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Whitehall’s attitude to St Ives’ poll shows little regard for localism

Duncan Sim
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Among the community rights introduced in the Localism Act 2011, perhaps the most significant was neighbourhood planning.

It provides, within its sphere of influence, an opportunity for people to engage in a more local and participative politics, where they have greater influence over the issues that affect their lives. It is closer to the true purpose and definition of devolution than the focus on regional economic development that has been foregrounded over the last 18 months.

Neighbourhood planning has taken on additional significance in a context where council planning departments have suffered under austerity. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says spending on local planning and development services fell to less than half its 2009-10 level by the end of 2014-15.

The government has, however, expressed its opposition to both an individual expression of neighbourhood planning power in St Ives, and the extension of that power through a ‘neighbourhood right to appeal’ that would have allowed communities to challenge grants of planning permission contrary to an emerging or made neighbourhood plan. The latter was an amendment from the House of Lords to the Housing & Planning Bill, which was defeated in the House of Commons before the bill became law last week.

In the St Ives case, Brandon Lewis described the neighbourhood plan that requires that new homes should be sold only to people using them as their primary residence as “totally inappropriate”. He cast doubts on its enforceability without contravening individual rights. The government’s opposition to the Lords’ amendment to the Housing & Planning Act, meanwhile, was justified on the grounds that it would “add complexity and unpredictability to the planning system”.

Greater local say over planning is not only better in principle; it will also lead to the creation of places where people are happier to live. ResPublica’s July 2015 report, A Community Right to Beauty, researched the positive impact on public policy outcomes that public satisfaction with the visual and cultural character of their area can have, in terms of public health, local economic growth, a strong and participative civil society, and overall quality of place.

People should be empowered to create the places in which they want to live and our report put forward a number of practical policy suggestions aimed at this, building on the framework of neighbourhood planning.

We would like to see the government mandate neighbourhood planning in the most deprived areas of the country that most need the improvements in health and other outcomes associated with allowing people to set the agenda on the future of their areas.

The government seems, however, to be heading in the opposite direction. Its stance on these two questions sits uneasily with its support for neighbourhood planning at the time of its introduction, as well as with its wider push towards decentralisation.

Duncan Sim, senior policy and projects officer, ResPublica

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