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The End of Localism – What Next?

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Two and half years after the launch of the Localism Bill it was about time we reflected on whether localism (#localism) is actually working.
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I chaired a Meeting Place Communications (@MeetingPlaceC) seminar in the West End this morning introducing a good set of speakers  – two politicians, one former newshound and an engagement specialist and an audience dominated by housebuilders, so plenty of different perspectives.

Cllr John Moss, a Conservative Councillor at Waltham Forest opened up. His thesis was planning is failing and the effective engagement of local people is what can break the log jam, especially if neighbourhood planning is used to its full potential. There is no doubt effective engagement can help break some log jams but certainly not all of them. The jury is out on neighbourhood planning – the Government is trying its hardest to promote them but whether they have a long term future in planning must be doubtful.

Huw Morris, the ex-editor of Planning magazine (www.planningresource.co.uk), one never frightened to expound his views, had a far more sceptical view on things. In his view localism has meant many local planning authorities and communities now being able to tell developers to get lost! He’s right but I suppose that’s half the point. The other half of the point is of course the tension between what the country needs and what actually communities want. And here lay the key message of the day. With more litigation in planning than ever and an increasing amount of planning by appeal Huw saw localism leading to less negotiation and more punch-ups.

Key note speaker Nick Raynsford MP brought his tremendous experience to bear on the matters in hand. He was able to put things into an historical perspective – the pendulum has swung back and forth between centralism and localism for many a year. Post war the urgent need for housing delivery meant Central Government essentially took over and delivered tower blocks and new towns. Fast forward to the late 1960’s and 1970’s and by the height of the housing boom the pendulum swung back as concerns over the concreting of the countryside gathered pace. The key theme that emerged again was the serious dis-connect between national need and local delivery, the inevitable consequence of which is the need to introduce some intermediate mechanism to deal with what the duty to cooperate probably cannot deliver.

Anna Sabine, (@msannasabine) a director at Meeting Place Communications, gave us the simplest and best definition of localism – it’s about ‘talking to people’ and then she told us how best to do it. Digital media is fast becoming the order of the day, especially in London. Public exhibitions may have their place but digital media enables interaction in a different way potentially with a much wider and different audience. Perhaps this is the route into that illusive silent majority.

My take – there is a lot of good reforms going on and no one can dispute that trying to get local communities more involved and developers sharpening up their engagement act is a good thing. But the elephant in the room is the Government’s idealistic notion that local communities can and will objectively assess need for housing (wind farms and for whatever else) which, with so much local politics at play, is quite frankly nonsense. That disconnect is the undoing of localism and has led to planning by appeal, as too many LPA’s can’t demonstrate a 5 year land supply.

So it’s not the end of localism and much of the Act is to be commended. But the imperative for economic growth and the important part housing delivery will play in this meant that localism was overtaken by the demands of the Treasury almost before it got started.

Note: The views expressed by John Moss and Nick Raynsford were made entirely in a personal capacity. For future updates follow me: @jimfennell1

 

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