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Heseltine: not a recipe for economic prowess – a summons to bureaucratic paralysis

Published by Andy Boddington on Thursday, November 1st, 2012 at 09:48 am

Here we go again. Just as councils are getting used to the National Planning Policy Framework, introduced last March, and the measures of the Localism Act, along come proposals that will disrupt the entire process.

Eric Pickles and planning minister Nick Boles have already signalled that council planning departments are to be treated like schools. They will be monitored through league tables and placed on special measures if they are deemed to underperform. The Planning Inspectorate will take over planning decisions of any local authority that is deemed to be struggling. Now Michael Heseltine is suggesting that the Planning Inspectorate be given “powers to investigate planning decisions proactively”, including the right to step in when a planning authority is taking more than six months to process an application.

In Heseltine’s view, local councils cannot be trusted to plan for the economy. This will be done by the local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). Just two years old, they will be forced to reorganise themselves. Councils will no longer be able to take membership of two LEPs (12% do so). The reformed LEPs will have boundaries that conform to functional economic market areas (FEMAs). This is both daft economics and bad governance. Economic areas simply do not conform to local authority boundaries. Many councils will be unfairly served if they are forced into a single LEP.

The LEPs will hire private sector planners to ensure that they have the wherewithal to plan for the economy. Heseltine does not define the detailed structure of economic plans, but no one should doubt that they will commandeer much of the role of existing core strategies and emerging local plans. Quite how this duplicity of plans will work is unknown. I have no doubt that we will see a return to tortuous negotiations that surrounded regional planning, but in 39 localities not nine. And while this is going on, Heseltine proposes that two tier council areas are reorganised into the unitary model. This is not a recipe not for economic prowess. It’s a summons to bureaucratic paralysis.

The policy that is being undermined here is localism. The people who will lose out will be communities. The underlying problem is that central government and local government simply do not trust each other. This is bad for governing, lousy for efficient operation and damaging to the economy. A new bond of trust needs to be built. LEPs have a vital role. They should work with local councils to strengthen their economic delivery, not usurp the economic role of local government.

The politely indifferent reception Vince Cable and George Osborne gave Heseltine’s report yesterday suggests that many of its recommendations many not come to pass. But David Cameron sounds enthusiastic so we can’t rely on that.

Implementing Heseltine in full will be a disaster for local government. The new system needs to bed in and deliver results before any changes to the LEPs and local councils are brought to the table.

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