It's localism, but not as we know it

6 July 2011

Joanne Cave, David Lock Associates

New development to drive the economy is overshadowing localist agendas. But Joanne Cave argues there’s room for both

As the Localism Bill makes its passage through Parliament, it has attracted some interesting amendments. The context in which its progress is occurring has also taken on a new shape.

In March, attention switched briefly from localism to the need to plan for economic development, as the government realised that the growth and future stability of the nation’s economy must take centre stage when we consider development. Never has the planning system featured so significantly in the chancellor’s Budget Day speech.

Great speculation ensued: surely the need for economic growth would outweigh a local community’s objections to new housing development? Was localism done for before it came to legal fruition?

Secretary of state Eric Pickles had an answer ready. Housing has a vital role in driving economic growth. So it follows that, in removing any barriers to economic growth, we must also look to remove blockages to housing growth. Regional spatial strategies were very much a blockage on new housing, as they led to conflict, absolution of local political responsibility and planning by appeal.

A look at the housing completion rates of the last 10 years makes it hard to argue with this view. It would indeed appear that local authorities up and down the country are waking up to the fact that it’s now up to them to decide the numbers.

However, many are choosing the easy route of basing housing numbers on local need. It will be interesting to see what happens when those authorities realise that planning for local economic growth will mean going beyond need and into the territory of building more homes to attract investors and new employees.

So, we can be confident that localism remains firmly at the centre of our development world. Yet there is a heightened sense of nervousness and bewilderment about how to best tackle Mr Pickles’ great experiment in community-based decision making.

I would argue that while this is understandable, the government has, in fact, given us a very clear steer about how we should approach the matter. In essence, old ways of carrying out public consultation are no longer relevant.

Instead, we need to embrace a new way of thinking in line with the government’s agenda. This requires us to look at a town or city as a whole, to understand its geography and its economy, its socio-economic character, its culture and its potential, and to plan to make it a better place. We need to be so compelling in this that the community will begin to wonder what it will do if it doesn’t have new development, and will want to compete with neighbouring towns and cities for new investment and development.

This is no easy task. Working with communities to help them to understand the links between homes and economies will not be straightforward. We must take comfort in the fact that the government has now come out categorically in favour of new homes. Localism cannot and will not become a new weapon for nimbyism. But we must cease to think of ourselves as anything other than localists when we approach those communities.

Joanne Cave is a partner (urban design) at David Lock Associates

The Localism Bill: key changes

As the Localism Bill enters committee stage in the House of Lords, a few key amendments have been made. Expect now to see a new consideration to make “local finance considerations” a factor in planning applications (in effect a green light for planning authorities to look at the financial rewards of approving development).

There will be a greater role for businesses which will be able to jointly prepare and participate in neighbourhood plans, and those plans can now be set up specifically to promote employment. To many developers’ relief, the number needed to prepare a neighbourhood plan has increased from three to 21.

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