Opinion: Mr Quelch muscles in on localism

“Fellows near Mr. Quelch’s study window heard a sound from within—the rhythmic sound of a cane on trousers.”

Just who, I wondered, as I watched the House of Commons Select Committee hearing held last week, does the speaker remind me of? Then, as he spoke about using sticks against the laggards, an image from decades ago slipped into my mind.

Oh crikey! I realised that am listening to Mr Quelch, the merciless form master who beat Billy Bunter and his ill-behaved companions at Greyfriars with jolly regularity in the weekly Magnet. I swear that Nick Boles is Quelch reincarnated.

The Select Committee had gathered to interrogate Boles, the new planning minister, and Mark Prisk, the new Housing minister – though Prisk barely got a word in. Chairman Clive Betts, with his usual quizzical scepticism, enquired after the state of localism: “We started out with localism. Then we got moved onto something the Secretary of State called guided localism. And the next stage was muscular localism.”

Boles grinned and passionately declared neighbourhood plans: “the thing that transforms the rate of development in this country.” Then, still grinning cheerfully he got to the muscular bit. “There will be no doubt be a few laggards and we will be finding different ways… to make being a long term laggard painful.” Ouch! Beast! Boles is clearly loving being the cane-wielding form master: “Yes, there will be a combination of the bully bull bit and some carrots and sticks.”

In his evidence, Boles put the flesh on new powers in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill that ministers will use to bring laggard planning authorities into line. Councils that are too slow processing major planning applications or have too many decisions overturned at appeal will be put on ‘special measures’. If you think this sounds like the regime for schools, you are right. Boles made it very clear that the school special measures regime was what he had in mind.

Planners performance will be compiled into league tables. Boles stressed repeatedly that “very, very few” councils will have their planning powers diverted to the Planning Inspectorate. He promised: “we will work very hard to ensure that they are able to resume their independence as soon as possible.” But he did not explain how cash-strapped councils could be turned around when their planning income has been siphoned off to the Inspectorate.

If it’s “very, very” small number of councils that will be punished by Boles, then bringing in new legislation just to deal with – on my analysis – Hartlepool and Ribble Valley seems overkill. Why does he need a stick? Why can’t he just give them some extra-curricular coaching to help them pull their socks up? The answer I am sure is that Boles is already dreaming of widening the special measures. Once ministers have a power, they are going to want to be seen wielding it. Nottingham City, Wyre Forest, Bracknell Forest and Eastleigh may be the next in line.

Muscular this new regime may be, but it is certainly not localism. Mr Quelch is alive and well, wielding his cane from Eland House, SW1.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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