Localism Gets Itself into a Right Pickle
On the 11th July I attended the Royal Town Planning Institute's (RTPI) Annual Convention in London and like many planners in the audience was waiting expectantly to hear Eric Pickle's (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)) keynote address. We were not disappointed as Yoda, Spider-Man, the Walking Dead, the A team and a 1940s penguin book on Town Planning, all featured.
Much of the narrative was reinforcing the government's commitment to, and championing of, localism within a demand for more positive planning agendas. This provoked my question to him. From neighbourhood plans to local plans to local enterprise partnerships, I was unclear how these different expressions of local can work together as localism as they operate at different scales with different goals and needs and thus produce potentially conflicting outcomes.
Not surprisingly the Secretary of State was bullish in his response arguing that he was tired of these inane questions. "The clue is in the word local" he boomed. It was about government letting people get on and do things that benefit their places and lives without government interference as the previous Labour administration had done with a "mass of conflicting guidance and zombie systems at the mercy of Whitehall's walking dead".
Unfortunately I did not have the time of reply as rarely do ministers outstay their own strictly managed timetable. So this blog looks critically at Pickle's localist rhetoric as it is currently being pursued in legislation and planning reform.
Undoubtedly, there is something politically attractive in giving people the right to determine their future and shape the kinds of places they want. But behind the rhetoric lies an uncomfortable truth that English localism is cloaked behind a carefully designed set of government rules and interventions that controls the localism agenda, preventing the wrong kind of localism being pursued.
1. Localism cannot be used by local communities in neighbourhood plans to object to developments. The housing and employment land allocations in the local plan are fixed and non-negotiable. Thus the plans have only one direction of travel; they can increase development subject to need and also can help shape the kind of the development proposed. They can, however, be used in the future to shape statutory plans but must be in accordance with them.
2. Under the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2103 poorly performing local planning authorities can have their planning powers removed to the planning inspectorate to be centrally determined. Furthermore, on some applications, developers are allowed to opt for a planning inspectorate determination which takes planning out of local authority hands.
3. Under recent changes to permitted development people are able to build new extensions (double original size) without any planning interventions, whilst a controversial use class order relaxation allows the conversion of offices and barns to residential.
This leads to policy contradiction and to clear disintegrated development where the rhetoric of local people being able to shape their places is contradicted by centrally imposed regulations and powers that can remove it and risk producing outcomes that are contrary to local people's needs.
As we move up the localist hierarchy we encounter the new kids on the block; the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPS), a locally led consortium of business leaders charged with delivering economic growth. Unlike neighbourhood and local plans there is no democratic mandate to LEP plans, yet increasingly they are seen by government as the champions of sub-national planning, filling the vacuum by the SOS abolishing the Regional Spatial Strategies. However the spatial architecture of the LEPS is based more on political convenience and alliances than any meaningful planning boundary.
LEPS also suffer from limited funding. Despite calls from Heseltine in his report on Economic Growth for £50 billion to go in a single pot for delivering economic growth, Whitehall have kept financial control only allowing £2 billion, seriously constraining their localist and growth-producing activities.
So we have disintegrated localism with government reluctant to let communities, local authorities or LEPS have the necessary resources or delegated powers to truly shape their places. Here the metaphor of the rather strict parent springs to mind. Pocket money is given to each child, set within a code of behaviours that means they can only do certain things and are definitely not to be trusted.
Of course the cynic in me views the government's localism rhetoric as a 'get out of jail' card as by claiming there is no big government intervention then the government is free of blame when the desired growth doesn't appear on the horizon. So cue the renewed attack on the planner as the enemy of enterprise.
As a planner I want the UK to thrive; I want growth but I want it pursued within ethics of equity, environmental and social justice that cut across all scales and sectors. Here an English spatial plan and vision can help unite all the different scales, sectors, plans, policies and agencies. That is why my question on localism was not trivial. We cannot and should not let this this government's localism subterfuge go unchallenged.