Announcements come out of the communities department at all times of the day and night these days it seems. Rather before most of us were awake on Thursday morning, the department slipped out a statement that may just breathe life into the flagging localism project.
The plan is that parish and town councils will get a sizeable share of the community infrastructure levy imposed on most new developments. At a bare minimum, communities will get a 15% share of the levy from local developments, capped at £100 per household. But if a community achieves the holy grail of localism – a neighbourhood plan approved by referendum – it will get 25% of the levy without a cap.
A good few sums need to be done before we can work out what this means for the ‘average’ community. Nick Boles is suggesting that the prize could be up to £400,000 a year. Maybe, but most parishes would grin gleefully at just £20,000 in the current financial climate. The government has also committed more cash to councils supporting neighbourhood plans. It is to establish a central advisory service for communities. All this is good news.
Achieving a neighbourhood plan referendum is everything in localism. Planning has for too long been dominated by commercial interests. It has too often been distorted by planning officers driving agendas. Even worse, it has frequently been undermined by councillors barely able to comprehend the intricacies of the planning system.
For too long, there has been no effective check that plans are actually acceptable to communities. The neighbourhood plan referendum introduces that check. If planners, developers and councillors try to drive a neighbourhood plan through against local opposition, they run the risk of being defeated in the referendum. It is a reality check that developers and planners ignore at their peril.
Planning will always be divisive, but what it has too often lacked at local level is legitimacy. The referendum will give it that legitimacy.
Sadly, much of the new cash promised by Boles will not go to deeply rural parishes. Most are not allowed to build more than a handful of affordable houses, and these will anyway be exempt from the community infrastructure levy. Other areas are also set to miss out. The Wealden core strategy bans almost all development within seven kilometres of the Ashdown Forest. Towns like Uckfield are already unhappy with this. They will be furious when they realise they will miss out on government cash as well.
For two years, the localism agenda has been draining away. Back in November, Hilary Benn accused Eric Pickles of having “gone from claiming to be the friend of localism to taking a hammer and sickle to local democratic decision making.” I’ve attacked Eric Pickles for being a cigar chomping commie. I’ve also accused Nick Boles of acting like Mr Quelch of Billy Bunter fame. But I might just withdraw some of that criticism if neighbourhood planning can be made to work. And for the first time, I have hope that it might.
* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Ludlow, Shropshire. He writes on communities, planning, the environment and history.