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Power to the people, says Citizen Dave, but will the people want anything to be built in their back yard?

14 Dec 10 The coalition government’s vision for “a big society”, much spoken of by prime minister David Cameron, was given a little more detail this week with the publication of its Localism Bill. The legislation is designed to move powers from central government to local councils and neighborhoods.

 The Localism Bill contains a package of reforms designed to devolve powers from central and regional government to councils and neighbourhoods, establishing new rights for communities, reforming the planning system, and giving local communities control over housing decisions.

While there was a broad welcome that policy was finally taking shape, concerns were expressed in some quarters that abolishing strategic planning may not actually be a good thing and that neighbourhoods may have a tendency to block developments to preserve the status quo.

Measures in the bill include:

- Devolving significant new powers to councils - Councils will be given new freedoms and flexibilities to act in the best interests of their area.

- Establishing powerful new rights for local people and communities - New powers for local people to hold their local authorities to account. Local people and communities' will have a right to challenge to take over services; a right to bid to buy local assets such as libraries, pubs and shops; a right to veto excessive council tax rises through a referendum.

- Planning reform – Planning to be based on neighbourhood plans rather than regional plans. The Infrastructure Planning Commission to be replaced with “a democratically accountable system” for major infrastructure.

- Housing reform - The Bill will return decision-making powers on housing to local councils and communities through a new Community Right to Build “giving communities the freedom they need in order to come together to build new homes and amenities in their towns and villages”. Home Information Packs will be formally scrapped. The Bill will put councils in charge of allocation and tenure of social housing, giving councils the flexibility to use their social housing stock to the maximum effect and reduce waiting lists. The Housing Revenue Account Subsidy System will be replaced with “a more transparent system that serves local communities”.

- Creating incentives for economic growth - The Bill will give local government a stronger role in local economic development. Local authorities will be allowed to grant discretionary business rate discounts; make small business tax breaks easier take advantage of; give affected businesses a greater say in rate supplements; and cancel certain backdated business rates.

The Home Builders Federation (HBF) said the bill “will at last give some much needed guidance to housebuilders and local authorities alike, as to how the new planning system is intended to work”. However, it expressed concern that neighbourhood’s would put their interests before the greater good and block new housing developments.

HBF executive chairman Stewart Baseley said: "The localism proposals provide a real chance for people to develop their communities for the better and house builders will work with them to build the homes communities and families want. More homes will mean more money for local facilities and services and will enable young people to live in the communities where they grew up. The government and local councils need to join us in educating communities of the severity of the housing crisis and the benefits of new homes.”  

National House Building Council chief executive Imtiaz Farookhi responded: “We are suffering a chronic undersupply of housing across the UK, and one of the tests of this Bill’s success is whether it leads to more homes being built in areas where they are most needed, and whether the system allows the current shortfall to be addressed at a rate which meets the demands both of local communities and the country as a whole. Latest NHBC statistics reveal current volumes of new homes starts while steady, remain at historically low levels.

“It is important that the reform of the planning system links in with the Local Standards Framework that Grant Shapps recently announced.  If these measures lead to more homes being built and reduce the burden of bureaucracy, eliminate duplication of regulation and introduce greater certainty into the development process then this will be a considerable achievement.”

The Freight Transport Association expressed fears for the future of strategic planning. FTA head of global supply chain policy Christopher Snelling said: “The rejection of recent rail freight terminal applications and the length of time it has taken for port applications to get decisions has shown that there is already an endemic failure in the current system; a more localised one is surely going to make this worse. Difficult decisions require objectivity, which is something that this Bill threatens to undermine. To meet our national, environmental objectives and to optimise our transport system, modal shift onto our railways or waterways is a crucial part of our future. We need a mechanism that allows the right decisions to be made, be they about rail terminals, wharves or ports.

 “To make it work, transport infrastructure requires a joined-up approach that looks beyond the ‘not-in-my-back-yard’ interests of the few, to those of the whole country. FTA will be responding to the Bill at the very highest level to ensure that the knee jerk interests of the few do not outweigh those of the many.”

Local Government Association chairman Baroness Margaret Eaton said: “It is essential that councils are freed from the bureaucracy imposed on them by Whitehall so that they can get on with the job of serving their local areas. The Local Government Association is pleased that the government has taken on board its proposal to introduce a general power of competence which will let councils innovate and address local issues without having to seek new legislation first.

“Locally elected councillors and residents know their areas best and giving them control of planning and housing will help ensure our towns, cities and villages can flourish in a way which meets the needs and aspirations of the people who live there. The LGA will now be seeking to work with the ministers to ensure this bill delivers both the government and councils’ aims of putting residents and councillors in control of their local areas, and does not create any unintended new burdens.”

The Unite union called the bill “intellectually incoherent” and a “smokescreen” for cuts. General secretary-elect Len McCluskey said: ”It is not possible have cuts to local government - amounting to 28% over four years - and then expect people and organisations in their areas suddenly to have the inclination, expertise and cash to take-over the running of local government which has taken over a century to develop the range of services it now offers. The ‘ Big Society’ is a smokescreen – a David Cameron vision of a 1950s Britain that never existed – which actually will mean an estimated 140,000 job losses in the next year. The coalition is using the Orwellian language of 1984 to promote localism as the panacea of all ills, when, in reality, it is a grim cuts agenda being imposed from Whitehall.”

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