Article written by LWM for New Start Magazine and reproduced here with their permission
The name Localise West Midlands suggests we might find plenty to like in the decentralisation and localism bill.
Its principles of handing more powers to councils and communities are largely in tune with our thinking on governance. But the planning elements are best understood by reading the local growth white paper (LGWP).
Produced by BIS for a different audience, the emphasis is on a more permissive system, raising potential contradictions with localism rhetoric.
It describes neighbourhood plans’ purpose as being ‘to give communities… freedom to bring forward more development than set out in the local plan’ and within the limits that they must ‘respect the overall national presumption in favour of (sustainable) development, as well as other strategic local priorities’. Leaving aside the issue of what is ‘sustainable’ for now, it appears neighbourhood plans will empower communities to say anything they like, so long as it’s ‘yes’.
To reframe development as being a co-produced exercise between communities and developers is commendable. The bill’s concept of council planners acting as enablers for communities’ aspirations is excellent. The caveat that communities must take national and local strategy into account – if it works – is essential for the balancing act that is good planning and hopefully ensures communities accept their fair share of infrastructure activities they may regard as bad neighbours. But a ‘presumption in favour of development’ potentially excludes that balancing act, forecast by the LGWP’s subtle redefinition of planning’s purpose as to give communities a voice and to enable economic development.
The bill’s contribution to wellbeing hangs entirely on its definition of sustainable development. Some would say it’s development that generates wellbeing and equity while using global resources efficiently.
Decentralisation minister Greg Clark’s recent speeches indicate it simply means financially sound development that doesn’t damage locally valued green space and tackles CO2 emissions in some way. This gives little opportunity for basing planning decisions on, for example, a development’s impact on existing economic activities.
Localise held an event in September on the theme ‘Can we have effective localism without decentralising economic power?’ This question remains crucial. The role of localised economic activity in truly sustainable development is significant but not well understood.
A diverse local economy with plenty of smaller businesses fosters competition and enterprise, strengthens distinctiveness and is synergous with an area’s resources, heritage, culture and social capital. If we can foster understanding within communities of the importance of protecting economic diversity and encouraging enterprise, neighbourhood plans have the potential to generate sustainable and resilient local economies. But there are few resources to promote this and very few nods to economic localisation in government policy. Given the power imbalances between larger and smaller economic players, the presumption in favour of development could lead to an indiscriminate process, weakening diversity.
Competition between places is also explicitly to be encouraged by the new planning system, leading to beggar-thy-neighbour schemes that poach clients and shoppers from adjacent towns. The likes of Birmingham’s Bullring and the Black Country’s Merry Hill will be playing constant ping-pong with the region’s shoppers while smaller centres and businesses within the conurbation are squeezed out.
Another issue of scales of economy arises from the incentive mechanisms for new development. Power follows money. A resident of a village just outside the Birmingham conurbation recently told me that since the new government the village is being assiduously courted by a developer who wants to build on the few green fields that separate the village from the urban area. The developer’s promise of facilities in return for community permission have swayed many villagers in favour of a development fundamentally in contradiction with a village design statement that was painstakingly put together around agreed objectives. In theory this development could increase commuter patterns, concrete over high grade agricultural land, be of poor density and fail to deliver much-needed affordable housing. But so long as the homes were energy efficient and the community had been bought, this would count as sustainable development in the terms of the bill. Will neighbourhood plans be subject to these same pressures?
In the town of Shirley in the west midlands, developers have long been promoting a mixed use scheme involving a large Asda, some shops and flats in a new centre to one side of a traditional linear high street – the subject of an independent retail impact assessment and consultation critique by Localise.
The developer claimed that 68.9% of consultees were in favour of the development. They had included as ‘in favour’ the 33.3% who supported the development ‘with some reservations’. But it transpires from their own and other surveys that the majority of these were people who felt the town needed some development but did not want the supermarket, as numerous better integrated foodstores existed.
The supermarket, says the developer, is crucial to the success of the scheme and is therefore non-negotiable, but this was not known to consultees at the time, nor accepted by critics later. Developer consultation potentially allows local knowledge to improve the detail of schemes, but usually as with Shirley the most important elements will not be up for negotiation.
This devolved, permissive decision-making process exacerbates the tendency for larger developers to have more power than smaller developers and the community by means of having more resources to invest in achieving a positive planning outcome. Power tensions also arise within the community itself:  a single voice from a single community is rare, and in many communities there are empire-builders and separatists who impose their views on their constituencies.
Good planning provides a method for balancing the needs for proposed development with existing needs: existing economic activity, our needs from wild space and farmland, housing needs, community infrastructure needs. Community opinion is one tool in identifying this balance – local knowledge regularly demonstrates the inadequacy of experts’ theoretical analysis of developments’ suitability – but the other essential is a neutral and objective process that tests options against societal goals.
The proposed system instead expects planning outcomes to emerge through a cacophony of community and private sector interests, creating a process in which volume is everything, and so reduces to an illusion the principles of community empowerment and sustainable development that are meant to be at its heart.
Karen Leach
Localise West Midlands