Last Monday the Government’s Localism Bill received its Second Reading in the House of Commons. In its own words, the aim of the Bill is to give greater control to councils and neighbourhoods over planning. However, there are tensions at the heart of the Bill as to how government can empower local communities in planning decisions while still retaining the ability to fulfil key government objectives on areas such as housing and infrastructure developments. In trying to resolve this tension, the Bill raises three key questions that will need to be addressed as it passes through the House.
Firstly, what or who is “local”? By giving greater control to both councils and neighbourhoods there needs to be greater clarity in what happens when these two groups do not agree. For instance a Development Plan may be in the interest of a wide area but opposed by those who live closest to it. Financial incentives such as the New Homes Bonus and changes to the Community Infrastructure Levy will no doubt help, but will require a significant attitude change from many local residents.
Secondly, how much power will neighbourhoods actually gain? The Bill states that a Neighbourhood Plan will need to comply with any Local Plan as well as any national objectives, meaning that in some cases Neighbourhood Plans may be subordinate to any national objectives. In addition Neighbourhood Plans that set out plans for fewer homes than the local development plan will be rejected. For many communities, over-development is a significant concern and this Bill will not give them any greater powers in opposing these decisions. This has been a big issue in London where contentious housing targets set by the Mayor have caused tension with outer London Boroughs.
Thirdly, there are practical questions as to how much access local neighbourhoods are going to have to resources necessary to develop a plan. Although the recent announcement of the £3 million “Supporting Communities and Neighbourhoods in Planning” fund has been welcomed, it is significantly less than the £4.5 million Government grant that has been cut to Planning Aid.
There is no doubt that the Localism Bill is a significant step in freeing up councils from top down, targets, strategies and directives – far more than the comparable suffocation of Labour. The Committee stage of the Bill will shed more light on these questions…..or maybe they can be found in the 406 pages of the Bill itself.