Who is in line for a thrashing under muscular localism?
Published by Andy Boddington on Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012 at 17:10 pm
The new planning minister, Nick Boles, was in an ebullient mood when he appeared before the commons select committee hearing last week. As the MPs explored how the measures in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill will work, its chairman Clive Betts inquired after the state of localism: “We started out with localism. Then we got moved onto something the Secretary of State called guided localism. And the next stage was muscular localism.”
Nick Boles appeared to be in his element as he spoke about the punishment he will be metering out under muscular localism. He talked cheerfully about using sticks against the laggards, councils he and Eric Pickles deem to be underperforming in the planning department. “Yes, there will be a combination of the bully bull bit and some carrots and sticks… There will be no doubt be a few laggards and we will be finding different ways… to make being a long term laggard painful.” Surely he is Mr Quelch reincarnated?
The “bully bull bit” is that councils that are too slow processing major planning applications or that have too many decisions overturned at appeal will be put on ‘special measures’. Boles lauded the special measures process for schools and made it clear that is what the government has in mind for councils with laggard planning departments.
The planning performance of councils will be monitored through league tables. Boles said repeatedly that “very, very few” councils will have their planning powers for major developments taken over by the Planning Inspectorate. He assured the committee that: “we will work very hard to ensure that they are able to resume their independence as soon as possible.” But he gave no details of how that might happen.
While a council is on special measures, its planning fees for major applications are set to be diverted to the Planning Inspectorate, but the council will still have to do the local processing and consultation. Cutting income and simultaneously demanding that councils improve is going be a hard circle to square in these cash strapped times. Eric Pickles has already suggested that poorly performing planning departments merge with their neighbours. Perhaps this is what Boles has in mind when he talks of making “being a long term laggard painful.”
If it is a “very, very” small number of councils that will be punished by Boles, then bringing in new laws just to deal with them seems heavy-handed. On my analysis Hartlepool and Ribble Valley are first up for a public thrashing as Bolesian laggards. Will Hartlepool eventually be forced to merge its planning function with high performing Durham? Is Ribble Valley to be taken in hand by Burnley?
Why can’t Boles just give them some help to improve rather than introduce legislation? Maybe the answer is that ministers in the communities department are under great pressure from the Treasury to make planning work for the economy. They feel they must be seen to be doing something. They have a political need to publicly humiliate councils for their poor performance.
I am sure also they are already dreaming of widening the use of the special measures in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. Once ministers have a power, they are going to want to wield it. Look out Nottingham City, Wyre Forest, Bracknell Forest and Eastleigh – you may be the next in line for the “bully bull bit”.
This is the new regime of muscular localism. Muscular it may be, localism is certainly isn’t.
Graphs of high performers and laggards (provisional, see analysis for caveats).
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