I hesitated in writing this post in that it might be perceived that I was an opponent of the decentralisation if power or citizens being able to take meaningful control of public services. Quite the opposite I have campaigned for both all of my adult life. But what has been christened ‘localism’ is no such thing, it is a version of that previously thought antiquated and extreme political philosophy of ‘distributism‘ as revised by ‘red tories’ such as Phillip Blond, though now dismissed by influential conservative thinkers such as Nick Boles.
‘Phillip Blond and others, by using incredibly complicated phrases full of very long words that we all had to look up, sort of hoodwinked us into thinking there was some interestingly new type of Conservative who wasn’t obsessed by costs and making people’s wage packets go further… I think that was a blind alley which we nearly got stranded down.’
This philosophy would be better described as parocialism than localism, a host of ‘little legions’ such as parish councils used as a ‘bulwark’ against the State but in reality an ideological cover for the dismantling of the pubic sector and appropriate regulation, leaving protection of existing property rights unbounded. Indeed the localist agenda was sold before and after the election and after publication of the ‘Open Source Planning’ Paper as a mechanism for isolating existing local property values from measures – such as strategic Green Belt reviews and large scale allocations – which threatened those property values. Hardly responsible in meeting housing needs nationally and regionally but it played well to the parochial base. As the Intergenerational Foundation has recently argued
“The blunt problem is that those who have the loudest voices tend to be a wealthy section of the older generation.” … Localism is all very good for can-do communities blessed with movers and shakers, and the social capital that helps them get on, but what about more impoverished communities that lack money, confidence and connections? Will localism serve them or simply widen the gap between haves and the often younger have-nots?
To a large degree those from other political traditions may have been temporarily taken in. Even those from the libertarian left full of nostaligia from community development / organising days. But parochialism has nothing to do with ensuring that the poor and powerless had access and control over public sources and means of wealth creation, going completely against the ‘spatial planning’ movement its was narrowly conceived in the Localism Act as allocation of property rights (zoning and policy consents), rather than, for example, local ideas for job creation and housing management/renewal. In these areas the propertyless were to be managed, whereas property owners could manage themselves.
Greg Clark often repeated a nostrum made by pre-election conservative housing spokesman that little allocations of a few houses here and there in every village could replace the big ‘labour’ urban extensions, ecotowns etc. Of course this was an unevidenced total fantasy. We have set out the numbers repeatedly on this blog. To meet housing need in full through villages would lead to every village doubling in size over 15 years, politically unacceptable. I think this is now realised however the misconception had set in train the institutionalised NIMBYISM of the faux Localism Act.
I have been to events to train and brief those engaged in Neighbourhood Planning. I am forever impressed with their enthusiasm and knowledge. Neighbourhood planning will and has led to better plans at the hyper local level. But our key national planning challenges do not exist at the hyper local level and cannot be solved at it.
The key argument made by the government in the passing of the Localism Act was that with local consent new housing allocations would be easier. This was another of Clarks’s pangliossian fantasies. There is no evidence at all that neighbourhood planning has led to any increase in housing allocations anywhere, those that have got to advanced stages have simply carried through allocations already in the local plan pipeline, local plan housing allocations are just as fraught with conflict as they ever were, indeed they are now more fraught because there are now two degrees of freedom (level of housing and location) wheras before there was one and because local politicians feel utterly betrayed by Pickles abandonment of Nimbyism in favour of ‘muscular localism’ (also known as Central Planning).
Neighbourhood Planningis not scalable. There will never be enough resources to carry out more than a handful at once in any one LPA, and the only money available from a central pot is for ‘training’ not where it is where it is really needed which is policy/plan development. The expectation that LPAS divert large resources is unrealistic in these graph of doom times it would simply mean diverting resources from where it is needed and what is a precondition anyway for neighbourhood planning, producing up to date local plans.
For two years we have seen a diversion from the main issue sof planning over the last two decades how to produce plans more quickly with up to date and realistic housing numbers. Now thankfully all major parties now realise there is no localist fix to that problem and we have to get on with it. Indeed it has been a massive diversion that in its wake has led to major delays to plan making and contributed to a collapse in housebuilding. History will not judge Clark and Pickles well.
None of this is to suggest that Nieghbourhood Planning is not an unalloyed good thing, but there are lots of good things which are barely relevant to our pressing problems. Indeed when compared with the infrastructure and housing challenges and responses faced with our key emerging economies such as Brazil, China and India, looking at ways of housing people sustainable by the 100s of million, it looks quaint and very English, as if the Vicar of Dibley was used as a template for national planning reform.