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With Localism Comes Great Responsibility

It would be something of an understatement to say that the concept of Localism, insofar as it relates to the world of planning, has failed to ignite the imagination of the planning profession and the development industry. Closely related to that, the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies appears to have cast many authorities adrift, and planning articles bemoan our now rudderless state.

There are signs of a backlash. It is gratifying to see that some planning authorities, including several Conservative councils, are choosing to continue to pursue their Core Strategies because their locally derived evidence base clearly demonstrates housing need. It seems perhaps that the battle for numbers which surrounded the RSS targets did raise awareness amongst elected members about the need for housing, and its intrinsic link with the social and economic wellbeing of the whole community.

This week, an on-line survey has been circulated to capture professionals’ views on the likely success of a localism approach, so that the results can be forwarded to Mr. Pickles. And now, a legal challenge has been mounted by a nationwide housebuilder against the legality of the RSS abolition, supported by the HBF.

At this austere time, when economic recovery is a critical objective, it is interesting to observe that the actions of the Coalition Government may be stifling the potential for the housebuilding industry to contribute to that recovery in the short to medium term. The impact is far reaching; as well as construction workers, those employed in the supply chains and related professions are at risk of unemployment. Additionally, the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review may lead to the loss of planning jobs within the public sector, including those who have hitherto been responsible for planning and managing growth.

Worryingly, as the rate of those defaulting on their mortgages goes up, the supply of affordable housing, which has in recent years been dependent almost entirely on private homes being built, has been cut off at the knees. Shelter’s Local Housing Watch currently estimates that 1.8 million households in the UK are on housing waiting lists, so new ways of supplying affordable housing must become a priority for those authorities who hope to build fewer homes for sale.

It gets worse. Writing in The Guardian in July, Polly Toynbee highlights new proposals to cap housing benefit, which will drive many families out of the private rented sector, the very sector which has helped to plug the gap left by a shortfall in social-rented housing supply. Toynbee predicts “social cleansing on an epic scale” as the poor (including many employed people on low wages) are driven from their homes in and around cities to places where there are no jobs and few prospects, but the housing is cheap. Think of the public sector challenge this sets up for the future; urban deprivation, dilapidated housing, no economic activity, poor school standards, crime and vandalism, ill–health and addiction. If this doesn’t get planners fired up, nothing will. I imagine the next change of Government will need to pick up the bill in about ten or so years time; it could be East Manchester all over again.

In all that has been reported however, it appears that two important points have been overlooked. First, I have actually yet to see any evidence of sufficient numbers of people wanting to rise to the challenge of getting to grips with the housing problem; research has suggested that as a social and political issue, it is way down peoples’ list of concerns. Those with a true sense of community service and enough stamina to last the course of local development planning are surely few and far between. The UK may well have a pretty clear system of planning, but the ever changing legal and political context is hard enough for experienced planners to keep abreast of, let alone those who may attempt to pursue it in their spare time.

Second, localism has been portrayed as a political philosophy which hands decision-making to local communities. I would argue that this is a misinterpretation; it does in fact pass responsibility to those communities to shape and cater for local need, based on a detailed local knowledge of an area, its characteristics, and the needs of the have-nots as well as the haves. Anyone who is gleefully thinking that they have seen off large-scale developments had better give some serious thought to what alternatives they would like to propose to meet local needs, and how these will address local issues, because such people will now be accountable for the future fortunes and social justice of their cities, towns and villages. Remember, with localism comes great responsibility.

Joanne Cave

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