The Localism Bill was introduced to the UK Parliament on 13th December 2010. Almost a year on, the bill was passed as the Localism Act on 15th November 2011. With the passing of this act, a change will be seen to the way in which the planning system operates in England and Wales. Although the effects may not be immediate, its implications will be seen in the medium to long-term and may eventually be adopted by the Scottish Government.
So what is the Localism Act and why is it important to us normal folk and our neighbourhoods?
In a nutshell, the Localism Act supposedly gives powers to local communities to determine and shape the way their neighbourhoods are developed. Local communities will be able to grant planning permission for new buildings they want to see go ahead and determine how their area should look like (link of summary). It also gives opportunities to local communities to gain ownership of buildings it feels needing saved. It is a BIG ask! These tasks would otherwise be carried out by the Local Council with Planning and (relative!) Design experience.
‘You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t!’
Normally, for a developer to obtain an approval for any development, an application would lodge to the local council. As a local resident, you can support or object the proposal by making a representation against the application. Quite democratic, but in a twisted way, the locals has more to lose!
If you object to the proposal under the centralised planning process, a representation could be made and would normally be through the help of design consultants.This is the twisted part. Some communities find that they would be paying to support and object the development in question, both at the same time! They are paying the council (through taxes) who would be considering the proposal against the local plan, as well as paying design consultants (usually through donations, fundraising and their own backpockets) to represent their objection to the proposal.
Under the new Localism Act however, ‘which building goes, you decide’!
To Build or not To Build
As with any change, there will be two schools of thought as to the repercussions and outcome of the act; i.e. ‘yes, it will improve the way we live’ or ‘no, it’s the beginning of the end of controlled development!’.
So what are the emerging arguments for and against the Localism Act?
1. Decentralises power to local communities to determine development opportunities
2. Local communities can manage public finances
3. Cuts bureaucratic red tape
4. Local communities can choose their public service providers
5. Makes communities more accountable of their own neighbourhoods
1. Self-interest overrides interests for common good
2. Actually hinders development (especially much-needed housing) with possible opposition from NIMBYists (Not In My Back Yard)
3. Makes government less accountable
4. Lack of control over development leading to sprawl
However, all said, the concept of giving more power to local communities to determine themselves what developments should (or not) happen surely is a good thing, right?
“By the power of Westminster…I have the Power!”
Not as straightforward as that. Although the UK government advocates this empowerment in its 6 actions of decentralisation, the Localism Act may not give much power to local communities as might be expected.
Currently in England and Wales, the National Planning Policy Framework is the highest planning policy that sets the overall planning aims. These are then translated to a slightly more local level through Local Plans (in Scotland, a Structure Plan sits between the National and Local plans which covers planning within regions).
What is missing (in some communities) is a more local translation of the plans to suit communities and neighbourhoods, i.e. a Neighbourhood Plan or Community Plan. Of course, one size does not fit all!
It is said that local neighbourhoods can come up with a Neighbourhood Plan that sets out the development guidance for the local community. This is then put to the local community to vote and with a majority backing, the Neighbourhood Plan is passed as policy. The Neighbourhood Plan will now supersede the Local Plan.
In Scotland, communities are already developing their own Community Plans. They feel that planned development is something that is done to them, rather than done with them. Changes to Scottish Planning system in 2009 makes it mandatory for proposals regarded as major or national to include a period of statutory consultation with local communities and residents. However, still doesn’t avoid the fact that planned development is something that is thruster upon them. There is still resistance by local councils to acknowledge Community Plans as supplementary guidance they have to weigh interests of development requirements set by their Local Plan.
So, the talk about localism is all good but how much power local communities actually have remains to be seen.
Going full Circle
The question that should be put back is ‘How far and to what extent can Neighbourhood Plans or Community Plans influence and shape Local Plans (or even National Policies?)’. That will be the true ‘bottom up’ approach and test of Localism Act’s effectiveness.
In the meantime however, we won’t be seeing any small neighbourhoods or towns turning into Las Vegas any time soon, will we?
NOT IN MY BACK YARD!