Whither localism?

Adonisvision4x3.jpgAndrew Adonis on the hotpotch of measures making up the government’s Growth and Infrastructure Bill

The government seems to be re-defining the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Given the outright attack on localism in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, DCLG may as well be re-named the Department against Communities and Local Government.

The Bill, which starts in the Lords today, is also misnamed. It has little to do with infrastructure and less to do with growth. David Cameron was right when he said “If you could legislate your way to growth, obviously we would. The truth is you can't.” It is fanciful to call a hotchpotch of planning measures a growth bill and if it were an infrastructure bill you would expect the new infrastructure Minister to be speaking in today’s debate (he is not).

Labour will be probing the government on three key planning issues.

First, the suspension of local planning authorities. If an authority is deemed to be failing by the Secretary of State then planning responsibilities will be removed indefinitely. There is no evidence that such a suspension is necessary when last year saw a 10 year high of 87% of all applications approved. 400,000 homes have planning permission but are yet to be built – the problem does not lie with local planning authorities.

Second, the attack on Section 106 affordable housing agreements. These assure mixed housing developments and, once again, there is no case that they should be discarded. There is no evidence that failure to agree s106 agreements is routinely holding back developments and the Local Government Association point out that “councils are already responding to changed economic circumstances by renegotiating s106 agreements voluntarily.”

Third, the re-defining of ‘nationally significant infrastructure’. Such projects are dealt with centrally by the Planning Inspectorate. This is important in a small number of cases but broadening the definition to include ‘business’ and ‘commercial’ projects without defining the scope of these categories runs the serious risk of completely bypassing local communities for projects that would never seriously be considered ‘nationally significant’.

We also have two environmental concerns.

First, the threat of new communications infrastructure in national parks. The Bill is intended to facilitate the roll out of rural broadband but allows overhead cables and mobile phone masts to be placed in national parks without the consent of their relevant authorities. As the Campaign to Protect Rural England has pointed out, “The proposal that the key purpose of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – to conserve beauty – could be overridden in order to provide infrastructure... would establish a dangerous and wholly inappropriate precedent.”

Second, the risk of development on town and village greens. Under the proposals, after a ‘trigger event’ it would no longer be possible to register to get your village green protected.  One proposed trigger event is the submission of a planning application. As Hilary Benn puts it, this is ‘Kafkaesque’ since the first that most people will hear of a threat to a green is when a planning application is published.

Worse still, tacked on to the end of this Bill is the alarming proposition that employee rights be traded for shares. In effect, it implements the “fire at will” Beecroft proposals by the back door. 

The government claims that businesses would be hiring and the economy would start growing if this new ‘employee shareholder’ status existed. But this is fantasy. The British Chambers of Commerce have said that they “have not been able to identify significant support for this new employment status.” The Law Society has voiced concern that this legislation will result in “more red tape, not less”, create “substantial risk of costly satellite litigation” and the “potential for claims of indirect sex discrimination.” Manufacturers’ organisation EEF has announced, "Our members have indicated they would not implement the new status." The Federation of Small Businesses has rejected the scheme as "unlikely to be appropriate for many small businesses" and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says "There is very little evidence as to why this policy is needed or what impact it will have."

The shares-for-rights scheme also creates the infrastructure necessary for a massive growth in tax avoidance. The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Paul Johnson describes the bill as putting “another billion pound lollipop on the table”.  He writes: “Just as government ministers are falling over themselves to condemn such [avoidance] behaviour, that same government is trumpeting a new tax policy which looks like it will foster a whole new avoidance industry.”

Other than the clause destroying employment rights and safeguards, the only discernible theme of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill is the weakening of the powers of democratically elected local authorities. This contradicts the excellent proposals for growth in the recent Heseltine report – which rightly emphasises the role of self-confident local authorities in driving local economic development – and flies in the face of the Coalition’s supposed commitment to localism.

Lord Andrew Adonis is Labour’s infrastructure and growth spokesman in the Lords 

Published 8th January 2013

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