Dan Watkins is the Conservative Parliamentary Spokesman for Tooting.
It’s easy to feel despondent about the state of politics in Britain and the wider world. Scepticism amongst the British electorate about the trustworthiness of our politicians continues to flat-line, with only 20 per cent believing MPs to be honest. Even worse, voters feel that even if politicians are trying to do the right thing, they don’t have the power to bring about the positive change that they promise. That is leading to entrenched cynicism, greater protest voting and the rise of extreme left and right-wing parties which we are witnessing across the world.
But I remain optimistic! And the reason I do is that we can break out of this rut if we devolve power to our communities and really give people a say in shaping their local area. Just as voters trust their own MP more than generic ‘Westminster MPs’, because of the visibility that a constituency MP will have in their area, the perception that voters and politicians are powerless is best removed by demonstrating real influence on very local issues – ones that voters can see with their own eyes.
The Government has recognised this, and through the Localism Act of 2011 gave communities more tools to affect real change in their area. And this legislation really works, as I can demonstrate using many real examples from my own constituency in Tooting where we have harnessed ‘People Power’ to change our area for the better.
We start with a couple of pub-saving campaigns. Across the country, these social institutions are closing down at a rapid rate – almost 30 per week – in the face of rising property prices and high taxation. And when they go, a community hub goes with them.
We had two local pubs under threat during the summer of 2013. The Wheatsheaf, which the freeholder was looking to turn into a Tesco, and the Trafalgar Arms, which was bought by a developer, immediately closed and a plan brought forward to demolish it. Both of these pubs are historic buildings in busy areas, with large numbers of community groups using them as meeting places, so would have been a huge loss to local residents, who were understandably up in arms.
Realising that we had limited options under national planning law to stop these plans, I led local campaigns to get Wandsworth Council to list the pubs as Assets of Community Value (ACV), a new status introduced by the Localism Act. This gave them added planning protection and meant that should the owner wish to sell the site, the community could block the sale by matching the bid.
In the case of the Wheatsheaf, we were able to use the ACV to bring in further planning protection – an Article 4 Direction against Change of Use – to prevent the pub being converted into a shop. Subsequently, the owner had a change of heart and leased the site to a new publican. Meanwhile the ACV managed to slow down the proposed demolition of the Trafalgar Arms for long enough that the pub came onto the radar of Young’s Brewery, who successful purchased the pub and reopened it last year.
In 2014, a nursery and scout hut based on a beautiful patch of green space in Wandsworth Common – known as the ‘Romany’ – was on the verge of sale to its owner to a property developer, who was going to build on the site, meaning that this environmental oasis and hub of the community would be lost forever. Nursery users, Scout members and local residents were successful in highlighting the social amenity of the site and getting it listed as an ACV.
I headed this group in forming a Community Interest Company (CIC), just in time for the owner to conclude its sale of the Romany to the developer. As directors of the CIC, we used the Community Right to Bid legislation (part of the Localism Act) to freeze the sale and give us up to six months to match the offer. With so much goodwill in the community, we were able to raise the funds from local residents and groups to purchase the Romany ourselves, which is now maintained on a voluntary basis by the CIC and its members.
And there is more in the pipeline, too. We have formed another Community Interest Company to purchase the Tooting Bec Lodge, a Grade II listed Georgian building that has closed and fallen into disrepair, via a possible Compulsory Purchase Order. And separately, a forum has formed to develop a Neighbourhood Plan (yet another localism instrument), which will harness the ideas of local people in how we shape our high streets, green spaces and future housing.
Of course, people power doesn’t happen by itself, and there is no substitute for leadership and hard work, but what I have noticed is how ready people have been to answer a rallying call and come forward with their support, skills and time. Clearly, we also need councils such as Wandsworth, which are willing to work with the legislation rather than try to obstruct it.
So where does this leave us? In effect, we have put residents and community groups in the driving seat. Most individuals back themselves to do a good job of running a project, so localism is returning us to a system of empowered voters and politicians.
So let’s see this Government continue to push forward with more devolution, decentralisation and localism. In 20 years, it really could be one of the policies it is most remembered for.
You can read more detail on Dan’s ‘localism’ campaigns at www.danwatkins.org.uk.