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David Tittle: 'Is the dash for housing killing localism?'

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The government’s housing drive is undermining policies meant to encourage people to accept local growth, says the chair of the Design Network and Civic Voice David Tittle

In 2010 the talk was all of localism. The story from the new Coalition Government was that if you gave people a say in the location and quality of local housing they would be more likely to accept the need for more of it.  And in my experience that is true.  If people enter into a big conversation about their village, town or neighbourhood; where it has come from, how its changed, what is good and bad, what does it need; then NIMBY sentiments tend to dissolve as people see the bigger picture. 

However, there are two problems with that approach. Firstly, changing attitudes in communities is always going to be a slow burn, big conversations are not just about one-off consultations. More importantly, it assumes that it is local people, expressing their desires through the planning system, that are holding back housebuilding. There is no evidence for that. 

At the heart of the localism agenda is neighbourhood planning. With both my MADE and Civic Voice hats on I spend time encouraging people to get involved in neighbourhood plans. It is a great way of focussing a discussion about the future of your place and it gives you a chance to produce real planning policy, which has as much weight as that produced by your local authority or the Government. Many who have got involved have found neighbourhood planning frustrating and exhausting but ultimately worth it. But it is not taking off in the way it should. 

So ask a Government Minister whether localism is alive and well and they will quote you a figure around 1,500 on the number of communities developing neighbourhood plans. But that is the number that started the process and still includes those that have stalled or given up.  The number of neighbourhood plans that are completed or are close to completion is far less - around 100.  To put that in context there are over 10,000 parishes in England and an even greater number of un-parished urban neighbourhoods. So at best maybe 1 in 20 are making progress with a neighbourhood plan and 1 in 200 are completed or on the home straight.  And those numbers are massively skewed towards the better-off areas. In the 25 per cent most deprived local authority areas, only five neighbourhood plans have been completed or are close compared to 29 in the best off 25 per cent.  It is the places most in need of environmental transformation where people are least empowered to make it happen.

The problem is that impatient for progress, and adamant that it is planning that is the problem, Ministers have been playing Jenga with the system, pulling out a regulation here and a restriction there, until the whole thing looks on the brink of collapse.  In particular, the five-year land supply rule has left communities feeling punished for the tardiness of their local planning authorities, and under siege from house builders wanting to swell their balance sheets by achieving planning approvals.

A further massive turn-off for anyone wanting to engage with the planning system that the process of local plan-making has become interminable. There is no one reason for this. The lack of resources does not help, but changes in the planning system and national policy have sent local authorities back to square one, local political changes disrupt the process, inspectors demand revisions, and developers launch legal challenges employing barristers who openly boast about ‘plan busting’. The result is that only around half of local authorities have an up-to-date plan and some have been working on their plans for over a decade. How is any local expected to have the tenacity to engage with such process?

Osborne has reacted in a very anti-localist way

So George Osborne has reacted with a very anti-localist announcement that the Government will intervene to take plan-making out of local authorities hands.  It is something that we called for in the Civic Voice Manifesto so you might say ‘be careful what you wish for’.  It could be a positive move if plan-making happens at a pace that local people can relate to, but the devil is in the detail. What will be the quality of community engagement be when the Government bring in the consultants to write your local plan? And will Government intervention really address the systemic problems that lead to snails-pace plan-making?

So localism that was supposed to encourage people to accept local housing growth is being undermined by other policies intended to get the country building.  Do people feel more in control of the built environment in their neighbourhoods than they did 5 years ago?  That is not what they are telling me. 

David Tittle is chief executive of MADE, an organisation dedicated to improving the quality of cities, towns and villages in the West Midlands and beyond.  He is also chair of the Design Network and a trustee of Civic Voice - the national organisation for Civic Societies. 

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