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Localism: where did it all go wrong?

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It promised to give local authorities the power to write their own development plans, but now experts say it is stifling growth and confusing an already murky planning process, reports Merlin Fulcher

Localism was billed as the cornerstone of the Conservative Party’s Big Society push, allowing local communities the power to sort out their own problems – including the lack of homes.

But as the RIBA put pressure on the government to triple UK housing output (see page 9), the flagship policy, without any real champion within the coalition, seems to have fizzled out.

Recent government plans to fast-track large schemes to the planning inspectorate – effectively overriding local involvement – and proposals to streamline planning guidance and allow large home extensions without approval do nothing to suggest that Localism is anything other than a terminal patient.

According to Piers Taylor of Invisible Studio, Localism is ‘dead in the water and a non-starter as a government initiative’ a sentiment shared by Peter Morris of Peter Morris Architects.

He said: ‘The Localism Bill was created to win votes, not to improve the built environment. It now seems, along with poor lending and a broken planning system, it is limiting growth.

‘The government seems to be making planning policies like a headless chicken, without regard for what is happening in reality. We need more lending and clear planning policies focusing on masterplans that have the welfare of society as its objective, rather than concerning itself with subjective matters and a skin-deep appearance.’

Worse still, when Localism is embraced by local groups, it is labelled ‘anti-growth’ by leading housing experts.

David Birkbeck, chief executive of Design for Homes, warned neighbourhood plans across the country were being ‘hijacked by NIMBYs’ keen to block development in rural areas.

He argued the policy had given fresh impetus to the ‘no change around here’ lobby in small villages still incensed by top-down government pronouncements such as John Prescott’s 1998 pledge to build 4.4 million homes by 2016.

‘Localism has become anti-growth,’ he said. ‘There are 80 examples of where this sort of idea – neighbourhoods being asked to deliver their own plan – has gone horribly wrong.

‘The government knows it has opened a Pandora’s Box.’

BedZED’s Bill Dunster singled out Localism for derailing his PortZED development in Brighton and a project to build six affordable houses in a ‘sleepy Hampshire village’.

He said: ‘We had a carefully designed rural community blocked, mainly by planning officers more concerned with activating Localism in the village than it ever actually happening.’

 He added: ‘If the effect of Localism is to make politics more important than technical considerations in a planning application, then it is very bad because politics is totally and utterly out of any designer or developer’s control.’

Barton Willmore director Simon Prescott suggested housebuilding was still suffering from local authorities’ ‘raised expectations’ based on a misunderstanding about what Localism means.

According to Prescott, many local authorities reduced housing targets to please local electorates in the wake of the Conservative Party’s 2010 Open Source Planning green paper, which announced the abolishing of regional spatial strategies.

‘There was an impression that Localism meant communities could say no to anything,’ he said. ‘On a day-to-day basis we are up against raised expectations, and that does cause problems.’

He said: ‘Local authorities were coming to a politically generated housing target rather than one assessed on need. We are still seeing local authorities try to do that, because their members don’t understand Localism.’

Malcolm Sharp, president of the Planning Officers’ Society, added: ‘There’s no doubt that communities have been given a mixed message. Very local communities have seen it is as a signal they can resist development.

‘Localism can be used as a cover for people to make the case they don’t want any further development in their area.’

Brighton-based Olli Blair of ABIR Architects said Localism had failed to catch the imagination of neighbourhoods and risked falling victim to single-issue groups due to the high level of funding required.

He added: ‘For a city the size of Brighton to have three neighbourhood groups is not great. It’s partly because of the lack of funding and partly people having other priorities.’

Government plans to extend permitted development rights on home extensions and streamline planning guidance have raised further concern for the future of Localism.

Proposals that would allow schemes to side-step poorly performing local authorities and go straight to the planning inspectorate were recently criticised by shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn for ‘nationalising planning permission’ and being anti-Localism.

Charity Civic Voice meanwhile criticised the latest bout of planning reforms for fuelling uncertainty. ‘What we need is a period of certainty so that everyone can have the confidence to know what the rules are,’ said a spokesperson.

‘If councils underperform, let the electorate hold them to account. Centralising power is not the solution.’

However, CLG chief planner Steve Quartermain defended the planning inspectorate proposals at an RTPI conference this week, claiming it showed the government would force through schemes where there the Localism policy had not been embraced.

‘If the local planning authority makes prompt decisions and they have a local plan, why would there be a need for PINS to get involved? I don’t think we see this as a threat to Localism where Localism is being delivered.’

Comment: Local area forums

Charles Thomson, Studio 54 Architecture

Charles Thomson, Studio 54 Architecture

We had a planning application to redevelop a back-land site to provide workspace. We submitted a formal pre-application scheme, met with the planning officers, leafleted the neighbours and invited them to meet with us – six did and raised no objections. We submitted the application and we had a recommendation for approval by the planning officers.

The council have set up local area forums made up of local councillors which have the right to ‘call in’ planning applications recommended for approval. The councillor is given free reign to attack the application and residents can say what they like, however factually incorrect or irrelevant. Drawings are pretty much ignored and the applicant is given five minutes to explain what can be a complex project in the face of open hostility. In our case, the recommendation from the forum was that the application should be turned down.

I suspect this is NIMBYism and it makes a mockery of any planning programme targets. An application that should have been determined in eight weeks by officers is now likely to take five months and may result in a refusal.

Charles Thomson, Studio 54 Architecture


Further comment

Sally Lewis, director of Stitch

Localism is a bandwagon without a destination. It may be holding back growth where NIMBYs have the funds to support restrictive neighbourhood plans, but it’s also misdirecting the industry’s efforts. Most decent developers and housing associations engage with local communities as a matter of course, and architects support them in doing so. Everyone has been in the wagon talking away about engagement and toolkits, and now they’re looking around and realising that they haven’t moved.  

Time for everyone to get out of the bandwagon, and for the government to focus attention on the schemes that really need vision. There are plenty of regeneration projects in London that are floundering because they are piecemeal and developer teamsare having to work in a planning vaccuum. Design Review Panels comment on the lack of development context and placemaking vision (quite rightly) and traction is lost. These are the kinds of projects that need people putting their heads together. They are properly local (so the government can keep the name if they need to) and absolutely should include the developers as part of the planning.

Will Lingard, director at Turley Associates

From a London perspective, Localism has really yet to make a significant change.  Good practitioners have always been listening to informed local opinion.  On the horizon though are as yet unknown forces, ‘Neighbourhood Forums and ‘Neighbourhood Plans’.  These are now gradually emerging, most vigorously in more affluent areas, and it will be interesting to see how their obligation to be ‘in conformity’ with the adopted Plan is interpreted.  In addition, we’re keen to see more developers and landowners shaping Neighbourhood Forums and Plans in order to ensure the delivery of housing and infrastructure.  The emphasis shouldn’t be that Plans and Forums are another tool to potentially halt development.  It should be quite the opposite when you consider the prominence that the NPPF gives to economic development.

Melissa Mean, convenor of the Redcliffe Neighbourhood Development Forum
Contrary to popular portrayals that we are a nation of NIMBYs, the community in Redcliffe, Bristol has long been calling for more development and higher density in its back yard in order to bring greater urban definition and life. We have a twelve-acre site in the middle of our city centre neighbourhood, where ten of those acres are currently roads and car park. The Redcliffe Neighbourhood Forum has calculated that we can flip those ratios with two acres providing enough space for the real transport needs of the city- such as Bus Rapid Transit, more cycling and service traffic. This would free up ten acres of prime city centre land for redevelopment that could much more useful, and more beautiful.

The local community is also quite articulate about what kind of development it wants- development that is pro-children and supports family life, has deep and visible sustainability in its infrastructure and design, and a fitting gateway to welcome people to the city from the main railway station-we are adjacent to Bristol Temple Meads. The community has worked up three development concepts for the area, which we are currently taking to (progressive) developers for viability testing and then for further public consultation before formal examination in front of the planners.

So, the community is keen to get building and willing to give the localism experiment a go. But what is slowing us down? While there has been a modest shake up of the planning powers, there has been no equivalent shake up of funding mechanisms. There is no direct funding for neighboourhood forums, so we have to be entrepreneurial, striking deals, begging favours and stitching mismatched pots of money together wherever we can find them. The transaction costs of doing it this way are inevitably very high. If government, and the wider industry, really wants to use localism as a route to development, some urgent and imaginative attention needs to be given to alternative funding models.

Dave Chapman, head of social action at Locality
Locality supports those parts of the Localism Act, National Planning Policy Framework and other planning reforms which promote the inclusion of local people and community groups in decisions that affect their lives. Our work in supporting groups to develop neighbourhood plans, and make use of the opportunities created through the Community Right to Bid and the Community Right to Build indicates that rather than adopting a BANANA approach (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone), neighbourhoods and communities are adopting an approach that will lead to certainty for planners, developers and local people. Our experience is that most are developing plans which aim to enable their neighbourhoods and communities to be sustainable into the future by planning for appropriate development in appropriate places; development which is rooted in, and stems from, the long term needs of local people. Locality provides support to communities in using the new Community Rights through the My Community Rights advice service.


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