Has Nick Boles given the kiss of life to localism?

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.

Coming hours after the appearance of planning minister Nick Boles on Newsnight on Wednesday, the statement gave a firm commitment that communities will soon benefit from development on their patch.

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 councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk.

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  • Helen Dudden 11th Jan '13 - 10:11pm

    I hope that this will not inturn prove to be another way to prevent what needs to done, to make progress happen on the subject of housing. We do need homes, and I agree it should not be a situation, where someone decides they can block homes, in the way it has been happening.

    In Bath where I live, there is most certainly a situation where as a grandmother, most certainly be concerned for those who will have families, and wish to build a comfortable home.

    Every proposed build should be considered in a serious way, ot simply rejected by the few.

  • Andy Boddington 12th Jan '13 - 9:46am

    Thanks Helen

    The problem at the moment is that we get a knee-jerk nimby reaction to almost anything that is proposed. Proposals often come out of the blue from a developer or housing association. Plans are too often imposed on village and towns as being “in line with community aspirations” – code for ‘this is what you are getting whether you like it or not.’

    It will take some time to get an extensive coverage of neighbourhood plans, but it means that the hard decisions are negotiated and agreed well before a developer comes along. People will still object, but their objections will carry less weight.

    This alone won’t be enough. We need short term innovation and I hope to write on that in coming weeks.

  • Richard Church 12th Jan '13 - 12:03pm

    The principle is fine, but something will have to give to pay for this, and it won’t be developers profits. I don’t see the Community Infrastructure Levy increasing by 15% or 25% to pay for it, so it will be other things that might be funded from the CIL. Parks, leisure facilities, schools, health facilities are all things to be funded from CIL. Maybe these will also be the priorities of the parish council, but if not, which of them will go?

  • Tony Harms is right. We are all familiar with development proposals which commonly have the near neighbours apoplexic with rage and most of the rest of the community just not much bothered. Councillors must eventually pick sides, which can be difficult, but not impossible. But what happens when money comes into the equation? Will we see councillors approving all sorts of harmful developments, because it is only the minority of near neighbours who must suffer, while the great majority of their voters want to go ahead and take the money?

  • Until I read David Allen’s comment I thought there must be something about these proposals that I was missing. I live on an estate of about 1000 houses, adjacent to a piece of land on which another couple of thousand could be built. The Church Commissioners, who own the land, have recently spent £1 million on legal fees to try to prevent the land being registered as a common. There is no doubt in my mind that if they had had the option of bunging every household £100, and maybe another £100k to the Parish Council for good measure, that a local referendum would easily approve development on this land which currently the City Council regards being important to the City’s landscape setting, something rather less tangible than a bribe. I have always been suspicious of the concept of
    ‘planning gain’ as being a bribe by another name, but this proposal seems to me to risk corrupting the planning system to its core. Or can you reassure me that I’ve got this wrong?

  • Andy Boddington 13th Jan '13 - 4:44pm

    Tony – we certainly have some nasty stuff in Ludlow. A few years ago, they even came to blows in the council chamber! But sadly too many people become nasty when there is a disagreement over policy.

    Richard – I suspect that the government has yet to work out the maths on CIL. I suspect that most parish councils won’t hold the money themselves. It will be in council coffers and I suspect many will keep tight control on how it is used. The bigger parish councils, like Ludlow town council, have the ability to manage large scale funds. It will be in towns like this where this proposal gets interesting.

    Tony – the planning system has always been distorted by money. The reason that Telford & Wrekin want to impose an out of town supermarket on Newport is that the council will gain £21 million from selling the land. This sort of thing has been happening for decades. Does planning gain (S106/CIL) grease the wheels of the planning system or grease the palms of councils and residents? Now there is a big issue!

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