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Localism Bills Big Society Agenda Could Put Planning Hands

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The much-anticipated Localism Bill, published yesterday, outlines radical changes that will; introduce elected majors into 12 English cities; give local authorities more control over finances and social housing; and - controversially - it will push the ownership of the planning debate to communities.


Heralded as the "centrepiece" of government efforts to decentralise power away from Whitehall, GVA Grimley welcomes the Bill's overriding "Big Society" theme, but warns that 'Localism' must not become 'parochialism'. 


Beverley Smith, from the Property, Development and Regeneration team at GVA Grimley's Leeds office warns: "This is a great opportunity for the Big Society to actually make a difference and involve local communities in important decision making for their neighbourhoods.


"However, as the concept of new development is so emotive there is a danger that it could prevent much-needed changes being achieved.


"In Leeds for example, one outcome could be that the City becomes unable to deliver the housing that is required in the areas people actually want to live, as existing local communities effectively bar new development and change to retain the status quo. .


Smith continues: "Essentially, the Localism Bill outlines six wide-ranging actions, such as 'empower communities to do things their way' and 'strengthen accountability to local people'. Each action is highly commendable and reiterates the need to reverse generations of centralisation that the coalition government argue hasn't worked.


"Top-down housing targets have been scrapped, with the reason given that construction of new homes is currently at the lowest level since the war. The new system will 'embrace decentralised development that is not merely accepted - but actually led - by local communities'. However, the practical implementation of this agenda could be exceptionally heavy on resources; it could cause significant ongoing delays to planning applications; and on the face of it, may constrain, rather than create a climate which encourages development activity and promotes sustainable communities.


"The Localism Bill calls for new Neighbourhood Plans to be established in each locality, which listen to local views and are approved by the community. Unless community stalwarts take a wider view and are sensible and realistic about accommodating new development and change to their area, Neighbourhood Plans could be difficult to get approved. In the meantime, the lack of a Plan - which requires a majority vote by referendum to be approved - could create delays to the planning system unless there are enforceable timescales for preparation imposed.


"While "Big Society" rhetoric has wide approval, in practice it will require local people to have significant understanding of complex technical planning issues. Local authorities will need to have access to specialist in-house resources, or alternatively, appoint specialist consultants and community planners to draw up each Neighbourhood Plan. Developers will also need to commit even more resources to the planning process to demonstrate community support - not just consultation - prior to a planning application being submitted."


Smith continues: "While the Localism Bill refers to new local incentives, such as the New Homes Bonus, given the scale of cut-backs following the Comprehensive Spending Review, councils will be faced with a major challenge on how best to capitalise on such initiatives. The pertinent question is to what degree the New Homes Bonus will encourage local authorities and their communities to accept growth and new development. Providing the impact is positive, it will then be the extent to which developers feel now is the right time to design, implement and invest in new housing development that will determine the success of the New Homes Bonus and the Localism Bill at large. There is a danger that the New Homes Bonus will be considered a panacea in a funding desert, it will not solve infrastructure issues further disappointing local communities and causing them to continue to reject growth and change.


"While the outlined reforms are put into practice, it is vital that the coalition Government does everything it can to put effective arrangements in place to address the current policy vacuum as a matter of urgency. In the longer term, the Localism and Decentralisation movement must ensure that important local, economic and housing investment is not stymied by the rampant self-interest of a few highly motivated 'NIMBY' interest groups. This will be a key test of the new system; can growth be achieved in parallel with the "Big Society" agenda - we will have to wait and see."


Ends -


Issued on behalf of GVA Grimley by Beattie Communications.