In a recent debate in Parliament on Town and Village Plans there was a strong focus on how the principles of localism are being applied in practice to secure the new homes that we need. George Freeman, the Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk, said the response to the new powers had been positive:
“In each case, the villages have been working on putting together their own village plans, taking the powers that we gave them in the Localism Act; the idea was that local neighbourhood plans would be put together and that the local plan adopted by the council would be an amalgamation of those and work around them. In fact, what has happened is that the local communities have put together plans—I want to talk in a moment about the Swanton Morley plan in particular—and then that process of going through a neighbourhood plan has, as we might have predicted, led to a strong conversation locally about the community’s needs, such as jobs and services. In every case, that has led to more houses being suggested by the local council than were originally thought of.
“Therein lies the beautiful truth at the heart of the Localism Act: if we empower communities to think about their own futures, most will end up planning development where they want it, in the style they want it, for their own vision of their own community. People are not naturally nimbys, but they are resistant to growth being dumped on them by a remote bureaucracy, whether it is in Brussels or London.”
Freeman’s point is that there must be confidence that empowerment is real. If “sensible, local conditions” are “struck out” due to councils “terrified of being taken to court by big out-of-town developers” then amidst the recriminations and betrayal we see the spirit of nimbyism revive.
Sir Nicholas Soames, the Conservative MP for Mid Sussex, agreed that it was “absolutely reprehensible” for the big building firms to “cheat the people who they are meant to be working for and bully the district council.” Nick Herbert, the Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, spoke of “developers … gaming the system” and urged Ministers to “be mindful of the importance of supporting the neighbourhood planning process.”
There is a lot of news elsewhere. Freeman added:
“I recently called a rural housing summit with Hastoe Housing Association—I see the Minister nodding—which is a leading, if not the leading, rural housing specialist. All around the country it has put together schemes with the support of local communities. It is doing more than anyone in rural housing to defeat nimbyism, because the quality of its developments is so high. At this rural housing summit we showcased best practice from all round the country: people putting together affordable housing schemes, shared equity schemes, covenanted land, parish councils. There is a wonderful cornucopia of good rural housing models, but we are not seeing it in Norfolk because our councils have both hands tied behind their backs.”
Hastoe has certainly shown that it is possible to build attractive new housing – of which an example is pictured.
Dominic Raab responded sympathetically:
“Since the introduction of neighbourhood planning by the Localism Act 2011, 2,300 communities have begun the process of shaping the future of their area. I think that about 17 of those are within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk, and I recognise the local initiative that goes into such local plans. I also understand the point that he made about encouraging and not stifling that initiative, which is crucial.”
Referendum results – local as well as national – must be honoured rather than subverted. Otherwise cynicism with politics will grow. Raab seemed to be familiar with that argument.
Yet in urban areas the challenges are worse. There is less likely to be a local neighbourhood plan. There is a much greater sense of inevitability that new buildings will be ugly. Beauty and tradition must be championed in the construction of new homes in our towns and cities – not just in our villages and hamlets.