Magazine article The Spectator

Neighbourhood Botch

Magazine article The Spectator

Neighbourhood Botch

Article excerpt

'Localisation' is an expensive path to greater political corruption

The last time the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas played a part in national debate was in the 17th century, when - recent studies suggest - locals carved a rude chalk parody of Oliver Cromwell into a hillside. It failed to unsettle Cromwell, but the village may yet be the nemesis of another Oliver: Oliver Letwin, architect of the government's pet policy of localism.

Cerne Abbas is one of 17 communities selected by the Department for Communities and Local Government to prepare a 'neighbourhood plan'. This, theoretically, is the opposite of Labour's top-down approach in which government planners in Whitehall or faceless and unelected 'regional assemblies' decided how land should be developed.

The idea is that the community sits down and decides how many homes it wants built, how many should be affordable, and where they should go. So long as the plan is approved by 51 per cent of voters in a local referendum and does not break national and local planning policy, the local council would be obliged to follow it in making planning decisions.

All this stems from the philosophy of Letwin, who besides being Cabinet Office minister is the local MP. Trust Nimbys to take decisions, goes the theory, and they will turn out not to be Nimbys at all: they will welcome development so long as they feel in control.

Allow more decisions to be made locally and you won't need the legions of remote quangos through which Labour governed the country:

local government means less government.

But does anyone really think a majority of residents in a typical Home Counties village will vote for a social housing estate in their backyard? Some neighbourhood plans will support development, but these are more likely to be in suburbia where residents have spotted a chance to flog off their long gardens for blocks of flats - the 'garden-grabbing' that the government once sought to prevent.

As for the 'less government' part of the theory, neighbourhood plans would in fact appear to constitute an extra and extremely expensive tier of government. In common with the 16 other communities in the pilot scheme, Cerne Abbas has been given £20,000 to employ the lawyers and planning consultants which the ministry believes will be necessary to produce a legally watertight plan. That is for a village of 250 households whose parish council currently spends £12,000 a year.

For the pilot scheme, central government is stumping up the cash, but if neighbourhood plans becomes a nationwide policy, communities will pay for their own. …

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