The Local Government Bill introduced to the House of Lords a few weeks ago closely follows the white paper Local Leadership, Local Choice, apart from the addition of the proposed introduction of a new power to promote the economic, social or environmental well-being of the local authority's area.
This is the measure which introduces the option of new structures for local government which move away from the traditional committee-based approach. It anticipates the concentration of power in executives, or cabinets, of councillors. These will normally be single-party executives and councils are to be freed from the present requirements to ensure party balance on them.
The new executives may take one of a number of forms including an elected mayor with executives appointed by him or her, a councillor elected by the authority as leader of the executive and other councillors appointed to the executive by the leader or the authority or an elected mayor and a council manager appointed to the executive by the authority. Authorities have to make their proposals to the Secretary of State for approval and electors may cause a referendum to be held.
Regulations will set out 'executive functions'. There is no presumption that all functions will be 'executive functions', thus regulatory responsibilities such as the granting of planning permission are to continue to be carried out by the full council or delegated as permitted under the new constitution, for example to a committee. For this reason the familiar committee arrangement is expected to continue for development control.
The added power to promote the well-being of the area has long been sought after 'as an antidote' to 'the restrictive climate of ultra vires within which local government must presently operate' as Malcolm Grant, editor of the Encyclopaedia of Planning Law and Practice puts it.
The new proposed provisions follow those now enacted for the Greater London Authority. They would confer on the authority power to do anything which they consider likely to achieve the promotion or improvement of the economic, social or environmental well-being of their area.
'This provides a comprehensive statement of what local government is actually for' says Malcolm Grant, and is parallel to the concept of sustainable development, though there are many restrictions and the new powers cannot be used to override other legal prohibitions and restrictions, nor to raise money, though they may incur expenditure.
Authorities must prepare a strategy for exercising these powers and consult widely on it. This seems to open the door for a more dynamic and proactive stance by local authorities, especially where they choose to go for the elected mayor option. The new powers seem to offer encouragement for land assembly initiatives by councils in collaboration with land owners and developers, and look like being fertile ground for helpful 'material considerations' supporting proposals not entirely anticipated by local development plans.
Typical perhaps of the new policy initiatives likely to emerge from these changes is the government's announcement of new planning guidance to promote the role of high-tech business clusters in fostering economic prosperity.
The aim is to help business and planners to co-operate in planning for the growth of such clusters and this objective is confirmed in the newly issued revised ppg 12 on development plans. This sets out the importance of promoting the expansion and creation of clusters or networks of knowledge driven companies to assist uk business to compete successfully in world markets.
The ppg recognises that clusters may be concentrated in a particular location, such as a technology park, or networked together digitally. How the somewhat fossilised land-use planning system will be able to facilitate such virtual development remains to be seen. New planning guidelines have been published by the London Planning Advisory Committee on the location and design of high buildings in London. Although these will have no formal status until adopted by the new mayor, they will be effective as 'material considerations' and are also expected to provide the basis of similar policies elsewhere in the country.
The lpac study finds that;
there is demand for new high buildings for both office and residential accommodation
there is at present no economic imperative in terms of un-met demand or evidence that the competitive position of London is under threat through lack of new high buildings, though this needs to be kept under review
the existing character of London is highly valued; there is no need or desire for radical change in the skyline to sustain or enhance London's image or status as a world city
The research did not reveal widespread general opposition to new high buildings. However their location, height and appearance need to be carefully considered; individual high buildings can have a significant negative effect on the urban environment if poorly designed or located.
In endorsing the lpac proposals the government has advised London planning authorities:
to consult the mayor, adjacent authorities and others on all applications for buildings above the thresholds in the advice (the same as those in the order which defines applications of strategic importance on which the mayor is to be consulted)
to identify in their udps any areas or locations considered particularly suitable for high buildings, taking account of the local context (including the clustering of high buildings), potential impacts on sensitive areas or views and sustainable development objectives such as high public transport accessibility
to indicate in udps the criteria against which they will assess proposals for high buildings in these areas
to take account of the criteria set out in the advice when assessing proposals, and in particular to require that they contribute positively to a point of civic or visual significance (including a cluster), that they are of outstanding architectural quality and that applications are accompanied by a design statement and analysis of the urban design context.
It may take some years, but this advice has the potential to overcome some of the strange English resistance to high buildings and for local plans to incorporate something visionary in urban design terms.
Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership