Red meat of power for locals

Localism is a new Government buzzword. Mark Holdstock talks to experts offering rural explanations.

The planning system is changing, in order, we are told, to give local people and in particular parish councils in rural areas, a greater voice in the decision making.

Will it give rural communities the strength to fight off unwanted developments, or might it turn into a charter for Nimbys?

It has all come about through a new piece of legislation being introduced by the governing coalition, called the Localism Bill.

But what exactly is "localism" and how is it supposed to work in the real world?

Harvey Pritchard, a former Leeds City Council planning officer and now a planning consultant who lectures at Leeds Metropolitan university, says: "Essentially the Government said the planning system was too much central Government controlled and things should be more looked at, considered and decided upon at local level in neighbourhoods.

"The Localism Bill does what it says on the tin. It's a system with decisions from ground upwards rather than imposed from Whitehall downwards."

The change has received a guarded welcome from the organisation which describes itself as the champion of countryside, the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

John King, who works on planning issues for their South Yorkshire branch, says: "Within local authorities they're giving far more power to local communities which is a good thing. Previously with the planning system targets were laid down by local authorities.

"Now there's going to be far more local control. The problem is that no-one knows exactly what this means.

"I know there's a lot of concern within the development industry and with planning officers that the Nimbys (Not in My Back Yarders) could stop everything.

"But there are incentives to promote houses and development in areas."

His own view is that fears of it becoming a Nimbys' charter are exaggerated. But he suspects that handing more power over to parish councils – which are traditionally run by people who give their time voluntarily and who may also have busy working lives – could be a problem in the long run.

"Giving them more of a say in planning decisions is good, but they're going to need training.

"The parish councils are going to have responsibility to develop their own neighbourhood plans and that's going to take quite a bit of money. Who's going to pay for that?"

The new system will also have an impact on those running rural businesses and farmers, especially if those seeking to apply for planning permission for things like diversification schemes.

This is one of the reasons why the Yorkshire Agricultural Society has been holding a series of workshops throughout the county, organised by a body called Growing Routes which is designed to foster small rural businesses.

George Hamilton, the director of Growing Routes, welcomes the fact that local communities will also have the opportunity to set the rules about the type of development to be encouraged in their neighbourhoods through the Local Development Framework.

"Unfortunately most people tend not to take that opportunity," he says.

Harvey Pritchard, who has been one of the speakers at the explanatory workshops, urges farmers to take part. "In preparing plans now, farmers can use those policies in three, four, five or six years time. If they don't take part now then they'll be faced with plans and policies which may not help them in terms of what they might want to do – whether it's diversification or something totally new."

John King concedes the new system will probably work best for what might be described as the articulate middle classes. "There is a concern that might happen. It will give more power to local communities to say no, and obviously the more articulate communities will be more effective in doing that. What we have to ensure is that the less articulate, they get the help as well."

One area where local pressure under the new rules could make a difference is when national and multi-national companies want to bring large developments such as supermarkets to

small towns. For years, there were concerns about Tesco's plans to open a big store in the middle of the market town of Penistone, and apprehension by traders about the impact it would have continued up to the opening of its doors last August and beyond.

"There's been a groundswell in the way that large retailers have increasingly taken over small towns," says Harvey Pritchard. "People feel frustrated that what they allegedly want, or don't want, isn't actually happening on the ground."

John King from the CPRE thinks it might put a brake on supermarket expansion. "It will be far more difficult for them if the changes that are proposed come in.

"If the local communities are going to be making these decisions, approving planning permissions, then clearly they'll have the ability to say no. There will still be an appeal system I presume where a developer can go to the planning inspectorate and challenge that decision.

"How that works I don't know because you will be challenging a parish council, and what does the parish council do? Does it have to fight the appeal on its own?"

CW 29/1/11