Posted by: Adam Roake | July 2, 2010

CENTRALLY MANDATED LOCALISM

Scraps and clues from CLG and BIS continued this week; it’s almost as if they are writing the Localism Bill on the hoof and publishing it piece by piece.

Firstly, we had the abolition of the National Housing and Planning Advisory Unit, which was principally responsible for producing the raw data underpinning RDA housing targets. The announcement says that the unit has been closed but it appears that the unit has been absorbed into CLG, to the extent that their website now sits almost intact within the CLG website and it seems they still have a Board, CEO and full complement of members. In the past the unit has been at the forefront pushing for higher numbers of new homes to be built, based on their forecast of likely demand. In a sense they were the darlings of the RDAs, providing independent, evidence-based, expert advice on housing numbers, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the Coalition should decide to wind them up. But of course someone will still need to provide evidence-based, expert advice on housing numbers. Is it cynical to think CLG wants to control that advice? Either way, Local Authorities will need to produce robust evidence-based research to justify housing numbers and they face the prospect of either paying a consultant for it or else using the research and advice from the Unit now embedded in CLG. Not much change toward localism over centralism here then.

Secondly, we have a joint letter dated 29th June from Eric Pickles and Vince Cable. This confirms that RDAs will be replaced with Local Enterprise Partnerships, sets out a broad outline for LEPs and invites Local Authority Leaders and Business Leaders (how have they been selected I wonder) to come up with proposals for LEPs within the outline. Not all RDA functions will be transferred to LEPs.

We believe some of these {RDA functions} are best led nationally, such as inward investment, sector leadership, responsibility for business support, innovation, and access to finance, such as venture capital funds. Some of their existing roles are being scrapped, such as Regional Strategies.”

However LEPs will take on other RDA functions.

“Partnerships will therefore want to create the right environment for business and growth in their areas, by tackling issues such as planning and housing, local transport and infrastructure priorities, employment and enterprise and the transition to the low carbon economy.”

As regards the size of LEPs, the letter states,

“To be sufficiently strategic, we would expect that partnerships would include groups of upper tier authorities. If it is clearly the wish of business and civic leaders to establish a local enterprise partnership for a functional economic area that matches existing regional boundaries, we will not object.”

So LEPs will have no access to finance or inward investment and, may not even get central government funding for their running costs (conflicting reports in Regeneration and Renewal on this). It seems unlikely that Tim Williams‘ hoped for ability to leverage LPA assets will be allowed, particularly since this would probably add to national deficit. They are however expected to take on planning and housing responsibilities, presumably providing strategy at a level somewhere between the current Regional level and Local level. If LEPs are expected to include “groups of upper tier authorities” they will be at a more strategic level than counties if not necessarilyquite as large as existing Regions. Obviously there is a good deal of speculation here, because, until we see the Coalitions Localism Bill, we have little to go on regarding their proposed new planning framework. However, presumably this letter signals their intention that LEPs should create a tier of planning strategy between Local and National and at a larger scale than County. Is this Regional Spatial Strategies Lite?  Not much change towards localism over centralism here then either.

Thirdly the RTPI Planning Convention saw a fair bit of Greg Clark together with Bob Neil. Mr Clark’s speech is reproduced roughly (the intention is there if not the words he actually used on the day) on the CLG website. In his view we now have a Government that has “… been elected with localism as its touchstone policy“. All very good for localism but he also said a very strange thing;

I take the RTPI’s point on strategic planning – the Localism Bill will make cooperation between Local Authorities mandatory”.

Mandatory cooperation is a concept I, for one, am struggling with. It begs all sorts of questions like, who decides at which point reasonable opposition becomes un-cooperative and what happens if you fail to cooperate. And presumably the mandate to cooperate is imposed, through the Localism Bill, by Central Government – effectively a diktat from the centre. Mr Pickles himself is often quoted as claiming Localism, Localism and Localism as his three main priorities but we’ve already seen how that translates into planning decisions, which don’t necessarily reflect local opinion. So there seems to be a lot of talk about localism but not much change in its direction.

Overall then last week’s news suggests we’re going to see the principal source of housing projections either disbanded or subsumed into CLG, who will then control the raw data on housing forecasts from the centre. We’ve seen a broad outline of LEPs; they won’t have any funding, access to finance or an inward investment role (see Adam Breeze’s excellent opinion piece in R and R on this); that’s all going back to the Centre; but they will have planning responsibility on a  scale similar to the current RDAs.  Also they will be bigger than County and obviously much bigger than Local scale. So most of the money from disbanding Regional government is going back to the Centre and spatial (I think I can still use that word) strategy at Regional level is to be replaced with spatial strategy at, well nearly regional level. Finally localism is, we are told,at the heart of the Government agenda and central to CLG’s work, except if you can’t demonstrate a five year housing supply or if you fail to cooperate with your neighbouring locals in groupings at close to the sizes of current Regions. 

It all sounds so plausible and seductive.  I would really like to think that by engaging “the people” and asking them  how they would like to deliver new housing, education, health care etc, a clear and sensible concensus might be reached.  But whilst the Coalition seems  strong on rhetoric, an odd ambivalence is already creeping into the delivered reality.  Local Authorities may get the freedom to decide how many houses to build in their area, but they themselves won’t have the financial or specialist resources that RDAs had to provide robust evidence to support their decision.  This will lead to developers using their financial muscle to obtain politically unpopular planning permissions simply by producing robust and compelling evidence.  In addition there will be Not-Quite-Regional LEPs, which Central Government will require  Local Authorities to cooperate in and with but which also will not have access to funds or specialist resources except through the Centre.    In a cynical moment it occured to me that perhaps when Mr Pickles and his merry men say localism, they mean a form of localism where Central Government mandates local people to think the right things – a centrally mandated localism – and perhaps if they do, Central Government will reward them with some funds to pay for the right things. 

Perhaps that’s harsh but what we really need to see, and urgently I would suggest, is the Localism Bill.

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Responses

  1. […] this another example of Centralised Localism; you make the decisions you want at local level, based on local issues, and we’ll decide at […]

  2. […] seems, much as I predicted here and here, that the Coalition are right behind Localism so long as the locals are pro-growth. The presumption […]


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