Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by David Alexander (L 49)

I have a number of concerns over the Localism Bill and I would ask you to please consider them during the committee stages.

As things stand at present, the Localism Bill asks more questions than it provides answers.

1. Local Growth White Paper: Realising every place’s potential (Cm 7961, 28th October, 2010), Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills. This white paper deals with the planning system as a key mechanism for increasing confidence to invest. It should be read by planners in order to compare and contrast its content with that of the Localism Bill (produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government), for which this is the only white paper setting out an intellectual case and justification. It stresses:-

· The planning system as a means of increasing confidence in investment and actively encouraging growth. However, the planning system has a much wider remit than this and there is no mention here of the social and environmental priorities.

· Making the default position for the planning system as one in favour of development. However, the planning system has a much wider remit and also includes social and environmental priorities.

· Communities will be the centre stage in the reformed planning system, but how realistic will this become? In speaking to the Planning Officers Society on 24th January, The Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark, MP, stated that it will be up to local authorities to decide which local groups and bodies can do neighbourhood planning and who is best representative of local opinion. How democratic is this?

· Communities will have the freedom to bring forward more development than that agreed in the local plan. How does this match with the democratic Local Development Framework and with the Minister’s view to the Planning Officers Society that the local authority plan will matter more and set the context for neighbourhood plans?

2. Terminology. The Local Growth White Paper refers to a focus on delivering sustainable economic development, whilst the reformed planning system will include a national presumption in favour of sustainable development. These two are NOT the same, with the latter incorporating the social and environmental considerations on an equal footing with the economic considerations. Urgent clarification is required here, together with an agreement between the two government departments concerned.

3. Ambiguity over the localism agenda. On the one hand the government are pushing hard for greater community involvement within the Big Society, a sentiment that would receive widespread support, and on the other hand they are removing funding from local government, through deficit reduction, and setting out clauses that limit the actual powers to be exercised by elected local authorities. Going further, Government are then giving more work to resource stretched local authorities to decide who can or cannot do neighbourhood planning and setting up new funding sources for which local communities must bid.

4. The introduction of financial incentives into the planning system, through the Localism Bill, will potentially impact on the planning profession and on local government codes of conduct. Exchanging planning permission for cash – as with the New Homes Bonus – is bound to cause serious concerns amongst professionals.

5. Democratic accountability and neighbourhood planning. While there is clearly democratic accountability in using parish councils as the basis for neighbourhood planning in rural areas, which also have a large number of village/parish plans produced by local communities that could become the basis of future neighbourhood plans, the situation within urban areas is much less clear and far more uncertain. Are we to see urban neighbourhood forums based on urban wards that are democratically accountable?

6. How can local councillors work with small neighbourhood groups whose particular interests and plan may not be in the best interests of the wider neighbourhood that such councillors represent? At the very least there must be pilot studies of the proposed approach in order to discover practical problems before proposals are rolled out across the country.

7. What specific resources will be provided to local authorities and neighbourhoods? Will the bidding process limit opportunities only to those authorities who are successful? Why is it not possible to use Planning Aid as a good practice arrangement that is already up and running as an important supporting pillar for community planning?

8. Professional planning skills. If professional planners are expected to make greater use of a visionary approach, as suggested by Greg Clark to the Planning Officers Society, this will have significant implications for professional planning schools across the country. Curriculum changes will be necessary if skills in enabling, supporting, mediating, collaborating, explaining options and finding solutions are to be given greater prominence over more traditionally accepted planning skills.

9. In my opinion, designating local plans within single local authority areas as the strategic planning dimension, does not provide an effective strategic approach (or replacement for the true strategic dimension expressed by the Regional Strategies) to a region or several sub-regions . The duty to cooperate must have some teeth.

I hope that these representations will be helpful to you in examining the committee stage agenda for the Localism Bill and scrutinising your findings.

January 2011