Vir Cantium

I'm right, you know …

Lessons in Localism

Something that councillors like me are going to have to get used to is the fact that ‘localism’ means devolving power to the lowest practical level. That sometimes will mean bypassing us altogether, as with today’s “Community Right to Build” proposals from Grant Shapps, where local land trusts can obtain permission via local referenda to build small developments.

I expect that some of my own colleagues will not be happy with this one but, so far, I am.

One group that has already come out against the move, though, is the Council for the Protection of Rural England:

“A more democratic approach to house building is welcome as local people should always be given a say in development…. However, bypassing the planning process is not the way to deliver it and any proposals should include proper planning scrutiny.

“The level and location of development should be informed by a proper assessment of local housing need and an understanding of whether the local environment can accommodate more development. This capacity should be assessed through democratic local plans and not a simple public ballot [my emphasis].”

Yes, you read that last bit right. I think that the term “democratic” in this instance, describing central planning under a system introduced in the 1940’s, is used in the same sense as it is in, say, the “Democratic Peoples Republic of (North) Korea”. (Certainly, at least in the past, it has given us a fair amount of architecture in a similar style too).

I could even comment that the use of the term “Council” in the CPRE’s name is somewhat incongruous, as it suggests a body made up of elected representatives. Perhaps that explains why the CPRE (chief executive: former Labour MEP Shaun Spiers) is so confused about what democracy really means.

When we councillors do draw up our local development plans, we are doing so as delegates of the local communities in our wards, divisions or parishes. At a borough or county level, it is the most practical method of getting democratic input into the process over large areas.

However, if you are talking about a neighbourhood or village, then a local referendum could clearly be a practical option. (Incidentally, Grant Shapps has tentatively suggested a high approval threshold of 80-90%). Yes, consideration must be given to the effect on the local environment, transport routes, schools and other infrastructure, but surely those best placed to judge this are those living in that same neighbourhood? What makes us, the local great and good councillors, think that we know any better? Is that not the philosophy of the paternalistic central state bureaucrat?

Taking of which, just how “democratic” does the CPRE think it is when, under the current system of central planning, a development wins approval after a successful appeal to a planning inspector reporting to his superiors in Bristol? “Not very” would be the answer, I suspect, but there’s no point in being half-hearted if you want to overturn decades of anachronistic state planning machinery.

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