The Localism Bill

Posted on September 6th, 2011 by Charles Boot

This major piece of Government legislation received its second reading in Parliament on 17th January 2011. The Bill is an extensive document which seeks to deal with a variety of issues; as such it is immensely complicated to formulate an overall view of its likely impact. However, it is clear that as presently framed, the Bill will make major changes to the planning system – the second set of major changes within some eighteen months.

As a philosophical principle, the empowerment of local communities is perhaps one with which many of us would feel an instinctive agreement. Too often in the past decisions have appeared to be taken at some remote bureaucratic or legalistic level with scant regard to the potential impact on individuals. As a statutory consultee (or remote expert voice, depending on one’s point of view) we have played our own part in that system. The Government’s legislation seeks to address this perception by requiring local authorities to hold referendums on any matter (including planning issues) if a petition is signed by 5% of local electors or a single councillor. Authorities are not obliged to follow the result of such a referendum, but they must show that they have taken it into account. Clearly, when applied to planning issues in particular, local referendums have great potential to be taken over by single-issue groups or campaigners who will not, perhaps, have an appropriate understanding of the longer term objectives of conserving the historic environment. For all its perceived faults, the present system of planning law does at least ensure a relatively level and objective basis on which decisions can be made.

The Bill envisages rights for community groups to bid to provide services to the local authority. In a climate which is seeing local government spending radically reduced and funding for urban designed landscape such as public parks and cemeteries under increasing pressure, it is possible that we shall see the emergence of community groups managing such places on behalf of the local authority; however, whether sufficient motivated groups will emerge to bridge the looming funding gap remains to be seen.

With regard to the planning system itself, the Bill again produces mixed responses. Some proposals, such as the extension of the Community Infrastructure Levy on new development to cover on-going maintenance costs of elements of the historic environment such as ‘public green spaces’ – presumably encompassing public parks, cemeteries and other designed urban spaces – is to be welcomed. On the other hand the immensely complex regulations proposed for the development of Neighbourhood Plans, Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Build Orders raise the potential for seriously detrimental development affecting the setting of, for example, registered parks and gardens which would not be permitted under present regulations.

The new neighbourhood development procedures are intended by Government to bring forward more development than is presently the case. As such, neighbourhood planning does not have to be fully compliant with the Local Development Framework, and only has to have regard to national planning policies. The neighbourhood plan becomes part of the Local Development Framework, thus acquiring considerable weight in the planning process; and the statutory requirements to have special regard to the desirability of preserving or enhancing the historic environment are dropped where a Neighbourhood Development Plan is developed.

Jonathan Lovie

First published in GHS news 87 Spring 2011

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