Event Report: Understanding Localism - London 4 February 2011

View the speaker's presentations

HTF Chair, Debbie Dance, welcomed delegates and speakers to our first event on Localism and extended her thanks to Bircham Dyson Bell for supporting the event.

Session 1 was opened by Michael Bingham, Deputy Head of the Development Management Division at the Department of Communities and Local Government, with his presentation ‘Localism – the way forward’. The main tenet of this was the heartfelt belief that penetrates the coalition Govt that the balance of power needs to shift – that Localism gives important benefits and presents people with more power, including the choice to deliver more creative and less bureaucratic solutions.

In clarifying the language, he gave three definitions – that Localism is the philosophy; Decentralisation is the process; and that the Big Society is the end result.

While Localism itself is to be a radical package of reforms it should not be seen as anti-planning. It is designed to be a bottom-up set of powerful and flexible tools that will require a whole host of new partnerships and relationships to make it work.

This was followed by Bircham Dyson Bell’s Public Affairs Consultant, Matthew Davies, speaking on ‘The Localism Bill – the parliamentary process and influencing the debate’.

Matthew talked the delegates through the origins of the Bill and provided some interesting parallels with the previous Government. He noted that the Localism Bill does not:

  • Abolish Regional Development Agencies (although it will abolish the London Development Agency, and the Public Bodies reform Bill will abolish the others)
  • Establish Local Enterprise Partnerships
  • Go anywhere near Local Govt reorganisation
  • Do anything on Local Govt finance,

but will, against a backdrop of unprecedented cuts in Local Govt, enable the process of radical reform. According to the timetable for the Bill it is expected to pass Royal Assent by November 2011.

The final speaker in this first session was Steven Bee, Principal, Steven Bee Urban Counsel, with a thought-provoking presentation on ‘The enduring importance of heritage for communities and sustainability. Steven opened his presentation with two questions:

  1. Does the Govt really mean it wants to give local people power, and
  2. Do the people really want it?

If the answer to both questions is yes, then 1) where will the resources come from? and 2) who will be accountable, and who will they be accountable to?

In addition, several terms will need to be defined: community; sustainability; neighbourhood; local; and planning. It would seem that for Localism much is development management which might not be helpful to planning. Methodology and guidance needs to be designed and provided. Following from this Steven explained how heritage could provide a stable context for these concerns in terms of identity; continuity; adaptability; and diversity. He finished by saying that areas need to accept responsibility for planning for the future – we need to move away from the notion that heritage is backward-looking when we can use it as a background for real sustainable change.

Session 2 focused on the area of Neighbourhood Planning, and opened with a detailed look at the legislation around Neighbourhood Planning by Mark Challis, Partner, Bircham Dyson Bell. In his paper, ‘the Localism Bill and planning – Neighbourhood Planning – what is it and will it work?’ Mark began by explaining the three main means of Neighbourhood Planning:

  • Neighbourhood Development Orders (NDOs)
  • Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDPs)
  • Community Right to Build Orders (CRBOs)

Neighbourhood Forums would have to be formed – the mechanism for this seems nebulous – only three people from the actual area need be members. It would seem that anyone could be a member and this could allow developers to participate. The groups would usually be unincorporated associations (like a residents’ association).

Following this he discussed what would constitute a neighbourhood in reality – while areas are not to overlap, the basic boundary seems to be the old electoral ward boundary which is in itself quite large.

It was noted that it would be difficult for people to use a local plan to stop local development and that there is no knowing if people would participate if they did not have a vested interest. Neighbourhood Development Plans have been estimated to cost between £17 - £63K depending on the scale – although there may be some resource to help with this some local fundraising would be necessary.

Finally Mark noted that under CRBOs the Community Organisation would need to be a company.

Next Tony Burton, Director, Civic Voice, counterbalanced the legal detail with his broader picture of how, why and what communities need to think about and implement in terms of Neighbourhood Planning, with his talk ‘Neighbourhood planning in action’. Tony began by stating that Civic volunteers are the most numerous part of the planning system in the country, and champions of their distinctive places. The Localism Bill is of great interest to civic societies – for the first time they will have the right to bring forward proposals about their areas. They are very supportive of the key principles but recognise the challenge – especially for local politicians – in moving from representative democracy to participatory democracy. Those with the knowledge and expertise will need to harness that and move from a ‘telling’ role to a ‘helping’ role – in order to bring that expertise to communities. Opportunities in the Bill provide this. Neighbourhood Plans can be as simple or as complicated as communities want them to be – the biggest concern is will Local Authorities co-operate?

Tony advised that those groups wishing to be involved should be careful of the legal detail and get help with this where necessary, but not get put off by the minutiae – rather seize the opportunities presented by the Bill and start the conservation about why the Bill is important and what it will enable neighbourhoods to achieve.

He finished by noting that there needs to be a network of enablers to provide this capacity for everyone to be involved. And that everyone who is enthused to be involved should keep an eye on the opportunities.

Session 3 considered how Localism and Community Engagement might look in practice, with John Qualtrough, Partner, Bircham Dyson Bell, providing us with the legal context in his paper ‘Community Empowerment and the Localism Bill’, and Chris Wade, Chief Executive, Action for Market Towns, showing us how communities are already implementing the agenda in his ‘Community Led Planning in Practice’.

John discussed in detail issues around Referenda, Community Right to Bid and to Challenge, and Assets of Community Value.

In terms of referenda he noted that the Bill deals with wards or local divisions in a Local Authority area. Topics would probably be grouped together and possibly also with an election for a councillor and so on. The Local Authority would need to decide what steps to take but this could be to do nothing. Regulations may extend powers to Parish Councils.

Under the Community right to Challenge communities will have a new right to submit an ‘expression of interest’ in relation to the provision of a relevant service. Right can be exercised by a ‘relevant body’ which includes voluntary and community bodies, charitable trusts, parish councils, employees of a relevant authority and any person or body nominated by the Secretary of State. LAs may specify periods within which expressions of interest may be submitted, and refuse to consider expressions of interest received outside this period. If a relevant authority accepts an expression of interest it must carry out a procurement exercise.

Under Assets of community Value, John noted that Local Authorities must maintain a list of community value referred to as a ‘list of assets of community value’. The list is likely to include details of the owner/occupier; nature of the estate; use to which the land/building is being put; and the price or value of the land. Whether land or buildings is of community value is to be determined in accordance with regulations.

He questioned if communities would have the professional resources to bid successfully for such assets, and if the Govt planned to provide such resources.

Chris Wade concluded the event by talking us through Community Led Planning in detail – Action for Market Towns have been involved in this process for some time. In their view local people do have the knowledge and passion about their areas, while the Localism Bill gives them the opportunity to fill in the gaps and use the mechanisms provided to benefit. While Community Led Planning and Neighbourhood Planning are not yet entirely synonymous there is clear overlap. Where there is less prescriptive guidance around Neighbourhood Plans it is thought that Community Led Panning will be able to feed into the process. Chris noted that there is no sense in planning for its own sake – planning needs to achieve something; to develop communities.

Chris noted that capacity building works both ways – there is a need to build community capacity but there is also a need to develop co-ordination between LAs and communities, as well as within LAs.

He also noted that Place-Based Budgets (2013) could provide mechanisms for potential release of finance to communities later in the process.