Monday, December 20, 2010

The NIMBY's Charter for Chaos

Perhaps Eric Pickles genuinely believes that empowering small communities to decide on their local development plans will lead to a blooming of housing proposals from the grassroots to help resolve the national housing crisis. But that would make him a very stupid man indeed - and I don't think he is.

Jeremy Cahill, a specialist planning lawyer from Birmingham's No 5 chambers, explodes this little gem of hope

In my twenty-five years experience in handling planning matters, I have only experienced one occasion when a proposal for new housing either promoted at appeal or through the development plan process has been welcomed by local people
Grant Shapps even has the nerve to support these proposals, when he is tasked with resolving the housing crisis - even though the development proposals within the Bill are likely to prove a significant obstacle to the building of new homes on the scale required, particularly social housing. Paul Smith in the Guardian writes
...there is one group of people largely overlooked by the new bill, those desperate to get their first foot on the property ladder or hoping to rent from a social landlord. Localism cannot wish away the need for more homes in this country. According to the National Housing Federation, the average English house price is 10.3 times the average income and over 4 million people are registered on council waiting lists. Government figures are now showing homelessness on the rise. These people are also angry and frustrated but they are not organised, don't march through the streets or lobby council meetings as the anti-development groups do. Their voice is not heard in the government and the localism bill will not provide them with the homes they desperately need.

You have to question whether a neighbourhood forum or a parish council has the necessary skillset to assemble a credible and legally defensible development plan - especially as a forum could consist of as a few as three people. As Left Foot Forward's Eleanor Besley points out, the legislation does not provide for any funding for these groups and it leaves their constitution wide open

Those communities higher in social capital will undoubtedly be first in line to set up a neighbourhood plan. Additionally the Bill welcomes commercial participation on forums; indeed it could be argued that a forum entirely made-up of commercial interests would be considered legitimate. As such, communities lower in social capital would become increasingly vulnerable to the impact and will of commercial interests in their area. Add to this the fact that local authorities are due to receive £20,000 for every plan which they adopt (after a lengthy process including a referendum). The cynics among us may be able to see how big business could influence the process as much as they could the actual planning arrangements.
It does not take a great leap of imagination to realise that those communities with the inbuilt wherewithal to organise will create development plans that may allow a limited amount of new build housing, but only that which is designed to attract the right sort of people. Affordable or social housing is unlikely to be top of their agenda - much as we might hope that they will take a broader view of housing needs. Whether the temptations of incentivised council tax will be sufficient for the Big Society to prove genuinely inclusive remains to be seen, but the evidence to date isn't encouraging. Indeed, these incentives will actually encourage the building of homes liable to larger council tax. Top down targets may prove unpopular at a local level, but they do recognise the need for housing at a level broader than just a neighbourhood. I'm all for greater local involvement in planning and for community agreement, but there will be a need for compromise on all sides for the good of society as a whole, not just one or two streets.

By the way, before the Tory and Lib Dem trolls start whinging about what Labour did over thirteen years, I'm the first to state that I don't think we did enough, that our failure to build sufficient social housing was a huge mistake on our part.

These development plans are even likely to impact on the development of renewable energy, as we can expect a raft of rural communities bringing in plans to exclude wind farms, such is the general anger when one of these is proposed in most localities.

Everything about this huge confection of a bill points towards a continuation of the 'creative destruction' theory espoused by former Tory candidate Danny Kruger - a proposal that saw him unceremoniously dumped as candidate from the unwinnable seat of Sedgefield in 2005, a local difficulty that hasn't stopped him from being a close advisor to Cameron. We've seen the start of this period of destruction in health and education and the localism bill sees it come to how your community is organised, as Nick Boles revealed in a flash of honesty
Do you believe planning works? That clever people sitting in a room can plan how people's communities should develop, or do you believe it can't work? I believe it can't work, David Cameron believes it can't, Nick Clegg believes it can't. Chaotic therefore in our vocabulary is a good thing.... Chaotic is what our cities are when we see how people live, where restaurants spring up, where they close, where people move to. Would you like to live in a world where you could predict any of that? I certainly wouldn't. So I want there to be chaotic in the sense I want lots of organisations doing different things, in different areas.
Be afraid - they mean this, no matter how much positive language they deploy to hide the truth.

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