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Localism and housing – three ideas and a funeral?

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Can we soon expect a solemn interment, with Sir Eric Pickles as chief mourner, for the localist approach to planning for homes?

The new homes bonus was the former communities secretary’s big idea to overcome local opposition to housebuilding in areas of high demand by giving communities a financial incentive to accept development, rather than just bear its impositions.

Ministers endlessly cited the bonus as a key tool to deliver more homes – that is until publication of this week’s Housing White Paper.

Something supposedly central to housing delivery might be expected to merit more than one passing reference, and then only in the context of bringing empty homes back into use.

But it didn’t. The bonus makes no other appearance in the white paper. Having been comprehensively looted in December’s settlement by communities secretary Sajid Javid to contribute to social care, how much longer can councils count on a source of money for which ministers now show such little regard?

Another great plank of Sir Eric’s localist approach was the duty to co-operate, which replaced the old area housing allocations derived from regional plans.

The white paper says it has “not been successful” in some places and will be replaced with a ‘statement of common ground’.

The duty was supposed to enable groups of councils to voluntarily meet their collective need, for example where a growing town is hemmed in by a rural area.

Rather predictably, councils with abundant green acres saw no reason to risk voters’ wrath to benefit a different authority and this approach now looks set to wither.

The white paper does not explain who would draw up the new statements, or decide whether the councils involved have any common view. Its context though suggests that if councils cannot agree, ministers will agree for them.

Nor will councils remain free to assess local housing need as they choose, as the white paper proposes a standard national methodology for this. Again it is light on details of what this will entail.

Housing minister Gavin Barwell told LGC this week that – far from being centralist – councils had pressed him to impose this standard methodology so they need no longer juggle competing priorities from developers and local environmental groups but can simply blame the government.

How true this is remains a matter for conjecture.

The white paper contains some welcome incentives for councils to build homes – though with a sting in the tail over potentially extending the right-to-buy to council housing companies – and to prod developers to build more rapidly.

But some of the main features of the localist approaches can be seen shuffling to their doom.

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