The Localism Act, which is now law, represents a significant shift in the macro strategies surrounding local community development. Whilst attempting to sell the benefits of this bill, the government filled their narrative with lots of PR-friendly terms that talk of returning the local decision making power back to the local people and away from central government.
In their “Easy Guide to the Localism Bill” the government suggests that, “We are breaking down the barriers that stop councils, local charities, social enterprises and voluntary groups getting things done for themselves.” This is deliberately worded to appeal to communities who get frustrated that regulation gets in the way of their preferred plans. The government have, however, conveniently failed to explain the devastating impact their local government grant cuts has on councils providing services and supporting initiatives approved by communities. Autonomy and increased community engagement is offered by one hand whilst the money to pay for these things is taken away by the other.
The tough cuts to local government grants are having a particularly devastating impact in the North East. In County Durham, the feedback from councillors is that all non-statutory services are under review. The cuts in 2010 amounted to a £70 per head per person reduction, with further large reductions to follow. It was announced on 9th December 2011 that, “Durham County Council has already identified the need to make savings of £123.5m over the four year period between 2011 and 2015 following reductions in Government funding. This further report updates the savings required to £145.8m over the five years between 2011 and 2011“ which painted an even bleaker picture than was previously known. Any county council candidate standing in the 2013 elections for Durham County Council already knows that eighteen months prior to potentially taking office they will face cuts every year totalling millions of pounds up to at least 2017, which is four years of their allotted five year term.
Planning has also encountered a policy overhaul thanks to the new National Policy Planning Framework which offers further challenges for County Durham. The general guidelines from the Community and Local Government (CLG) department states that; “Parish and town councils or, where they exist, neighbourhood forums will lead the creation of neighbourhood plans, supported by the local planning authority. Once written the plan will be independently examined and put to a referendum of local people for approval.”
Complete control is not being handed away, however, as the National Planning Policy Framework is designed to be “less complex and more accessible, and to promote sustainable growth”. Whilst communities are encouraged to get involved with creating neighbourhood plans there is less regulation to prevent undesirable developments getting planning permission. Planning permission for “farmworkers dwellings” are regularly sought with parish councils and community activists are perennially engaged in a battle to prevent these developments. I have spoken to activists who oppose such developments who were demoralised when they realised their fight to maintain their countryside had become even more of a challenge.
These activists are very aware the dynamic between developers and communities has changed with the emphasis now on encouraging developments and growth. It is ironic that Neighbourhood Plans can be created by the local forum that seeks to maintain the local community and resist development, only to find the legislation that allowed their creation opposes their intentions.
I have experience of exactly this type of concern on a local level. A recent public meeting was hastily arranged in Lanchester, County Durham, after a consultation by Durham County Council identified five sites around the village that were deemed suitable for future residential developments. Both residents and the parish council reacted defensively to the suggestion the village would be pushed to the green belt and beyond. Planning permissions granted for affordable homes do not offer the same profit margins to home-building companies than in previous years. Because of these economic difficulties, whether premeditated or a genuine reflection of a development’s potential success in the current climate, retrospective change of use can be applied for which facilitates the building of homes to a higher executive standard, allowing them to sell each unit at a higher price. Communities already get very angry at this type of manoeuvring, therefore in my view relaxing the rules surrounding planning will only further serve to alienate and frustrate the public even more.
My main concerns surround the potential for ‘nimbyism’ becoming a real barrier to building sustainable new homes that the country so desperately needs. Labour Peer Lord Beecham expressed this point eloquently in his article in The Guardian in September 2011 saying, “Planning will be fragmented, with regional spatial strategies scrapped in favour of an ill-defined and unenforceable duty to co-operate, with a real danger of nimbyism being reinforced over the provision of social housing or economic development.” The transfer of powers to the Secretary of State (missing from the community empowerment rhetoric) means that providing local authorities are acting in an approved manner to central government they can proceed, otherwise, checks and balances remain in place.
For a rural communities within the Labour led Durham County Council area, the Localism Act presents real problems in terms of maintaining the countryside and harvesting positive relationships with local residents. Losing £143 million over six years is difficult enough and inevitably causes upset and frustration when much valued services are lost. The government is happy to pass off responsibility for these decisions to the local authority and say the counils must make it work, which is far easier said than done. The Localism Act presents many potential challenges for a county already feeling the pinch of the un-mandated coalition policies and we must work ever harder to overcome these challenges as best we can.
Cllr Malcolm Clarke, Lanchester Parish Council, County Durham