The Conservative MP for Wokingham, John Redwood, questions in his blog whether localism is working in reality in his constituency.
Redwood says the the principle has been understood by the Government. But he continues:
In practice this is all proving difficult for Ministers. In the case of planning many are worried that the planning policy is too pro developers and does not offer sufficient protection for greenfields. The official response says that the government is abolishing central targets demanding more building. Councils can settle these matters, and protect what they wish in their local plans. Fine. Why then did Inspectors overturn a local decision in my area recently, as the Council has a local plan and the local decision both reflected it and was popular with the public? If localism is to work Inspectors have to back off in such cases.
I would hope the answer is that with the draft National Policy Planning Framework the inspectors would not have had the power to overturn it. The draft was published at the end of July and even as a draft has some relevance on the process. Redwood said the inspectors "recently" overturned the decision in Wokingham. How recently? If it was since July would they have done the same if the NPPF had full force rather than being a draft? Redwood should go and see the Planning Minister Greg Clark and thrash it out.
In education there is little sign of localism working. A group in my area proposed a free school. They, and Councillors, asked me for details of how the scheme would work. The Education department was unable to answer their sensible questions. However, the scheme was clearly centrally driven and required considerable paperwork to be submitted to the Secretary of State who takes the decision about whether to let this school go ahead or not.
The local authority decided to review the catchment area of a popular school. After a long and difficult consultation process with plenty of opinions being expressed they came to a final decision. The Secretary of State then decided to overturn their decision when reviewing it, without himself coming to see the situation on the ground or even consulting the local Council Leader. If a Council cannot even decide school catchments, what can they decide?
Yes the trouble with the arrangements for starting free schools is the "picking winners" approach. As well as funding per pupil, the same as any other state school, the Department for Education buys the sites for the free schools to use. I suspect that this will have to change as the demand for free schools will grow and the budget available to buy sites for them just want to sufficient. We do need to stop rationing the number of free schools able to start by finding a more flexible way of financing them – allowing leasing of buildings, allowing for profit operators, something that means groups coming forward to start up schools are able to proceed.
So far as catchment areas are concerned wouldn't the really localist policy be not to have them? Schools should be allowed to decide their own admissions. Would that mean them taking middle class children and shunning the poor? Each time they did this they would miss out on the £430 a year pupil premium. The whole point of that policy is that schools will have an incentive to take children from homes on low incomes.