Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Localism Bill cometh...



I thought that the exciting news that the UK Governments new, “Decentralisation and Localism Bill” is only 2 sleeps away, was worth marking with a blog post.

I think it’s fair to say, that many within the planning profession have been rather alarmed by the Government’s approach to planning. Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles (see above), has rather exemplified this; making a series of sweeping, cavalier statements about planning and previous systems, but rather failing to come up implementable policies or with details of how things will actually work (see the court ruling that he wasn’t allowed to scrap Regional Spatial Strategies, and the subsequent court ruling that he wasn’t allowed to say that this didn’t matter). Hence why, the new Bill and some much needed clarity, is so eagerly awaited.

Up until now, we’ve been mainly going on conjecture, and projections arising from of the Conservatives, “Open Source Planning – White Paper”, released prior to the election. We do know of course that regions are out, and that “Localism” is the new big thing (as an aside, I rather liked this assessment from Bentley, Bailey & Shutt, on this proposed move).

For someone currently studying planning, you’ll appreciate that this uncertainty makes things rather difficult. As we’ve not been able to have a lecture on how planning is currently meant to work, we’ve had some interesting class discussions instead.

The weekend papers carried a few nuggets of information about what the bill would actually contain: the big news, as reported here by Building Design, is that neighbourhoods will be allowed to take over powers from their local authority, and effectively make their own development plans. The overwhelming feeling was that this was absurd, frankly came as little surprise. However, I found the relief amongst the course members who are currently working in local authority planning offices, more interesting. Their worry appeared to be that the Government would simply widen permitted development rights, meaning that many public sector planners would lose their jobs. The consensus seemed to be that planners would have an enormous amount of work to do in coming years, initially giving advice to communities on making their plans, before having to stitch together a patchwork of different development plans, and finally to administer this incredibly complicated system. I find this potential increase in the bureaucracy of being a planner pretty depressing.

Having recently written a fairly lengthy essay on the history and theory of planning over the last 60 years; what I found most striking is how planners have generally moved away from a position where they are producing positive proposals for implementation, to a position where their role is more about regulating policy compliances. Despite recent attempts to reverse this trend (see the New Spatial Planning), I’m disappointed that the new legislation is likely to lead more planners regulating, rather than actually planning for development.

Incidentally Eric Pickles made a comment a few weeks back, about how planners needed to get back to making plans (I’m tempted to do a best of Pickles post at some point); that current policy appears to run contrary to this is rather characteristic of both Pickles and the current administration. Despite recent talk of empowering local communities, news arrived this week that Planning Aid, an organisation that gives free planning advice to individuals and communities, has had it’s funding taken away and their staff have been issued notices of potential redundancies. If this isn’t a contradiction, I really don’t know what is.

Amongst the gloom, there have been some positive comments on the localism approach, most notably by Amanda Baillieu (here) and Jonathan Glancey (here). Certainly, greater community participation is to be welcomed (although the complications of actually doing this would span many, many blog posts), but I’m yet to be convinced that the proposed changes will be any improvement on previous approaches. Roll on Thursday...

Edit: I gather that the Bill will now be published on Monday 13th December 2010. Honest.

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