The Big Society reform that has currently got lots of discussion and confusion swirling around it is the Government’s plan to introduce a ‘Community right to build’. All the ambitions sound, in both Big Society and localism terms, spot on. The big and radical idea is that if a community agrees that it wants to develop and it can secure proof of support through a local referendum, then it can get on with it, without the need for planning consent.
Housing Minister Grant Shapps says that these reforms will “shift power from Government to communities to allow local people to deliver the homes and development that they really want, without being told that their own expansion doesn’t fit with their local council’s plans.” He also says that “”Far from the Nimbyism that often hits the headlines, up and down the country there are entire communities willing and eager to give the go-ahead for new developments in their area. The countryside must be a vibrant place to live, and cannot be allowed to become a museum”.
But a central part of the proposals are that they go ahead only when the level of local support achieved in a local referendum is at the 90% mark. It is not clear why the threshold is so high. Or indeed the democratic theory that allows a minority to block what could be a large majority view within a village community.
And because of this issue there is scepticism in some quarters. A good example comes from Brian Green in his ‘building blog’. He has some robust views that others have voiced more tentatively and politely. His nub of the matter view is that these proposals are ‘a charter of rights for NIMBYs’. He argues that “The more expensive the housing stock is in the ‘neighbourhood’ the more reasons there are to … say ‘no’ to development. What is more, people who now live in desirable areas would under these policies have a further incentive to stop new homes being built in their neighbourhood. It will raise the price of their homes and show prospective buyers that the neighbourhood is “not for building”. That’s worth at least £30,000 on the price of a house in many of England’s more pleasant spots.”
So, it looks like an interesting experiment. Although we hope there’s more evidence backing up this policy than we’ve seen to date. Perhaps for many places it would be best to stick with the existing, imperfect, planning system rather than go down this ‘right to build route’, with all its risks and opportunity costs? But we certainly don’t want to be accused of semi-inverted “metropolitan snobbery”, as Decentralisation Minister, Greg Clark, painted critics of these planning reforms in his speech to the Royal Town Planning Institute in June!
We think that when these reforms come out in the wash at the local level, it will often be the role, and the responsibility, of local (parish and town) councils and their committed volunteer councillors to make planning work positively for local places. As the National Association of Local Councils has pointed out these reforms may be missing out on the potential and important role of local councils. NALC argues that where a community brings forward any development scheme it should be granted because it:
- has the support of the local (parish and town) council and the community, on the basis of a high quality community led plan;
- shows evidence of need;
- is of suitable scale and size, with no overwhelming site constraints on drainage, archaeology, and biodiversity.
This view, shared by Action for Communities in Rural England, is arguably both more radical and more pragmatic, as it is rooted in existing institutions and in representative democracy.
Much of the detail of the Government’s proposals will be seen later on, especially in the eagerly awaited Localism Bill in the autumn. But these questions do need to be sorted out – and soon. The risks of continuing confusion and more importantly of depressing the development of much needed local affordable housing, needs to be addressed.
So it is good to see that the Communities and Local Government select committee is to undertake an inquiry (partly) into this subject. Some scrutiny and questioning of the Government’s intentions will be helpful in clarifying how these reforms will work in practice. And we hope that this will include a stronger and more defined role for local councils.
It’s also worth noting that the Rural Coalition will be publishing its recommendations to Government (central and local) and others on these matters on 16 August, details should be on the CRC’s website on that date. The coalition, headed up by Matthew Taylor, is advising the Government on ways to foster more proactive local planning, stronger community involvement, delivery of more affordable housing and encouraging more new businesses opportunities. With a broad membership including the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Country Land and Business Association, Local Government Association, Royal Town Planning Institute, Town and Country Planning Association as well ACRE, its views should carry some weight. One would hope.
Crispin Moor is one of the Directors of the Commission for Rural Communities
Justin Griggs is Head of Policy and Development at the National Association of Local Councils