UK: Planning Act Blog 206: Localism Bill - Summary Of Second Reading Debate

Last Updated: 20 January 2011
Article by Angus Walker

This is entry number 206, first published on 18 January 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. Click here for a link to the whole blog. If you would like to be notified when the blog is updated, with links sent by email, click here.

Today's entry reports on yesterday's second reading debate on the Localism Bill.

Yesterday aftenoon and evening saw the Second Reading debate in the House of Commons on the Localism Bill, the first debate on the Bill since its introduction in Parliament in mid-December. The debate lasted for six hours, and duly ended with the Bill receiving its second reading. You can read the 50 or so pages of Hansard here, but if you don't have time, read on. First, though, note that Parliament is asking for written representations no the Bill - for more details see below.

The most controversial provisions appeared to be the community right to challenge/buy, having 'shadow mayors' in advance of referundums to elect actual mayors, and the provisions for social housing. Many MPs also said that localism was useless if communities did not have the means to exercise it (due to the cuts).

Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Local Government, opened the debate. He gave a high-level wide-ranging speech, (mis)quoting St Augustine and Clint Eastwood. I had suspected for a while that the Conservatives did not like the word 'regional' - when Simon Hughes MP mentioned it, Eric Pickles called it 'the R-word'.

On the general power of competence, Hazel Blears MP (formerly in Eric Pickles' job), compared it with the 'well-being' power already in existence where councils can do anything in the social, economic or environmental interests of their areas. She asked what new things councils would do that were not in such interests. Eric Pickles conceded that 'there is not much difference' with the new power, but councils mighe be less cautious in using it.

Much was said by Labour members of the 126 reserve powers in the Bill of the government to override the localism provisions, saying that this meant the Bill was centralising rather than localising (if I can coin that verb).

Caroline Flint MP, shadow Secretary of State, moved a motion (known as a 'reasoned amendment') that the Bill not be given a second reading for various reasons. The main reasons given were that the government still had powers in reserve over local government, and the community empowerment and neighbourhood planning parts of the Bill were 'put together hastily without adequate consultation'.

She said that the Bill was nothing more than a smokescreen for unprecedented cuts to local authorities, and the Secretary of State's veto over many powers meant it should be renamed the 'only if I say so' Bill. She made the point that appointing shadow mayors in advance of mayoral elections gave them an unfair advantage in the ensuing election. This was echoed by others.

Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, asked if localism meant bypassing local authorities or not - the government did not seem to be sure. He asked what would happen if housing and renewable energy targets were not met by the localism measures, and what would happen if local authorities did not co-operate, despite the Bill requiring them to do so (albeit only on sustainable development).

Nick Raynsford MP said that press reaction to the Bill was qualified. He said that many of the measures did not allow local authorities to do what they wanted (and so were not localism), e.g. outlawing 'bin taxes' and requiring referendums on high council tax rises.

Community rights to challenge and to buy

There was considerable discussion of the community right to challenge, where community groups and others are able to challenge the providers of services by or on behalf of local authorities, and the right to protect assets of community value and potentially buy them.

Charlie Elphicke asked if the right could be extended to national government assets (having the Port of Dover in mind). Eric Pickles said he would think about it.

Joan Walley MP was concerned that the community right to challenge would lead to companies like Capita and Serco taking over more local services rather than community groups. Although, unless extended by the government, only a community body can launch a challenge, there is at present nothing to stop any organisation from joining the subsequent procurement process if there is one.

Hazel Blears asked that Eric Pickles state that he would not extend the bodies who could launch challenges. In reply Greg Clark said that the purpose of the Bill was to express a community right to challenge (although I would say it was still not clear who could participate in the ensuing procurement exercise). Hazel Blears said that the community right to challenge would be meaningless if local groups did not have any money to buy assets.

Caroline Flint noted that the 'community right to buy' was limited in the Bill, with no right of first refusal and no right to a fair price (although these could be introduced later). She said that the planning reforms protected the present but did not provide for the future.

Greg Mulholland MP said that it was not really a 'community right to buy', it was a 'community right to try'.

Planning

David Blunkett asked when the current 'interregnum' in infrastructure planning would end. Eric Pickles said that there would be 'no gap in the system'.

Hazel Blears asked why involve local people in planning while abolishing Planning Aid? She said that the Bill raised expectations of local power but dashed them through lack of funding. Even Conservative Kris Hopkins said 'it is quite easy to devolve powers when there is no money left in the kitty'.

On neighbourhood plans, Caroline Flint said that estimates that they could cost up to £250,000 meant that they would allow those with the loudest voices and deepest pockets to impose their will on the community.

Andrea Leadsom MP said that she would seek to raise the Planning Act threshold for onshore windfarms from 50MW to 100MW. Barry Gardiner MP noted that the government's aim for localism came into conflict with its green aims, as local communities were unlikely to support green infrastructure.

Gordon Marsden MP referred to outside bodies calling for powers to be given to local enterprise partnerships in the Bill - they are not mentioned at pressent.

Oddly, Alok Sharma MP gave two examples of residents opposing housing developments to refute the argument that the Bill would encourage nimbyism.

Geoge Hollingbery MP questioned the minimum size of neighbourhood forums and the local referendums that might result, citing the example of a low turnout in a single-street referendum on a neighbourhood plan.

Zac Goldsmith MP said that local referendums, since they were not binding, had the same status as 'a no-hope petition - although they are a hell of a lot more expensive', and should be made binding

Nick Raynsford said that neighbourhood forums lacked democratic accountability and it was not clear who prevailed when they conflicted with local authorities

On regional strategies, the Conservatives pointed to fewer houses being built per year during the Labour administration than the previous Conservative one, whle Labour members said that abolishing the targets would lead to even fewer houses being built. Both could be right.

Peter Aldous MP, a former surveyor, suggested that replacing regional strategies with a duty to co-operate in planning might not be enough.

There were a few calls for a third-party right of appeal (i.e. where grants of planning permission were appealable rather than just refusals).

Strangest analogy of the day - Iain Stewart MP, who said devolving powers to local authorities would be the first time the cub had been away from its mother.

In closing, Greg Clark made an impassioned peroration 'The Bill will put our politics on a different course. It will bring an end to the history of using power to take more power. It will give power to councils, power to communities, power to voluntary groups and power to the people, in the knowledge that the more powerful the people are, the stronger our society is.' With that ringing in MPs' ears, Labour's reasoned amendment fell by 228 votes to 332, and the Bill was then given a second reading without a vote.

I found two misprints in Hansard - very rare - references to 'putting a break on aspiration' and 'do not touch them with a barge poll'.

The Bill will now go for its committee stage, where it will be examined clause by clause over a number of weeks, probably around two months.

The House of Commons has invited written evidence on the Localism Bill to be sent in as soon as possible, via this page. Unfortunately infrastructure planning appears to be absent from the list of 'key areas', but presumably representations can be made on them anyway. The Committee stage on the Bill will start on 25 January. Representations should follow the guidelines on this page and be sent to scrutiny@parliament.uk.

Previous entry 205: first Planning Act application examination gets under way

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