This is an approximate transcript of my contribution to the excellent Libdem conference fringe session held yesterday jointly by Friends of the Earth, Living Streets and Localise WM.

It was a good session with useful speaker and audience contributions; it was encouraging to hear how many Libdem members are questioning and often outrightly challenging the coalition’s planning reform proposals.

Karen

Since the general election LWM has been reiterating the question “how can we have meaningful localism without decentralising economic power? The UK economy is one of the most centralised in Europe, increasingly recognised as remote from people and society, exclusive and beyond control.

In a more diverse, localised economy, more people have more of a stake, which redistributes economic power, reducing disconnection, inequality and vulnerability. LWM is a thinktank, campaign group and consultancy that promotes this localised approach for justice and sustainability.

Contrary to at least the stereotype of planning reform opponents, we love economic development – community economic development, which fosters competition and enterprise, strengthens local distinctiveness, and works with an area’s resources, heritage, culture and social capital. We think the economy should be part of civic fabric not something done to the community.

The importance of small business in our economy is often underestimated. For one thing, you could say they contribute more to the public purse because they don’t have the resources to work out how to avoid it!; more seriously, firms with less than five employees accounted for over 50% of the new jobs between 2000-2008; without startups, private sector employment would have declined. There is increasing evidence that large established businesses destroy jobs.

So decentralising economic power should be central to localism agenda – but it’s not. Much of the Localism agenda simply builds community aspirations to be knocked down by powerful econ interests.

We need to recognise and plan for the collective strategic importance of the small scale.

Our problems with the planning parts of the localism agenda are probably familiar to many of you: the presumption in favour of development, the lack of a workable definition of sustainable development; the reduced ability to impose planning conditions that the developer might feel make a development unviable;  weakened retail policies; the need to allocate more and rolling land supplies and the less sequential approach, and the abolition of spatial policy for  ‘reducing the need to travel’.

The combined consequence of these is the reduced ability to differentiate between quality & poor quality development.

This includes a lack of ability to protect economic diversity and accessible local services from bigger competitors: not just the odd independent shop but all types of businesses and the supply chain infrastructure and spatial environment that supports them.

Also a weakening of urban renaissance. Easier and more lucrative sites that will be cherry picked for economic development or housing will not be integrated with existing economy or infrastructure – or be areas of need.

In Darlaston in the Black country, a colleague tells me that Asda closed their central store and applied for planning permission for an out of town site nearby. They pointed out they had a 99 year lease on the central site, and hinted that any use of the site would be blighted unless they got planning permission for the out of centre site. The council stood firm on policy grounds and the store did eventually reopen in the centre of Darlaston. Strong policy works to favour quality over poor quality development – under the localism bill it might not be possible.

We also have issues with providing for the every need of private sector organisations that don’t necessarily have the public interest objectives or the accountability to take responsibility for them. Developers in Ireland now blame the government for giving them planning permission for what are now ghost estates. In Digbeth, Birmingham, there was a compulsory purchase four years ago for site assembly – closing down local independent businesses including the last Italian-owned family business of the city’s Italian Quarter. That land has been completely empty for 4 years.

This firstly raises issues over accountability & evidence of need, but also of the danger of exclusive, blank slate large scale development that ignores community economics. Why not work round and with existing uses? The local authority’s ability to challenge this is greatly reduced in the NPPF.

Neighbourhood planning goes some way to address this and has some positive in potential for people to think about what local economy needs and how they can meet this, but this requires communities being able to protect, to say no and to set boundaries as well as saying yes. Neighbourhood planning seems like a missed opportunity to strengthen local economies.

There is also the danger of vested interests swaying NP agenda – it’s widely reported that Tesco was designing its off-the-peg neighbourhood plan for communities to adapt locally before the NPPF was written. How can that not be a conflict of interest? Of course pressures are worse in areas of deprivation to accept any development, however damaging.

One final example of a good economic development on greenfield site: the former farmland land occupied by Lammas Eco-village in Wales used to bring the farmer £2,500 – £5,000 a year through sale of lamb. That same land now provides nine families with £60,000 worth of food, fuel and other goods and is predicted to be bringing in a surplus income of £40,000 by Year 5.

We need planning that can assess whether developments deliver quality of life, revitalised places, job creation, economic diversity, local multiplier. A blanket state of permissiveness doesn’t do it.

Karen Leach