Local democracy threat in Levelling Up bill, say councillors
Politics / Mon 1st May 2023 at 07:07am
MORE than eight-in-ten councillors fear local democracy will be eroded unless MPs and peers heed their warnings and amend the government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which is close to completing its passage through Parliament.
A survey of 672 councillors by Savanta, on behalf of CPRE, the countryside charity, found 69% oppose National Development Management Policies. The cross-party opposition to the far-reaching measures, which grant the government unprecedented powers to override local plans without scrutiny, means 4% of all councillors – and only 6% of Conservatives – believe NDMPs will enhance local democracy.
As currently drafted in the Levelling Up Bill, NDMPs would introduce legally binding national planning policies without minimum guarantees for public or parliamentary scrutiny. The government has defended the centralising powers as in-step with the current planning system, saying they do not represent a fundamental change. A recent opinion from leading planning silk Paul Brown KC at Landmark Chambers flatly contradicts this assertion, saying it is incorrect.
Around eight-in-ten Labour, Liberal Democrat and independent councillors are against NDMPs. The level of opposition is lower among Conservative councillors, yet a majority (54%) still oppose the policies and only a quarter (25%) support them. In total, 82% of councillors surveyed think NDMPs will erode local democracy.
Tom Fyans, interim CEO at CPRE, the countryside charity, said:
‘Local democracy will be trashed by these unjustified planning reforms making their way through Parliament. As things currently stand, an ever-changing secretary of state would be able to override local plans to suit their political agenda. The government’s absurd claim this would ‘restore trust’ in the system sounds like brazen disinformation.
‘National Development Management Policies are a cleverly disguised power grab by central government. The secretary of state would be granted the extraordinary right to override any local plan on virtually any issue, without crucial checks and balances. This is a full-on attack on local democracy.
‘NDMPs will mean government ministers have more say over what happens on a person’s street than their locally elected councillors. This is the polar opposite of what had been promised in the Levelling Up Bill. Local plans should be the chief factor in deciding planning applications because they give local people and our elected representatives power.’
The representative online survey of councillors in England was conducted between 3 and 29 March 2023. Of those who took part, 231 were Conservative, 203 Labour, 113 Liberal Democrat and 125 independent.
Theresa Villiers, Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet and a former cabinet member, said:
‘NDMPs could significantly undermine local control over planning decisions. We should be strengthening local input into planning, not restricting it. I hope the government will consider amending the Levelling Up Bill in response to the very serious concerns illustrated by this poll. If we are going to deliver the homes we need, we need to bring communities with us, not impose development on them without their having a real say in what is built.’
Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield South East and chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, said:
‘The Levelling-Up Committee is currently considering how NDMPs will affect the vital role of local plans. Changes proposed in the government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill raise questions about how the NDMPs will balance the need for flexibility with local circumstances. The new NDMPs should be subject to thorough consultation and scrutiny, from both local authorities and parliament.’
Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat Environment Spokesperson and MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale, said:
‘Rather than devolving more power to local councils, the government’s new planning policies are instead a top down, one-size-fits all power grab.
‘This makes a mockery of the government’s pledge to level up our communities. They must urgently review this and let local authorities decide what is best for their areas.’
Councillor Elizabeth Dennis-Harburg, Labour Leader for North Hertfordshire District Council, said:
‘In pressing ahead with NDMPs without amendment or modification, the government has once again shown its contempt for localism, local government, and our communities.
‘As drafted, the legislation removes the power to make key decisions about our places from local decision makers and centralises it in the hands of the secretary of state – whoever that happens to be this week. Transparency and public participation in the planning process is eroded as the secretary of state has no duty to consult or survey local people.
‘Let’s put power back into the hands of local people, putting communities at the heart of our planning system, and giving local councils the powers we need to deliver high quality local plans designed for our people and place.’
Councillor Ed Fordham, Liberal Democrat Group Leader on Derbyshire County Council, said:
‘This decision is at best a foolish move that will deepen the concerns of councillors and citizens over the erosion of local democracy. That residents and communities will be ridden over roughshod is stupid, short sighted and will rebound. The government should think again.’
Eroding local decision making on planning started with the National Planning Policy Framework 2012. In it was the "presumption in favour of sustainable development". A parliamentary select committee commented in December 2011: "It is sensible that planning should support a presumption in favour of sustainable development as a strategic purpose, but that presumption is not precise enough to be used as a tool for decision making. Where there is an adopted Local Plan in place, the Local Plan should be the starting point for planning decisions. Local Plans should be based on robust evidence, transparent, capable of providing the development needed in an area, reflective of local circumstances, and offering as much certainty as planning reasonably can. The presumption in favour of sustainable development should be redefined as ‘a presumption in favour of sustainable development consistent with the Local Plan.’ In our view, this will not only firmly anchor sustainable development to local circumstances, but will also provide a spur to local authorities to prepare their Local Plans." Unfortunately, the Conservative government failed to heed the recommendation of the Select Committee and have now moved even further down the road of centralisation and eroding local democracy. See paragraph 80 on page 34 of https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmcomloc/1526/1526.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwiy98b10NP-AhWyQ0EAHeoNCMQQFnoECBAQAQ&usg=AOvVaw2BgnBVaKFR5FvlK9sVNCky
It is also worth noting what CPRE and Shelter had to say in the 2011 Select Committee report regarding "viability assessments" introduced in the National Planning Policy Framework 2012: "The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) expressed concern that the language in the draft Framework on viability would lead to developers arguing that they should not be required to deliver as much affordable housing in the future, because it is not viable for them to do so. Shelter stated that “this effective exemption for developers” would put local authorities in a weak negotiating position when trying to secure affordable housing." History has shown CPRE and Shelter were absolutely correct.