Pick ‘n’ Mix Localism

Last week the Government announced that it is changing the balance in planning to give greater weight to local concerns on wind farms.  On the surface this seems a good thing: giving people a greater say in how their area changes.  This is from a Government that has promised much on localism and then done exactly the opposite.  So have we turned a corner, and is localism at long last now being placed at the heart of planning?

In short, no. Recently, the Government changed the planning rules around converting empty office space into new homes so that developers need no longer apply for planning permission, i.e. it has taken power away from local communities.  This has been hotly contested by some Councils and threatens to undermine their attempts to retain enough employment land to provide local jobs for residents.

This comes on the back of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which gives a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’ and with its requirement over housing provision is actually making it harder for local people to determine how their area develops.  Combine this with the NPPF’s unrealistic time-frame for local planning authorities to adopt Local Plans and this is seem by many as a real threat to local planning control.  It is getting so bad that some people are beginning to wonder whether we would have been better off keeping regional planning!

On top of this the Growth & Infrastructure Act has further relaxed (and centralised) planning control, particularly around masts and telecommunications, while politicians talk of kick-starting the national economy with new infrastructure investment.  No doubt there are arguments for and against such investment, but if the Government is really committed to localism it has got to do more than allowing local communities to create Neighbourhood Plans and tweaking the rules around wind farms.

The South Downs is under pressure to accept several major developments within its borders and there are fears, such as around St Cuthmans, that national policy on education or economic development will ride roughshod over the need to protect the National Park.  The National Park Authority needs the power to determine these applications and prioritise conservation and enhancement of the National Park’s special qualities.  Otherwise, we risk degrading an important natural asset in the pursuit of short term economic gain, which could end up costing us more in the long term.  

Unless the Government is going to give local people the power to decide on new road schemes, shale gas extraction (fracking – already raising its head at Fernhurst) and a whole range of other large scale developments, particularly on housing numbers, its decision to change the rules on wind farms looks out of step with its centralising approach to planning.  Rather than a realisation that it has got the balance wrong and needs to redress this, the change in approach to wind farms appears little more than a political sop.

A threat to the South Downs

The Growth and Infrastructure Bill currently going through Parliament represents a real threat to the future protection of the South Downs National Park.  Not only does the Bill propose giving the Secretary of State the ability to claw back decision making from local planning authorities (clause 1) thus undermining the principle of Localism, it potentially allows large business and commercial developments to sidestep the local democractic process too (clause 21).  On top of this, clause 7 proposes removing the Secretary of State’s duty to have regard to National Park purposes with regards to telecommunications apparatus.

The Bill’s purpose is supposedly designed to cut through red tape, to speed up planning and remove its blockage to economic growth.  Yet nowhere is there any evidence to justify this position and none was provided during the Bill’s second reading in the House of Commons.  And as the Campaign for National Parks points out, the hold up to rolling out faster broadband has nothing to do with planning, but concerns about Government funding breaching EU rules on state subsidy.

All in all this could be an unmitigated disaster for the South Downs and it could threaten local democracy and accountability too.

Clause 1, could result in the National Park Authority, or indeed neighbouring planning authorities, from preventing damaging development impacting on the Park.  If the Secretary of State doesn’t like decisions being made by a planning authority, he could deem it to be failing (although no definition is given in the Bill, leaving it open to interpretation) and thus take their powers away from them.  He could then allow developments to proceed.

Clause 7, is also worrying as in a sensitive and open landscape such as the South Downs, telecommunications masts can be very intrusive.  Yet now, the National Park Authority could be powerless to stop them, unless they are proposed in a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  The Campaign for National Parks is also very concerned at the precedent that this might set for Government to set aside its duty to have regard to national park purposes for other developments or issues.  Currently, operators have to at least liaise with the local planning authority but the Bill as currently drafted allows the local system to be bypassed completely.

Clause 21 allows business and commercial projects to be put on the major-infrastructure fast-track process, bypassing local democracy.  It is not clear what projects are included in this rather vague category and whether it includes major retail and leisure developments.  Given the large and extensive settlements right up against the National Park’s boundary and the presence of several market towns within the National Park, this could create extra pressure for damaging developments in the South Downs.

Other clauses within the Bill are also worrying and the full debate can be read here which outlines MPs’ concerns in more detail.

All in all with the lack of evidence to back up their claims and the sweeping centralisation of powers, this could be a tipping point for local planning.  The new powers favouring big companies promoting large developments makes it feel like we’re heading back to the 1980s.  Our towns and countryside are still suffering from the deregulation of planning back then and all the damage that it caused.  The Network is urging its members to write to their local MP(s) to raise their concerns about this Bill and to ask them to seek amendments to the Bill, or to oppose it.