Will 'Localism' and the Localism Bill help or hinder Regeneration? This was the question debated at the recent Regeneration Forum event, hosted by Clyde & Co.
The short answer was “yes”. Localism can assist regeneration by enabling stakeholders to be closer to tools and resource. It can also get in the way if ably exploited by any individual or organisation with an axe to grind.
The longer answer was that it could help, but, well, it’s tricky.
Indeed, there was a school of thought suggesting the debate may have moved on, and that 'Localism' has lost its cachet. Richard Blakeway, the Mayor of London’s Housing Advisor thinks the emphasis was now moving from the L-word to 'growth', and he cites the New Homes Bonus as an example. In London, which is a special case, given its scale and structures, it’s possible to have a city-wide plan to deliver 360,000 homes on public land. The principles of investing public land as equity in regeneration schemes are becoming established in London, where there is enough land, expertise and interest to make such schemes stack up.
Outside Lucky London, things may be different. We all agreed the National Planning Policy Framework was of great import. Perhaps this was a hope rather than a belief, from a group hoping for some sort of national structure to populate, rather than the tricky open plains of localism.
What is a neighbourhood? It’s a tricky question at the heart of localism and the NPPF, and one asked by Ian Ginbey, Head of Planning at Clyde & Co. It’s a question that local government has a poor track record answering. Do people live and work in Wembley or Brent? Bassetlaw or Worksop? South Hams or Totnes? Neighbourhoods are certainly not defined by political boundaries, or planner-drawn red lines on a map.
It is tricky to define a neighbourhood, particularly in an urban context, as it’s something that resides in the minds of its stakeholders, and may well be a fairly fluid and flexible entity. Where does Manchester stop and Salford begin?
This also presents the tricky problem of arbitrating neighbourhood against neighbourhood. What if a neighbouring neighbourhood objects to their neighbour’s neighbourhood plans? Heads spin at the very thought.
These questions didn’t bother Keith George, of Taylor Wimpey. He was positive about the greater stakeholder engagement that Localism could bring. Section 106 may satisfy local politicians, but it often fails to mitigate public opinion he thinks. And the CIL is “losing its way”, so any way of meaningfully engaging with, and influencing local opinion in favour of development would be good.
However, the traditional house builder’s gloom descended as he told us the reforms “could put the recovery back by three years”, said that community right to buy could so easily be used vexatiously, and shuddered at the “horror” of judicial review, now a common phrase on local newspaper websites as local campaign groups get wise to their new opportunities.
Kieran Stigant, from West Sussex Council, gave a sense we are at a point of transformation, “from Big Government to Big Society” as he put it. A key problem with this he observed is that the people don’t trust their local representatives to deliver localism. Public opinion, he argued, is consistently ignored by local politicians and officers. When people care fervently about litter and dog poo, local councils prioritise the reconfiguring of traffic junctions. Sort the dog poo out first, he urged, then the people might trust their council with the trickier tasks.
He gave an example in his manor of Burgess Hill, where a Town Council driven regeneration plan had garnered wide public support despite the addition of 4,000 homes. This was because the People understood and bought in to the underlying economic strategy, but also because the council had instituted a policy of listening to the People when they asked for a paving slab to be fixed, and doing something about it.
The Independent Republic of Amberley also got an sympathetic mention – a small community with a staunchly conservative outlook on development in an area of natural beauty, but one capable of promoting a development of affordable homes “to avoid the village pickling in aspic”.
In these cases, stakeholders collaborate. Check out a dictionary and you’ll see 'collaborate' defined as “working with the enemy”. Maybe that’s the trickiest bit of all. In the toughest of times, we all need to work together, with a shared vision where we all win a bit, and compromise a bit; otherwise we won’t win at all.
Tricky isn’t necessarily bad. It was tricky to go to the moon, to build the large hadron collider, to get a planning approval in Hammersmith in the eighties – but all have produced, or will produce benefits for those capable of achieving.
Tricky means we have to bring our best game. Tricky means we need to pitch in with other stakeholders for the ultimate good of our locality. Tricky means we have to work for a situation where everyone wins, rather than just concentrating on our own needs. Tricky could be good.
And just because it’s tricky, doesn’t mean it’s not worth a go.