The Government's localism agenda is going through a sticky patch. Yesterday, plans for elected police commissioners were in the spotlight, with independent candidates claiming that they would not be able to compete with their politically sponsored rivals at the election in November. Sceptical of the voting public's willingness to go online to find out about the candidates in their area, the independents want access to one free mailshot for every household. On the Today programme Nick Herbert, facing an unusually aggressive Evan Davis, was forced on to the defensive as he asserted that, however low the turnout in November, locally elected police chiefs would have democratic legitimacy.
Mr Herbert has little choice but to manage down expectations; the idea of local commissioners has not caught the public imagination and turnout might well be dismal. There's also little doubt that, whatever the minister says, low voting numbers will damage the legitimacy of this project. The argument most often advanced for the introduction of elected commissioners was that very few people knew (or cared) who chaired their local police authority. Elected commissioners were going to change all that, by taking a high public profile and giving everyone a stake in local policing. If apathy continues to rule, will the cost of the new commissioners' £100,000 salaries (plus staff) begin to look like a waste of money?
The Coalition is in rather a bind here. A few high profile independents with a significant media presence could significantly increase interest in these elections. But ministers can hardly criticise candidates for standing on a Conservative (or Liberal Democrat) platform; indeed they're going to have enough trouble from those elected on a Labour ticket, possibly more than half of all the new commissioners. So why would they also be looking to bring on a bunch of stroppy, free-thinking, independent commissioners, ready to take on the Home Office at every opportunity? Well, that's localism for you. In order to enthuse voters into taking part in the project, the Government has to show it is prepared to risk losing national control.
Speaking of national control, housebuilding policy is also in the news again, with a package of new measures about to be announced, according to the Financial Times (£). Back in 2011, the Localism Act promised to ensure that decisions about housing would be taken by local communities. However, aware that many communities, given the choice, will be resistant to large-scale housebuilding, the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has been busy devising sweeteners to be paid to any local authorities favouring development, in the form of the New Homes Bonus and the Growing Places Fund.
So far, these financial incentives are proving insufficient to persuade enough local councils to fast-track planning applications. Carrying out genuine local consultation on development proposals can take years, as any local councillor will tell you. The DCLG is becoming frustrated and wants more houses built, quickly. So we learnt yesterday that the Prime Minister and/or his Deputy are soon to announce a follow up to the “radical new strategy” they launched together last November, which promised to “reignite the housing market and get the nation building again.” Apparently the latest initiative will offer fresh incentives to housebuilders to start up their concrete mixers. In an elaborate ploy to avoid committing any further direct government expenditure, the Government will underwrite bonds issued by housing associations, to enable them to borrow cheaply in reliance on the Government's credit ratings. (Sub-prime, anyone?) At the same time, the DCLG will relieve developers of current requirements to build a percentage of social housing as a condition of planning permission. Such requirements have until now been an ingredient of the “Section 106 agreements” which local councils have used to get affordable housing and other community facilities funded by developers rather than taxpayers. These will now be dropped if they are holding up development.
There is every reason to accept the FT's account of the forthcoming proposals, since they are closely in line with ideas already floated by ministers. In effect, by watering down s106 agreements and guaranteeing housing association finance, the Government is re-nationalising the provision of social housing and usurping the right of local councils to decide the balance of social and private housing. Despite the rhetoric of the Localism Act, pressure is also being exerted on local communities to agree to development in order to meet national, rather than local, need.
Ministers believe that a mass housebuilding programme, in both private and public sector, is the route to economic growth. If the achievement of that objective means overruling local decisions, or indeed removing decision-making powers from local authorities, it will not hesitate to do so.
As with independent local policing, local control of planning seems increasingly confined to the realms of political rhetoric. Ideas that seemed beguiling in think-tank pamphlets are proving difficult to put into practice. Readers will no doubt cite their own examples. The question is, should the Government come clean and admit that localism is an unworkable concept – or attempt to cling to the rhetoric whilst lowering our expectations of what it can deliver?