becoming more popular, it is two years since the Localism Bill was enacted and only seven neighbourhood plans have been subjected to a public referendum.

It has been suggested that Mr Pickles’ more interventionist role is so that voters can see that the government is attempting to support housing growth in advance of next year’s election. Mr Pickles might see a pile of planning application files on his desk as a political opportunity, but planners will hope that the next he has cause to champion the localism agenda he reflects on that pile as a reminder of its limits.

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