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Localism – People Power or Nimby Nirvana?

November 21st, 2011

Well we have it at last. The Localism Bill was signed into legislation last week and is now the Localism Act 2011.

Considering the fanfare that surrounded the Bill’s introduction, the passing of the Act was the legislative equivalent of Bonfire Night in the rain. Not surprising really, though. Perhaps before making such an issue of it, the Westminster Government should have realised that it had set itself the impossible task of satisfying the largely middle-class desire to set middle England in the stone age and halt all development while also remaining the friends of business and setting a positive framework for new investment in those very same areas.

The result then is a bit of a damp squib. Worse, it is a pretty indecipherable damp squib. Lawyers are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of all those legal challenges that will inevitably follow the application of the various elements of the legislation.

For those residing in England, the DCLG has published an idiots guide to the Act, presumably so that Ministers can understand what they have signed us all up for.

For Wales, the position is even more confusing. The legislation scribes have had immense difficulty in understanding how an Act of Parliament sits with Measures proposed by the Assembly.

In England, local authorities are to be given a general right of competence ( I will leave it to others to make the jokes about competence and local authorities being mentioned in the same sentence). This means that they can basically do anything that is lawful, much like an individual and not be constrained by that “silly old restriction” imposed by just a few centuries of public law that actions of public bodies should be constrained by the powers they are specifically granted.

There is also a community right to stop private landowners selling buildings or open space before the community has been given the opportunity to buy it off them. Sounds good, but how many communities will take advantage of this? I am willing to bet that apart from a few pristine villages on the fringes of London filled with wealthy and oft retired Major Generals, Guardian journalists, bankers and others that can spare a few ‘k’ to buy the village pub (that is being sold precisely because those same people couldn’t be bothered to drink there when it was trading) no-one is interested. A community right to build suffers, in my view, the same fatal flaw.

The piece de resistance of the English nimby’s Magna Carta is the neighbourhood plan. Apparently, what we really need to deliver the communities we want is yet another tier of planning documentation. What makes this one special is that it isn’t to be sullied by the views of elected district councillors. However divorced from reality councillors can be sometimes, they are still put there by the electorate. How can a neighbourhood plan prepared by unelected people be truly a plan of the neighbourhood?

So what does Wales get? Well for the first time in many months I find myself congratulating the Welsh Government’s planners for cherry picking the best bits of the Act and keeping us well away from the more loopy bits.

For example, we get changes to CIL. We get the requirement for pre-application consultation to be undertaken for certain types of planning application- the scope of which is to be established by a later development order. Sensibly, ‘local finance considerations’ are excluded as a material consideration in the determination of planning applications.

The argument of WG has been that many of the principles of localism have been a part of Welsh planning for years and we don’t need an Act to tell us to listen to the locals. If WG can carry that pragmatism forward in the various ongoing reviews of the welsh planning system and the new Planning Act, then there is hope for it yet.