Localism was always a con game

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Localism was nothing more than a sound bite, created for the benefit of the media. It was also designed to con an increasingly unhappy and non-voting public, in to thinking that things were going to change for the better, when it came to local decision making.

There can be little doubt that the public have now realised that they’ve been conned, but worryingly, they don’t actually seem to care that much. Using local elections, as a way of sending a message to the government of the day, is something of a tradition in this country and may well indicate the true feelings of the majority of people when it come to local government in general and their local councils in particular.

Perhaps it’s time for political parties to bow out of any further involvement in local government. Why not require all councils to run elections without any party political logos or emblems on the ballot papers, as in the case of parish councils?

Once elected, councillors would be required to form alliances in order to form an administration. Without party politics in the mix, the public would be required to focus on the performance of the people in charge and not the political party they belong to. This isn’t a plea for proportional representation by the way, as I don’t support that, given it’s continued linkage with Party based politics.

Those who chose to form alliances and work together,min order to get each other elected and subsequently form an administration, would still be elected on their own merit and the reputation they had gained with the local electorate, not just the fact that they belonged to a particular political party, that a particular element of the electorate supports come what may. It may be something of an exaggeration, but it is suggested that some dyed in the wool voters, would vote for a gate post as long as it had their Party’s emblem on it!

An added bonus from such a system, would be the dismantling of the political party associations. These tend to be made up of those who have to be in them by default, because they are standing for election under that particular party emblem. This requirement gives some prospective parliamentary candidates a standing workforce (in theory at least), that other, non-party political candidates, don’t enjoy. Breaking the link between MPs and local government, would probably be good for the democratic process in more way than we can imagine!

Now to the point of this post and an LGC comment that partially echoes a previous posting of mine.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online

Why Labour should not support council tax referendums
Don’t sacrifice localism on the altar of spending restraint
20 March 2014 | By Nick Golding

So who doesn’t expect Ukip to be the big winner of the local government elections, which are being held on the same day as their European counterparts?

One of the main reasons that a party set up to oppose the European Union will win seats on numerous councils is that the electorate is indifferent to voting for candidates representing regular parties who may have local policies but lack the ability to implement them.

Central government imposes cuts on councils without regard to local need and councillors have seen their powers over issues such as planning and education whittled away to the point of impotence. With representative democracy looking this unhealthy, one can understand someone’s rationale for using the local elections to make a bold statement about an issue largely unrelated to local politics or indeed not voting at all.

So the question arises of how local democracy can be reinvigorated. It is clearly an issue shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn has given much contemplation.

In his LGC interview this week, Mr Benn proposes the extension of city deals to counties, ensuring power is devolved in more places, making it more worthwhile to vote in them. The same is true of his promise that councils will get a significant role in commissioning back-to-work schemes.

However, Mr Benn says Labour is likely to retain council tax referendums, forcing locally elected politicians to navigate a prohibitively expensive and risky hurdle if they seek to safeguard services by raising bills above an arbitrary limit imposed from afar by a minister. To date no council has successfully pursued this path.

Mr Benn says the impetus to keep bills low brought about by the referendum policy will help people suffering due to the “cost of living crisis”. While it is true that council tax bills cost people dear, so too do service cuts that have had their worst impact on society’s most vulnerable. And so do opportunities to drive growth that are missed because councils lack the resources to lead on projects to create jobs.

Eric Pickles regards the council tax referendum as a device to secure democracy. Well, if that is true, will the government commit to holding polls every time a decision is required on the expenditure it controls? More likely, ministers will argue their government is the democratic representative of the people, entrusted to make tough decisions on their behalf. The same argument applies to local government.

Councillors should take decisions on local public expenditure, facing grief at the ballot box if they prove unpopular. Referendums only muddy the waters of local democracy, introducing a semblance of people power which hinders representative democracy. The fact that they are only applicable to a minute portion of public expenditure – one of the few slithers of spending not centrally controlled – makes them a democratic illusion.

The council tax referendum is a bellwether issue when it comes to local democracy. In this case Labour has sacrificed localism on the altar of spending restraint.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

We don’t need a tilt, we need an earthquake

Balance of power tilts back towards councils, by Richard Garlick
14 March 2014 by Richard Garlick

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The planning minister struck a slightly penitent note when he was explaining his finalised planning practice guidance to the Daily Telegraph last week.

Nick Boles said that additions were being made to planning guidance in some areas where the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was “not working as it should”.

The message to the Telegraph readers was clear: we are listening to your concerns about an NPPF-enabled development free-for-all, and we are taking steps to bring it under control.

It was the latest step ministers have taken to insulate the government from such criticisms. Only a few days earlier, Boles had written to complain about an inspector who had told Reigate & Banstead Borough Council to release green belt land, saying the latter “had invited misinterpretation of government policy”.

He can fairly argue that the finalised guidance will in some ways bolster local planning authorities’ control of development. But it would be an oversimplification to suggest that ministers are reaching for the reverse gear on their planning liberalisation.

Boles can argue that the guidance will bolster local controls on development
Alongside the guidance, Boles confirmed changes that will mean that in most places planning permission is no longer needed to convert shops outside key shopping areas, or agricultural buildings with a floor space of up to 450 square metres, into homes.

These are major incursions into local democratic control of development. What’s more, the guidance itself instructs planning authorities to leave no stone unturned in the struggle to make brownfield sites viable and competitive with greenfield alternatives.

Commentators have suggested that this will force councils to accept lower design standards on brownfield sites than elsewhere, as well as relinquishing any claim to deciding the scale of developer contribution necessary to provide the infrastructure needed to support the scheme. Boles may be bolstering councils on some fronts, but he continues to undermine them on others.

That said, the finalised guidance does offer genuine reinforcement for town halls.

No longer is it the government’s position that only “in exceptional circumstances” will applications be dismissed as premature in terms of prejudicing an emerging plan. Guidance now spells out that the duty to cooperate is not a “duty to accept”, and planning authorities are not obliged to meet their neighbours’ unmet needs. Unmet housing need is unlikely to constitute the “very special circumstances” needed to justify development in the green belt, the guidance says.

Not of all these provisions are major changes to the status quo. In some cases, the finalised guidance is confirming an approach that councils have already been arguing for successfully in front of inspectors, or which the secretary of state for communities and local government has been enforcing in call-ins. But, cumulatively, these and other measures in the guidance look likely to, in some sectors at least, slightly tip the balance of power back towards local authorities.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning richard.garlick@haymarket.com.

It’s called throwing the baby out with the bath water

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I can’t believe that these councillors can be so naïve as to think they would gain support from the planning puppet master, Nick Boles. How can they not realise that the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) is simply doing what it is told by DCLG and it’s current incumbents, Eric Pickles and the hyperactive Nick Boles? They in turn, are of course under the thumb of George Osborne, who seems to believe that building hundreds of thousands of houses,min a short space of time, will be the saviour of the UK economy.
If you want to improve things in planning terms, don’t throw out what’s been proven to work over many years, instead, get rid of the ‘external elements’ that are undermining it.

PINS fulfils a vital role, by addressing the sometimes aberrant behaviour of some planning departments and their associated planning committees. How else would an applicant, with a perfectly reasonable planning proposal, gain redress against a council that had refused that application, despite it being in compliance with both local and national planning policies?

Until you can be sure that elected members will always behave in a totally professional and unbiased manner, when considering an application and that planning officers will get it right every time, PINS will continue to be an essential element of the planning system.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
Leader urges Planning Inspectorate abolition
12 March, 2014 | By Mark Smulian

A council leader has called for abolition of the Planning Inspectorate after being sent a “bitterly disappointing” letter by planning minister Nick Boles.

A delegation of North Devon DC councillors (pictured) led by local MP Sir Nick Harvey (Lib Dem) handed in a letter at 10 Downing Street and met Mr Boles to highlight problems created by government planning policy on their community.

Council leader Brian Greenslade (Lib Dem) said that while the minister had been encouraging when they met his follow-up letter was short, unhelpful and evasive.

“I think he was got at by civil servants after our meeting,” Cllr Greenslade said.

The council delegation, led by local MP Sir Nick Harvey (Lib Dem), raised concerns about the refusal of planning inspectors to count inactive sites with planning permission towards councils’ required five-year land supply for housebuilding, and inspectors’ habit of substituting their own decisions for those of councils.

North Devon also objected to proposals to deprive councils of the New Homes Bonus where planning permission is given only after an appeal to inspectors.

“We were all bitterly disappointed with the short response from the planning minister, who avoided all of our main points, despite making positive comments to our councillors at the time of the meeting,” Cllr Greenslade said.

He added: “We believe that the localism agenda and the restoration of democracy to planning will be greatly enhanced if Mr Pickles were to follow the example he set when he scrapped the Audit Commission by also scrapping the Planning Inspectorate.

“I understand this is a course of action favoured by a number of Conservative MPs.”

Nick Boles is from Venus, everybody else is from Mars

Below is a perfect example of how those in charge of our planning system, are speaking a totally different language from those raising major concerns about the impact recent changes to the system are having.

It’s not even a case of one speaking English and the other French, at least there’s half a chance of getting some understanding when you’re both from the same planet. Unfortunately, when it comes to the planning system, government ministers are from Mars and the objectors are from Venus. Indeed, some objectors might wish to suggest that ministers are (talking) from Uranus.

Anna Soubry, a Conservative health minister, wrote to Eric Pickles saying:

“planning inspectors are forcing local councils to accept more housing and build on Green Belt.”

“Notwithstanding the localism agenda, the National Planning Policy Framework, the abolition of the RSS [regional spatial strategies] and the repeated assurances of your good self and the Prime Minister”…………….. “local authorities like Rushcliffe and my own are unable to determine their own housing needs, set their own targets and protect their Green Belt land from development, ” she wrote to Mr Pickles.

Nick Boles, Eric Pickles junior minister for Planning replied:

Local councils are in control of their Green Belt boundaries, through local plans, which this Government put at the heart of the planning system to allow communities to deliver the right development for their local area.”

The key phrases here are “…unable to determine their own housing need…”, from Anna Soubry, compared to, “…to deliver the right development..”, from Nick Boles.

The clear lack of comprehension, let alone understanding, is that one wishes to reduce or even prevent development, whilst the other is saying, you can control where and what, but not if, or when. PINS understand this, but are currently being made the villains of the piece. All I can say is, don’t shoot the messenger.

Wind farms – power to the people?

Although my last post highlighted the supposed new powers being given to the public when it comes to wind farms, I don’t believe it.

Just like Localism, the public are being mislead and sold a pup. Unless the government intends throwing all previous case precedent out of the window and telling a PINS that appeals by wind farm applicants are now out of bounds, people are going to be very disappointed by the outcomes from this latest bit of planning system spin.

Letter to Local Government First magazine – Localism and planning

Dear sir,
 
I was both interested and concerned to see First, Issue 542, peppered with complaints regarding the relationship between the planning system and Localism, some even calling for the abolition of PINS because, apparently, they don’t get it.
 
The Localism Act has introduced much confusion for the public when it comes to influencing the planning process.  Comments made by members of the public on recent contentious planning applications in my own area, clearly indicate a belief that the Localism Act increases the public’s ability to prevent development from going ahead if enough of them shout loudly enough.
 
This mis-interpretation of the Localism Act’s intentions is, in turn, increasing pressure on councillors to be more outspoken and forceful when speaking at committee.  This pressure is increased further by the Localism Act’s guidance to councillors that advises that they can somehow express an opinion and even campaign on a planning issue, without being accused of pre-determination!  I wonder if any high powered planning barrister would be prepared to defend a decision made by a committee populated by such campaigning members?
 
Whilst I very much sympathise with the councillors who made these comments and understand their wish to represent fully their electorates’ views, I’m afraid it is they, not PINS who don’t get it.  
 
There is a clear need for the government to restate its intentions when it comes to how the Localism Act can be used to influence the planning system – through the process that makes the policy, not the one that determines individual applications. 

 

My best regards, 
 
Councillor Roger Gambba-Jones, 
Planning Committee Chairman, 
South Holland DC, Lincolnshire

Planning Inspectorate will be busy

All the concern being expressed by organisations such as the National Trust and CPRE, about the presumption in favour of sustainable development, as enshrined in the NPPF, is in danger of over-shadowing one of the NPPF’s potential negative outcomes – planning by appeal.

One of the strengths and, it has to be said, occasional weaknesses of having elected members involved in making planning decisions, is that we can occasional be a cumudgeony bunch. The officers do their professional best to come up with a balanced decision, based on the council’s policies and then make their recommendation – members then go and take the opposite view! Where this view is in favour of an application, then the appeal process doesn’t really apply, unless somebody has enough cash to go to the high court. However, where an application is refused, either by officers without going to committee, or by a decision of the members at committee, the applicant has the right of appeal to the Secretary of State through the Planning Inspectorate.
With the implementation of the NPPF, developers will be waving the presumption in favour of sustainable development under the noses of every local planning authority in the country, demanding the right to build on just about any spare bit of land they can lay their hands on. Meanwhile, the public will be realising the floodgates have been unlocked and will soon be swinging wide open, with elected members telephones’ ringing off of their hooks. Public concern and in some cases outrage, will ultimately lead elected members to become more and more concerned about the political fallout from runaway development.
Given the vague and abstract nature of the term, ‘sustainable development’, the requirement to give a presumption in its favour and the potential for a lack of up to date planning policies in many councils, members are going to feel that they have every right to give significant weight to the public’s and in particular any neighbour’s concerns. Once the NPPF becomes law, PINS, as the Planning Inspectorate is known, is going to become very, very busy.
Worse still, a planning inquiry can be a very expensive business, especially when it goes to a full- blown public hearing. Even if the appellant is not awarded costs against the planning authority, the cost of an inquiry can easily reach 4, or even 5 figures. Whilst planning officers will always advise members against making a decision that isn’t based on sound planning reasons, they would be extremely reluctant to use the cost of fighting an appeal as the main reason for not refusing a planning application.