When Eric Pickles was the Communities and Local Government Secretary there was a change in the approach to accountability in our town halls. The “tyranny of sameness” was eased. We saw the demise of the Audit Commission. Box ticking and data sending were slashed. Instead of councils being agencies of Whitehall, a spirit of “localism” was brought in. Councils were judged on results rather than micro-managed; for instance, the New Homes Bonus offered an incentive and that proved more effective than centralised targets. But accountability did not disappear – it’s just that it came from below rather than from above. Council Taxpayers were given the power to veto excessive increases. Schools were given greater autonomy especially if they chose to convert into academies. There was a shift to “neighbourhood planning”.
Part of this new accountability was greater transparency. Spending on all items over £500 must now be published – empowering “armchair auditors” to spot poor value for money.
Broadly this legacy has remained intact – although in recent years councils have been able to impose inflation-busting Council Tax rises without the bother of securing approval from their residents in referendums. But since Sir Eric’s tenure, radicalism has given way to consolidation. Now there are some signs it might revive. Last week came news of a welcome enhancement in terms of transparency.
The Government announced:
“Local people will be able to see how every pound of property developers’ cash, levied on new buildings, is spent supporting the new homes their community needs, thanks to new rules coming into force.
“Builders already have to pay up for roads, schools, GP surgeries and parkland needed when local communities expand – in 2016 to 2017 alone they paid a whopping £6 billion towards local infrastructure helping create jobs and growth. Yet before today, councils were not required to report on the total amount of funding received – or how it was spent – leaving local residents in the dark.
“New rules will mean councils will be legally required to publish vital deals done with housing developers so residents can see exactly how money will be spent investing in the future of their community.”
Esther McVey, the Housing Minister said:
“The new rules coming into force today will allow residents to know how developers are contributing to the local community when they build new homes – whether that’s contributing to building a brand-new school, roads or a doctor’s surgery that the area needs.”
The rules are designed “to give greater confidence to communities about the benefits new housing can bring to their area.” If the sums provided under Section 106 payments and the Community Infrastructure Levy were spent effectively then I do think it would help make new housing more popular. It is not just a matter of the developers handing over the money. It is also being able to check to see if it has been spent as agreed. The money is not meant to just sit in a ringfenced bank account or to pay for bureaucrats salaries. It is meant to go on specific projects such as planting street trees, or road improvements, or a new playground in the local park. Then when a planning application comes along residents can balance the disruption and extra pressure against the promised benefits that will be delivered.
When I was a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham I persuaded my Conservative colleagues to publish a schedule of funds held under Section 106. Alas and alack, I am no longer a councillor and Hammersmith Town Hall is now under socialist rule. Labour has not been quite so brazen as to cease publication but it has became more of a struggle to keep the information up to date. The Council still claims:
“We update the transparency schedule every three months.”
The difficulty is that it isn’t true. The latest schedule is from two years ago.
There is a case that these developer contributions are an unjustifed obstruction to getting the new homes we need. If the population increases then so will tax revenue. More children means more funding for schools as the money follows the pupil. New homes means new Council Tax. So what is the logic in giving the councils an extra bung? Better for the property developers to focus on coming up with a good scheme. Regular readers will know my view that beautiful, traditional design is the key. That is why the mission of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, chaired by Sr Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boys Smith, is so important.
If we are going to have these billions of pounds of developer contributions sloshing around, then giving us some chance to keep track of where it is all going is welcome.