All the mood music in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) over the past few months reflects an increasingly negative attitude towards localism. Some government ministers are said to have banned the use of the word. Growth is now the order of the day and policies that threaten growth – even the government’s own policies, hard fought through parliament and barely on the statute books – are out of the window.
But can this be true? Can DCLG really be backpedalling on its own flagship reform of the planning process?
Localism was (already I find myself using the past tense) a policy idea born out of prosperity. It was originally conceived some years before the 2010 election to protect shire Conservatives from the difficult decisions associated with delivering housing numbers. It did not conceive of a time when those houses would be deemed essential for economic growth. But the Treasury is increasingly desperate to identify “spade ready” projects that can deliver jobs and investment. A planning system that is seen to stand in the way of this is the last thing the Treasury wants and it seems the last thing DCLG wants either.
There are some signs that provisions are being watered down. In July the government revised the rules around government consultation, cutting out the standard 12 week consultation and calling for engagement to be proportionate. This seems likely to be the approach adopted in the regulations on consultation arising out of the Localism Bill.
But how can DCLG impose growth on communities without a top down approach and regional spatial strategies? I have an image of Eric Pickles pulling on a lever to control his railway, only for the signal to stay resolutely against the growth express which continues to languish on the main line.
The only control the department now has is that hundreds of local plans are working their way through the planning inspectorate, many with hopelessly unambitious housing numbers. If the department really is wishing it had not bothered with localism, you can now expect to see government inspectors getting tough and sending anaemic plans back for review. It should be an interesting autumn and it may be that the auguries set by the Wigan strategy and more recently the Central Lancashire plan – which suggest government will act to enforce the NPPF – will prove to be part of a much wider trend. Housebuilder, in partnership with NHBC