Annual Policy Review 2014


Localism

Localism

Achieved

  • Successfully navigated the Growth and Infrastructure Act through Parliament
  • Introduced changes to the system of permitted development rights
  • PCCs introduced (albeit with weak mandates due to the universally low voter turnout)

More to do

  • Although there is evidence that schemes such as Help to Buy are boosting construction, there is still pressure on the government to boost house building
  • Implementing planning changes to improve mobile coverage and the roll out of 4G services across the UK

Stalled/dropped

  • Proposed changes to make it easier for homeowners to build extensions were significantly watered down following a Commons revolt
  • Further planning reform looks increasingly unlikely this side of the general election

The unexpected

  • Public opposition to fracking has challenged politicians to work out how local people can share in the financial benefits of this new energy source

Dangers          

  • The issue of green belt development continues to divide the Coalition and is an increasingly divisive issue at the top of the Conservative Party in particular
  •  A further 10% cut to the DCLG departmental budget.
  • Further local government cuts hitting public services

 

The Government’s localism agenda suffered a huge setback following the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections last November and has struggled to recover ever since.

Historically low voter turnout, ranging from 13 to 20 per cent of those eligible, has thrown doubt on whether PCCs have a legitimate mandate. Although this follows on from a similar rejection of directly elected mayors, it indicates – worryingly for the Coalition – a real lack of public engagement in one of its flagship policies. Moreover, there are early reports that Police and Crime Commissioners are costing more than their predecessor police authorities, which if true will further undermine the project.

While the lack of widespread public support has arguably suppressed the Government’s appetite for localism, its quest for economic growth has also been a source of local and regional tension, as have the Coalition parties’ disparate attitudes on planning reform.

One notable Government success is the new Growth and Infrastructure Act, which passed in April last year despite opposition from rural lobbying groups. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has also made some headway in changing the system of permitted development rights to make it easier for empty or underused buildings to be repurposed for other uses, and for commercial spaces to be turned into homes.

However, it is now unlikely that the Government will build on these achievements to pursue any further radical reform of the planning regime. Despite the best efforts of Planning Minister Nick Boles, whose championing of the house building sector has been relentless, there are simply too many opponents on the Conservative backbenches to ignore. They recently mobilised to force the Government to water down its proposals to make it easier for homeowners to build extensions following a very public row within DCLG.With the DCLG budget due to be reduced by a further 10% and support for its localism agenda waning, it is looking more and more likely that its focus will turn to the implementation of existing reforms rather than any big new initiatives.

If so, that will do nothing to ease external pressure on the Government to come up with a bold plan to increase the amount of new homes. Following their promises to double the number of homes built in England each year, Labour will look to keep planning reform at the top of the agenda, so this could still be a key battleground in 2015.