Localism dogged by realpolitik, opportunism and self interest

Even a committed localist now believes that neighbourhood planning is ‘dead in the water’. How has the government flagship policy failed?

Last night week I attended a regular neighbourhood plan meeting convened by Winchcombe town council. Winchcombe is a pretty town on the edge of Cotswolds with a population of approximately 5,000 and historic links to Katherine Parr.

Thomas Cromwell is supposed to have dreamed up the dissolution of the monasteries from Winchcombe while staring down on nearby Hailes Abbey. The town is now confronting a different man-made enemy: localism, wolf in sheep’s clothing.

When cities minister Greg Clark presented the Localism Act, he said: “I look forward to seeing how local people will use the rights and freedoms the Act offers to make a difference in their communities.” From where I sit, his project is hanging the balance. I’m a positive person and a committed localist, but even I can see that neighbourhood plans are dead in the water, defunct before a single one has become law.

How has this happened? The minutes of the January 2012 Winchcombe town council meeting record that it was agreed “unanimously that the council embark on the process of preparing a neighbourhood plan”. Remember that this decision was taken ahead of such plans gaining legal force in April 2012. We were ahead of the game.

We wrote to Tewkesbury borough council who wished us Godspeed and allocated a senior officer to connect between community concerns and principal authority policy. A working party was convened under the banner of the town council, including our ward member, town councillors and residents with particular skills around planning, community consultation and policy.

I was in the wrong place at the right time and very willingly offered my services, hoping for the very best for the future of our hometown. The group has shown a refreshing recognition that Winchcombe will and must change over the next two decades; that we need to work to find more sustainable ways of living, demanding less from our environment and looking to become a more resilient community.

But there’s a fly in the ointment: realpolitik, opportunism, self-interest and inconsistency, the four horsemen of the localism apocalypse.

Two developers have lodged planning applications for hundreds of new homes with the council. Until recently the Department for communities and Local Government and its secretary of state Eric Pickles have – rightly, I believe – rejected a number of similar proposals as premature and prejudicial to the development of local authority core strategies and community-based nieghbourhood planning. No longer; at least one developer, scenting a policy vacuum, has driven a coach and horses through local views before they have even had a chance to be expressed. If this is repeated round the country then neighbourhood planning is dead at birth.

How can a community express its wishes if, in the process of assembling a DIY plan, developers are allowed to proceed with projects that bend the discussion and neigbourhood plan out of shape? Now we see the National Planning Policy Framework for what it really is: a licence to build.

Clark said that planning “must be a creative exercise in finding ways to enhance and improve the places in which we live our live”. He added: “This should be a collective enterprise. Yet, in recent years, planning has tended to exclude, rather than to include, people and communities. In part, this has been a result of targets being imposed, and decisions taken, by bodies remote from them.” Hear hear – but if government is serious about bottom-up, creative self-planning then developers being allowed to torpedo the process with pre-emptive applications is not the way forward.

Either government is for local determination or it is not. If the former then back local communities and their proto neighbourhood plans. If not then save us all a heap of wasted effort and just carry on doing unto us.

All this before we come to self interest. Principal authority councillors seem to be voting according to the dictum ‘build anywhere, but not on my patch’, so rather than overcoming nimbyism there is a simple reinforcement.

Here is my challenge to government, authorities, developers and local communities: if you are serious about localism then make it work by genuinely joining forces. This is a tremendous opportunity for growth in line with local opinion – but it is also an opportunity for naked greed, myopia and self-interest. So what’s it to be?

James Derounian is principal lecturer in community development and local governance at the University of Gloucestershire

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