SIM Duncan black and white

Duncan Sim is a senior Policy and Projects Officer at ResPublica.

This Friday will see the Second Reading of Lord Lexden’s Direct Planning (Pilot) Bill. While it is not the most high-profile piece of legislation to be debated in Parliament recently, it is perhaps one of the boldest, and – should it become law – most significant. Its aim is to decisively increase local communities’ influence in the decisions which affect their local built environment; and its provisions are grounded in the belief that this will actually encourage new development.

Rather than seeing the local population as a permanent barrier to development, this Bill sets out a different vision, one in which local engagement facilitates approval for new housing and infrastructure by tapping into local people’s interest in the future of their area. It envisions a planning system which encourages and enables local communities to become active participants in shaping that future, rather than – as at present – passive bystanders, empowered only insofar as the appeals system sustains their objections to new development.

The Bill’s specific provisions would require the Communities Secretary to establish pilot schemes where residents, acting through their neighbourhood forum or an alternate community organisation, could undertake specific activities – including drawing up form-based design codes and the use of charrette processes in certain circumstances – to enhance their control over the outcomes of their local planning process.

So far, so loopy, you might be thinking. Won’t there be plenty of people out there who would use these new tools to indulge their NIMBYism, further slowing down the necessary process of development in many areas and exacerbating the well-documented housing crisis?

Yet – while there will inevitably always be some resistance to any development – this Bill starts from the belief that much of the opposition to new housing currently seen stems not from blanket refusal to countenance any change locally, but from its failure to conform with a local ‘sense of place’ or with design which local people find attractive and appropriate to their neighbourhood. By offering local communities a chance for genuine and substantial input, this hurdle can be overcome.

For example, a survey conducted by Create Streets and Ipsos Mori found that popular housing design could increase support for housebuilding on brownfield land by up to 17 per cent. Even among the 14 per cent of respondents who indicated they opposed construction on brownfield land in principle, over half were prepared to support the building of new houses provided they were of a particular (popular) style.

This Bill would allow local communities to engage positively rather than negatively (in the form of appeals) with the planning process, and ensure that process is responsive to constructive input rather than obstructionism. We must move away from what Nick Herbert described as a system of ‘planning by appeal’ at the launch of ResPublica’s report A Community Right to Beauty – a report which shares this goal.

Moreover, this new mindset is to an extent already embedded in government policy via Neighbourhood Planning, the popularity of which demonstrates the wealth of local interest in the physical appearance and character of localities all around the country. Nearly 1400 communities, encompassing almost six million people, were engaged at various stages of the neighbourhood planning process as of February, and all of the 52 referendums on neighbourhood plans which had been held to that date had resulted in the plans being approved locally.

Neighbourhood Planning was of course introduced as part of the Localism Act 2011, an Act which gave a first indication of the current government’s willingness to think locally (at the time, in partnership with the Liberal Democrats). This trend has accelerated substantially over the past 12 months, most notably with the introduction of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill.

Yet there is a danger that such promising localist thinking becomes subsumed entirely within a definition of devolution which emphasises shifting responsibility for public service provision from the state in its national guise to its local form. The Direct Planning Bill is therefore valuable in another way, in that it offers a chance to broaden the devolution debate beyond public service reform, and bring the debate back to its core question: how can we best secure and enhance the public’s capacity for meaningful input over communal issues and in collective decision-making processes?

The Bill is therefore a fascinating combination of a continuation of existing thinking and a profound challenge to received truths and intellectual inertia. It seeks to build on the progress from Neighbourhood Planning, and maintains that deeper participation from local people on the ground offers a way to improve outcomes for communities, developers and government.

The reception it receives will be an interesting test of the commitment to localism within Parliament and the Government, as well as revealing much about what that word is understood to mean among those institutions. If its provisions are enacted, it will in turn offer a chance to examine the public’s capacity for mature debate on the future of their area. While the Bill may have an important role to play in addressing housing crisis in the medium-term therefore, its significance extends far beyond that single issue, and is much wider than it may first appear.

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